Trying to find the right college? Don't go it alone.
When it comes to making a $100,000 decision, the Trombley family likes to get plenty of advice.Skip to next paragraph
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That explains the presence of James Heryer. This certified educational planner and college-admissions consultant in Kansas City, Mo., has been hired to walk Kalista Trombley through her biggest - and perhaps her family's most expensive - life-choice so far: finding the right college.
Professional guidance in applying to college might seem the domain of a high-income elite. But now even middle-income families are anteing up for advice from individual entrepreneurs as well as big educational firms taking aim at a surging market. Pressured by hefty tuitions and tough competition, they're starting searches early - and splurging on experts - to ensure that "perfect fit."
"As it gets more and more competitive, parents want someone on hand to help find the right college," says Carol Loewith, president of the Fairfax, Va.-based Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). "But they also want someone to be a guide for their child so applications can be done as comfortably and as well as possible."
Parents of college-bound students may recall their own experiences chatting with a high school guidance counselor, collecting brochures, accumulating good grades and a few extracurriculars. They may have even dared to write their applications without editing from Mom or Dad.
No longer. Every year brings new stories about the importance of college to future success - and of apparent stars that don't make it into their top pick.
Those stories send a growing number of parents running in the direction of consultants like Mr. Heryer, who specialize in helping high schoolers package themselves for optimum display to admissions departments. They reason that professional attention to test scores, grades, course scheduling, extra-curricular activities, application essays, and an intimate knowledge of colleges, can make the difference between getting in - or not.
"Parents are concerned that their child get the best education possible," Heryer says. "But they're overwhelmed by cost, competition, and finding that needle in a haystack."
As a result, demand is booming for help. And a growing number of people are signing up to dole out advice to the bewildered. Membership in the IECA, for example, has risen from 100 to 250 in the past decade.
This despite a hefty price tag for assistance. Heryer's fee to help locate the right college: $1,000 for a "comprehensive" package of 10-plus consultations. The price for consultants on the east and west coasts can be can be triple that amount. But patrons don't seem to mind.
"This is one of the biggest choices of my life and at first I was thinking only Dartmouth and Stanford," Kalista says. "Jim has given me an idea about colleges I would never have heard of."
Her father likes the process, too.
"It's been 25 years since I looked for a college," Tad says. "I'm not an expert. This way I get to deal with my daughter on the soft issues. I'll visit schools with her ... but I won't be recommending one over another. I'll leave that to Jim."
Parents, students, and consultants say the cost and competition to get into America's 400-or-so first and second-tier selective schools has driven families to change their approach to planning for college:
*Students are college-hunting earlier. High-school sophomores and even freshmen school are using consultants to plan their course of study, summer activities, and extracurricular activities to create maximum college-admissions impact.
*Even families of moderate means are seeking help from admissions consultants. This is especially true when a family member is a high school standout.
*Increasingly, consultants are hired mainly as family "mediators" to relieve anxiety and smooth frictions that might pop up between parents and children.
*Large companies like Kaplan Educational Centers and Princeton Review, the big test-preparation companies, are expanding to offer admissions counseling nationwide. There is talk of "a billion-dollar market" and chains of counseling centers with hundreds of outlets.
Achieva College Prep Centers already has eight offices in California that offer both test-prep help and admissions counseling. In response, many private admissions counselors are expanding to include test-preparation services.
Probably the biggest reason for consultants' growing popularity is that high school guidance counselors are more overburdened than ever.
"At my school, they have so many kids to keep track of they're lucky if they know their names," says Kalista, who attends a big public high school.
Many college-admissions officers seem generally positive about the trend.