Cutthroat competition to get into the nation's best colleges has fueled an explosion of admissions consultants, who charge families thousands of dollars to help students navigate the process.
The industry is in the limelight, now that federal authorities have charged 50 people, including Hollywood celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and prominent business leaders, in a bribery scheme to get the kids of wealthy parents into top-ranked schools.
While much of the nation has gasped in outrage, many in the growing field have cringed.
"They give it a bad name," said Tina Tranfaglia, founder of College Knowledge Admissions Consulting in Glenview, Ill.
The number of independent education consultants operating in the U.S. has quadrupled since 2015, to an estimated 12,000 to 14,000, according to the Independent Education Consultants Association, a professional organization that runs training programs and sets ethical standards for its 1,850 members in an unregulated industry.
The high-profile scandal has reignited criticism that consultants give privileged kids an additional leg up, or exacerbate the pressure many high school students feel to get into a top school at any cost.
College admissions consultants, who help applicants with essays, test preparation, interviews and school selection, charge anywhere from $850 to $10,000 for comprehensive services, with an average price tag of $4,100 in the Midwest, according to the association. Increasingly, consultants offer hourly rates for families who want more limited services, at an average rate of $200 an hour.
"My hope is that a big part of our job is reducing stress," said Brooke Daly, president of the Higher Education Consultants Association, another professional group. "We will find schools that will fit you well and we will find schools that will admit you."
The Independent Education Consultants Association strongly encourages members to also offer their services for free to community groups that help students from disadvantaged areas prepare for college, and 99 percent do so, CEO Mark Sklarow said. With in-school guidance counselors at public high schools stretched particularly thin – one study found they have so many other duties that they spend only 38 minutes a year on college counseling per student – sometimes it's the only help those students get.
"I think it's something that helps level the playing field," Sklarow said.