"College is no joke," Robert Roddy says to a group of freshmen.
Call it "College 101" for this honors English class at Northeast Miami-Dade's Michael Krop High School. Roddy is the school's college counselor, and he's telling these ninth-graders they need to start planning for college now.
"How many of you see yourself going to college after high school, can I see a show of hands?" Roddy asks the class.
Every arm shoots up. Roddy's job is to help students get into college. When he's not lecturing a class, he's counseling in his office, or blast e-mailing application, financial aid, and scholarship info to every student in the school, sometimes late at night.
"I think we're doing the best we can with the tools that we have," Roddy says.
The problem is, Roddy is the only college counselor for a school of roughly 3,400 students. That's a common scenario for South Florida public high schools.
"I'm always asked if I can help a student individually, get into an Ivy or something like that," Roddy says, meaning an Ivy League college, "and I try to help as much as I can, but when given the numbers, I just don't have the time."
The school's principal, Dr. Matthew Welker, told me that's simply the fiscal reality of Florida's public schools. The state barely provides enough money for teachers, let alone guidance counselors, and that's fueling the rise of the private college counselor industry. I had never heard of them until several friends with kids older than mine told me they were using private counselors. Turns out there are dozens to choose from on Google or by word of mouth.
"I don't care how great you are as a guidance counselor, it's pretty hard to give one-on-one attention to 3,000 students," says Mandee Adler, a Harvard grad who runs a Broward company called International College Counselors. "As the cost of higher education has gone up and public school dollars have gone down, there's a need for private companies to come in and provide support."
But that support isn't cheap. Adler charges $5,000 for her services. What does a parent get for that investment? Starting from freshman year, Adler's group will help a student pick classes, clubs, summer activities, everything focused on getting that kid into the best possible college for him or her. That includes the application process and the hunt for financial aid and scholarships.
"The biggest chunk of our work is the application process," Adler says. "You want to go to Harvard, how do you get there? You want to go to Penn, how do you get there? You want to go to UF, how do you get there?"
Lauren Henschel knows how to get to Durham, North Carolina. She just found out she won the college application lottery.
"I'm going to Duke!" the Krop High senior says with a smile she can't suppress.
Lauren's parents hired a private counselor (not Adler's firm) and say it took all the stress out of an extremely anxiety-ridden process.
"It definitely takes the burden off the parents," says Lauren's mom, Nancy Henschel. "For us, it was totally worth the investment."
"I had tons of scholarship applicatons to work on, she worked with me on everything," Lauren says about her counselor. "If I had done it by myself, I'm not sure it would've gotten done just because it was so much work, and I didn't have to fight with my parents at all, it was perfect."
If you can't afford a private college counselor for your kid, take heart in this: 96-percent of Krop High's graduates in 2010 went to college, and the vast majority did it with no private help.