The Role of An Independent Educational Consultant

We often are asked questions about the role of educational consultants today, and our philosophy of practice. We hope this article will help you understand how educational consultants work, and how we view the development and essential role of this profession.

More than forty years ago, the elder among us walked out of the Princeton University admissions office and helped found a new profession, independent educational consulting. Certainly he must have been crazy to do such a thing. Why would one leave the hallowed halls of an Ivy League institution and take the uncertain path he did? Who would be willing to pay someone for advice about schools and colleges? Wasn’t there free information available just about everywhere? Wasn’t that the job of school guidance counselors, whether in public or private high schools?

It turns out that there was indeed a need for independent educational advisors, a need that has only grown in breadth, depth, and understanding during almost five decades of change in higher and secondary education. Yet who is the educational consultant? Is s/he the stereotype presented in the media, the “pricey consultant”, “hired gun”, “snake oil salesman” willing to do just about anything to shoe-horn students into the colleges their parents have selected for them? Is the consultant ghost-writing students’ essays in the dark of night, charging outrageous fees, making ridiculous guarantees, and managing students' lives with a buggy whip? Omnipotent symbol of the “commercialization of higher education,” is the consultant further pressurizing the college admissions process and harming families and colleges?

Well, you might surmise where we stand on these questions. We know there is a need for the independent counselor, today more than ever. We understand how stressed, confused, and anxious parents and students are about their educational futures. That’s right: parents are and have a right to be worried about their children’s educational planning and where it will lead them on a journey of personal development, satisfaction, and success. We know from survey data and personal experience that parents remain the number one influence on a student’s choice of college, and that parents will pay a significant portion of the educational expenses of most “traditional” collegebound students, even as the college population becomes less traditional and more diverse.
It is precisely because of the diversification of the college population that the need for professional, responsible, and personal educational advice has increased. During the late 1960s and through the 1970s, as our firm and others became established, higher education underwent several revolutions. Among them were co-education, the expansion of financial aid, affirmative action, internationalization, and the expansion, nationalization, and overall diversification of the college population. Today we are just as likely to counsel the Chinese or Indian or Central American student seeking his or her family’s first American degree as we are the son or daughter of a graduate of an elite American college. We see children of parents who attended a commuter college near their hometown, a small state university campus, or a not-very-selective small college that has since changed its name, merged, gone co-ed, or closed up shop. We work with African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, and, bi- or multi-cultural or “third-culture” students whose parents want the best opportunities for them, and who need a great deal of assistance in navigating the complicated American educational landscape.

What all these families have in common is a desire to find a college (or, we should add, in other cases a secondary or graduate school) that is not only “the best” their child can attain, but also the best fit. Most parents want their children to be happy. They want them to succeed. And they want them to go through the admissions process maximizing their ability to achieve their best outcomes while not missing crucial steps or opportunities along the way. One of the remarkable aspects of our educational system is its amazing diversity and array of choices. As many have observed, it is truly a buyer’s market for colleges and most every student can find an option that will serve him or her well. The challenge associated with that much choice is, of course, finding the right place and knowing how to get there. The challenge associated with a system not based on one national exam administered to all high school graduates annually (let’s not get into our proxy national standardized tests at this juncture) is that students and parents generally do not know where they fit, or which options will be open or closed to them. The challenge associated with an overabundance of information available in guidebooks and on the internet is an inability to sift through it all in order to find that which is applicable to one’s own situation and which is also reliable.

“But isn’t that where high school guidance counselors come into play?” you might ask. In an ideal world, and in some schools today, that would be the case. Suffice it to say that the conventional wisdom about the paucity of school guidance counseling directed toward higher education is correct. The ratio of students to counselors is far above where it should be for effective counseling to take place, and the percentage of time that counselors spend on college admissions advising is too low. In some public schools, there is virtually no counseling. This is true not only in urban or rural schools with fewer resources to spend on counselors, but also in many suburban and exurban districts with large student populations.

There are numerous non-profit and government sponsored college guidance programs across the country aimed at helping first-generation collegebound students, members of racial and ethnic minorities, and other underrepresented students, and more seem to spring up each week. There is a huge need for these programs, and we welcome their development. Like many other independent counselors, we have long devoted time to programs like A Better Chance, or local community-based centers, and we work on a pro bono basis with individual clients, as well. Through outreach efforts, writing, and free public speaking, we seek to spread as much helpful and accurate information about planning and paying for college as possible. Again, we are not alone in these efforts among independent counselors.

That said, there are many students who are not served by any particular collegebound support program. The vast middle class of families who scrape to attend an independent or parochial school, or to make ends meet in order to afford to live in a town with a stronger public school district, often feel underserved by the counseling available to them, even in a good private school. And, yes, the disparaged upper classes, whether parents new to wealth and seeking to send children to schools that they never had the opportunity personally to experience, or those with a long pedigree of legacies wondering how to provide the same for their children, are in need of advice. And, as most counselors will, we hope, concur, money is no guarantor of academic or other abilities. We work with students with significant learning disabilities, attentional disorders, physical or psychiatric challenges, or other special needs. They are children of divorce, who have lost a parent to illness or terrorist attacks, who have moved multiple times, who have relocated from one foreign country to another, who have a sibling with autism or Down’s Syndrome, or who themselves require the use of a wheelchair or a significant educational or health accommodation at school. Whether their parents went to an elite college matters not in their own search for the right educational home for the next stage of their lives.

An independent consultant is not a brain surgeon. He or she does not have a monopoly on the “right” information, or “inside access” or “influence” to “get kids in” to schools. We often compare our work to detective-like problem solving. Fully independent from the institutional priorities of the sending or receiving schools, we serve only the student, and we aim to tease out the important attributes of each individual in order to help him or her reach his or her potential. The admissions process can and should be an educational and developmental experience for adolescents. We mediate between parents and students; guide and sometimes cajole; tell it like it is to Moms, Dads, and teens; brainstorm ideas in a creative and open process; provide accurate information; and resolve issues as the often stressful and anxiety laden admissions process unfolds.

The reality today is that there are hundreds, if not thousands of independent counselors across the U.S. and internationally working with a wide variety of students. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has a membership category for independents, and many former admissions officers and high school guidance counselors moonlight as independent counselors or transition to full-time independent work mid-career or upon retirement.

Is there too much commercialization in college admissions today? You bet. Where is it coming from? Well, generally it’s not coming from independent consultants. The onslaught of the full-time college marketing machine that arose in the early 1980s during the nadir of the post-Baby Boom high school graduating population has continued to gain force in the internet age and has been exacerbated by the numerical rankings game. The obsession with and emphasis on standardized testing has promulgated an enormous test prep industry. It was happening already, but the economic downturn accentuated issues surrounding need- and merit-based financial aid in the midst of historically high college sticker prices. These and other national trends will continue to impact how families view and manage the college admissions process. As we have written elsewhere, in the face of intense marketing and recruitment efforts on the part of colleges, we are often left to wonder who is the college’s client today? In many cases it does not seem to be the student. These trends make the work of the school or independent counselor ever more important.

As college costs have risen, many families identify the hiring of an independent consultant to be a worthwhile investment that can pay off not only in an appropriate college list likely to yield good college options, but also options that can include merit scholarships, athletic recruiting opportunities, or substantial need-based financial aid. With the price tag of some four-year private colleges and universities now exceeding $60,000 per year, paying a consultant can make a lot of sense if working with that consultant can increase the likelihood of a student’s finding and gaining admission to the schools where he or she is most likely to be happy and successful. It’s certainly a lot less expensive than dropping out of a college that is a bad fit due to poor grades or an inability to fit in socially.

Are there some consultants out there preying on families’ emotions and selling snake oil? To be sure. Our hope is that, over time, the good actors will prevail and those who have less than noble intentions and who do not follow the standards of practice as outlined by NACAC in particular, will move on to other work. Independent educational consultants are here to stay, and surveys and experience show that a substantial portion of high school seniors utilizes their services. Importantly, educational consulting is not the sole privilege of the wealthy. A wide range of services exists across a wide geographic area. We encourage all stakeholders in the college admissions community to acknowledge our shared interests and mission, and to work together to promote a clear, logical, ethical, and optimistic admissions process for all students.