College Coaches Need Not Apply

Hiring professionals to help rich kids get into desired schools could backfire; plus it’s unfair to low-income candidates. Pro or con?

Pro: Stick to In-House Expertise

In many high schools, the counseling load is high and there are inadequate resources to train counselors. This holds particularly true in urban and rural public high schools. But most private college coaches (BusinessWeek, 10/22/07) do not provide services to low- and middle-income students at such schools. The majority of services go to students in wealthy suburban public and private schools and urban private schools. These are the same districts with the benefits of low counseling loads and highly trained in-school counselors.

In addition to its lack of egalitarianism, college coaching has some other deficiencies. Counseling should not occur in a vacuum. Independent coaches usually don’t begin working with students until midway through the junior year. They have no history with the student or the family. They rarely have a perspective on the long-term academic progress of the students, how they relate to their teachers, how they approach their studies, and whether psychological factors exist that may affect a student’s post-high school options.

In-house high school counselors have relationships with all those who influence the students: teachers, athletic coaches, friends, and parents. They see students act in school plays, play team sports, provide community service, and lead the student government. They know how the students relate to their peers and whether they are respected by their teachers. College counseling is a process that should come at the end of a long-term relationship.

Furthermore, consider that in-house high school counselors are the student advocates the college community respects for their independence and honesty. Independent coaches advocate only for the students who employ them.

Sure, there are those who have very high needs, who stretch the resources in-house counselors offer. But these are students who rarely utilize the services of independent coaches: those who are learning English as a second language, who are severely learning disabled or physically disabled, students with psychological disorders such as depression or anxiety, homeless or undocumented students, and students whose parents did not attend college. Those making a living providing independent coaching offer services mostly to students of means who rarely need the extra support.

Con: Extra Help Can’t Hurt

With the heavy workload of most high school counselors, few know their students well or have the time to provide the attention needed in this vital process. The school system burdens counselors with many duties unrelated to college counseling.

They are generally responsible for testing, scheduling, academic monitoring, crisis counseling, a huge load of paperwork from child-study team referrals, responding to family-services referrals, requests for homework for absent students, progress reports, etc. There are no required courses in college counseling to get a counseling degree. Most counselors remain unfamiliar with the trends in college counseling and the variety of colleges available.

College counseling makes for a highly complex process that calls for the skills of a specialist trained and competent in all the nuances of the task. Skilled independent coaches know about financial aid, athletic recruiting, arts admissions, writing the college essay, the college selection process, and how the schools view extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, interviews, transcripts, and test scores.

These independent professionals are also aware of the various college options, including women’s colleges, historically black colleges, community colleges, colleges for learning disabled students, military academies, and so on. They know about colleges that offer unusual majors such as acoustical engineering, air traffic control, women’s studies, and even video game design.

Independent coaches possess the means to attend state and national conferences on college admissions, visit college campuses, and develop relationships with college admissions personnel. They get to know students well and fill them in on their best options. They can advise kids on whether they would be better served by a small or large school, whether they have the credentials to be admitted to a selective college, and whether they should consider taking a year off before attending college. And since independent coaches often work with students looking at boarding schools, they can assist students in finding an appropriate postgraduate high school program.—s.w.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Sue

This is just another example of how the system can be gamed. SAT prep courses are another. There must be a better way, that lets kids be themselves instead of twisting themselves in knots to make themselves acceptable to colleges.

Paula Porter

I am in an interesting position since I am both a school-based and an independent counselor. I live in an area that is not described as upper middle class or suburban, and in my school district, 50% of graduates go on to college. I work privately with first-generation students and actively pursue pro bono clients. I help students identify colleges that would be a good fit academically, socially, and financially. In a sense, my school-based position allows me to "fund" my private practice. Generalizations about private counselors offend me, because there are a number of independent counselors similar to me, but we don't hit the headlines.

Anne

I am an independent college counselor, and I pride myself on providing individual attention to all of my students regardless of socioeconomic status. I volunteer my services to schools with a higher percentage of low income students, because I believe all students need to understand the college process and their college options. I believe every child can go to college. It is not only about getting students into a specific college but also about the process. I walk my students through the process of what colleges are best for them and their family.

I would like to think that high school counselors and independent counselors are partners in the college process. We all share the same goal, helping our students succeed.

Jane S. Gabin

College admissions officers often can tell when an applicant has been "packaged"--and they don't like it. For students who are very nervous about the process or who attend large high schools where there aren't enough counselors to provide one-on-one assistance, a little extra explanation from an independent counselor is fine. But mega-priced coaches who make outrageous promises simply add to the frenzy of anxiety swirling around college admissions.

random

Independent college coaches are such a hot button issue because they're the latest manifestation of our societal issues. According to the big picture, about 30% of high school students are either dropouts or push-outs. Only 28% of the population has a college level degree. If you look at the two extremes, you'll see that the families of dropouts and push-outs have much lower incomes then the families of college grads. The drops-outs go on to have much lower incomes over their lifetimes then the grads as well.

Put this together, and it seems like the rich are getting everything. They have the money to live close to great schools and to send their kids to college if not with a full ride, then at least with some student loans they can afford to take out with their incomes and other collateral. By contrast, the families of dropouts just can't afford to send their kids to anything but a vocational school or a few classes at a community college--institutions upon which most high-paying employers frown. The parents get discouraged, their kids burned out and bored, and don't even try to finish high school despite their potential talents, starting another cycle of disillusionment. The blame is then put on those with notable net worth because their lives seem so easy, and money looks as if its no object.

And so the poor burn out and their incomes continue to fall while the rich and upper middle class pursue, using their piles of cash to fund, further education and strive toward bigger and bigger incomes. Over time, the disparity has grown so much that if you're born in a manufacturing town to high school grad parents making under $25,000 a year, you're probably not going to attend college for even a two-year degree. On the flip side of the income gap, if you're born to college educated parents with incomes above $50,000, getting a formal bachelor's degree at a good school is a near-certainty as your parents will prize education so much that they will stop at nothing to make sure you get one.

In come the college coaches who are just another tool used by college educated parents with high incomes to make sure that their progeny will have the same education and the same income level they do. Their high priced advice and student grooming for admissions officers is seen with disdain by those who are acutely aware of income disparities' effect on post-secondary education, and prompts speeches about how "the rich get everything." It's not about the advisers. It's about our lingering feeling that the growing income disparities are turning classes into castes and closing doors on the American dream for children who come from lower income levels.

This is what it's really all about. The current system of college rankings, disparaging and sometimes condescending attitudes toward those with lower incomes and their potential as well as the soaring tuitions exacerbate these issues exponentially. And now we have individual college advisers who raise the bar on all these hurdles to a higher education even higher. How much more difficult will it be to get a degree for someone who can't gather up and pay $100,000 over four or five years? How much will I have to pay when my kids go to college? Am I going to have to live in a cardboard box for my kid to get a degree?

But this cloud has a silver lining. No individual adviser will prevent you from flunking out of a college in which you were accepted. In the end, it's still all about the brains and the will. If college admissions offices start worrying about what it takes to finish a course of study with a GPA above a 3.0 rather then if the student is good enough to get in and can pay for the whole 160 to 180 credit hours plus room and board, then we might restore some sense of sanity to the process and have no need for a personal publicist to get into a college.

Becky

I have worked in both worlds. I prefer my role as a full-time school counselor because I am able to work with students and their families over a longer period of time, and I am able to build stronger relationships. However, my time is split in a million directions, and I do not have the time to devote to helping students search for college options I did when I was an IC. Still, I wouldn't trade my position.

I have two students working with ICs, and they represent wealthier families with highly educated parents. The more interesting thing, to me, is that the students never come talk to me about anything--it is always the parent or IC.

I know ICs who are on both sides of the coin. But I also know school counselors who could be described the same way.

I appreciate those ICs who work with me and understand my time constraints--and 350-student caseload. Those who demand the "I need this done now" approach receive the same answer as my students who suddenly have a time crunch--follow our directions and guidelines, which every student has been given, and they will receive equitable treatment.

Marty

Those who need it the least are the most likely to do this. Those who need real help the most are the least likely to get it.

With that said, middle American students also seem to be the most well adjusted about all of this college stuff. With all the hype and consternation over this process from such a small minority of students, largely those from the wealthy East Coast and West Coast, it seems to me they get what they deserve. A lot more anxiety, stress, press, and expense than they need to have. It seems that those who partake get what they deserve.

I believe the press is to blame as much as anyone--got to sell those magazines to the coastal elite.

Julie Beck

I have been on both ends of the coin: first a high school college adviser in a small public high school in Manhattan, hired specifically to do college counseling--and now being retired from a long career of teaching and college counseling in New York City and counseling and coaching students privately where I live now in Eugene, Ore.

When a student is falling behind in a math class, for example, and seeks out a math tutor, do we raise our eyebrows and say the teacher has failed to teach the student? I hope not. Some students need more than what a classroom teacher can offer. Academic tutors have been around for a long time. When you think about it, what happens to students who are financially unable to get this kind of one on one tutoring? I guess you could say it falls into the same category you refer to as unfair--as only the financially well-off parents can provide this extra help to their children. Think about that for awhile.

I can honestly say that the most successful experiences I had were when I was counseling students in the school environment, because many of the comments made in the first section of the article are true. But I was successful, because the school at the time had an enrollment of 750 students. I really did get to know the students, attend their events, performances, etc., and again I was hired specifically to run the college and career office.

The school hired a guidance counselor and social worker to address other school issues.

I do not know of any public high school today that has made a commitment to hire college counselors. If I am wrong, please let me know, because this is an outrage in this day and age. That's why there has been such a rise in this profession--because of the need.

The students I work with do not know their counselors, nor do counselors really have the time to do what the article mentions. The case loads are way too big and although many high schools have developed very good tools/stopgaps to help students become more aware and savvy about the college admissions process, that one on one counseling that students really need is not available.

Most private counselors do lots of pro bono work. I specifically go around to high schools that have a large number of first generation students, students of color, and in general students who come from low income families to ask them to refer students to me that need more help in this daunting process. What I often find is that the schools are so busy that counselors are stretched to the limits.

What would be ideal? Schools should hire trained college admission counselors. There are now several programs cropping up around the country for this purpose.

In addition, schools should create a mandated class that all juniors (maybe even spring sophomores) take with that college counselor to help them through the process. That would be ideal. Students would have an opportunity to exchange ideas in a structured class environment with counselors and other peers.

In closing, I am saddened that private consultants are viewed so negatively by so many. I know that there are people in my profession who charge astounding fees, but that is not most of us. Most of us barely get by, because in order to keep up in this profession, you must visit colleges, as you are the eyes and ears for your students (clients). You must join professional organizations, subscribe to various magazines, periodicals, purchase books, software, etc. to keep up in this field and attend conferences, as this is an ever-changing landscape. In fact, anyone who claims to be an "expert" needs to think carefully about this. What "was a college profile last year, might be very different this year, or the year after."

A last wish. I know that in many big cities, retired high school counselors (like me) who choose to continue doing the work they love and are passionate about and have all this experience and knowledge, naturally decide to continue in this new venue, working hand in hand with high school counselors, and are often sincerely welcomed as partners in this big process; it is the "big hearted" and secure, smart high school counselor who is overworked who should not feel threatened that he or she needs to refer students to independent counselors--and welcome their assistance.

I welcome a further debate and comments on this.

marty

This should be mentioned in regard to Ann's comment that there is another goal that independent counselors have, make a profit.

Elgin Mones

People with the money should be able to enlist college coaching services. In the end, they impart merely an advantage. There are countless people who do well on the SAT with just a $20 prep book. Advantages aren't conclusive, they're conducive, and we need to respect the difference.

Al

Who ever said that life was fair? If people have access to resources, they should be able to use them to benefit their children.

Cary

Let's not single out the college admissions counselors. Children use not only coaches that help them with the application process but also the whole industry supporting coaching for standardized tests such as the PSAT and SAT.

Furthermore, let's admit that we live in a world where there are coaches and counselors everywhere. We have life coaches, career coaches, fitness coaches, and nutrition coaches. Others in business or politics have image consultants, speech writers, science coaches, and land use coaches. Not to mention tennis coaches, chess coaches, and so on.

None of these are essential, yet no one is promoting abandoning them. But here's a thought. If you want to get indignant on the need for an industry, consider tutoring.

We have a multibillion dollar educational system in our country. Our own district spends $102 million to educate 6,700. Yet it's impossible to join a group of parents, especially high school parents, who aren't discussing at some point the "best Algebra tutor" or the "best AP chemistry tutor."

We have Sylvan, we have Kaplan, and we have Princeton Review as tutoring powerhouses, not to mention the scores of independent tutors teaching everything from basic reading to advanced calculus.

If our schools are doing their jobs, why would we have any need for these tutors? Is it that the teachers are inadequate?

Of course not.

The fact is that college admissions advisers as well as other tutors and coaches fill a need.

And in the case of college admissions advisers, that need is often the extra need of children of working parents who really might not be as familiar with the college application process as they "should" be. Or the children may be unmotivated students who aren't working up to their potential and whom a good college admissions adviser might be able to influence. Or the children of first-generation immigrant parents.

And while it may be politically correct to say that all these advisers and tutors are going to the privileged and wealthy, that's just not true. Not all admissions advisers charge $40,000; some charge 1/10th that amount, and some are offering their services at no cost.

And, finally, let's be honest. Although there are many public schools with superb college advisory staff of competence equal to or greater than the independents, not all schools are that lucky.

Ron

The "packaged" students who cannot present themselves without the help of a coach are going to be faced with challenges they are not prepared for. Why not work hard and do the best you can at the school "you" get into?

Anne

To respond to Marty's commit, I chose to be an independent counselor, because I have a passion for helping young people succeed in the college process and beyond. Believe it or not, I don't do this to make a lot of money or to drive a nice car or to live in a nice house. I do college counseling, because I love it. How many people can say that about their jobs? I not only help my students with the college process but also act as a role model and a support system that they don't have anywhere else.

Judy Zodda

I am somewhat offended by the comments from Scott White, who I've always respected for his thoughtfulness in how he usually writes his interesting opinions. However, this time, I feel I must speak up to defend our profession, which all too often is maligned by those who don't understand what most of us represent or do.

I am an educational consultant and prefer not to be thought of as an "independent." In what way exactly are we independent? Certainly not in regard to the students we help, certainly not the high schools with which we would like to work collaboratively given the opportunity (and which sometimes we do), nor the families who seek our advice or the colleges we visit with the sole purpose of learning about the type of student who is a good fit for each one.

My own practice focuses primarily on the middle class and sometimes below. While it is fairly standard in our profession to charge the full fee up front, I have chosen to do it differently in order to provide service to those who need this service the most and who can least afford it. I charge a retainer up front, and then have a monthly or quarterly payment plan, whichever works better for the client. Yes, it is a bookkeeping nightmare for me, especially because bookkeeping and billing never entered into any previous job description I ever had.

It does, however, allow my clients to afford what they otherwise might not be able to.

My sub-specialities are learning disabilities along with student athletes and the creative and performing arts, all areas which require huge amounts of my time to research and find the best environments in which my students can thrive and grow. I also serve the greater high school population at large that doesn't fall into any of those three categories.

I do pro bono work when I find a student who I know can benefit from the extra help I can provide to change the direction of a young life, I hope, before it goes astray, and open up the world of possibilities that exist where none may have existed before I intervened.

The vast majority of us do this for all of the right reasons. We expend an enormous amount of time, energy, and money in order to stay on top of all of the latest developments in the ever-changing college landscape.

Marty, whoever you are, you seem to think it is a crime to be paid for an honest day's work. May I remind you that high school guidance counselors are paid for their work and have an actual salary and benefits to go along with it? Have you ever known a plumber, electrician, teacher, doctor, lawyer, real estate broker, cleaning person, coach, or any professional for that matter, who works entirely for free? When you find that person or profession, please let me know.
Judy Zodda

Rachel

As my son is a high school sophomore, I am starting to think hard about whether a college coach will be appropriate. This debate is fascinating. We don't want our boy to be "packaged," but I have to admit that the college application process seems daunting--even for two parents with advanced degrees. It was a lot easier in our day.

I just don't think the high school counselors are going to be much help. I have never met my son's assigned counselor or talked with her. My son has never met her or talked with her. She doesn't go to his soccer games or know what clubs he's in. She can look at his transcript, but this won't tell her that he's really really good in math and doesn't care much for science. Maybe she'll meet him later this year or next year, but she still won't know him. She won't have time to know him. I am willing to bet that an independent counselor would be able to know him better in one hour than the high school counselor will ever know him.

So, what to do? We still have a little more time to think about it.

Marty

Never said there was anything wrong with turning a profit or getting paid, but I think it is important to highlight the reality. Success for many/most in the profession is based on how successful one is at getting students into their "first choice" or "reach" school. That is, of course, based on the effectiveness of the packaging that goes on. One cannot help but question then whether this is a matter of helping students put their best foot forward or stretching the truth or pulling a string. It must also be acknowledged that in a selective college environment, if somebody gets in, it means somebody else did not. If it is based on packaging, it might have little to do with who is the most deserving (quite different from fixing a leaky pipe). Finally, the problem in any discussion like this is that it is based on gross generalization. Yes, there are private counselors who are charitable. Yes, there are circumstances where a true need is filled. My experience is that far more are involved with the "haves'" getting what they want at the expense of the "have nots." No, "life isn't fair" doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make it such. Which kind of "coach" are you?

Marty

Judy, with respect to working for free, I am aware of dozens and dozens of charitable organizations where people who are in need are the beneficiaries of just that: others working for free.

My beef again is that those who need this the least are the ones involved with it the most--and at the potential expense of others. And then the same group complains about all the hype and anxiety.

Like most students who hire a coach wouldn't be able to go to college without one. Reality is the poor little rich kids don't want to be disappointed.

Amy Christie

I am the "director of college placement" at a public high school in the Bronx. We serve mostly first-generation, low-income, minority students.

I have roughly 100 seniors under my charge, and although I am not a "counselor," my principal hired me to do only college counseling.

I do attend the national and state conferences in order to promote my students. I always find that I am one of the very few people from public high schools who attend.

Our vision and culture is that every student can go to college. I often crave the knowledge and know how of a veteran counselor, only because so many of my students need very specific guidance. That said, I'd always want help from someone who's been here before--more mentoring experiences--but it's difficult to find.

All that said, college is what our school is about. I think it's just about culture-building in a school.

Claire Friedlander

Scott White may consider himself to be an outstanding school counselor--and he probably is. However, many others are undertrained, overworked, misused, and totally unfamiliar with the students and parents in their caseload until there is trouble or until senior year. That is unfair and unacceptable. Many retired school counselors have stayed active and provided critical college counseling services to students and families either privately or through nonprofit agencies and organizations. The "outrageous fee" consultants appeal to those eager to pay the most money will buy; but that should not reflect on a profession of skilled counselors and consultants who hone their professional skills through organizations such as the Higher Education Consultants Association. College is expensive these days, and no child should be deprived of state-of-the-art-quality college counseling services delivered in a timely manner.

Scott White

The reality, as with most debates, is somewhere in the middle. I was asked to write arguments for both sides and presented them as I thought they would be framed by those in each profession. Like any profession, counseling has a great variation in talents, skills, and backgrounds of both school and independent counselors. I am lucky: My staff is well trained and knowledgeable, and each year we have five staff members who are just doing college counseling (two senior counselors who have worked with the kids for three years and three transition counselors who just work with juniors and seniors) for 450 students (in addition to a guidance intern and a student assistance counselor for each grade). Most public schools do not dedicate these resources to college counseling. Many schools have much higher loads and many fewer resources dedicated to transition counseling. There are many schools with counselors who do not stay up with professional development. I also know some independents who are well trained and experienced and others whose training is sending their own child to college. I am sometimes shocked by advice I hear from some other school's counselors and from some independent counselors . And there are many independents who charge hourly and do a real service to students. I am not a fan of multi-thousand-dollar college counseling fees for full-range services (I sometimes am asked to work with a kid and rarely need more than one or two meetings and some well timed e-mail reminders). But if someone is making a living off this, I can see that my approach may not be viable. There are also all kinds of reasons kids see independent counselors. I have had kids who I knew well and have given strong and continued advice to, and felt an independent counselor was not necessary. But the parent acknowledged that she hired an independent counselor so she didn't need to nag her child to get things done. That's her right if that's how she wants to spend her money. But I believe she is robbing her child, and frankly herself, of one of the important parts of parenting: helping to guide the child to the future. I feel the same thing about nannies (hypocrite alert--we had one with my youngest child). So there are independents who provide a real and valuable service to students in need. By far, the majority of students nationwide do not have the services of either independents or counselors with small counseling loads who have lots of college counseling knowledge and experience. So like discussions about things like Stanford's and Yale's going to Single Choice Early Action, this is a discussion that affects very few students. There are also many independents who service students who would probably do fine without them. And there are many parents who view the process as one in which the issue is not education but the accumulation of social capital and the access to future power. Those parents view the spending for SAT prep, independent counseling, private school tuition, etc. as merely an investment in a future return of this social capital: admission of their child to a college that will give a return through access to the elite and the powerful. It is this world view that breeds counseling services that charge tens of thousands of dollars and independents who market themselves as providing that edge or advantage over other applicants. I guess my view is that there are independent counselors who provide a remediation in some weakness in the high school counseling the student receives, either because of the quality of the counseling or the needs of the students. There are others who see their work as giving that additional edge to those who already have had strong counseling services.

BARRY MORSE

There is a great, free site, www.theeasyessay.com, that makes passing the writing section of the SAT, ACT, and FCAT much easier, and it only takes 5 minutes to learn.

Steve

You can plan your own wedding. You can file your own taxes. You can manage your own financial portfolio. In fact, students can self-study for the SAT. Yet, in each of these areas, regardless of income, one can hire a professional to provide sound advice and counsel.

What Mr. White fails to mention is that the college application process is an extremely stressful process for students and their parents. The reality is that school counselors and parents do not have the time to be able to manage this process.

Mr. White also fails to acknowledge the harsh reality--our education system benefits the rich. The wealthy attend the best elementary schools, then middle schools and high schools. So, regardless of who provides college counseling, low income students are already at a disadvantage. If people like Mr. White are so compelled to help poor students, then the ratio of college counselors at low income schools should be lower than what you find at private schools. Sadly, the opposite is true.

Finally, no counselor, private or public, guarantees a student admission to college. On the other hand, a private counselor can guarantee that we can manage this process--and alleviate the stress that goes with it.

I'm not an expert in wedding planning, financial management, or college counseling. I'm good at what I do best--listen to my kids and provide them the best that I can.

That is why I hired a wedding planner for my daughter's special day and a financial manager to help me understand the complexity of my finances.When my son approached the college search, we hired an independent counselor to supplement our school counselor. It was very clear that our school counselor did not give my son the "preferred" treatment that she did for students. Let's be fair, Mr. White--do you treat all your students exactly the same way?

My son did not get into his top choice school. No one made that guarantee. But he is happy with where he was admitted and where he enrolled. Even as he was juggling assignments, practices, and a social life, his independent counselor worked with him late at night before the deadline to ensure that he did all he could do to put in the strongest application. I couldn't do that. Neither could his school counselor. She was already swamped with too many other responsibilities, whereby my son truly felt like a number.

Looking back at the investment, it was well worth it. In this day and age--when families do not have time to see a movie--it was great that I could spend time focusing on what I do best: supporting my son and not nagging him about his college application.

And you can't put a price on my son's happiness and that I still have a full head (although graying) of hair.

Liz Hamburg

The college application process has gotten more and more complicated and competitive. The stats speak for themselves: Kids are applying to more schools than ever before and acceptance rates are going down. As others have commented on, the average student to counselor ratio in U.S. public schools is almost 500 to 1. Even the most wonderful, caring counselors do not have the time to give each student a lot of individual attention.

The fact is, students and parents need help, and whether we like it or not, almost one-quarter of freshmen entering private colleges used an outside college admissions counselor. This fall, private counselor Dr. Katherine Cohen and I launched ApplyWise. We created it to be an affordable, easy-to-use Web-based college counseling program. Online counseling can never be a substitute for one on one, but ApplyWise helps students and parents go step by step through the process of applying to college. One of the things that we are most proud of is that students and high school counselors can use this as a tool to communicate with each other. It is not meant to replace counselors at all--in fact, it's meant to make their life a little easier. Personally, I don't think there's one answer--whether it's sports training, test prep, or even therapy--some people like to learn on their own, some people need just a little help, and some people want very personalized, intensive attention. Luckily, there's something to fit every need with college advising.

"Professor" W. M. Morse

I was visiting Williams College this week, and I saw an article by one of the associate directors of admissions, essentially attacking my profession. He cited a certain consultant and author, an Ivy graduate and former Ivy admissions officer who charges up to $40,000 for educational advising. I would have liked to inform that associate director what the average educational consultant charges (less than a tenth of that), and I was tempted to ask him whether, in writing his sensational piece, he had even attempted to research the matter. I was not surprised by his clichéd generalizations about my colleagues. I couldn't help thinking of the two students I had advised and steered to Williams on full scholarships, as their pro bono consultant. They and their parents had not even heard of Williams before I came into the picture. Looking around during my visit, I wondered how those blue-collar kids must have felt, surrounded by their privileged Williams peers. I thought of my father, ages ago, who, because he was a farmer's son, wasn't offered a scholarship when he entered Harvard Graduate School. His mother, a piano teacher, had saved the tuition, hidden it from his father who had wanted his son on the farm. She was the one, knowing his dreams, who sent him to Harvard. He rose from that modest beginning to full professor there, literally at the top of his field. I guess that makes me privileged. He lived his dream. I want to help others do the same.

Yes, I am privileged, and I have attended an Ivy university and worked in an Ivy admissions office. My final year in that office, I went through many of the admitted class files, just looking at who the parents of these select students were. More than 90% were professionals: doctors, lawyers, businessmen, professors, celebrities. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life selecting the privileged few from among the privileged majority. Whether I selected this one or that, both were destined for success. Occasionally I would encounter a true financial-need student, one like those I send, along with my more privileged advisees, to college every year. My colleagues in that office, even today, select the favored few to benefit from the resources of one of the world's richest (culturally, financially) universities. Recent research has documented that those attending these, our nation's top colleges and universities, are, by a large majority, privileged kids from upper-income backgrounds. Yes, there has been much criticism of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton for their serving primarily privileged students from affluent families. They are sensitive to this issue. I am waiting to see what they will or can do about it.

In the meantime, I do my small part to affect the lives of my students. I don't select, but I do try to shape, inspire and empower. I advise students and parents. I do not package or shoehorn. I listen to their stories; I support and applaud their achievements, and I encourage them to be all they can be. I admit to them that for all the privileged education in my past, no one ever asked me what I wanted to be, what I wanted out of life, what kind of school or college I would like to attend, or what I was interested in studying. Long ago, I was packaged and sent off on a train, with my trunk. I was expected to follow in my father's footsteps. I didn't. I promise my students today, that insofar as it is in my power, I will help them make their own choices. Ideally, I help them discover their interests, and find a passion. We brainstorm constantly. If we connect, I get to know them in ways no one else has before, including their teachers. But that's not the point. I love and respect teachers and guidance counselors; I am one of them. We are in most ways the same. On my better days I am an educator and a mentor. I try to open minds, to promote reading, thinking, questioning, involvement in activities. I encourage my advisees to contribute in their own way, to their school, community or cause of choice, but not to get into college. Rather, I ask them to contribute because this makes a difference and because it is something they find meaningful. Generosity and giving have their own rewards, and if that is not how they see it, they are free to be themselves. I want them, at least, to think about these things and then to live their own values.
Sometimes I refer to my volunteer interests and commitments; sometimes I even mention pro bono work. You see, not only do my very own students receive more scholarship aid, yearly, then I earn for myself, my contributions outside of this profession take up the great majority of my free time. I believe I am like most of my colleagues in IECA and HECA.

Students, schools, colleges and learning are at the center of our lives, our commitments and passions. I wouldn't even call this work. It is a life worth living.

Scott, I and my colleagues are your typical educational consultants: idealists, financially humble, yet intellectually, culturally proud and passionate. We make no apologies. We'd like to make our contribution and leave the world a better place. And we want our students to do the same.

juli mcclain

I really don't know.

julie

I believe it is Dr. Katherine Cohen who is known in our profession as charging outrageous fees. Is it something like $40,000-plus these days? This makes all the rest of us who work in this field look like money mongers. Not true.

Also to Scott White: Take a good look around. How many schools support the number of counselors that your school does? Probably none. You work in an unusual setting. Scott, when you are ready to retire, let us know what and how you plan to spend your time, especially if you need some additional income. I wouldn't be surprised if you become an independent counselor yourself.

To Marty: Again, why not make a stink about all those kids who can't afford private tutoring for a subject they struggle with? That's not fair, right?

mike

What is wrong with wanting your child to do as well or better than you? Most parents want that whether they are rich, middle class, or poor. I have never heard a parent say, "I want my child to be a deadbeat." What the heck kind of parent would that be? I want my kids, when I have them, to be well rounded and get all of the opportunities in life that I had. If possible, more. If that means I hire a private counselor to guide them so that they get where they want to go, then great, sign me up. If it is going to increase their chances to succeed, why not?

Lorenzo Williams

I just have a few comments to make since my wife is one of those tutors who charges for her service. My wife and I have noticed that the individuals who seek any type of help in high school are the kids with the A's, B's, C's, D's, and F's. Now kids are coming at 3 and 4 years of age. Why? To get help to get into the best public or private schools. So this is not about getting paid for the service that's rendered. It's about access. From the time they are in elementary to high school, we want the best for our kids. We create access to the different everyday social events. College counseling is no different. No matter what the subject or age, all kids learn differently. It's up to the parents to get the kids the help they need. Parents who make a sacrifice, good for you. Parents who don't make the sacrifice want something for free. There is nothing for free. Imagine parents complaining about $25 an hour to help their kid pass math. So let's put the problem on the parents when it comes to education. Parents need to step up to the plate. If you can't help your children do calculus, do they just not pass? No, you find a way to help them. So don't get your hair done at the salon and your nails done at the shop. Hold off on the new car that you don't need. Make a sacrifice for your kids' future. You owe them that. This is what parents spend money on instead of getting their kids help. I see it every day. I also see the parents who are getting the help driving cars that are five to 10 years old, but they made a commitment to their kids. Stop the finger-pointing. If you like doing something for free, that's fine, but don't knock the people who are getting paid.

Santiago Gunter

College coaches should not be used, because they are only benefiting the elite. It is not fair for students of lower income or international students. Students should be accepted based on their talent. Instead, they are being accepted based on their ability to manipulate the admissions team.

Italo

To this complex problem, I want to offer an elegant (if simplistic) solution. First, do away with the ranking obsession, and second, admission should be based on oral examination. No college coach need apply.

Melinda Berman

The vast majority of people who work with young people do so because they enjoy it and get pleasure from helping students succeed. As an independent counselor, I do charge a fee to see that my students successfully wind their way through an application process that is way out of control and much too complicated. Without pointing fingers, I am pretty sure it wasn't independent college counselors who devised this system. Like many of my colleagues who have commented before me, each year I work with students for a reduced rate or pro bono. I have the good fortune to be able to do so comfortably. In a perfect world, the public high school counselors wouldn't have an excessive number of students to take care of, and actually would know where a student would match. I have seen some of the lists given to students by their counselors where the schools ranged from Quinnipiac to Princeton--on the same list. How can that be? That counselor was well meaning but overworked. Many high school counselors feel that independent counselors hype the college process and add to the stress. I feel I do just the opposite. I educate the students about the process and assure them that they will be successful--and they are (that doesn't mean getting into their first choice). A sense of perspective is essential, and it is crucial to pass it along to the students.

Alexandria

There is plenty of opportunity for talented low-income kids who work hard and demonstrate ability and motivation. I think every college reserves some spots for people willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Enough whining, already.

Doug at terryreport.com

It is more than a joke to debate the issue of "fairness" in regard to college admissions. The entire system of elite colleges was created to serve the sons and daughters of the wealthy. The SATs have their roots in the "feeder system" of prep schools that, until very recently, could almost guarantee admission to an Ivy school. Prep schools have been teaching for the SAT at least since the late 1950s or early 1960s. Fairness? That's the real joke: the idea that fairness is supposed to be an issue. College coaches are attempting to do what prep schools have done for many decades: get their kids in.

The "legacy" admissions at the Ivy schools represents, in effect, an affirmative action program for rich kids whereby they are granted a higher potential of admission if a parent attended the school. This idea is a direct descendant of ancient notions of superiority based on birth. It is the opposite of actual merit.

Historically, there has been nothing "fair" about admissions to elite schools. In recent years, the masterly book The Chosen showed in great detail how blacks and Jews were systematically denied admission. In the case of Jewish students, it was believed that too many could change the culture of the elite schools and discourage others, the traditional base, from attending.

Over the last 20 to 25 years, the Ivy schools and others considered "elite" have made many changes to accommodate the notion of merit, but those changes, in many cases, are little more than window dressing. At present, the Ivy's favor foreign students from accomplished families over American students from comfortable backgrounds. In other words, it can be easier to gain admission if your father is prime minister of a foreign nation than if he is governor of Kansas. The majority of students "of color" at Harvard, as one example, are foreign born.

The elite schools have set themselves up as deciding who is a winner or loser by the age of 16 or 17. They select whomever they please, both for their own benefit (future donations and prestige) and to create an atmosphere of intellectual challenge by bringing eager, bright students onto their campuses. Truth be told, fellow students can be as important, if not more so, in the education of young minds. Elite schools, and those in the second and third levels of the American system, have no interest in actual fairness. The idea is to build up the school by pulling in as many bright, hard-working students as possible in a Darwinian battle of survival and, ultimately, prosperity.

Marty

To Julie, et al,
You're right, it stinks that the educational system in this country is socially biased as it is. I would be arguing that if that were the topic. The topic here was private college counseling/packaging. The last time I checked, two wrongs still didn't make a right. Let's disadvantage certain individuals up front and then again by enhancing (if not distorting) the truth (packaging).

MALS

Recently when dropping off my daughter at college, I read an article in the San Diego paper about prospective college students and resumes needed in order to gain admission into some California universities; Stanford, Pepperdine, California Berkeley.

One very rich private-school student wrote about spending January break on a voluntary mission to Belize. Is that what they call tanning on the beach that Daddy and Mom paid for now? That student estimated spending $20,000 on college coaching and SAT pre-testing and mock interviews. The student hadn’t been accepted yet, and the date of the article was the first day of fall seminar. Give me a break.

from Holland

I am so glad I live where I do. We have only public schools in the Netherlands--and funding for all citizens that makes it, in principle, possible for anyone to attend the college of his or her choice.

Michael

Um, yeah. You can pay millions of dollars to someone to get you into any school or program, but that doesn't mean you will do well.

Having assistance and guidance doesn't mean you will be successful. You don't have to place your future in the hands of others. You are the only one who can really do it.

Oh, and the SAT. I never took them because I went the community college route, which led me to entrance into a university.

I also find it amusing that people say that college equals success. Ever heard of the drop-outs Bill Gates, Michael Dell, or Steve Jobs?

JAMES PIGG

If you could track these students through their college years and through their business and public careers, I wonder what the results would be of coached vs. non-coached. My supposition would be that the non-coached students would be the better decision makers as they would have more experience standing on their own two feet, calling it as they see it and not relying on someone else telling them what buttons to push to get the desired results. Schools as well as businesses that hire these "coached" students are being gamed as they are not getting what they think they are. It is rigging the system.

Joan

This is the parent's perspective.

No school, public or private, is going to meet all of a student's needs. Athletes, musicians, good students, and struggling students all need or at least can benefit from services obtained outside their schools. College counseling is no different. If the school doesn't provide the service a student needs, there is nothing wrong with a parent supplementing those services.

However, the product has to be honest. I really hate the concepts of "spin" or "packaging" to the extent that they represent a student fraudulently. It's just wrong. And, because these counselors are human, I'd be willing to bet that 5% of them resort to dishonest practices.

We are now going through the college admission process for the third time in five years. We don't use outside counselors or even SAT prep courses. Our kids got into highly selective schools, because they were capable and proved it. They worked hard on their applications. They were also lucky.

Families who want their children to go to top schools can make that happen if the kids are talented, work hard, and get a little lucky. And increasingly, top schools are not only need blind but also meet full financial needs with scholarships and grants (no loans). (I also really dislike the socioeconomic class divisions a number of the writers seem to focus on here.)

And finally, let's all rethink "top schools." Success in life is also a function of talent, hard work, and getting a little lucky. We were first-generation college grads who went to state schools and paid our own way with part-time jobs and loans, which were promptly repaid. These options are still out there. It's where you'll find the motivated middle class--and tomorrow's upwardly mobile generation.

Crimson Wife

I find it very hypocritical when these elite private colleges criticize admissions consulting when they're the ones creating the problem. If they used an objective formula based on the SAT and GPA the way that most public universities do, there wouldn't be a need for admissions consultants. Instead, the elite private colleges use "holistic" admissions where they pick the wealthy kid who ran a Habitat for Humanity project in Kyrgyzstan (or whatever it was) over the low-to-moderate income kid who had to work a part-time job.

twosomething

Quite possibly, essays can't be a key determinant for college admission anymore as there is little telling which are truly masterminded and done by the students themselves. Schools would be doing themselves a disfavor by admitting students who had not had to think hard in the direction of their chosen destiny.

It's alarming the extent families would go. The few students mentioned in the article didn't seem particularly proud of having gotten into the schools of their choices as they, too, are not able to tell if they could have done it on their own.

Are Michele and her colleagues creating a generation of Americans who will truly be competitive in the global markets today? We have thrived because of our creativity. Are we now breeding a group who will only know to follow those that have gone before them? The outcome can be scary in the long run, especially when given the wealthy parents, these students will also have an unfair advantage of landing influential spots in the political and corporate arenas.

Children need guidance, but what Michele does is steering. And as she moves down in the age group, she is cloning.

SC

We don't hire elite private school graduates, because they don't work well for us. We have to train all graduates regardless of their background. I hear the same comment from a fellow Harvard architect with an architectural practice. She does better with state school applicants. As an employer looking for graduates, I seem to find the state schools do a much better job giving practical experience, and the students are more well rounded. Those who come to interview from name brand schools are too arrogant, and unwilling to work. We don't need that. State university graduates seem to know more, and are eager to work. After all, they paid for their education.

My son went through the application process exactly one year ago. His high school counselor stressed him out since his freshman year on what courses to take, telling him his SAT scores would not get him in the UC (University of California) system, or prestigious private colleges and that his course load was too weak. Most of his friends were told the same. Most didn't apply to the UCs. High school counselors and private coaches think they know everything, but really don't know it all. My son took one AP class. The counselor told him, "UCs are a stretch." He's at a UC, which surprised his counselor, I'm sure. A counselor like that didn't encourage many to apply.

Hard working students are the ones who get recognized even in the workforce. As an employer, we can tell if a graduate is ready. Besides, a college education is just that--a place to get basic training.

Students really get groomed and educated after 10 years of working in their respective fields, not at college. When not hiring a recent graduate, we look at the resume of an applicant's work history. That's the real education. College is a place to get a basic education, and public universities provide that. If an applicant cannot get accepted to a public school, then he or she should go to a junior college, and become an adult, then apply to a four year public university. The parents who can afford $40,000 a year private coaches should have access to them, and go that route. Not too many creative people come from that route, because they need to spend their money on something. Students who have had to figure out how to do things with available tools and resources, and have knowledge from the school of hard knocks, seem to work better for our business. Besides, we hire graduates sans coaches.

Dale

I have three children who were successfully admitted to most of their 10 or so college choices. I was their college coach. We read the books, visited the campuses that they were interested in, they spoke with the the college representatives that visited their high school, kept in touch with them by e-mail, and were recruited by coaches of their sport of choice--all by taking the initiative themselves. Their high school guidance counselor met with them junior year to begin the process, but we as a family had begun it years ago in elementary school. We stressed the importance of good grades, homework, doing all extra credit assignments, and becoming involved in their school and community. They were always involved in township sports as well. My eldest is now in medical school, my middle child has a full academic scholarship to the top liberal arts college in the nation, and my youngest has a partial academic scholarship to a liberal arts college where he was able to play varsity athletics. If parents are willing to take the time to do some research on their own and help mentor their children throughout their school years, paying $40,000 dollars for a coach would be better spent taking the family on a few vacations to spend time together.

Lamont

Hiring managers are the arrogant, racist, and classist ones. They have mastered the maze, gotten lucky or worked hard to achieve and are now in the cat bird's seat, picking and choosing to determine life choices for yet another generation. This is the reason so many students at every level tell the hiring process to go away, and start businesses themselves...they very often compete and win against the hiring fools who claim some insight or knowledge beyond luck and guesswork. The U.S. economy is choked by hiring and operations based managers who try to mime their own sad path to mediocrity.

Pedro

It's a shame. The real point is portraying yourself through your own words, feelings, objectives, perspectives, etc.

By hiring professional "counselors" you might be depicting a hey-this-is-what-the-counselor-said-to-be guy.

It's kind of ridiculous to let someone characterize you as a whole as if you were somebody with no personality or wishes from inside.

In times of pressure, those real challenges will select the ones who really think in advance and devise new ways of progress from mere masked robots.

www.collegedirection.org

As an independent educational consultant, I work with students of all economic and academic abilities. I intentionally charge less for my services than most, because I want them to be affordable. I have worked with students for more than 20 years, guiding them on the journey to college. I review and critique applications and essays, but each student is responsible for conveying his or her own thoughts and ideas. My goal is to help students find schools that are the right match for them. I want them to visit a college and feel that the school is a good fit for them. Isn't that the goal that all of us should have? Having a successful and happy experience will take them further in life than anything else.

Sam Leicht

As I read these comments, I begin to wonder why this discussion is ever going on. If someone is smart enough to get financial need, they shouldn't need a coach. Even though my family is "lower upper-class," we are not wealthy, and we have four kids in our family. Instead of having this debate, we should be debating how to get the colleges to make a complete background check. For my oldest sister, I agree that she should not get financial need but My third sister is going to college next year with not a penny of financial need helping her. This is the real problem.I don't really think that these "consultants" are fair, because people only get them because they are wealthy.

Fazlani-khan

My husband and I are foreign medical graduates. Therefore, we are completely unfamiliar with the college process in this education system. I think a college conuselor is a good investment for us. What is your opinion?

Evee

This is honestly disgusting. These kids are losing who they are; they don't even know why they are following her advice. All they know is that Ivy League = Happiness. How naive is that? You should want to go to Harvard not because it's a top university or because after graduation you will be rich, but rather because they have a great ____ program. Get my gist? It just makes me sad that some kids are so short -sighted. Make you own decisions, and don't follow stupid superficial rules. Know that you deserved that acceptance. You got in because you tried hard, because you actually wanted to do those extra-curricular activities you have passion for--not fake emotionless paragraphs. I think this is horrible, and not only is it horribly unfair for those who don't have $40,000 lying around, but it's just not ethically right.

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