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Teenage Students Now Have Managers: a Look Into the Ethics of Private College Counseling

Youth Voices

Wed, June 12

In the first episode of the K-Drama "SKY Castle", esteemed members of the Hanam Bank attend a private screening of college counselors for their children. These counselors are renowned for helping children of wealthy families into the "Ivy Leagues' of South Korea." They manage every aspect of their students' academic careers, including studies, extracurriculars, and essays. However, as this industry gains more traction, so do its ethical concerns, particularly surrounding transparency and accessibility. In this article, we will discuss some of those ethical concerns.

Image Credits: Leon Wu from Unsplash

Equity and Access

In the name of guaranteed admission into a top school, private college counselors can charge up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes with hidden costs underneath. This creates a disparity where wealthy students receive extensive, individualized support, while less affluent peers must rely on overburdened public school counselors or navigate the process independently. According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the national average was 482 students per counselor in 2020, well above the recommended 250 students per counselor. Additionally, 4 out of 5 high school students are enrolled in a school without enough support staff (psychologists, social workers, etc.) besides counselors. This means that about 8 million children are supposed to rely on self-navigation or other means of advice.

Jacqueline Tang, from "The Aragon Outlook," interviewed several students about their thoughts on the ethical and financial dilemmas of college counseling. Burlingame senior David Petrushka said he switched counselors because he felt he wasn't getting the attention in or out of the office that he should have been getting for $400 an hour. He understands that these costs are nowhere near reasonable or accessible.

Senior Lindsey Chen, however, said even though it was a hefty investment, the opportunities were available to her, so she took it up. This article was written in 2013, revealing that this issue was prominent long before online advertisement.

Often, rich parents have not experienced the admissions process in years and are not familiar with the current process. They hire counselors so their children have the most up-to-date information. But this argument is tame compared to the fact that poor students are mostly first-generation applicants and have next to zero guidance in their families. This imbalance not only affects the immediate prospects of students but also perpetuates long-term inequities in education and career opportunities.


Many private counselors have attended prestigious institutions and chosen to enter this field because they want to help the next generation and simplify the application process. However, in this industry, some always exploit that fact. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has stated that counselors must be transparent in the standard admissions process, the competitiveness of certain colleges, what students can reasonably expect, and nothing more. Anything else is a breach of integrity.

In the last few episodes of 'SKY Castle,' Yeseo receives worksheets from her counselor that are exact copies of the assessment given the next day. Her counselor had access to these worksheets because of her connections from her previous role as an admissions official at Seoul National University ('Harvard' of South Korea). Yeseo starts having nightmares after finding out the truth and, in turn, withdraws from school in respect of integrity.

In "Inside Higher Ed," Scott Jaschik wrote an article about the ethics in private admissions counseling. He discusses the case of Judith Hodara, a senior admissions official at the University of Pennsylvania, who was revealed to have been on the advisory board of a counseling company in Japan that she founded. After this was made public and she resigned, many admissions experts were shocked that a respected admissions official was sidelined in the private counseling industry.

Hodara's case is not the first of admissions officials in the private counseling industry, Jaschik says. In the same article, a conversation with Micheal London, founder of College Coach, reveals more shocking details. College Coach is a nationwide operation of private counselors, and London mentioned he had received many applications over the years from people working in college admissions. "That kind of person is unethical, so I don't want to deal with them," he said. London was adamant that if you were a counselor who works at a high school, your obligation should be to those students, not anybody else.

Clearly, the above-mentioned incidents need to be a catalyst for stricter enforcement of the guidelines established by the NACAC. Private counseling firms should be required to disclose their counselors' professional backgrounds and previous roles in college admissions that may pose a conflict of interest. They should also disclose any methodologies and maintain open lines of communication.

The Purpose of Higher Education

The rise of private counselors also prompts a broader ethical discussion about the purpose of higher education. Ideally, higher education serves as a foundation for personal and intellectual development. It prepares individuals not just for careers but for informed and engaged citizenship.

When the admissions process becomes overly transactional and focused on superficial achievements, it undermines those goals. When students use their wealth to shuffle through the admissions process, it discourages those students who have actually put in effort through their years of education.

In conclusion, the private counseling sector needs a thorough reconditioning to make it more accessible and transparent. Although efforts such as not considering legacy and admission because of a hefty donation have been made, it is still not enough to make a change.

Bhavana Rupakula
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Bhavana Rupakula is currently a junior in high school interested in journalism, math, computer science and medicine.