The Tucson Advantage

The Internet has disrupted many businesses, including college counseling. Using e-mail and Zoom, it is now possible to hire a counselor who does not live and work in Tucson.

But is that a good idea? If you are a Tucson parent considering hiring an out-of-town counselor, here are a few things you should know.

Understand your local options

When you search the Internet for college counselors in Tucson, you may find several national firms in the results. At least one national firm lists local high schools and wealthier suburbs on the website that Google serves up to prospective Tucson customers – too bad that the firm is in Atlanta (its telephone number is one clue). This firm has similar websites for a dozen other cities.

Ask prospective counselors where they live and work.

Will national counselors do a better job?

Don’t bet on it.

As Mark Twain once said, “[a]n expert is an ordinary fellow from another town.” Similarly, without more information, an out-of-area counselor is merely a counselor with an Internet connection.

Here are some questions to ask when evaluating the suitability of a national college counseling firm.

Which counselor will assist my family?

Most national firms have more than one counselor on staff. Identify the counselor who will work with your family; it may not be the supposedly well-known counselor listed on their website.

Be particularly wary if you are offered a “team” of counselors; it takes a long time to get to know students and earn their trust – this is not a task easily divided.

How much effort will the counselor devote to my family?

Ask how many clients the counselor will handle in the coming college application season. Here is one national firm’s promise:

At [our company], counselors limit their practice to 30 students per grade level, despite the fact that we receive far more requests, and because taking on additional students would compromise the quality and responsiveness of our service. 

Let’s do the math. Even if we assume that most of their clients are high school juniors and seniors, that means each counselor is expected to handle up to sixty students. After deducting time for administrative tasks, attending conferences, and touring colleges, each counselor has at most 2,000 hours of time to devote to students. Here’s your result:  your student will receive about 35 hours of the counselor’s time.

You and your student need – and deserve – more effort. I spend at least 100 hours per student. See Why Hire Me? for a more detailed explanation of why I believe this time is well spent.

How do I know whether the counselor who will assist our family is skilled?

There are no required degrees or certificates required to be a college counselor. This means that counselors come from all walks of life and have varying experience and ability.

The best counselors do several things well. We interview parents and students about students’ interests, academic strengths and weaknesses, and extra-curricular activities. We conduct extensive research and recommend “best fit” colleges for a student. Finally, we help students craft a successful application, including editing (but not writing) essays.

Some counselors will point to their experience as admissions officers, on the theory that only a former applications “judge” can create a winning application. But judging is not the same as “doing.” Their experience working for a college was likely limited to applying very specific admissions guidelines dictated by that college.

Over my 27-year career as a white-collar crime prosecutor, I interviewed countless numbers of victims, witnesses, and experts, conducted extensive Internet research (see the posts on this blog for examples), and persuaded untold decision-makers of the merits of my cases. Those skills transfer very well to my college counseling practice.

Hiring an affordable counselor

Most college counselors do not reveal their fees. I am not like most counselors, so let’s compare.

As of this writing, I charge $50 per hour for distinct services, such as essay review. I charge $3,500 per client for the full range of my services. As mentioned previously, I spend at least 100 hours working for each client.

I accept a maximum of five clients each season so that I can spend the time needed to obtain a high-quality result for each. Because I approach this as an “encore career” (see About Me), I can charge much less than my competitors.

National firms are unlikely to devote that amount of time. Go ahead and ask them – I’d like to become acquainted with counselors who match my services and fees.

National firms typically charge more than I do – often a whole lot more. Consider this article in the New York Times about the 2018 admissions season. See Note the student (Ms. Hamel), whose counselor collected $8,000.

At the pinnacle of pricing, we have national firms that charge about $1,000 per hour. See; and (for a particularly spirited defense of indefensible fees).

And while newspapers gravitate toward the sensational, the following paragraph from a story about a counselor who charged one family $1.5 million (!) contains usable data.

The fee charged [client] is exponentially higher than the industry norm, where independent counselors charge anywhere from $85 to $350 an hour and comprehensive packages range from $850 to $10,000, according to a January survey by the Independent Education Counselors ­Association.

As you can see, my fees are at the very low end of that range.

What is the “Tucson advantage”?

I provide local knowledge, increased flexibility, greater student accountability, and a rapport between counselor and student that comes only from face-to-face contact.

How do counselors know which colleges fit an applicant? In addition to conducting research via the Internet, we talk to students and parents, together and separately. We do this often throughout the process because students’ preferences and expectations change in subtle but important ways as they mature and become more focused on colleges.

It is best to have those conversations face-to-face. Occasionally parents’ and students’ expectations diverge; at such moments, a Zoom conversation is probably not the best way to intuit what is happening and what to do about it.

Students and parents benefit from a counselor’s presence. One student insisted that I come to his home to review his Common Application in person to check that every comma and period was in its proper place before he submitted it electronically. Given that I could do this on-line, was a personal visit strictly necessary? No. Did it help the confidence of the student and his parents? Yes, and driving a few miles was a small price to pay.

Brainstorming essays is often easier in person. Students are in their own environment, away from a camera, and more relaxed.

This approach also avoids the annoying aspects of electronic communications. Zoom connections sometimes fail, and e-mails fail to convey tone well.

Are face-to-face communications safe at this time?  I admit that I still avoid them even though I have received the COVID vaccine.  However, I will attend an outdoor meeting with a student — or even a family — where everyone is vaccinated when it is clear that Zoom just will not do.

My student has special needs – do I need to consult with someone outside Tucson?

Please see Students With Special Needs / Disabilities to understand the students I am referring to here, and the services I provide to them and their families.

There are nationally renowned counselors who specialize in college counseling for these students. Alas, none of these experts reside in Tucson.

Another, larger, group of counselors – like me – attend those experts’ training sessions and use that information when assisting special needs students and their parents locally. This combination of expertise and knowledge provides our clients with the best of both worlds.

I use my local knowledge to identify professionals in Tucson, such as neuropsychologists, you may need during the college application process. As an Associate Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, I am also able to rely on a network of colleagues to identify the same resources where your student will attend college.

I am the only trained counselor practicing in Tucson specializing in students with special needs, and would be pleased to help your family.