Finding a Good Grade School, for a Fee
As admission to selective schools grows more competitive, consultants offer families help
Megan Kallstrom had stellar grades, strong test scores, and sterling recommendations from her middle school teachers. But her mother, Rosemary Morgan, worried that wouldn't be enough to get her into the Marin Academy in San Rafael, Calif. The private high school, coveted for its emphasis on the arts and the outdoors, accepted only 1 in 5 applicants for the 2007-08 academic year.
So Mom turned to two well-known San Francisco Bay area education consultants for help. The consultants, Betsy Little and Paula Molligan, gave the family the inside scoop on Marin and other suitable schools, kept them abreast of every orientation and every deadline, and even prepared Megan for her admission interview. Their fee: $2,500.
"She was very blessed to have a choice," Morgan says of her daughter, who was accepted at four of five schools, including Marin, where she started on August 27. "Some of her friends were rejected or wait-listed."
As competition grows for entry into the "right" schools, more parents are turning to consultants for guidance, paying anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars per child. Consultants can assess how a child stacks up against the competition, tap into their network of contacts at a particular school, and advocate on a client's behalf. But the most common benefit they offer parents seems to be peace of mind that they made every effort.
Appropriate. Consultants are no guarantee of getting in, and the national PTA warns about "double-dipping" consultants who steer clients to schools that also pay the consultant. Jan Harp Domene, PTA president, says the resources and services that consultants offer are available to anyone free of charge. "Parents need to invest the time and not expect a professional to replace them as the person who knows what is best for their child," Domene says.
Consultants say they act as guides to finding a school that best matches the child. "I'm very clear that you don't need a consultant ... to gain admission to a school," says Washington, D.C., area consultant Jean Baldwin, who is a former admission director of a private grade school. "What's really important is that parents are applying to the appropriate schools. And that's where I think I can help."
Admission directors at selective schools say consultants can be useful for families who are overwhelmed by the choices and the process but warn that a consultant won't push a child to the top of the list. "Consultants can reassure families around the process," says Dan Babior, the admission director of Marin Academy. "But there is only so much a family can have control over."
The day-school consulting business appears to be booming. Consultants—who often come from previous careers as teachers and admission officers at independent schools—are booked a year in advance, and some have already stopped taking clients for the 2008-09 school year. Their business mostly comes through word of mouth. The Independent Educational Consultants Association estimates that 400 to 500 consultants offer advice on day schools, a number that is on the rise. Mark Sklarow, the organization's executive director, says the variety of choices confronting parents is fueling the demand.
Most families who hire these consultants are wealthy, but that is changing, too. "I see everyone from the rich and famous to those who are middle-income who say, 'My kids are the most important thing, so I'm going to spend the money,'" says Adam Goldberg, a consultant in Boston.
For the Kanes, a Roman Catholic family whose first daughter was at risk of languishing in a preschool classroom at a public school in Arlington, Va., a consultant—Jean Baldwin—made a big difference. Baldwin gave their 4-year-old Marie Therese an aptitude test and peppered the Kanes with questions about their preferences. They ultimately determined that a faith-based school with smaller classes would be best.
Baldwin's help cost them roughly $750. Now Marie Therese is entering middle school, and the Kanes—happy with the results—returned to Baldwin for help with their three other daughters, ages 5, 7, and 10. "Some people spend so much money on skiing and golf," says the girls' mother, Olivia Kane, a former high school administrator. "What is a couple hundred dollars when you're talking about the personal growth of a child?"
This story appears in the September 10, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.