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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

SATs are out. Published 'research' is in, but it's pay to play

Test scores are out. Everyone's got an A average. The "community service" trip to Mexico and the start-your-own-charity gambit are ho-hum.

Ambitious parents are paying to get a published "research" project on their teenagers' college applications, report Daniel Golden and Kunal Purohit for ProPublica and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Photo: Artem Podrez/Pexels

High-priced college counselors link high schoolers to services that provide online mentors to guide the work and sites to publish it.

"A new industry is extracting fees from well-heeled families to enable their teenage children to conduct and publish research that colleges may regard as a credential," they write. "At least 20 online research programs for high schoolers have sprung up in the U.S. and abroad in recent years, along with a bevy of journals that publish the work."

"Sophia," who wrote a "marketing study" about how great Chick-fil-A is, said "having a publication is kind of a given” for college applicants. It doesn't matter that her paper was just an unreviewed "preprint" on the website of a new online journal for high school research, she told reporters. “It’s just important that there’s a link out there.” Some projects really are scholarly work, they write. But many are "dubious."

Admissions officers give a boost to applicants who've published research, but "often lack the time and expertise to evaluate" its quality, write Golden and Purohit. They also have time keeping track of the shifting array of new journals, many with very similar names.

Colleges made SAT and ACT scores optional -- or dropped them entirely -- in the name of "equity." Critics of testing said affluent families can pay for test prep and tutoring to raise their children's scores. Actually, high schools in lower-income neighborhoods have been offering free test prep and free retakes of college admissions tests for many years. But that doesn't make up for years of low expectations.

Publishing research takes money, write Golden and Purohit.

Many families that are already paying thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for advice on essay writing and extracurricular activities pay thousands more for research help. Scholar Launch charges $3,500 for “junior” research programs and between $4,500 and $8,800 for advanced research, according to its website.

Graduate students are paid well to help students choose a research topic, they write. They "may pitch in with writing, editing and scientific analysis." If the paper is good, it's hard to say who did the work.

"College admissions consultant Jillian Nataupsky estimated that one-third of her clients undertake virtual research," Golden and Purhot reported. It's a "great option" now for students who want to stand out, she said. But “it’s becoming a little more commonplace," and soon will lose its value as a differentiator.

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