Shannon Vasconcelos fired up her laptop in a sterile conference room in a suburban office park. Right on schedule, a mother and her daughter popped up on her screen.

The pair was in the Adirondacks on vacation, but not even that allowed them an escape from an all-consuming task: getting the daughter into college.

Vasconcelos is the former assistant director of financial aid at Tufts University who now works as a senior director at Bright Horizons College Coach — the same Bright Horizons that runs more than 1,000 early child care providers. On this morning, Vasconcelos fielded questions from the daughter, a high school junior who said she has set her sights on Harvard.

“If you’re at the academic level where getting into an Ivy League college is a possibility, that also means that you would likely be eligible for lots of great merit scholarship money” at slightly less-selective schools, Vasconcelos responded. “So that’s something to weigh.”

A growing number of U.S. companies are offering access to college admissions counselors as a benefit to their employees in the last year. And they’re big companies, like JPMorgan Chase, American Express, Mastercard, Goodwin, Johnson & Johnson, and more.

Such a service can cost $140 or more an hour, and has largely been a perk among hedge fund employees and financial executives. Employers offering private college admissions coaching said it’s a way to recruit and retain workers in a tight labor market, and for companies to prevent the stress of the college admissions process from cutting into employee productivity.

“Every country in the world has a more transparent [college] admissions system than the United States," said Allen Koh, chief executive at Cardinal Education, a college consulting firm for top executives’ families.

Critics contend it’s just another advantage for wealthier families over lower-income ones in the college admissions race.

“They’re giving resources for free to individuals not only who could afford it, but who actually don’t need it,” said Anthony Abraham Jack, associate professor of higher education leadership at Boston University and author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.”

“It calls into question not just fairness, but equity," he said, "because the people in the companies and organizations that put you in the top 1% get more perks, more benefits, more freebies than those who actually need it."

The convoluted college process has become even more complicated after the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, resurgent criticism of legacy admissions and shifting requirements for standardized test scores.

Are SATs optional? What can applicants do to get a leg up? What characteristics are important to write about in an essay? Will there be any seats left after early admission ends?

To guide them through the unknown, most families rely on high school college counselors. But counselors in public high schools are responsible for an average of more than 400 students each, according to the American School Counselor Association, well above the recommended maximum of 1:250.

“The people in the companies and organizations that put you in the top 1% get more perks, more benefits, more freebies than those who actually need it.”
Anthony Abraham Jack, author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students”

Family support benefits are also on the rise — like paid family leave and even pet insurance, according to the Society of Human Resource Management. Companies are also adding maternity and paternity leave on top of existing tuition assistance help with student loan repayments.

Craig Copeland from the Employee Benefit Research Institute said older workers with teenage kids wanted their share. So employers “started saying, ‘Maybe we can help you make better decisions about what college you choose,’” he said.

Employers gain from this, too, in ways that go beyond improved recruitment and retention.

“People are spending time during the work week being stressed, helping their kids with their college applications,” said Changxiao Xie, co-founder and chief technology officer of Empowerly, which found the vast majority of parents spend work hours helping their kids with homework or college planning.

The process “can be extremely overwhelming and stressful as you’re trying to balance not only your work life but other things outside of your work,” said Brandt Bennett, a financial benefits executive at Bank of America, who has also used the company’s unlimited private college consulting offer to employees.

“It can just really kind of consume you, and you can get overwhelmed, and it can overwhelm your son or daughter,” he said.

Most people, however, still don’t have access to private college consultants through work or home, and the trend is so new there isn’t data about how many companies offer it.

There is ample information about the lack of college admissions counseling in high school. The National Association for College Admission Counseling estimates that high school counselors spend just 22% of their time on college advising, with more hours going to counseling about high school academics and students’ personal needs.

“In an ideal world, we wish our company didn’t have to exist — that everybody who wanted to go to college had the information they need, and that it wasn’t so complicated,” said Vasconcelos, from Bright Horizons. “But that world does not exist right now in this country.”

For client companies that offer Bright Horizons’ college consulting benefit, employees at all ranks are typically eligible, from the C-suite to custodians and security guards, she said.

We “talk to populations of employees who have no experience with college, who may not have gone to college themselves,” she said.

Jack, the BU professor, said he is skeptical that lower-level employees will even know to ask for college admissions coaching.

“Are you communicating to them the same things that you are communicating to your executives in the way that they actually understand what’s available?” he asked. “Do all your employees truly know what is available to them?”

For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, “your counselors not only don’t have the time, but the knowledge about applying to college, compared to your peers from the suburbs,” he said.

Let alone their peers from private schools, he said, whose parents may work for employers that offer college coaching.

Koh, the chief executive at Cardinal Education, said the problem isn’t the inequities around who gets counseling and who doesn't, but the college admissions process itself.

The real culprit is “universities and their incredibly opaque admissions policies,” he said.

“A lot of what we’re doing is providing not just college admissions strategy, but it’s individual mentoring and coaching to help kids lead the most fulfilling, positive, productive, happy lives they can,” he said. “Rich kids are also kids, and they have a lot of the same family issues, same emotional issues, that everybody does.”

This story was a collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.