In my last college blog post, I wrote about the enmity that admission officers at elite colleges and universities tend to exhibit toward independent college counselors. If you missed it, here it is:
While elite schools argue that families can navigate the process by themselves, they ignore this fact: colleges operate as businesses and their No. 1 priority is always going to be their own institutions. So why shouldn’t families, who have the resources, hire someone who can make the playing field a little less one sided?
Looking for an Independent College Counselor
When searching for an independent college consultant, don’t be mesmerized by a touted success rate in getting kids into elite schools. High-profile counselors aren’t turning “B” students into kids that Princeton will drool over. These consultants help academic overachievers, who could get into excellent schools without anyone’s help. The aim of these admissions power brokers is arguably to take top students and turn them into the collegiate version of Stepford Wives to boost their chances even more. Under the circumstance, the success rate is meaningless.
Counselors, who peddle prestige and try to Botox every blemish off a kid’s record rather than finding the best fit, encourages what amounts to “child abuse.” That’s the opinion of Carolyn Z. Lawrence, an independent college counselor whom I respect in San Diego County. If a counselor promises she can mold a kid into the perfect candidate, you should run.
The ideal counselors –and there are plenty out there — will spend time learning about their clients and then exploring what kind of institutions would be best for them academically, socially, geographically and financially. Some counselors will specialize in such areas as learning disabilities, arts and athletics.
What Independent College Counselors Can Do
Here are some of the things that independent college counselors can help families with:
- Explain the different types of schools available.
- Develop a list of potential colleges and universities.
- Provide college-essay advice.
- Keep a student on track with applications, college research and essays.
- Giving advice on extracurriculars, internships and summer programs.
- Reviewing college applications.
- Providing SAT/ACT strategies.
Understanding the Finances of College
What’s also important, as far as I’m concerned, is finding a consultant who understands the financial end of paying for college. I’d highly recommend turning to someone who can help you evaluate whether schools will give your teenager need-based financial aid or merit awards. These counselors, however, are hard to find.
Unfortunately, the majority of independent college consultants are no more comfortable dealing with the financial end of college than the high school counselors. Many consultants prefer to stick with the admission side of the equation, which is mind boggling to me. How can a consultant produce a list of potential college picks for a client without having a good idea if the student would receive financial assistance from these schools? Ignoring the financial side of getting into college is like pitching in a baseball game with your eyes closed.
What is puzzling is that the organizations of private college consulting don’t require financial knowledge as a requirement for membership. The organizations seem far more focused on how many colleges a counselor has personally visited.
In their defense, these organizations argue that independent counselors will refer their clients to financial advisers who can help with the cost questions, but that’s not always a satisfactory answer. First, that’s one more person you have to pay and then you have to ensure that the two hired guns will coordinate their efforts on your behalf. Here’s potentially the biggest hazard to this approach: some so-called college financial experts are simply trying to sell parents expensive financial products such as annuities and life insurance.
Consultants who aren’t conversant with college financing should be working with a Certified Public Accountant or other professional who does. I would advise avoiding professionals who suggest that hiding assets in life insurance or annuities is the way to go to obtain financial aid.
Finding an Independent College Counselor
To increase your chances of finding a qualified counselor, consider looking for experts, who belong to one of these professional groups:
- American Institute of Certified Educational Planners
- Higher Education Consultants Association
- Independent Educational Consultants Association
- National College Advocacy Group
You can search for counselors by using each of the organization’s online directories.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution, which was released in May.