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School Daze : Hiring an Educational Consultant Can Take Time, Stress and Confusion Out of Finding the Right College

December 09, 1989|PAULA VORHEES | Paula Vorhees is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

As tuition rises, baby boomers age and the number of 18-year-olds declines, colleges are becoming more aggressive in wooing students. Juniors and seniors in high school are routinely visited by smooth campus recruiters who show videos and slick brochures touting the good life at their school.

But how does the student--and his parents--select the right school?

One way is to narrow the list to prime contenders, then visit each. But when you consider the cost of travel--often out of state--plus lodging, food and miscellaneous expenses, it's easy to spend the college nest egg just finding the college.

Now there's another way: the educational consultant. Someone who, for a fee between $500 and $3,000, takes the stress, time and confusion out of finding the right college or university.

"Educational consultants are used extensively on the East Coast, but just recently are emerging in Orange County," said Steve Mullen, president of Jonathan Ulsh & Associates, an educational consulting firm that recently opened in Newport Beach.

"Today, high school counselors are deluged. Because of the complexity of getting accepted to college and the number of schools available, students need more than assembly-line attention. We fill the gap," Mullen said.

Peggy Ogden and Virginia Soth agree. Twelve years ago, the friends were trying to find colleges for their daughters. What began as a family task is now a full-time business called College and Career Consultants in Costa Mesa.

"In many Orange County families, both parents work and have little free time to explore colleges," Ogden said. "In any investment, you'd take the time yourself or hire a professional to check it out--and education is certainly a major investment. It deserves a lot of forethought."

Good educational consultants try to visit at least 75% of all schools they recommend, to get a feel for the school that you can't get from catalogues and computer printouts. They interview parents and students to find out what they expect from the college experience, and may even help channel the student into a career path.

The often-bewildering process of admissions is explained fully, and for those students with marginal academic performance, they explain other factors the school may consider during the application process.

The consultants relieve the parents of the task of meeting deadlines by reminding students as milestones approach. And because of their knowledge of the more than 3,000 schools available, they are able to present a wider but more select range of choices for the student to consider.

"We try to match the academics of the school with the student's abilities and interests," Mullen said. "For example, one school may offer communications as one of its majors. Yet, its assessment of the field and courses may differ completely from the same curriculum of another school. The educational consultant should know the difference between the schools, and advise students on which would best fit their needs."

Some consultants suggest working with students as early as the eighth grade, but Ogden feels the sophomore year is early enough for students to begin preparing for college. "This gives you time to develop extracurricular activities that often make the difference in admission, especially for a marginal academic performer," she said.

"Many of my students are in the middle--not the outstanding scholars--those who feel their only option is a community college," Mullen said. "Although I believe strongly in the community college system, I want to make students and parents aware of the alternatives, especially those some distance from home."

Educational consultants can also help students prepare for the Scholastic Aptitude Test and other tests with helpful hints on the testing process. For example, each section's multiple choice questions progress from easy to difficult, so an answer that looks obvious early in the test is more likely to be correct than one that looks obvious later.

"But the consultants don't take the tests. They can groom a student, but in the end it's the student's work that gets him in or keeps him out," Mullen says.

Educational consultants have taken some flak recently for "prepackaging" students. Some have even been accused of writing admissions essays for students.

"We don't prepackage students--we just bring out their personalities," Ogden says. "Colleges look at more than just academic performance when admitting students, and we're aware of those factors. Students may fail to mention relevant topics because they feel they're unimportant. We know better."

What do college admissions directors think of educational consultants? Some find them helpful; others say they make no difference in the eventual admission of a student.

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