Shortage of admissions advisers hampers US access drive

Many counsellors opting to work overseas or move into private practice

September 25, 2018
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Disadvantaged American students’ hopes of entering higher education are being hampered by a growing shortage of admissions counsellors in US schools.

Many counsellors are choosing to boost their earnings and escape unmanageable workloads in the schools sector by moving overseas to advise wealthy foreign applicants, or by moving into private practice.

The latest survey data from the National Association for College Admission Counselling, issued in February, show that US high schools have an average of one student counsellor per 281 students, exceeding the 250 maximum recommended by the American School Counsellor Association. When just counting the time that such counsellors spend on college advising, the number worsens to 314 students. The ratio further widens to 1:473 at large US high schools, and to 1:326 in a subset of poorer schools.

Another study this year, by the Brookings Institution, showed that black college graduates with a BA degree were five times more likely than white students to find themselves unable to pay back their student loans. The debts are often as little as $10,000 (£7,500), but are still too much for the typical salaries of such graduates.

Some wealthier US students are now spending more than that just on their private pre-college advising services. Examples include a four-day “application boot camp” in Boston costing $16,000 per student, and a chartered jet tour of colleges that can total $100,000 or more.

A group representing such private counsellors, the Independent Educational Consultants Association, is booming. It doubled in the past five years to nearly 2,000 members and expects another doubling in four years.

And the 16,000-member National Association for College Admission Counselling, at its annual conference this week in Salt Lake City, planned to join the consultants’ association in hosting a training session to help even more high school college counsellors make the move into private practice.

Joyce Smith, the NACAC’s president, said counsellors leaving high school positions were either being forced out by budget cuts or were nearing retirement age and seeking a lower-stress lifestyle. Occasional media reports about private counsellors charging wealthy families huge fees do not reflect the industry norm, she said.

Ms Smith said her association had lost about 100 members in recent years to overseas opportunities, mostly in China and India.

Among those who have made the move to Asia is Cory Zimmerman, formerly a college adviser at Sidwell Friends School – the private Washington DC institution known for educating the children of US presidents – who has taken a similar position at the Taipei American School in Taiwan.

“There is a lot of money to be had in this region for people who go independent,” said Mr Zimmerman, who said he knew of two other colleagues from Washington schools also now working in Asia.

Jessica Adams, an admissions adviser at Animas High School in Colorado, said that her love of her school, its students and its community mission were keeping her on staff for now. But she held out the possibility that she would try her hand at private practice one day and resented any suggestion that she should stay in a lower-paid position longer than she wants to because of the critical need in public schools.

“I don’t feel I can judge someone who chooses to leave because they’re putting their family first,” she said, “when in so many professions, you don’t even blink an eye.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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