Preparing for college admissions is an intimidating, confusing task for many high school students. There are many deadline-driven tasks to complete, and a missed deadline might mean missed opportunities. You have to find great schools, take admissions tests, and complete applications and essays. On top of all that, you'll need to find grants and scholarships to help you pay for it all.
But meeting deadlines is a tough proposition when you're unfamiliar with the college admissions process. It's one thing to simply apply to a random college and sign up for a few classes, but it's quite another to find the college that's right for you, choose an appropriate career path and maximize your financial aid to pay for a good chunk of your education expenses. The latter method takes a lot of research, a solid network of knowledgeable friends, good research skills and perhaps most important, time.
So imagine receiving a letter out of the blue -- a letter that might hold the answer to all of your college admissions troubles. For some high school students, this dream comes true when they receive unsolicited letters from College Admissions Assistance (CAA), a company based in Arlington, Texas.
CAA describes itself as a "private education-service organization" that provides college planning help to students and their families. The company's coaching process, called the "7 Critical College Decisions" program, is designed to help you get admitted to a specific college, find the right financial aid package, graduate in four years and take steps towards a successful career.
The letter invites families to a seminar where CAA touts its services and offers to help students start immediately on their journey to college greatness. Of course, because this is a for-profit company, these services aren't free.
Keep reading to see how CAA works, and why the company has drawn fire for some of its practices.
How College Admissions Assistance Works
After receiving your introductory letter, you might find yourself wondering if College Admissions Assistance's program really works. The company's Web site claims that of the CAA participants surveyed from the high school graduating class of 2009, 98 percent of them were accepted by one of their top two college choices, and 90 percent plan to pursue a CAA-recommended career. The site also indicates that average financial aid award offers were more than $22,241 and that 95 percent of students said they would recommend CAA to friends.
So how exactly does CAA work? The company provides unlimited coaching via e-mail and phone. Coaches are available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Central Time. Through this service, you can get answers to questions about study and test-taking skills, career coaching and college selection. You can ask for assistance on preparing for the SAT, ACT or PSAT. You can also request feedback on application and essay reviews, financial aid applications and award letters, and more.
CAA claims that its coaches are experts in the college planning field. The company also indicates that before coaches are hired, every candidate is screened and subjected to a thorough background check. Each coach has at least a bachelor's degree, so you know that they've been through the college process themselves.
In short, on the surface, CAA seems like a perfect solution for students who are overwhelmed or fearful of missing out on once-in-a-lifetime education opportunities. But in some cases, CAA's legitimate services have been overshadowed by its marketing tactics.
Here are the basics: CAA hopes you'll be intrigued by the letter you received from the company enough to attend the free seminar to find out more details. If you go, you'll listen to a speaker who outlines the challenges of college admissions. After the program is over, a CAA representative will offer to sign you up for the service, which costs around $2,000.
If you're not taken aback by sticker shock, you might be by the sales tactics. Some attendees say CAA uses high-pressure sales pitches that push people to commit to the service on the spot.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Fort Worth, Texas, reports the same -- it gives CAA a rating of C-, mostly for complaints about CAA's marketing practices. Since the BBB's file for the company opened in October 2007, it has logged many grievances regarding CAA [source: Better Business Bureau].
Do Your Own Research on CAA, and On College
Although it may have PR and image problems, College Admissions Assistance isn't a scam -- as some people believe after they've attended the free seminar. Ultimately, CAA is offering a service that some people are willing to pay for. Some may find those services helpful, while others might find the payments are a financial burden considering all of the other costs involved with college.
If you don't mind shelling out a couple of thousand dollars for guidance, CAA might well be a good option for your family. But CAA certainly isn't the only organization that provides a roadmap for navigating the complexities of college admissions.
High school guidance counselors and college financial aid experts at individual schools are good planning resources. However, depending on the school you attend, they're often overburdened with massive workloads and they may offer only generic advice. There are also plenty of private contractors and companies who will help you plan for a fee.
Before relying on overly broad advice or spending a lot of money, first use some free resources to educate yourself on the extent of the admissions process. The Federal Consumer Information Center links to many helpful resources. Online, you'll also find free information about direct loans and education funding.
The Internet is full of other useful college resources. Fastweb.com is a good place to search for scholarships, grants and general admissions information. The College Board and College View sites offer step-by-step action plans for students who need a roadmap of admissions processes. Their college application calendars will help ensure you don't miss any important admissions deadlines.
You can chat with others about CAA or any number of other college-related subjects on College Confidential. The U.S. Department of Education will help you find the right college and you can use online, virtual tours to see campuses without leaving your home.
Companies providing college admissions counseling services may try to convince you that there's almost too much online information, and that sorting through all of it is too difficult. Other private, for-profit counselors argue that it might take you several years to get your mind around the information you find on the Web.
Your decision depends on your time and financial resources. You may decide that a company such as CAA works for your budget and skill level. But if you're pressed for cash like many students, doing the legwork of researching your own college preparations is a good idea -- and the research and problem-solving skills you put to use will prepare you for college, too.
For more information on financial aid and other related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Better Business Bureau. "BBB Reliability Report for College Admissions Assistance LLC." (Jan. 14, 2010)http://www.fortworth.bbb.org/commonreport.html?compid=222153102#Ratings
- College Admissions Assistance. "About Our Organization." 2008. (Jan. 14, 2010)http://www.caaconnect.com/who_we_are/
- College Admissions Assistance. "Our Students." 2008. (Jan. 14, 2010)http://www.caaconnect.com/our_students/
- Salisbury, Peter C. "Scholarship Scam?" San Diego Reader. Sept. 24, 2009. (Jan. 14, 2010)http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2009/sep/24/scholarship-scam/
- U.S. Department of Education. "Direct Loans: The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program." March 30, 2009. (Jan. 14, 2010)http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSFAP/DirectLoan/index.html
- U.S. Department of Education. "Introduction." College Matching Wizard. (Jan. 14, 2010)http://studentaid2.ed.gov/gotocollege/collegefinder/wizard_intro1.asp
- U.S. Department of Education. "Financial Aid Resource Publications from the U.S. Department of Education." (Jan. 14, 2010)http://studentaid.ed.gov/students/publications/student_guide/index.html
- U.S. Department of Education, Office of Under Secretary Planning and Evaluation Service. "Preparing Your Child for College - a Resource Book For Parents." August 2000. (Jan. 14, 2010) http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/family/prepare4college/prep.htm