New education gurus

A booming market emerges for consultants to desperate parents.

By Debra Ollivier
Published August 30, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

The boom in specialty schools has created a cottage industry of educational consultants. Part psychologist, part educator, part guidance counselor and all-around coach, the educational consultant is hired by parents to select an appropriate specialty school for their teen based on his or her emotional/behavioral profile and family dynamic.

This is no small task in the booming market of specialty schools. The proliferation of programs, their high costs (tuitions as high as $58,000 a year) and the potential damage to a child from poorly run programs have made finding the right school a high-risk endeavor in and of itself. "Selecting a specialty school without an educational consultant is like picking a random name out of a public phone directory," says Lynn Hamilton, an educational consultant in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Hamilton, like many educational consultants, spends several months a year visiting schools, interviewing students and administrators, and separating wheat from chaff. In fact it's part of the job. In order to become -- and remain -- a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), educational consultants must maintain certain professional standards, including visiting an initial 100 school programs, and 20 to 30 new ones every year thereafter.

According to Mark Sklarow, executive director of the IECA, in the past educational consultants were hired by wealthy parents to find the right prep school for their child. Today, however, most wealthy kids are already attending private schools where they enjoy a counselor-student ratio of 1 to 10. (In such environments, counselors often have networks of educational consultants and/or are apprised of what's on the market.)

Middle-class kids in public schools, on the other hand, are dealing with overwhelmed, overburdened and overworked school counselors who can barely put out daily fires, let alone screen the rapidly proliferating number of specialty schools. As a result, educational consultants have evolved from being a predominantly white, upper-middle-class privilege to a middle-class phenomenon.

Fees for this new breed of consultant vary. Some charge $50 to $150 per hour, rates similar to those of a family therapist, depending on whether you live in Little Rock or L.A. Many, however, prefer to work on a retainer (fees range from $1,000 to $2,500) and track the course of a teen's progress throughout his or her enrollment.

To ensure that consultants aren't getting kickbacks from schools, the IECA requires that all members sign a binding "ethics pledge." "There are people out there," warns Sklarow, "who position themselves as educational consultants but are, in fact, recruiters or marketers for a particular school or group of schools." Sklarow also warns against overly enthusiastic parents who become ad hoc educational consultants after their children have successfully graduated from specialty schools. In order to maintain a certain level of objectivity and professionalism, Sklarow says, these parents "need to get past the crusade stage."

While Sklarow admits that placing a child in the wrong specialty school can have dire results, he says that so far educational consultants have been relatively successful in finding the appropriate schools for teens and their parents. That said, no formal studies on the success rate of educational consultants exist to back up that claim.

Of the hundreds of educational consultants around the country only one-third specialize in high-risk teens. Intrepid parents willing to trek through the market clutter will find more about educational consultants at

Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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