Cambridge, Mass. — HAVING teen-agers plot their futures with the help of well-paid private counselors may sound like the latest trend in rushing kids to grow up or the newest service for the family that has everything. But the counselors, along with educational and psychological experts, agree that getting good career advice makes sense, considering the complicated choices facing high school students.
``The cost of college education has become so great for families that they see it as an investment and are nervous about making a right decision,'' observes Mary-Lynne Musgrove, a career counselor in Columbus, Ohio.
``There are over 50,000 occupations and millions of job environments,'' adds Frank Karpati, who has found in his Hackensack, N.J., practice that most teen-agers today are ``vocationally immature'' and need help in finding a suitable field.
Ms. Musgrove and Mr. Karpati's line of work has existed for less than a decade, but in that time, hundreds of such counselors have emerged, specializing in late adolescence and charging clients up to several thousand dollars.
With the help of consultations, tests, and practical experiences, these clients - usually juniors and seniors in high school - plan their immediate and long-range careers. They decide on colleges, fields of study, and likely occupations.
Linda Pfister, past president of the National Career Development Association, sees the turn to private counseling as a sign of the times. ``Parents have become concerned if their kids don't get into the right preschool,'' she notes, adding that they have come to worry even more about their children gaining an early foothold in an increasingly crowded labor market.
``It's part of a pattern of using experts,'' says Harvard dean of admissions Bill Fitzsimmons, who figures that college applicants are seeking private advice ``just as they would get a second or third opinion on a medical problem.'' Extra opinions have become appealing as the counselor-to-student ratio has decreased in many high schools, Mr. Fitzsimmons points out.
Musgrove also discerns modern attitudes in the growing demand for her services, which have a several-month waiting list. ``The kids talk of how important money and success are to them. It's almost a striving toward `yuppiedom,''' she notes.
At the same time, she emphasizes, ``There is a wonderful growing awareness that work should fit the person. Twenty years ago, guidance was a matter of fitting people into notches. There was no reference to the uniqueness of the individual.''
Neither is it out of place for teen-agers to focus so specifically on the future, insists David Elkind, a professor of Child Study at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Mr. Elkind, who in 1980 wrote ``The Hurried Child,'' says, ``These are young adults. By the time you're 18, you should have an idea of where you are going.''
Musgrove prefers to see clients over a period of years and into their undergraduate careers to best determine their future occupations. As part of the discovery process, they will typically meet people in their chosen fields, serve internships, and enroll in related courses or clubs.
Karpati takes a more scientific approach. Calling career counseling a ``feasibility study,'' he has students examine vocations in depth and narrow down their top preferences. Karpati then administers a battery of tests covering aptitude, interests, and temperament in an attempt to validate the choices and ``minimize the margin of error.'' Although the career decisions may not be perfect, Karpati admits, they will be better informed.
What these counselors offer, though, is not necessarily what families come for. The students and their parents are often looking to turn mediocre high school records into admissions at competitive colleges. ``I remember one girl, who was quite aware of her own limitations and equally aware of her mother's high expectations,'' says Musgrove, who had to work on the parent's problems as much as the daughter's.
Harvard's Fitzsimmons receives numerous letters of recommendation from private counselors, although he considers such statements ``purchased'' and does not credit them.
And then there are those customers looking for a quick and final answer to a fulfilling future. ``They come in and say, `Could you test me and tell me what to do with my life?''' reports Musgrove, who fears that the boom in her industry has begun catering to such requests.
``I worry a lot about poor practice,'' she says. ``When I look across the field I see agencies that say, `We'll give you four tests and three interpretations,' or `Here's the path you need to follow.'''
Even when the career guidance is of high quality, questions remain as to who needs it most and where it should come from. While some counselors like Musgrove do pro bono work, most takers are upper-middle-class and can afford a $65 hourly rate. Musgrove finds the majority of her clients come for 10 visits. ``In many cases private counseling does seem like it's overkill,'' observes Fitzsimmons. ``A family that can really afford anything is buying an insurance policy that tells them they've done everything they could.''
Instead, he suggests the counseling could be most valuable to ``untraditional'' students such as those experiencing learning problems or contemplating time away from school.
While Linda Pfister extols the virtues of vocational readiness, she thinks high schools should take the lead in guiding their own students. ``There could be more of a developmental approach to finding careers rather than a couple of shots with a private counselor,'' she concludes.