Episode 130: Opening Your Eyes About College Options

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We are in the second week of our new series, Researching College Options. Now that it’s August and high school students in some parts of the country will actually be returning to school this month for their senior year, it’s time to get to work. So, for this new series, we are going to be talking directly to you, parents of high school seniors. Hang on because it can be a bumpy ride.

In this episode, we are going to read you some excerpts from what we call Step 1 in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Step 1 of what you might ask? Well, it’s Step 1 of making a good decision about where to apply to college. Like all first steps, it is important–maybe the most important–and a little scary. But like all first steps, if your senior skips it, things are not likely to go as smoothly as you and he or she might have hoped. If you need more help, more examples, or more fun stories, go get the book at amazon.com.

1. Just Expand the College List

So, the second chapter of our book opens in a very unpleasant way. Here is what we wrote to your 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–once you get to . . . October or November . . . . 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.

In other words, taking off from what we talked about last week, having your senior expand his or her options now could mean the difference eventually between just an okay college “fit” and a great college “fit.” And that could be the difference between graduating on time and not graduating on time–or even graduating at all. (Regular listeners: You know what we think about graduating from college on time–that is, in the traditional four years. It’s one of the best ways around to save money, and it might just let your kid go to his or her first choice, even if the annual sticker price on that choice is a bit higher than you all had hoped.)

2. That Dreaded Geographic Comfort Zone

So, what stands between your senior and that great college fit? It might well be the dreaded geographic comfort zone. As we said to your senior in our book, there is nothing we dislike more than your “geographic comfort zone.” Here is what we wrote:

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. [Just look back at Episode 127 if you don’t believe us on that one!] 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, [or the University of Maine’s new tuition program for nonresidents].

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.

I really can’t make any better case for getting outside your geographic comfort zone than that. Here is what we wrote to your senior about how to do it:

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 [at USACollegeChat]. You should listen to the tour in Episodes 27 through 53 of our podcast or simply read the show notes at usacollegechat.org. . . .

We thought hard about how you should create what we will call your Long List of College Options?your LLCO, for short. We decided to start with this advice:

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.

So, that would give you at least 18 four-year colleges. But, our guess is that your list already had some regions covered with more than two colleges–especially the region you live in. That’s fine. Have as many colleges on your LLCO as you like from each region. But don’t ignore any region! That’s what it means to get outside your geographic comfort zone.

3. How To Find College Options

We hope that we have convinced you. If we have, we don’t ever have to bring it up again. Here is what we wrote to your senior about what to do next:

How should you choose the colleges for your LLCO? Well, you probably know about some colleges already–from family, friends, school counselors, and teachers. You should discover some more from our virtual college tour, in which we talk about several hundred four-year colleges. You might find some more through a variety of online searches and quick looks at those college websites. Remember, you don’t need too much information about each one just to put it on your LLCO.

You will soon see that you can learn a lot from reading a college website. Furthermore, you can learn not only about that one college, but also about colleges in general and about what to look for on the next website you go to. It’s an education in itself. You really need an education ABOUT higher education.

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.

We do have some reservations about two-year colleges, especially for students who have just graduated from high school and are moving directly into college full time. We know that two-year colleges are a great choice for saving money and for helping kids who need a bit more maturity or a bit more academic preparation before heading into college. . . . However, we worry because student graduation rates and student transfer rates from two-year colleges to four-year colleges are scandalously low, and we worry about what opportunities end up being closed off for too many kids.

But back to your LLCO. Those of you who have listened to our podcast or read the show notes know that this suggestion is coming:

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

This is a favorite topic of ours, and we can’t say enough about it. There are truly great options outside the U.S. We hope that every one of you will take advantage of studying abroad for at least a semester, no matter where you end up in college. Studying abroad is for everyone these days–not just for rich kids, not just for kids studying foreign languages, not just for kids at private liberal arts colleges. But you can actually study outside the U.S. for more than a semester or even for more than one year; you can simply go to a college outside the U.S. full time for four years.

So, you must be up to at least 19 colleges on your LLCO–likely more. But we can’t resist one last piece of advice:

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

We say this to ensure that you have some great public options to consider. Maybe you already had them when your chose two colleges from every region, but add them if you didn’t. To be clear, we mean public “flagships,” not just any public universities–though you are also free to put other public universities on your LLCO. If you are an excellent student, the public flagship in your home state is likely to be your very best choice for a “safety school” (with some exceptions, like California, which can’t accommodate all of the excellent students in their own state). If you can’t identify the public flagship in your own state or in most other states, you aren’t ready to be choosing colleges yet. Go learn about all 50 of them on our virtual college tour.

As we have said numerous times in our podcast episodes, public flagship universities might be the hidden jewels in the college landscape. They are often the very best place high school kids in those states can imagine going. Why? Because they are relatively inexpensive for state residents (because they are public), academically respectable (even outstanding), well regarded across the state and across the country, competitive in sports arenas, chocked full of student clubs and activities, within driving distance of home, and a social hub for lots of their high school classmates. They are often truly the place to be, if you live in that state.

As with everything, some states have better public flagship universities than others, and some public flagship universities are better funded by their states than others. Nonetheless, we are convinced that you can find at least two that you think might be great for you.

Well, that is a lot of colleges: colleges from nine geographic regions, one or more colleges from outside the U.S., and a couple of public flagships from your state and/or someone else’s. Of course, don’t forget to ask your parents and other important family members and teachers and school counselors for input about colleges to put on your LLCO. For right now, the more, the better–at least within reason. But our “within reason” is probably a lot bigger than your “within reason.” Remember that your senior is not necessarily applying to all of the colleges on his or her LLCO. Your senior is just going to start gathering the information he or she and you would need in order to decide whether it is worth applying. We will start talking about that information gathering next week–that is, what information to gather and how to gather it. So, stay tuned.

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Episode 129: What You Don’t Know About Colleges

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

It’s getting serious now. It’s almost August, and kids who are headed off to their senior year in high school are realizing that it is time to get moving on investigating college options more thoroughly. There are a hundred things we would like to tell you and your senior about that and just as many pieces of advice we would like to give you two. In fact, we will do a lot of that in this new series that we are starting today and that we like to call Researching College Options. But in this episode we are going to focus on one really simple fact that is true for almost all high school seniors and their parents–just one fact. (Wait for it.)

We have been reminding you this summer to go to amazon.com and get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. We think that it is an easy-to-use workbook for a high school senior to fill out as he or she starts–and finishes–the great college search. However, I have given up on telling you to go get the workbook and will, instead, try to hit at least some of its high points over the next weeks. If you find you need more help, then get the workbook. It’s the best under-$10 purchase you will make this month. We promise.

1. College Fit Revisited

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about an Education Week article by Liana Loewus entitled “Pitching Rural, Low-Income Students on Private Colleges.” If you missed Episode 127, go back and listen because it might offer a new perspective on private colleges that would be useful to your family. One thing that the article did (though this was not the article’s main point) was to highlight the notion of “fit”–that is, how good a fit is a college for your senior. We quoted the following passage from the Education Week article about the importance of the academic and social and cultural fit of a college for a student:

In the 2016 book Matching Students to Opportunity: Expanding College Choice, Access, and Quality, Jessica Howell and her co-authors explain that college fit, and in particular going to a school that matches a student’s academic credentials, is positively associated with earning a degree.

“By and large, we know that when students enroll in a college that isn’t a good fit for them, that’s usually because they didn’t consider colleges that would have been a better fit,” Howell said in an interview. “We need to open up students’ eyes early in the process so they know their options.” (quoted from the article)

We might argue for a long time about all of the aspects of a college that help determine its fit for a particular student, and we might never agree on which are the most important ones. We would undoubtedly start with the degree of academic rigor (and some people might stop right there), and we might continue with things like the size of the institution, the demographic make-up of the student body, cost, and maybe even the type of setting and the geographic location. We will talk about all of that some time–perhaps even in the next few weeks (and, by the way, all of those aspects of college fit are discussed at length in both of our books).

But today, we want to focus on the last part of that Education Week quotation from Howell, not the first part: the fact that students can end up in the wrong college for them simply because they did not consider the right colleges. In other words, they are in a college that is a bad fit as a result of not investigating and applying to colleges that would have been a better fit. As Howell said, “We need to open up students’ eyes early in the process so they know their options.”

We could not agree more. In the upcoming summer weeks, we would like to help you help your senior open his or her eyes–early enough so that there is still plenty of time to act on what he or she finds out. And just as important, parents, we would like to help you open your eyes as well, and that might mean opening your eyes to consider colleges you have never even heard of. As we are fond of saying, there are thousands of colleges in the U.S. (and even more when you add in all of the colleges in other countries, which we love to talk about here at USACollegeChat), and the chances that you know all of the right ones for your senior are slim to none.

Now, I am not trying to be mean about this. Marie and I are the first to say that, even though this is our business and has been our area of expertise for quite some time, we learn something new from almost every episode we do. We learn about new academic programs, new recruiting strategies, new admissions requirements, new funding sources, new grading policies, new housing configurations, and on and on and on. And, by the way, we also learn about new colleges–well, not new colleges, but rather good colleges that we just didn’t know anything about. That’s what happens when there are thousands of colleges out there. No one can know about all of the good ones. Not you and not us. So, don’t take it personally.

Just agree to come along for the ride and make every effort to get your senior to come along for the ride, too. Try to give up your preconceived notions of the right college fit for him or her and make every effort to get your senior to give up his or her preconceived notions, too. As Howell said, it’s all about opening your eyes and seeing your options.

2. How To Open Your Senior’s Eyes–and Yours

In the opening chapter of our book, which was written as a user-friendly workbook for teenagers, we talked about how to open your senior’s eyes. In the book, we write this for any teenagers who will listen about how to solve their lack-of-information-about-almost-all-colleges problem:

The simple answer is just to ask a guidance counselor at your high school. You would think that guidance counselors would know quite a bit about lots of colleges and that they could pass that information on to you. Here’s why that usually doesn’t work.

Let’s start with public high schools. As you probably already know, most public high schools don’t have guidance counselors who are dedicated to working only on college counseling. That means that your guidance counselors, with caseloads in the hundreds, have to help students with college applications while dealing simultaneously with students who might be in serious personal or academic trouble. That’s an overwhelming job, and that is exactly why most high school guidance counselors cannot help you enough when it comes to exploring many college options, narrowing them down, and finally choosing the perfect colleges to put on your list.

Some public high schools–and even more private schools–have designated one of the school’s guidance counselors as a college counselor, specializing in college placement and perhaps financial aid and devoting all of his or her time to helping students undertake and complete their college searches. If your school has a college counselor like that, you are lucky indeed. Of course, searching through hundreds of colleges to find the right ones for you and then working through those college applications (including all of the essays) is the work of a lot of hours–at least 20 hours and really closer to 40 hours, we would say. Does your counselor have that much time to spend with you? Unfortunately, probably not, even if you attend a private school.

What if you are homeschooled? Without the help of a school guidance counselor or college counselor–even for a very limited amount of time–you might feel more at a loss than your friends who attend public or private schools. Should you expect your parents to know everything you need to know about a wide array of college choices? No, you shouldn’t. Respecting your parents’ opinions about colleges is certainly important, even crucial. But it is not likely that they are experts on the many, many colleges here in the U.S. (and abroad).

All high school students need to get help from somewhere or someone. We believe that this workbook is a good way to get some. That’s why we are talking to you now. We want you to have a way to find out the information you need about many colleges so that you will be in the best possible position to compare those colleges and then to make the right decision about where to apply and, eventually, about where to attend. While you will undoubtedly want and need some adult advice in thinking through the many options, what you need first is information–and a lot of it.

If you already have a list of colleges you are interested in, you will need information about each one of those. But, just as important, you will need information about colleges that are not yet on your list–including colleges that you have never considered because you didn’t know they existed. That’s not your fault now, but it will be if you don’t take steps to correct it. So, let’s get started. (quoted from the book)

Whether you use our workbook as a way to learn how to get the information you need about a broad enough selection of colleges is not the issue here. Believing that you need way more information than you have right now is the issue. We talk to so many parents and kids who come to us with their minds made up and hearts set on a college or a type of college or a location of a college. We think that they are rarely right.

By the way, that goes for parents who have never been to college themselves either in the U.S. or in their home countries; parents who started, but didn’t finish college; parents who have an associate’s degree; parents who have a bachelor’s degree; parents who have a master’s degree; and parents who have even more graduate and professional education than that. In other words, thinking you know the right college for your kids–and not really knowing it–knows no education, socioeconomic, or demographic boundaries.

And that goes for high school students, too. Marie and I have told story after story here at USACollegeChat about the students in the Early College high school we co-founded in New York City. We would like to think that these were kids who should have known more–after all, they were already taking real college courses on a real college campus with real college professors across the street from our high school. And yet, they didn’t. We would like to think that some of the workshops we ran for them and for their parents would have done the trick. And yet, they didn’t. What it took was individual counseling sessions with each student and often with the parents. Some of these stretched out over days and weeks and months.

One of our favorite stories, which gave rise to a rule that we like to follow, is of a young man we’ll call Ryan. Ryan sat down with Marie and me in our office at our high school and told us that he would like to apply to one of the State University of New York campuses in upstate New York. And let me say that it was in the middle-of-nowhere part of New York. Now, that was okay with us, but we suspected Ryan had no idea where that college was or what that rural setting was like. So we asked him to tell us where he thought the college was located. He admitted that he had no idea, and that didn’t seem to be a problem to him.

Those of you who listen regularly to USACollegeChat know that Marie and I love kids and parents who can get outside their geographic comfort zone. We will talk more about that next week. But we do believe that a kid should know where a college is if he or she intends to apply. And so the Ryan Rule was born: You can’t apply to a college if you can’t find it on a map. Parents: That turns out to be harder for a lot of your kids than you might think.

3. What’s the Point?

So what’s the point of today’s episode? It’s this simple fact that I told you this episode would focus on: Parents and seniors, you don’t know anything about most colleges. Simply put, both of you need more information about a lot of colleges. As Howell said, “We need to open up students’ eyes early in the process so they know their options.” She should have said, “We need to open up students’ and parents’ eyes early in the process so they know their options.”

If I have made you a believer, we will start the eye-opening next week. If you think you already have enough information about colleges, give me a call and let me prove to you how wrong you are.

Find our books on Amazon!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
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