Counselors assist in choosing college

HACKENSACK, N.J. – The pursuit of higher education was a lot simpler when Allen Bell attended college in the late Sixties: He applied. He got in. He went.

But the Tenafly, N.J., dad realized things had become more complicated about six years ago when he and his wife could no longer see their dining-room table because it was buried beneath a mound of college brochures and applications for their oldest daughter.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed, the Bells – like a growing number of families nationwide – hired a private guidance counselor to help them navigate through their child’s college search while also keeping their sanity intact.

“We could have done it ourselves,” Bell said. “But I don’t know if we could have done it as well.”

At a time when getting into college has become more competitive than ever, parents are calling on professionals in the hope of giving their child an edge.

For doing anything from recommending extracurricular activities to fine-tuning a student’s written essay, private counselors charge from $1,000 to upwards of $20,000.

This trend is yet another outgrowth of the nation’s increasing anxiety about college admissions, which has already seen a boom in SAT prep courses, private tutors to maintain stellar grades and rigorous summer academic programs.

Today, there are about 3,000 private counselors for hire, compared with 1,500 just three years ago, according to the industry’s trade group.

About 6 percent of high school students are now working with a private counselor, compared with 1 percent a decade ago, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Va.

The group expects the number of students to double in the next 10 years, with the industry’s most significant growth taking place in North Jersey and the surrounding New York suburbs.

“Five years ago, I would have said it’s a luxury of the very wealthy,” Sklarow said. “Now we know most kids using educational consultants are public school kids.”

The trend is being fueled by a number of factors, including the sheer number of high school graduates nationwide.

Between 1996 and 2002, the number of high school graduates has increased by 12 percent, from 2.6 million to 2.9 million students.

The U.S. Department of Education predicts the number of graduates will reach 3.3 million by 2009, a record high.

“If it seems more competitive for kids, unfortunately that’s because it is right now,” Sklarow said.

“More kids are graduating high school and chasing the same number of spots at colleges.”

Yet many school-based guidance counselors are skeptical that hiring private counselors is worth the money, saying the business feeds parental fears and puts even more pressure on students who are already feeling stress.

“This is just another example of leaving no stone unturned in trying to get students into the best schools, which will translate into the best careers,” said Richard Lehman, director of Tenafly High School’s guidance department.

“The irony is, the kids that go to the best high schools, with the best guidance departments, on top of that feel the need to go to private counselors.”

Lehman said he has a hunch that many students at Tenafly High School are using private counselors.

But actual figures are not available, he said, because often parents don’t want to advertise the fact that their child is working with a professional for fear it will alienate the school counselor, who still plays a vital role in the application process.

The school-based counselor is responsible for handling two of the most important components of the college application – writing letters of recommendations and sending student transcripts to colleges.

And even private counselors acknowledge that many college admissions officers will take phone calls only from school-based counselors.

Peggy Loonam, director of guidance at Ridgewood High School, believes like many of her peers that school-based counselors have a clear advantage over their private counterparts because they’ve seen students develop and grow over the course of four years.

“They have been their academic advisers, they have observed them in classrooms, on the athletic field, on the stage and performing at concerts,” Loonam said.

“Independent counselors have not had these opportunities. They meet with the students in isolation of school.”

Yet private counselors contend that school-based counselors are overloaded with responsibilities and can’t offer their students individual attention because they are assigned to work with hundreds of students at a time.

Nationally, the average student-to-guidance counselor ratio in public schools is 477 to 1, according to the American School Counselor Association. In New Jersey, the average ratio is 378 to 1.

At many schools in North Jersey, the ratio is closer to 200 to 1.

But that’s still significantly higher than the number of students that private counselors work with at a time.

“I turn people away because it’s very difficult to give students the attention they need, especially at this time of year,” said Sami Kramon, a private counselor in Tenafly, who usually works with no more than 20 students a year.

Kramon, who also is an English-as-a-second-language teacher in the Cresskill, N.J., school district and a former college admissions officer, said families who approach her for college admissions advice are often driven by fear.

“People have fears of making mistakes in the process,” she said. “They want the individual attention.”