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Families Seek Help With College

By Jilian Mincer

Jan 15, 2009 (WALL STREET JOURNAL) -- Unemployment is soaring, retirement plans are sinking, but the college-advisory business is booming. Test-prep classes have become the norm, and more parents are hiring educational consultants. "People may be giving up lattes and other expenses, but they're passionate about having options in education," says Joan Koven, owner of Academic Access in Havertown, Pa.

There's still enormous competition to get into the top-tier schools, many of which offer the most generous aid packages and long-term job security. Families also hope that by spending thousands up-front on test prep and private counselors, they'll save more long-term if junior snags a scholarship or a spot at a prestigious public university.

"Some kids don't come to get into a better school; they come to get themselves eligible for scholarship money," says Matthew Joseph, owner of MJ Test Prep in Bryn Mawr, Pa. He says parents are asking more questions about the fees, which range from $150 to $285 for an hour of private tutoring, but business was up 30% in 2008.

Seppy Basili, senior vice president at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions in New York, says enrollment was up 20% between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30 for its pre-college program, which costs $1,099 for a class and $2,799 for 20 private sessions. "It's going to be a very, very competitive year," he says. "Applications are going to surge, and state schools are going to start capping enrollment."

Joseph Iovino, director of marketing for private tutoring at the Princeton Review, which charges $2,830 to $9,500 for a package of 25 private SAT tutoring sessions, says: "There is competition out there not only to get into schools, but also for financial aid."

The financial crisis has made the situation more complicated as applications to public universities have soared. Clemson University has seen a 10% rise in in-state applications; University of Idaho, an 18% increase; and the University of Central Florida, an 18% increase.

The application process itself is more complicated, says David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a nonprofit organization that represents high-school counselors and college admissions officers. Students don't know where they will get in so they now apply on average to five to seven schools, and many send applications to 10 or more colleges. They also take multiple entrance exams, including ACTs, SATS and subject-area SATs.

Parents turn to professionals for help.

"These are parents who are used to outsourcing a lot of stuff," says Ida Hyman, a private counselor in New York. "My goal is to make a good match and to make it easier on the parents," she says.

Diane Alten of Newton, Mass., hired a college coach for her 18-year-old son, William Share. "It gets the parent out of the situation," says Ms. Alten. "You're still part of the process, but it's much less difficult."

Barbara Garrett of Miami says the college-application process "could've been a total nightmare" for her daughter, Lena. The counselor at her daughter's private school was on maternity leave, and hiring Bari Norman, who had worked in admissions at Barnard College, made the process go more smoothly. Ms. Norman, who owns Expert Admissions, says she often begins working with students when they're in ninth or tenth grade.

"A good consultant can help you eliminate the number of schools you visit and apply to," says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultant Association, a national organization that represents private education advisers. "But I think the big payoff is that these kids are less likely to transfer," says Mr. Sklarow. "More than half of all freshmen leave the college before they graduate."

Clients, he says, used to come mostly from wealthy families. That's no longer the case. A 2007 summer survey of IECA members found that the average client has a family income of between $75,000 and $100,000.

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