Listen to an audio version of this story, by Kirk Carapezza of GBH Boston.
NEWTON, Mass. — Shannon Vasconcelos fired up her laptop in a sterile conference room in a suburban office park, and right on schedule a mother and her daughter popped onto her screen.
The two were in the Adirondacks on vacation, but not even that allowed them an escape from a process that had already begun to consume them: getting the daughter into college.
Vasconcelos’s job is to coach them through this. Calm and reassuring, she fielded a barrage of questions from the daughter, a high school junior who said she wants to attend an Ivy League school and that her family has $100,000 in a college savings account.
“If you’re at the academic level where getting into an Ivy League college is a possibility, that also means that you would likely be eligible for lots of great merit scholarship money” at slightly less-selective schools, Vasconcelos responded. “So that’s something to weigh.”
It’s advice she’s well equipped to give, as a former assistant director of financial aid at Tufts University and now senior director for college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach, which provides private counseling for college admissions. And it’s free to this family, a job perk offered by the mother’s employer.
A growing number of top companies are providing access to admissions counselors such as Vasconcelos as a benefit to their employees. These include JP Morgan Chase, American Express, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, EY, Paramount Pictures, Mastercard, Goodwin Law, Johnson & Johnson, VMWare and some venture capital and private equity firms.
These employers say that offering private coaching for college admissions as a perk — which typically costs around $140 an hour, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association — is a way to recruit and keep workers in a tight labor market with record-low job satisfaction and to prevent the stress of the admissions process from cutting into productivity.
Critics contend it’s just another advantage for wealthier parents over lower-income ones.
“They’re giving resources for free to individuals not only who could afford it, but who actually don’t need it,” said Anthony Abraham Jack, associate professor of higher education leadership at Boston University and author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.”
“It calls into question not just fairness, but equity, because the people in the companies and organizations that put you in the top 1 percent get more perks, more benefits, more freebies than those who actually need it and would benefit from it,” Jack said.
Seldom has the college admissions process been so complicated, after such high-profile developments as the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, resurgent criticism of legacy admissions and shifting requirements for standardized entrance tests.
Are colleges still test optional? What can applicants do to get a leg up? What characteristics are important to write about in an essay? Will there be any seats left after early admission ends?
To guide them through this minefield, most families rely on high school college counselors. But counselors in public high schools are responsible for an average of 430 students each, according to the American School Counselor Association. That’s well above the maximum 1:250 ratio the association recommends.
Free college coaching is the latest in a growing list of benefits to which companies have been resorting to bolster worker satisfaction, which last year fell to its lowest level in two decades, according to a survey by MetLife. Less than a third of U.S. workers report feeling engaged on the job, a separate Gallup survey found.
This has triggered a significant increase in family support benefits, the Society of Human Resource Management, or SHRM, reports. More companies are adding maternity and paternity leave on top of existing tuition assistance and in some cases help with student loan repayments.
Older workers with high school-age kids want their fair share, said Craig Copeland, director of wealth benefits research at the Employee Benefit Research Institute, or EBRI. So employers “started saying, ‘Maybe we can help you make better decisions about what college you choose,’ ” he said.
Employers gain from this, too, in ways that go beyond improved recruitment. Eighty-eight percent of employees are using work time to help their children plan for college or careers, according to a survey by Empowerly, another private college consulting company; 25 percent said they spend from six to as much as 15 hours a week at work doing this.
“People are spending time during the work week being stressed, helping their kids with their college applications,” said Changxiao Xie, co-founder and chief technology officer of Empowerly, which is also gearing up to branch into the employee benefits sphere.
The process “can be extremely overwhelming and stressful as you’re trying to balance not only your work life but other things outside of your work,” said Brandt Bennett, a financial benefits executive at Bank of America, which offers unlimited private college consulting to its employees — a service he has used himself. “It can just really kind of consume you, and you can get overwhelmed, and it can overwhelm your son or daughter.”
Most people, however, still don’t have access to private college consultants at work and can’t afford to pay for them. Neither SHRM nor EBRI tracks how many companies offer the perk, which has mostly emerged within the last few years.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling estimates that high school college counselors spend just 22 percent of their time on college advising; given the counselor-to-student ratio and the length of the school year, a public high school student can therefore expect an average of 44 minutes per year of admissions advising from his or her college counselor.
“In an ideal world, we wish our company didn’t have to exist — that everybody who wanted to go to college had the information they need, and that it wasn’t so complicated,” said Vasconcelos, whose company is a division of the employer-sponsored child care operator Bright Horizons. “But that world does not exist right now in this country. So we are here to fill that gap.”
“The people in the companies and organizations that put you in the top 1 percent get more perks, more benefits, more freebies than those who actually need it and would benefit from it.”Anthony Abraham Jack, associate professor of higher education leadership, Boston University
For client companies that offer Bright Horizons’ college consulting benefit, employees at all ranks are typically eligible, from the C-suite to custodians and security guards, she said.
“The highest-level executives, perhaps with a lot of knowledge about this process, we may be more on their radar to take advantage of this benefit,” Vasconcelos said. “But we also talk to populations of employees who have no experience with college, who may not have gone to college themselves.”
Jack is skeptical that employees like those even know to ask for college admissions coaching.
“Are you communicating to them the same things that you are communicating to your executives in the way that they actually understand what’s available?” he asked. “Do all your employees truly know what is available to them?”
Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, which provides college consulting as a job perk to executives of hedge funds and private equity and venture capital firms, said services like his aren’t aggravating inequality.
88% of employees use work time to help their children plan for college or careers; 25% said they spent from six to as much as 15 hours a week at work doing this.
“The percentage of people who are getting these kinds of services and getting a significant edge, when you distribute it across the size of the population, it’s actually such an insignificant number of people that to say that I am in the top million reasons for why there is inequality in this country I think is absurd,” he said.
Besides, Koh said, “Rich kids are also kids, and they have a lot of the same family issues, same emotional issues, that everybody does.”
The real culprit is “universities and their incredibly opaque admissions policies,” he said. “Every country in the world has a more transparent admissions system than the United States.”
This story about college coaching as an employee benefit was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.