|"You have been selected to represent your state at the 2009 Presidential Youth Leadership Conference...Your selection is in recognition of your academic achievement...Witness Barack Obama take the Presidential Oath of Office...listen while he gives his Presidential Address."
So reads a letter to students across the nation, many of whom would reasonably assume they have earned something beyond the chance to pay a marketing firm exorbitant fees. In fact, the "selection" carries about as much weight as a Publishers Clearing House letter advising, "You may already be a winner!"
What is confounding about these youth programs is that they have so successfully convinced educators, students, parents, and even elected officials of their worth, despite clear evidence that they are ripoffs. Adding to the deception, many of the firms operate as nonprofit organizations - creating the appearance of benevolence - while, in fact, siphoning huge profits to for-profit companies run by the same people.
Envision EMI, a for-profit firm based in Virginia, operated by direct-marketing guru Richard Rossi, runs several programs including Congressional Youth Leadership Council and National Youth Leadership Forum. The "Genius Network" Web site credits Rossi with writing one direct mail package to students that "produced over 100 million dollars in revenue."
Another for-profit company, Lead America, runs almost identical programs - including the "Presidential" conference - with fees as high as $6,000. Both firms trade on the same emotions, selling overpriced trips with fancy direct-mail "invitations," suggesting that entry constitutes an "honor," when in fact none exists.
To test Lead America's claim that its "nominations" are based upon merit, I e-mailed the firm using a fictitious name, stating that although my son was "only a C student," I would gladly pay if he could attend an event. A few days later a lavish color brochure arrived along with a "Certificate of Acceptance" citing my son's "academic excellence, extracurricular involvement and leadership potential." In addition to the tuition, I was offered the chance to buy a Leadership Home Study Kit for $259 ("a 35% savings"), and a $100 insurance policy to cover refunding my money if the event was canceled.
This month, my fictitious son received a glossy invitation to the Obama inauguration, stating that he was "selected" based upon "academic achievement." The price: $2,395. The fine print: travel to Washington, D.C. is not included, nor is admission to any Inaugural events.
In fact, tickets to the Jan. 20 events are available only through Congress. At the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's Inaugural Committee, eBay agreed to pull all offers of inauguration tickets.
Years ago, Senators Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Robert Dole (R-Kan.) introduced legislation to force the Congressional Youth Leadership Council and similar programs to explain how participants were chosen and how their money is spent. Despite impassioned arguments by Dole, the bill was never enacted; nor was a similar House measure.
Dole did succeed in persuading many of his colleagues in Congress to insist that their names be removed from literature naming them as "Honorary Advisors" to the programs. Incredibly, 15 years later, both Envision and Lead America still distribute the literature - now containing names of nearly 400 elected officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
I brought this to the attention of my Congressman, Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), and his aides have since succeeded in having Farr's name removed from Lead America's literature.
As competition for college admission has increased, bogus programs that claim to give students an edge have mushroomed. Once their name gets on a list, some high school students receive dozens of impressive "invitations" from "Honor Societies" and "Youth Leadership" organizations, selling little more than false hopes.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the marketing scheme run by Lead America comes in a document on its Web site, encouraging youngsters to appeal to local businesses in their hometowns for money to help them achieve their "honor." If that fails, the document encourages students to run errands, hold bake sales, or "sell flowers" to pay fees.
Some students do enjoy these overpriced trips, while others find them mismanaged failures. Either way, the emotions hinge on the false assumption that youngsters achieved elite status and were selected through legitimate process for a true scholastic honor.
Congress should take another look at these scams and, at minimum, remove from marketing materials the names of elected officials who don't endorse the programs. Students, meanwhile, should learn a simple lesson that comes at no charge: when "honors" seem too good to be true, they usually are.
© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.