Daniel Golden, ProPublica, and Kunal Purohit
May 18, 2023
A group of services, often connected to pricey college counselors, has arisen to help high schoolers carry out and publish research as a credential for their college applications. The research papers — and the publications — can be dubious.
On a family trip to the Jersey Shore in the summer of 2021, Sophia’s go-to meal was the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich. The buns were toasty, the chicken was crispy and the fries didn’t spill from the bag.
Sophia was entering her sophomore year in prep school, but her parents were already thinking ahead to college. They paid to enroll her in an online service called Scholar Launch, whose programs start at $3,500. Scholar Launch, which started in 2019, connects high school students with mentors who work with them on research papers that can be published and enhance their college applications.
Publication “is the objective,” Scholar Launch says on its website. “We have numerous publication partners, all are peer-reviewed journals.”
The prospect appealed to Sophia. “Nowadays, having a publication is kind of a given” for college applicants, she said. “If you don’t have one, you’re going to have to make it up in some other aspect of your application.”
Sophia said she chose marketing as her field because it “sounded interesting.” She attended weekly group sessions with a Scholar Launch mentor, a marketing executive who also taught at an Ivy League business school, before working one-on-one with a teaching assistant. Assigned to analyze a company’s marketing strategy, she selected Chick-fil-A.
Sophia’s paper offered a glowing assessment. She credited Chick-fil-A as “responsible for the popularity of the chicken sandwich,” praised its fare as healthier than fast-food burgers, saluted its “humorous yet honest” slogan (a cow saying, “Eat mor chikin”) and admired its “family-friendly” attitude and “traditional beliefs,” exemplified by closing its restaurants on Sundays. Parts of her paper sounded like a customer endorsement (and she acknowledged to ProPublica that her marketing analysis could’ve been stronger). Neither too dry nor too juicy, the company’s signature sandwich “is the perfect blend to have me wanting more after every bite,” she wrote. “Just from the taste,” Chick-fil-A “is destined for success.”