Seeking College Admissions Help with Pricey Counselors

Getting into college is more competitive than ever. To help students with the admissions process, some parents of high-schoolers are paying thousands of dollars to professional college counselors.

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In today's business news, private college counselors. With more students graduating from high school than ever before, the number applying to college is also at a high, and that means high-profile universities are even more selective. The crush of college hopefuls has put a burden on counselors in public high schools trying to help them. This combination has fueled the dramatic growth of a new kind of job, private college counselors. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:

Four years ago, Claire Nold-Glaser was a high school counselor in suburban Seattle with an all but impossible workload. She ran the support program for kids recovering from drug and alcohol addiction and was responsible for course selections, schedules, the physical and emotional needs and college advising for 300 students.

Ms. CLAIRE NOLD-GLASER (Independent College Counselor): I felt like I was kind of turning into almost a counseling machine, where students would come in and I would ask them some key questions: What they were interested in, what they were passionate about. And then I would ask them to just be quiet and I would generate a list of colleges for them and kind of shove it at them and tell them if they needed a letter of recommendation, to feel free to come back.

KAUFMAN: There was little time for really getting to know individual kids, no time for visiting colleges and talking to admissions officers, and nowhere near enough time to help kids pick schools that were right for them. Sad and frustrated, Nold-Glaser said goodbye to the public school and went out on her own and an independent college counselor. Today there are about 3,000 such counselors, a 300 percent increase in just five years. Their services aren't cheap, about $3,000 a student for a full package of services over a year or two. Hourly rates are in the hundred and fifty dollar range.

Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, says the dramatic rise in the number of consultants reminds him of the explosive growth in the SAT prep industry. Once some kids started taking test preparation courses, other kids felt they had to do the same to remain competitive. The test prep industry just took off. Sklarow says in some circles, especially among those seeking admission to highly selective schools, there is now the same kind of pressure to get a private college counselor.

Mr. MARK SKLAROW (Independent Educational Consultants Association): I think there is so much anxiety out there today. People hear stories, kids with perfect SAT scores who get rejected, and so parents want to take every possible precaution. They want to seek every benefit they can get. And sometimes that means looking for someone who they hope can maybe manipulate the system. But the fact of the matter is that's not what an educational consultant can do. It's not what anyone can do.

KAUFMAN: Marilyn Swanson and her son turned to a counselor not for a competitive edge at an Ivy League school, but for help in finding a good match from among the nearly 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States.

Ms. MARILYN SWANSON (Parent): We needed guidance. We didn't know what was out there.

KAUFMAN: Swanson and her son turned to Claire Nold-Glaser.

Ms. SWANSON: She helped him realize what his needs and wants were and not what our needs and wants for him were. And so between them, they really came up with a great list of schools.

KAUFMAN: She helped him identify colleges to look at, discuss questions to ask during college visits. They talked about topics for application essays and ways to present the best possible application package.

Ms. SWANSON: Two-thirds of the way through the process, my son and I were sitting there, and he was sealing the envelopes and putting stamps on all the schools, and he looked at me and said, `There is no way I could have done this without Claire.'

KAUFMAN: But as the field of college counseling has grown, it has attracted more than a few people who want to hang out a shingle, even though they have very little in the way of qualifications or experience. Mark Sklarow of the Consultants Association, which accredits counselors who meet specific requirements, says several times a week, he gets a phone call from a mom that goes something like this.

Mr. SKLAROW: `Well, I got my daughter into Princeton, so now I want to help other kids do the same.' Well, two basic problems. One, you did not get your daughter into Princeton, but second and more importantly is very few kids are going to end up at Princeton. The most important thing for anybody who wants to be an educational consultant is to remember, there's a great college--there are many great colleges for every single student.

KAUFMAN: Private counselors typically encourage kids to consider options beyond the local public schools. Indeed, while the vast majority of all college-bound students went to public colleges last year, most students who used private consultants ended up at private schools. With financial aid packages, those private school sometimes cost less than a public institution.

(Soundbite of voices)

KAUFMAN: Private schools were well-represented at a recent national college fair in Seattle. The director of admissions at Wisconsin's Beloit College, Jim Zielinski, says independent counselors can be quite helpful for some families. He says Beloit now includes them in tours for counselors. But Zielinski cautions that before hiring one, families should check the consultant's credentials.

Mr. JIM ZIELINSKI (Director of Admissions, Beloit College): I think it's like any profession. You know, there are true, wonderful professionals in there, and I think doing your research and your homework to find the most reputable of independent consultants is the wise move.

KAUFMAN: Though counselors can't guarantee you'll get into the school of your dreams, they can help create admissions packets that are more impressive than if a student had done it on his own. And independent college counselors, who begin working with kids in their ninth- or 10th-grade year, often guide the students' summer and school year activities to make sure their resumes show a special talent or contribution. Colleges usually don't know when an applicant has had help from a pro. Indeed, New Yorker Bev Taylor, who calls herself the Ivy coach and charges $15,000, tells kids quite explicitly not to mention to colleges that they are working with her.

Ms. BEV TAYLOR (College Counselor): I just feel that college admissions counselors will look down upon the fact that they have the advantage over another student who is doing this on their own. Face it, they have help. Another student doesn't.

KAUFMAN: Of course, the cost of independent college consulting is beyond the means of most parents, and even though pro bono help may be available, one has to wonder whether this will widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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