THE GAME OF getting into college has some new players: private "educational consultants" and their white-collar clients.
It's not surprising. With college tuitions several times what they were 10 or 15 years ago, the stakes are increasingly high in the college entrance game, and the competition for places in the nation's best schools is stiff. It's a sign of the times:
Parents demand to know exactly what they're getting for their tuition payments.
Students assess carefully what they want from a college before they decide where to go.
A college's standards may change rapidly and do not always reflect its reputation.
High school counselors are said to be overworked and unable to render advice tailored to the needs of each student.
Faced with the often-agonizing process of applying to colleges, some parents and students think it makes sense to seek private help -- even if it costs an extra few hundred dollars.
Aritist Joan Koslan-Schwartz, and her mathematician husband, Benjamin Schwartz, of Vienna, decided to send their three children to a private consultant for help in applying to colleges. "We wanted to get excellent advice from an expert," explained Koslan-Schwartz. My husband and i are both specialists in our fields, and when we need something done, we get a specialist to help us."
The specialist in this case was Loren Pope, a veteran of the private college advisory business, who runs the College Placement Bureau in Dupont Circle. Pope's service is in many ways similar to that of other advisers in the Washington area.
Working on the basis of grades and writing samples and an initial three-hour interview with parents and student, in which he probes the student's interests and ambitions, Pope comes up with a preliminary list of colleges.
He urges the teen-ager to visit the colleges on a weekday and pump students there for such information as: What are the biggest gripes? Why do people drop out? Do professors lecture? (Pope warns that this is a "cop-out" and prefers discussion courses.) How often do students talk with faculty members? p
Pope and other private consultants usually continue discussions with students, by telephone or in person, until the choices are narrowed to about six or eight colleges -- a manageable number to which to apply.
Some consultants talk only with students because they insist this is not the parent's decision. Some help their clients prepare applications and essays, coach them for admissions interviews and suggest ways of finding financial aid. They might also call college admissions directors to recommend their clients -- espcially if the teen-agers have more potential then their grades or test scores suggest.
For these services, eight private college advisers in the Washington area charge $25 or $35 an hour or a flat fee which ranges from $75 to $350 per student. All of the consultants surveyed said they did not receive payment -- what one adviser called a "head fee" -- from colleges at which they placed students, a fee that might tend to make their suggestions biased.
Qualifications of area private consultants vary widely. Bernice Wilson Munsey and Ruth Hurley Vihon each have masters' degrees in counseling, and Munsey is at work on a doctorate. Loren Pope has no formal teaching or counseling degrees but is a former education editor of The new york TIMES. Several have teaching backgrounds; several have neither teaching nor counseling backgrounds. Elsa Skaggs and Lou Ann Stovall opened College Choice Consultants in Glen Echo only a few months ago; Loren Pope started his College Placement Bureau 15 years ago.
All the consultants say they have become experts by traveling to 10 to 40 colleges yearly to talk with admissions staffs and undergraduates, except for Vera L. Avery, a Northwest Washington counselor who makes no such visits.
They play official matchmaker between student and college -- helping the student decide exactly what he or she wants, then suggesting colleges that might match the student's qualifications and intersts. As Skaggs says, "We try to make going to college a choice rather than a chance."
Consultants report that most of their clients are good or average students who come from middle-class families and attend public schools. Zola Dincin Schneider of College Advisory Service in Chevy Chase, observes that the Washington area "is very competitive. Students come from parents who have achieved a lot and want their children to have success as well."
Even so, at a time when dwindling undergraduate enrollments have made it easier in many cases for students to get into colleges, and when soaring tuition fees make a private consultant's fee and extra burden, why do parents and teenagers seek such specialized help?
Several clients spoke of the confusion they feel when faced with the overwhelming number of possible colleges. Says 18-year-old Steve Meyers, a senior at Woodward High in Rockville, "I was having trouble narrowing down the schools where I thought I might like to go. It's very confusing." Schneider helped him narrow the number to six.
Most students do not ask private consultants to help them get into a particular college, but seek advice on which colleges they might get into -- and enjoy. Several consultants said they would try to help qualified students get into prestigious schools, but Pope says he will not help a student get into Harvard just for the sake of prestige. "I don't sell influence," Pope says. "My objective is something entirely different -- to get the best school for you."
Although their fees can add several hundred dolars to college admission costs, some private consultants say they can actually help families save money. cSkaggs, who teaches freshman English part-time at American University, notes the number of transfer students there and says, "A lot of kids are wasting hundreds of dollars on getting the wrong start (at a college they do not like) because they haven't thought it through."
Private consultants also might act as neutral arbitrators in families where there is strong disagreement about the colleges to which a child might apply. Schneider observes, "It's a very tense situation in the house about college. Everybody has a stake in it."
Probably the most pervasive reason the consultants and clients gave for the advantages of private advice was the claim that school counselors -- are so overworked that they are unable either to provide students with personal attention or to keep up with the changes in colleges.
Mila Schwartz, 18, who credits Pope with helping her get into Duke University (she enrolls this month), says she was "very close" to her counselor at McLean High School but the counselor could not give her many ideas about where she might apply to college.
Steve Meyers, the Woodward High senior, says school counselors "are supposed to help you with college but I don't think they have the time. The most they can give you is 15 minutes (at a time). I did that, but I didn't think it was enough."
Washington author Ann Buchwald, whose three children, with Pope's help, "found colleges they were very happy with," says many students "don't go near" school counselors. "One can say without any fear of being wrong that children don't listen to [school] counselors."
Several counselors at area schools strongly dispute these charges. Although they said they are not opposed to students getting all the advice they want, many felt the extra time and expense of going to a private consultant was unnecessary.
Some said that even with a student load of up to 350, a school counselor can get to know students well because in many schools students are assigned to the same counselor for all four years.
"I don't want to hear that about counselors not having much time," says Jack McIntyre, resource counselor at Winston Churchill High in Potomac, from which 92 percent of the graduates go on to college. "We make the time . . . We work hard at it."
Evelyn Turner, resource counselor at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, from which 86 percent of the graduates go on to college, says staffs from about 300 colleges visit her department each year and keep the counselors informed about the colleges. She added, "We're being paid by the taxpayer, and I think they should use us."
Jack Ferrante, director of guidance at Wooton High in Rockville, which sends 93 percent of its graduates to college, says students sometimes have to be "somewhat assertive" in order to see counselors, but "once they do this, they might have saved Mom $200 to $300 without having to go to a private counselor."
Some clients find themselves unhappy with private advisors. Patricia Wyler of Potomac says she sought Pope's help because "this was our first child to go to college, so it was a whole new experience."
But she found Pope kept stressing liberal-arts colleges in the Midwest, while her daughter wanted to study math and science in the Northeast. In the end, she says, "We just did it ourselves." With a college guide, they found five Northeastern schools strong in the sciences to which her daughter applied.
To prevent such situations, potential clients should find out as much as possible about private consultants before contracting for their services. Pope says, and several other advisors agree, "There are a lot of people popping into this business who don't know anything about colleges."
If you're thinking of hiring a private college consultant, you might ask them what qualifications they have for the job. (Some private advisors says a formal counseling degree is not necessary, and you will have to decide how you feel about that). You might try to discover if the consultants share your values in education -- for instance, favoring prestigious schools, or good student-faculty interaction, or small liberal-arts colleges.
You also might ask how the consultants keep up with changes in colleges, and if they receive a "head fee" from colleges where they place students.