Last year, a Maryland high school student had an all-too-familiar problem: He had good grades and test scores, but he didn’t stand out from his peers. So in his junior year he and his family approached Ivy Success, a small company in Garden City, N.Y., that helps students get into America’s most competitive colleges — for a hefty fee, of course.
The student wanted to major in business at college, so the company's counselors encouraged the student to take more challenging advanced placement courses at high school. And they went further.
“We had him start an organization that dealt with childhood literacy, and it received a lot of funding and media attention, so he was able to demonstrate why he was interested in applying for that particular major — he differentiated himself,” said Victoria Hsiao, a partner at Ivy Success, which charges between $18,000 and $28,500 per student.
The cottage industry of educational consultants — basically coaches hired by parents to be part guidance counselor and part educator for their teenage children — is booming.
The Independent Educational Consultants Association, a trade group, has mushroomed to about 600 members from 150 in 1990, said director Mark Sklarow. He reckons that 20 percent of the freshmen at private, four-year colleges have used some sort of coaching service.
While just about anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves a college coach, Sklarow's group requires that members have at least three years of experience in college admissions or high school counseling. Hsiao says all her consultants have worked in the admissions offices of Ivy League schools.
“The college admissions process is extremely competitive these days, but lots of students out there today with great test scores need to differentiate themselves from their peers and they don’t understand what colleges are looking for,” Hsiao said. “They don’t have the perspective of a college admissions officer, and that’s where we can help.”
Sklarow points to a number of reasons for the industry’s growth. With more and more young people headed for college, school-based counselors are overwhelmed, with each one catering to the needs of 400 children on average. (In California the average is 1,200.)
And it’s getting harder to identify the traits that college admissions officers are looking for in prospective students, he added. Another reason is the rising cost of college tuition.
“Of all the kids who will start college this year, fewer than half will graduate from the same college, so making a mistake and enrolling at the wrong college has a big financial impact, and that means an awful lot of tuition credits, money and time are being lost,” said Sklarow. “So it’s really about helping to match students to the school that’s appropriate for them. In that respect we are as much matchmakers as college coaches."
While companies like Ivy Success tout their success stories, there are some who criticize counseling services, and they are not always looked on favorably by college admissions officers. Colleges want to see the “real” applicant — not an image “polished” by a professional service, said Thomas G. Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.
“There is a great deal of anxiety among parents who want to send their kids to the best college they can, and they’re looking for every advantage they can afford,” said Mortenson.
"But the college people don’t want to be gamed. They want to see who the applicant really is, what he or she has accomplished and that person’s goals in life, and based on that they’ll decide if the college is a good fit. But many of the talented kids they see are not appropriate, so you hear stories of rejected valedictorians. So the question is, do these coaches change unfairly the kid’s image?”
Another criticism of college coaching services is that only the wealthiest families can afford them. But Michael London, co-founder and president of College Coach, the nation’s largest education counseling service, has found a way to expand the market.
His company is one of a small number offering a new employee benefit: help with a child’s college admissions. College Coach has taken on about 65 Fortune 500 corporate clients and is offering their employees workshops on such topics as selecting the right college, applications and financing. Employees also can access support services on the Web or by telephone.
“College counseling has an elitist label associated with it, and the nice thing is with corporations you can offer all employees equal access to these high-end educational services,” London said. “There will only ever be so many families that can afford this, so the company will grow faster in the corporate benefit sector because of the affordability issue, and a single company can work with 1,000 employees.”
The price of individual educational counseling services has risen about 15 percent since 2000, according to the trade group's Sklarow, although a flood of new entrants into the industry has prevented fees from growing too dramatically, he said. But without regulation, almost anyone can set up shop in the field.
“I’m worried about families rushing out and paying thousands of dollars for these people if they don’t have the right background or breadth of experience,” Sklarow said. “It’s important to know how long a person you’re hiring has been in this business, and it’s also important to know how often the consultant is out in the field meeting admissions directors at colleges. That is, in part, what parents are paying for.”
Sklarow says he receives about 100 requests for membership in the trade group each month, mostly from applicants who lack proper training. He rejects about 90 percent. The organization requires counselors to have at least three years of experience in college admissions or high school counseling and to have visited at least 100 colleges.
“About a quarter of the calls I get are from people who say things like, ‘I got my daughter into Bryn Mawr, and now I want to do the same for other kids,’ and my response to them is, 'You didn’t help your daughter, she did it herself with hard work,'” Sklarow says. “It’s sort of like saying, ‘My daughter had strep throat, I nursed her through it and now I want to be a doctor for everybody.’”
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints