Parenting, Uncertainty, and Expert Advice: How Privileged American Families Work with Private Counselors in Their Children's College Race



This article uses privileged families who hire Independent Educational Consultants (IECs) as an instance to examine how privileged parents collaborate with individuals whom they consider educational experts to support their children in the college race. We argue that advantaged parents' anxieties about their children have created a market for IECs who provide expert advice in order to mitigate the uncertainties that these parents experience and to manage various goals that they want to achieve at an important turning point in their children's lives. Drawing primarily on interviews with parents who work with IECs, we introduce the concept of “collaborative cultivation” to analyze the processes whereby advantaged parents rely on the expertise and expert status of private counselors to cope with their and their children's vulnerability in the college race while at the same time preparing their children for the unknown future. The parental method of “concerted cultivation” reveals how elite parents rely on individuals they perceive as experts to establish “bridges” between their own social worlds and the academic worlds that appear to beyond their control. This bridging labor points to the myriad cultural beliefs enacted to justify the child-rearing goals that privileged parents wish to accomplish by working with IECs.

A growing number of studies have demonstrated that the ways in which parents raise their children not only vary by their class locations but also significantly influence their children's chances to receive higher education (Lareau 2011; Reay, Crozier, and James 2011). These studies reveal that advantaged parents both view their children's college admissions competition or race as one of the most important transitions to adulthood and perceive the college application process as a means to evaluate (successful or failing) parenthood. Thus, many of these parents utilize various forms of capital at their disposal to help the next generation gain access to an ideal postsecondary institution (Sun 2014; Weis, Cipollone, and Jenkins 2014). Stevens (2007), for example, suggests that many middle and upper-middle-class parents educate their children with the selection criteria at prestigious colleges and universities in mind. As Stevens (2007: 247) contends, “the system that elite colleges and universities developed to evaluate the best and the brightest is now the template for what counts as ideal child rearing in America.” This line of research contradicts many people's beliefs in individualism and meritocracy, further offering insights into the ways in which parents operate as powerful figures who are willing and able to steer their children's academic and professional trajectories.

Despite these insights, existing literature on parenting and education has yet to fully examine how privileged parents acquire and make sense of “experts” and “expert opinion” when negotiating their children's access to higher education. This oversight is in part because few scholars question whether, and to what extent, elite parents are (and perceive they are) socially and culturally competent to navigate an academic competition that is unfamiliar to them. Current studies have consistently pointed out that “the role of expert assumes a special significance” since “parenting has been transformed from an intimate relationship that depends on emotion and warmth into a skill involving technical expertise” (Furedi 2002:18). Therefore, many middle-class parents in contemporary Western societies are anxious to “acquire a detailed knowledge of what the experts consider proper child development and then spend a good deal of time and money attempting to foster it” (Hays 1996:8). However, scholars have yet to address the ways in which the expert or expert advice matters in a context where parents involve themselves in their teenage children's major life events such as the college application process. While we have learned much about how parents (especially mothers) have sought the instruction of experts on how to respond to alleged threat (e.g., information on the Internet) and manage risks (e.g., children's health conditions) (Shirani, Henwood, and Coltart 2012), we know surprisingly little about the influence of expert opinion on the (re)configuration of class-based parenthood at this critical juncture of children's lives.

This article uses economically privileged families who hired have Independent Educational Consultants (IECs) as an instance to examine how these parents collaborate with individuals whom they consider educational experts to support the next generation in the college race. To date, an increasing number of parents hire private college counselors such as IECs to ensure that their children have a better chance of entering an ideal or suitable college (Brachman 2009; Sklarow 2011). However, few studies empirically examine why parents decide to employ an IEC or how parents assign meanings to the assistance offered by their IECs. In this research, we argue that the use of IECs testifies to parental worries and insecurities about their ability to care for their children in a situation that they regard as a crucial milestone for the next generation. Drawing primarily on interviews with parents who work with IECs, we introduce the concept of “collaborative cultivation” to analyze the processes whereby advantaged parents rely on the expertise and expert status of private counselors to cope with their and their children's vulnerability in the college race while at the same time preparing their children for the unknown future.

Most importantly, we stress that the parental decision to collaborate with an IEC is not just an instrumental one. Rather, it embodies important social and cultural components of what good parenting means in the contemporary United States. While not all families can afford to hire IECs, the parents on which this research concentrates speak to the broader social and cultural processes whereby the heads of advantaged households seek to fulfill the cultural ideal of parenthood through the engagement of “experts.” Like other middle-class and professional middle-class families, parents are worried about how to navigate their children's life paths (Lareau 2011). In the meantime, the families that seek the instructions of IECs point to the increasingly important but understudied roles that experts such as IECs play in contemporary family life.

To date, studies of advantaged families that hire private counselors for their children who are applying for college are not only scant but also inclined to paint with a broad stroke the experiences of these families. The motives of these parents are often described as purely calculative (i.e., getting their children into a selective college), while their IECs are compared to “image consultants” who are responsible for constructing the applicants' “paper self” (i.e., creating or exaggerating the qualities that their clients may or may not have in real life) (McDonough 1997). This focus predisposes us to the instrumental dimension of parenting in advantaged families while downplaying the myriad and sometimes contradictory goals that these parents want to attain when working with IECs. As we will show, the agendas of parents who work with IECs are both pragmatic and symbolic. Collaborating with an IEC enables privileged parents to reassure themselves and their children about their readiness for the game, cultivate the next generation's unique but fragile selves, and locate the school that can nurture their children professionally, socially, and culturally. In so doing, this article advances the scholarly understanding of how expert advice orients contemporary parenting as children transition into early adulthood.


Existing literature has demonstrated that notions of parenthood are not only class-based, but also testify to the salience of social inequalities in the family setting (Ablard and Parker 1997; Jæger 2011). This research shows that advantaged parents typically view their children as projects with boundless potential, who require their deliberation and nurturance. As Kusserow (2004:v) noticed, many middle-class parents stressed “the delicacy of the child's self, the extreme care, resources, wide canvas, and gentle touch needed to help the unique self of the child flower and open up into her [their] full potential.” It is for this reason that many middle-class parents feel responsible for their children's future and invest much of their time, energy, and resources in raising the next generation (Hays 1996; Wrigley 1995). Doing so, these parents hope, will both stimulate their children's talent and prepare the next generation for opportunities and constraints in the unknown future.

The commitment and efforts of privileged parents in cultivating the next generation penetrates many life domains, constituting an important mechanism through which children in advantaged families acquire important life skills (Jæger 2011). Lareau (2011) offers the concept of “concerted cultivation” to explain how middle-class parents enroll their children in numerous age-specific extracurricular activities, use daily conversation to develop children's reasoning ability, and intervene in the next generation's schooling when they find it necessary. This cultivation approach, Lareau (2011) argues, gives middle-class children precious cultural resources—such as a sense of entitlement and comfort when they negotiate with authorities—which they can use to their advantage. Along these lines, other studies also point to similar cultural logics of parenting among advantaged families (Reay 1998). Goodwin (2007:107), for example, underscores the ways middle-class parents instill new knowledge in their children by making “use of for accomplishing a particular activity—exploring new domains of knowledge, including new vocabulary, idioms, and theories about the world—in the midst of mundane activity during the walks around the neighborhood, car rides, at mealtime, and during bedtime stories.” Friedman (2013) introduces the concept of “competitive kid capital” to describe the cultural skills and lessons—such as internalizing the importance of winning and being able to perform under the gaze of others—that parents expect their children to learn from activities such as chess, dance, and sports. These studies point to the ways parents play a decisive role in perpetuating class disparities across generations through transmitting valuable cultural resources, abilities, and “know-how” to their children.

The attempts of elite parents to cultivate and secure their children's class privileges intensify and become most salient as the next generation prepares itself for the college application process (Roska and Potter 2011). A growing body of research has documented that children's application to college is a major life event for middle-class families (Weis, Cipollone, and Jenkins 2014). This research highlights that many elite parents play a decisive role in facilitating their children's pursuit of access to an ideal postsecondary institution. To illustrate, McDonough (1997) points out that parental cultural capital—for example, parents' understanding of the importance of SAT scores and knowledge of how to raise them—significantly influences their children's chances of getting into a highly selective college. More recently, Weis, Cipollone, and Jenkins (2014) compared how elite parents whose children attend public or private high schools foster different strategies to cultivate their children's college-going selves. While parents whose children attend public high schools do a lot of work “upfront” (such as settling in a wealthy neighborhood with well-funded and academically oriented public high schools) to optimally position their children for the college race, those who have their children attend private schools are more inclined to aggressively micromanage their children's application to college (Weis, Cipollone, and Jenkins 2014). These findings largely confirm that elite parents not only understand institutional standards (i.e., selection criteria at colleges and universities), but also take concrete actions to comply with them (cf. Lareau and Weininger 2003).

While most studies reveal that elite parents activate various forms of capital to facilitate their children's academic and professional success, few studies raise questions about the ability of elite parents to navigate the college race, nor do they tell us much about the roles that various “experts” and expert advice likely play in mediating the process whereby privileged families manage an academic world that might be foreign and challenging to them. Prior research has shown that application to college in the contemporary United States has become more competitive and complicated over the past two decades (Lareau 2011), and that competing demands between work and family might preclude many of these parents from fully committing themselves to their children's application to college (Garey and Hansen 2011). Therefore, advantaged parents might not be competent enough—or believe that they are competent enough—to help with their children with the application process. More importantly, as some scholars emphasize, parenting in contemporary Western society is not merely labor-intensive, but also expert-guided (Giddens 1992; Hacker 2008; Hays 1996). Many privileged parents are skeptical and even paranoid about whether they are raising their children correctly, leading them to anxiously seek advice from “experts” (Furedi 2002). However, existing research has yet to capture how parents consider the role of experts throughout their children's college application process. Therefore, we know surprisingly little about the relationship between parenthood and expert opinion as privileged families experience what they view as a life-defining transition (i.e., college application) for their children.

To be sure, a few scholars have noticed that advantaged parents hire private tutors and counselors to improve their children's portfolios for college application (McDonough, Korn, and Yamasaki 1997; Stevens 2007). Nevertheless, their focus is often on how elite parents use these tutors and counselors to pave the way for their children's academic success, rather than critically examining parents' multiple, complex, and sometimes conflicting, goals. This reflects a larger tendency to concentrate on the strategic intent of advantaged parents in the existing literature. Oriented by Bourdieu's approach to class reproduction (Bourdieu 1984), many scholars focus on how elite parents activate various forms of capital, including working with a private counselor, to maximize their children's worth in the marketplace of higher education (Lareau 2011; McDonough 1997; Weis, Cipollone, and Jenkins 2014). With this market analogy guiding their analysis, parental goals appear to be exclusively instrumental values such as prestige, rewards, and qualifications which certain college diplomas can afford their children (Sayer 2005:127). As a result, the utilitarian side of advantaged parents is highlighted whereas the moral, ethical, and emotional concerns that parents have about the next generation's success are downplayed and thus under-analyzed.

Parenting, Perceived Risks, and Expert Advice

The research presented here uses the experiences of families and their IECs to illustrate how privileged parents cooperate with people whom they regard as educational experts to navigate one of the next generation's important life transitions. To complement current scholarship on family and class inequalities, we draw on research on parenting in the context of perceived risks (Cooper 2014; Nelson and Garey 2009) to analyze how the heads of privileged households rely on expert advice to address situations they regard as uncertain and even threatening. A family's decision to hire an IEC constitutes what Villalobos (2014) calls security strategies, which refer to a set of parenting practices that aim to “keep a child emotionally, physically, and economically safe” (11). This goal shapes parental assessment of what they should do for the next generation and whether they deviate from the cultural ideal of “good parents” (Villalobos 2014:11). While Villalobos (2014) focuses particularly on the experiences of mothers, we draw on her conceptualization of security strategies to unpack how parents turn to experts such as IECs to address the “threats” that, from their perspectives, might prevent them from fulfilling their parental responsibility and commitment.

This article also points to the multiplicity and complexity of the security strategies that parents develop during major family transitions. The insecurities that professional middle-class parents feel, and the risks that these parents perceive in their children's lives, often go beyond instrumental concerns (Smith and Sun 2016). Many elite parents are, for example, worried that their children might be trapped in an “unhappy” or meaningless academic or work environment. As Nelson (2010: 42) chronicles, “passion, a sense of satisfaction, a capacity for having fun—these are significant elements of the goals that professional middle-class parents hold out for their children.” Nelson (2010: 42) further points out that these parents are more likely than their less privileged counterparts to emphasize “satisfaction and happiness as goals that supersede economic independence, self-sufficiency, and the acquisition of useful skills.” Along these lines, this study further delineates the processes whereby IECs serve the purpose of creating security (or more precisely, a sense of security) for privileged families by helping parents accomplish both the concrete and symbolic goals that they set for themselves and for their children.

We argue that advantaged parents resort to market forces like IECs to acquire expert advice in order to mitigate the uncertainties that their families experience and to manage various goals at an important turning point in their children's lives. Specifically, we offer the concept of “collaborative cultivation” to analyze how working with intermediaries such as IECs enables these parents to address the insecurities they and their children experience. The notion of “collaborative cultivation” builds upon and extends Lareau's analysis of “concerted cultivation” (Lareau 2011), showing that educational experts like IECs constitute an important mediating factor to understand how advantaged parents secure their and their children's emotional and social well-being. As Pugh (2011:4) argues, the prominence of distinction as a theoretical paradigm in the sociology of families has kept us from asking other important questions about inequality, such as how “people in some circumstances use culture to forge bonds” and how inequalities “shape the connections group members can forge.” While Lareau (2011) concentrates on how privileged families convert their economic capital into cultural capital, the concept of “collaborative cultivation” reveals how elite parents rely on individuals they perceive as experts to establish “bridges” between their own social worlds and the academic worlds that appear beyond their control. This bridging labor not merely provides a partial solution to parental anxiety about whether they will successfully fulfill their responsibilities, but also points to the myriad cultural beliefs enacted to justify the child-rearing goals that these parents wish to achieve.

To begin with, this article documents how IECs mitigate the uncertainties that many privileged parents feel as their children run the college race. Furthermore, this article highlights that the parental decision to seek the guidance of IECs is beyond the merely instrumental. On many occasions, parents prioritize children's developmental needs over the prestige of admission to a particular school. As we will demonstrate, helping their children enter an ideal postsecondary institution might be something that many advantaged parents desire, but it is not necessarily their only goal. Although many elite parents want their kids to have the ability to compete, they are also cautious about whether their children will become overindulged, overscheduled, or overshadowed (see Nelson 2010). This, to a significant extent, explains why many of these parents hover. Finally, we underscore how many privileged parents compare their children's college search to “finding true love (the one).” While parents in this research do talk of the instrumental value of a college diploma, they are also concerned with how to find a higher education institution that can cultivate their children's lifelong passions, abilities, and visions. Since many of these parents have trouble in managing the seemingly indefinite choices they have at hand, they rely on the expertise of IECs to find a “heart-felt” connection between their children and a candidate school.


We utilized qualitative research methods for this study. The data we use in this article come from a larger project in which we interviewed parents, children, and the IECs who assist them. However, given the scope and the limited word space of this article, we focus on the accounts of twenty parents to explore how they collaborate with educational experts to handle a major transition in their children's lives. Between September 2010 and April 2012, we conducted semi-structured, qualitative interviews with twenty-five IECs based in eastern Massachusetts and twenty-nine IEC clients (including nineteen mothers, one father, and nine students) (N = 54), most of whom were clients of our IEC interviewees. The reason why we interviewed more mothers than fathers is partly because many fathers were reluctant to participate in our research and partly because they told us that their wives are the ones who primarily manage their children's college application process. All of the parents and children we studied are White. The age of parents we interviewed ranged between forty one and fifty five. The parents we interviewed are in careers that other scholars (Nelson 2010) call professional middle class. The jobs these parents held include attorneys, doctors, college professors, business owners, hospital administrators, investment bankers, and financial consultants. Virtually, all of families we studied (except for one) are conventional two-parent nuclear family households located in suburban areas. Most of the children attended public schools that had very good reputations. All the names we used in the following analysis are pseudonyms.

To find our sample of private IECs, we searched the online directories of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), and National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) for Massachusetts-based counselors who do college advising. We found that Massachusetts IECs represented about 10% of the IECs listed as working in the United States. We contacted these IECs by phone and/or e-mail to solicit interviews. Most of the IECs responded positively. Some failed to respond, some could not be interviewed because we had incompatible schedules, but only one outright refused to be interviewed. We then augmented our list of IEC interviewees with a few that we found via word-of-mouth. This process resulted in a sample of twenty-five IEC interviewees. To help get a sense of the IEC industry outside of the Boston area, we also conducted what we call “written interviews” via e-mail with four IECs in other parts of the country, who we found by networking with HECA, a professional organization that tends to draw its membership from the western part of the United States.

At first, we found our parent respondents by asking our IEC interviewees to refer us to their clients. However, after locating our first fourteen parent interviews this way, we eventually decided that we should expand our pool, due to the fear that IECs could be selecting clients in a biased manner. We found the remaining parent interviews by asking our earlier parent interviewees to refer us to friends who had also worked with IECs, and through an IEC who was not part of our IEC interviewee pool. We also wrote to the PTAs (Parent Teacher Association) of local districts where IEC services are common, to ask for parental referrals. We then asked the parents for permission to interview their children about their experiences with working with an IEC. We digitally recorded and transcribed all interviews.

Although hiring an IEC is a common practice within the social circles of the families we studied, we have no conclusive evidence about how prevalent it is for privileged families to hire IECs. Many parents with whom we talked learned about the IECs they employed from other families (including parents and children) in their communities. Some of them even felt pressured to hire an IEC because their friends did so for their children. These families who hire IECs are very likely to be of a privileged class background given the cost incurred.

We used ATLAS.ti, a qualitative data analysis program, to aid us in organizing, coding, and analyzing our data, which included interview transcripts and field notes from observational sessions at the IECA conference. Our analysis of the data was informed by a grounded theory approach whereby theory is generated through the research process (Charmaz 2006). Our analytical approach is inductive rather than deductive. This means that instead of starting out with a hypothesis to be approved or disproved, we entered the research field with the intention of gathering data that we would later use as materials for theory building or conceptualization. In this case, we entered the field with several broad themes in mind—such as what motivated parents and their children to work with an IEC, what parents and children expected to gain from their IECs, what IECs do for their clients, how parents and their children feel like working with IECs, and how IECs perceive their responsibilities—that could be relevant to a study of the role of IECs in the college admissions process. We designed our interview questions with the intention of eliciting data related to these themes, but we also kept our ears open for responses that pointed to other themes potentially worth exploring. After each interview, we wrote detailed research notes and used them to elaborate our interview questions. For example, we never expected parents to compare their IECs to matchmakers; this theme actually emerged from the interviews and was not anticipated at the onset.


Beginning with a small representation in 1950s New England, IECs counsel students on matters pertaining to educational choice. There are 4000 to 5000 private educational consultants in the United States focused on college admissions, according to Mark Sklarow, executive director of the IECA, and the number has doubled in the last five years (Bick 2008). IECs may specialize in helping students to choose an appropriate private school, special education program, or college/university, and to navigate the admissions process. In this article, we focus on the growing role of private, for-profit IECs in the college admissions process.

IECs belong to a category of private educational opportunities that exist outside of schools and largely benefits advantaged students, which is called “shadow education” (Stevenson and Baker 1992). Consultants may work independently or with an IEC firm and many of them are former school-based counselors or college admissions officers (Gose 2006). The duties of an IEC may include helping students to choose appropriate schools to which they can apply, offering specialized knowledge and assistance, organizing and managing the admissions process, alleviating anxiety about the process, and “cooling out” students' unrealistic expectations (McDonough, Korn, and Yamasaki 1997). IECs often start working with students in their junior year of high school, but many begin even earlier. They may meet with a student for five hours or more, to talk about career interests, assemble lists of prospective schools, review application essays, and help fill out financial aid forms, if appropriate. Some IECs also offer academic tutoring for schoolwork or standardized tests. Typically, a family can choose to purchase an all-inclusive “package” of advising services, or pay by the hour for services administered on an “a la carte” basis.

Stories can be found in popular newspapers and magazines that describe outrageously expensive IECs such as Michele Hernandez, who was said to charge upward of $40,000 to counsel students on the college application process (Kingsbury 2009). The idea that IECs are privy to proprietary information is disseminated through articles with titles such as “Dirty Secrets of College Coaches” that claim to reveal that while “there's no Batphone that connects college counselors directly to the Yale admissions office… counselors can pull off certain tricks” (Kingsbury 2009).


In the United States, the course work of students and the activities in which they participate during their years of high school constitute important factors in whether they can gain admission into an ideal postsecondary institution. Thus, parents in this study sought professional advice from IECs on these areas in preparing for the college application process. However, these parents maintained that the role of their IECs was supplementary rather determining; the advice that most IECs provided on the schoolwork and activities of the applicants typically served the purpose of convincing the parents that their children were ready and well positioned for the competition of college application. In point of fact, we only had one parent in our sample who was told by their IEC that their children were not well-prepared enough in terms of their schoolwork and activities. In this rare situation, their IEC did make some substantial recommendations. By way of contrast, before contacting IECs, most elite parents in this research resembled advantaged parents in prior studies (Weis, Cipollone, and Jenkins 2014) in that they already did a lot of “up front” work to position their children well for the college race. Many parents and students used words such as “supported” and “reinforced” to describe the input that IECs made regarding students' activities and classes. To be sure, the IECs that advantaged families hired still provided some advice that our parent respondents found helpful. However, the tips offered by IECs were usually about how applicants can strategically represent themselves on paper rather than how to make more academic preparation (e.g., taking more courses or joining more activities). For instance, a mother, Jeanette, illustrated how her IEC's advice helped her son adjust the ways he framed himself in the process of college application.

Certain things [my son] had [positioned] lower on the common app [Common Application that is used for many institutions], and she was like, “No, no—you should really highlight that. Even though spring track is last season, well, you're the captain of the spring track team, so you should put that higher up.” And, he had gotten a couple of awards, like the leadership award and stuff like that, and that, too, he kind of hid, and she said, “No, no, no, you've got to promote yourself and put those higher.” She definitely said, you know, “Emphasize that and maybe de-emphasize that.” That kind of stuff.

Although most of the families we interviewed already made what their IECs perceived as adequate preparation in terms of schoolwork and activities, they pointed to the sense of relief and readiness that they acquired from their IECs in the fierce college race. While many parent respondents reported that their IECs thought they were on top of the college application process, they still desired to acquire a sense of reassurance from their IECs in large part because they believed in the expertise and expert status of their IEC. One of the parents in this research, Paula, was a case in point:

I do think again, there was a reassurance and a listening to their voice, you know.…so that kind of commiserating with someone that wasn't family to hear, “yup, I really think that this is a good, you know [idea]”– obviously she wasn't telling me, but you know, that was a reassuring, everything about him, this makes a lot of sense.

Some parents we interviewed also mentioned that working with an IEC reassured them because having an “expert” supervising their children's application to college reduced their anxiety about making mistakes and ruining their children's future. For instance, a mother, Elaine, described how her IEC offered reassurance to her and her husband. According to Elaine, her IEC always gave her family timely reminders on deadlines regarding their children's college applications. This made Elaine feel less anxious, because she knew someone she trusted would also be supervising the process.

We met with [our IEC] quite frequently and she explained you know, the process and what was going on and where Brenda was [in the application process] and so that was very reassuring and [the IEC] was on top of everything, you know, deadlines and you know, things that had to be done and when they had to be done. So, yeah, she was, she certainly helped reassure us [as parents]''

The sense of reassurance and relief that these parents felt also has much to do with the customized attention that they received from their IECs. One parent, Anne, said that hiring an IEC “just made [her] feel like you were getting individualized attention and I think that always makes you feel good.” It is for this reason that Anne felt that working with her IEC reduced her anxiety about the college application process because she knew that her IECs “are there for me all the time.” Another mother, Claire, likened the IEC to a “butler.” According to Claire, working with an IEC is comforting because she knew that “they [the IECs] make it very apparent that they're there for you twenty four hours a day and that you can call them and they're totally there.” Most notably, these parents appreciated the availability of their IECs during the summer; this is something that even counselors at independent schools usually do not offer.


Enhancing the competitiveness of their children's college application dossier might be an obvious reason to explain why many advantaged families decide to work with an IEC. However, having their children gain admission to selective colleges is definitely not the only reason why these elite parents decided to hire IECs. Rather, these parents emphasized that they hired IECs to cultivate the next generation's vulnerable and unique selves. It is important to stress that none of the parents in the sample said that they hired an IEC because their child was not a good student. Most said that their children were hard-working students, including three mothers who reported that their child has a learning disability or learning “issues.” These parents hired IECs partly because they perceived their children's application to college as the next generation's most important, or decisive, rite of passage into adulthood. These parents thought of the IECs with whom they work as experts, and by seeking advice from “experts,” they believed that they were better able to discover their children's true talents and lifelong passions in the process of applying to college. Some parents described the college application process as a part of their children's path to maturity, a “developmental growth thing,” and saw the IEC as offering guidance on that journey. One parent, Andrea, stated that the money she spent on hiring an IEC was worthwhile since this IEC offered invaluable assistance to her daughter who was transitioning to adulthood:

I mean, the transition to adulthood has become so difficult because of our complicated world that I just think this is such a crucial step and it really is that entrée into the adult world and if it is not a good experience, it just makes it so much harder for years to come and if it is a good experience, it's such a great base to continue on. So, you know, I just felt like if we could all afford it it's worth it.

Likewise, some parents perceived the college application process as a journey fraught with great changes and challenges. In order to protect their family's emotional well-being, they relied on IECs as individuals to maintain their and their children's “sanity” along the way. These parents pointed to other families in their networks who did not use IEC services and ended up putting their and their children's well-being at risk, as can be seen here in this parent, Kathleen's, tale of some friends who did not use an IEC:

[My daughter] has two friends or acquaintances, or whatever, who are both, you know, very good students and neither of them worked with somebody as far as I know, and the end—you know, just getting their stuff in—both families just said that they practically all had a collective nervous breakdown…..I'm thinking about these two families who both their kids are really good students and I know they'll end up at good schools and they did not go through any of this, but…. I know both the kids are now in therapy—I know that it's not only because of these, but one now has an eating disorder. I mean, so the interesting question is, might they be in therapy, anyway? Or, did this contribute to this [eating disorder and need for therapy]—pushing them all over the edge?

Echoing Kathleen, another mother, Beth, directly compared the role of IEC to that of a therapist. According to Beth, the process of college application is full of emotional perils. It is for this reason that Beth would like her children to have an expert who can alleviate the next generation of worries and anxiety. As Beth asserted,

You know, it's kind of—there's college [admissions advice] and there's counseling—and there's a lot of counseling. And some of the kids have needs—they have attentional issues, learning issues, emotional issues.

Several parents we interviewed even prioritized their children's emotional well-being over their children's chances of entering a selective college, out of fear that their children would become overwhelmed. These parents emphasized that they did not necessarily take the suggestions of their IECs, even if these suggestions could help the next generation gain admission into a more selective postsecondary institution. Several parents spoke about how their children were already carrying a heavy load of coursework and activities and thus would not follow the instructions of their IECs to push their children to multiply their efforts in these areas. Sarah, for example, asserted that certain IECs had a reputation for being pushy and aggressive and that she was on guard in case she encountered this behavior. Sarah said that her IEC basically sanctioned “all of her [daughter's] activities and her course selection” and that she felt satisfied with the services provided by her IEC. However, Sarah also stressed that if her IEC asked aggressively for changes in coursework and activities, she would not take the advice. For Sarah, protecting her children's emotional state was more important than “tailoring [her] daughter's résumé to the college admissions officers' desires.”

Furthermore, many parents emphasized that hiring an IEC helps them cultivate their children's uniqueness. These parents were, in this sense, similar to middle-class parents Lareau (2011) studied, emphasizing their commitment to discovering and developing the next generation's distinct talents and skills. Yet, in contrast to families in Lareau's research, parents we interviewed believed that their IECs were in a better position as academic experts to identify and fulfill their children's potential. Some parents, like Andrea, were worried that her lack of knowledge about the academic world would prevent her child from making the best use of the educational opportunities “out there.” As Andrea explained, “I hired an IEC because I wanted to make sure I had considered all the possibilities that might be unique to my child.”

Some parents, while believing in their children's God-given talents, were uncertain about their competence to help realize their children's potential in the college application process. One parent, Peter, believed that his child has certain gifts but did not think of himself as qualified to help his children, especially in the college application process. Peter claimed that he used to underestimate the potential of his children; however, with the help of the IEC he hired, he could better assess their abilities. As Peter indicated, “A student has a given potential; with a private guidance counselor, you come closer to reaching that potential.” It is for this reason that Peter would recommend other parents in similar situation to hire an IEC in order to avoid underestimating or underselling their children. Agreeing with Peter, one mother, Laura, also emphasized that she “was looking for a guiding person” who was better able to bring out her daughter's potential than her and her husband. Deborah—another mother we interviewed—similarly appreciated her IEC for helping realize her daughter's potential. Yet more importantly, Deborah felt gratified that her IEC was able to do so without pushing her daughter too much or to become someone else in the college application process. According to her,

I think he was really supportive of that. That's something I really loved about him is he did not bug her about that. He did not say now you have to get home at 10 o' clock [PM] and find something else to do, which I think a lot of these other people—that's what I was hearing…Like, where's the other 10 things you are going to write down? I felt like he was so supportive to not make her into somebody she wasn't.


The other important role that advantaged families expect IECs to take on in the college application process is that of a matchmaker who introduces parents and students to an assortment of “eligible bachelors,” or appropriate schools. According to Hollander (2004), matchmaking involves an impartial intermediary who makes some judgments about the presumed compatibility of the interested parties based on the information presented. The comparison with matchmakers works best when we consider matchmakers in cultures that value romantic compatibility rather than those who emphasize making strategic matches based on economic status, etc.

Families who hired IECs tend to view young adulthood as a life stage of discovery, in which picking a college is an early stage. As Holmstrom, Karp, and Gray (2011) note, advantaged parents do not usually expect their children to pursue particular courses of study or career paths through their college education, but they do expect them to use the opportunity as a chance to determine and explore their interests. Likewise, most of the students in this research did not face many restrictions in their college search apart from concerns about the suitability and feasibility of gaining admission to a particular institution. Here, we do not imply that parents are unconcerned about the reputation of their children's postsecondary institution or suggest that the parents would be sanguine no matter which postsecondary institution their children ended up attending. Instead, we underscore that how elite parents considered children's college life is not merely guided by strategic thinking, but also oriented toward the symbolic meanings that these parents assign to children's college life. The sense of having wide-open possibilities is often experienced alongside a “romantic” conception that the goal of the college search is to find the “perfect” school for the child—the perfect “fit.” The IEC, then, can be compared to a “matchmaker” who helps clients clarify what they are looking for in a (romantic/spousal) partner and then assists them in meeting an appropriate candidate.

Parents we studied described various ways in which IECs serve as matchmakers who could introduce their children to schools that would be the right “fit.” First, many parents discussed how they relied on the expertise of their IECs in knowing the schools, walking the campuses, having friends on staff, meeting their students, and/or simply telling them which school is the best fit for their children. The IECs whom privileged families hired effectively helped narrow down a seemingly indefinite range of options that are both overwhelming and intimidating to them. One mother, Beatrice, stated approvingly that “As opposed to being given a computer-determined list of ‘matches,’ her family's IEC took a much more personalized matchmaking approach.” For Beatrice, she preferred to rely on the expert she hired rather than a screening program installed in the computer. Another mother, Grace, similarly described how her IEC guided her child toward the right match by pointing out the factors she and her child should take into consideration:

After every visit, part of what Ben would do with Michael would be to send him an email—“This is what I liked about the school, this is what I didn't like,” things like that, and from there, you know, Michael would say, “Well, if you like things like that, why don't you think about this one?”—and that was kind of a lot of how we worked and that was really helpful.

In addition, this romanticized analogy of matchmaking implies an internal satisfaction that stems from children's compatibility with a particular school. The term, “fit,” refers to the match between the student and the school, and a good fit is a school where a student can be comfortable and successful. To illustrate, Amy—a mother we interviewed—told us that she initially thought about having their daughter applying as a “legacy” (through her husband) at a prestigious school, but Amy agreed to let her daughter choose a less selective university because she thought her daughter would do better in a less competitive environment and with “a much more hands-on approach.” As Amy clearly reported, she and her husband “would have loved for her to [apply as a legacy],” but they believed this would be not only “too much a stretch” but an incorrect decision. In other words, Amy precluded her daughter from applying for the legacy school because she considered both her child's academic potential and the educational environment that she deemed best for her daughter. According to Amy, her daughter is “really bright,” but a suitable environment would promote her daughter's learning while the reputation of a school would not. Likewise, another mother, Elaine, clearly distinguished the most selective schools from the one with the right fit for her child. Elaine admitted that “it is very hard to avoid that because the name schools are the ones that many people think are better schools.” However, she clearly emphasized that her “biggest concern” is whether her son “chose the right fit and [went beyond just] picking a ‘name’ school.” Elaine believed her son would thrive in an appropriately fitting postsecondary institution rather than just a “famous” one.

This less pragmatic view allows for these students and parents to talk about having emotional reactions or attachments to certain schools, or in the language of these parents, being “in love” with a school. One parent, Linda, spoke of her daughter having a “real heart connection” with a prospective school. Furthermore, Linda described how her daughter's IEC listened to what her child wanted and then was able to make a reasonable suggestion because she knew of a school of compatible character:

Yes, [the IEC] listened, she did. Yeah. I can give you an example. My daughter was worried about the social scene because she's a pretty serious student and she's social, but this is a girl who really hasn't gone to parties during high school, has a small group of friends, is very careful and very mature, and she was worried, a bit, about the college scene. So, Jane, for example, when my daughter mentioned [a particular Ivy League school] as a place, said immediately, “Greek system very strong, a reputation for being somewhat male-dominated,” and I thought she gave her very good advice in that regard and listened to her and responded to that question and concern.

Like Linda, many other parents we studied expressed similar beliefs in the compatibility between the “character” or “personality” of a particular school and a child's individual character. Peter, a father we interviewed, stated that “there were very different kids and different personalities.” Therefore, Peter firmly believed that “their [children's] personalities might go better at different kinds of schools” and that “they [children] each had to find that for themselves.” For many parents, the personality of schools is as important as other practical concerns they have in mind. To illustrate, a mother, Elaine, reported that she and her husband carefully collaborated with the IEC to learn which schools would have the best academic resources for her son. Elaine did so in part because her son had learning disabilities. In the meantime, Elaine also believed that like human beings, universities and colleges have their own “personalities.” This, according to Elaine, explained why some postsecondary institutions would serve her son better than others:

…also sort of the character of the schools, you know, what type of school is it? Especially if you can't really visit all of them. Um, it really is helpful to have someone tell you what sort of personality the school is. It helps you figure out if your child will be happy there.

The emphasis on the personality of a school is actually a contained symbol that reflects how parents think about their children's needs. This also deeply influences the emotional response of parents to the postsecondary institution that their children will attend. Parents were particularly satisfied or even elated if their children got into a college that, from their viewpoints, has the right personality for their children. This does not mean that the status reputation of a university does not matter at all; some parents did think that attending an Ivy-league school would suit and serve their children well. However, again, what really matters here is whether parents thought that a school has the right campus culture that fits their children. For example, Regina's daughter chose to attend a small liberal arts school rather than a well-known major research university and Regina commented that she would have been disappointed and felt that “the money [on the IEC] was not well spent” if her child had ended up attending a “very large research university.” Regina further explained that she did not think that “attending a big school is a bad thing,” but she firmly believed her child would do well or fit in better in a smaller and less competitive academic environment. As Regina emphasized during the interview, she would be reluctant to spend “the 55-60,000 dollars tuition on a really big school that would not work for the children.”

Overall, with the help of their IECs, many parents not only believed that they knew better about the personalities of different schools, but also felt more certain about the decisions they made. In this regard, the expertise of their IECs (i.e., the knowledge of their IECs about colleges and universities) played an important role in empowering advantaged families. To illustrate, Amy—whom we met earlier in this article—talks about how their IEC tried to guide her child into finding the right fit by explaining the different regional and campus cultures. For Amy, working with the IEC she hired made both her and her son more confident about the choices they made.

I think he was also really good about being able to talk about um—I'm trying to think about how to say this—like the differences between different geographic locations. So, she had Texas and like one in Virginia, I think it was [Large State School] or something, which has a design program which we did not go look at but basically he was talking about a couple of schools and saying you know, think about your most conservative friend at [affluent suburban public high school], that 's going to be the norm there. They 're going to be liberal [laughs]! And I think that's really helpful to her. So he seemed, you know, I—he did instill a lot of confidence that he understood what happened all these schools.


This article uses the accounts of parents, children, and their IECs to examine how privileged families utilize expert advice to address uncertainties that stem from their children's position at a major crossroad of life. We offer the concept of “collaborative cultivation” to demonstrate the ways parents work with IECs to respond to various developmental needs of their adolescent children. The decision to collaborate with an IEC simultaneously attests to the importance that parents place on their children's higher education, the trust that they have in the authority of people whom they consider experts, and the insecurities that they have about themselves. More importantly, the parental desire to collaborate with educational experts to help their children throughout the college application demonstrates that they are (or they believe that they are) in need of expert assistance to live up to their visions of “good parenting.” Even though elite parents try their best to impart a wide range of skills and “a readiness to be flexible” to their children (Nelson 2010:8), many of them feel ambivalent about their ability to do so. With the intervention of these IECs, the parents with whom we talked found ways to reassure themselves about their children's readiness for the college race and to reinforce their ability nurture the next generation academically, emotionally, and socially.

The accounts of these parents offer several conceptual reflections on the existing literature on parenthood and on one of the next generation's major life transitions. First, this research complicates the scholarly understanding of parenting in the context where children come of age and are moving on to what these families consider the next life major stage. Influenced by Bourdieu, much of the literature has emphasized the decisive role that parents play in navigating their children's path to future success (Lareau 2011; Reay, Crozier, and James 2011; Weis, Cipollone, and Jenkins 2014). While we agree with the importance of parenting for developing children's privilege and entitlement, this study underscores the insecurities of privileged parents who try to navigate the next generation's life path. Drawing on recent research on parenting and perceived risks (Cooper 2014; Nelson 2010; Villalobos 2014), this study demonstrates how working with people whom they consider educational experts constitutes a “security strategy” that privileged parents foster to cope with their children's major life transition. The ways in which these parents seek to secure their children's well-being confirm the intensification of parenting in contemporary American society, further revealing the shift of children's status from economic resources to the emotional and symbolic center of the family life (Hays 1996). It is against this background that educational experts such as IECs have become a significant force that privileged parents utilize during a turbulent time for their children.

More importantly, this study highlights the complexity of parental commitment to helping the next generation traverse a crossroad in their lives. Studies of parenting have shown that parents are calculative about how to ensure children's academic success (Jæger 2011; Lareau and Weininger 2003; Reay 1998). This assumption of “parents as strategic social actors” can be clearly found, for example, in the research on parents who employ private tutors for their college-applying children (McDonough 1997). We do not disagree with this insight. Yet, this article advances the sociological analysis of parenting by stressing that the ways privileged parents conceptualize “success” are both instrumental and symbolic, offering a nuanced analysis of privileged parents' expectations and the services they hire to help their children “succeed.” As our data indicate, how professional middle-class parents define children's success is multi-dimensional. These parents resort to consulting with individuals whom they perceive as experts to help realize their children's potential to be happy, passionate, and confident about various life choices and for themselves as parents to feel confident about their children's life chances (also see Nelson 2010). These findings alert us to emotional, social, and cultural components of class-based parenthood and to the myriad ways in which these components shape the perspectives of these parents on educational experts.

Beyond the immediate case study, the findings of this article speak to larger theoretical discussions on the intertwined relationship between reflexivity, risks, and the increasing importance of experts in modern society. As several social theorists argue (Beck 2007; Giddens 1992), reflexivity is the defining feature of late modernity. We as social actors are encouraged to consistently reflect upon ourselves in response to (and perhaps also due to) the changing external environment (e.g., social, cultural, and economic transformation) and our internal needs and desires. On one hand, we might feel empowered because “traditions” and traditional authority (e.g., kinship and religion) no longer determine the organization of our lives and we have options that were not available in the past (Giddens 1992). Yet, on the other hand, the lack of guidelines in modern society also makes us feel insecure and subjects us to self-scrutiny about our decisions. It is in this context that experts in different social domains become increasingly important; these experts become significant reference points with which we critically reflect upon ourselves. As Eliot Freidson (1988) wrote decades ago, “the relationship of the expert to modern society seems in fact to be one of the central problems of our time, for at its heart lie the issues of democracy and freedom and the degree to which people can shape the character of their own lives” (336). In this regard, the attempts of elite parents to alleviate their anxiety about their children's life transitions is not entirely new, but mirrors the heightened focus on experts and expert advice in both our ever-changing modern society and in our intimate relations.

We are clearly aware of some limitations of the data we presented in this article. First, we wish to emphasize that not all elite or privileged parents hire an IEC; parents who work with IECs are a self-selective group. It is important to remember that parents who employ an IEC might have different attitudes toward so-called “educational experts” on the market. It is also necessary to compare a variety of strategies that elite parents foster to cope with their children life transitions (e.g., through market, through social networks, and through kinship). In addition, our research suggests that overall, parents, students, and the IECs they hire are on the same page in terms of the benefits that they believe they have accrued from working with private college counselors. However, it is worth noting that the methodology of this study might unintentionally select out some of the families who have bad experiences with IECs. The fact that we recruited many, although not all, parents and children through the IECs we interviewed might allow us to find more families who take issues with their IECs. Finally, given all the parents and children in this study are white, we cannot compare racial and ethnic differences among families who work with IECs. It is our hope that future studies can carefully address these issues and advance our understanding of contemporary parenting.

Despite these limitations, this article complicates the scholarly understanding of why elite parents hire private counselors to help their children in the college race. While we agree that privileged parents play a key role in their children's academic and professional success, this research also highlights the struggles of these parents to reconcile multiple goals when preparing the next generation for the academic arena. As we have shown, parental motivations for hiring an IEC go beyond concerns about academic success of their children. Whilst elite parents might be strategic and calculative about their children's future, they have both instrumental and not-so-instrumental concerns in mind. For example, aside from wishing to see their children gain admission to a top college or university, these parents struggle with how to cultivate their children's individuality. To accomplish this goal, many parents are cautious that the help offered by their IECs does not overshadow their children's unique passions, talents, and dreams—even if doing so could bring about a better (or more prestigious) admissions outcome. Likewise, parents typically do not want to exchange their children's emotional health for academic success. Hiring an IEC ensures that they could keep them and their children calm (or at least less anxious) during the stressful times. Most notably, many parents we interviewed prefer to have their children attend the college that suits their children better rather than those that are better-known. This probably best exemplifies how, from the perspective of parents, the symbolic value of a postsecondary institution could sometimes trump the instrumental one. At the same time, the parental decision to hire an IEC to help their children enter the “right” college (rather than just a top college) is still indicative of class privilege, which further shapes the life chances of the next generation. Unlike teenage children in privileged families, those who come of age in economically disadvantaged families lack similar opportunities to receive such intense guidance meant to help them choose a higher education institution that works for them.

Hiring an IEC can be seen as an effort on the part of parents to “outsource” some parental tasks, but most parents do not expect IECs to pull strings or do magic tricks. Families hire IECs with the hopes of maximizing their children's potential in the admissions arena, but it appears that a sense of confirmation and the management of uncertainty also rank high on the list of reasons that families hire IECs. Oftentimes, these families do not face any restraints in choosing which colleges (and how many of them) to apply to, so the IEC also helps them limit their seemingly “infinite” options. Parents also appreciate how IECs keep the focus on their children as unique individuals and offer advice accordingly. These findings point to the multi-faceted dimensions of parenting and alert sociologists of family and education to the role of expert advice in facilitating the ways privileged families accomplish their child-rearing goals.


This research is generously funded by Andrew Mellon Foundation and Brandeis University. The authors thank two reviewers for their clear and constructive comments, and are grateful to Professor Robert Dingwall for his helpful instructions regarding the revision. The authors gratefully acknowledge the insightful questions, comments, and suggestions of Margaret (Peggy) Nelson, Wendy Cadge, Mary Brinton, David Cunningham, and Laura Miller.


  • Ken Chih-Yan Sun received his PhD in sociology from Brandeis University. He is currently working as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University. His research interests include families, migration, gender, race/ethnicity, life stage, and globalization. Dr. Sun published his works in Journal of Marriage and Family, Global Networks, Sociological Forum, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Journal of Family Issues, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and Sociology Compass. He is currently writing a book on aging and transnationalism.

  • Jill M. Smith graduated with a PhD in Sociology from Brandeis University in 2014. She has taught Sociology at a number of colleges and universities, including Brandeis University and Tufts University. Her research interests include sociology of education, social stratification/mobility, and sociology of culture. This is her second collaboration with Ken Chih-Yan Sun.