Streams

A New Private School Consultant Enters the (Lucrative) Field

Thursday, March 29, 2012 - 08:34 AM

School Choice Group, a school placement company that works with Fortune 100 companies like Starbucks and UBS to find private schools for families when they relocate abroad, is expanding its business to work with individual clients.

Its new division -- called School Search Solutions -- joins the growing, and controversial, ranks of admission consultants who work with families to navigate the opaque and often intimidating private school world.

School officials quietly gripe that these consultants are not regulated, do not need any qualifications and prey on the fear of parents. Consultants and parents say the system is unnecessarily complicated and the consultants offer a valuable service to families.

School Choice Group appears to be the largest player in the admissions field, with 100 consultants around the world (most consultants do not have offices outside the greater New York area, much less the continent). Families will pay as little as $200 an hour, or up to $10,000 for a V.I.P. package in which the consultants continue their work until the child is placed in a school that makes everyone happy.

“I don’t think the market is well served by the options out there,” said Timothy Dwyer, chief executive of the company and a former executive in Goldman Sachs’s Global Mobility Services Department. Mr. Dwyer said it was the search for his own children's school that led him to the School Choice Group, which at the time was a vendor to Goldman Sachs.

“I was feeling a lot of anxiety, getting a lot of contradictory advice and input,” he said. A few years later, he decided to join the company. He says one of his main goals now is to tone down the frenzy. (When I pointed out that the frenzy would seem to drive business, he said, “We’ll always have a market because parents are too busy to do this.”)

Perhaps more interesting than the arrival of another admissions consultant is a product that School Choice Group is developing, code-named project Al, for algorithm. Meant to be a sort of match.com for schools and families, it will try to pull apart the all-important but elusive issue of a school’s culture.

The algorithm includes more than 60 questions, like: “Your child has a verbal confrontation with another child. Would you expect the teacher to actively intervene and mediate to solve it, or would you prefer that the children work it out themselves?”

Schools will be given a chance to answer the questions, and then families can run their own answers against those of the schools. Other topics will include ethics and how different schools approach different learning styles. The product, for which parents will be charged, is scheduled to be available this fall.

“Success is based on what is the best interest of the child,” said Jean Mann, director of client services. She said she had families who apply to Riverdale Country and Horace Mann because they have heard of both. “We say those are totally different schools meant for totally different children. Parents are so focused on names.”

In the last 18 months, School Choice Group has placed 500 students, and in 20 percent of those cases the clients were individual families.

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