Private College Counseling: Pros and Cons
It is fair to say that the college application process appears daunting to many high school students. Extensive searching, planning, talking, studying, traveling, writing, form-filling, letter-bubbling, and proofreading occur between the first semester of one’s junior year and the second semester of senior year, and there is no guarantee that one’s efforts will produce the desired results, i.e. acceptance to college. Between navigating the many steps in the application process and dealing with the uncertainty inherent in it, the last two years of high school are a potentially stressful time for students.
Amid these circumstances, some turn to private college counselors for guidance through the application process and/or assistance with their specific applications. Internationally recognized college consulting firms like IvyWise and College Transitions have capitalized on this opportunity, promising to “help you gain admission to your best-fit schools” (IvyWise) and “bring perspective (and sanity) to the application process while providing you with the comprehensive, data-driven advice you need to earn admission” (College Transitions). In Athens, Ga., the primary local college consulting firm is Five Points Prep, well-known to many Athens Academy students. Five Points Prep claims to “make the process [of applying to college] less stressful,” and for at least some students, it does.
Current senior Leila Rosenberg was taking SAT and ACT prep courses last year when Lisa Barrett, the owner and director of Five Points Prep, asked if she would be interested in the company’s college counseling services. Leila “thought [she] should give it a try,” so she met with a counselor who “gave me good advice and helped me be more motivated,” Leila said. Specifically, the counselor helped Leila narrow her college list, and she also looked at Leila’s application essays “briefly.”
Anannya Das, another senior, also finds Five Points Prep “pretty helpful.” She uses their college counseling services because “they’re available,” but she acknowledges that they are “very expensive.” Anannya’s counselor primarily reads her application essays, offering an additional opinion to those she receives from Dr. Rogers, Ms. Evans, and her English teachers at Athens Academy.
However, because private college counseling is so expensive, it can exacerbate inequality in college admissions. (IvyWise “charges anything from $500 for a simple application review to hundreds of thousands of dollars for high-end counseling programs,” according to an article published in the August 2017 issue of Town & Country.) In an opinion piece for Education Week published in March 2019, Mary Finn, a supervisor in the Department of College and Career Readiness for the San Francisco Unified School District who moonlights as a private college counselor, observed that students whose applications benefit from access to private counselors “may appear to be more highly qualified than their first-generation counterparts,” even if they are not actually more qualified.
This does not mean that parents who pay for these services are actively trying to disadvantage low-income students, and Finn notes that “the majority of parents I work with are equity-minded liberals who think they are just doing right by their children.” Private college counselors can play an important role in helping students through a stressful period of their lives, especially if they lack regular access to their in-school counselors. According to the American School Counselor Association, the national student- to-counselor ratio in 2016-2017 was 455 to 1. Fortunately, at Athens Academy this ratio is less than 40 to 1, but some families feel compelled to add another layer on top of the guidance students receive here at school. It is important to recognize, however, that those who benefit from private counseling services are those who can afford them, and this has the potential to undermine a college admissions system theoretically based on merit.