They want to sell your kid

...to Harvard or Stanford or wherever you think he should go. And it will cost you only $45,000.

By Penelope Wang, Money Magazine senior writer

(Money Magazine) -- To improve her chances of getting into a good college, Caitlin Pickavance, a 17-year-old high school senior from Danville, Calif., has been working with a private college coach since her freshman year (cost: $800).

She gets tutored in math ($1,400), takes an ACT prep class ($900) and participates in afterschool enrichment activities ($1,350). Then there's the good-will mission to Belize she went on last spring ($1,375) and the classes she took this summer at the University of Salamanca in Spain ($7,000) in hopes of further buffing her résumé.

caitlin_pickavance.03.jpg
Caitlin Pickavance, 17, Danville, Calif. Applying to: Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, San Diego State... Admissions prep cost: $12,825 (so far)
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Josh Rosenthal, 20, Morristown, N.J.... Attending: Emory... Admissions prep cost: $7,000
rose_cao.03.jpg
Rose Cao, 18, San Diego... Attending: Harvard... Admissions prep cost: $0
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Total spent to date: $12,825.

"It's not about the money," says her mom Cathy, who had to tap Caitlin's 529 account to pay for her study abroad. "The stress is, oh my gosh, will my child get into the college she wants?"

Welcome to the admissions arms race. In an era when fewer than one out of five applicants are accepted by top schools and media hype about the crazy competitiveness of getting into college has whipped families into a frenzy, parents face a difficult question: What price are you willing to pay to boost the chances that your child is the one who gets in?

The answer lately seems to be, whatever it takes. To give their kids an edge over the competition, families are shelling out thousands for costly college prep services, from private SAT tutors and college advisers to enrichment trips to exotic locales (trek through Tibet, anyone?).

Add it all up and you could easily spend the cost of a year of college just getting your child into college.

Are all these high-priced extras really necessary? Well, there's no denying the fact that it's tougher than ever to get into elite colleges. After all, there are more high school seniors competing for the same spaces - some 3.2 million last year, up 28% over the past 10 years.

But what's really fueling the madness is what you might call the admissions industrial complex. This loose assortment of interests, ranging from one-person consulting outfits to test prep giants to the colleges themselves, stands to benefit by convincing you that your child's future depends on going to a brand-name school.

"College admissions has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry," says Lloyd Thacker, head of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group that seeks to reform the admissions process. "And it preys on the anxiety of parents and kids."

Worst of all, this angst is unnecessary. Truth is, there's a large element of randomness in the admissions process at elite colleges (unless you're planning to donate a building).

Moreover, research shows that your child will do fine in life as long as she has a fulfilling college experience - and that doesn't require a brand-name degree.

Here's what you need to know about how the admissions industrial complex works, the behind-the-scenes players who wield influence over the admissions process and the best way to target your college prep dollars.

The parent traps

The marketing barrage typically begins early in your child's high school career. Solicitations from college counselors and other handlers start flooding your mailbox, and you have to evaluate what they're selling and whether it works.

Test prep and tutoring Forget the old days (that is, your day) when hiring help to prepare for standardized tests meant paying a couple of hundred dollars for an SAT review class that you took with a bunch of other kids.

Today the $2.3 billion test prep industry, dominated by Kaplan and Princeton Review, offers a bewildering array of services at different prices. There's online review ($99 and up), big classes (typically $1,000) and small groups ($1,500), as well as one-on-one tutoring (20 or so sessions for $2,700 to $8,000, depending on the tutor's experience).

There are also a growing number of local companies that cater to upper-middle-class and wealthy families who are willing to pay even more.

Consider Advantage Testing, a tutoring and test prep firm with offices in New York City, Houston and 12 other areas. Rates range from $80 to $165 for a typical 50-minute session, but top tutors charge $500 or more. To hire company founder Arun Alagappan, a former lawyer, you pay attorney-like fees of $685 a session. But he is booked two years in advance.

The fees might be worth it if the tutoring actually delivered results. There's no way to know for sure, however. Although the prep companies say that coaching increases scores by about 100 or more points (for the old two-part SAT), there is little independent research to back up their claims.

In any case, a chunk of the purported increase may be attributed to what's known as the practice effect - studies show that scores increase 30 points on average between a student's junior and senior years as repeat test takers become more familiar with the kinds of questions asked.

And while some kids do rack up much higher scores after tutoring, others like Lianna Bishop, now 21 and a senior at Marquette University, don't go up a point.

"The course cost us $600," says her mother Jo Ann. "After that we thought, this is not what we should be spending our money on."

Private college counseling Wouldn't it be great if someone could tell you exactly what to do to get your kid into Yale? Enter the private college consultant, whose ranks have doubled to 3,000 in just the past three years or so, reports the Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Va.

For a typical fee of $1,500 to $3,300 for a year or two of guidance, these coaches will assist you in drawing up a list of colleges, advise on the application process and even help choose which high school courses to take.

Just how qualified they are for the task varies: Although many are former admissions officers or high school counselors, increasingly parents whose only experience is shepherding their own kids into top schools are hanging out shingles as well.

Then there are the superstar counselors, such as Katherine Cohen of Ivywise in New York City or Michele Hernandez of Hernandez College Consulting in Weybridge, Vt. They charge up to $40,000 for several years of guidance.

For this deluxe service, Cohen will videotape mock college interviews to help students polish their social skills. Hernandez draws up reading lists for students as early as eighth grade. Both claim that the overwhelming majority of their clients get into their first-choice colleges.

For students who don't get adequate college counseling at school - and that's the case at many public high schools - a good private consultant can be helpful. But given the low acceptance rates at top schools, there's no guarantee that even the most expert coaching will help your kid go Ivy.

The records of superstar consultants look impressive in part because they often take on only the students who are most likely be admitted to elite colleges. And hiring a consultant may even backfire, since admissions officials can often spot kids who are packaged.

Says Tom Parker, admissions dean at Amherst College: "When a kid who hasn't done any community service for 17 years suddenly becomes beyond Gandhi-like, you know something's going on."

Summer enrichment classes An eye-catching, wallet-draining exotic travel program or summer session at an Ivy League college can seem like a great way to make your kid stand out on a college application. Certainly the strategy has become more popular as the sell has gotten that much harder.

Just consider the range of choices: At Harvard's summer program, your child can attend seminars on the Holocaust or Bob Dylan ($8,000). Through Lifeworks, she can do community service and environmental work in the Galapagos Islands ($5,000). And the group Where There Be Dragons will arrange for treks through Tibet or study of rural development in Guatemala ($6,000 to $7,000).

All of these can be terrific experiences. But a teen tour won't move your kid to top of the admissions pile. "We know about these programs," says William Fitzsimmons, admissions dean at Harvard. "A kid in eighth grade goes off on an exotic experience that eventually becomes the subject of an essay - we see a lot of that."

Which undercuts the rationale for the expenditure - separating your child from the pack.

The good news is that a bright kid who lives a normal life can still get into a good school. Josh Rosenthal, now 20, spent summers during high school at a small family-run camp in Huntingdon, Pa., where he biked and did community service work with disabled children - just because he enjoyed it.

"I really didn't think about putting my summers on my college applications," he says, though he did end up including them. Josh applied early to Emory University and got in.

Behind the scenes

Colleges help stir up the admissions frenzy, hoping to appear more selective. They commonly game the ranking systems in two ways:

Enrollment management Using predictive modeling software, enrollment managers try to figure out how likely it is that particular students will enroll based on demographic factors, academic records, projected majors, financial aid required and even how often they call or e-mail the school.

These techniques help colleges boost their yield - the number of accepted students who actually enroll.

But what's good for the college isn't necessarily good for your child. A student who isn't expected to enroll may be rejected, despite being more qualified than others, to avoid bringing down the school's yield numbers.

"I had a top student interested in science wait-listed by a liberal arts college, even though it was less selective," says Jon Reider, a college counselor at San Francisco University High School. "When I asked why, the enrollment manager told me, 'Our models predicted he wouldn't come. Boys who like science don't go to our school.' He ended up at Skidmore."

Marketing and recruiting As early as sophomore year of high school, the deluge of college brochures, postcards and other mailings begins - about 200 in all, on average.

Taking a cue from credit-card issuers, some schools even send top students prefilled fast-track applications, known as "snap apps," which imply, but don't promise, acceptance. To further boost their appeal, schools are spending on everything from website upgrades to podcasts to recruiting trips by admissions officers.

All told, college marketing expenditures are growing at a 5% to 10% annual rate, hitting nearly $1.5 billion last year.

Granted, a struggling liberal arts college may need a splashy marketing campaign to boost enrollment. And even well-known schools must spend heavily on recruiting to attract the best students possible.

But there's a hidden agenda in these recruitment drives - they lead to a higher rate of rejections. "The college's goal is to boost application numbers so they can lower their admit rate," says Rachel Toor, a former Duke admissions officer and author of Admissions Confidential.

The lower the acceptance rate, of course, the higher the college ranking. That, in turn, will attract even more applicants, which only increases your child's chances of being rejected.

Your plan of attack

So what should you be doing to ramp down the stress and the spending yet still ensure that your child gets the best education? Try these strategies:

Pick the schooling, not the school The crazy competition for freshman slots is actually confined to about 150 schools - in particular the top 50 in the "U.S. News & World Report" college rankings.

But there are more than 2,200 four-year institutions in the country, which accept 70% of applicants on average. Many parents steer their kids toward elite schools thinking that a brand-name B.A. confers a crucial advantage.

But if the student is bright, she'll do just as well as an Ivy grad later in life even with a degree from a less selective college. That was the finding of a 1999 Princeton study that looked at the outcomes of students who'd been accepted at an Ivy or similar college but chose to attend a less selective school.

That doesn't mean you should discourage your child from aiming for an elite school. But be realistic - deluged by applicants, admissions officers have a tough time making meaningful distinctions among them. At the top colleges, says Toor, "you could take the entire admitted class, wipe it out and admit the next group of candidates, and you wouldn't see much difference."

If you look beyond the Ivies, moreover, you will see that there are many schools, especially small liberal arts colleges, where your child can receive an education that rivals or even surpasses the Ivy League.

"At the Ivies you may be taught by a teaching assistant, while at a small college you can become friends with the professor," says former college counselor Loren Pope, author of "Colleges That Change Lives."

These schools are also where you'll find some of the most innovative offerings. Says Bruce Hammond, co-author of The Fiske Guide to Getting into the Right College: "The less well known colleges have led the way in developing programs such as study abroad, great internships and opportunities for doing advanced research that you wouldn't find at an Ivy."

Target your spending Instead of throwing money at any service that promises to ease your kid's path to Dream U., figure out the specific kind of help he needs most, then look for reasonably priced options. If your child lacks expert college guidance, a private consultant can make sense, but you may need only one or two sessions to help draw up a list of suitable colleges, vet essay topics and create a calendar that sets out a work-flow plan.

For test prep, look for free review classes through your school or consider a group class instead of pricier one-on-one tutoring.

This low-cost approach worked for Rose Cao, 18, from San Diego. "We had advisers and free SAT classes," says Cao, who applied to 15 schools. "We couldn't afford the kind of guidance that others had, so I had to prepare the essays on my own."

She was accepted by 12 colleges and is now a freshman at Harvard.

Be strategic in applying By doing a bit of research, you and your child can come up with a list of colleges that he or she would be happy to attend, including safety schools where your kid's grades and test scores are above average, match schools that are a natural fit, and reach schools where the odds of acceptance are lower.

But if your child has a first choice that might be considered a safety school, he should let the admissions office know - that way he won't be rejected by the school simply to prevent yield numbers from falling.

Follow your student's lead The best strategy of all, says Cigus Vanni, college counselor at Cherry Hill High School West in New Jersey and a former Swarthmore admissions officer, is to support your child's interests by investing in activities that help her explore them - whether that's studying oceanography or making films.

"Colleges look for kids who have demonstrated a passion for learning and achieving that feels authentic," says Vanni. "And that's what's going to carry your kids through life after graduation."

In the end, where they go to college won't determine how far they'll go.

Additional Reporting by Asa Fitch and Ingrid Tharasook  Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.