Kids & Money

When you need college advice, consider this option

Finally it’s down to two schools, but you can’t make up your mind: Will it be the big-is-beautiful urban college with the rah-rah athletic program, or the small, Midwest liberal arts school with class sizes in the single digits?

With so much riding on the decision by the May 1 admissions deadline, whom will you call for help?

The college experts at hope you’ll reach out to them.

The four-year-old business is among the largest providers of information on the Web about how to find, get in and pay for college. Most of this content is absolutely free.

But what Unigo thinks really sets it apart from other college resource sites is a new service launched this spring. It allows high school students and parents to talk live through videoconferencing with college students, college advisers and financial aid experts.

For $30 per chat, Unigo will match your prospective college freshman with current students from the school that’s in the running for your commitment. You can also connect with financial aid and college advisers for $100 per chat.

Unigo’s goal, said Jordan Goldman, the company’s 29-year-old founder, is to make sure that “anyone can get the help they need” to make the best decision about selecting a college.

Goldman believes Unigo fills this need, especially when you consider that many high schools have only one college guidance counselor for every 400 students. In California and other states, the ratio is one counselor per 1,000 students, he said. And while parents can hire private college counselors to navigate through the process, that can cost thousands of dollars.

There’s much to lose by picking the wrong school. It’s common for at least 10 percent of students to transfer to another college after their first year, which can add several semesters of tuition bills. That can be financially devastating.

While Unigo provides a new option, you can’t tap its resources for all schools just yet.

I’m normally reluctant to recommend pay-for-advice sites. After all, students or parents can find free help on their own with just a bit of initiative. Still, I can see the value of using Unigo’s services, particularly when you can’t afford to visit — or revisit — a campus and talk to students and administrators.

Unigo’s lineup of resources includes more than 15,000 college students representing about 500 universities who can tell you what their school is really like. Is there a good intramural sports program? Are 18 credit hours too heavy a load for the first semester? How challenging are the science classes for non-science majors? Do students mostly go home on the weekends?

The site also boasts relationships with more than 1,000 financial aid officers and 1,000 college guidance counselors.

All the representatives — including the students — have to apply to participate on Unigo’s team, providing their credentials and answering a detailed questionnaire that is reviewed by the company’s editors.

“You’re not just buying someone blind,” said Goldman.

From there, Unigo’s online search process lets users comb lists of schools, majors, question topics and more to find the best student, counselor or administrator for the live chat. Then it’s just a matter of scheduling the session.

The more complex the questions, the more useful the service, said Goldman.

Unigo’s interview service is new, so there’s no track record for the quality of information being dispensed. But when it’s all said and done, teenagers and parents must ultimately weigh all the information, consider the risks and rewards, and try to make the best choice.