I wonder how many of your clients fret—in this terrible job market—about getting their children into a good college in order to establish a successful career. I’ve worried myself since my own children first applied for a nursery school in Manhattan that interviews 2-year-olds.
I didn’t worry when I applied for college myself many years ago. I applied to one school, was accepted, received generous grants and scholarships and worked part time through college and that was it. That would be nearly impossible today.
Suzanne Rheault, the co-founder of Aristotle Circle, an educational service that works with children from birth until they begin their careers, didn’t have trouble either. “When I applied to college almost 25 years ago, having a high GPA and near-perfect SAT scores was enough to gain entrance into a top university,” she says. She earned a Bachelor of Science in management science at MIT and an MBA from Columbia.
But today, she says, “The dean of MIT admissions, Stu Schmill, said he could fill the freshman class 10 times over with students who had the test scores and grades necessary.” Such scores are no longer enough. I remember a friend telling me some years ago that her son got 1500 on his SAT. I was impressed. She shrugged. “Anyone can do that with the proper tutor,” she said.
Some test-prep services “guarantee” students a certain score on the SAT if they work with a child for four years. But not everyone can afford a $50,000 placement package.
It was for some of those reasons that Rheault and her friend from MIT, Susan Starnes, founded Aristotle Circle in 2008 to “level the playing field” so any child could get a good education. The firm, headquartered in New York with outposts across the country (and one Dubai), bills itself as an “educational advisor,” according to partner Monique Bloom. Among other things, it helps students through high school and preps them for the SAT.
The firm also has experts in just about every imaginable educational specialty. They include former Ivy League admissions directors, financial aid officers, athletic coaches and recruiters, early learning psychologists and guidance counselors at the top prep schools in the country.
The program offers two advantages over other services: the quality of its experts and its a la carte services. For example, a teenager could work with an expert—someone who went to his first-choice college, for instance—just to look at his application before he presses “send” on his computer. That’s it. Most of the company’s experts work by the hour, for fees ranging from $50 to $650.
Rheault first worked as a buy-side analyst on Wall Street after college. She took maternity leave after having her first child, though, and was forbidden to go into the office. While she was on leave, she built a Web site with Starnes (who had earned bachelor of science degrees in aeronautical/astronautical engineering, literature and management science from MIT and who had been working for 17 years in developing corporate, product, technology and marketing strategies for start-ups). The two realized they enjoyed working together and they complemented each other’s skills.
When Rheault planned to begin researching pre-school and educational enrichment programs for her young daughter and son, she had no clue about how to find them. As a securities analyst, she knew that there were always networks in her field where she could get expert research, but there was no such network in the educational world. Professional admissions consultants charged what she thought were “exorbitant up-front fees” for an “inflexible set of services.”
Her interest in education was also prompted by her father, who grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in a Boston housing project with four brothers, his parents and grandfather, yet earned a full scholarship to MIT and supported his family while he attended college.
“My father has always been an inspiration to me,” she says. “He always says education can transform destiny in one generation.” She believes “access to excellent education should not be limited by a family’s income.”
She and Starnes believed Aristotle Circle could not only level the playing field but increase the transparency of the school admissions process. “Since grades and SAT/ACT scores are a large piece of school admissions, we realized that we needed to expand into hyper local tutoring services,” she says. “We felt strongly that our services should fit the needs of children of various economic backgrounds, not just those who could afford top professional tutors.
“To achieve this goal, we have utilized what we believe is one of the most underutilized educational assets, our top-performing straight-A high school students and undergraduates at top universities.”
Aristotle Circle writes all its own curricula and professional development programs, Bloom says, which are designed by Janet Roberts, who holds a Master of Science in education research from Oxford University and a bachelor’s degree in education from Hong Kong University. It has career prep experts to work with students on how to present themselves in an interview. Bloom says the firm can “seamlessly provide educational services at every price point from kindergarten through career.” She notes that more than 50% of the concepts on standardized tests are learned material.
Most of the consultants working for Aristotle Circle have agreed to work pro bono in specific situations if the firm is working on a project with a specific institution, Bloom says. Its experts can address autism, learning disabilities, athletic recruiting, ADHD and international preparation. They can also give advice to students who are wait-listed or deferred at their first-choice college.
“The job market is so tough right now, and we can provide an edge,” Bloom says. The service also helps because school guidance counselors are overwhelmed: She cites an average 478 students per guidance counselor in the U.S. (And those counselors often encourage kids to aim low, in my own experience, telling them they can’t get into their dream schools. The safety schools suggested by my children’s counselor were awful!)
Aristotle Circle branched out by buying Peer2Peer Tutors, a company founded by Erik Kimel, in 2004. Kimel had recruited, vetted and trained 5,000 peer tutors (high school and university students with an A average) to work with their peers. Since the purchase, Peer2Peer has expanded from 8 to 25 locations. (Kimel is now the chief strategy officer at the firm.)
Aristotle Circle has worked with thousands of students and families, Rheault says. “Each has a story to tell.” She says one of the firm’s students “followed the advice of our expert who really felt a school the family hadn’t considered previously would be an amazing fit.” The student’s father wanted him to attend the father’s own alma mater, but “later thanked us profusely for pushing for his son to apply to this other school, as he had never seen his son so happy.”
Another student who was completing his application with the help of an expert from Aristotle Circle realized his photography hobby, which he wrote about in the application, was clearly his passion—and talent—and went on to become a well-known photographer. “And our peer tutors have changed the lives of hundreds of high school students.”
Mary Rowland can be reached at [email protected]. She has been a business and personal finance journalist for 30 years and has written two books for financial advisors: Best Practices and In Search of the Perfect Model.