Borderline scams: NYLF and NSHSS mislead students by marketing themselves as exclusive

December 12, 2018 — by Anishi Patel

The existence of high-cost, low-return programs is nothing new to the majority of Bay Area students who weed through possible summer camps, internships and award opportunities every year.

But some programs are better disguised than others. Dripping with fancy wording and false prestige, programs and awards like NYLF, the National Youth Leadership Forums and NSHSS, the National Society of High School Scholars mislead students by marketing themselves as exclusive and prestigious.

Programs such as these make their way into students’ inboxes and mailboxes after their first College Board test, during which students can opt to provide their email or home address to receive college and scholarship-related correspondence. 

Hidden among promotional letters from colleges that urge students to take virtual campus tours or to “Imagine yourself at ________,” a thick, gold embossed packet from NYLF may seem more promising than the recyclable pamphlets around it.

The NYLF offerings are summer programs designed to expose students to various careers and to further their interests, a similar aim to many other field-specific camps. The NYLF programs, though, are a little pricier: tuition for the one-week summer 2019 program is around $2,600, averaging out to $433 a day if travel time is excluded. 

The packet includes a list of students from your high school who have attended the programs in the past, information such as tuition and transport, a sample schedule, lists of guest speakers and program admission letters from deans at associated colleges. Almost every document in the packet explicitly states the recipient’s name, likely to further enforce the idea that the programs are extremely exclusive. 

“[NYLF] is just a little bit shady because they send you this beautiful envelope and it looks like this really prestigious thing,” counselor Eileen Allen said. “It seems sort of unethical how they present it to kids.”

Allen emphasizes that this does not mean the NYLF programs are useless — just that they are provided by for-profit companies and may be misleading. 

While the NYLF are legitimate programs, there are virtually no admission criteria to qualify. In fact, the first step to applying is to be nominated by a teacher, counselor, youth leader, etc., but students can also nominate themselves.

In addition to being marketed for “top students,” some of the programs are located on college campuses like Harvard, NYU and Stanford, which makes up a large part of their appeal.

 Summer programs are not the only organizations that can potentially mislead students. Awards that claim to be exclusive can also deceive students into overpaying for a certificate of recognition or other such “honor.”

The NSHSS describes itself as an organization that aims to “support academic achievement and world betterment” by recognizing exceptional students and connecting them with scholarships and other academic opportunities. It was founded in 2002 and has over 1,500,000 members. 

One of the NSHSS’s claims to prestige is its co-founder, Claes Nobel, who is a “senior member” of the family that established the Nobel prizes, according to his NSHSS biography

To qualify to the NSHSS, students must meet just one of these criteria: a minimum ACT score of 26, SAT score of 1,280 or PSAT score of 1,150. Students can also qualify by being in the top 10 percent of their class, an achievement that varies greatly in difficulty nationwide.

Once a student is accepted, they must pay a $75 fee to become a lifetime member and receive a certificate recognizing their “academic excellence.”

“I got an email that said something like ‘Congratulations, all your hard work at SHS has paid off!’ and the [NSHSS] website seemed really legitimate,” junior Nicole Wong said. “My parents were down — my mom was one of the scholars at her old school.”

But Wong checked with her college counselor before paying the $75 admission fee and was told NSHSS was a scam and that the organization only wanted her money.

Wong reported feeling somewhat disheartened after hearing about NSHSS from her counselor: “I was a little sad because I thought it was real and could help me with my future,” she admitted.

NSHSS has been widely criticized as a “scam” or something close to it by multiple college prep blogs and sites, and Lockwood College Prep even satirized a copy of NSHSS’s acceptance email.

The NSHSS is not to be confused with the National Honor Society, or NHS, which is an established honor roll program that has chapters at multiple high schools.

Overall, although both the NYLF and the NSHSS are not traditional scams in the sense that they take participants’ money and offer nothing in return, it is important to thoroughly research and question opportunities and awards that market themselves as prestigious.

“The reality is that any summer college programs, anything that you’re paying exorbitant amounts of money for, that’s just your family investing in you having that experience,” Allen said.