U.S.

The Jet Set: Wealthy Touring Colleges in Private Planes

09_16_PrivateJetCollegeTour_01
09/16/16
In the Magazine
Travelers on a college tour enjoy reminders of the schools they visited provided by Magellan Jets. Magellan Jets

On a late August morning, in the dusky haze of the San Fernando Valley, a former Los Angeles politician boards a Gulfstream G200 jet with his teenage son. Inside the 175-square-foot, overwhelmingly beige cabin, complimentary varsity swag is neatly arranged on a few of the leather lounge chairs, cheerily setting the tone for what’s to come: a privately chartered trip to some of the nation’s finest liberal arts colleges, including Johns Hopkins, Colby College and Dartmouth.

Over the course of the next nine days—during which the two passengers will visit nine schools—nearly every desire will be provided for, however large (meticulously scheduled chauffeured service between airports, schools and hotels) or small (Peanut M&Ms). The galley refreshment bar will be stocked with Diet Sprite at all times, along with brownies and vanilla ice cream. Grapes on the vine, chocolate chip cookies, watermelon cubes and an assortment of sandwiches on sourdough bread will also be served, all according to the client’s request.

On a small dining table, an in-flight reference guide by Ivy League admissions experts offers strategies for maximizing the impact of each college visit. In the front seat is a handwritten note tucked between a Dartmouth baseball cap and T-shirt: We know that this is an exciting and stressful time for you both and we are happy that Magellan Jets could be a part of this milestone.

If this doesn’t sound like the way you explored your college options as a high school senior, blame your low bank account balance. The recently launched college-tour package from Magellan Jets, a membership-driven private aviation company based in Boston, has been specifically designed for America’s top earners. With a price tag greater than a year’s college tuition, the program aims to decrease both the headache and the time spent on college campus visits. Magellan takes care of details such as setting efficient travel routes, arranging private campus tours and orchestrating ground transportation. Base price is jet-specific: 10 hours of air time on a light-size, seven-seater Hawker 400XP starts at $52,000, while the same package on the aforementioned super-midsize Gulfstream G200, which can seat up to 18, costs upward of $100,000. The service is completely customizable—Magellan will extend flight time to accommodate additional schools and make the appropriate hotel reservations for a supplementary fee.

Magellan says these tour packages are invaluable to the hyper-wealthy kids and parents who use the service (none of whom would speak with Newsweek ). “Unless you’re flying private, there’s just no way to see 10 schools over the course of five days,” says Magellan senior aviation specialist Joseph Santo, who works on trip logistics. “Is it cost-effective? Absolutely not. But for people with busy schedules who can’t take a week or two off of work, it means dollars and cents at the end of the day.”

In fact, the demand for this college-tour service has never been greater among Magellan’s members, says the company’s CEO, Joshua Hebert. Many own planes but for convenience buy a membership that affords them a number of hours per year in Magellan-managed jets. The college-tour package is offered on top of that. “[It’s] one of the things that our clients continued to ask for,” Hebert tells Newsweek . “Finally we said, ‘OK, let’s create a product around this because people are asking for it so much.’”

With the package now in its third year, 22 families have bought the designated college-tour package in the past two years, Magellan says. An additional 22 customers used their jets to visit campuses in that period, without purchasing the package.

Your Money or Your GPA

It’s well-documented that America’s top colleges and universities target the wealthy in their recruitment efforts and often lower academic standards for their progeny. It’s been dubbed “the preference of privilege” by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Daniel Golden in his book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. Admissions departments favor wealthy students, even if their applications are weaker than those who are less privileged. Secondary education, after all, is a business. And no top-rated college got that way without donations for expensive libraries, prestige faculty hires and gaudy student centers.

Getting into a good school in the U.S. is now seemingly harder than running for president, and admissions practices are becoming less and less transparent, says college consultant Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, which provides reference material for Magellan’s college-tour customers. Doe estimates that roughly half the student body at any given institution had some sort of “in” or “hook” (either they were athletic recruits or alumni children or what Golden calls “development cases”—kids whose well-off parents are expected to make sizable donations). While Doe and her business partner, former Dartmouth admissions officer Michele Hernández, have been very successful helping the 1 percent get into the best schools (97 percent of their students get into their top choices each year, they say), they sympathize with those who can’t afford their $30,000 to $50,000 asking price, often offering up free advice on their blog.

“Things just aren’t as they appear in admissions,” says Doe. “As a mom and an advocate for this generation, it kills me.”

College officials hungry for future endowments can be tipped off to an applicant’s economic status in many ways: by an aggressive college counselor, by an alumnus or board member, or perhaps by a private-aviation company scheduling an exclusive tour for one of its customers. On behalf of those who sign up for their college-tour package, Magellan gladly taps into its network of billionaires, many of whom are high-profile alumni or on the boards at elite universities. “We have a list of schools and customers who went there, and they’re able to make the [application] experience a little better by making the right introduction,” says Hebert.

Traditionally, universities sent recruiters to find rich kids at notable prep and charter schools, says Golden. A jet tour like Magellan’s that targets the wealthy and delivers them like a butler offering a plate of Strottarga Bianco caviar takes the work out of the chase. “Money and connections are increasingly tainting college admissions, undermining both its credibility and value,” he wrote in The Price of Admission .

If a major purpose of American higher education is to facilitate upward mobility, the system is broken. Colleges favor those already at the top, families who have connections and can afford expensive SAT prep or private counseling from the likes of Top Tier Admissions. Evidence shows that merely interviewing at a college or university enhances one’s chances of acceptance, simply because it implies a level of seriousness about that school. But not all applicants can afford to travel.

While elitism in colleges and universities is certainly not news, it’s symptomatic of the growing income inequality among Americans. At a time when the national conversation is so often focused on student-loan debt and the increasing cost of education, Golden finds it alarming that programs like this are flourishing.

“Here’s a group of applicants whose parents are willing to pay the equivalent of a year’s tuition just for the convenience and access of a private jet tour,” he says. “Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans struggle to afford tuition.”