Episode 26: Why Look at Colleges Outside Your Comfort Zone

In our last episode, we talked about why high school guidance counselors are not enough of a help to you and your child in your college search, and we speculated that one reason such a high percentage of students attend college in their home state is because guidance counselors do not have the time or background or information or inclination to help them look any farther away. A new report that just came out (March, 2015) has added some support for our argument.

The report is called A National Look at the High School Counseling Office. It was produced by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), using data from 2009 to 2012. Here are some notable findings (as reported by Caralee Adams in Education Week, March 26, 2015):

Just over half of guidance counselors said that their high school counseling department spends less than 20 percent of its time on college readiness, selection, and applications. So, let’s call that a day a week by each of however many guidance counselors your child’s high school has. Now think about how many juniors and seniors need college-going help, and you can quickly see that there is just not enough time to go around.

(By the way, the American School Counselor Association recommends a student load of 250 students per guidance counselor, but most states, on the average, do not come close to that. Even if you had the recommended number of students per counselor in your school, how hard do you think it would be for one person to advise that many students on college searches and college decision making?)

Just over 60 percent of high school juniors and just about half of parents of high school juniors met with a guidance counselor to discuss college and other post-high-school options. It is not possible to tell whether these pitifully low numbers are because guidance counselors do not have time to have such meetings or because students and parents do not think counselors can help them or because students and parents do not think they need any help. Actually, another approximately 15 percent of students and parents did hire a counselor outside of school to help them; so they, at least, felt that they needed help. Given what these private counselors cost, it is my guess that an even higher percentage of low-income high school juniors and their parents from inner-city schools could not have or did not access the help of guidance counselors when applying to colleges.

And finally, here is something I have known for a long time, something that has been confirmed by studies my own nonprofit organization has done over the years. Who is the main influence on students as they choose a college? The answer we get is always parents. According to the NACAC report, about 40 percent of students named parents, while just about 5 percent named either a guidance counselor or a privately hired counselor. Some people might say that parents are so influential because they are paying the bill, and I am sure that there is some truth to that. However, it was clear to us in the high school we worked with in Brooklyn that parents’ own feelings were a force to be reckoned with for their children—that is, parents’ feelings about colleges they had attended, or colleges a family member had attended, or colleges that were well-known because they were close by, or colleges they simply thought they knew something about (even when it was not true). If parents are the most influential and counselors are hardly influential at all, it is even more important that parents do what they need to do to get the right information for their children. Of course, we are hoping that NYCollegeChat is part of how you are getting that information. But get it, you must.

Past episodes you may want to listen to before talking to your child about college options are:

Episode 24: Having the Money Talk
Episode 9: What Are Some of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?
Episode 10: What Are Some More of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?

In our last episode, we also talked about getting you outside your geographic comfort zone—to look at colleges outside your hometown and, really, outside your home state. I know that is going to be hard for New Yorkers, who are proud of their state and believe that there are plenty of good options right here—and indeed there are a lot of good options right here. And I know that is going to be hard for our listeners from other states, too, because many of you feel that there are plenty of good options where you live as well—and you are probably right.
1. Good Reasons To Go Away

However, let’s talk for a minute about two key reasons you should consider going outside of your home state. Both reasons are based on the fact that most colleges seek geographic diversity in their freshman class; in other words, most colleges want to attract and admit students from across the U.S.—and even from foreign countries—so that the college has an interesting and stimulating variety of students and so that the college can advertise that it has students from a large number of states and foreign countries for the prestige value of that statement. I just read a post on LinkedIn from my own alma mater, Cornell University, which said this:

Cornell’s newly admitted class of freshmen is the most diverse and international in its 150-year history, with prospective undergraduates representing 100 nations from around the world, based on citizenship.

Because colleges want that geographic diversity in their freshman class, your child is more likely to be accepted at a selective college farther away from home than at the same sort of college close to home. For example, if you live in New York, your child probably has a better chance of getting into the top public university in Colorado than the top public university in New York because public colleges in Colorado are interested in attracting good students from New York and from other states in the East to balance out all of the good Colorado students who want to enroll.

Furthermore, as one college admissions officer wrote in an article recently, if there are two students looking for a scholarship and only one can be given, is it more likely that the scholarship will be given to the student next door or the student from far away? To the one from far away, she said—because of the desire for geographic diversity we just discussed.

Now it is certainly true that there are some flagship public universities that are cutting back on admitting students from outside their states because budget issues are forcing them to make sure that their own residents are well taken care of with the state taxpayers’ money. This is true for political reasons even though out-of-state students bring more money with them. So you will need to do a little research on specific public universities before throwing your child’s hat into those rings.

But the summary of our advice is still this: Look outside your home state for colleges that might hold more opportunity for your child than those at home do.

For more information about visiting out-of-state colleges, listen to Episode 12: To Visit Or Not To Visit?
2. Geographic Regions of the U.S. and Colleges on Our Virtual Tour

We had to decide how to divide up the U.S. to take you on our planned virtual tour of colleges you never thought about. We looked at a number of ways agencies and organizations have divided up the U.S. before deciding to use the regions used by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce), which is responsible for producing an array of economic statistics for comparing parts of the country. The Bureau has divided the U.S. into eight regions, with each region’s comprising from four to 12 states. We are planning to do an episode for each region—though we will see how that goes once we get started.

As we mentioned in our last episode, we are going to look at some colleges for students with great grades and admissions test scores and some colleges for students with more average grades and admissions test scores. But, because every child’s high school record is its own mix of grades and test scores and leadership positions and extracurricular activities and out-of-school experiences, we are not going to try to tell you as a family which colleges your child is likely to get into. We will tell you that there are a lot of colleges you should consider that you probably haven’t, and you will need to look at your child’s own record against the profile of accepted students to see which ones might be right for you.

We will include both public and private colleges, both large and small colleges, and both liberal arts and technical colleges—that is, a wide variety of colleges so that there will be some, for sure, that might interest your child. However, we are going to focus on four-year colleges, reasoning that students headed to a public two-year college are highly likely to go to one in their home state and are not, therefore, looking to leave their own geographic region right away. Of course, we know that some of those students will eventually go on to four-year colleges after a year or two at the two-year college, so perhaps our information will be helpful to those families in the future.

We want to make it clear that there is no statistical basis for the colleges we are going to name in each region. They are mostly colleges that we know something about for various reasons, and certainly there are some states that we are more familiar with than others. We do not promise to name great colleges in every state, though I am sure they exist. We do promise to name a lot of great colleges.

If you have a college you would like us to talk about on the air, please email us or call us and tell us what it is and why it is great, and we will certainly consider it. We welcome those calls. Let us also say that no college has asked us to name it and that no college has paid us anything to name it. The choices in the next episodes in this series are ours and ours alone.

Our next episode will begin our virtual college tour with one of the eight regions of the U.S. Please join us.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Why parents must get information on their own for the college application process
How to visit colleges when you are looking outside your home state
Why you should attend an upcoming national college fair in NYC

Visit the show notes for this episode at http://usacollegechat.org/26 to find links to the higher education institutions and events we mention.

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Leaving us a comment or question at http://usacollegechat.org/26
Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live in our podcast
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

In our last episode, we talked about why high school guidance counselors are not enough of a help to you and your child in your college search, and we speculated that one reason such a high percentage of students attend college in their home state is because guidance counselors do not have the time or background or information or inclination to help them look any farther away. A new report that just came out (March, 2015) has added some support for our argument.

NYCollegeChat, a weekly podcast for parents brought to you by Policy Studies in Education.  Episode 26 Why Look at Colleges Outside Your Comfort ZoneThe report is called A National Look at the High School Counseling Office. It was produced by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), using data from 2009 to 2012. Here are some notable findings (as reported by Caralee Adams in Education Week, March 26, 2015):

  • Just over half of guidance counselors said that their high school counseling department spends less than 20 percent of its time on college readiness, selection, and applications. So, let’s call that a day a week by each of however many guidance counselors your child’s high school has. Now think about how many juniors and seniors need college-going help, and you can quickly see that there is just not enough time to go around.

(By the way, the American School Counselor Association recommends a student load of 250 students per guidance counselor, but most states, on the average, do not come close to that. Even if you had the recommended number of students per counselor in your school, how hard do you think it would be for one person to advise that many students on college searches and college decision making?)

  • Just over 60 percent of high school juniors and just about half of parents of high school juniors met with a guidance counselor to discuss college and other post-high-school options. It is not possible to tell whether these pitifully low numbers are because guidance counselors do not have time to have such meetings or because students and parents do not think counselors can help them or because students and parents do not think they need any help. Actually, another approximately 15 percent of students and parents did hire a counselor outside of school to help them; so they, at least, felt that they needed help. Given what these private counselors cost, it is my guess that an even higher percentage of low-income high school juniors and their parents from inner-city schools could not have or did not access the help of guidance counselors when applying to colleges.
  • And finally, here is something I have known for a long time, something that has been confirmed by studies my own nonprofit organization has done over the years. Who is the main influence on students as they choose a college? The answer we get is always parents. According to the NACAC report, about 40 percent of students named parents, while just about 5 percent named either a guidance counselor or a privately hired counselor. Some people might say that parents are so influential because they are paying the bill, and I am sure that there is some truth to that. However, it was clear to us in the high school we worked with in Brooklyn that parents’ own feelings were a force to be reckoned with for their children—that is, parents’ feelings about colleges they had attended, or colleges a family member had attended, or colleges that were well-known because they were close by, or colleges they simply thought they knew something about (even when it was not true). If parents are the most influential and counselors are hardly influential at all, it is even more important that parents do what they need to do to get the right information for their children. Of course, we are hoping that NYCollegeChat is part of how you are getting that information. But get it, you must.

Past episodes you may want to listen to before talking to your child about college options are:

In our last episode, we also talked about getting you outside your geographic comfort zone—to look at colleges outside your hometown and, really, outside your home state. I know that is going to be hard for New Yorkers, who are proud of their state and believe that there are plenty of good options right here—and indeed there are a lot of good options right here. And I know that is going to be hard for our listeners from other states, too, because many of you feel that there are plenty of good options where you live as well—and you are probably right.

1. Good Reasons To Go Away

However, let’s talk for a minute about two key reasons you should consider going outside of your home state. Both reasons are based on the fact that most colleges seek geographic diversity in their freshman class; in other words, most colleges want to attract and admit students from across the U.S.—and even from foreign countries—so that the college has an interesting and stimulating variety of students and so that the college can advertise that it has students from a large number of states and foreign countries for the prestige value of that statement. I just read a post on LinkedIn from my own alma mater, Cornell University, which said this:

Cornell’s newly admitted class of freshmen is the most diverse and international in its 150-year history, with prospective undergraduates representing 100 nations from around the world, based on citizenship.

Because colleges want that geographic diversity in their freshman class, your child is more likely to be accepted at a selective college farther away from home than at the same sort of college close to home. For example, if you live in New York, your child probably has a better chance of getting into the top public university in Colorado than the top public university in New York because public colleges in Colorado are interested in attracting good students from New York and from other states in the East to balance out all of the good Colorado students who want to enroll.

Furthermore, as one college admissions officer wrote in an article recently, if there are two students looking for a scholarship and only one can be given, is it more likely that the scholarship will be given to the student next door or the student from far away? To the one from far away, she said—because of the desire for geographic diversity we just discussed.

Now it is certainly true that there are some flagship public universities that are cutting back on admitting students from outside their states because budget issues are forcing them to make sure that their own residents are well taken care of with the state taxpayers’ money. This is true for political reasons even though out-of-state students bring more money with them. So you will need to do a little research on specific public universities before throwing your child’s hat into those rings.

But the summary of our advice is still this: Look outside your home state for colleges that might hold more opportunity for your child than those at home do.

For more information about visiting out-of-state colleges, listen to Episode 12:  To Visit Or Not To Visit?

2. Geographic Regions of the U.S. and Colleges on Our Virtual Tour

We had to decide how to divide up the U.S. to take you on our planned virtual tour of colleges you never thought about. We looked at a number of ways agencies and organizations have divided up the U.S. before deciding to use the regions used by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce), which is responsible for producing an array of economic statistics for comparing parts of the country. The Bureau has divided the U.S. into eight regions, with each region’s comprising from four to 12 states. We are planning to do an episode for each region—though we will see how that goes once we get started.

As we mentioned in our last episode, we are going to look at some colleges for students with great grades and admissions test scores and some colleges for students with more average grades and admissions test scores. But, because every child’s high school record is its own mix of grades and test scores and leadership positions and extracurricular activities and out-of-school experiences, we are not going to try to tell you as a family which colleges your child is likely to get into. We will tell you that there are a lot of colleges you should consider that you probably haven’t, and you will need to look at your child’s own record against the profile of accepted students to see which ones might be right for you.

We will include both public and private colleges, both large and small colleges, and both liberal arts and technical colleges—that is, a wide variety of colleges so that there will be some, for sure, that might interest your child. However, we are going to focus on four-year colleges, reasoning that students headed to a public two-year college are highly likely to go to one in their home state and are not, therefore, looking to leave their own geographic region right away. Of course, we know that some of those students will eventually go on to four-year colleges after a year or two at the two-year college, so perhaps our information will be helpful to those families in the future.

We want to make it clear that there is no statistical basis for the colleges we are going to name in each region. They are mostly colleges that we know something about for various reasons, and certainly there are some states that we are more familiar with than others. We do not promise to name great colleges in every state, though I am sure they exist. We do promise to name a lot of great colleges.

If you have a college you would like us to talk about on the air, please email us or call us and tell us what it is and why it is great, and we will certainly consider it. We welcome those calls. Let us also say that no college has asked us to name it and that no college has paid us anything to name it. The choices in the next episodes in this series are ours and ours alone.

Our next episode will begin our virtual college tour with one of the eight regions of the U.S. Please join us.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why parents must get information on their own for the college application process
  • How to visit colleges when you are looking outside your home state
  • Why you should attend an upcoming national college fair in NYC

Check out these higher education institutions and events we mention…

In New York State

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

 

Episode 25: Why Guidance Counselors Are Not Enough

This episode is the first in Series 4: Looking at Colleges Outside Your Comfort Zone.

Our fourth series is going to deal with getting you outside your comfort zone of college choices. For many families, that comfort zone is actually a physical, geographic zone. We have talked with many families who would strongly prefer their children to stay near home to go to college—often that means in the same city, sometimes it means within weekend-commuting distance, and it almost always means in the same state. I saw a statistic recently that more than 70 percent of high school graduates go to college in their home state. Wow.

We know that many families are perfectly happy to be part of that group for a variety of reasons, including money concerns, cultural background, safety concerns, and general worries about sending their less-than-perfectly-mature teenagers too far from home. However, we are going to talk about another reason that we think so many students stay in their home states for college, and that is the role of guidance counselors in high schools.

Over the past 40 years, I have spent a lot of time in high schools all over the U.S. and have had a lot of chances to observe students and staff members at work. As an outside consultant, I have worked closely with many of those staff members—teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, and others—and I have talked for hours and hours with students and their parents, individually and in groups. I have watched guidance counselors deal with students in serious trouble—especially personal and interpersonal trouble. I have been amazed at what students have to cope with at home and at school and how guidance counselors are called upon to help them cope. That is a full-time job for anyone.

Perhaps that is exactly why a high school guidance counselor cannot help your child enough when it comes to exploring college options—especially options not located close to home. That is not to say there are not some guidance counselors whose high schools have allowed them to specialize in college placement and who have become experts in the world of college and its overwhelming number of opportunities. If your child’s high school has such a guidance counselor, you are lucky indeed. But that is not what is typical, in my experience.

1. Questions To Ask Guidance Counselors

If I were a parent of a high school student now (as I have been in the last decade, three times over) and if I were relying on a guidance counselor—or any other college advisor at the high school—to help my child navigate the world of college options, I would ask that person these three questions:

1) How many colleges have you visited? This sounds like a low hurdle, but I am convinced that many guidance counselors and other college advisors do not have a broad background of visiting and investigating in person a wide variety of colleges—in your home town, in your state, in your region of the U.S., in other regions of the U.S., and abroad. Even though your child might end up going to college in your home state for a variety of reasons, it is not good enough for someone to advise your child on what colleges to consider if that person has not “seen it all”—or, at least a lot of it. Your child’s college advisor should be able to talk about a variety of urban, suburban, and rural college campuses from firsthand impressions of those campuses and then to discuss whether a beautiful campus or a certain geographic location close to or far away from home or a particular type of setting makes any difference to your child.

Based on my own college visits, I might ask someone trying to advise my child these questions: “Have you seen the handsome University of Washington campus or the color of the buildings at Stanford University or Thomas Jefferson’s realized vision for the University of Virginia? Have you been in the freezing cold of the University of Chicago or the sweltering heat of Rice University? Have you been on the University of Pennsylvania’s City-of-Brotherly-Love urban campus or Savannah College of Art and Design’s campus in the prettiest city in the South or the picture-perfect setting on the Thames River of the lower-division campus of Richmond, the American International University in London? Have you seen the grand LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas or the world-class Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University? Have you seen idyllic Kenyon College’s Middle Path in the middle of nowhere or majestic Columbia University in the middle of everything?”

Why do you think that parents who can afford it take their children on the traditional college tour so that they can see the options? Because sometimes place means a lot. If someone has not seen, say, 150 such places—college campuses of all sizes, locations, and settings—I would not want that person advising my child.

2) How many colleges have you studied at or had family and close friends and former students study at? Yes, I know that most people (guidance counselors and other college advisors included) probably studied at only one or two or possibly three colleges, but were they all pretty much the same? Ideally, someone advising my child would have some experience—either firsthand or close secondhand—with the variety of higher education institutions available.

Remember, as we said in earlier episodes, there are the public and private and combination public/private institutions, two-year and four-year institutions, liberal arts and technical schools, big universities and small colleges, single-sex and coeducational schools, faith-based institutions, HBCUs, military service academies, fine arts and engineering and business schools, and more. That is a lot. While no individual can know about each of these types of institutions firsthand as a student, I would want someone advising my college-bound child to know about most of these at least secondhand—that is, by the testimony of thoughtful family members and informed friends and trusted former students who had attended them. If a guidance counselor or other college advisor cannot be an expert in every individual college, he or she should at least be an expert in the types of institutions that are available to my child.

3) How many colleges have you worked at or closely with? Most guidance counselors and other college advisors based in high schools have not also worked at colleges, and that’s a shame. Yes, they were all once students in college, but that view is very different from the view you get as an employee at a college or even as a consultant to a college. You can learn a lot about the operations of a college when you are working backstage, and you can better figure out how those operations impact students.

For example, if a guidance counselor had worked with college support services offices, it would be easier to judge what services might realistically be available for a student with special needs. Or, if a guidance counselor had worked with a number of college department chairs, it would be clearer how difficult it might be for a student to change his or her major if that student started down the wrong path. Or, if a guidance counselor had worked with college registrars, it would be easier to figure out how to get a student credit for college courses taken while a student was still in high school.

Of course, all colleges are not the same. But a firsthand dose of working at a college can sometimes go a long way toward helping students choose a college that is a good fit.

If your guidance counselor or college advisor does not have good answers to these questions, then get whatever additional help you might need so that your child makes the best college choice possible.

2. Inequity in College Counseling

Recently, I read a powerful article in The Hechinger Report, entitled “Rich School, Poor School,” by Erin Einhorn, and the subtitle of her article tells it all: “How the class divide is widened by gaps in counseling kids for college.” Ms. Einhorn’s story tells the sad truth that many professional educators know, but would like to forget, and that many parents know instinctively. The sad truth is that there is no equity in college counseling services for U.S. high school students; in other words, a student’s chances of getting into a selective college are clearly improved by attending a great high school—public or private—where dedicated college counselors know how to make the college applications system work for those students. Quite often, those public schools are in relatively wealthy suburban locations.

I worked recently with a couple of students who attended two first-rate high schools in the metropolitan New York City area. One was a famous competitive public high school in New York City, where only the best students are admitted, based on their high school admissions test scores, and where I am guessing virtually all graduates go on to college; the other was a well-respected, academically rigorous public high school in one of the richest towns on Long Island, where I am guessing virtually all graduates go on to college. To be honest, I was not impressed with the work of the college counselors in either one. They recommended to my two students mostly colleges in New York State, plus any colleges outside New York State that the students had already discovered for themselves.

Now, the two schools had full-time college counselors, who had access to fancy software that kept track of where students had applied and who, at least, tried to keep students on a schedule that would get college applications done on time. Of course, these students were also supported by the strong college-going culture that is present in such schools—schools where students spend a lot of time talking to each other about the great colleges they are applying to and then the great colleges they got into.

It’s just not fair, I thought, reflecting on Ms. Einhorn’s story about the vastly different college counseling services available in a private school and a public school not 20 miles apart in Bloomfield Hills and Detroit, Michigan. But what is fair? Our wise principal at the Early College public high school we co-founded in Brooklyn had an unusual definition of “fair.” Chris Aguirre used to say, “Fair is not when every student gets the same thing. Fair is when every student gets what he or she needs.” Man, with that definition, low-income students in poor urban neighborhoods should be getting three or four times as much college counseling support as upper-middle-class students in rich suburban high schools and private schools. Everyone knows that it is just the opposite now. The kids who need college counseling least actually get the most. Upper-middle-class kids whose parents and school culture could handily make up for a lack of counseling time and expertise benefit from the most counseling time and expertise.

Marie and I like to think that NYCollegeChat can help make up for that lack of counseling time and expertise—whether your child is in a large urban high school where guidance counselors typically have their hands full or a medium-sized suburban high school where there is a lot of competition for college counseling services or a small rural high school where a guidance counselor might have to wear many hats.

So what we are going to do during this fourth series is take you around the country to different regions and spotlight some colleges you might not have thought about for your child or indeed might not even have known about. We are going to look at some selective colleges for students with great grades and admissions test scores and some not-so-selective colleges for students with just average grades and admissions test scores. We are going to try to take you out of your geographic comfort zone to show you some places that might be more appealing to your child than what is right next door. We are also going to talk about why going away could be a financial plus for you and why going away might actually get your child into a better college than staying at home. So tune in next week.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
The kind of personalized list of colleges your guidance counselor should be providing for your child
What we lost when college field trips were cut out of high school activities
The pluses and minuses of online searches for colleges you might be interested in

Links to all the higher education institutions we mention can be found on the show notes for today’s episode at http://usacollegechat.org/25

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Commenting on the notes for today’s episode at http://usacollegechat.org/25.
Calling our hotline at (516) 900-NYCC.
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This episode is the first in Series 4: Looking at Colleges Outside Your Comfort Zone.

Episode 25:  Why Guidance Counselors Are Not Enough on NYCollegeChat

Our fourth series is going to deal with getting you outside your comfort zone of college choices. For many families, that comfort zone is actually a physical, geographic zone. We have talked with many families who would strongly prefer their children to stay near home to go to college—often that means in the same city, sometimes it means within weekend-commuting distance, and it almost always means in the same state. I saw a statistic recently that more than 70 percent of high school graduates go to college in their home state. Wow.

We know that many families are perfectly happy to be part of that group for a variety of reasons, including money concerns, cultural background, safety concerns, and general worries about sending their less-than-perfectly-mature teenagers too far from home. However, we are going to talk about another reason that we think so many students stay in their home states for college, and that is the role of guidance counselors in high schools.

Over the past 40 years, I have spent a lot of time in high schools all over the U.S. and have had a lot of chances to observe students and staff members at work. As an outside consultant, I have worked closely with many of those staff members—teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, and others—and I have talked for hours and hours with students and their parents, individually and in groups. I have watched guidance counselors deal with students in serious trouble—especially personal and interpersonal trouble. I have been amazed at what students have to cope with at home and at school and how guidance counselors are called upon to help them cope. That is a full-time job for anyone.

Perhaps that is exactly why a high school guidance counselor cannot help your child enough when it comes to exploring college options—especially options not located close to home. That is not to say there are not some guidance counselors whose high schools have allowed them to specialize in college placement and who have become experts in the world of college and its overwhelming number of opportunities. If your child’s high school has such a guidance counselor, you are lucky indeed. But that is not what is typical, in my experience.

1. Questions To Ask Guidance Counselors

If I were a parent of a high school student now (as I have been in the last decade, three times over) and if I were relying on a guidance counselor—or any other college advisor at the high school—to help my child navigate the world of college options, I would ask that person these three questions:

1) How many colleges have you visited? This sounds like a low hurdle, but I am convinced that many guidance counselors and other college advisors do not have a broad background of visiting and investigating in person a wide variety of colleges—in your home town, in your state, in your region of the U.S., in other regions of the U.S., and abroad. Even though your child might end up going to college in your home state for a variety of reasons, it is not good enough for someone to advise your child on what colleges to consider if that person has not “seen it all”—or, at least a lot of it. Your child’s college advisor should be able to talk about a variety of urban, suburban, and rural college campuses from firsthand impressions of those campuses and then to discuss whether a beautiful campus or a certain geographic location close to or far away from home or a particular type of setting makes any difference to your child.

Based on my own college visits, I might ask someone trying to advise my child these questions: “Have you seen the handsome University of Washington campus or the color of the buildings at Stanford University or Thomas Jefferson’s realized vision for the University of Virginia? Have you been in the freezing cold of the University of Chicago or the sweltering heat of Rice University? Have you been on the University of Pennsylvania’s City-of-Brotherly-Love urban campus or Savannah College of Art and Design’s campus in the prettiest city in the South or the picture-perfect setting on the Thames River of the lower-division campus of Richmond, the American International University in London? Have you seen the grand LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas or the world-class Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University? Have you seen idyllic Kenyon College’s Middle Path in the middle of nowhere or majestic Columbia University in the middle of everything?”

Why do you think that parents who can afford it take their children on the traditional college tour so that they can see the options? Because sometimes place means a lot. If someone has not seen, say, 150 such places—college campuses of all sizes, locations, and settings—I would not want that person advising my child.

2) How many colleges have you studied at or had family and close friends and former students study at? Yes, I know that most people (guidance counselors and other college advisors included) probably studied at only one or two or possibly three colleges, but were they all pretty much the same? Ideally, someone advising my child would have some experience—either firsthand or close secondhand—with the variety of higher education institutions available.

Remember, as we said in earlier episodes, there are the public and private and combination public/private institutions, two-year and four-year institutions, liberal arts and technical schools, big universities and small colleges, single-sex and coeducational schools, faith-based institutions, HBCUs, military service academies, fine arts and engineering and business schools, and more. That is a lot. While no individual can know about each of these types of institutions firsthand as a student, I would want someone advising my college-bound child to know about most of these at least secondhand—that is, by the testimony of thoughtful family members and informed friends and trusted former students who had attended them. If a guidance counselor or other college advisor cannot be an expert in every individual college, he or she should at least be an expert in the types of institutions that are available to my child.

3) How many colleges have you worked at or closely with? Most guidance counselors and other college advisors based in high schools have not also worked at colleges, and that’s a shame. Yes, they were all once students in college, but that view is very different from the view you get as an employee at a college or even as a consultant to a college. You can learn a lot about the operations of a college when you are working backstage, and you can better figure out how those operations impact students.

For example, if a guidance counselor had worked with college support services offices, it would be easier to judge what services might realistically be available for a student with special needs. Or, if a guidance counselor had worked with a number of college department chairs, it would be clearer how difficult it might be for a student to change his or her major if that student started down the wrong path. Or, if a guidance counselor had worked with college registrars, it would be easier to figure out how to get a student credit for college courses taken while a student was still in high school.

Of course, all colleges are not the same. But a firsthand dose of working at a college can sometimes go a long way toward helping students choose a college that is a good fit.

If your guidance counselor or college advisor does not have good answers to these questions, then get whatever additional help you might need so that your child makes the best college choice possible.

2. Inequity in College Counseling

Recently, I read a powerful article in The Hechinger Report, entitled “Rich School, Poor School,” by Erin Einhorn, and the subtitle of her article tells it all: “How the class divide is widened by gaps in counseling kids for college.” Ms. Einhorn’s story tells the sad truth that many professional educators know, but would like to forget, and that many parents know instinctively. The sad truth is that there is no equity in college counseling services for U.S. high school students; in other words, a student’s chances of getting into a selective college are clearly improved by attending a great high school—public or private—where dedicated college counselors know how to make the college applications system work for those students. Quite often, those public schools are in relatively wealthy suburban locations.

I worked recently with a couple of students who attended two first-rate high schools in the metropolitan New York City area. One was a famous competitive public high school in New York City, where only the best students are admitted, based on their high school admissions test scores, and where I am guessing virtually all graduates go on to college; the other was a well-respected, academically rigorous public high school in one of the richest towns on Long Island, where I am guessing virtually all graduates go on to college. To be honest, I was not impressed with the work of the college counselors in either one. They recommended to my two students mostly colleges in New York State, plus any colleges outside New York State that the students had already discovered for themselves.

Now, the two schools had full-time college counselors, who had access to fancy software that kept track of where students had applied and who, at least, tried to keep students on a schedule that would get college applications done on time. Of course, these students were also supported by the strong college-going culture that is present in such schools—schools where students spend a lot of time talking to each other about the great colleges they are applying to and then the great colleges they got into.

It’s just not fair, I thought, reflecting on Ms. Einhorn’s story about the vastly different college counseling services available in a private school and a public school not 20 miles apart in Bloomfield Hills and Detroit, Michigan. But what is fair? Our wise principal at the Early College public high school we co-founded in Brooklyn had an unusual definition of “fair.” Chris Aguirre used to say, “Fair is not when every student gets the same thing. Fair is when every student gets what he or she needs.” Man, with that definition, low-income students in poor urban neighborhoods should be getting three or four times as much college counseling support as upper-middle-class students in rich suburban high schools and private schools. Everyone knows that it is just the opposite now. The kids who need college counseling least actually get the most. Upper-middle-class kids whose parents and school culture could handily make up for a lack of counseling time and expertise benefit from the most counseling time and expertise.

Marie and I like to think that NYCollegeChat can help make up for that lack of counseling time and expertise—whether your child is in a large urban high school where guidance counselors typically have their hands full or a medium-sized suburban high school where there is a lot of competition for college counseling services or a small rural high school where a guidance counselor might have to wear many hats.

So what we are going to do during this fourth series is take you around the country to different regions and spotlight some colleges you might not have thought about for your child or indeed might not even have known about. We are going to look at some selective colleges for students with great grades and admissions test scores and some not-so-selective colleges for students with just average grades and admissions test scores. We are going to try to take you out of your geographic comfort zone to show you some places that might be more appealing to your child than what is right next door. We are also going to talk about why going away could be a financial plus for you and why going away might actually get your child into a better college than staying at home. So tune in next week.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • The kind of personalized list of colleges your guidance counselor should be providing for your child
  • What we lost when college field trips were cut out of high school activities
  • The pluses and minuses of online searches for colleges you might be interested in

Check out these higher education institutions we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

 

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

Episode 24: Having the Money Talk

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by sharing some approaches to having the money talk about college with your child.

Check out the show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/24 to link to the resources and programs we mention, or to leave a comment on this episode.

We said in an earlier episode that it was important to talk with your child about how much you have to spend on college and about what that might mean for the colleges your child should consider applying to. We are going to make the assumption that most families cannot pay outright for four years at a private college where your child would live in the dorms; for that scenario, you might be looking at a total bill of $160,000 to $240,000 in round numbers—and that figure might get higher every year. But public colleges cost money, too. Just two years at a public community college, where your child would most likely live at home, might come to a total bill of $4,000 to $10,000, depending on where you live—and that figure will likely get higher every few years. So, let’s look at some options for parents.
1. Do Not Borrow Any Money

Some parents simply do not feel comfortable borrowing money. Some object to buying anything “on time” and paying interest on that money until they can pay it all back. Some feel that their past credit history or job history won’t support whatever background checks are made before money can be lent to them by banks or government programs. If you feel this way, that is your business, and no one is really in a position to tell you that it isn’t right.

But if you feel this way and do not have enough money saved or a high enough salary to pay for your child’s college education, then you need to have that discussion as a family—and you need to start looking hard for scholarships that might make up the difference. As we have said in earlier episodes, scholarships are hard to get.

Many times, we have found that parents and students do not accept the fact that scholarships are hard to get. If you have a child who is great in your eyes, but just average in terms of his or her high school GPA and college admissions test scores, then a substantial enough scholarship (or maybe any scholarship at all) is going to be hard to come by—at least at top colleges. You might have some luck with less selective colleges—perhaps especially very small ones—because they might not be as well known and might not get as many applicants. You might also have some luck with less selective, smaller colleges in a state that is far from your home state, because such a college might be interested in diversifying its student body by attracting out-of-state applicants; however, that scenario poses its own problem of running up expenses because your child would have to live on campus rather than at home. Of course, maybe a great scholarship would cover housing expenses, too.

People say that many interesting scholarships exist and go unused for lack of applicants. Such scholarships might, however, have a variety of specific restrictions on their applicants—for example, ethnicity, geography, family background, subject field of future study, extracurricular achievements, and more. These scholarships do undoubtedly exist and may indeed go unused, but you cannot base your decision about where to have your child apply to college on the outside chance of getting one or more of them.

If your child has a great GPA or very high college admissions test scores—or preferably both—then he or she might get a scholarship based solely on the merit of those academic achievements (especially if you cannot afford to send your child to that school without it and you have indicated that on the completed college application). I was counseling a student recently who had very good SAT scores (over 700 on two of three subtests), an outstanding ACT combined score (34), and grades that were good, but not great (he is the kind of kid who has an 88 GPA, but who could have gotten well above 90 if he had cared more, sooner). He applied to a big, well-known, good private university in a state far from home—the kind of place that I thought might look favorably on his application. He was accepted and received a great scholarship of $68,000 over four years. Wow, I thought. The only problem was that the scholarship was just about half of what he needed to go there. How could his parents come up with the rest—without borrowing all of it? So, even a great scholarship that sounds like a lot of money cannot necessarily make it possible for a kid to go to a college that has accepted him.

There is one other way to get money for college if the parents do not want to borrow any: Have the student take out the loans. There are both private sources of loans (like banks) and public sources. We hesitate to say too much about the world of public student loans because it is always the subject of political discussion and could change between when you hear this episode and when you need to use the information. Suffice it to say that the federal government will lend your child some money for each year of college, at a reasonably low rate, through the Federal Direct Loan Program; one type of loan is based on financial need, and one type is not. However, what your child is going to get will be between, say, $5,500 and $7,500 a year. While that would go a long way at many public colleges, it would not go very far at all at any private college. Additional loans from private sources (like banks) would be needed to pay private college tuition, and those might require some sort of co-signing by you.

Somewhat like the federal government, your state government can also be a source of financial help. For example, the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (commonly referred to as TAP) will cover most of the tuition expenses at the tuition rate of a New York public college, if your family meets the income eligibility requirements. However, if your family income is too high, your child will not be eligible for TAP funds.

The bottom line here is this: If you as the parent do not feel comfortable borrowing any money for college costs for your child, then the chances are good that your child should look only at or, at least, primarily at public colleges—unless you already have all the money you need to pay for the college of your child’s choice, unless you would feel comfortable having the child take out all of the loans himself or herself (including from private sources, like banks), unless your child has posted an outstanding high school GPA and outstanding college admissions test scores, or unless your child is a recognized outstanding high school athlete who is being recruited by college coaches.
2. Borrow Whatever You Need

This is the opposite of the previous option. Some parents feel that borrowing money—in whatever amount is necessary—to send a child to the best college that accepted him or her is worth it. You might wonder how incurring a huge debt—maybe as much as, say, $200,000—could ever be worth it. But those parents would say that putting a child into the best possible college setting could set that child up for life—whether it is the best academic education the child could have gotten, or the best sports training the child could have gotten, or the best theater group or college newspaper the child could have been part of, or the best circle of friends the child could have landed in (friends who would turn out to be friends for life, have their own successful careers, and be major influences on and supporters of each other for decades to come).

In the interest of full disclosure, this is exactly my own personal feeling, and it is exactly what my husband and I did for each of our three children. We borrowed every penny that we needed and did not already have—for three private undergraduate colleges and three private graduate colleges. I would do it all again tomorrow if I had to.

In our case, the federal government made it easy. Our loans were all Direct Parent PLUS Loans, which do require a credit check, which could prove problematic for some borrowers (by the way, if you are not eligible for a parent loan after your credit check, the federal government will actually raise the limit somewhat on what it will lend your child by four or five thousand dollars per year).

To be eligible for all of these federal loans—both student and parent loans—you must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The filling out of the FAFSA is much discussed. Free assistance in how to fill it out is available online, and often high schools and colleges run free workshops for parents about how to fill out the application, which will have to be updated and resubmitted each year your child is in college.

I want to make it very clear that I am not a FAFSA expert. I am so much not a FAFSA expert that I got help from a private company, whose services I paid for each year for each child. The company literally filled out the FAFSA application on the telephone with me every time and made sure that I got it submitted properly. I consider the approximately $100 a year per child that I paid to that company as money well spent. If you look at the FAFSA application and are confident that you understand it, then that’s great. If you look at the FAFSA application and are not confident that you understand it, then get help—free if you can conveniently find it, but paid if you can’t. You don’t want to fool around with completing the FAFSA application. It is the easiest way to borrow money for college at a reasonably low interest rate.

FAFSA applications should be completed ideally in January for the following school year, or as soon thereafter as possible. You will need your tax information from the previous year in order to complete the application, so you might not be able to do it as early as January. My understanding is that at least some money is given out on a first come, first served basis. So be first.

One more note: The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (where CSS stands for College Scholarship Service) is administered by The College Board and is the way to access nonfederal financial aid from almost 400 colleges and scholarship programs. The form can be filled out online and needs to be done only if one of the colleges or scholarship programs your child is applying to requests it. It is easier to do this one after your FAFSA is already completed because you can use the FAFSA to help with this one.
3. Split the Difference: Borrow Some Money, But Not Too Much

Well, there’s always a compromise position, and it is often the wisest. This compromise is that, as parents, you find a way to borrow some money to pay for your child’s college education and, in so doing, you and your child agree to keep those costs under some control so that you don’t have to borrow any more than is absolutely necessary. So what would be some compromise college choices for your child, in likely order of expense to you, from least to most:

Apply only to public colleges, but not limited just to two-year public colleges. In other words, your child would be permitted to apply to four-year public colleges, which are more expensive than two-year colleges and which would always include the flagship state university, which is usually a reasonably good choice.
Apply only to public colleges, but include out-of-state public colleges in that list. While those colleges will be more expensive—really, considerably more expensive —they will still not be as expensive as private colleges. However, opening your child’s search up to out-of-state public colleges will put a lot of great state universities within reach, which might be more highly respected than the flagship state university or other public colleges in your home state.
Add some private colleges to the list, but only if they are at the lower end of the private college price range and only if your child agrees to live at home and commute to the private college. How good this option might be depends entirely on where you live and on how many reasonably priced, good private colleges are nearby. If you live near in or near a great college town like Boston, which is populated with many private colleges, this option could be appealing to your child.

Of course, there are other compromises that we could invent, but you get the idea: Consider borrowing enough to give your child some choice among the best colleges you can afford—whether those are only public two-year colleges, where your child might be able go full time and live on a campus not near your home if you borrowed the money, or indeed private four-year colleges, which would open up the whole world of college to your child if you borrowed the money.

Whatever you decide—to borrow a lot, a little, or nothing at all—make sure your child understands where you stand before he or she gets too far down the track on a college search that you are not comfortable supporting.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Federal Pell grants that don’t have to be paid back
The unique perspective of the seven Work Colleges
The complications of divorce when filing financial aid applications

Check out the show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/24 to link to the resources and programs we mention, or to leave a comment on this episode.

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education at http://policystudies.org/parents/
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/NYCollegeChat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question in our podcast
Emailing Regina at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by sharing some approaches to having the money talk about college with your child.

Having the Money TalkWe said in an earlier episode that it was important to talk with your child about how much you have to spend on college and about what that might mean for the colleges your child should consider applying to. We are going to make the assumption that most families cannot pay outright for four years at a private college where your child would live in the dorms; for that scenario, you might be looking at a total bill of $160,000 to $240,000 in round numbers—and that figure might get higher every year. But public colleges cost money, too. Just two years at a public community college, where your child would most likely live at home, might come to a total bill of $4,000 to $10,000, depending on where you live—and that figure will likely get higher every few years. So, let’s look at some options for parents.

1. Do Not Borrow Any Money

Some parents simply do not feel comfortable borrowing money. Some object to buying anything “on time” and paying interest on that money until they can pay it all back. Some feel that their past credit history or job history won’t support whatever background checks are made before money can be lent to them by banks or government programs. If you feel this way, that is your business, and no one is really in a position to tell you that it isn’t right.

But if you feel this way and do not have enough money saved or a high enough salary to pay for your child’s college education, then you need to have that discussion as a family—and you need to start looking hard for scholarships that might make up the difference. As we have said in earlier episodes, scholarships are hard to get.

Many times, we have found that parents and students do not accept the fact that scholarships are hard to get. If you have a child who is great in your eyes, but just average in terms of his or her high school GPA and college admissions test scores, then a substantial enough scholarship (or maybe any scholarship at all) is going to be hard to come by—at least at top colleges. You might have some luck with less selective colleges—perhaps especially very small ones—because they might not be as well known and might not get as many applicants. You might also have some luck with less selective, smaller colleges in a state that is far from your home state, because such a college might be interested in diversifying its student body by attracting out-of-state applicants; however, that scenario poses its own problem of running up expenses because your child would have to live on campus rather than at home. Of course, maybe a great scholarship would cover housing expenses, too.

People say that many interesting scholarships exist and go unused for lack of applicants. Such scholarships might, however, have a variety of specific restrictions on their applicants—for example, ethnicity, geography, family background, subject field of future study, extracurricular achievements, and more. These scholarships do undoubtedly exist and may indeed go unused, but you cannot base your decision about where to have your child apply to college on the outside chance of getting one or more of them.

If your child has a great GPA or very high college admissions test scores—or preferably both—then he or she might get a scholarship based solely on the merit of those academic achievements (especially if you cannot afford to send your child to that school without it and you have indicated that on the completed college application). I was counseling a student recently who had very good SAT scores (over 700 on two of three subtests), an outstanding ACT combined score (34), and grades that were good, but not great (he is the kind of kid who has an 88 GPA, but who could have gotten well above 90 if he had cared more, sooner). He applied to a big, well-known, good private university in a state far from home—the kind of place that I thought might look favorably on his application. He was accepted and received a great scholarship of $68,000 over four years. Wow, I thought. The only problem was that the scholarship was just about half of what he needed to go there. How could his parents come up with the rest—without borrowing all of it? So, even a great scholarship that sounds like a lot of money cannot necessarily make it possible for a kid to go to a college that has accepted him.

There is one other way to get money for college if the parents do not want to borrow any: Have the student take out the loans. There are both private sources of loans (like banks) and public sources. We hesitate to say too much about the world of public student loans because it is always the subject of political discussion and could change between when you hear this episode and when you need to use the information. Suffice it to say that the federal government will lend your child some money for each year of college, at a reasonably low rate, through the Federal Direct Loan Program; one type of loan is based on financial need, and one type is not. However, what your child is going to get will be between, say, $5,500 and $7,500 a year. While that would go a long way at many public colleges, it would not go very far at all at any private college. Additional loans from private sources (like banks) would be needed to pay private college tuition, and those might require some sort of co-signing by you.

Somewhat like the federal government, your state government can also be a source of financial help. For example, the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (commonly referred to as TAP) will cover most of the tuition expenses at the tuition rate of a New York public college, if your family meets the income eligibility requirements. However, if your family income is too high, your child will not be eligible for TAP funds.

The bottom line here is this: If you as the parent do not feel comfortable borrowing any money for college costs for your child, then the chances are good that your child should look only at or, at least, primarily at public colleges—unless you already have all the money you need to pay for the college of your child’s choice, unless you would feel comfortable having the child take out all of the loans himself or herself (including from private sources, like banks), unless your child has posted an outstanding high school GPA and outstanding college admissions test scores, or unless your child is a recognized outstanding high school athlete who is being recruited by college coaches.

2. Borrow Whatever You Need

This is the opposite of the previous option. Some parents feel that borrowing money—in whatever amount is necessary—to send a child to the best college that accepted him or her is worth it. You might wonder how incurring a huge debt—maybe as much as, say, $200,000—could ever be worth it. But those parents would say that putting a child into the best possible college setting could set that child up for life—whether it is the best academic education the child could have gotten, or the best sports training the child could have gotten, or the best theater group or college newspaper the child could have been part of, or the best circle of friends the child could have landed in (friends who would turn out to be friends for life, have their own successful careers, and be major influences on and supporters of each other for decades to come).

In the interest of full disclosure, this is exactly my own personal feeling, and it is exactly what my husband and I did for each of our three children. We borrowed every penny that we needed and did not already have—for three private undergraduate colleges and three private graduate colleges. I would do it all again tomorrow if I had to.

In our case, the federal government made it easy. Our loans were all Direct Parent PLUS Loans, which do require a credit check, which could prove problematic for some borrowers (by the way, if you are not eligible for a parent loan after your credit check, the federal government will actually raise the limit somewhat on what it will lend your child by four or five thousand dollars per year).

To be eligible for all of these federal loans—both student and parent loans—you must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The filling out of the FAFSA is much discussed. Free assistance in how to fill it out is available online, and often high schools and colleges run free workshops for parents about how to fill out the application, which will have to be updated and resubmitted each year your child is in college.

I want to make it very clear that I am not a FAFSA expert. I am so much not a FAFSA expert that I got help from a private company, whose services I paid for each year for each child. The company literally filled out the FAFSA application on the telephone with me every time and made sure that I got it submitted properly. I consider the approximately $100 a year per child that I paid to that company as money well spent. If you look at the FAFSA application and are confident that you understand it, then that’s great. If you look at the FAFSA application and are not confident that you understand it, then get help—free if you can conveniently find it, but paid if you can’t. You don’t want to fool around with completing the FAFSA application. It is the easiest way to borrow money for college at a reasonably low interest rate.

FAFSA applications should be completed ideally in January for the following school year, or as soon thereafter as possible. You will need your tax information from the previous year in order to complete the application, so you might not be able to do it as early as January. My understanding is that at least some money is given out on a first come, first served basis. So be first.

One more note: The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (where CSS stands for College Scholarship Service) is administered by The College Board and is the way to access nonfederal financial aid from almost 400 colleges and scholarship programs. The form can be filled out online and needs to be done only if one of the colleges or scholarship programs your child is applying to requests it. It is easier to do this one after your FAFSA is already completed because you can use the FAFSA to help with this one.

3. Split the Difference: Borrow Some Money, But Not Too Much

Well, there’s always a compromise position, and it is often the wisest. This compromise is that, as parents, you find a way to borrow some money to pay for your child’s college education and, in so doing, you and your child agree to keep those costs under some control so that you don’t have to borrow any more than is absolutely necessary. So what would be some compromise college choices for your child, in likely order of expense to you, from least to most:

  1. Apply only to public colleges, but not limited just to two-year public colleges. In other words, your child would be permitted to apply to four-year public colleges, which are more expensive than two-year colleges and which would always include the flagship state university, which is usually a reasonably good choice.
  2. Apply only to public colleges, but include out-of-state public colleges in that list. While those colleges will be more expensive—really, considerably more expensive —they will still not be as expensive as private colleges. However, opening your child’s search up to out-of-state public colleges will put a lot of great state universities within reach, which might be more highly respected than the flagship state university or other public colleges in your home state.
  3. Add some private colleges to the list, but only if they are at the lower end of the private college price range and only if your child agrees to live at home and commute to the private college. How good this option might be depends entirely on where you live and on how many reasonably priced, good private colleges are nearby. If you live near in or near a great college town like Boston, which is populated with many private colleges, this option could be appealing to your child.

Of course, there are other compromises that we could invent, but you get the idea: Consider borrowing enough to give your child some choice among the best colleges you can afford—whether those are only public two-year colleges, where your child might be able go full time and live on a campus not near your home if you borrowed the money, or indeed private four-year colleges, which would open up the whole world of college to your child if you borrowed the money.

Whatever you decide—to borrow a lot, a little, or nothing at all—make sure your child understands where you stand before he or she gets too far down the track on a college search that you are not comfortable supporting.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Federal Pell grants that don’t have to be paid back
  • The unique perspective of the seven Work Colleges
  • The complications of divorce when filing financial aid applications

Check out these resources and programs we mention…

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

Episode 23: College Admissions Tests

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about standardized college admissions tests.

We spoke in an earlier episode about colleges that did not require college admissions test scores and about colleges that looked at those scores perhaps for placement in college courses, but did not use them as an admissions hurdle. However, there are still a lot of colleges—both selective colleges and not-so-selective colleges—that do require college admissions test scores. For that reason, your child is better off taking one or both college admissions tests, even if you believe that he or she will not do particularly well on those tests.

As you undoubtedly know by now, there are two college admissions tests: the SAT, offered by The College Board, and the ACT, which came out of work originally done at the University of Iowa. The histories of these two tests—of how they came to be and of how they were designed to fulfill their missions—is not really relevant to what parents and high schoolers need to know today, so let’s look at what is relevant.

Both of these tests have elaborate websites that can tell you—in simple, straightforward language—all about themselves. Those websites do it far better than I can in this episode. They can tell you what subtests they have (that’s English, mathematics, reading, science, and an optional writing test for the ACT vs. critical reading, mathematics, and writing for the SAT), when they are given, how they are scored, what the questions are like, whether to guess when you don’t know the answer, and a lot more. So you should absolutely study the two websites for all of those details. There are also quite a few independent websites that do a good job of comparing the two tests on many different aspects. What we would like to talk to you about in this episode are some larger issues about taking the tests.

1. Which Test To Take?

It used to be that the SAT was the test more commonly asked for by Eastern colleges and the ACT was the test more commonly asked for by Midwestern and Western colleges. Now it seems that many, many colleges will take either one. Unless your child knows for sure which test is likely to be easier for him or her, it probably makes sense for your child to take both—at least once.

It is possible that your child will do much better on one than on the other. You might be able to tell this from practice tests your child takes, but it is my experience that practice tests do not necessarily predict perfectly how a student will do on the actual test.

Now it is true that some high school students can barely be persuaded to take even one test. And some students are frozen with test anxiety. For such students, forcing them to take both the SAT and the ACT could be counterproductive. If your child is fighting hard not to take each test one time, then look at the colleges he or she is interested in and make a reasonable choice between the two tests. Ideally, have your child try practice versions for each test to see whether one seems easier to him or her than the other.

2. When To Take the Test?

Each test is given six or seven times a year, including three times in the fall months and two times in the late spring months. Many students take the test of their choice for the first time as juniors in the late spring. If your child is a good student, has taken an upper-level math course, had solid English classes as a junior, and is interested in colleges that require test scores, then taking one or both tests before school closes in the junior year makes sense. Scores at this point will give you an idea of how competitive your child is as a college candidate for a selective college and could affect any college visits you might be planning in the summer and/or your choice of a college for an Early Decision application.

However, we have often advised students to wait and take one or both tests for the first time as a senior at the first fall testing date (either September or October). This gives your child just that much longer to mature and/or to prepare for the test. Taking practice tests over the summer and/or taking a test preparation course (live or online) during the summer are excellent reasons to put off test-taking till the early fall of the senior year.

Both the SAT and the ACT are also given in December, which is the last reasonable time to take the test before college applications are due for the regular admissions cycle, since most applications are due January 1 or later. However, that is too late if your child has applied on an Early Decision or Early Action timeline. So a little advanced planning is required as you and your child start the testing game.

3. How Many Times To Take the Test?

How many times a student should take the test depends a bit on how the student does. It is likely that most students will take a test twice. If a student takes both the ACT and the SAT, the student will probably take whichever one he or she did better on a second time.

Some students who are not happy with test scores on either of their first two attempts might take one of the tests a third time. That is a sensible decision—but only if such a student actually does anything more to prepare for the test the third time around. If a student is not going to study or take practice tests or attend a prep program or get a tutor or work with a friend before the next test-taking, then it does not make any sense to take the test again. There is very little chance that a student’s score will improve between, say, October and November or even October and December, if the student does not do something directly aimed at improving that test score.

Because most—though not all colleges—allow the student to choose to send only the best scores they posted, most colleges will probably not see how many times the test was taken. So, in a sense, there is no harm in trying multiple times. There is, however, an expense in trying multiple times (unless you have a waiver, which is based on your family’s income) and some stress for everyone as well.

4. How To Prepare for the Test?

In the old days, no one really prepared for the SAT or the ACT. Now, anyone who can afford it does. So, if you can afford a test preparation program for your child, you should pay for one and put your child in it.

There are many versions of test preparation programs. The high-priced version is a test preparation company with a track record of success, like the well-known Princeton Review. I am not an expert on all of the test preparation companies, and I do not keep track of their claims. I do know that they offer a range of products—from online self-guided study to small classes with an experienced leader to individual one-on-one tutoring sessions. As you might guess, there is a considerable difference in price in these options.

There are many cheaper options from other providers, too. You can buy a book of practice tests from the test publishers. You can buy a book of practice tests at a local bookstore. You can take advantage of any after-school programs your child’s high school or a local public college might offer. You can hope that your child’s high school English and math teachers discuss test questions in class. You can talk to your child’s principal about making test preparation available at school.

But the bottom line is this: If your child does no preparation at all, he or she will be at a severe disadvantage because many, many other students are preparing for these tests.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Whether test preparation courses are worth it
How to take a practice test at home and how not to
Whether to take both the SAT and the ACT

Check out our show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/23 to find links to the schools and programs we mention in this episode

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Leaving a comment on the show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/23
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about standardized college admissions tests.

College Admissions Tests on NYCollegeChat

We spoke in an earlier episode about colleges that did not require college admissions test scores and about colleges that looked at those scores perhaps for placement in college courses, but did not use them as an admissions hurdle. However, there are still a lot of colleges—both selective colleges and not-so-selective colleges—that do require college admissions test scores. For that reason, your child is better off taking one or both college admissions tests, even if you believe that he or she will not do particularly well on those tests.

As you undoubtedly know by now, there are two college admissions tests: the SAT, offered by The College Board, and the ACT, which came out of work originally done at the University of Iowa. The histories of these two tests—of how they came to be and of how they were designed to fulfill their missions—is not really relevant to what parents and high schoolers need to know today, so let’s look at what is relevant.

Both of these tests have elaborate websites that can tell you—in simple, straightforward language—all about themselves. Those websites do it far better than I can in this episode. They can tell you what subtests they have (that’s English, mathematics, reading, science, and an optional writing test for the ACT vs. critical reading, mathematics, and writing for the SAT), when they are given, how they are scored, what the questions are like, whether to guess when you don’t know the answer, and a lot more. So you should absolutely study the two websites for all of those details. There are also quite a few independent websites that do a good job of comparing the two tests on many different aspects. What we would like to talk to you about in this episode are some larger issues about taking the tests.

1. Which Test To Take?

It used to be that the SAT was the test more commonly asked for by Eastern colleges and the ACT was the test more commonly asked for by Midwestern and Western colleges. Now it seems that many, many colleges will take either one. Unless your child knows for sure which test is likely to be easier for him or her, it probably makes sense for your child to take both—at least once.

It is possible that your child will do much better on one than on the other. You might be able to tell this from practice tests your child takes, but it is my experience that practice tests do not necessarily predict perfectly how a student will do on the actual test.

Now it is true that some high school students can barely be persuaded to take even one test. And some students are frozen with test anxiety. For such students, forcing them to take both the SAT and the ACT could be counterproductive. If your child is fighting hard not to take each test one time, then look at the colleges he or she is interested in and make a reasonable choice between the two tests. Ideally, have your child try practice versions for each test to see whether one seems easier to him or her than the other.

2. When To Take the Test?

Each test is given six or seven times a year, including three times in the fall months and two times in the late spring months. Many students take the test of their choice for the first time as juniors in the late spring. If your child is a good student, has taken an upper-level math course, had solid English classes as a junior, and is interested in colleges that require test scores, then taking one or both tests before school closes in the junior year makes sense. Scores at this point will give you an idea of how competitive your child is as a college candidate for a selective college and could affect any college visits you might be planning in the summer and/or your choice of a college for an Early Decision application.

However, we have often advised students to wait and take one or both tests for the first time as a senior at the first fall testing date (either September or October). This gives your child just that much longer to mature and/or to prepare for the test. Taking practice tests over the summer and/or taking a test preparation course (live or online) during the summer are excellent reasons to put off test-taking till the early fall of the senior year.

Both the SAT and the ACT are also given in December, which is the last reasonable time to take the test before college applications are due for the regular admissions cycle, since most applications are due January 1 or later. However, that is too late if your child has applied on an Early Decision or Early Action timeline. So a little advanced planning is required as you and your child start the testing game.

3. How Many Times To Take the Test?

How many times a student should take the test depends a bit on how the student does. It is likely that most students will take a test twice. If a student takes both the ACT and the SAT, the student will probably take whichever one he or she did better on a second time.

Some students who are not happy with test scores on either of their first two attempts might take one of the tests a third time. That is a sensible decision—but only if such a student actually does anything more to prepare for the test the third time around. If a student is not going to study or take practice tests or attend a prep program or get a tutor or work with a friend before the next test-taking, then it does not make any sense to take the test again. There is very little chance that a student’s score will improve between, say, October and November or even October and December, if the student does not do something directly aimed at improving that test score.

Because most—though not all colleges—allow the student to choose to send only the best scores they posted, most colleges will probably not see how many times the test was taken. So, in a sense, there is no harm in trying multiple times. There is, however, an expense in trying multiple times (unless you have a waiver, which is based on your family’s income) and some stress for everyone as well.

4. How To Prepare for the Test?

In the old days, no one really prepared for the SAT or the ACT. Now, anyone who can afford it does. So, if you can afford a test preparation program for your child, you should pay for one and put your child in it.

There are many versions of test preparation programs. The high-priced version is a test preparation company with a track record of success, like the well-known Princeton Review. I am not an expert on all of the test preparation companies, and I do not keep track of their claims. I do know that they offer a range of products—from online self-guided study to small classes with an experienced leader to individual one-on-one tutoring sessions. As you might guess, there is a considerable difference in price in these options.

There are many cheaper options from other providers, too. You can buy a book of practice tests from the test publishers. You can buy a book of practice tests at a local bookstore. You can take advantage of any after-school programs your child’s high school or a local public college might offer. You can hope that your child’s high school English and math teachers discuss test questions in class. You can talk to your child’s principal about making test preparation available at school.

But the bottom line is this: If your child does no preparation at all, he or she will be at a severe disadvantage because many, many other students are preparing for these tests.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether test preparation courses are worth it
  • How to take a practice test at home and how not to
  • Whether to take both the SAT and the ACT

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

Episode 22: Preparing for Essays

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the essay.

NYCollegeChat episode 22 tips for preparing high school students to write college application and scholarship essays

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 500 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by over 45 colleges), or an individual college’s own application when a college does not use either one, there will most likely be a required essay, sometimes called a “personal statement.”  While some large public colleges do not require essays, most selective colleges do require essays.

Sometimes there will be more than one required essay.  Sometimes the required topic or topics will be given to the student; sometimes the student may choose from several topics.  Sometimes the essays are quite short—just 250 to 300 words; when they are this short, there is usually more than one required.  Sometimes they are longer—more like 500 to 650 words.  Sometimes there is an actual character count, like 2,500 characters.  That means that every letter and space counts.  That is when great editing really comes in handy.

It goes without saying that students should write their own essays.  It also goes without saying that adults in a student’s life might read and reflect on that essay with the student—in other words, help the student do the best job possible.  Indeed, some high school English teachers do just that when they have students write personal statements for use in college applications as a class assignment.  It seems to me that many—even most—students get some kind of adult review of their application essays, and I imagine that colleges understand that.  Nonetheless, these essays should tell students’ own stories, their own views, and their own observations and should be told in the words of teenagers—albeit, teenagers trying to put their best feet forward.

This episode is not about actually writing the college application essay.  We might do one on that later, and there are other resources that can help you help your child produce a nicely edited essay.  This episode is instead about what you can do to help your child prepare to write those essays eventually.  There are two kinds of essays that students can, in a way, prepare for in advance.

1.  The Why-Did-You-Choose-Us or Why-Are-You-a-Good-Fit-for-Us Essay

Essays with topics like these require students to have some understanding of the college and of how they would fit in well at the college.  To answer such a question, your child will need to know how to do research about a college, find out what makes it unique or special, understand the academic majors it offers (and, if it is a university, the various colleges or schools it comprises), the activities and sports it does and does not offer, and the type of community it is located in.  All of these could be addressed in such an essay.

No college wants to hear that a student is applying because that student thinks that he or she can get in.  Your child has to make a more convincing case than that.  So, as college application time approaches, help your child study up on colleges of interest.  Internet websites can be a great way to do that, but some college websites are really quite difficult to comprehend.  Even professionals have trouble with them.  So, start early.

At a minimum, understand exactly the name of the major your child would be interested in at each college he or she is applying to.  Keep in mind that something as simple as a biology major is not called the same thing at every college; furthermore, at universities, a biology major might not always be in the same college or school within the university (i.e., sometimes in arts and sciences, sometimes in health sciences, sometimes in something else).

If your child is interested in continuing with certain extracurricular activities or sports in college, it is important to see that those activities and sports exist at the college.  For example, a student should not write about his interest in continuing to be part of a wrestling team if the college does not have one.

So our advice is this:  Doing research about potential colleges of interest ahead of time enables you and your child to call an admissions office with questions—before it is time to write that essay.  It also enables you and your child to realize that some colleges might not be what you had thought and are not necessarily the right choice after all.

For more tips, listen to our Series 2: Choosing Where to Apply episodes here.

2.  The What-Can-You-Contribute-to-Our-College Essay

This is a slight variation on the first topic, but with more of a focus on what your child brings to the college.  This is not so much a how-do-we-match-up essay, but more of a why-should-we-admit-you essay.  This topic requires your child to speak about his or her accomplishments and why those would improve that college community.  It’s a bit like, “Ask not what the college can do for you; ask what you can do for the college.”

Admittedly, this can be daunting.  What can one high school kid contribute to life at Stanford University?  Well, it’s time to help position your child to answer that question.  Encouraging your child to play an instrument, participate in drama groups, play on sports teams, be part of the student government, write for the newspaper or yearbook, help younger students in school, and/or do volunteer work outside of school to help others—all of these are values and talents and abilities and skills that your child can bring to a college campus that can help make life on that campus richer for other students.  If your child does very little in your community or at school, except go to classes, writing this essay will be very difficult indeed.

Of course, academic contributions could be important, too, but it is hard to imagine what they might be.  Perhaps participating in science competitions or successful independent research projects or inclusion in selective school literary publications or being part of a winning robotics team could count for something.  So encouraging your child to go the extra mile when it comes to academic competitions certainly couldn’t hurt.

The Bottom Line

Other essay topics do not require so much preparation in advance.  Essay topics I have seen recently include these:  write about a person, who is not in your family, who has had a major impact on your life; choose a current issue and tell us your feelings about it; write about something that is so important in your life that it defines you; invent a course that all freshmen should take.  All of these take thought on the part of your child, but they are not really questions that your child needs to prepare for before it is time to complete the college applications.

The bottom line is that there is nothing worse than having nothing to say in an essay.  That problem cannot be fixed by editing.  It is just like having no activities to list in the activities section of an application.   So you and your child must think ahead.

When it comes time for your child to write the essays, he or she would likely benefit from talking about them with you or an older sibling or a teacher or another caring adult.  Sorting through ideas and experiences can be a difficult process.  But you have to have ideas and experiences to sort through—and that’s why you can’t wait till the last minute.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether essays can be important, even if not in the application process
  • Why talking to an adult can really help your child think through an essay
  • How to think about family responsibilities as topics for essays

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…