Families Relying More on College Admissions Consultants

You can spend a lot—or not—getting into college. As competition increases, more parents are paying pros to lead them and their kids through the application process. But could they get that help for free?


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Photo by Chris Duffey

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When Elizabeth Kelleher was ready to start applying to colleges, she decided not to consult with counselors at Piedmont High School. Her thinking was that other kids at her school who lacked her resources could better use a counselor’s attention to their advantage.

Oakland Tech senior Akiro Duey also completed his college applications without the help of his counselors. That allowed other classmates to benefit from the limited time his school’s counselors could devote to such matters. Most counselors’ main focus is far from helping students with their college applications. Counselors make sure students are on schedule to graduate; they deal with grades, class schedules, student-teacher relationships, transcripts, psychological issues, parent/teacher conferences, and vocational and college counseling.

Kelleher’s parents, Joci and Michael, exercised an increasingly popular option. They enlisted a private college admissions adviser, a paid professional who helped direct their daughter through the extremely complex world of applying to college. Duey, however, felt that private college admissions consultants—whose fees can range from $2,000 to $4,000—were too expensive.

For students and parents, the college application and admissions process is increasingly competitive, not to mention anxiety-producing. While the number of applications to top U.S. universities continues to increase, the number of acceptances decreases. Many colleges are more selective than ever about whom they admit. In 2014, UC Berkeley, the nation’s No. 1 public university, accepted 18 percent, or 13,324 of the 73,774 students who applied. Private Stanford University accepted just 5 percent, or 1,678 of the 42,167 students who applied. By comparison, in 2005, Berkeley accepted 27 percent and Stanford 13 percent.

To get an edge, ease the stress of doing all the work, and quell students’ fears of not getting into a college, more students and parents are turning to private advisers.

Private admission consulting arose during the 1990s out of increased college enrollments and competition and cuts in public high schools’ counseling staffs.

Founded in 1997, the Higher Education Consultants Association bills itself as the premiere professional organization for private consultants who focus exclusively on helping high school students get from secondary schools to undergraduate and graduate programs. Nationally, it has 922 members, 278 of them in California, who serve approximately 20,000 students a year. It is an unregulated industry with no barriers to entry; however, the association requires its members to have counseling experience or a professional certificate in college admissions and career planning, and they have to have signed its Standards and Ethics Statement.

Gael Casner, a Marin County resident who was the association’s 2013-14 president, said the organization’s membership has more than doubled in just five years. In the East Bay and North Bay, there are approximately 90 association members, she said. “There’s a need, and it’s growing,” she said. “The college application process has gotten so complex, parents don’t want to make a mistake with their money.”

Joanne Fraser LeGates is one of 11 association members in Oakland. She has been a private college admissions adviser for 10 years. She has a certificate in College Admissions Counseling from UC Berkeley Extension. In addition to her association membership, she is a member of the Western Association for College Admissions Counseling.

Fraser LeGates’ clients come from Oakland Tech High School, Bishop O’Dowd High School, Alameda High School, Encinal High School, St. Joseph Notre Dame High School, St. Mary’s High School, and Berkeley High School. She assists about 20 students per year. “I like working with teenagers. It’s great to be part of the family during a time of such decision,” she said.

Fraser LeGates starts with an introductory meeting with sophomores and parents to provide an overview of the college admissions process. They review California colleges, and she checks in with the students about junior-year classes, grades, summer schedules, extra activities, and plans for SAT and/or ACT testing. “It’s good for everyone to sit at a table together to talk and learn about it,” she said. “It calms the waters.”

Typically, Fraser LeGates begins the task in earnest in December or early January of the student’s junior year, guiding the student through decisions regarding which college to attend, usually decided by May 1 of the senior year. Under her watch, students create pros and cons for a list of “likely,” “match,” and “reach” schools, and Fraser LeGates encourages them to build an activity resume and do writing workshops to tell their story for college admissions essays.

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