How much would you pay to get your kid into Harvard?

Two months before 17-year-old Alexa of northern New Jersey—a national merit scholar, Girl Scout Gold Award recipient and standout soccer player—planned to submit her application to Amherst, anxiety set in. Even though she met all the requirements to land her on the college's competitive playing field, she wanted an independent education counselor (IEC) to give the final nod on her application. It didn't matter that her parents, guidance counselor, coach and teachers invested more than 100 hours steering her through the college process.

Her parents contacted a pricey New York City college-planning service and, after relating Alexa's long list of achievements, they agreed to "fit her in," starting off with a 90-minute consultation and then a six-hour boot camp so a counselor could review her essays and Common App. Price: $10,000.

They signed on the dotted line.

College admissions office
Steve Shepard | Getty Images

While the tab seems exorbitant, Alexa's parents may have gotten off easy. Typically, students begin working with an IEC at the end of their sophomore year in high school, just prior to visiting colleges. But increasingly, parents are signing on as early as middle school and "can spend upwards of $100,000 to $200,000, depending on their chosen program and services," said Dr. Katherine Cohen, the founder of IvyWise, an educational consulting company in New York City that provides admissions counseling and tutoring services to students and their families worldwide.

Cara, a Harvard University student from New York, was in eighth grade when her parents contacted IvyWise. The company worked with Cara throughout all four years of high school, guiding her on the best way to demonstrate her STEM interest to colleges. IvyWise chose her high school courses, advised her to spend her summers in science programs conducting independent research, provided feedback on her essays and helped her increase her SAT scores.

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The admissions game

Hiring an IEC to help navigate the college admission process is a growing trend, especially among high achievers, according to Lipman Hearne. The marketing and communications firm recently conducted a nationwide survey of 1,264 students who scored in the 70th percentile or higher on the SAT (at least 1150 out of 1600) or ACT (a composite of at least 25). Of these students, 26 percent admit to hiring an IEC to help them in their college search. This equates to about 160,000 college applicants.

The reason? Fear.

High school students and their parents have become so panicked with the mystique surrounding today's college admissions process that they are clamoring to find help to better their odds in the college admissions game.

That, along with the lack of quality admission counseling in the high schools, has been a boon for independent education consultants. The profession is exploding nationwide, to the tune of $400 million a year, according to the IECA in its latest report. It has grown from about 1,500 in 2008 to more than 8,000 professionals, IECA said. This figure does not include the extra 10,000 to 15,000 who "dabble" in it to earn extra income.

According to the IECA, on average, a complete package from initial consultation in junior year to submitting the application in senior year will run $4,035, up from $3,590 in 2009; for students with special needs, the cost goes up to $4,750. Most consultants also offer hourly rates of about $150 an hour for students who simply want some general direction on, say, their essay or their choice of schools.

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"[IECs] exist and seem to multiply in numbers because the market is clearly willing to pay for it," said Bruce Poch, former vice president and dean of admission at Pomona College. "Remember, this is the generation of parents who want to be their child's friends, and Facebook friends, not just parents. ... They are willing to pay, sometimes a lot, to have someone nag for them."

He added: "For some, the expense suggests quality. Katherine Cohen at IvyWise and Michele Hernandez consulting built their empires on that notion."

College gets more expensive
College gets more expensive   

The ROI metrics

But with the plethora of free resources available online today—such as College Board's BigFuture, Edvisors.com and BestCollegeFit—offering valuable information on planning, saving, FASFA and scholarship opportunities for college, is it necessary to invest in an independent education counselor?

There is an open debate on this issue.

"Investing $10,000 is worth it when you're talking about a $200,000 education," said Christine Lagana of Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, who claims that had her IEC not pushed her daughter to apply early decision, she may not have made it into Bucknell. "My daughter's grades were on the cusp, but our planner was very good at analyzing stats, so she was able to make some strategic decisions. She saw that Bucknell has a higher-than-average ED rate."

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Sam, an orthodox Jewish student with an A average and between a 720 and 740 on each section of his SATs clearly understands the importance of understanding the stats. After being deferred from the early decision pool at Yale, he contacted The Ivy Coach, a private college counseling practice in New York City, who advised him that Yale has a student body that is almost 30 percent Jewish and that his application brought no diversity to the school. The Ivy Coach encouraged him instead to apply to Princeton, where the undergraduate Jewish population is only about 7.5 percent. He was accepted.

The role of the IEC

While these high-priced college planning services claim that they get results—the Ivy Coach says 100 percent of its clients get into one of their top three college choices; IvyWise says 90 percent of its students get into one or more of their three top choice schools—Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, said in an email to CNBC that "the role of college planners is NOT to get students into their top choice college. The role of planners is to help students … explore which colleges … are best suited to help them thrive, succeed, and graduate."

Others, such as Peter van Buskirk, former dean of admission at Franklin and Marshall College, believe that while IECs help navigate students in the college admission process, most people hire professionals simply because their neighbors do, or because the parents just don't have the time to commit to the process themselves.

"Consultants help students gain perspective in the process so they can make better decisions as to how and when to apply. But ultimately," he said, "consultants don't get the kids in; the kids get the kids in. And parents are spending ungodly amounts of money that frankly aren't making much of a difference at all in the outcome."

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Not all IECs are alike

Because there is no licensing requirement to become an IEC, experience ranges from former admissions officers and high school guidance counselors to college interviewers, writers, and even parents who once successfully navigated their own child through the college admissions process. Although it is strongly recommended that IECs become affiliated with an independent consultants association, only about 1 in 5 belong to one.

As a result, the IECA cautions that you need to thoroughly review a consultant's credentials before signing a contract.

"Membership in some of the Independent Educational Consultants Association or the National Association for College Admission Counseling may point to some experience," said Poch. "But as we all know, a teaching certificate doesn't guarantee a great or even good teacher, and a medical degree isn't a certain guarantee of the finest medical care. So let the buyer beware."

The IECA warns against any consultant who receives a commission for referrals or who guarantees admission to a student's top choice. The organization also warns against counselors who claim they know an institution's admission "formula" or claim they can ensure a certain amount of scholarship money.

Additionally, the IECA says that consultants should never rewrite an essay or fill out the application and FAFSA for you. "It is essential that the student be in charge of the process and all materials should be a product of the student's own, best work," says the IECA on its website.

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Stressing out our youth

Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Educational Conservancy, is so disturbed by the current college admission process and the pressure it's placed on today's youth that he left his job as an admissions counselor in 2008 to start the EC, a nonprofit organization devoted to working with leaders in higher education to overhaul college admissions policies and practices.

"It's not easy to be in this culture," he said. "We believe that the more we spend, the better we get, and it's hurting the way we love our kids. "

Thacker added: "Kids will do well wherever they go. It doesn't matter. It's not where you went to college but what you did in college."

Meanwhile, The Ivy Coach founder Bev Taylor said her site gets 1,500 hits a day.

"We get a lot of siblings, and then when they are done, we get the cousins," she said. "But we never get the friends. People don't want their friends to know how their kid got into Harvard."