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Virtual College Counseling for $100 an Hour

In the Internet Age, it’s been said, high-school students can search for colleges in their pajamas. Now they can have a face-to-face talk with a college counselor while sitting in their living rooms.

A company called Unigo has started an online service that allows students to participate in one-one-one video chats with counselors from public and private secondary schools. The charge: $100 for 60 minutes.

Jordan Goldman, Unigo’s founder and chief executive, describes the venture as a cost-effective way of leveling the precollege playing field. “College counseling in America, despite the best efforts of many amazing counselors, is broken,” he says. “There are too many students who don’t get enough college counseling.”

Students can browse a directory that lists each counselor’s professional background, years of experience, and areas of expertise (“Where to Start: Considering the Big Stuff,” “Building Your College Research List,” “The Essay: Advice and Editing,” and “Waitlists, Deferment, Rejection” are among the options). Visitors can choose different types of sessions (“Getting In,” “Paying for It,” “College Life” are a few examples).

If browsing through 500 listings seems like too much of a chore, students can click a button that says “Tell us about yourself and we’ll find the perfect counselor.” The link takes them to a questionnaire that asks about grades, test scores, and intended majors. Within 24 hours, they will be matched with counselors who fit specific descriptions. She speaks Chinese, for instance, or has experience advising home-schooled students.

Students can schedule a session with a counselor, or they can log on and see who’s available for an immediate chat (via video, audio, or text). Since the service started almost three weeks ago, the site has hosted about 500 chats, which have taken place at all hours.

Many students who have sought out chats live in areas with high counselor-to-student ratios, according to Mr. Goldman. “Sometimes, it’s the parents saying ‘My kid got time with the counselor, but I didn’t get any time with the counselor,’” he says. Most conversations have been big-picture. “It’s not ‘Can you help me get into Harvard?’ It’s ‘Here are the schools I’m applying to. What am I missing?”

To moonlight on Unigo, counselors must answer at least three of 39 questions that are designed to reveal their expertise. The company’s editorial team reviews those answers (so far, about half of the applicants were approved). After each chat, users can rate counselors, who receive $50 for every session they hold.

Patrick J. O’Connor, director of college counseling at the Roeper School, in Michigan, recently accepted Unigo’s invitation to join. He plans on devoting about five hours a week to the service, which, he says, meets an important need for a reasonable price. “Some students are looking for more than what their local counselor may be able to offer,” he says. “It will certainly open up additional counseling options to many people.”

Nonetheless, Mr. O’Connor says he’s proceeding with caution. “When you do any kind of online work in education, you always have to take steps to ensure the advice is solid,” he says. “The advice can only be personalized if the relationship is strong. It’s not like we want this to become the 7-Eleven of school counselors.”

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