Thinking of hiring a private college counselor? Do your homework first

How badly do you want your child to make it into the college of her dreams? How much are you willing to pay? I’m not talking about tuition. How much are you willing to pay just to guide her through the application process?

Some parents - you may want to sit down before you read this - are willing to fork over as much as $40,000 to an independent college counselor. They are lured in, no doubt, by names such as Ivy Success and IvyWise.

An eye-opening story on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times “Before College, Costly Advice Just on Getting In” offers a cautionary tale to any parent who assumes paying top dollar for a private college counselor will get you the best money can buy. Reporter Jacques Steinberg looked into the backgrounds of some of the costliest counselors who claim to have worked in admissions offices at top-drawer schools and found outright lies and gross exaggerations.

The temptation to hire a private counselor is certainly understandable. I have a daughter who will be a high school junior in the fall. I’m feeling the pressure just as so many of you are.

Getting into college is more competitive and costlier than ever. And the help our kids can get from their high school counselors is severely limited. California ranks dead last in the ratio of high school counselors to students, according to “Comparing California,” a report by Ed-Data, an education partnership that includes the state’s Department of Education. There are 1.1 counselors for every 1,000 students.

So what’s a parent to do? If you decide to hire an independent counselor, be vigilant. They are unlicensed and unregulated. No one is looking out for you. Put on your investigative reporter hat and do a background check. Make sure they are who they say they are.

Ask for references. Or ask friends who have hired a counselor for a recommendation. If a counselor claims to know the secret handshake to get your teen in the door of a top-tier school, run - do not walk - to the nearest exit.

Better yet, become your own college counselor. It will cost you time, but it will save you money, which you can put toward tuition when the time comes. Create a partnership with your high schooler and do your own research.

Bookstores and libraries are filled with helpful works that will set you back little or no money. And the Internet is awash with free resources. Again, you need to do your homework. Just as there are unscrupulous college counselors, there are plenty of lousy Web sites out there.

Take time to read Such A Smart Mom’s “Simple suggestions and great Web sites for college planning this summer.” I have a list of five smart things you can do this summer to research colleges and how to pay for them. You should also download my free guide “Smart Moves: On the Road to College.”

And talk to friends and family with children a few years older than yours. I’ve picked up a ton of advice from casual conversations at swim meets and family barbecues that have cost me nothing but have been worth their weight in gold.

And keep coming back to Such A Smart Mom. I will share what I learn with you - for free.


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