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Ethics and Private Admissions Counseling

February 4, 2008

Judith Hodara, a senior admissions official at the University of Pennsylvania, cut off ties to a private college counseling business she founded, and resigned from an advisory board to a counseling company in Japan last week -- after the arrangements became public. Many admissions experts said that they were shocked that someone could have a full-time, paid job in the college admissions field while also moonlighting in the consulting industry.

It turns out that Hodara is not alone. While officials in the admissions business are extremely sensitive about these issues, several acknowledged that there are or have been other cases -- and that it is more common than many realize for those who do college counseling in high schools to have consulting businesses on the side.

While some experts believe that these dual roles are inherently unethical, others defend them. In fact, the association that represents independent college counselors does not bar these arrangements, and has a category of membership that includes many people who -- while their consulting businesses are getting off the ground -- continue to hold full-time jobs in colleges or high schools.

Criticism of the practice of dual roles goes into the field itself. Michael London, founder of College Coach, a nationwide operation of private counselors, said that he has received plenty of job applications over the years from people working in college admissions -- who indicated that they had every expectation of continuing to do so while being employed elsewhere. They didn't end up at College Coach because London won't hire them. "That kind of person is unethical, so I don't want to deal with them," he said, adding that he has had more such inquiries from those working at high schools than at colleges -- although he has had both kinds.

London said that if you are a counselor who works in a high school, public or private, your obligation should be to those students, not anyone else. He said he doesn't see how it can't divert attention and focus when some students are paying you directly and others are not. As for those who work in colleges, he said it was an inherent conflict to be on the inside of the field while simultaneously dispensing advice (for pay) on how to work that system. He also questioned whether they could be good private counselors, given their loyalties to their day jobs.

The debate prompted by Hodara's situation is attracting considerable attention in the field. Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Counselors Association, said that within hours of the Hodara situation becoming public on Inside Higher Ed, he was hearing from board members asking what the group should do. He said it was possible that tougher ethical standards might be adopted by the group.

For higher education, the debate is taking place at a time of increased scrutiny over whether academe has sufficient safeguards against inappropriate conflicts of interest. The student aid field has been shaken by the resignation of high profile campus officials who had stock or other business ties with lenders that they were recommending to their students. Andrew Cuomo, New York State's attorney general, who has focused considerable attention on the financial aid conflicts, is now investigating study abroad programs. And the American Council on Education has just issued a paper on the issues colleges should consider on conflicts of interest.

The private counselor business has been booming -- and largely unregulated -- for about a decade now. Thousands of such counselors exist -- ranging from solo practitioners to large companies that offer packages in which students are advised and coached for several years in high school. With the cost of some packages rivaling a year of college, and with boasts made about inside connections to the admissions offices where many private counselors used to work, the industry is cited by some critics as an example of the way college admissions has become a game, and a game that favors the wealthy.

Sklarow said that his group has about 700 full members and that he thinks only a small minority of them are also employed by colleges or high schools in college admissions. However, his group has 250 associate members -- generally those in the process of building up an admissions practice -- and that he believes many of them are employed by colleges or high schools. He also think there are some people in these dual roles among the 2,000 or so counselors who are not members of his group.

The association's "Principles of Good Practice" state that "multiple relationships" -- in which a counselor also works for a school or college or related program -- "may relate or appear to create a conflict of interest." The principles say that members must take steps to avoid such conflicts, and it specifically states that members must inform clients of their range of activities. Sklarow also said that it is clearly unethical for a high school counselor to take money for extra help from those who are students at his or her school. In addition, he said that his group's guidelines bar members from boasting about inside information they possess about their employers or former employers.

There is enough concern about conflicts of interest in the wake of the Penn incident, he said, that "we may well come down that it's just not permissible" to have a counseling business while working in admissions. But he said that the association's view has been that it was possible to maintain ethical standards while doing both.

Sklarow compared those who are counselors while holding other jobs to teachers who are also tutors. "If a math teacher at high school x -- in the evening takes on five kids for private one-on-one math tutoring, do we reject that?" he asked. "Do we think that teacher is giving better, more complete superior service than to the kids in the classroom?"

Asked whether the comparison might not be fair since there is no finite limit on the number of students who can learn math, but there is very much a finite limit on the number of students admitted to top colleges, he said that the question was based on a false image of private counseling. "That argument works if the role of the consultant is to help a kid get in. If they are being hired because a student wants to go to Duke and the job is to prepare that kid for Duke," he said. But Sklarow said that wasn't the role of private counselors. "Today the consultant is saying, let's find the great matches for Johnny" and in fact there are an "unlimited number of college pairings that would work for the kid."

A glance at the Web sites of private counselors, of course, suggests that plenty do appeal to those who want to enroll at specific, elite colleges. Is it a coincidence that Hodara's company was called IvyStone while others are called Ivy Wise and Ivy Coach? Or that many -- Hernandez College Consulting, for example -- have data about Ivy acceptance rates or Ivy connections.

Sarah Soule is an example of a college counselor with dual roles. She is director of admissions and college counseling for Vermont Commons School, a small private school, while also maintaining her own admissions consulting service. She said she never does any work related to her private practice while on school hours -- but that she's completely open with everyone about her dual roles (and her company's Web site makes her various roles clear). Soule has also worked on the college side, spending 20 years in admissions at Champlain College.

"I take great pride in the fact that I've been able to maintain the two separate things," Soule said. "People consider me very ethical. They like that I have experience working in a school, and that I can relate well to kids, and I visit colleges regularly -- I visit 20 to 25 colleges a year. I really keep current with my field."

Almost all of her private clients are families whose children are at public schools. "I would never take money from one of my Vermont Commons kids -- that's part of what their tuition pays for," she said.

Soule said her dual role benefits everyone -- as she has more experience and contact as a result of all of her work. That knowledge, she said, "benefits the profession."

Several admissions officials currently employed by colleges said that they were reluctant to voice criticisms of private counselors, who after all send them students -- and typically students who are well prepared and can afford to pay. Privately, they said that there is a widespread problem in the private counseling industry of taking credit for what would have happened anyway -- talented, advantaged students getting into good colleges.

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said that he's been struck by the "possibly contradictory" messages on these issues from the private counselors.

"First, you see the obvious marketing message where the independent counselor cashes in on his/her credibility as a former admission officers. Next, you hear from admission officers that they can spot a doctored application (one that has been coached by an independent counselor) from a mile away," said Hawkins. But "many of the independent counselors (particularly at the high-priced end) will say that their fingerprints are undetectable on the application, so that hiring them doesn't count against you. My question is: 'So which is it? Are you really going to be able to exercise the kind of influence that you market, or are you just using your knowledge of the system to stealthily guide your clients through the labyrinth of selective college admission?' "

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, which seeks to reform college admissions, said that he believes any dual roles are inappropriate -- and in fact he questions whether educational values are served at all by the private counseling industry.

Thacker bases his view on personal experience, largely working for high schools and colleges but briefly -- when he was between positions -- working as a private counselor. "I didn't like what it was doing to me, so I quit," he said. As a high school counselor, even in private schools where parents may be paying large tuition bills, Thacker said a college counselor can focus on the student and his or her needs. Many times as a high school counselor, Thacker said, he had to tell parents that their vision of their children's college education didn't mesh with their children's interests, talents or aspirations.

"As soon as you accept money directly from parents, you become their agent, and you are doing it for the money and to serve the parents' interest," he said. He said that more than once when he told parents information they didn't want to hear about their children, they would go out and hire a private counselor, and only return to him when "there was a mess to clean up" as the private counselor couldn't deliver.

Thacker also found dubious the idea that parents are hiring counselors to find good matches, as opposed to prestigious colleges. "Parents would try to hire me -- they still try to sometimes -- saying 'I know you have pull at this school,'" he said.

Many private counselors, he added, work hard to help students and have good intentions and goals. But he said that the Penn situation is "the most blatant example" of a system that "isn't helping education." It is true, he said, that many public high schools lack enough counselors. But the private counseling industry lets wealthy parents at those high schools solve their individual problem (by hiring help for their kids) rather than working to get more counselors.

Further, he said that the industry is full of private counselors tellings students "we'll package you," which contributes to students' anxiety and the pressure to focus on prestige. "What they are trying to do is game the system, but this is about education."

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