How to get your kid into the 'right' college even if you're not rich or famous

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William "Rick" Singer, who has admitted to running the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice, is accused of crimes dating to 2011.

Authorities say that during that time, he gamed the system for hundreds of wealthy and powerful families to get their kids into some of the nation's top colleges. But his questionable activities began much earlier, according to an educational consultant who competed with him for years in Sacramento, California.

Margie Amott said her experience — and the still unfolding scandal — offer lessons for the millions of Americans every year seeking a legitimate edge in the college application process.

"It certainly is a wake-up call, Amott told CNBC's "American Greed." "No one envisioned that someone like Rick could get away with what he's done for so long."

Singer, 59, pleaded guilty on March 12 to four felony counts including racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice, and he faces up to 20 years in prison. He has been cooperating with authorities since last fall in their investigation of college admission practices dubbed "Operation Varsity Blues." He is among 51 people charged—including 34 parents who hired him to bribe their kids' way into elite colleges.

Amott — and, until recently, Singer — are among an estimated 13,500 educational consultants across the country, according the Independent Educational Consultants Association. But because the industry is largely unregulated, the experience and qualifications of those individuals varies greatly.

"Anyone can hang out a shingle. Anyone can say they're an educational consultant," Amott said.

She also notes that even though consultants or "coaches" are all the rage among parents who are consumed with getting their kids into the right school, many students will do just fine without the extra help. She urges families to first utilize their schools' guidance counselors, who, of course, are available at no extra cost.

"The high school counselors are tremendous resources," Amott said. "And the ones who I've dealt with over the years. They are amazing."

Unlike outside coaches, school guidance counselors get to observe the student in school and know their teachers. They also frequently are the ones who write the students' letters of recommendation. But Amott said the school counselors can be "tremendously overworked," helping to fuel the rise of outside consultants.

Warning signs

Amott said she first encountered Singer in the early 1990s, soon after he set up shop in Sacramento — his base of operations for more than 20 years before he moved to Southern California in 2012. At the time, outside educational consultants were a novelty in Sacramento, and many parents jumped at the chance to give their kids an edge. Even Amott tried to hire Singer to coach her daughter, but she said her daughter was not interested.

Amott said it quickly became apparent that Singer had ethical issues. In fact, she said it was Singer's conduct that persuaded her to start her own consulting business in 1996, which remains in operation. She and Singer were direct competitors in Sacramento for more than a decade, including about three years when they were the only two consulting businesses in town.

"His main pitch was always, 'I can get you into college X.' And I was just appalled because no ethical counselor can ever say that," Amott said.

That is the first lesson for parents considering hiring outside help: Beware of consultants who promise specific results.

"I mean it's comparable to a doctor guaranteeing a cure, or a financial advisor swearing to a 25% return. You just can't do that," she said.

Convinced that she could do better, Amott, a former corporate accountant, did not simply put out her own shingle. Rather, she went back to school. She says she earned a certificate in college admissions and a counseling credential from the state of California. She also took a step that Singer apparently never did, earning a designation as a certified educational planner.

"A certified educational planner is the highest designation in this profession," Amott said. "You have to have a master's degree in a related field. You have to visit 75 colleges every five years. You have to attend conferences, workshops, give presentations. And you pass a rigorous test in the beginning. My renewal comes up in November."

The certification also requires continuing education, including ethics training.

Seal of approval

The American Institute of Certified Educational Planners is one of three organizations setting standards for the growing industry. The others are the Independent Educational Consultants Association and the Higher Education Consultants Association. All of the standards are voluntary. But using a certified professional can give families some degree of assurance that they are not hiring the next Singer, said Katelyn Gleason Klapper, a Sudbury, Massachusetts-based educational consultant who chairs the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners Commission on Credentialing.

"Those that affiliate with professional organizations don't get into the press," Klapper said. "The Rick Singers of the world are not coming through these organizations."

But only about 20% of educational consultants are affiliated with one of the three professional organizations, according to the IECA. Each organization's website includes a search engine to find a member near you.

Their services do not come cheap, though they are a far cry from the $15,000 to $6.5 million that Singer charged his wealthy clients to rig their students' admissions.

The IECA says that in 2017, the average hourly rate nationwide for an educational consultant was $200, with rates ranging from $85 to $350. Most also offer a "comprehensive package," which includes helping students identify schools that might be a good fit, helping the family with financial planning including options for financial aid and coaching the student through the application process — including the all-important essay.

Klapper said her package typically includes around a dozen one-on-one meetings beginning around the student's junior year, with extra hours billed for editing the student's essay. Most consultants offer similar arrangements, she said.

Package rates vary based on the consultant's level of experience and the region in which they operate, according to the IECA. The average for a consultant with fewer than five years' experience is $4,100, while a consultant with 10 or more years' experience can command $5,200. Rates are lowest in the West and Southeast at around $4,000 on average, and highest in New England, where they can go for around $5,400. International students can expect to pay even more.

The packages typically do not include test preparation, but the consultant might advise the student on strategies such as how many times to repeat their SATs, Klapper said.

Putting the student to work

Klapper and Amott urge parents to look for a consultant who will require the student to do his or her own work.

"I'm a guide, not a doer," Klapper said.

"I do not fill out the students' applications. I do not write the essays. And an ethical counselor will never do that," Amott said. "I'll provide feedback on the essays. That's the level of trust that the parents have on me. But I do not take control of the process. The process belongs to the student."

Singer apparently approached the process much differently. Amott said she heard from several former Singer clients who were uncomfortable with him and his staff filling out students' applications for them. Amott said she did not suspect it at the time, but Singer has admitted to helping to create fake athletic profiles, helping students cheat on their college entrance exams, and bribing college coaches and administrators to get students into at least eight elite colleges.

Singer and his attorney declined to speak to "American Greed."

The feds may have put Singer out of business, but experts worry about other shady consultants out there who are happy to pick up where he left off, as long as some parents are willing to cut corners.

"Sometimes I think the parents are more stressed than the students," Amott said.

See how Rick Singer gamed the college admissions process for thousands of wealthy families in a $25 million scam. Watch the ALL NEW SEASON PREMIERE of American Greed, Monday Aug. 12 at 10pm ET/PT, only on CNBC.