Paying the price for college advice

Oct. 7, 2004, midnight | By Avi Wolfman-Arent | 17 years, 7 months ago

In the complex world of college admissions, some Blazers opt for professional counseling

Walking into the office of Dr. Lori Potts-Dupré is not like walking in for a checkup with your family physician. Operating from an office hidden in the heart of downtown Takoma Park, Potts-Dupré offers visitors a piece of candy and a contagious smile instead of a scale and a stethoscope. That is because Potts-Dupré, a private educational consultant, does not check her clients' heart rates—she checks their high- school transcripts.

Potts-Dupré has been a private educational consultant since 1996, guiding clients through the often nerve-wracking college admissions process. An increasing number agree that a private consultant is worthwhile. USA Today reported in April 2003 that six percent of high-school graduates received professional help in the college selection process, up from one percent in 1990. That number is expected to double in the next ten years. Some experts, however, say that parents and students are over-investing in college counselors.

From obscurity to necessity

The services of a private college counselor not cheap. According to the 2005 edition of Newsweek's Kaplan College Guide, consultants can cost between $300 and $7,500. Still, Potts-Dupré says she has a waiting list of clients willing to pay the $500 for the first session and $200 for every 90-minute session thereafter.

These fees pay for a wide variety of services. College Bound, a company in Rockville, provides a typical menu of private counseling services: evaluating students' academic credentials, recommending high-school course selections and the best times to take standardized tests, developing a list of college choices and helping families with college visits.

A fork in the college road

Some Blazers believe private college counselors provide a vital service. Senior Will Sprecher has been visiting a private college counselor for the last year. "[My counselor] is solely devoted to finding schools and is focused on finding the right college for me," says Sprecher.

Other students resist their parents' suggestions to see a college counselor. Junior Sam Morris says his parents have offered to pay for a private college consultant, but he would rather not visit a counselor. "I just don't want to take the time to talk to a counselor…[College is] too far away, and I don't think I need to do that right now."

Big bucks do not guarantee thick envelopes

Joyce Slayton Mitchell, author of Winning the Heart of the College Admissions Dean and Director of College Advising at Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City, believes that parents spend too much money on consultants who do not improve their child's chances of getting into the college of his or her choice. Mitchell says parents are often scared into thinking that their child cannot compete against other applicants, when in reality there are plenty of good schools with relatively low rejection rates. "Of the 350 top colleges, 250 are not that competitive but are fabulous schools," Mitchell says.

Although Mitchell generally discourages the use of private college counselors, she thinks they are helpful to kids at large schools like Blair, where school counselors cannot meet individual needs. However, since school counselors have direct input in the college selection process, Mitchell believes private counselors can jeopardize student relationships with their school counselor. "The [high school] counselors write the letters, and they talk to the schools," Mitchell says. "They are the ones who recommend or don't recommend you."

Mitchell believes an advantage private-school students have is that they often have multiple meetings with representatives from elite schools before applying. "No one gets in cold to Harvard, Penn and Yale. Connections are everything," she says.

The decision of a lifetime

Potts-Dupré argues that private college counselors are a smart investment because picking the right college can be a life-changing decision. "You're going to spend a lot of money to send your kid to college; it's going to be four or five years of their life," reasons Potts-Dupré. "To spend the time and money to make the process as thorough as possible is a good thing."

Potts-Dupré contends that her services are invaluable because of the interaction she has with her students. "More than anything, [my job] is sitting down one-on-one and talking about everything."

According to Mitchell's book, the college admissions business, which includes SAT prep courses, college advice books and private consultants, has become a $500 million-a-year industry. And although it is debatable whether the services Potts-Dupré and other private college counselors offer are worth the bill, one thing is certain: The doctor is in.

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Avi Wolfman-Arent. Avi Wolfman-Arent has been called many things: super genius, mega hunk and an all around cool guy; but through the praise he has remained down-to-earth and humble. At a muscular five feet nine inches he may seem intimidating when striding down Blair Boulevard, but when … More »

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