How to Become a College Planning Consultant
If you can tell a Harvard student from a UC Berkeley student and know all there is to know about college, it's time to throw your mortarboard into the entrepreneurial arena by becoming a college planning consultant.
Busy lifestyles have spawned them. More than 4,100 institutions of higher learning have made them possible. Nearly 16 million students have created a demand for them. And now you can take advantage of today's ever-growing need for college admissions/financial aid consulting services by throwing your hat-or shall we say mortarboard?-into this interesting and rewarding arena.
Today's college planning consultants-or some call them educational consultants or college admissions/financial aid consulting professionals-offer a wide array of valuable services to students and their parents. For instance, they help steer students during their high school days to the academic, extracurricular and athletic pursuits that will increase their chances of being admitted to the college(s) of their choice. They help them wade through the mounds of paperwork necessary to apply for both admission and financial aid, and they make sure the forms are submitted on time. They also specialize in helping at-risk students, learning-disabled students and other nontraditional students achieve their highest potential.
Head of the Class
According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), some of the best and most capable educational consultants come from the ranks of the country's experienced academic advisors and counselors, who gain hands-on experience at both public and private universities, colleges, and secondary and elementary schools. (Or at any rate, they have the easiest time making the transition to educational consulting, given their background, says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the IECA. In addition, they often have titles like certified educational planner (CEP) or licensed educational psychologist, as well as an alphabet soup of other prestigious academic letters after their names, including Ph.D., MBA, M.A., Ed.D. (Doctor of Education), and Ed.M. (Master of Education). On the financial aid side, some consultants are even CPAs or credentialed financial planners.
Both this experience and educational background is important for someone who wishes to hang out a shingle as an educational consultant, because frankly, the college admissions field in general and the financial aid consulting industry in particular both have a rather unsavory reputation. The popular press frequently warns the public about shady consultants who gleefully scam unsuspecting families of limited means who are desperate to find the best college and/or aid package. They report that consultants charge ridiculous fees, up to and including an exorbitant percentage of the financial aid package. They've also written about how some unscrupulous consultants "guarantee" that they can get a child a full ride at a competitive university, then slink away, retainer fee in hand, leaving the student and his parents high and dry.
Then there are the dabblers, or the people whom Santa Fe, New Mexico, educational consultant Whitney Laughlin refers to as the "Mommy Corps." These are the aspiring consultants who come by their knowledge of the college application process from having shepherded an offspring or two through the experience, and may even have succeeded in getting said children admitted to a prominent university. They figure that having navigated the choppy waters of college admission successfully, they have the right stuff to turn their knowledge into a thriving career. In some cases, they have degrees themselves, although more often than not, those degrees are in fields other than education or counseling.
But what the dabblers usually don't have is insider knowledge of a wide variety of college campuses the way professional counselors do. They don't know the right people at the university level to contact for insight and information. They also don't have experience dealing with complex personalities and figuring out how to match kids to the institution where they'll thrive and grow. In short, they're trying to build a business without paying their dues-and that can be a real handicap when it comes to running a successful educational consultancy.
"The college admission process may seem intuitive, but it's based on a cumulative process of experience that includes visiting colleges; going to conferences, seminars and workshops; and knowing enough about various colleges to help students pick the right one," Sklarow says. "The person who says, 'I got my daughter into Bryn Mawr, and it was so much fun that I can't wait to help others get into college, too,' won't have enough knowledge to connect the right kid to the right college. You have to go out and visit 40 or 60 colleges, so when you meet a kid, you have an 'aha' moment and recognize that he seems like a Penn State kid, for example, rather than a Temple kid."
Getting an Education
Don't get us wrong. Our point here isn't to discourage you from pursuing a career in educational consulting if you don't have decades of academic counseling experience. It is possible to build a career in this field if you have the drive and determination, a willingness to invest time in professional development, and a commitment to excellence. But there's no question that people with previous admissions experience have an edge, and that it will take a lot of work to develop the knowledge and contacts you'll need to do the job right if you don't have that experience. And as Sklarow points out, you'll also have to travel extensively to visit college campuses and get to know what they offer, and it usually will be at your own expense. Universities generally pay expenses only for experienced consultants, since they're the ones who are most likely to make successful placements at their institutions.
The IECA estimates that in the United States, there are only about 2,000 educational consultants, 500 of whom belong to its organization. This is strictly a guess, because not everyone who provides educational consulting services chooses to join a professional membership association like IECA. But using that figure as a benchmark, that works out to about one consultant per 8,000 students (based on a student population of nearly 16 million). What's more, IECA says that some states-including Idaho and Oklahoma-do not yet have even a single educational consultant among their ranks.
Even the federal government doesn't track educational consultants as a specialized group. The closest thing to a classification for this group of professionals can be found in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-2007 Edition (U.S. Department of Labor). The handbook has a "Counselor" category with a subcategory that includes educational, vocational and school counselors who work primarily in elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities. It's reasonable to assume that the 248,000 individuals in that category are primarily employed by various organizations and schools. The rather vague "Counselors, all other" category, which numbers 25,000 people, is more likely to be where the independent consultants reside-but no one really knows for sure!
What is known is that the Department of Labor says that overall employment for counselors in general is expected to grow faster than average through 2014. So the opportunities for an enterprising consultant like yourself to forge a meaningful career doing something you love appear very bright indeed.
Who Needs You?
You'll find most of your clientele are likely to come from the following demographics:
- Busy parents who have neither the time nor the energy to do all the legwork necessary to find the right college for their kids
- Parents who value time more than money and would rather spend what free time they have on personal and/or family pursuits and pay someone to pore over college catalogs or applications for them
- Parents who want/need their kids to have more personal attention than is usually available from high school counselors. "School counselors are so overworked," Sklarow says. "On average, today's counselors have an average of 600 kids to counsel, or up to 1,000 or more in schools in large cities like Los Angeles. They're often dealing with drugs and alcohol, crisis intervention, and even lunchroom duty, so college counseling usually is a really low priority."
- Parents who know other people who use educational consultants and feel their kid(s) will be at a disadvantage if they don't use a consultant
- People who are overwhelmed by or impatient with the application process (so much paperwork, so little time!). This is especially true when it comes to financial aid, which of course must be reapplied for every year.
- Parents who are anxiety-ridden about getting their kids into the "best" schools. "It used to be simple: If a kid's SAT scores were good, she would go to Penn," says Sklarow. "If the SAT scores were lower, that same kid would go to Temple. Now, almost the entire senior year is given over to college anxiety."
- People who perceive educational consultants as insiders (which of course you will be once you establish the right contacts) and as a result are in the best position to help them make the wisest collegial decisions
So how can you serve these diverse audiences well? To begin with, you'll need to make the college circuit in person to glean as much insight as possible about local universities, Ivy League schools, Big 10 and other nationally known schools, or all of these, depending on your personal interests and your clients' choices. Because there are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States and only one you, you may wish to follow the lead of educational consultants who choose to specialize in particular fields or offer specialized services. For instance, there are counselors who focus on Ivy League placements, others who counsel learning disabled (LD) or at-risk kids, and still others who place athletes or performing arts students. Also, you'll need to get some education yourself, both as a business owner and as a student of educational consulting. We'll help you with both in subsequent chapters of this book.
On the Money
You're no doubt wondering whether the financial rewards of being an educational consultant are worth the significant efforts necessary to establish your business, considering all the traveling, fact-finding, student meetings, office administration, and other tasks you'll be doing. The short answer is: Yes, eventually.
"We typically tell new consultants that they are likely to have a net loss in the first year because of the learning, traveling, campus tours and office equipment they'll need," Sklarow says. "They can expect to break even or earn up to $15,000 in the second year, then be making a real salary in the third. The caution is: It all depends upon how effective you are in the marketing and promotion of your business."
Here's the scoop from IECA on how much you can earn once you get that academic ball rolling:
The average rate charged by educational consultants is $140 an hour, with a range of about $75 to $300. Sklarow says about a third of consultants charge by the hour. The average package cost for a college placement (typically starting in 10th or 11th grade through college enrollment) is $3,200, with a range of $750 to $7,500. There are exceptions to this rule, of course-we've heard of one consultant who charges (and gets) $30,000-but the only typical exception to this rule nationally is in New England, where the average is just under $4,000.
So let's do some math. If you have 10 paying customers who choose your $3,200 package, your gross annual income would be $32,000. Or if you counseled 25 kids a year-which is entirely feasible by your third year-you would earn $80,000 a year.
Conversely, if you counsel 10 hours a week at $150 an hour, your annual income for a 45-week year would be $67,500 (the other seven weeks would be set aside for vacation and travel to campuses). So as you can tell, there is some serious money to be made once your business is up and running. The trick is to make it through those lean and hungry early years.
There's a prevailing notion that private school, high school and college counselors make the best educational consultants because they have spent so much time with kids, have read students' files, are familiar with standardized tests and so on. But according to Sklarow, a counseling background isn't mandatory to be successful in this field.
"In my experience, counselors have the easiest time making the transition [from education to educational consulting]," he says. "They definitely get the one-on-one stuff. But although they understand the administrative part of counseling, they usually lack small-business skills. Also, they usually only know their own school or college and the surrounding area but usually not much beyond that. In addition, they usually don't see the learning-disabled kids or the ones who don't know what they want out of life. So they have a steep learning curve just like someone who doesn't come from academic counseling."
Conversely, Sklarow says that some of the other people who come to IECA, including everyone from lawyers to real estate agents, understand the small-business picture but lack the hands-on academic piece of the consulting pie. So what's an aspiring educational consultant to do? To begin with, look for a mentor who will allow you to work with him or her to learn the ropes. Then join an organization like IECA, the Higher Education Consultants Association, or the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
The college-planning services typically offered by an educational consultant include: l College search/selection advice: Matching a student to the college where he or she will fit in best and thrive is probably the consultant's most important job. Your insider knowledge about the student body, faculty and atmosphere of various educational institutions, which you'll glean from campus visits, will help you steer students toward the institution where they'll be most successful.
- Admissions process insight: Consultants share their behind-the-scenes knowledge of what it takes to be admitted to the most competitive colleges to give students the best chance of getting in.
- Application assistance: Consultants often help students fill in the blanks, then follow up with their student charges to make sure the applications are filed in time and with the correct application fee.
- Admission essay assistance: Consultants won't write an essay for a student, but they will look it over and offer advice on what information should go into it and how to make it more effective.
- College visit assistance: Consultants in the know can keep parents informed about college open houses and give advice on how to make the most of their college visits.
- Evaluation of high school activities: By reviewing a high school student's transcripts, test scores, extracurricular activities and other accomplishments, a consultant can advise a student on the right moves to make while still in high school, from taking rigorous college prep courses to participating in particular activities or being tutored to improve grades. Being able to show a history of excellence in various activities can make a college admissions officer take notice, thus improving a student's chances of being admitted.
When it comes to financial aid services, many educational consultants prefer to leave the financial aid consulting to people like accountants and certified financial planners. But it's not uncommon for them to offer advice and instruction on the basics of financial aid as a professional courtesy. For instance, they might give parents insight into how to pay for college or may direct them to scholarship resources. (Some educational consultants work with a financial planner and direct all questions about financial aid to that person when the need arises.) They also may help them fill out scholarship applications, which is a valued service for data-challenged people who don't have much time to spare or the patience necessary to work with the often-confusing forms,
What consultants don't do, however, is guarantee that a certain amount of financial aid will be awarded, or offer advice on how to work the system to make a student more eligible (e.g., by hiding parents' income or advising them to move assets into the student's name). Both are unethical practices and should be avoided like the plague to avoid any hint of scandal.
- The financial aid services most commonly offered by educational consultants are:
- Identification of funding sources/scholarship research
- Assistance with athletic and performing arts scholarship searches
- Assistance with financial forms and aid eligibility
A Day in the Life
While no two days are alike for educational consultants (which certainly can make things interesting), there will be certain tasks you can expect to do regularly, if not every day, in the course of plying your new trade. They include:
- Consulting with students and parents: It's common for consultants to offer services by the hour or as a package that includes several meetings. These consults can take place in your home office, the students' home or a neutral location.
- Handling office administration: This includes answering the phone, opening mail, handling accounts payable/receivable and paying bills.
- Purchasing: You'll have to buy supplies for the business (e.g., office supplies, refreshments to offer during consultations, etc.)
- Visiting college campuses: You'll be doing this to observe, gather intelligence and meet with college admissions officers, etc. (Later in the chapter we'll talk about this in more detail.)
- Making travel arrangements for college visits: Everything from airline and hotel reservations to mapping your driving route using MapQuest or the auto club falls into this category.
- Doing research: Since you're not likely to have the time or the financial resources to visit all the country's nearly 4,100 universities and colleges personally, you'll need to do most research remotely when you're starting out. You can use the internet to find out a lot about America's colleges, or you can write or call admissions officers for information. Also, once you get to know other educational consultants through professional organizations and campus tours, you'll be able to use them as resources, too. Meeting with high school counselors: Cultivate these professional relationships as a way to generate future referrals. Just be sure to assure them you're there to complement their services, not supplant them.
- Meetings with parent groups: Giving free workshops and seminars to parents of high school-age students on topics like "How to Fill out a College Application" or "The Five Things to Include in a College Essay" can reap a lot of future business from folks who realize they really don't want to do all the college admissions work themselves.
Networking: Hobnob with other professionals through organizations like the chamber of commerce, Rotary club and other civic organizations to create another good source of referrals.
- Pursuing professional development opportunities: Courses and seminars like the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA)'s Summer Training Institute for New Consultants can help you grow professionally and keep your skills updated.
The first year of a new educational consulting practice can be mighty lean, financially speaking. The main reason for this is that your first 12 months need to be devoted heavily to making the rounds of college campuses to learn about their programs, their environments and even their physical layouts.
"It takes at least a couple years to get established and work through the learning curve," says Steven Antonoff, a consultant from Colorado who's been in the business since 1981. "You have to make visits and be out there on campus. After the first two years, good consultants are out four to six weeks a year making visits because that's the best way to keep up with what's going on."
College visits are so important that even established educational consultants continue to visit college campuses-and some of them more than once. Charlotte Klaar, a Maryland-based consultant who started up in 1995, estimates she has visited more than 500 campuses in her career, while Joan Bress, who founded her Massachusetts consultancy in 1999, makes a one-week site visit each month. She focuses on all aspects of the college experience, from the social to the academic environment, and along the way talks with admissions people and faculty to get a well-rounded sense of what the institution is like and what it offers.
While New Mexico consultant Laughlin says she has personally visited 95 percent of the schools her kids have applied to because "it's something you can't do on a computer," it isn't necessary to visit every school that every student you counsel wishes to attend. For one thing, as Bress says, it doesn't always fit into her schedule to jump on a plane and make a site visit. When it's not convenient, she calls on her colleagues at IECA who either live near the college in question or have visited it. But, she says, "When I see trends, I make sure I go there."
Anatomy of a Consulting Program
While your slate of consulting services and the timetable on which they are delivered will be a very personal thing keyed to your particular interests, a typical admissions consulting package might look something like this:
Comprehensive College Selection Program
- Initial consultation (1 session): Describes the philosophy of the program and determines student and family needs
- Assessment of academic and extracurricular performance (2 to 3 sessions)
- Drafting of personal resume for the college selection process (1 session)
- Completion of the personal resume during a student/parent conference (1 session)
After one session to present the initial research list, additional consultations (as many as needed) for:
- Paring of research to arrive at an optimum list of six college applications
- Arranging itineraries for visits to college and university campuses
- Networking with admissions personnel on behalf of the student
- Determining the needs of the student and parents for need- or merit-based financial aid and assisting with the search for scholarship opportunities based on parameters stated at the conclusion of Stage I
- Strategizing the essay and other subjective application elements
- Assisting the student to meet deadlines for final applications
Source: James C. Heryer, College Guidance & Placement
Strike Up the Band
Now that you've laid the groundwork for your new college admissions and financial aid consulting practice, you're about to take a giant leap forward in its development. You're about to become an advertiser.
Experts say that businesses should plan to spend 2 to 5 percent of projected gross sales on advertising, even (or make that especially) during the lean early years. So what if you don't have much in the way of gross sales? You might have to use your second- or third-year projections to determine your budget. For example, if you use the $15,000 Year 2 projection figure suggested by Sklarow of IECA, your advertising budget would be just $300 to $750. If you project gross revenue of $40,000 in Year 3, your ad budget would be $800 to $2,000.
Most educational consultants finance these ad costs out of personal savings, especially considering how very low they are. And speaking of how paltry these figures may seem, you might think it's not possible to get much bang for your buck. Au contraire-it's all in how you spend that buck. So here's a look at some of the techniques that work best for educational consultants-and some that don't.
Creating a Brochure
Brochures are hands-down the best advertising vehicles you have because they allow you to present a fairly substantial amount of information in a compact package. A brochure can be as simple as a single-fold piece that fits into a standard No. 10 business envelope or as elaborate as an oversized multifold piece with pop-ups and die cuts. The rule of thumb for brochure printing used to be that you'd pay $1 per four-color piece. But today, with the internet and instant access to printing companies around the world, you'll pay much less. In fact, one printer we found online charges just $350 for 1,000 8.5-by-11-inch brochures, or 35 cents each, and will even lay out the brochure for an additional nominal charge.
If design is not your strong suit, you'll probably want to outsource the project, either to a professional freelance designer or to a college student majoring in art. You can find freelance designers listed in the Yellow Pages under "Graphic Designers." If you need a freelance writer to assist with the copywriting, you can find one in the Yellow Pages, too, under "Writers." The local university should also be able to direct you to a talented advertising or marketing major, as can any professional advertising organizations in your community.
Information that should be in an educational consultant's brochure includes:
- A list of services with descriptions
- A list of the schools where you've made placements (as soon as you have a list to speak of)
- Testimonials from satisfied customers (very important!)
- A description of your credentials
- Full contact info (name, address, phone, fax, website, e-mail address, etc.)
It's not necessary to publish your prices in your brochure. If you really want to divulge your prices upfront, as Sedona, Arizona, consultant Judge Mason does, you may want to have them printed on a separate piece of paper that can be tucked into the brochure. Otherwise, your brochure will be outdated every time you raise prices.
While the parents of college-bound teens are likely to be your largest target market, Steven Antonoff, the Denver consultant, points out that you should also target professionals like psychologists, pediatricians, and anyone else who works with kids in this age group. "I recommend sending 'update' letters to professionals who are interested in knowing the skinny about what's important to teens," Antonoff says. "These aren't 'I just want to remind you I'm here' letters. Instead, I might tell them about an article I ran across and tell them they might be interested in it, too, because they see a lot of teens. Then at the end of the letter, I remind them about my services. Good consultants need to do this because it gives them visibility."
Burlington, Vermont, educational consultant Sarah Soule uses a similar approach, but with a different audience. "Every fall, I send out a letter to friends and acquaintances who have kids entering their junior year to remind them I'm here," Soule says. "I've been very fortunate that they refer me to other people, so much so that all my clients have come from referrals."
High School Programs and Playbills
Programs that are either sold or given out at various high school activities can be reasonably good advertising tools, mainly because they go directly to the audience you wish to reach. Programs created for various high school activities like homecoming, theatrical performances, or graduation usually have ads in the back, and they're usually very inexpensive-perhaps $100 or so. Of course, in the case of graduation programs, your ad is not meant to reach the happy graduates or their parents as much as the parents of students who will be graduating next year or the year after that. On the other hand, research shows that 25 percent of college students do not graduate from the college they initially enroll in, so perhaps you might have an audience among the graduates' parents after all.
You usually don't even have to go to any expense to have the ad created. It's possible that either the students in the school's advertising or art classes will do the honors as a work-study program, or the program may be sent out to an outside company for typesetting. In any event, use the space to congratulate the graduates/athletes/thespians and give your name, business name and phone number. No hard sell is necessary, especially since as you know from an earlier discussion, it's quite common for people to save educational consultants' business cards and other information "just in case," then to call when "just in case" becomes "soon" or "now."
Pitfalls to Avoid
Now that you've completed the curriculum necessary to launch your own educational consulting business, you're ready to embark on your new life of college visits and admissions essays. You'll find this foray into self-employment will be exhilarating, satisfying and downright fun. After all, you'll be master of your own fate. You can work as much or as little as you wish to meet your financial and personal goals. You'll also never have a boss looking over your shoulder or a daily 5 a.m. wake-up call for a rush-hour drive to the office. And people will actually pay you for doing something you love. What could be better?
At the same time, you need to do a reality check. Underfunding can be a particular problem for college planning consultant businesses, since it's quite common for consultants to earn nothing or even have a net loss in the first couple of years. You'll need to have something to carry you through those first couple of lean years to the profits that are more likely to start showing up in Year 3. In fact, financial experts recommend having enough savings in a readily accessible account to cover six to 12 months of living expenses because you certainly don't want to have to shutter the business before it has a chance to ramp up just because you don't have enough cash on hand to meet your expenses. So before you launch the business, check your personal funding sources, then fill in the gaps with a source of funds like a line of credit or an unsecured personal loan. Then make sure you're frugal with the cash so it lasts.
Naturally, there are other reasons why businesses fail. According to SCORE, the 10 key reasons businesses fail include:
1. Lack of an adequate, viable business plan
2. Insufficient sales to sustain the business
3. Poor marketing plan: unappealing product, poor customer identification, incorrect pricing and lackluster promotion
4. Inadequate capital, misuse of capital and poor cost control
5. Poor management skills: lack of delegation, leadership and/or control
6. Lack of experience and knowledge
7. Lack of managerial focus/commitment
8. Poor customer service
9. Inadequate human resource management
10. Failure to properly use professional advice, i.e., accounting, legal, financial, etc.
It's important to note one last reason why some businesses don't survive: Their owners have trouble dealing with all the freedom mentioned above and instead slack off and neglect to spend as much time as they should on the business. If you have the dedication and commitment necessary to stay focused on your business when the temperature is perfect, the sky is blue and a boat or the mall is calling your name, then you should be able to make your business work. If not, then you might want to look into taking a time management course or two.
- American Institute of Certified Educational Planners Commission on Credentialing
- Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey
- College Access Consortium of New York
- Consortium of Vermont Colleges
- Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia
- Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling
- New Hampshire College & University Council
- All About College
- Campus Tours.com
- CollegeBound Network
- Collegiate Choice Walking Tours
- Common Application
- Inside Higher Education
- NEA Higher Education
- Private Colleges & Universities
- U.S. Department of Education Student Guide
- American Association of Employees and Self-Employed Persons
- The College Board
- Higher Education Consultants Association
- Independent Educational Consultants Association
- Learning Disabilities Association of America
- National Association for College Admission Counseling
- National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators
Publications and Books
- CollegeBound Teen Magazine
- College News Online
- Journal of Learning Disabilities
- Learning Disabilities Research & Practice
- Next STEP Magazine
- University Business
For even more resources and information on setting prices, establishing your home office, advertising methods, planning your marketing and more, visit SmallBizBooks.com to purchase the College Planning Consultant start-up guide.