A few years ago, private counselors started to become a force in the college admissions process. But they were widely viewed as serving a tiny fraction of students.
A survey released by an association of private counselors suggests that the field has taken off. Of students who graduated from high school in 2004, more than 100,000 used the services of a private counselor. That's about 8 percent of all of those who went on to enroll at a four-year college, according to the survey, conducted by the Independent Educational Consultants Association.
"Consulting seems to be following the path of SAT preparation classes of a generation ago -- from obscurity, to an advantage sought by small numbers, to becoming a ubiquitous part of the college planning process," said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the association.
While the survey found that significant numbers of students are using private counselors, these students aren't typical. While most undergraduates enroll at public colleges, 70 percent of those using private counselors enroll at private institutions.
Much of the publicity about the private counseling industry has focused on the upper end, where wealthy families are paying large sums for intense counseling services. One counselor this year announced a three-and-one-half-day admissions boot camp -- charging $9,999. 
But the survey by the consultants association found that there is a wide variation on price. Most consultants charge a flat rate for services over an extended period of time (an academic year or more) leading up to college admission. The median price for such a package was $3,150 in the survey, with some packages available under $1,000, and higher prices for services in New York City and Los Angeles. More than 60 percent of counselors also said that they offered hourly rates for those seeking minimal guidance (or to pay less).
When the private counseling industry started to take off, many admissions counselors at colleges and guidance counselors at high schools viewed it with skepticism. But Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said that she was not surprised or concerned about the trends identified in the survey.
Smith said that many of the early private counselors were parents who had helped a child get into an Ivy institution, but had no real training. Today, she said, most private counselors have training, and many move into the industry from jobs at colleges and high schools. For the most part, she said, private counselors do have good knowledge of college admissions -- and time for their students. Smith attributed the rise in private counselors to the fact that "there are not guarantees for any student any more" in getting into a given college.
Private counselors are but the latest trend that tends to help wealthier families, she said. "Whenever a new wrinkle comes into play -- test preparation, college visits and tours, private counseling, writing assistance -- no matter what the latest thing is, poor students and disconnected counselors will never have an advantage," she said.
The problem for low-income students, she said, is not the growth of the private counseling industry, but the cuts to school budgets that have made it impossible for counselors in high schools to spend enough time with their students. "We have hoped for years that parents would become so outraged with the reduced academic and personal support provided by school counselors that they would rage a war on the school boards," she added.