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End Note

The New Snake-Oil Industry

Private college admissions consultants must join with college admissions counselors and others to help families.
University Business, Apr 2006

Sustained by anxiety and fortified by the internet, it is diligently weaving itself into the fabric of our everyday lives. Increasingly propelled by greed, it preys on the fear of families, especially parents. It's the private, for-profit, college admissions consulting industry. Benefiting from the massive media attention and the sky-high anxiety that swirls around admissions today, the industry is exploding in size. What had long been a collection of local, relatively low-cost, home-based businesses is morphing into a sleek industry dominated by companies and individuals whose primary motivation is revenue.

Unfortunately, it's a familiar tale in the for-profit education world. Take the billion-dollar test prep industry as an example.

The college consulting business has become a supernova, growing by 300 percent over the last five years. Even a quick search uncovers many websites promising stunning results. Their brazenness is frightening. Hire them and your child will soon enter the Ivy League college of his or her choice. They deftly convert hope into cash.

Consultants are deftly converting families' hope into cash.

This field is increasingly dominated by corporate backers eager for a return on their financial outlay. They pooh-pooh traditional consultants who work with handfuls of families. They seek far bigger profits, and an offshoot of the business has appeared: Investors and their minions are populating websites with hip graphics and nominal online tools. They are reaching the masses, relentlessly blazing new paths to profit.

Another alarming aspect of this consulting business: It's an unregulated industry. A growing number of consultants appear to have little or no working experience in the college admissions field. Anyone can, and consequently does, hang out a shingle. It could be a young college grad establishing a "niche" business by providing essay advice, an individual seeking a career change, or an entrepreneur fashioning a glitzy website with the financial backing of hopeful investors. Some consultants allege incredible success rates at "the most selective colleges." Of course, there's no way to verify these claims.

High costs are another concern. Some companies charge hundreds of dollars per hour. Amazingly, there's no correlation between cost and experience. Some of the most expensive consultants and internet companies have little on-the-job admissions expertise. Their websites are purposefully fuzzy about their backgrounds.

At the Tipping Point

Skilled and veteran counselors like myself must take action. Rather than linger in the background, quietly serving families, we must realize the industry has changed. Rather than focus solely on growing our businesses, we must help families determine their need for a private counselor and select one with experience and fair fees.

We should also do more to join forces with those who share our determination to help families-college admissions officers and high school counselors. Of course, this is easier said than done. Admissions officers have long chosen to ignore or (often justifiably) criticize the consulting business. But it's time for them to recognize that this industry is here to stay. As they crisscross the country each fall, they can play a crucial role in educating families, providing them with guidance on how to effectively make use of their high school counselors and on when to seek out skilled private counselors.

Tensions between high schools and private counselors aren't new, either. Many school counselors are put off by families seeking outside help with this process. Still, they must face the fact that private advisors are being hired in record numbers by parents who feel they need more assistance than the high schools can offer. And counselors could help families in selecting outside admissions consultants.

We have reached the tipping point in the admissions consulting industry. Either we become known by families and fellow educators as trusted and experienced resources, or we become the snake-oil salespeople of the 21st century, known for dubious promises, quack tonics, and employing anxiety to hoist our profits.

William H. Caskey is an educational consultant and a former Ivy League admissions officer.

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