Hiring a consultant may seem like just one more way that well-heeled families can get their students ahead.
But a little known secret is that many college consultants also do "pro bono" work if they are approached by moderate- to low-income families.
"I'm starting to see people from a variety of backgrounds - many with more modest means who are making a sacrifice," says James Heryer, a certified college-admissions consultant in Kansas City, Mo.
Rusty Haynes, an Albuquerque-based consultant, says about 20 percent of his work is "pro bono," sometimes involving seminars - but also one-on-one.
"If a student tests well, and has a high class rank, even parents with modest incomes want their students to consider options besides the state university," Mr. Heryer says. "I help them locate scholarships."
What determines a good fit is not only academic, but also social and financial, he and others say.
Finances were among the top of Emily Vogel's list of priorities. A standout student from Kansas City, she started looking for colleges long before her junior year.
When she graduated at the top of her class, the problem was money - and too many choices. So she called Heryer.
"I was not the easiest student to work with," Emily says. "I had no idea what I wanted. And I thought I had so much time and I wanted to look at every single school - I had 50 of them on my list."
By her senior year she had narrowed it down to 20 schools, calling Heryer frequently to discuss possibilities.
He helped her winnow that group down to nine schools - and she applied to those.
In the end, it was between Duke University and Boston University.
"I waited until the night before I had to send off the down payment on tuition enrollment," she says. "The decision was so hard. I was wavering so bad - I called Jim. Finally, he said, 'This has got to be your choice.'"
Boston University - a suggestion that Heryer made because the school offered merit scholarships - was offering her a $25,000 merit scholarship. Duke offered nothing but its small, beautiful campus and top academics.
"In the end I chose the big city and the scholarship money," she says.
"I'm very excited about starting school this fall. I just don't think it would have happened this way without Jim's help."