Cutthroat competition to get into the nation's best colleges has fueled an explosion of admissions consultants, who charge families thousands of dollars to help students navigate the process.
The industry is in the limelight, now that federal authorities have charged 50 people, including Hollywood celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and prominent business leaders, in a bribery scheme to get the kids of wealthy parents into top-ranked schools.
While much of the nation has gasped in outrage, many in the growing field have cringed.
"They give it a bad name," said Tina Tranfaglia, founder of College Knowledge Admissions Consulting in Glenview, Ill.
The number of independent education consultants operating in the U.S. has quadrupled since 2015, to an estimated 12,000 to 14,000, according to the Independent Education Consultants Association, a professional organization that runs training programs and sets ethical standards for its 1,850 members in an unregulated industry.
The high-profile scandal has reignited criticism that consultants give privileged kids an additional leg up, or exacerbate the pressure many high school students feel to get into a top school at any cost.
College admissions consultants, who help applicants with essays, test preparation, interviews and school selection, charge anywhere from $850 to $10,000 for comprehensive services, with an average price tag of $4,100 in the Midwest, according to the association. Increasingly, consultants offer hourly rates for families who want more limited services, at an average rate of $200 an hour.
"My hope is that a big part of our job is reducing stress," said Brooke Daly, president of the Higher Education Consultants Association, another professional group. "We will find schools that will fit you well and we will find schools that will admit you."
The Independent Education Consultants Association strongly encourages members to also offer their services for free to community groups that help students from disadvantaged areas prepare for college, and 99 percent do so, CEO Mark Sklarow said. With in-school guidance counselors at public high schools stretched particularly thin – one study found they have so many other duties that they spend only 38 minutes a year on college counseling per student – sometimes it's the only help those students get.
"I think it's something that helps level the playing field," Sklarow said.
Sarah Langford, who launched On the Quad Consulting in Chicago five years ago after a career as a public high school teacher, said her interest in the field was driven by her observation that many families aren't exposed to the college admissions process.
Langford said she visits 20 campuses a year to learn as much as she can about the schools so that she can recommend them to students. She conducts personality intakes on students and comes up with lists of schools that fit their personalities and finances as well as their test scores and transcripts.
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Tranfaglia, who launched her Glenview consulting company in 2007 after working for years as a marketing executive, said clients used to be interested only in getting into the most selective colleges, but now it's across the board.
Still, she focuses on high-achieving students who face complex applications and declining chances of getting into top-ranked schools, a disappointing reality for those who worked hard to get A's and lead clubs and do everything else they thought they were supposed to do.
Colleges have become increasingly selective as they are inundated with applications.
Northwestern University admitted only 8 percent of applicants in 2017, down from 32 percent in 2006, while University of Chicago's admissions rate plunged to 7 percent from 38 percent during that period, according to a report last year from BusinessStudent.com.
More international students, more sports recruits and a general rise in people opting for college have heightened competition for slots, while widespread use of tutoring has resulted in more students touting higher grades and test scores, said Tranfaglia, a Harvard University alumna who spent time on its admissions committee. To hedge their bets, students also apply to more schools than they used to, a process that has been made easier with The Common Application.
Tranfaglia said kids often need help brainstorming essay ideas and expressing themselves in interviews so they stand out. Left to their own devices, students might write about how being a camp counselor developed their leadership skills, which admissions officers have heard a million times, she said.
Tranfaglia said some parents reach out to her when their child is still in the eighth grade in hopes of getting a head start in the process, but "I don't want to contribute to the stress," she said. "People's goals have shifted toward this brand-name prize."
Tranfaglia encourages students, and their parents, to forget the rankings and focus on what they want out of a social and academic environment. That doesn't always go over well.
"They say, 'I'm not paying $70,000 a year to send them to a school I have never heard of,'" she said.
Parents do a disservice to their kids when they get too involved in the admissions process, said Anna Ivey, who was dean of admissions at University of Chicago Law School before she founded Ivey Consulting 10 years ago. "I really encourage people to treat the applicant as the real decision maker and the person driving the bus," Ivey said.
She has turned prospective clients away when their requests don't fit her ethics standards, such as if they ask for the essay to be written for the student or decline to disclose a disciplinary history when it's requested in the application.
Some parents have asked her to facilitate a large donation to a school to help the child get in, a legal transaction, but something she will not do.
The Independent Education Consultants Association has endorsed the idea of licensing practitioners so as to better protect the industry from bad actors, and Skralow hopes the recent scandal encourages some states to look into it.
Students can be thrown out of school if it is discovered they lied on their application, he said, even if their parents were the ones behind it, and that's damaging to the student on multiple levels.
"The most horrible thing about this is that these wealthy parents said to their kids, 'You're not smart enough,'" Skralow said. "'You need me to pull strings for you because you suck.'"
Some educational institutions seem to be keeping admissions consultants at arm's length. "It is Northwestern University's longstanding policy that we do not work directly with independent college advisors," spokesman Jon Yates said in an email, without offering details of why that policy exists.
New Trier High School in Winnetka said it employs eight full-time counselors that work with students on their post-high school plans, and "we do not encourage our families to go outside for help," said spokeswoman Nicole Dizon. Still, she said, some families do hire admissions consultants.
Ian Friedman, founder of Ariav College Admissions Consulting in Oak Park, feels lucky that he has never been approached by parents insisting their teenager get into a particular college. Usually they seek his help because the application process is causing a lot of stress at home.
Friedman, who worked as a middle school teacher and a nonfiction book writer before launching his business six years ago, said his clientele has grown each year, though it remains a rare service in his community.
His son went through the ups and downs of college admissions last year before enrolling at University of Michigan so Friedman understands the anxiety that can hijack the experience. He offers counsel about coping when the decision letters don't go their way.
"It's almost inevitable that there's going to be some rejection," he said. "You brace for it and it hurts and you move on and you're OK."
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