This just in from the Hurricane Sandy silver linings department: High school seniors applying early to fast-track college decisions got a reprieve from their November 1 deadlines from Ivy League and other schools. That’s also good news for Jordan Goldman, CEO of Unigo.
Unigo, the four-year old platform that pulls together more than 250,000 multi-media reviews  of colleges by current students and admissions counselors, is launching Absolute Admit today (despite the fact that its Manhattan office is without power and employees are working from wherever they can find Wi-Fi).
The online Absolute Admit service provides video lessons on every part of the college application process, as well as a network of private admissions counselors who work with students one-on-one via live chat or by phone. Though Goldman couldn’t have predicted the widespread damage from the storm, the deadline delay he says, may just offer students a bit of an extra edge if they sign up to work with a counselor this week. Sessions cost $99 per hour and students can get matched with one of Unigo’s over 1,000 qualified counselor’s in 24 hours or less.
The level of expertise, the time available to students, and the (relatively) low cost are what sets Absolute Admit far apart from most college counselors. Though there’s one in every high school in America, Goldman says that each school counselor is often dealing with 850 students and only spending an average of 17 minutes a year with each. “When I was in high school in Staten Island [in 2000] my counselor spent 10 minutes and gave me a list of schools that were all wrong from what I know now," Goldman says. "Most families wind up just winging it.”
In a hyper-competitive environment, where the average college received about 6,000 applications in 2010 according to U.S. News (and some popular universities like UCLA waded through over 57,000 !). As Goldman notes, “Even small mistakes can cripple an applicant’s chances.”
And not because they aren’t good students. In fact, in a New York Magazine report about a private college counselor (who charges $28,995 for 24 sessions), a Yale admissions officer said “the college could have tossed all its acceptances in the trash and culled a statistically identical and stellar freshman class from the reject pile.”
Goldman believed there had to be a better way to level the playing field for middle and lower income families. The online course costs $199, assesses the student’s strengths and weaknesses, and collects information on their favorite schools. Throw in over 200 customized video lessons that tackle every part of the college application process, and it starts to seem like a relative bargain. Though the College Board offers assessment tools, students usually resort to sorting through the site school by school to see if their grades and interests line up with top picks.
For an additional $50 on Unigo, families get Absolute Admit plus one hour with a college counselor, and $599 buys the courses plus five hours with a college counselor. Any additional time with college counselors is $99 per hour. Goldman says he’s not shutting out kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, either. Absolute Admit will partner with non-profits such as Lets Get Ready to offer the program free to students with additional financial need.
Aiming to please a generation of demanding “helicopter parents” (who in some cases even write the application essays for their kids ) Unigo counselors tend to come from top schools, themselves. Former admissions officers from more than 50 schools including Columbia, Stanford, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Wellesley, UC Berkeley, Brown, New York University, and Duke submitted applications along with their best advice and were personally vetted by the Unigo team.
Though he says the site is currently profitable, Goldman says Unigo will take a cut of the counselors’ fees depending on the strength of their credentials, to diversify its revenue stream. That should earn top marks from McGraw-Hill, which pumped $1.6 million into a first round of institutional funding last year. The textbook publisher is betting that the virtual educational marketplace will make up for declining book sales .
Goldman stresses Absolute Admit’s simple selling point. “You wouldn’t do your taxes for the first time without consulting a professional accountant, would you?” he asks. “We help you articulate your best self to colleges, just like an accountant can help you input your finances to get the maximum return.” In other words, for an educational investment that may cost over $100,000 , a hundred bucks and an hour with a counselor buys a bit of insurance. Or at least a sliver of sanity.