Episode 165: Your Kid’s Long List of College Options

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Today we are going to talk about the first step of your kid’s summer homework. As we said last week, we know that summer vacation is still a couple of weeks away for some of you, but I have to believe that no real work is still being done in most high schools, especially not for seniors. So, let’s get busy! If you haven’t gotten our workbook for your son or daughter, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, there is still time.

1. What You Are About To Do Wrong

Your kid’s first summer homework assignment is what we call Step 1 (from our workbook): Expand Your College List. We opened the chapter by speaking very unpleasantly to your about-to-be senior:

This chapter focuses on something that you are just about to do totally wrong. Really, totally wrong. In fact, our advice in this chapter is probably the opposite of what many school counselors and college consultants are telling you as you start a serious consideration of where to apply . . . . We bet they are telling you to start by narrowing your list of colleges, but we would like you to start by expanding your list of colleges.

There is plenty of time later to narrow down your options . . . . While expanding your list might seem unnecessary, time consuming, or even wasteful, we believe that expanding your options now could mean the difference between an okay college choice and a great college choice for you later.

Parents: We know that some of you probably feel right now that you have done enough searching and that it is time to narrow down the list. That’s possible, but not likely. So keep listening. If you can truly say that you and your son or daughter have done all the things we are about to suggest, then our hats are off to you. But, if not, then you still have some summer homework to do.

2. So, What Is Step 1?

So, what is your most likely mistake? It’s this, as we explain to your kid in the workbook:

The great majority of high school graduates who go to college choose a college in their home state–perhaps as many as 70 percent of them. Undoubtedly, you have one or more colleges in your home state on your list of college options right now. That’s okay with us. However, what’s NOT okay is to have nothing BUT colleges in your home state on your list.

Here’s why: It’s a big world out there. There are so many intriguing colleges in it that we hate for you to limit yourself to those nearby. We hate for you to limit yourself to those that are likely to have a majority of students a lot like you from the same part of the country as you. Your first step in making a list of college options should NOT be to narrow down the choices and to close off opportunities. You should NOT be settling either for colleges that are nearby or for colleges that you and your parents and your school counselor already know a lot about.

We know that there are some good reasons for kids to stay close to home for college. We understand that some families want to keep their kids close to home for cultural reasons, perhaps in order to participate in family events or religious activities. We understand that some families need to have their kids stay at home in order to help with family responsibilities. Those reasons are hard to argue against.

We know that staying close to home might make going to college more affordable for some families, especially if living at home saves on housing expenses. But we also know that it is hard to know in advance how generous a financial aid package might be from an out-of-state college. Did you know that some states offer an attractive discount at their public colleges to students who come from nearby states? We bet you didn’t. Check out, for example, the Midwest Student Exchange Program or the Western Undergraduate Exchange or the New England Regional Student Program, if you live in those regions of the country.

We also know that you can sometimes get into a better college when it is far from home. Why? Because almost every college likes the idea of geographic diversity in its student body. Colleges like to claim that they draw students “from all 50 states and from 100 foreign countries.” You will see this kind of statement on many college websites. Pay attention, because you might be far more attractive to a college halfway across the country than to one in your own back yard. That’s because you will give that faraway college bragging rights. This is especially true for private colleges that do not have the same mission to serve students in their own state as public colleges do.

We also know that some parents just can’t imagine sending their kids away from home for the first time. In fact, you might not be able to imagine leaving home for the first time. But, we encourage you and your parents to think hard about that. Isn’t college the perfect time to make that break–a time when you can live somewhere else under the supervision of college staff in relatively secure surroundings, a time when you can learn to function as an adult in a safe environment (that is, learn to manage your money, do your work, plan your time, and make new friends)?

We urge you (and your parents) to get outside your family’s geographic comfort zone. You have nothing to lose at this stage in the process. Researching colleges outside your hometown, outside your state, and outside your region doesn’t mean you have to attend one of them–or even apply to one of them. But it does mean that you will have the information that you need to make a better decision when the time comes.

Parents: We say this so often that we feel like broken records (of course, that’s an analogy that most of your kids won’t even understand these days). But here’s how to do it, as we explain to your kid in the workbook:

Conveniently, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has divided the U.S. into eight regions:

  • Far West?California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawai?i, Alaska
  • Rocky Mountains?Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah
  • Southwest?Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas
  • Plains?Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota
  • Southeast?Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia
  • Great Lakes?Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio
  • Mideast?Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia
  • New England?Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine

However, we thought that the Bureau stuffed too many states into the Southeast; so, we divided the Southeast into two regions (southern and northern), and you should, too. That will give you nine regions to investigate.

We used these nine regions when we did our virtual college tour on our podcast. You should listen to the tour in Episodes 27 through 53 of our podcast or simply read the show notes. . . .

Parents: When we wrote the workbook, we had to think hard about how your son or daughter and you should create your kid’s Long List of College Options–that’s LLCO, for short. Here’s our advice (this is the shortened version of our advice; get the workbook if you want the well-reasoned background on why we are suggesting each piece of advice, or just trust us):

  • Make sure that you have at least two four-year colleges in each of the nine geographic regions of the U.S. on your LLCO.

By the way, don’t start looking at two-year colleges, or community colleges, yet. Two-year colleges can easily be added to your LLCO closer to application time, partly because their applications are typically less demanding to complete. We are also assuming that you are most likely to attend a two-year college in or near your hometown and, therefore, you will not need to do much investigating before applying.

  • Make sure that you have at least one college that is not in the U.S. on your LLCO.

  • Make sure that you have at least two public flagship universities on your LLCO–probably one from your home state plus one more.

3. Isn’t Step 1 Lots of Work?

Well, that could be about 20 to 25 colleges on your kid’s LLCO, by our count. Sure, that will be a lot of work when your kid actually starts exploring the colleges and getting the information we will be telling you about in the next episodes. But, parents, many of you are about to spend a great deal of money on college tuition and expenses. Many of you and your kids are going to end up borrowing a great deal of money in the process. So, isn’t it worth it to do some research up front? What could be more important than that this summer?

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