The number of private admission counselors has grown in recent years – especially in hyper-anxious, high-achieving communities — and colleges are more open to talking with them about the students they represent, say counselors and college admission officers.
Danielle Toglia, an admissions director at George Washington University, recently polled counterparts at 25 colleges and found that most now take calls from independent counselors to discuss specific students or the college’s needs for an incoming freshman class.
While about 30 percent of admissions officers won’t take calls from private counselors, she said, "The trend has been that the college side sees independent counselors more positively than it used to." She said they’re particularly open to those who had experience as high school guidance counselors or college admissions officers, because they know the ins and outs of the process.
Toglia’s comments came at a conference of the New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling in Parsippany this month. Several independent counselors, high school guidance counselors and college admission officers echoed her view.
Private counselors have long been a controversial part of the admissions frenzy. Critics charge they give an unfair leg-up to affluent students who already have extra advantages of expensive test prep classes, enrichment activities and homes in neighborhoods with better schools.
One college that won’t communicate with independent counselors is Georgetown. "There’s an equity issue here," said Bruce Chamberlin, senior associate director of admissions. "We need to make sure we are as accessible to students across all different socioeconomic diversities."
Chamberlin said his office can’t always tell if an independent counselor has helped a student, but sometimes efforts to polish students’ applications go too far. "We find ourselves yearning to understand the adolescent in the essay or the interview," he said. "Be it the coaching or the rehearsals for interviews, both mask in many ways what we’re hoping to get a feel for — the kid."
Independent advisers say they help clients choose where to apply, organize visits and give feedback on personal essays but don’t actually write them. They say they can give students more individual attention than high school guidance counselors swamped with disciplinary problems and escalating caseloads, especially at a time when public districts are cutting budgets. Private advisers also say they calm overwhelmed parents and spare them from the unsavory job of nagging young procrastinators to finish applications.
According to the Independent Educational Consultants Organization, the average cost of a private counselor nationwide runs about $125 per hour, or $3,600 for a three-year-package, with rates slightly higher in the northeast. Rates at the high end hover around $7,000 for a three-year package, with a scant handful charging more than $20,000.
The ranks of private advisers have grown rapidly in recent years. IECO claims 750 members, almost triple the count five years ago, and says members helped place more than 40,000 students last year. Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, College Coach and other firms have also launched private advising services.
Most clients are upper-middle class, but the students have become more diverse, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of IECO. Beyond academic stars, some need help finding schools that work well with the disabled, or English language learners, or those with special interests in the arts, for example.
Claire Cafaro, an independent adviser in Ridgewood who used to be a guidance counselor at Ridgewood High School, said many college officials recognized that independent advisers could help them find qualified students who were a good match for their schools.
Attitudes toward independent counselors "have really changed a lot," said Cafaro, immediate past president of the NJACAC. "Some independent counselors have convinced admission reps that they know what they’re doing and are valid people who can be trusted. … There is an understanding that high school counselors may not have the opportunity to advocate for their students as much."
Dennis Vasquez, a guidance counselor in Livingston public schools, lamented that unequal access to private advisers has had a discouraging "psychological impact" on disadvantaged students: "They think rich families have the extra help – ‘I can’t afford it, so it puts me at the bottom of the totem pole.’"
Cafaro acknowledged the inequity but said private advisers had no magic tricks, and noted that outside of the most highly competitive colleges, most schools accepted most applicants. "There’s a notion that independent counselors help kids get in in a secret way," she said. "I’d be the first to say the majority of students can apply on their own. I could do my taxes without help but would rather hire an accountant."
One of her clients, David Zrike of Ridgewood, said the money paid off. His daughter Caroline got into her first choice. Ironically, it was Georgetown.
"Since college is one of the most important decisions we will face bringing up children, as well as the most expensive, my wife and I decided that the relatively small investment in an independent counselor was certainly worthwhile," he said. She "helped to make what is an extremely stressful process a little less stressful."