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May We Interest You in Our College-Counseling Package?

If you’re a college counselor, then maybe—just maybe—you’ve had a recurring nightmare in which you’ve been replaced by a computer, or a robot, or perhaps some kind of artificial intelligence, a HAL 9000 for the Age of Demonstrated Interest. Rest assured, this isn’t happening, at least not yet.

Nonetheless, each week, it seems, brings news of another high-tech alternative to in-school college counseling. Today a company called Unigo announced the launch of “Absolute Admit,” an interactive online course for prospective college applicants.

The system is designed to assess a student’s strengths and weaknesses, and to provide customized video segments about various aspects of the application process (those “lessons” are delivered by former admissions officers). Students may also participate in live, one-on-one video chats with admissions experts in Unigo’s 1,000-strong network, which includes college counselors at public and private high schools, as well as independent counselors.

The process starts with a phone call in which students are asked a series of questions that allow Unigo to create a personalized “strategy report.” The answers to those questions also determine the content students get. A sophomore’s experience will differ from that of a junior. And an applicant whose portfolio lacks something important (say, evidence of rich extracurricular experiences) will get tips on how to improve it.

“Applying to college is a process,” says Jordan Goldman, Unigo’s founder and chief executive officer. “If you don’t know what the person on the other side of the table is looking for, even strong students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, aren’t able to show how strong they are.”

A subscription to the Web site’s curriculum costs $199. An additional $50 gets students one hour with a counselor. For $599, they get five hours with a counselor. More chats with counselors go for $99 an hour.

Recently I wrote an article about ways in which technology might redefine college counseling, at least for some students. I chose to describe only those ventures that provide college advising, in some form or another, free of charge. After all, the families who need the most guidance aren’t likely to fork over $250 for it. In that article, I neglected to mention the College Board’s BigFuture Web site, which doesn’t cost a dime; it also features instructional videos and college-planning prompts (though no one-on-one advising).

Although Absolute Admit may be a bargain compared with the five-figure fees charged by some private counselors, it’s still more than many lower-income families could even imagine paying. That’s why Unigo will give away one free subscription for every three that it sells, Mr. Goldman says. His company plans to work with several partners, including Let’s Get Ready, a college-access group that serves low-income students, to give complimentary subscriptions to students who can’t afford them.

Unigo’s counselors get half of the $99 fee for each advising session. Whatever you might think of this kind of for-profit moonlighting, it’s one way of freeing college advising from the confines of the school that a given student happens to attend. Technology allows a student from California to have a live chat with a counselor from Michigan. “If we can get more counseling out of our counselors,” Mr. Goldman says, “we can redeploy them to do one-on-one sessions at a relatively low cost.”

The question is, will most students who pay up really need this high-tech offering—or will they just think that they do?

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