Admissions and alumni reps of colleges and universities set up for college night at Chambersburg Area Senior High School in Pennsylvania in October 2014. (Public Opinion)

Ken Anselment is dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. Now his son is a high school junior and the college search is on, giving him a different admissions experience. Anselment says he is learning something new about college admissions, specifically about the come-ons from companies to families promising to help them through the admissions process — for a fee. In this post, he warns families and high school students about them.

By Ken Anselment
It arrived in the mail the other day.
An official-looking letter from a company in Las Vegas addressed to the parents of our son, a junior in high school, informed us that we “are scheduled to participate in an educational group presentation followed by a personal interview to help determine college admission and financial aid eligibility.”

Neither of us recalls ever having been asked, nor having registered for such a presentation here in Appleton, Wis., which, barring any recent tectonic shifts, is nowhere near Las Vegas.

The letter advised — commanded, actually — that we “need to attend” this meeting to receive assistance in making critical decisions that will arise in the next few months. They promised to give us the “same expertise that has helped thousands of students get accepted into the college of their choice, and receive millions of dollars in financial aid offers.”

To further motivate our participation, the letter helpfully reminded us that our son’s “future is too important not to attend.”

We love our son. Of course we want his future to be filled with rainbows and unicorns; not dark clouds and apocalyptic horsemen.

But unsolicited letters from complete strangers telling you that you “need to do” something often come from senders acting more in their interest than yours. When these letters use your child’s future to pluck your heart strings, leveraging the desires they presume you have for your child, you can be almost certain their interest does not mirror yours.

I am aware of the irony that as a complete stranger I am about to tell you some things you need to do with respect to your child’s college search. However, besides being the parent of a college-bound student, I also work in the world of college admission and financial aid professional, so I’m well aware of the bewildering/mystifying/terrifying (insert your own adjective here) nature of that world this company is seeking to exploit.

This Las Vegas firm offered a free initial assessment of our son’s “unique educational needs” followed by “additional services” that they can offer to us — that’s the part where the meter starts running.

There is an entire industry filled with firms like this that take advantage of families’ fears that their children won’t get into college (much less the holy grail of “The Right College”) or will miss out on millions of dollars of scholarships and financial aid … unless, of course, you pay for the expertise they claim to provide.

But here’s the real story: The services offered by firms like this are often free. And families don’t even have to search all that hard to find them.

High schools are a good place to start. Many schools have counselors on staff who can work with students starting as early as ninth grade and help them discern some possible career paths, as well as colleges that might fit well with their talents, interests, and aspirations.

Another resource to check is the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), a 15,000-member, nonprofit organization of college admission officers as well as secondary school counselors and independent educational consultants dedicated to helping students make choices about postsecondary education. NACAC’s members are guided by the Statement of Principles of Good Practice, a code of ethics that ensures they put students at the center of the admission process.

Some families choose to engage with independent educational consultants, professional counselors who offer a high-touch, high level of service to students looking to find good college matches. Families considering this option should check with two nonprofit organizations first: The Independent Educational Consultant Association and the Higher Education Consultants Association both hold their members to high professional standards.

What about those students — and there are far too many in this country — who don’t have access to college counseling in their schools? This is where groups including Raise.me aim to bridge that gap. Raise.me helps students earn “micro scholarships” supported by more than 180 colleges and universities (including Lawrence University).

The free service is pretty straightforward: Students build a portfolio highlighting their academic and extracurricular achievements, and earn small scholarships for doing the things that will help them not just get into, but thrive in college, such as taking challenging courses, earning good grades, and engaging in meaningful extracurricular activities. In the process, the member colleges get to know prospective applicants. Two other free resources — College Board’s Big Future and the U.S. Department of Education’s websites — both offer interactive tools that help families compare colleges and learn how to finance the experiences.

Perhaps one of the best ways to find a college is to visit one (or more) if you have the time and means. While visiting you can meet with admissions and financial aid counselors who can help you determine how their colleges fit with you.

Choosing a college can be daunting enough without the prospect of being taken advantage of in the process. There are many trustworthy sources of information and advice available to help our kids have a successful college future.