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How to Buy Your Way Into College

Slide Show >>When Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia announced the elimination of their early decision programs last month, it marked the most recent chapter in the growing frenzy surrounding the college admissions process (see, 9/27/06, "Early Admissions: On Its Way Out?").

It's a frenzy that has been starting earlier and lasting longer as competition continues to build. Today, families are increasingly turning to admissions consultants who specialize in counseling students on all aspects of choosing and getting into colleges. "It's insane what's happening. The anxiety about college admissions is ratcheted up every single year as it gets harder to get in. Parents are getting desperate. They're seeing this need to get real information from someone who knows," says Rachel Toor, an independent admissions consultant in Spokane, Wash.

Mark Sklarow, the executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Assn. (IECA), a nonprofit association for experienced consultants, estimates that there about 3,000 firms in the admissions consulting business nationwide.

A NEW YOU? He says a few of them continue to feed the college frenzy instead of working to cure it, often broadcasting their staff's experience working on Ivy League admissions committees. It's not uncommon for these high-profile consultants to charge more than $30,000 for help on everything from choosing a student's summer activities to how to spin those experiences in an essay to help him or her stand out (see, 6/19/06, "What Price College Admission?").

But high-priced consultants who promise to repackage a kid for the Ivies are not the norm. In fact, the majority of consultants charge relatively moderate fees and are trying to help students by finding them the right fit in a school, not changing them or rewriting their essays.

NOT JUST ANYONE. Most IECA members charge closer to $3,000 than $30,000 and their businesses are booming. The number of consultants registered with the IECA, established in 1976, has doubled in the past two years, from 300 to 600, and the requests keep pouring in. "We now get 100 inquiries per month, but we accept a very small percentage," says Sklarow.

IECA accepts such a small percentage in order to encourage best practices in an industry that has the potential for abuse. To earn the nonprofit's seal of approval requires three years of experience, 100 campus visits, a master's degree in a related field, reference checks with three admissions directors, and a review of the Web site and marketing materials.

The association estimates 22% of the freshmen at private, four-year colleges this year—or between 95,000 and 100,000 students—have used some kind of consulting services. "Two years ago, it would have been less than half that," says Sklarow. "There's been incredible growth in our field," he says.

PLENTY OF DEMAND. Adding to the growth is the epidemic of overworked guidance counselors. According to research from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), an advocacy group for counselors, admissions officers, and private consultants, the average student-to-counselor ratio at U.S. high schools is 315:1. At public schools, counselors only spend an average of 28% of their time on college searches, applications, and paperwork, compared with 60% at private schools.

Despite the increased number of consultants vying for students, demand continues to more than keep pace. Independents often compete with large companies such as Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, and they've been holding their own. "They're certainly not taking business from us, but there is enough demand out there in the market that we certainly welcome competition," says Brandon Jones, the director of college-prep programs for Kaplan.

Some of the demand comes from parents who are starting the admissions process earlier. "When I started doing this 11 years ago, it was most usual for parents to think about it in the spring of junior year; now I'm finding increasing numbers of sophomore parents and even occasionally freshman parents, who want guidance through the whole process," says Robin Abedon, a counselor in Wellington, Fla.

SLIDING SCALES. Many independent consultants are also dedicated to spreading their services to clients of all socioeconomic backgrounds. "Most of us are looking to assist families that wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it," says Virginia Vogel, a counselor in Washington, D.C. who works with several clients for free per year. Others will work out alternative pay strategies for families in need.

"Most small, independent consultants have a strong commitment to serving students, and that often includes sliding scales, occasional pro bono work, and a general acknowledgement that they'll help in any way they can," says David Hawkins, director of public policy at NACAC. Responses to last year’s survey of IECA members showed that 92% had performed pro bono work.

Though they perform much the same role as a high school guidance counselor, independent consultants bill themselves as a more specialized expert who can simplify the process, decrease stress, and introduce students to schools they never even knew existed.

NO SLACKING OFF. "The guidance counselor is a student of students; they're someone who really knows kids well. My focus, as a student of colleges, is on learning about colleges. So, when you get to the front of the line, you have to ask if the person has the expertise that you need and want," says Steven Antonoff, an independent consultant based in Denver.

Antonoff says growth has been steady for the past 21 years his firm has been in business but recently he has been unable to meet all the demand. Tim Lee, a consultant with 24 years experience based in Sudbury, Mass., says his small firm has experienced the most growth in the past three to five years. They both expect more substantial growth as long as the admissions process keeps getting tougher.

To see a slide show on nine successful, relatively moderately priced independent admissions consultants across the country,

click here.

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