Hiring an independent educational consultant (IEC) to help navigate the college admissions process is a growing trend, particularly among “high achievers,” according to a report recently released by Educate To Career (ETC), a nonprofit data provider serving the higher education market.
Since 2010, the annual growth rate of revenue in the college consulting industry has ranged from eight to ten percent, with revenue generated by consultants in 2015 reaching about $800 million. ETC also reports that 32% of families with annual household incomes greater than $100,000 hired college consultants in 2015. And among families hiring consultants, 85 percent of households have at least one parent with a college degree and 75 percent reported student SAT scores above 1200.
The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) agrees. Not only has membership in the organization grown exponentially over the past ten years, but IECA can point to the significant impact independent educational consultants have had on the college search and admission process. For example students working with an IECA member are much more likely to attend college out-of-state (20% nationwide vs. 69% of those working with an IECA member) and are much more likely to attend a private college (16% nationwide vs. 68% of those working with an IECA member).
And although numbers are still relatively small, the CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) 2015 Freshman Survey reports that for four consecutive years, the percentage of students describing the role of private college consultants in their college search as “very important” has increased.
In the meantime, the US Department of Education reports that public school counselors (including elementary and secondary) have responsibility for an average of 476 students—a caseload well above recommended levels. And the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) finds that on average public school counselors spend only 22 percent of their time on postsecondary counseling.
And so a clear and compelling niche in the market for college advising services is widening.
Not so long ago, college consulting was considered a “Park Avenue” kind of luxury, which only the wealthiest families could afford. With counseling workloads reaching the breaking point and the process becoming a hopeless tangle of shifting policies, middle class parents and students are increasingly reaching out for support.
But beyond the numbers, families engage independent educational consultants (IECs) because they are
- Available. Consultants aren’t tied to a school, a school district, or a school calendar. They work with students in the immediate neighborhood or across the world thanks to readily available technology. Not surprisingly, consultants do much of their most important work over the summer months getting seniors ready for the admissions process, and many work long weekend and evening hours—after team practice or between dinner and homework.
- Responsive. It’s part of the business model. Consultants have to respond promptly to emails, phone calls and other forms of inquiry or they’re quickly out of business (see 13 below). Deadlines are everything in the world of college admissions and no one is more aware of time constraints and the need for immediacy than independent educational consultants.
- Knowledgeable. Consultants spend significant time visiting college campuses and attending professional workshops, conferences, or college fairs. It’s no secret that colleges have different personalities and management practices. But it’s virtually impossible to get a feel for these personalities or keep up with changes in programs and facilities without visiting on a regular basis. Yes, it’s expensive and time-consuming, but the best consultants devote as much as 20 percent of their time being the eyes and ears of the families they serve.
- Credentialed. Reputable consultants maintain memberships in organizations such as IECA, the Higher Education Consultants Association, (HECA), NACAC or local NACAC affiliates—each of which sets individual membership requirements demanding years of specialized experience, education and training, and a firm commitment to continuing education.
- Specialized. One size seldom fits all, and IECs work hard to provide personal services tailored to meet the individual needs of students and their families. In fact, an increasing number of consulting practices are venturing into areas of specialization that include working with learning differences (LD), athletes, artistically talented students, or international families. There’s not a computer program or algorithm in the universe that could ever hope to successfully sort out the very human personalities, interests and needs IECs routinely encounter. And it’s often the personal interaction and specialized knowledge that succeed where Scattergrams fail.
- Up-to-date. ZeeMee. Coalition. College Greenlight. Slideroom. Enrollment management. Predictive analytics. IECs work overtime keeping current on trends in the admissions industry. They know which new month is being added to the College Board calendar for 2017 and which is being dropped for 2018. They’re watching ACT transition to a digital test and analyzing how recent changes in standardized testing affect admissions and admissions policies. As the industry moves toward greater reliance on technology to track students and make admissions decisions, it’s increasingly important for families to have professional guidance that can translate terminology and is dedicated to staying on top of technology as it relates to college admissions.
- Unbiased. Because they voluntarily agree to decline any and all offers of compensation from schools, programs or companies in exchange for placement or referral, IECs are able to maintain independence and offer truly unbiased opinions and recommendations. They are free to compare and contrast various educational opportunities and programs, so as to offer their families the best possible professional advice.
- Local. Most consultants work locally, with students in their surrounding communities. They are familiar with individual school district policies and the administrative quirks of local high schools. They know course sequences (which vary from district to district) and how to find classes or programs that may not be available within a student’s high school. Sometimes they know teachers and school counselors and can help students make course selections based on experience with a particular high school. While the internet is fine for some kinds of advising, the face-to-face mentoring services offered by IECs are often the most valued by students and their families.
- Ethical. As members of the above-mentioned organizations, IECs must adhere to NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), which governs the actions of consultants in their relationships with students and families, schools and colleges, and with colleagues.
- Supportive. IECs provide the buffer between an increasingly stressful process and families trying to sort out the shifting sands of college admissions. Changes in policies and procedures together with unpredictable outcomes inevitably produce anxiety. IECs are sensitive to their role in the process and commit to helping reduce stress for students and their families. There are no “best” colleges—only “best fit” colleges in the world of highly-skilled and knowledgeable consultants.
- Connected. IECs seek out businesses and colleagues who provide additional services needed by college-bound high schools students and their families. They often know the best tutors in the hardest subjects and can recommend test prep companies with solid track records of success.
- Committed. The best consultants are committed to the idea of college access for all—regardless of background, race, or income. And most provide pro bono services to low-income families or they serve in volunteer programs designed to raise awareness of college and financial aid opportunities. Educational consultants support their communities and provide behind-the-scenes services most of which you’ll never read about in the popular press.
- Cost-effective. Mistakes in this business can be costly. They can result in lost opportunities, wrong placements, wasted time or painful transfers. A quick cost/benefit analysis suggests that investing in a knowledgeable consultant at the front end of the admissions process can be a cost-effective means of increasing the likelihood of positive outcomes for the applicant, including overall satisfaction with college choice, greater possibility of on-time graduation and more viable financial aid options.
- Parent-recommended. Anyone in the consulting business will tell you no amount of marketing ever brings in as many clients as simple word-of-mouth. Informal surveys of IECs suggest that as many as 90 percent of families seeking college consulting services are referred by other families. The best consultants are well-known in the community and respected for the services they provide. It’s as simple as that.
Nancy Griesemer is an independent educational consultant and founder of College Explorations LLC. She has written extensively and authoritatively about the college admissions process and related topics since 2009. Never miss one of Nancy’s articles – subscribe to her mailing list below.