Independent Educational Consulting: Expert Guidance on the Rise
We’re not going to qualify for need-based aid, and there’s no way we can afford those top-tier tuitions. Jennifer will graduate with 10 APs and a 4.0 weighted GPA, but I guess she’ll just end up at UGA with all of her friends.
This is a quote from a parent who recently attended a seminar I gave about high-stakes testing and college admissions. As the mom spoke, I could see the disappointment in the daughter’s eyes, and the frustration in the mother’s. I explained to the mom that there were literally hundreds of schools that would roll out the red carpet for her daughter, but she’d need to cast her net wider than the Ivy League. “You need to expand your imagination and your college list, and you most likely need an Educational Consultant.”
The world of college admissions is complex; with the high costs and broad range of choices, the need for reliable information is more important now than ever. Parents frequently need help to find their child a true college “fit” academically, socially and financially among the 2,750 or so 4-year colleges in the United States. To navigate the incredible variety of programs, academic departments, student services, and potential financial aid packages available, tens of thousands of families are seeking the support of independent educational consultants.
The growth in the field of independent consulting has been staggering. According to Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), in 1994 there were scarcely 150 “independents” in the US, and most of them focused on boarding and day schools. Today there are over 6,000 full-time and 15,000 part-time independent educational consultants in the US and another 3,000 or so working internationally. The field has more than doubled in size since 2007. What factors are driving this tremendous growth?
1) Picking the right school saves money.
Fewer than half the students who start freshman year at a college will graduate from that same college. Transfers and dropouts are common, and the 4-year graduation rate across the country hovers at 40%.
Taking an extra year or two to complete your college degree is much more expensive than it used to be. In 1964 my parents each paid $240 ($1,783 inflation-adjusted) in annual tuition and fees to attend the University of Florida. That same year, had they attended U Penn, my alma matter, they would have paid $1,750 ($13,000 in today’s dollars). Compare that to what today’s students are paying for tuition alone at each university: $6,690 for the privilege of being a Gator and $45,890 to be a Fighting Quaker. If you need to add an additional year of tuition, the expense is 3-4 times more costly than it used to be. Many people view the cost of hiring an educational consultant as insurance for their educational investment, to increase the likelihood of making a successful match the first time.
2) Schools are getting more selective.
In 1964 Penn’s admit rate was 28%; today, it’s 12.6%. Florida has likewise become much more selective. Presently, it turns away 57% of its applicants. Many students are feeling pressure to have more competitive schedules, GPAs, recommendations, essays, test-scores, and activities. Educational consultants can offer guidance about how to optimize these in ways that will make more compelling college applications.
3) The amount of choices out there can be overwhelming.
Mailboxes and inboxes brim with college solicitations. Websites and books promise insider tips and admissions secrets. Many parents feel unsure what information they can trust, which sources are credible, and how to help their children narrow down the abundance of options. Having expert guidance can help clear away a lot of misinformation and lead to better choices.
4) Many public counselors are overworked and underfinanced.
Many college counseling offices have been decimated by budget cuts. Across the country, public school counselors manage an average caseload of over 400 students, and in states like California, ratios of 900 students to one counselor are the norm. In comparison, many private school counselors have caseloads of only 30-50 students. For the overworked public school counselors, college guidance may be only one aspect of their jobs, which may also include academic advising, handling behavioral issues, lunchroom duty and administrative work. Burdened by tremendous caseloads and lacking both the time and fiscal resources needed to travel and learn about new colleges, many public counselors can no longer provide the level of care that parents and students require.
Independent Consulting at its Best
When parents need additional support and expert guidance in the admissions process, they turn to IECs.
To understand the value that Independent Educational Consultants (IECs) can bring, consider the case of Bari Norman. As a high school student, Bari attended Beach High, a large public school in South Florida, where she and several hundred other students were assigned to a single college counselor. Like most of her friends, Bari naturally expected she would matriculate to one of the few colleges she was already familiar with. Seeking to expand her options, her parents hired an independent consultant who met with Bari for an hour each Tuesday over a series of months. At her independent consultant’s recommendation, Bari discovered Barnard College, a school her high school counselor could not even pronounce properly. Barnard ended up being a perfect fit for Bari; she fell in love and applied early. Now, after several years working in Columbia admissions, Bari is returning the favor as a New York-based educational consultant who helps her clients find schools that will be a great fit for them. She’s also training new IECs so they, too, will be able to help students find colleges they may otherwise never have considered.
What are the specific benefits that IECs bring to the admissions process?
Expert knowledge of colleges and programs
Consultants like Marilyn Emerson, the current president of IECA, spend 3-5 weeks on the road visiting in excess of 50 colleges each year. While touring, IECs meet with panels of professors, students and admission reps as they gather deep information to bring back to their clients. They learn about the strength of academic programs, the variety of activities, and the financial realities of each institution. Armed with this knowledge, they can introduce clients to new colleges that may be a great fit for them.
Parents who hire IECs are paying for regular access to guidance, frequently beyond what is available at their high school. Parents can call or e-mail their consultant with questions and expect a timely response.
A neutral third party
Many students like the idea that there is someone outside the home they can bounce college ideas off of. For some families, having a third party work with their teenager, acting as a liaison between the parents and children, is the most valuable part of their IEC experience.
Peace of mind
Many parents feel ill-equipped to navigate the admissions process on their own. Decisions about “who gets in” are less clear than they’ve ever been before, which can lead to significant anxiety. Some IECs acknowledge that their regular check-ins with the parents are as therapeutic as they are informational. Helping mitigate anxiety is one of their primary contributions. For others, freeing up parents from being “taskmasters” for their children’s applications is key. IECs help manage deadlines and admission tasks, taking the burden off of parents.
Level setting expectations
IECs help parents understand the new realities of college admissions. Some parents bring antiquated ideas or illusions about the facility of gaining admission to particular schools. “Anyone should be able to get into that school!” “Sam has a 83 Cum. GPA; we’re primarily interested in Penn, Tufts and Duke.” “Those 3 Cs are not that bad, Philip just doesn’t like Spanish.” IECs can bring parents back to reality.
Student gains in self-awareness
Leigh Anne Spraetz, an Atlanta-based IEC, wants to help students get a clearer idea of “who they want to be.” She engages students in a process that helps them recognize their strengths and be able to articulate them. She will help a student find a career field that fits his/her interests, find colleges to fit that career field and that student, and then help that student gain admission into one of those colleges. This process yields student gains in self-motivation and self-awareness, which come to bear in college when it’s time for her students to find internships, use the career office, and manage study abroad options.
What does the consulting process look like?
Many IECs begin the consulting process with an initial meeting when the student is in the 9th grade. Decisions made during freshman year can impact the academic track that plays out through senior year, so some good early guidance can be helpful to map out a proposed high school curriculum. There may be another brief meeting in the sophomore year to fine tune the curriculum, or to discuss summer activities and internships. The process kicks into higher gear just before junior year.
Many IECs begin with a discovery process that involves deep interviews and personality inventories to help identify potential career/academic tracks. IECs look to clarify the student’s values and aspirations as well as identify the preferences of the family as a whole. What are the family’s finances? What are acceptable or ideal locations? Are any specific schools absolutely on or off the list?
After the discovery phase, IECs educate families about various colleges and teach them to conduct their own research. Together they come up with a working list of colleges that fit the student; this list includes “reach” schools, “likely” or “foundational” schools, and “safety” schools. IECs advise the family about school visitations and admission tests. Perhaps most importantly, IECs incorporate evolving student and parent feedback throughout the year.
During the summer, IECs help students get through the season of essays. And come the fall, consultants husband those applications through to the final submission, minding all requirements and official deadlines.
How do IECs interact with High School Counselors and College Admission Offices?
High school college counselors have a unique role in the admissions process. They have a level of access to admission reps that IECs, in most cases, do not have. High school counselors, who write the official letters of recommendation for their kids, can call up and directly advocate for individual students. With rare exceptions, IECs interact with admissions reps primarily as a matter of educating themselves, rather than as advocates. Sometimes IECs and HS counselors collaborate; other times, they operate independently. If independents are supporting students who have special needs or circumstances, school counselors may be more open to this collaboration.
How do I find a quality, professional IEC?
As in every professional field, there is a wide variety in the quality of IECs. On one side of the spectrum, you have the consummate professionals, dedicated to their craft, continually learning, and operating under the strictest code of ethics. On the other side, you have hobbyists, the under-prepared, and individuals making promises that they will never be able to keep. As a rule of thumb, be very wary of anyone making admission promises in this field!
As the IEC industry matures, several organizations are emerging to ensure quality, consistency and ethical standards among consultants. Here are the organizations and certifications in the field:
Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) membership
With 1160 members and 20% average annual growth, the IECA is the leading organization in the field. It has stringent requirements and standards, including at least 3 years of experience, a master’s degree or higher in related fields, a minimum of 50 college visits and 50 clients served. Each IECA member must submit his/her marketing and promotional materials for review and annually sign the principles of good practice to renew membership.
NACAC Educational Consultant membership
Of the 400 NACAC consultants, only 150 are not already members of IECA. NACAC consultants must have 3 years of college admission counseling experience in a secondary school, university setting, or independently. They must abide by the guidelines of membership.
Higher Educational Consultant Association (HECA) membership
HECA has over 700 members, but of these only 100 are not already in IECA or NACAC. HECA membership requirements include a bachelor’s degree and a minimum of 10 college visits every 18 months.
Educational Consultant Certification Program
The University of California offers an Independent Educational Consultant certificate in college counseling, supported by IECA, with comprehensive training in many areas including working with LD students, financial aid, therapeutic counseling and ethics.
Certified Educational Planner
There are currently 190 Certified Educational Planners (CEP), and all but a handful are IECA members. The requirements to become certified are similar to those of IECA membership. Ongoing certification requires members to continue to conduct campus visits and take CEUs and courses.
Of the 6,000 full-time IECs, roughly 1400 are affiliated with at least one professional organization.
Would I benefit from working with an educational consultant?
Many IECs I’ve spoken with are clear that not everyone needs an independent consultant. If you have a fabulous and available college counselor and do not have highly specialized needs, you may not need an IEC. If you have created a thoughtful and robust list of colleges and your game plan is ready, you may not need an IEC. If this is your third child, you know the process, and your child is set on applying to several likely admit schools, you most likely do not need an IEC.
That being said, a great many students derive profound benefit from working with independents. Students looking to break out of the local mold and explore options off their radar or students looking for particular programs or scholarship options will benefit. Students who need specialized support with athletics, the arts, or learning differences will benefit from working with consultants who possess expert knowledge in these domains. From mid-level students trying to find a fit to highly competitive students hoping to distinguish themselves at top-tier schools, many students will benefit. Whenever families want additional support in this process, IECs can provide a valuable service.
If you are considering working with an IEC
Finding the fit between your family and the educational consultant is as important as finding the fit with your child and the college s/he will attend. Be an educated consumer. Contact potential consultants and talk things over before you make a commitment. Make sure you can commit to their process and that everyone is on board before retaining their services. When you find a consultant who fits with your family, it can have a transformational effect on the college admissions experience, leading to a fully informed selection process, a better college fit, and highly satisfied families and students.
Update: HECA currently has over 700 members and requires 10 college visits every 18 months.