High-end consultants have grabbed attention, but others say they mostly help families navigate college admissions — and temper expectations

Before the older of his two sons entered public high school last fall, Edwin Van Dusen ’90 says, he and his wife — also an Ivy League graduate — had lengthy debates about hiring an independent educational consultant to help navigate the college admissions process.

The couple, who lives in suburban Chicago, talked with friends and parent peers who were deeply involved in college preparations, and more often than not, families had sought extra help. 

“Left to my own, it’s not something I would have personally done,” says Van Dusen. “I think a lot of those choices should be kid-initiated, but I also understand the counter argument, that a 14-year-old might not be experienced with thinking ahead.”

The Van Dusens eventually agreed to hire someone and paid a flat fee for four years of consultant work. Their counselor has already helped with their son’s high school life, such as mapping out a sophomore year curriculum. Van Dusen says his hope is that the independent consultant can provide “structure” to his son’s high school years, and help reduce some of the pressure and stress between parents and child that inevitably arise during the race toward college admissions. 

Long gone are the days when a high school student had minimal college preparation resources available during that four-year stretch, beyond meetings with high school guidance counselors — if there was such a department available — or a trip to the local bookstore to purchase a dense college guide like Barron’s, with brief descriptions of universities across the country. 

Now, with the college admissions process changing dramatically in recent years and becoming more competitive, families are exploring their options. Enter the independent educational consultant, or IEC, a booming cottage industry.

At the extreme end are firms charging into six figures, including Command Education, which is run by Christopher Rim and was profiled in New York magazine in January. Rim claims 94% of his clients over the past five years have been accepted at one of their top-three schools, including Princeton and other Ivy League institutions. And all for the low, low price of $120,000.  

“I think the main role for an independent consultant is to convey that there is no magic to this process,” says Allison Slater Tate ’96, who is the director of college counseling at a Central Florida K-12 independent school and also an IEC with the firm Dunbar Educational Consultants. “I care about students’ mental health and getting them through this phase without feeling low at the end. One of my main goals is to navigate this stage so they are not devastated. And be an advocate for kids and parents.”

Not only has the college prep journey become fraught with anxiety, there are multiple challenges confronting families: from how to budget to grappling with buzzwords such as “pointy kid,” the opposite of “well-rounded.” With the former, some consultants or counselors might steer parents toward the concept that if your child has a singular strength, their focus should be channeled toward that talent, be it debate champion, cello aficionado, or star wide receiver. 

“It’s more about depth, I think, and not just checking the boxes, or that (the student) superficially dabbled in a bunch of things,” says Tate. “More and more, schools are looking for kids who care about something. In this generation, they’re trying so hard to stay (above water), so for them to care about things — schools and universities are looking for intellectually curious kids. That’s very rare.”

The nature of the college search and application process has been stressful for years, but it has ratcheted up with the proliferation of IECs and an increase in applicants that has led to lower acceptance rates at elite schools. 

According to U.S. News & World Report, Princeton was tied with Dartmouth and Duke with a 6% acceptance rate for the Class of 2026. California Institute of Technology and Harvard were tied for the top spot with a 3% acceptance rate. 

The drive for families that want their kids to attend elite schools has resulted in at least one international scandal, the 2019 “Varsity Blues” pay-for-play federal case. Prosecutors charged dozens of people — including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — with mail fraud. William “Rick” Singer was at the center of the controversy, having doctored test scores and bribed school officials to get students admitted into elite schools. In January 2023, he was sentenced to 3½ years in prison. 

Some families are willing to pay IEC firms such as Command Education more than what one year of college tuition costs for college prep work. 

Josh Stephens ’97, an independent college counselor based in Los Angeles, isn’t buying what he calls “a fancy marketing campaign.”

“As far as I can tell, (Rim) is a public relations fantasy. He talks a big talk, and parents may be saying to themselves, ‘What if (Rim) does have a magic formula?’ But I guarantee you, he does not,” says Stephens, who has been working in the independent college counselor field for more than 15 years. “(Rim) may charge $100,000 per client, but there is no verification of who is paying. It could be one family, or many suckers. He seems like a salesman with no indication he is much of an educator.”

Stephens, who also taught at the Archer School in Los Angeles, says that while aspects of his field have changed in significant ways — including parents and students having access to information “at their fingertips” via the internet and smartphones — he still believes in a conservative approach for when families should begin the college research process.

“I’m much more gradual,” says Stephens. “When I’m approached by the family of a freshman or sophomore, I will do a little consulting, but I will say, ‘I do not want to be intensively involved, I do not want to run your life, and I will give you food for thought. I want (the child) to be self-motivated, discover (their) talents, then come back to me in junior year spring, and we’ll do the college choice process.’ You are more mature then. You know more of who you are in junior spring than you do sophomore spring.”

Stephens says the majority of his clients come from public high schools, where college counselor departments are often small and serve large student bodies.  

“If a student goes to [private schools such as] Andover or Harvard-Westlake, they know they have competent counselors on hand,” says Stephens. “A public school student simply might not. Or those individuals might be competent in the purely administrative sense, and not looking to really advise the student. I’m trying to give students what they would get if they were paying $50,000 at a Harvard-Westlake or a Spence.”

Chris Torino, assistant head of school for the private Episcopal Academy in suburban Philadelphia and leader of its college counseling office, says one of the school’s more recent efforts has been to start college guidance conversations earlier, “in the hopes of reducing the pressure and anxiety that are tied to the college process.” 

“We are working toward our college counselors playing a more active role in helping younger students think about what they want to get out of their high school experience, what passions they might like to pursue, and where and how they want to challenge themselves,” said Torino. “Counseling can be part of the identity work that is so common to 9th grade and not pressurized with talk about college just yet. We encourage students to leave the college list building until junior year.”

Tate, a mother of four and who is married to a Princetonian, too, has a unique perspective having previously worked at a public school in that same counselor role. But whether it’s providing college guidance to a student body of 700 or 70, the challenges and pressures are greater than ever.

“There’s definitely a different kind of stress on school counselors these days, and so many more responsibilities,” said Tate. “I started working back at my old public high school (in Florida) as the only college counselor in the student services department six years ago. The school counselors there don’t get all the professional development I do, don’t get to leave school and go to conferences or go on counselor retreats. I can do all those things as a counselor at my private school now. The needs in public school are too great — college counseling is the last thing on the priority list sometimes.”

Tate adds that other issues may take precedence at a public school, including individualized education programs (IEPs), mental health counseling, or mental health referrals. She says public schools tend to have “constant emergencies.” 

“When I worked at a public high school, I came home more exhausted than I’ve ever been,” says Tate. “High stress.”

One strategy that Stephens says he encourages families to do is come up with a list of “likely” schools — ones that, when compiling all the data and guidance information during the college search process, seem to be more realistic choices.

“It’s increasingly hard to predict where the student gets in,” says Stephens. “I encourage students to make a balanced list, and to get excited about all the schools on your list. You’re going to get into some of them.”

Christian Red is a freelance writer based in northeastern Pennsylvania.