What to look for when hiring a college consultant?

A consultant should help reduce anxiety for parents and students during the college admissions process.

U.S. News & World Report recently published an article that can help Counselors point parents in the right direction when they see the need to hire an independent counselor. Despite all the negative publicity the recent college admissions scandal is giving to the industry most independent counselors are very good and bring a lot of value to parents that need extra help.

Operation Varsity Blues, as the FBI dubbed it, is the college admissions scandal heard around the world.

The alleged bribery scheme to help the children of wealthy parents get into elite institutions ensnared Hollywood actresses, business moguls and college coaches accused of helping rig the system by creating a “side door” into schools, circumventing the normal admissions process. Working with an independent college counselor, parents allegedly tried to gain an edge by having students admitted as athletes – despite not playing sports – and changing their standardized test scores.

Now the scandal has cast college consulting in a negative light, prompting some professionals to call for a recommitment to ethics in the industry.

“This is an unfortunate example of the lengths to which people will go to circumvent and manipulate the college admission process, particularly to gain admission to highly selective colleges,” Stefanie Niles, National Association for College Admission Counseling president and vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University, said in a news release.

The scandal prompted similar criticism from others in the space. American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers Executive Director Michael Reilly said in a statement, “This behavior compromises the integrity of college admissions and reinforces stereotypes that people of privilege can circumvent the rules. It undermines public confidence in our institutions.”

As its moment in the spotlight arrives, the college consulting industry is booming both domestically and internationally.

Data from the Independent Educational Consultant Association, a nonprofit professional organization, show a 400 percent increase in domestic independent educational consultants since 2005. In that same time, the number of international consultants grew by 1,000 percent.

To Mark Sklarow, IECA chief executive officer, this is the most explosive scandal he’s seen in the admissions world since he began working with the nonprofit 25 years ago. The actions taken by the educational consultant at the center of the Varsity Blues case are in direct contrast to IECA ethics, which specifically bar admission guarantees and emphasize truthful, accurate application materials.

“We want to make sure that if a family hires a member of our association, that they’re really knowledgeable, well trained, ethical, competent, all the things that you would expect,” Sklarow says. He adds that in the absence of state licensure for independent educational consultants, IECA has adopted that role of arbiter, setting standards and practices.

For parents planning to hire an independent educational consultant, Sklarow has advice on what to look for.

First he suggests that families find a counselor who reduces, rather than raises, their collective anxiety about college admissions. Consultants, he says, should help families understand and explore their many college options. The focus, he adds should “not be about getting in” but rather on graduating, with an emphasis on what is best for the student over school prestige.

And when it comes to admission guarantees, Sklarow tells parents to be wary because “it’s impossible to make the guarantee.”

Sklarow also advises parents to look for consultants who have a background in counseling or academic advising. It’s also important, he says, to hire a consultant who has familiarity with college campuses, someone who has visited the grounds and met with staff.

When it comes to warning signs, one in particular jumps out.

“I think a red flag is somebody who just doesn’t belong to a national (college counseling) organization,” Sklarow says. If a consultant is not part of a group such as IECA or NACAC, Sklarow asks, “why would somebody enter this field and stay away from being vetted?”

It’s important, he says, that the consultant has had a background check, especially if the individual works one-on-one with high school students. Sklarow suggests that parents vet consultants themselves through, at minimum, a thorough online search. IECA members undergo a background check as part of the membership application.

At the same time the college consulting industry has boomed, counselors in public high schools have been spread thin. Nationally, the student-to-counselor ratio was 482 to 1 from 2004-2014, according to a NACAC report compiled using data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students for every counselor.

When families turn to college consultants for guidance, it can often be expensive. According to IECA data, the average hourly fee for a consultant in 2017 was $200. A quarter of consultants charge more than $200 per hour while 15 percent charge less. Comprehensive package fees can range from a low of $850 up to a high of $10,000.

For a family with limited resources, hiring a college consultant can be a significant cost. But Sklarow says families may not always need comprehensive services and that perhaps a few hours with a consultant can provide the start they need. And while the average hourly fee is $200, IECA data show that some consultants charge as low as $85 – enough, Sklarow says, to get started.

“When you think about the cost of college, it’s pretty reasonable to put that money upfront to get you started in the right direction,” Sklarow says.

He adds that families also can access free resources on the IECA website and that many members do some pro bono work.

Free advising services also can be found in the form of nonprofits. According to the nonprofit National College Access Network, more than 2 million students across the country are served by its 450-plus member organizations.

“It is free for students, because we know that these underrepresented students, first-generation students may not have adults in their home who have been through this process to guide and advise them through it, let alone have the funds to hire the professionals to do those things,” says Zenia M. Henderson, director of member and partner engagement at National College Access Network.

A member directory showing a breakdown of organizations by states is available on the NCAN website.

When it comes to applying for college, Sklarow says parents and the consultant should remember it’s all about the student.

While parents should be involved in the college process, their role is to help provide guidance but also to stay out of the way, he says. Though they can offer help in ways such as suggesting essay topics and brainstorming with the student, they shouldn’t take over the process. Nor should the college consultant complete work for the student that will be passed off as his or her own material.

The role of parents in the college admissions process was the topic of focus in a recent report from the Make Caring Common Project led by Faculty Director Rick Weissbourd, who also serves as a senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.

The report – coincidentally released around the same time Operation Varsity Blues was revealed – touches on ethical parenting in college admissions. Even as the author of a report on parental ethics in admissions, Weissbourd says he was stunned by the scandal.

“I was really surprised at how mind-bogglingly dumb and unethical it was, quite frankly,” he says.

Tips in the report include using the admissions process to teach ethics, having authentic conversations among families, and encouraging students to be grateful for the opportunity to attend college and those who helped them get there.

Weissbourd adds that while it’s easy to see how those caught up in the college admissions scandal acted in a fraudulent manner, parents should also consider the ethics of behavior such as exaggerating community service hours or writing a teen’s essay.

“This is a real time to be a moral mentor for your kids and model how not to do those things, to send a message to your kids that you can’t just do what’s convenient or what serves your interest. You’ve got to think of the collective good and think about fairness,” Weissbourd says.

Josh Moody, Reporter U.S. News & World Report

Josh Moody has covered college admissions and international education for U.S. News since 2018. Prior to joining U.S. News he blogged about higher ed trends for Forbes.com and reported on K-12 and higher education, as well as local government, natural disasters and crime for The News & Advance in Lynchburg, Virginia. He began his career as an education reporter for the Kearney Hub in central Nebraska, covering the University of Nebraska—Kearney. Moody is a graduate of the University of Nebraska—Kearney, where he studied journalism and political science.