The College Admissions Scandal from the Perspective of an Admissions Consulting Firm

Naturally, the public is wondering: Is this what independent college counselors do?


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In the wake of the instantly infamous Varsity Blues scandal, our admissions consulting firm, College Transitions, has received a flood of interview requests from media outlets along with countless queries from the general public. This torrent of interest is to be expected following revelations of such a sensational and lurid tale involving Hollywood starlets, Ivy League coaches, bribery, forgery and corruption among society’s 1-percenters. Naturally, the public is wondering: Is this what independent college counselors do? Is the entire system even more rigged in favor of the wealthy than previously thought? Is “independent/private college counseling” simply a euphemism for a quid pro quo purchase of a spot in an elite college for the progeny of the uber-rich?

It’s not uncommon for one indicted “bad apple” to arouse suspicion of an entire profession. Whenever headlines reveal another physician caught in an opioid prescription scam, a leading investment professional involved in a massive Ponzi scheme, or a high-ranking military officer embroiled in a political scandal, inquiring minds rightfully question whether the misdeed at hand is representative of a more widespread problem. If an individual in a profession perceived to be noble can do horrific things, might something be rotten in all of Denmark?

The short answer to whether this well-publicized criminal conspiracy is representative of the entire independent college consultant industry is an unequivocal “No.” Of the roughly 12,000 independent college counseling businesses in the U.S., it is our belief that 99-plus percent adhere to the ethical guidelines put forth by esteemed organizations like the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the Independent Educational Consultants Association (of which we are members). Could there be another bad apple or two still resting amidst the otherwise clean bunch? Sure, and it is the hope of the ethical independent college counselor community that any other dishonest actors are ultimately exposed and expelled from the profession, as occurred with William Singer, the central player in this most recent conspiracy.


Why Do People Need (Ethical) Independent Admissions Counselors?

The growth of the independent college counseling profession is a much-needed response to the increasing complexity of the admissions process and an ever-declining system of college-related support previously offered by our high schools, even those which serve largely affluent populations. The National Association for College Admission Counseling and the American School Counselor Association both firmly recommend a student-to-counselor ratio of no greater than 250:1. Unfortunately, most high schools, even many well-funded public ones, fall well short of this ideal. In fact, as of 2018, the average ratio in the U.S. was 482:1 and many states were not even close to that mark. Arizona sports a ratio of 924:1, California 760:1 and Michigan 729:1.

As an added impediment to personalized post-secondary assistance, counselors in public high schools report only being able to dedicate 22 percent of their time on college-related counseling. In the end, the average American teen receives a meager 38 minutes of college-related advice during the entirety of their high school career.

Though independent college consulting services are often not affordable to low-income students, this reality should not discourage college consultants from filling the void where they can. When students of all income levels suffer from a lack of college guidance, the appropriate response isn’t to denounce the individualized guidance that some are able to secure. Instead, and until our colleges develop more simplified and equitable ways of evaluating applicants (not an easy task, despite what some journalists may have you believe), we need to ask how all students can be sufficiently supported within our current system. Fortunately, independent college planners can play a very important role in this regard, even for those families who cannot afford private services. Later, we’ll discuss what we do, in particular, to promote college knowledge across the income spectrum.


What Do Independent Counselors Actually Do?

Aside from helping students navigate each phase of the application process — a program of support that, as discussed above, is needed by many and for which we make no apologies — ethical and competent independent college counselors also engage in a variety of tasks that maximize a student’s prospects for academic and career success, not just college admission. These tasks include, but are not limited to:

  • Identifying good-fit colleges.
  • Career/interest assessment and other career-exploration activities.
  • Identifying/researching prospective college majors.
  • Financial aid and scholarship guidance.
  • Developing a program of study for high school and college.
  • Securing accommodations for students with learning difficulties.
  • Pointing students to campus-based resources and other supports that provide for a successful college transition.

Altogether, completion of these essential tasks, along with tasks directly related to preparing college applications, may take up to 35-40 hours of one-on-one work with an independent counselor, a far cry from the 38 minutes available to you at your local high school.


What Do Ethical Counselors NOT Do?

It goes without saying that all of the highly illegal and immoral acts committed by Singer, founder of The Edge College & Career Network (also referred to as The Key), are at the top of this list. Bribery, cheating on standardized tests, falsifying student’s credentials and any of the other grotesque, beyond the pale acts associated with Varsity Blues are, of course, not on the menu at any legitimate counseling firm. Of course, not committing felonies is hardly the moral bar set in our field. Ethical standards for independent counselors include tenets such as:

  • We do not guarantee admission to any particular college.
  • We do not write essays for students.
  • We do not encourage or allow any level of dishonesty or exaggeration in chronicling one’s activities, distinctions or awards.
  • We do not offer compensation to, or accept compensation from, university officials in exchange for any influence in an admissions decision/recommendation.
  • We do not enter any situation in which we have a conflict of interest.

In sum, ethical counselors do not do anything that is a) criminal, b) dishonest, or c) not solely in the best interest of the student.


Hate the Game, Not the Honest Players

Outside of this most recent headline-grabbing scandal, there are many aspects of the present admissions landscape that undoubtedly deserve criticism and increasingly loud calls for reform. Such issues include the pervasive anti-meritocratic practices involving legacy admissions and athletic recruiting, the pressure-cooker admissions process at elite schools that impacts teens’ mental health, and the constantly rising, already exorbitant tuition rates that set students up for crippling debt that will follow them well into adulthood.

By engaging in the practice of independent college counseling, we are not asserting that the present system of college admission is ideal. Rather, we are demonstrating a commitment to guiding students and families through an increasingly complex process and helping them realize returns on an investment that can easily reach $250,000-$300,000. Seeking expert guidance when considering making a large purchase is hardly a novel concept in other realms. Hiring a quality independent college admissions counselor can be pricey, but so is hiring a good accountant, realtor, personal trainer, financial planner or lawyer. In the end, the upfront investment can pay for itself many times over.


Do Independent College Counselors Only Help the Rich?

One might deduce from the Laughlin-Huffman, et al. scandal that the only people who hire independent counselors are celebrities or high-powered executives with Harvard MBAs seeking to ensure that the next generation maintains an Ivy League lineage. This reductive takeaway would fall well short of representing reality. While a portion of the population employing independent college consultants is indeed wealthy, parents from many different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses employ our services. These include:

Middle Class Families Looking to Save Money

A family who makes too much to qualify for sufficient need-based aid but not enough to cover college costs on their own is a perfect candidate to hire an independent counselor. An expert consultant can provide guidance on how a student can go about procuring merit aid directly from a university. By targeting the right schools, tens of thousands of dollars can be shaved off of the sticker price, sometimes leading to a six-figure discount over four years. Savings this dramatic make paying the consultant’s fee seem quite reasonable.

First-Generation Students

Mom and Dad never attended college, or they attended college outside the U.S. Now, their teen child is entering the college selection phase and, bombarded by unfamiliar information about everything from FAFSA forms to SAT Subject Tests, they realize that professional assistance is needed in order to maximize their child’s post-secondary opportunities. Academic research on the topic backs up this decision, as first-generation students are far more likely to incur unwise debt, attend schools that are below their academic ability (read more about “undermatch”), and less likely to obtain a degree than their non-first-generation peers.

Students With Learning Needs

Getting into a “good fit” college is of the utmost importance for any student with a learning disability or attentional issues. Statistics on the college admissions and persistence fronts for students with disabilities are profoundly troubling across the board. In part, due to a failure to fully understand/disclose their own disability or sufficiently explore/take advantage of disability services and programming on campus, this population has a very high drop-out rate. Careful college planning and support can arm LD students and parents with the knowledge they need to carve out a path toward collegiate success.

Homeschooled Students

For the over two million students in the U.S. who are homeschooled, the looming admissions process is a somewhat different gauntlet than that which awaits traditional high school students. Issues of documentation, additional testing requirements, and the building of an extracurricular resume are just a few of the multitude of challenges that an independent counselor can help to tackle.

Community College Transfers

You’ve saved a good deal of money by completing a year or two at a local community college and are now seeking to transfer into a four-year college. Now comes the hard part — navigating the transfer admission process. If that school happens to be a selective or highly-selective institution, you will absolutely benefit from one-on-one counseling with an independent counselor.

Students Applying to Ivy League or Ivy League-Equivalent Schools

For those of any socioeconomic background who aim to gain acceptance at an elite college, excellent grades and test scores, while necessary, are no longer sufficient. “Ivy-minded” and other high-aiming students will also be judged — for better or worse — on a variety of intangible factors that speak to their authenticity, intellectual motivations and the ability to make distinct contributions to a particular campus. In this context, personal interests, extracurricular participation and other seemingly ancillary components of a student’s profile assume center stage and may make or break an application. Consultants work to identify and cultivate the best of what a student has to offer — through course selection, activities planning, college essay coaching and other things that improve his or her prospects for college admission and personal fulfillment.


College Transitions is Not All About Profit

While a certain percentage of our clientele are people of means, it is possible for independent counselors to assist more affluent families while expanding access to higher education. In spite of what some may believe, the two activities are not mutually exclusive. Our firm, College Transitions, engages in a number of pro-bono activities, advising dozens of low-income and other underrepresented students on the college admissions process each year. In addition, we put in hundreds of man-hours each year maintaining and updating our no-cost and advertisement-free Dataverse. This resource page contains sortable databases designed to help students learn everything from which schools are the most generous with merit aid to early decision acceptance rates to the institutions that feed America’s top tech companies. In total, we offer over 100 such up-to-date data sources. We also host free webinars and in-person presentations on various aspects of the college admissions process, compose monthly newsletters designed to keep the parent community abreast of important admissions-related developments, publish weekly blogs to disseminate timely tips for all teens in the throes of admissions mania and deliver free copies of our recent book to numerous under-resourced high schools.


In Closing

As dedicated independent college counselors, we do not have control over the entire ecosystem in which we operate; and there are indeed aspects of the admissions process we detest. However, despite this (and perhaps because of it), we remain firmly committed to independent college counseling; because when done right, it can help students overcome the same education-related obstacles that this recent scandal has brought to light.

Moving forward, we will continue to reflect upon and work with the “greyer” areas of our field, always evaluating and re-evaluating our role within the larger system of college admission in America, and always striving to do good and ethical work.

 

Andrew Belasco is a licensed counselor and published researcher. His experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep; and an advisor to the U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.

 

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College Transitions

Expert advice for finding the right fit


About This Blog

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Learn more at collegetransitions.com

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Calendar

December 2019

Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about tummy time alternatives, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to...

Cost: 24.00

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about carry positions, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to crawl,...

Cost: 24.00

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
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Create artwork inspired by the Christmas tree. Ages 6-10. Register online. Choose course #126771.

Cost: $31/resident, $40/nonresident

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Geocaching is a treasure hunt where participants use GPS coordinates to track down hidden "caches." We will learn how to use traditional GPS units and the Geocaching App (by Groundspeak), then hike...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Holiday Gift Making for Friends They're back! Come learn how to sew the perfect sized scrunchie - an excellent holiday gift for friends. Choose from a variety of fabrics, colors, and...

Cost: $5.00

Where:
The Studio School of Durham
1201 W Woodcroft Pkwy
Durham, NC  27713
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Sponsor: The Studio School of Durham
Telephone: 984-377-4502
Contact Name: Danielle Sunde
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Favorite Christmas songs are presented in authentic Nashville country style with dazzling guitars and fiddles along with soaring harmonies. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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The ensemble performs favorite holiday tunes as well as the soundtrack to "The Snowman" as it is shown on a large screen. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Favorite Christmas songs are presented in authentic Nashville country style with dazzling guitars and fiddles along with soaring harmonies. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Ages 15 and older enjoy a night of dancing, refreshments, a winter wonderland photo booth and more. 

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Winter is a great time to explore nature at the park! Join a naturalist to learn how to identify tracks, explore conifers, and drink pine needle tea. Then observe snow and ice through hands-on...

Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is required for everyone

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850

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Family members join teams to shoot foul shots for a chance to win a holiday ham. See website for age divisions and times. No registration necessary.

Cost: Free

Where:
Apex Community Center
73 Hunter St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Telephone: 919-249-3402
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Ages 11 and older with special needs enjoy a showing of "Home Alone." Register online. Choose course #128732.

Cost: $2/resident, $3/nonresident

Where:
The Cary Theater
122 E. Chatham St.
Cary, NC  27511
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Please join Admissions, Division Directors and our Head of School as they talk about Duke School’s unique program, specifically for students entering 5th-8th grade for the 2020-21 school year....

Cost: $0

Where:
Duke School
3716 Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
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Sponsor: Duke School
Telephone: 919-416-9420
Contact Name: Logan Blaylock

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See Happy Dan perform magic, comedy and more.

Cost: $5/person

Where:
Renaissance Centre
405 Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Assist with our habitat box monitoring. Tasks will vary depending on what needs attention and may include: cleaning or repairing habitat boxes or installing new ones, monitoring our current boxes...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

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Enjoy a family-friendly movie and a slice or two of pizza. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $5/person. $2 for ages 2 and younger

Where:
The Halle Cultural Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Kids hike, make projects and engage in nature activities. Ages 5-8. Register online. Choose course #127199.

Cost: $9/resident, $12/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC  27518
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Bring your kids to the park for a day of crafting and nature while you take advantage of a few more hours of holiday shopping.  The crafts your child creates will make great keepsakes or gifts for...

Cost: $16 per child

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

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Ages 11-17 create old-fashioned taffy and hard candy using ingredients like caramel, marshmallow and chocolate. Register online. Choose course #127044.

Cost: $18/resident, $23/nonresident

Where:
Herbert C. Young Community Center
101 Wilkinson Ave.
Cary, NC
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Kids spend a night out in nature making memories and new friends in an old-fashioned, camp-style program. Ages 8-12. Register online. 

Cost: $15/resident, $19/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Raleigh, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

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Kids spend a night out in nature making memories and new friends in an old-fashioned, camp-style program. Ages 8-12. Register online. 

Cost: $15/resident, $19/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

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Traditional dance caller Connie Carringer teaches fun dances for the whole family: squares, circles, Appalachian and more accompanied by old-time, string band music performed by local musicians. No...

Cost: $2/person or $5/family

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Website »

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No Christmas season is complete without your family experiencing The Raleigh Boychoir’s shining “Carols of Christmas.” This year we are excited to invite community members to sing...

Cost: $10 Students, $15 Seniors, $20 Adults.

Where:
Edenton Street United Methodist
228 W Edenton Street
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Raleigh Boychoir
Telephone: (919)881-9259
Contact Name: Erin O'Hara
Website »

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Give rugby a try. Take part in tag rugby pick-up games every Saturday morning at Baileywick Road Park, near the Second Shelter.  No experience necessary. All ages. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Baileywick Road Park
9501 Baileywick Rd
Second Shelter Field
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Sponsor: Raleigh Redhawks Rugby
Contact Name: denise travis
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Ages 5 and older move through yoga poses set to holiday music, decorate a special treat and drink hot chocolate. Registration required online. Choose course #127393. 

Cost: $19/child

Where:
Middle Creek Community Center
125 Middle Creek Ave.
Apex, NC  27539
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Website »

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Ages 4-12 enjoy free arts and crafts. Registration not required. Children must have adult accompaniment. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Website »

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One ticket admits the entire family to decorate a special gingerbread house. Supplies provided. Workshops available at 2 p.m. Allergy-free workshop available at 11 a.m. Registration required...

Cost: $40

Where:
Family Preschool
4907 Garrett Rd
Durham, NC  27707
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Sponsor: Family Preschool
Telephone: 919-402-1500
Contact Name: Sue Henson
Website »

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Harris Lake will welcome a special holiday visitor this December! Santa will take time out of his busy schedule to join us for a cup of hot cocoa and a ride on our wagon along the back roads of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

Girls ages 5-12 take their favorite doll and have a creative time together preparing for the holidays. Register by emailing llpolkhouse2@gmail.com.

Cost: $22/attendee, $20/sister

Where:
Historic Polk House
537 N. Blount St.
Raleigh, NC  27604
View map »


Telephone: 919-676-6368
Website »

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Discover what's happening in nature as the sun sets and listen to stories around a campfire. All ages with adult. Register online. Choose course #127675.

Cost: $18/resident, $24/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Take part in this annual walk to celebrate the winter solstice. Take a handmade lantern (white lanterns/lights only, handmade is requested, no fire allowed). Participants will gather at the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Downtown Hillsborough
, NC  27278


Website »

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