Families Retain “Counselors” to Negotiate Daunting College Application Processes

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Last fall, a U.S. News & World Report article detailed the increasingly competitive nature of the American college admissions process, with more high school graduates vying for a finite number of premium institutions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in post-secondary institutions increased from 25 percent in 1970 to 40 percent in 2014. Rising demand, limited supply, and high anxiety has prompted aspiring scholars to turn to commercial college counseling services to secure an extra application edge.

According to a recent report by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, income disparities between young adults who possess a college degree and those who don’t is growing. Early Baby Boomers who lack a college degree earned 77 percent of their graduate peers’ wages. Millennials of a similar age with just a high school diploma earn 62 percent of what their college-educated counterparts make.  The report explained how strong demand for a college degree has translated into high tuition costs and a heightened concern about the investment paying off for students.

According to Elizabeth Stone, executive director of Campanile College Admissions Counseling, another driver of college counseling demand is the lack of adequate advisors at public high schools, where the ratio of counselors to students can be as much as 600 to one.

The Common Application, a nonprofit member organization launched in 1975, allows prospective students to apply to multiple schools through a single submission. Nearly 700 colleges now use the Common Application, a number that’s steadily grown over the years.

The cost of commercial college counseling services varies, averaging roughly $4,000, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, with some families paying multiples of that amount. One San Francisco parent with a daughter in public school, who asked to remain anonymous, spent $4,500 on Scholar Company, a counseling service based at 3407 Sacramento Street; her daughter ultimately applied to 15 schools. She found that the service lessened the anxiety associated with the process, and allowed her offspring to balance school demands and extracurricular activities while navigating application hurdles without parental aid. However, she commented that increased use of such services exacerbates the divide between families with resources and those who can’t afford the steep fees.

Stone emphasized the importance of families thoroughly researching potential counseling services, referencing the IECA as the only group within an unregulated industry that vets its membership. She also touted the association’s efforts to address economic inequalities among those college bound.

“The IECA membership is committed to taking on as many pro-bono clients as they can,” said Stone. “They also offer free workshops in the community, and work with community groups, as well as take on individual pro bono clients. We’ve partnered with nonprofits and worked with the San Mateo Boys & Girls Club, for example.”

College counseling isn’t a licensed field.  Over the last five years Stone has witnessed an explosion in the number of people who advertise these services, regardless of their training or expertise. The IECA, which has been around for decades, requires its members to have a graduate degree, three years of educational placement experience, student advising knowledge, involvement in campus visits and professional references.  Stone has a doctorate in special education from the University of California, Berkeley.  She works with students of all academic backgrounds and abilities, including those with special learning needs and who want to pursue performing arts.

Rate structures vary among companies, from hourly to package deals or a combination of the two. Campanile offers a lower cost option for those applying to UC schools only, and a comprehensive package for up to 10 colleges for $6,800. Stone is also the executive director of a separate company, Campanile College Tours, which plans door-to-door college tours, including scheduling detailed itineraries to make the most of time spent on campus.

Noe Valley resident Tanya Shadoan’s daughter, Zoe, is a senior at the School of the Arts in Diamond Heights. Shadoan discovered by accident that her employer, Citibank, offers free access to College Coach, a phone- and emailed-based counseling service offered by Bright Horizons. Each time a student or parent calls the company they speak with a different counselor, which Shadoan thinks is beneficial in terms of getting a variety of different perspectives. Shadoan and her husband knew that they’d seek college counseling assistance, as their own application experiences were decades ago and the process has gotten more competitive.

“What I’m surprised by is the number of private school parents who still pay for college counseling,” commented Shadoan. “I think it’s driven by fear or anxiety. Many of them are anxious or stressed. Parents have incredible anxiety, maybe more than there needs to be. College is like the culmination of 18 years of parenting angst. People who have the money will spend it on college counseling.”

Shadoan believes that a counselor can help determine which colleges will offer the most merit-based aid, a vital consideration for many Bay Area families and residents of other high cost areas. Although schools will generally factor cost of living expenses in determining a family’s need for aid, Shadoan doesn’t think they adequately consider the region’s expensive mortgages and rents.

“I find that in my practice working with a college counselor can save people money if they don’t apply to the wrong schools or too many schools,” explained Stone. “Also, really strong essays can lead to more money awarded to students from schools; good applications can lead to more money. It helps to choose the right school and stay there for four years. Working with a trained professional can reduce stress on the family.”

Independent high schools tend to have smaller student to faculty ratios, with better access to college counselors than those at public schools. Whether or not a student attends a public or private high school, families have situations that may warrant use of a commercial counselor. Virginia Donohue, executive director of Animal Care and Control and a Noe Valley resident, is mom to triplets Sydney, Liam and Johanna, all high school seniors, two at Lowell High School, the other at Mercy. The three have differing academic interests; two want to attend schools in different regions of the country, while the third is open to any destination. They’re paying Scholar Company about $150 an hour to help with standardized tests, tutoring and application essays.

“We polled our friends and got a bunch of recommendations for services,” said Donohue. “We hired Scholar Co., and so far it has been a positive experience. It can be a pretty anxiety provoking process. I applied 40 years ago and things are completely different. Now it’s so much easier to hit a button and apply to more schools; it seems more complicated and competitive than ever.”