Companies Taking On Role of Guidance Counselors
At the Kaplan Educational Center inside the upscale White Flint Mall here in suburban Washington, the latest variation on for-profit educational services is taking shape.
High school juniors Jonah Lopatin and Shital Patel are sitting down on a recent evening with their exuberant, 28-year-old instructor, Ian Ivey. The topic isn't preparation for the SAT, but a whole new market for Kaplan: college-admissions counseling.
"I feel like I'm getting a step ahead of everyone else with this class," says Mr. Lopatin, who attends the private Edmund Burke School in Washington and has just begun to identify colleges he hopes to attend.
He and Ms. Patel, who attends Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., are among 15 students in the Washington area participating in the pilot test of Kaplan's college-counseling classes.
Kaplan, best known for its test-preparation services, is not alone. Its main competitor, Princeton Review, is also adding college-counseling services to its array of test-prep classes. Both companies have offered some form of admissions help for years, but they are upgrading the service in response to an upstart West Coast entrant called Achieva College Prep Centers.
Achieva, which has just eight centers but hopes to expand rapidly, is attracting attention for an all-inclusive approach that covers study habits, test preparation, college admissions, and even strategies for picking a freshman-year college schedule.
Besides the significant storefront market, all three companies are looking to the Internet as a potentially enormous source of new business. Even the nonprofit College Board is gearing up a for-profit subsidiary to offer test-prep and college-counseling services online.
"To some degree, we have been a bit brain-dead to wait until 1999 to pull all this together," said Andy Lutz, the vice president for high school programs at Princeton Review, based in New York City.
College counseling is just one of the areas in which Kaplan and Princeton Review have been expanding beyond preparation for college and graduate school admissions tests.
Contracting With Schools
Kaplan, a wholly owned subsidiary of the publicly traded Washington Post Co., has launched Concord University School of Law, the nation's first online law school. It has also moved into the K-12 tutoring and supplemental-learning arena in recent years with its Score! Educational Centers, a chain of 100 outlets where students who do well on a lesson get to shoot a basketball and earn trinkets.
Princeton Review has also moved into K-12, primarily through its new Homeroom.com service on the World Wide Web, which offers a variety of educational aids for teachers and parents. The content is geared to state-mandated achievement tests: Its pilot program in 10 Texas schools is aligned to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.
"It's not test prep," said Photo Anagnostopoulos, the president of Homeroom.com. "It is really all about the children learning the material that will be tested on the TAAS tests."
Mr. Lutz said Homeroom.com was just one example of Princeton Review's increasingly frequent delivery of services in schools.
"Five to 10 years ago, we had 10 to 15 contracts with schools for test prep," he said. "Today, we have contracts with close to 400 schools. Principals' and teachers' jobs are on the line, so they are willing to get outside the box and talk to private companies to help them."
That includes the new college-counseling services. Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Achieva all have arrangements with at least a few public schools to provide admissions help to students.
Which raises the question: Isn't that what the high school counselor is supposed to do?
Perhaps, company officials say, but many school counselors are just too busy.
"Guidance counselors are having to deal with more students with less time," said Clayton Rose, the executive director of precollege programs at Kaplan.
On Achieva's Web site, the company says that according to the California education department, the ratio of students to counselors in the company's home state is 1,040 to one. "Most guidance counselors simply don't have the time to get to know students and walk them through every step of the process," the Web site says.
With competition intense for admission to the most selective colleges, the companies say parents can't be blamed for wanting some extra help for their children.
"The economy is such that many parents can now afford the benefits of a course like this," Mr. Rose said.
The companies' services are expensive, although they are priced more affordably than the fees many independent counselors charge in big cities, which can typically run $5,000 or more.
Kaplan's five-session admissions course is $699, or $499 for students who also take a college test-prep course. Princeton Review is offering packages of counseling services that range from $2,900 to $5,400, depending on whether the customer starts as a high school senior or as a high school freshman. The company offers one-on-one service by counselors who are mentored by some of the top independent counseling professionals in the country, Mr. Lutz said.
Achieva's prices also vary widely depending on the service, but a popular senior-year college-admissions package runs about $2,000.
The costs prompt criticism that the students from families who can afford such services are the ones who already have all the advantages in getting into college.
"Parents who can afford it are going to look for ways to give their kids an advantage, and this does," said John Merrill, the director of college counseling at the Pingree School, an independent school in South Hamilton, Mass.
The companies point to their charitable offerings for disadvantaged students and their willingness to offer the same services in low-income public schools (for a fee) that they are offering to upscale suburban families.
At the Kaplan center in suburban Washington, the cost of the college-counseling course is not a factor because the pilot program is free. Students receive, among other aids, Kaplan college-selection and financial-aid guidebooks and a 107-page folder full of admissions advice.
"Use Kaplan's content editing worksheets" to revise drafts of application essays, the company's clients are told.
Kaplan and the other services help students fine-tune their applications, including the essay questions. But critics say the result can be a little too polished.
"The ironic thing is that colleges don't want to see a package that is overedited," said Michele Hernandez, a former Dartmouth College admissions officer and the author of A is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges. "They want to see raw talent. In the most selective colleges, packaging doesn't help."
"It's kind of depressing," added Ms. Hernandez, now the academic dean and chairwoman of the English department at North Broward Preparatory Schools in Coconut Creek, Fla. "Parents used to sit down with their children and do this. Now many parents don't have the time, and there is a huge upper middle class that can afford this."
Judith N. Williams, a counselor at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., said that a variety of factors—the widely publicized college rankings by U.S. News & World Report magazine, the rise of commercial test preparation, and now the college-counseling services—had led the admissions process astray.
"It is in the best interests of these companies to fan the insecurities of families," she said. "They have been very successful in doing so."
Vol. 19, Issue 16, Pages 14-15