In the wake of the instantly infamous Varsity Blues scandal, our admissions consulting firm, College Transitions, has received a flood of interview requests from media outlets along with countless queries from the general public. This torrent of interest is to be expected following revelations of such a sensational and lurid tale involving Hollywood starlets, Ivy League coaches, bribery, forgery, and corruption among society’s one-percenters. Naturally, the public is wondering—is this what independent college counselors do? Is the entire system even more rigged in favor of the wealthy than previously thought? Is “independent/private college counseling” simply a euphemism for a quid pro quo purchase of a spot in an elite college for the progeny of the uber-rich?

It’s not uncommon for one indicted “bad apple” to arouse suspicion of an entire profession. Whenever headlines reveal another physician caught in an opioid prescription scam, a leading investment professional involved in a massive Ponzi scheme, or a high-ranking military officer embroiled in a political scandal, inquiring minds rightfully question whether the misdeed at hand is representative of a more widespread problem. If an individual in a profession perceived to be noble can do horrific things, might something be rotten in all of Denmark?

The short answer to whether this well-publicized criminal conspiracy is representative of the entire independent college consultant industry is an unequivocal “No.” Of the roughly 12,000 independent college counseling businesses in the United States, it is our belief that 99+% adhere to the ethical guidelines put forth by esteemed organizations like the National Association for College Admissions Counseling and the Independent Educational Consultants Association (of which we are members). Could there be another bad apple or two still resting amidst the otherwise clean bunch? Sure, and it is the hope of the ethical independent college counselor community that any other dishonest actors are ultimately exposed and expelled from the profession, as occurred with Mr. Singer, the central player in this most recent conspiracy.

Why do people need (ethical) independent admissions counselors?

The growth of the independent college counseling profession is a much-needed response to the increasing complexity of the admissions process and an ever-declining system of college-related support previously offered by our high schools, even those which serve largely affluent populations. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) both firmly recommend a student-to-counselor ratio of no greater than 250:1. Unfortunately, most high schools, even many well-funded public ones, fall well short of this ideal. In fact, as of 2018, the average ratio in the United States was 482:1 and many states were not even close to that mark. Arizona sports a ratio of 924:1, California 760:1, and Michigan 729:1.

As an added impediment to personalized post-secondary assistance, counselors in public high schools report only being able to dedicate 22% of their time on college-related counseling. In the end, the average American teen receives a meager 38 minutes of college-related advice during the entirety of their high school career.

Though independent college consulting services are often not affordable to low-income students, this reality should not discourage college consultants from filling the void where they can. When students of all income levels suffer from a lack of college guidance, the appropriate response isn’t to denounce the individualized guidance that some are able to secure. Instead, and until our colleges develop more simplified and equitable ways of evaluating applicants (not an easy task, despite what some journalists may have you believe), we need to ask how all students can be sufficiently supported within our current system. Fortunately, independent college planners can play a very important role in this regard, even for those families who cannot afford private services. Later, we’ll discuss what we do, in particular, to promote college knowledge across the income spectrum.

What do independent counselors actually do?

Aside from helping students navigate each phase of the application process — a program of support that, as discussed above, is needed by many and for which we make no apologies — ethical and competent independent college counselors also engage in a variety of tasks that maximize a student’s prospects for academic and career success, not just college admission. These tasks include, but are not limited to:

  • Identifying good-fit colleges
  • Career/interest assessment and other career-exploration activities
  • Identifying/researching prospective college majors
  • Financial aid and scholarship guidance
  • Developing a program of study for high school and college
  • Securing accommodations for students with learning difficulties
  • Pointing students to campus-based resources and other supports that provide for a successful college transition

Altogether, completion of these essential tasks, along with tasks directly related to preparing college applications, may take up to 35-40 hours of one-on-one work with an independent counselor, a far cry from the 38 minutes available to you at your local high school.

What do ethical counselors NOT do?

It goes without saying that all of the highly illegal and immoral acts committed by William Singer, founder of The Edge College & Career Network (also referred to as The Key), are at the top of this list. Bribery, cheating on standardized tests, and falsifying student’s credentials, and any of the other grotesque, beyond the pale acts associated with Varsity Blues are, of course, not on the menu at any legitimate counseling firm. Of course, not committing felonies is hardly the moral bar set in our field. Ethical standards for independent counselors include tenets such as:

  • We do not guarantee admission to any particular college.
  • We do not write essays for students.
  • We do not encourage or allow any level of dishonesty or exaggeration in chronicling one’s activities, distinctions, or awards.
  • We do not offer compensation to, or accept compensation from, university officials in exchange for any influence in an admissions decision/recommendation.
  • We do not enter any situation in which we have a conflict of interest.

In sum, ethical counselors do not do anything that is a) criminal, b) dishonest, or c) is not solely in the best interest of the student.

Hate the game, not the honest players

Outside of this most recent headline-grabbing scandal, there are many aspects of the present admissions landscape that undoubtedly deserve criticism and increasingly loud calls for reform. Such issues include the pervasive anti-meritocratic practices involving legacy admissions and athletic recruiting, the pressure-cooker admissions process at elite schools that impacts teens’ mental health, and the constantly rising, already exorbitant tuition rates that set students up for crippling debt that will follow them well into adulthood.

By engaging in the practice of independent college counseling, we are not asserting that the present system of college admission is ideal. Rather, we are demonstrating a commitment to guiding students and families through an increasingly complex process and helping them realize returns on an investment that can easily reach $250,000-$300,000. Seeking expert guidance when considering making a large purchase is hardly a novel concept in other realms. Hiring a quality independent college admissions counselor can be pricey, but so is hiring a good accountant, realtor, personal trainer, financial planner, or lawyer. In the end, the upfront investment can pay for itself many times over.

Do independent college counselors only help the rich?

One might deduce from the Laughlin-Huffman, et al. scandal that the only people who hire independent counselors are celebrities or high-powered executives with Harvard MBAs seeking to ensure that the next generation maintains an Ivy League lineage. This reductive takeaway would fall well short of representing reality. While a portion of the population employing independent college consultants is indeed wealthy, parents from many different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses employ our services. These include:

Middle class families looking to save money

A family who makes too much to qualify for sufficient need-based aid but not enough to cover college costs on their own is a perfect candidate to hire an independent counselor. An expert consultant can provide guidance on how a student can go about procuring merit aid directly from a university. By targeting the right schools, tens of thousands of dollars can be shaved off of the sticker price, sometimes leading to a six-figure discount over four years. Savings this dramatic make paying the consultant’s fee seem quite reasonable.

First-generation students

Mom and dad never attended college, or they attended college outside the U.S. Now, their teen child is entering the college selection phase and, bombarded by unfamiliar information about everything from FAFSA forms to SAT Subject Tests, they realize that professional assistance is needed in order to maximize their child’s post-secondary opportunities. Academic research on the topic backs up this decision, as first-generation students are far more likely to incur unwise debt, attend schools that are below their academic ability (read more about “undermatch”), and less likely to obtain a degree than their non-first-generation peers.

Students with learning needs

Getting into a “good fit” college is of the utmost importance for any student with a learning disability or attentional issues. Statistics on the college admissions and persistence fronts for students with disabilities are profoundly troubling across-the-board. In part, due to a failure to fully understand/disclose their own disability or sufficiently explore/take advantage of disability services and programming on campus, this population has a very high drop-out rate. Careful college planning and support can arm LD students and parents with the knowledge they need to carve out a path toward collegiate success.

Homeschooled students

For the over two million students in the United States who are homeschooled, the looming admissions process is a somewhat different gauntlet than that which awaits traditional high school students. Issues of documentation, additional testing requirements, and the building of an extracurricular resume are just a few of the multitude of challenges that an independent counselor can help to tackle.

Community college transfers

You’ve saved a good deal of money by completing a year or two at a local community college and are now seeking to transfer into a four-year college. Now comes the hard part—navigating the transfer admission process. If that school happens to be a selective or highly-selective institution, you will absolutely benefit from one-on-one counseling with an independent counselor.

Students applying to Ivy or Ivy-equivalent schools

For those of any socioeconomic background who aim to gain acceptance at an elite college, excellent grades and test scores, while necessary, are no longer sufficient. “Ivy-minded” and other high-aiming students will also be judged—for better or worse—on a variety of intangible factors that speak to their authenticity, intellectual motivations, and ability to make distinct contributions to a particular campus.  In this context, personal interests, extracurricular participation and other seemingly ancillary components of a student’s profile assume center stage and may make or break an application. Consultants work to identify and cultivate the best of what a student has to offer—through course selection, activities planning, college essay coaching and other things that improve his or her prospects for college admission and personal fulfillment.

College Transitions is not all about profit

While a certain percentage of our clientele are people of means, it is possible for independent counselors to assist more affluent families while expanding access to higher education. In spite of what some may believe, the two activities are not mutually exclusive. Our firm, College Transitions, engages in a number of pro-bono activities, advising dozens of low-income and other underrepresented students on the college admissions process each year. In addition, we put in hundreds of man-hours each year maintaining and updating our no-cost and advertisement-free Dataverse. This resource page contains sortable databases designed to help students learn everything from which schools are the most generous with merit aid to early decision acceptance rates to the institutions that feed America’s top tech companies. In total, we offer over 100 such up-to-date data sources. We also host free webinars and in-person presentations on various aspects of the college admissions process, compose monthly newsletters designed to keep the parent community abreast of important admissions-related developments, publish weekly blogs to disseminate timely tips for all teens in the throes of admissions mania, and deliver free copies of our recent book to numerous under-resourced high schools.

In closing

As dedicated independent college counselors, we do not have control over the entire ecosystem in which we operate; and there are indeed aspects of the admission process we detest. However, despite this (and perhaps because of it), we remain firmly committed to independent college counseling; because when done right, it can help students overcome the same education-related obstacles that this recent scandal has brought to light.

Moving forward, we will continue to reflect upon and work with the “greyer” areas of our field, always evaluating and re-evaluating our role within the larger system of college admission in America, and always striving to do good and ethical work.