More College Applicants Hire Consultants

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Seven days a week, Gael Casner works out of her home office in Greenbrae, CA. She meets with high school students in her cozy sunroom, where they sit at a utility table from Costco – nothing fancy, she says.

On the table are homemade chocolate chip cookies and a huge basket of college pencils. The pencils are there to remind her clients that she travels extensively, to keep up to date with different schools.

Casner is a private admissions consultant, and this is the busiest season. The big Nov. 1 deadline is quickly approaching, and since Casner has 45 to 50 students each year, she’s pretty busy, working from 9 a.m. until late in the evening every single day of the week.

Private admission consultants have been around since the 1970s. But only in recent years has it become common to hire one – particularly among upper-middle class public school students. A study conducted by Lipman Hearne found that nearly 26% of high school students seeking a four-year college are now using private consultants.

This is a big increase, according to Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). “It has really kicked up – noticeably. It’s been a phenomenon of the last five years,” Sklarow says.

CONSULTANTS TRIPLED IN THE LAST FIVE YEARS

Mark Sklarow, IECA CEO. Courtesy photo

Mark Sklarow, IECA CEO. Courtesy photo

In fact, the number of private consultants has exploded since 2005, according to a survey released last year by the association. The IECA now believes there were 7,000 to 8,000 domestic consultants in the business in 2015, up from less than 1,500 five years earlier, 1,200 international consultants, a massive jump from only 100 in 2010, and as many as 10,000 to 15,000 “dabblers,” up from 4,000.

Even with more private consultants in the U.S. than ever before, Sklarow says there aren’t enough to meet the growing demand. “Members of our association who had a small number of clients are suddenly turning kids away. Solo practitioners are adding a second or third consultant to their business,” he says.

The significant growth of the last five years may be a response to public high school budget cuts. IECA estimates that the student-to-counselor ratio at public high schools is now about 476 to one, with the average student getting only 38 minutes of personal college counseling over four years.

CONCERNS OVER THE QUALITY OF THE PEOPLE GIVING ADVICE

Sklarow says the industry started out with consultants who were hired to help families pick private high schools for their children. “What happened was, those kids started coming back when they were ready for college. It was very slow growth at first,” Sklarow says.

With more people wanting to hire private consultants, Sklarow says he’s concerned about high numbers of unqualified people charging for their services, as consultants don’t have to be licensed to operate.

“It is an industry that consists of thousands of individual providers, often one or two man shops, that is unregulated with no standards of quality,” says Zack Perkins, co-founder of CollegeVine, a national company providing student mentorship and college admissions guidance. “Just about anyone can put out a shingle and offer advice.”

CollegeVine’s services are provided by a network of nearly 300 near-peer mentors at the nation’s top universities.

  • I just wanted to offer that even large consultancies that belong to every Association Under the Sun can be extremely unethical, something I’ve experienced firsthand. While it’s not a scientific process, I think that the gut check is still the best way to sense if they would be a good partner. Along with checking out testimonials and references of course, but I don’t think that’s references and testimonials always paint the most accurate picture either. My main message would be don’t give your power away to brand name, testimonials, associations, or any of that stuff. Trust the feeling you get as the first hurdle. Then collect data.