College coaches can help kids make the
By Roland Jones, Business
MSNBC, August 2, 2006
Last year, a Maryland high school student had an
all-too-familiar problem: He had good grades and test scores,
but he didn't stand out from his peers. So in his junior year
he and his family approached Ivy Success, a small company in
Garden City, N.Y., that helps students get into America's most
competitive colleges - for a hefty fee, of course.
The student wanted to major in business
at college, so the company's counselors encouraged the student
to take more challenging advanced placement courses at high
school. And they went further.
"We had him start an organization that dealt with childhood
literacy, and it received a lot of funding and media
attention, so he was able to demonstrate why he was interested
in applying for that particular major - he differentiated
himself," said Victoria Hsiao, a partner at Ivy Success.
The cottage industry of educational consultants - basically
coaches hired by parents to be part guidance counselor and
part educator for their teenage children - is booming.
The Independent Educational Consultants Association, a
trade group, has mushroomed to about 600 members from 150 in
1990, said director Mark Sklarow. He reckons that 20 percent
of the freshmen at private, four-year colleges have used some
sort of coaching service.
While just about anyone can hang out a shingle and call
themselves a college coach, Sklarow's group requires that
members have at least three years of experience in college
admissions or high school counseling. Hsiao says all her
consultants have worked in the admissions offices of Ivy
"The college admissions process is extremely competitive
these days, but lots of students out there today with great
test scores need to differentiate themselves from their peers
and they don't understand what colleges are looking for,"
Hsiao said. "They don't have the perspective of a college
admissions officer, and that's where we can help."
Sklarow points to a number of reasons for the industry's
growth. With more and more young people headed for college,
school-based counselors are overwhelmed, with each one
catering to the needs of 400 children on average. (In
California the average is 1,200.)
And it's getting harder to identify the traits that college
admissions officers are looking for in prospective students,
he added. Another reason is the rising cost of college
"Of all the kids who will start college this year, fewer
than half will graduate from the same college, so making a
mistake and enrolling at the wrong college has a big financial
impact, and that means an awful lot of tuition credits, money
and time are being lost," said Sklarow. "So it's really about
helping to match students to the school that's appropriate for
them. In that respect we are as much matchmakers as college
While companies like Ivy Success tout their success
stories, there are some who criticize counseling services, and
they are not always looked on favorably by college admissions
officers. Colleges want to see the "real" applicant - not an
image "polished" by a professional service, said Thomas G.
Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study
of Opportunity in Higher Education.
"There is a great deal of anxiety among parents who want to
send their kids to the best college they can, and they're
looking for every advantage they can afford," said Mortenson.
"But the college people don't want to be gamed. They want
to see who the applicant really is, what he or she has
accomplished and that person's goals in life, and based on
that they'll decide if the college is a good fit. But many of
the talented kids they see are not appropriate, so you hear
stories of rejected valedictorians. So the question is, do
these coaches change unfairly the kid's image?"
Another criticism of college coaching services is that
only the wealthiest families can afford them. But Michael
London, co-founder and president of College Coach, the
nation's largest education counseling service, has found a way
to expand the market.
His company is one of a small number offering a new
employee benefit: help with a child's college admissions.
College Coach has taken on about 65 Fortune 500 corporate
clients and is offering their employees workshops on such
topics as selecting the right college, applications and
financing. Employees also can access support services on the
Web or by telephone.
"College counseling has an elitist label associated with
it, and the nice thing is with corporations you can offer all
employees equal access to these high-end educational
services," London said. "There will only ever be so many
families that can afford this, so the company will grow faster
in the corporate benefit sector because of the affordability
issue, and a single company can work with 1,000 employees."
The price of individual educational counseling services has
risen about 15 percent since 2000, according to the trade
group's Sklarow, although a flood of new entrants into the
industry has prevented fees from growing too dramatically, he
said. But without regulation, almost anyone can set up shop in
"I'm worried about families rushing out and paying
thousands of dollars for these people if they don't have the
right background or breadth of experience," Sklarow said.
"It's important to know how long a person you're hiring has
been in this business, and it's also important to know how
often the consultant is out in the field meeting admissions
directors at colleges. That is, in part, what parents are
Sklarow says he receives about 100 requests for membership
in the trade group each month, mostly from applicants who lack
proper training. He rejects about 90 percent. The organization
requires counselors to have at least three years of experience
in college admissions or high school counseling and to have
visited at least 100 colleges.
"About a quarter of the calls I get are from people who say
things like, 'I got my daughter into Bryn Mawr, and now I want
to do the same for other kids,' and my response to them is,
'You didn't help your daughter, she did it herself with hard
work,'" Sklarow says. "It's sort of like saying, 'My daughter
had strep throat, I nursed her through it and now I want to be
a doctor for everybody.'"