Paying for college is one of life's biggest financial hurdles. With an average sticker price of $10,560 for an in-state public school, $27,020 for out-of-state, and $37,650 for private college, the overall costs can easily exceed more than $150,000 over the course of four years.
But it's an investment that pays dividends, according to a 2013 College Board report, considering that adults with a college education are more likely to be employed, earn a higher wage, have access to better health care, and provide their children with better opportunities.
Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.
With finances and futures at stake, there's a lot riding on choosing a school that is well-suited to a student's needs, along with being financially sustainable. To help with the process, an increasing number of parents are opting to hire a college admissions consultant.
At a price tag ranging anywhere from a few hundred dollars up into the thousands, is spending the money worth it?
It is, according to Bari Norman, Ph.D., former admissions officer at Barnard College of Columbia University and certified educational planner at Expert Admissions.
"Students need a fair amount of guidance to successfully navigate this complex and increasingly competitive process. School counselors are an excellent resource but, unfortunately, in many instances they're stretched thin beyond their control."
Joanne Prague Doyle, founder of Northeast Education Advocacy and former high school counseling coordinator, agrees.
"Do I think school counselors have the time to give to every student that could be really required? Absolutely not," she says, and cites the countless obligations of a guidance counselor including managing scheduling issues, 504 meetings, and student planning and placement meetings, which leave little time for in-depth college planning sessions.
Because of those limitations, she recommends getting to know your child's school counselor and establishing lines of communication as soon as possible. "If you start early, regardless of whether it's privately or with a school counselor, you're way ahead of the game."
So, when should you begin? According to Norman, it should be at the beginning of high school. "Colleges are focusing on everything starting from day one of ninth grade."
Without proper guidance, Norman says students run the risk of choosing a school for all the wrong reasons like size, popular ranking lists, and other general characteristics. "You should choose the places that are best for you. These may or may not be the same places as where your family or friends went or want to go."
When considering schools, she says that it's important to look at where a student will thrive and find the right balance between academics and social life.
"Ideally, you'll attend a school where you'll be happy, where you'll feel comfortable, and where you can see yourself growing and changing in all the ways we hope you will over the next four years," says Norman.
And, according to Prague Doyle, that's where a college consultant can play a pivotal role.
"I think the right one, with the time, the expertise and the real willingness to get to know the student and the student's match, is worth gold."
What is a college admissions consultant?
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According to the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), a professional educational consultant works with students and their families throughout every step of the college process, including high school curriculum planning, college selection, exams, applications, essays, majors, and financial aid.
"The beauty of working with any kind of independent college consultant is that there's no agenda," says Alison Forbes, independent college consultant and founder of Forbes College Consulting. "It's really less about colleges and more about the kid; it's really an opportunity for self-discovery."
With around 4000 colleges and universities in the U.S., there's a lot of information to sift through and a knowledgeable college consultant can help narrow the field down.
A college consultant helps clarify goals and values, then identifies schools that are a good fit not only academically, but socially as well because, according to Forbes, social fit is one of the biggest reasons students end up transferring to another school.
A college consultant can also help students crystalize goals and prospective career paths before selecting a program. A study published by the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that about 1 in 10 students changes their major more than once, which can ultimately end up costing students and their families extra time and money.
Hiring a consultant can additionally help reduce tension that can arise between parents and children by bringing in someone from outside the family structure who can objectively help with the process.
"It gives you your dinner table conversation back," Forbes says, and continues by saying that it's normal for adolescents to be more receptive to ideas and suggestions that come from a third party, rather than their parents or guardians.
How to find a college consultant
Rather than doing a basic internet search for "college consultants near me," the best place to find a college admissions consultant is through a professional association like HECA or the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). Both offer online directories of accredited members listed by location and description.
When searching for someone, it's important to find a consultant who's a good match for your specific needs, says Mark Sklarow, chief executive officer of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.
"Some consultants are going to be very traditionally motherly; kind and caring. Others are going to be task masters. Some consultants are highly skilled in working with kids with learning or physical disabilities. Some work really well with kids that are into the performing arts and some work really well with kids that are student athletes," he says.
Due to the diversity in personality traits and specialties, Sklarow recommends interviewing two to three consultants over the phone to get a sense of what they're about before narrowing it down.
Things to look for in a consultant include how knowledgeable and current they are about admissions processes, how many college campuses they've visited, and what they're doing to learn about various colleges.
Other questions Sklarow suggests asking include how long they've been working as an educational consultant and what they did prior to becoming one.
"Were they an admissions director? Were they a school counselor? What was their background and what's their specialty?" says Sklarow. "All of those sorts of things should be part of the discussion that's taking place."
Consultants that promise to 'get students in' to schools should raise a red flag, he says.
"If the discussion is about a place where you child will find success, where they'll thrive, that it's about the match, about succeeding in college, not getting in…that's what you're really looking for."
How much does a consultant cost?
Getty Images (1). Art: Jillian Sellers.
Depending on where you live and level of engagement you're looking for, Sklarow says that, on average, hiring a college consultant costs around $5000, but adds that it can be much less.
"There are many consultants who will work on an hourly basis. So, a family that says we can still do much of the work ourselves, we just want to make sure that we are heading in the right direction, we want to make sure that we're not missing something… it's about $175 an hour," he says, and can be less or more depending on where you live.
Though it may seem pricey, it can ultimately prevent attending the wrong college for all the wrong reasons, he says, or overspending and ending up with thousands of dollars in school loans.
Getting your teen through college debt free should be a top priority, according to Jeannie Burlowski, academic strategist and author of the book, Launch: How to Get Your Kids Through College Debt-Free and Into Jobs They Love Afterward.
Burlowski says that college consulting can be valuable if it helps families strategize ways to get through college with little to no debt. "I think that keeping college debt down should be part of the picture; that's what makes the consultant really worth the money."
According to Burlowski, a consultant is also valuable if he or she helps the student identify their skills, then use them to select a college program based on their aptitude, not a cool sweatshirt.
"We're not looking for you to have a dream college. We're looking for you to have a dream life," she says and adds that good decision-making on the front-end can help prevent writing out monthly loan checks for an unwanted degree.
"I love college consultants that help you chart the course. They help students figure out an exciting destination and then figure out the fastest, least expensive way to get there."
However, Burlowski cautions that consultants can be helpful as long as they aren't discouraging students from applying to certain schools because they 'don't have what it takes,' or recommending they apply to schools based on cost alone.
"That shows a limited understanding of the process," she said. "What we really want is for students to apply to a range of schools, so they've got a few dream schools that are maybe a bit out there, then a few could-fit schools, and then a few safety schools on the opposite end of the spectrum, because there are so many different factors that colleges are considering."