November 7, 2012

Getting Into College

In Kentucky and mid-America, the market grows for professional college advising.

Bob Weaver has it made. While many of his classmates sweat over college applications and wait nervously for acceptance or rejection letters, the senior at Lexington Catholic High School was accepted in to the University of Virginia’s highly selective pre-Med program last fall.

It was more than just luck that opened the door. The real task of securing his academic future began more than a year ago when he started working with a private educational consultant: Lexington-based College Finance and Planning, Inc.

Students have been turning to educational consultants for decades. But what was once a practice limited mostly to elite families on the East and West coasts is today finding its way into middle-income families across the country. College advisors – who among other things help students choose the right prep courses, improve their exam scores, apply to colleges and get scholarships – are appealing to a broad range of customers in an age when college costs are climbing and choosing the “right” school is everything.

The services come at a cost. In Kentucky, consulting fees start at around $1,700; they can reach up to $25,000 in New York City.

“I started looking into colleges my sophomore year, and by spring break of my junior year I had seen 11 campuses,” Weaver said. “I knew I wanted a college with about 10 to 15,000 students, in a small town, nearby to lots of opportunities for doing outdoor activities. When I saw UVa, it just stood out.”

Weaver had no troubles getting in. His application boasted a near-perfect GPA, high entrance exam scores and a string of extracurricular accolades like earning a brown belt in the martial arts and working as an assistant photographer for Sports Illustrated.

While high-achievers like Weaver are more likely to seek academic counseling, private advisors are quick to point out that the service is increasingly helping average students qualify for scholarships and find schools they may not have considered otherwise.

According to Mark Skarlow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, educational consultants have doubled their ranks to more than 3,000 nationally in the last five years. With only three registered advising firms, Kentucky is farther behind the trend than the metropolitan coastal areas, Skarlow said.

“Kentucky’s number of advising firms, however, has doubled over the last five years and will only go up,” Skarlow said. There are a number of reasons for his optimism. The class of 2004 was the largest high school class graduated in U.S. history, according to Census data, and classes are projected to be similarly large for years to come. Top universities aren’t swelling their ranks much, which means competition is growing tougher and the placement process more complex.

Matching students with schools
Most private counselors are former admissions counselors who worked for colleges or universities, Skarlow said. Counselors can also come from fields as diverse as accounting to communications. But “we tell them to go visit a hundred college campuses before they even come to us for training,” he said.

Of the educational consulting firms in Kentucky, Rose Lucas’ firm, Lexington-based College and School Planning Services, has been around the longest. A former college admissions adviser for Centre College, she started her business in 1984 and now has five employees, including a counselor, tutors and a manager, who work one-on-one with more than 125 high school students a year. Many of her students fly in from other states like New York and California to consult with her. Her students earned more than $3 million in scholarships last year.

Lucas even offers admissions counseling to middle school students applying to boarding high schools.

“The idea that boarding schools are someplace parents send troubled kids is really a myth,” Lucas said. “Boarding schools are places where serious scholars go to find success.” For these students, the process is much the same as that of their older counterparts: take an exam, prepare resumes and develop lists of the best-fitting schools.

In fact, educational consultants tend to target students early. College planning, they say, is best begun in a student’s freshman year.

“It’s important that kids in the ninth grade start making the right choices for their future, and that starts with choosing the most challenging courses,” said Tom Pabin, owner and president of College Finance and Planning, Inc., which has four managers in its Lexington and Louisville offices and serves more than 300 students. “Freshman need to start thinking about the kind of college experience they want… A small or big school? Near or far? Where would they like to tour?”

Increasingly, “thinking” about college means practicing to perfect those ACT or SAT scores. By the summer before their senior year, most of Pabin’s advisees have gotten their ideal test scores, visited more than 10 colleges and submitted their applications.

But not all counselors are the same. In addition to the standard counseling services, Pabin’s firm offers touches like organized campus tours in the tri-state region, free financial aid seminars at public schools and public service projects to help students beef up resumes.

Those self-help services paid off for Mike Warner, a financial planner for Navigator Financial Group in New Albany, Ind. Through Pabin’s company, his daughter worked for charities and even as a part-time assistant at the firm to build her resume. Now Hannah attends Centre College in Danville, where she earned substantial scholarships.

Brad Lawrence, a senior at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, hasn’t heard back from all of the 11 colleges he’s applied to. But his work with College Finance and Planning has already helped him net a $1,000 national scholarship. “I would have never even known the scholarship existed if they hadn’t told me to apply,” Lawrence said. With the help of his advisor and some prep books, he also raised his SAT by 180 points and his ACT test score from a 28 to 34.

Steve Grissom, owner and independent college counselor at Louisville-based College Bound Advising, LLC, moved back to his hometown after a long career in college administration. He currently advises 35 families with college-bound kids. Years as director of admissions at Notre Dame University gave him a glimpse into what’s really most important in the college selection process. He focuses on finding students a college that’s a good fit. That’s important, because half of all college students drop out, fail out or transfer within their first two years of college, he said.

“It’s easy to get wrapped up into getting into this or that competitive school, but what really matters is that the school is the right match for the student,” Grissom said.

Like many counselors, Grissom also advises students through their early college years, a time when students are assailed with social changes, frenzied schedules and sharply higher academic standards. The extra handholding is part of his standard package that he prides himself on.

Parents of students working with private counselors tend to agree that their kids are learning to take charge of their futures. “It was a real growing up experience for my kids,” said Dale Curth, father of two students who went through Pabin’s program. His daughter is now in pre-Med at the University of Kentucky, and his son is studying psychology at Xavier University.

“While they gave us updates, they always met with the kids – not us. It signaled to our kids that we trusted them to take possession of their decisions, and do the work that needed to be done. That seemed to be all the motivation they needed,” Curth said.

Susan Gosselin is a staff writer for The Lane Report.

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