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Buying into Harvard
As the stakes get higher, some parents are opting for private tutors and college counselors.
March 24, 2005: 1:02 PM EST
By Deshundra Jefferson, CNN/Money staff writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Congratulations, your kid did well on the SAT. But the girl next door did even better.

Relax. Test scores are not -- or should not be -- about keeping up with the neighbors.

Still, all parents want their kid to do well. So in the hyper-competitive college admissions game, many are turning to coaches for help.

"A lot of it is that if you don't do it, you don't feel like you are doing the right thing for your child," said Lisa Jacobson, CEO of private prep test firm Inspirica.

Whether because of parental guilt or heightened competition, the number of companies offering private test preparation services and private college admissions guidance is rising.

The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) says its membership base has grown to 450 from 250 roughly five years earlier. Executive Director Mark H. Sklarow also predicts the group's membership will swell to 850 within the next three to five years.

Inspirica charges $125 to $400 an hour for private test coaching and has tutors who are available, as Jacobson notes, "to fly all over the world."

Test prep titans Kaplan and The Princeton Review also offer private coaching. The Princeton Review, for example, offers a standard tutor package featuring 18 hours of instruction, four practice tests, and access to their online student center for $2,000.

Howard Greene, an author and independent college admissions counselor who runs Howard Greene and Associates, specializes in college consulting. Prices run from $750 for a private meeting that includes a review of the student's curriculum for the current and upcoming academic year, tests taken, and help developing a specific list of schools that may fit the student's needs. Ongoing counseling is available for $6,000.

IvyWise, a New York-based college consulting firm, charges $1,000 for a 90-minute initial consultation to $32,995 for a two-year, 100-hour plus program working with founder Dr. Katherine Cohen. The service boasts impressive list of statistics of former students, noting that 75 percent of their clients have gone on to Ivy League schools.

Buying Johnny's way into Harvard?

Private test coaching and individual college should be viewed as an investment in your child's abilities rather than a guarantee that young Johnny will earn a spot in Harvard's incoming class or any other top tier school.

"We do not advertise ourselves as shoehorning kids into certain Ivy-type colleges. Anyone who advertises that is bogus," said Greene, also a former Princeton admissions officer. "Only admissions counselors at colleges decide who they are going to admit."

Another thing parents should consider is the amount of pressure they are putting on their children. Ed Carroll, the tutoring director for the Princeton Review's Princeton, N.J. office, notes that parents and students are beginning to prepare for college much sooner.

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SATs are typically taken at the end of a student's junior year, or early senior year at the latest. But Carroll says that he is seeing more kids preparing for the exam the summer after their sophomore year as opposed to taking a short-course right before the exam.

Repeated exposure to the test breeds familiarity, but Carroll cautions parents to consider that time spent studying for the test takes away from other activities.

"I have always been a proponent of being 16," he said. "You need to call your friends. You need to go to the movies. You need to adjust to growing up."

Unfair advantage?

Private test coaching and college counseling aren't the only things giving students a leg up over their unschooled peers. Socioeconomic factors also weigh in, as most of the children who participate in these sort of programs come from upper-middle class backgrounds.

"This has always concerned me," said Greene. "My team and I do a lot of pro bono work. We are on various non-profit boards that work with kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds."

Carroll says his company works with a number of organizations, such as the Peter J. Sharp Foundation, that either subsidize or cover the cost of tuition for lower-income students. IvyWise also accepts a number of pro bono cases, with Cohen estimating that one in seven students receives such services.

The middle-class isn't exactly missing out either, as some parents opt to invest in these types of programs. Still, a number of students who have forgone private tutoring in favor of classroom or self-instruction have gone on to the Ivies.

Similarly, a number of students picked a college that was right for them without any guidance save their parents and high school counselors.

As the stakes get higher, however, parents and students just want an extra bit of reassurance.

"I think that parents and students would rather do too much rather than too little," Carroll concluded.  Top of page

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