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The growing business of college prep

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  • Selecting a college-prep tutor

    Before committing to a college-prep tutor or course, Dr. Lewis Kasparek recommends asking these questions:

    •  In what fields are your degrees? Look for those with a master’s degree or doctorate.

    •  What subjects will you be teaching? Be wary of tutors who say they can teach both English and math, Kasparek says. Few people have distinguished experience in both.

    •  How many years of experience do you have teaching that subject in an academic setting? Look for people with at least 5 to 10 years of experience.


  • More information

    •  Can you provide references from the schools where you’ve worked?



Students, parents, teachers, and school counselors agree on this much: The college-admissions competition has reached a fever pitch.

It also has created a new class of entrepreneurs: professionals who make their living by helping students navigate the frenzy.

The concept isn’t new, but the scope of the industry is.

Test-prep companies such as Princeton Review and Kaplan, which charge hundreds of dollars for SAT courses, work with thousands of students each year.

But there’s a growing market for small businesses that tout more individualized services.

The Independent Educational Consultants Association estimates there are 6,000 independent private counselors nationwide – up from about 1,300 in 2005 – and students are spending an estimated $400 million a year on their services.

In the greater Charlotte area alone, dozens of people offer a litany of pre-college services, from high-school academic planning and SAT tutoring, to help with college visits, application essays and merit scholarships.

“You can be an excellent student, have a strong résumé, and I think there’s still a lot of unpredictability about college admissions,” says Dr. Perry Almquist, a Charlotte pediatrician and mother of three. “That causes a lot of anxiety for kids approaching college.”

If you find a qualified professional who can ease that anxiety and better equip students for the admissions process, it’s worth the money spent, she says.

For her children – Charlotte Latin School graduates who went on to Wake Forest University and UNC Chapel Hill – that investment was in Dr. Lewis Kasparek, who at 74 remains one of the most popular SAT prep teachers in the city.

Demand for services

Kasparek, who goes by “Dr. K,” started teaching SAT prep in the mid-’80s. Working full-time as a humanities teacher at Charlotte Country Day School, Kasparek tutored students on the verbal section after school and during the summer.

About 12 years ago, he made his side business, Academic Consulting and Educational Services, his full-time job.

He says he’s nearly at full-capacity. This summer, he has worked side-by-side with students from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., spending another two hours in the evening helping students and parents over the phone.

He says demand for his services and others’ has increased dramatically.

Here’s one reason why: The population is growing. North Carolina’s population alone grew by more than 1.5 million people from 2000 to 2010, the fifth largest jump in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Because of the demands of the labor market, more people than ever are pursuing a post-secondary education. So even though there are thousands of universities, the fight for seats at the most prestigious schools has ramped up. UNC Chapel Hill, for example, accepted about 27 percent of its nearly 31,000 applicants last year.

“The competition has gotten very wicked,” Kasparek says. “Probably 70 to 80 percent of kids whose parents can afford it are doing some kind of preparation.”

And free resources are scant.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, budget cuts have resulted in fewer high school counselors and a higher student-to-counselor ratio. And whether you attend public or private school, some skills needed for the SAT or college applications aren’t being taught in schools, independent counselors argue.

Kasparek says even brilliant students are sometimes stumped by the SAT because it’s a reasoning test, not a memorization game.

Charlotte resident and New York native Ellen Martin started her small business, College Admissions 101, eight years ago, to help high school students in Charlotte and New York tackle their college admissions essays.

She says many students aren’t used to writing in a narrative style.

“The questions look intimidating,” she says. Students have to learn how to tell their stories, and Martin – a former psychologist –helps them hone the skill.

The same goes for students elsewhere.

In addition to working with about 130 Charlotte-area students a year, students from New York, Bermuda and even Peru have flown to the city to study under Kasparek on their holiday breaks.

That kind of demand is why college-prep training isn’t cheap.

In just the last eight years, Kasparek’s hourly rate has gone from $85 to $125. Martin charges $120 an hour for help with essays.

And Lee Bierer, an well-known area independent academic counselor and nationally syndicated columnist, charges $250 an hour for a la carte services and has package deals for $2,500, according to her website.

Knowing tutors’ credentials key

But Kasparek says the “cash cow” of college prep has also brought a number of unqualified teachers to the marketplace. And with no accreditation for the profession, it’s not an easy problem to solve.

Some trade associations, such as the Independent Educational Consultants Association, do require credentials. Organization spokeswoman Sarah Brachman says members have to have an advanced degree or comparable professional experience, three years of experience in educational placement counseling or admissions, a minimum number of campus visits and three professional references.

Kasparek recommends that people hungry for college prep ask for similar credentials and that legitimate, experienced entrepreneurs tout theirs as well.

“There are an awful lot of people taking anything that pops up because they’re so hungry for help,” he says. “All (someone) has to do is tell people you can do it, and they’ll believe you can do it.”

On the other hand, Kasparek says he’s taken and studied the verbal section of every SAT for the last 30 years. His three part-time employees, two of whom focus solely on math, all have extensive experience with the subjects they teach. Their results, he says, speak for themselves.

Kasparek has worked with more than 3,000 students in his tenure as a test-prep tutor. Last year, he and his staff worked with 100. Twelve got perfect critical-reading scores, he said. Thirteen got perfect writing scores, and 10 got perfect scores in math. Four were Morehead-Cain scholars, including was Will Almquist, Dr. Perry Almquist’s son.

“I liked the idea that (Kasparek) was a single person who had a reputation over years and years,” said Almquist. “In the end, you want to have done everything you could.”

McMillan: 704-358-6045
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