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A new benefit at top companies: College admissions counseling

Shannon Vasconcelos works for College Coach, a division of child care operator Bright Horizons that provides college admissions advising as a benefit for employees of client companies.
Kirk Carapezza
/
WGBH
Shannon Vasconcelos works for College Coach, a division of child care operator Bright Horizons that provides college admissions advising as a benefit for employees of client companies.

In a suburban office park outside Boston, Shannon Vasconcelos logs on to a laptop computer and connects with families across the U.S. to help them get their children into college.

How can my daughter get into the Ivy League? How will we pay for all this? What points should my son emphasize in his essay? What scholarships are available? Vasconcelos walks them through these and many more questions.

It's advice that Vasconcelos is well equipped to give, as a former assistant director of financial aid at Tufts University. She's now senior director for college finance at College Coach, a division of the child care operator Bright Horizons, which provides private counseling for college admissions. And her services are free to families that receive it as a job perk offered by their employers.

A growing number of companies are providing access to admissions counselors such as Vasconcelos as a benefit to their employees. These include JPMorgan Chase, American Express, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, EY, Paramount Pictures, Mastercard, Goodwin, Johnson & Johnson, VMware and some venture capital and private equity firms.

Most did not respond to requests for comment or wouldn't discuss the perk. Those that did said offering private coaching for college admissions — whichtypically 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, they said, it's a way to prevent the demands of the admissions process from cutting into productivity.

"It's definitely a benefit to just save people time and stress," said Laura Lemmons, managing director for benefits at Goodwin, a global legal firm. "We're trying to put resources in place to support parents throughout their whole journey of parenthood, and this is just one of these important pieces."

But critics contend it's 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," he added, "because the people in the companies and organizations that put you in the top 1% get more perks, more benefits, more freebies than those who actually need it and would benefit from it."

Seldom has the college admissions process been so complicated, after such high-profile developments as the Supreme Court decisionon 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 anaverage of 430 students each, according to the American School Counselor Association. That's well above the maximum 250-1 ratio the association recommends.

Free college coaching is the latest in a growing list of benefits to which companies have been resorting in efforts to bolster worker satisfaction, which last year fell toits lowest level in two decades, according to a survey by MetLife. Fewer than a third of U.S. workers reportfeeling engaged on the job, a separate Gallup survey found.

This has triggered asignificant increase in family support benefits, the Society of Human Resource Management (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 (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 employeesuse work time to help their children plan for college or careers, according to a survey by Empowerly, another private college consulting company; 25% said they spend from six to as much as 15 hours a week at work doing this.

"People are spending time during the workweek 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."

More than 3,300 of Bank of America's 170,000 employees, of every rank, have used the benefit, a company spokeswoman said.

At Goodwin, too, everyone from partners to administrative and support staff qualifies, Lemmons said. "We actually see people at all levels taking advantage of it," she added. "The feedback that we've gotten is that it's nice for the parents to have the one-on-one support," which is included for free, along with essay-writing help and webinars about saving and paying for college.

Making sense of a complicated process

Jenny Rosenberger, a senior vice president at Bank of America, cashed in on the free college coaching for her daughter, meeting one-on-one with Bright Horizons' College Coach counselors.

Rosenberger said the coaches helped her daughter narrow down her list of prospective colleges and universities, finalize her application essays and search for scholarships, and they simplified the complex financial planning and other considerations.

"When I think about other families who don't have access to this benefit, and I think about other students who might not have this support at home," she said, "I realize how challenging it must be for them, not only to get in but to navigate this process."

Most Americans don't get private college coaching as an employee benefit. Neither SHRM nor EBRI tracks how many companies offer the perk, which has mostly emerged within the last few years. And while it also isn't possible to determine whether lower-paid workers are receiving this kind of help, most of the employers that offer it tend to be in higher-paying fields such as financial services.

Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, which provides college consulting to hedge funds and private equity and venture capital firms, said those companies make the benefit available to only their most senior partners.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling estimates that public high school counselors spendjust 22% 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 high school 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. "But that world does not exist right now in this country. So we are here to fill that gap."

At employers that offer Bright Horizons' college coaching, 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."

This story was produced byThe Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Copyright 2023 The Hechinger Report. To see more, visit The Hechinger Report.

Jon Marcus