Episode 123: A New Look at Colleges North of the Border

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Last week in our Colleges in the Spotlight series, we took you to the U.K. to consider what it might be like to attend college full time outside the U.S. We looked specifically at Richmond, the American International University in London, a unique university dually accredited in the U.S. and the U.K. We hoped that taking a close look at Richmond–and, more generally, at the value of full-time study at universities abroad–might persuade some of you to leave your geographic comfort zone.

But, in case a trip across the Atlantic (or the Pacific) seems too big a geographic leap for you, today’s episode lets you stay a little closer to home. We are going to look at colleges in Canada, our close ally and important trading partner to the north. Let me say that I have known about colleges in Canada for decades, first because of a childhood Canadian friend and later because McGill University in Montreal has been an increasingly popular college choice for students in the Northeast for many years now. Then, six years ago, my nephew, who was raised in Seattle, decided to attend the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and had a great four years there. So, it has been with some interest that I have read a variety of articles in the news in the past six months about the new appeal of Canadian colleges for U.S. students.

And, let us remind you, that you should go to amazon.com and get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. The workbook will help your teenager know what questions to ask about colleges of interest to him or her and will help your teenager research the answers. Let me say, by the way, that one of our favorite sources of college information, the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator, does not provide data about colleges outside the U.S. So, if your teenager likes our notion of studying full time outside the U.S., he or she will have to dig a little harder to answer all of the questions we pose in our book.

1. The New Statistics

So, what’s all this about Canada? Well, in an article about two months ago in The Washington Post, Susan Svrluga wrote about the increased interest of U.S. students in Canadian universities and the possible reasons for it. Here are some of the statistics she provides in the article: 

  • Applications to Canadian universities from students outside of Canada are on the upswing, and the number of international students studying at Canadian universities has doubled in the past 10 years.
  • Twice as many students as usual have been looking for information on the Universities Canada website since last November. The website “offers profiles of Canadian universities, a large study programs database and helps you plan your university education. The information on [the] site is provided by Universities Canada and its 97 member universities.” (quoted from the website)
  • Some of the best Canadian universities have seen dramatic increases in U.S. applications: a 25 percent increase at McGill; a 35 percent increase at McMaster University, a public research university in Hamilton, Ontario; and an 80 percent increase at the University of Toronto.
  • And the price is attractive, too. According to The Washington Post article, “At the current exchange rate, tuition and fees are about $13,000 less for an international student’s first year at the University of Toronto than they would be at Harvard, and $11,000 less than out-of-state rates at the University of Virginia.” So, as we said about Richmond last week, the cost of attending some excellent universities outside the U.S. is surprisingly reasonable, though not necessarily cheap.

The Universities Canada website offers eight reasons for attending college in Canada. All of them are good, but I can see how the following four might resonate with some U.S. students and with other foreign students who are looking for a safe college environment and secure future:

Affordability: While Canada’s quality of education and standard of living are among the highest in the world, the cost of living and tuition fees are generally lower than in other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

Support services: International students benefit from services to help them transition to living and studying in Canada: orientation activities, student advisors, language support, academic associations, social clubs and other programs at their educational institutions.

Cultural diversity: Canada ranks among the most multicultural nations in the world. Regardless of ethnic origin, international students feel at home in our diverse and welcoming communities and campuses.

Opportunity to stay in Canada after graduation: International students have the opportunity to work during their studies and after they graduate. University graduates may also be eligible to transition to permanent residence in Canada. Visit the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website for more information. (quoted from the Universities Canada website)

The Washington Post article quoted Ted Sargent, a vice president at the University of Toronto, which recruits outside Canada, including in the U.S. Sargent said, “Canada is having a moment. It is a time of opportunity. . . . A lot of people know that half of the people in Toronto were not born in Canada. Canada is a place that is focused on attracting talent from around the world. . . . That messaging about diversity and inclusivity is very resonant today.” One can see how Canada’s open arms are appealing to the students and their families who are concerned about the ramifications of the Brexit vote in the U.K. and who are concerned about some of the new proposed immigration policies in the U.S. The Washington Post article offers several insightful anecdotes about individual students, including a long story about one Syrian graduate student’s difficulties in getting back into the U.S. after a trip to check on the humanitarian medical work he had been doing in Turkey.

Interestingly, Universities Canada published a statement after our president’s first executive order about immigration. Here it is:

“Universities Canada does not typically comment on executive action being taken by another country, but we do so today because of the real impediment this new executive order poses to the free flow of people and ideas and to the values of diversity, inclusion and openness that are hallmarks of a strong and healthy society.” (quoted from the article)

2. Check Out Universities Canada!

I think it is worth it for you and your teenager to check out the Universities Canada website and read some of the profiles of the universities that you will find there. As Americans unfortunately are with many things about Canada (including its history and government), I think we are quite ignorant of its higher education system. That seems ridiculous when many top Canadian universities are a lot closer to where some of us live than universities in a distant part of our own country. We likely know more about Canada’s ice hockey and baseball teams, its actors and singers who have big careers in our country, and our television industry’s use of Vancouver to film some of our favorite shows than we know about its universities. I think once you see some of its universities’ reasonable tuition rates, you will be sorry you didn’t think of Canada sooner (this is also true for graduate programs, by the way).

So, what are the best universities in Canada? I thought a decent source might be the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2016?2017, which lists the top 980 universities in the world. If you don’t know it, Times Higher Education is a weekly publication based in London. Its website explains its rankings this way:

[Ours] is the only global university performance table to judge world class universities across all of their core missions–teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. The top universities rankings use 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators to provide the most comprehensive and balanced comparisons available, which are trusted by students, academics, university leaders, industry and governments.

For the [World University Rankings], [our] in-house data team now ranks 2,150 institutions worldwide, with 1 million data points analysed across 2,600 institutions in 93 countries. In 2016, the global media reach of the rankings was almost 700 million. (quoted from the website)

That’s a lot of institutions and a lot of data. Just so you know, the five top-ranked institutions worldwide, according to this list, are the University of Oxford, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Here are the top six Canadian universities, along with their world ranking, according to this list. So, if you have a smart teenager, you might want to start with the profiles of these, available on the Times Higher Education website:

  • University of Toronto–22
  • University of British Columbia (with a student body that is 25 percent international)–36
  • McGill University–42
  • University of Montreal (the only French-speaking one in the top five)–103
  • University of Alberta (in Edmonton)–107
  • McMaster University–113

Of course, just as there are in the U.S., there are many other great universities in Canada. Your teenager doesn’t have to go to one of the top six anymore than he or she has to go to one of the top six in the U.S. or one of the top six in the world. The Universities Canada website can give you all the information you need about many universities to start your search.

3. A Personal Reflection

Maybe if we had written our new book this week instead of a couple of months ago, we would have added another requirement for building your teenager’s long list of college options (or LLCO, as we called it). If you don’t already have the book, we ask that your teenager put together an LLCO that includes two four-year colleges in each of the nine geographic regions of the U.S., at least two public flagship universities, and one college outside of the U.S. All of this is, of course, designed to get you all outside your geographic comfort zone–where, undoubtedly, some of the best higher education is happening.

So, if we had written the book today, we might have said that your teenager’s LLCO should also include one Canadian university. Given everything we have just read, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

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Episode 121: No Harvard for You!

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Today in our current series, Colleges in the Spotlight, we want to look at a great article published in The New York Times by an award-winning journalist writing a very personal piece. Although the title of our episode is “No Harvard for You,” it is really about many colleges a lot like Harvard–highly selective, prestigious, private colleges, which have disappointed a lot of kids this March and April. This is an unusual perspective and a memorable one. Special thanks to my friend, Regina Rule, school board member in Manhasset, New York, who posted this article on Facebook. I probably never would have seen it without her.

1. Michael Winerip’s Article

Let me quote first from The New York Times blurb about the article’s author, Michael Winerip, so you can see just how impressive he is:

Mike Winerip hasn’t held every job at The Times, just most of them. Over nearly 30 years, he has written five different columns–Our Towns, On Sunday, On Education (three times), Parenting and Generation B.

He has been a staff writer for the magazine, investigative reporter, national political correspondent, Metro reporter and a deputy Metro editor. . . .

In 2000, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his exposé in the Times magazine of a mentally ill New York City man pushing a woman to her death on the subway. . . . In 2001, he played a leading role on the team of reporters that won a Pulitzer for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.” (quoted from the article)

And there is plenty more. There is no doubt that Mike is a smart, perceptive, and accomplished guy. Clearly, he is someone worth listening to. You should go read his entire piece, entitled “Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard,” published in The Times on April 29, 2007. Yes, 2007. It might as well have been yesterday. Perhaps his words are even more true now.

Let’s listen to the beginning of his piece:

On a Sunday morning a few months back, I interviewed my final Harvard applicant of the year. After saying goodbye to the girl and watching her and her mother drive off, I headed to the beach at the end of our street for a run. 

It was a spectacular winter day, bright, sunny and cold; the tide was out, the waves were high, and I had the beach to myself. As I ran, I thought the same thing I do after all these interviews: Another amazing kid who won’t get into Harvard.

That used to upset me. But I’ve changed. 

Over the last decade, I’ve done perhaps 40 of these interviews, which are conducted by alumni across the country. They’re my only remaining link to my alma mater; I’ve never been back to a reunion or a football game, and my total donations since graduating in the 1970s do not add up to four figures. 

No matter how glowing my recommendations, in all this time only one kid, a girl, got in, many years back. I do not tell this to the eager, well-groomed seniors who settle onto the couch in our den. They’re under too much pressure already. Better than anyone, they know the odds, particularly for a kid from a New York suburb.

By the time I meet them, they’re pros at working the system. Some have Googled me because they think knowing about me will improve their odds. After the interview, many send handwritten thank-you notes saying how much they enjoyed meeting me.

Maybe it’s true. 

I used to be upset by these attempts to ingratiate. Since I’ve watched my own children go through similar torture, I find these gestures touching. Everyone’s trying so hard. (quoted from the article)

Let me stop right there for a minute. Parents, how many of you had your seniors do one or more of these alumni interviews? Parents of juniors, many of you have these on your horizon. I used to do them years ago for Cornell, so I know a bit about the way Mike feels. A young friend of mine went through alumni interviews for her applications to Georgetown and Yale and Cornell just a few months ago.

To tell you the truth, I am not sure how I feel about alumni interviews and, for those of you who know me, you know that it is rare that I don’t have a strong opinion about something. I see why a college would use its alumni in this role, and I see why alumni would be willing to take on this task. I did myself, after all. But I am not sure how much alumni interviews really contribute to the admissions process or how valid those contributions are.

In the old days, it seems to me that many more applicants were interviewed at the colleges by admissions officers. Maybe they weren’t any smarter or savvier than alumni, but they were trained in what they were doing. They likely knew what to look for, how to get the best from a nervous kid, and how to represent the college–and its admission process–accurately and fairly. I am not entirely sure that alumni interviewers–or, at least, not all alumni interviewers–can do all of those things. So why continue doing it, colleges?

Here is what Mike says about why he continued to interview for his alma mater:

It’s very moving meeting all these bright young people who won’t get into Harvard. Recent news articles make it sound unbearably tragic. Several Ivies, including Harvard, rejected a record number of applicants this year.

Actually, meeting the soon-to-be rejected makes me hopeful about young people. They are far more accomplished than I was at their age and without a doubt will do superbly wherever they go.

Knowing me and seeing them is like witnessing some major evolutionary change take place in just 35 years, from the Neanderthal Harvard applicant of 1970 to today’s fully evolved Homo sapiens applicant. 

There was the girl who, during summer vacation, left her house before 7 each morning to make a two-hour train ride to a major university, where she worked all day doing cutting-edge research for NASA on weightlessness in mice.

When I was in high school, my 10th-grade science project was on plant tropism–a shoebox with soil and bean sprouts bending toward the light.

These kids who don’t get into Harvard spend summers on schooners in Chesapeake Bay studying marine biology, building homes for the poor in Central America, touring Europe with all-star orchestras.

Summers, I dug trenches for my local sewer department during the day, and sold hot dogs at Fenway Park at night. (quoted from the article)

Mike is right. The escalation in what kids now present as their credentials on college applications has continued in the decade since this piece was written. College applications have almost become parodies of themselves. What more could high school kids do? Is any kid just a kid anymore? Well, if so, that kid isn’t getting into Harvard–or any other very selective college–where even stellar kids aren’t being admitted. Mike continues this way: 

What kind of kid doesn’t get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake. 

At his age, when I got hungry, I made myself peanut butter and jam on white bread and got into Harvard. 

Some take 10 AP courses and get top scores of 5 on all of them. 

I took one AP course and scored 3. (quoted from the article)

I wonder if this makes any kid who didn’t get into some Ivy or Stanford or MIT or the like this April feel any better. It probably doesn’t. But it does underscore just how crazy admissions at top schools can be. I keep saying to prospective applicants that these schools could fill their seats with kids with perfect SATs and perfect high school GPAs and incredible extracurricular activities. And I guess it’s true. Of course, these schools would be quick to say that they look for plenty of other things, too. And I hope that’s true, though I would like to see some evidence of it.

One of Mike’s final comments is this: 

I see these kids–and watch my own applying to college–and as evolved as they are, I wouldn’t change places with them for anything. They’re under such pressure. (quoted from the article)

They are indeed, Mike. Parents, don’t forget that. Your kids are “under such pressure.”

I have watched a number of kids go through this recently. Let me take one example of a smart and talented kid who did not get into her top Ivy-like choices, but did get into a fine private university and a fine public flagship university. She chose the private university and immediately applied to its honors program (she had already automatically been accepted into the honors program at the public flagship when they sent her the acceptance). But this private university required a separate honors program application–well, actually there were four different honors programs, each one more impressive than the last.

She asked me to look over the FOUR essays she had to write for the honors application. Honestly, I would have had trouble writing the fourth one myself. I felt a bit like Mike as I sat there, with my two Ivy League degrees, staring at the essay and wondering what in the world I would have said.

I did what I could to help her, but she did not get into the honors program she applied for (likely a result of her SAT scores, according to the honors program descriptions). Now, I think that is okay. She will do well at the university. She will probably have a great time there (which is actually an important part of the college experience, too, I think). I am fine that she didn’t get into the honors program, but I doubt she is, and I know her parents are disappointed. So, I will say one more time to you, parents: “They’re under such pressure.” At some point, you have to let that go. Once the acceptances are in and the college-going decision is made, it is time to be happy. No more disappointment. Look forward to the fall and a new adventure for your kid. I don’t want to have to remind you again!

2. Next Week

We are going to take a break next week in honor of college graduations and Memorial Day. I am actually traveling to the U.K. to attend my daughter’s master’s degree graduation ceremony at Richmond, The American International University in London. Many of you are making or just made the same kind of trip if you have older kids graduating from college somewhere this month. It is a time for celebration, and we hope you have a great one!

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Episode 86: Assignment #6–Looking at College Location, Not Distance

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

Your teenager and you should be learning a lot about colleges if you have been keeping up with your assignments. Yes, we know it’s summer, but you will thank us in September. Let’s review what you have done so far (we hope):

Looking at College Location Not Distance on USACollegeChat podcast Episode 86

This episode’s assignment will be, I think, one of the more enjoyable onesnot so many facts and figures.

1. Your Assignment #6

Download the Assignment #6 Worksheet

For Assignment #6, your teenager and you are going to look at the location of each collegethat is, the type of community the college is located in and the cool things about that community. So, in this assignment, we are not talking about the college itself at all, but rather the surroundings your teenager will be living in for four years.

2. Urban, Suburban, or Rural

As we said in our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, on sale just for the summer from Amazon), the type of community a college is located in is a lot more important than you might think to some students and some families. Furthermore, some students can’t wait to get away from the type of community they grew up in, while others can’t imagine being comfortable in a new physical and cultural environment. For example, both Marie and my oldest child, Jimmy, wanted to stay in the kind of urban environment that they both grew up in. In fact, going to school in a city was Jimmy’s number one college requirement when he was looking.

Are cities great? They are. Cities offer a general excitement and many cultural opportunities (museums and theatersand the ballet, of course); they have ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity among their residents, which is a plus for many families. Most cities also have good to great public transportation, which is a help to college students who don’t have their own cars. Finally, most cities have more than one college, which gives students an opportunity to meet all kinds of students and make all kinds of friends.

But are the suburbs great? They are, in a different way. Suburbs are relatively safe, for one thing, making them a good choice for lots of students. They are also likely cheaper in terms of everyday living expenses, including movies, and drug store items, and the occasional off-campus meal. They also might offer convenient commuter transportation options for getting into a nearby exciting citythe best of both worlds.

But are rural communities great? They are, again in a different way. Like the suburbs, they are likely to be safe and low-cost, when it comes to everyday spending. But, most important for the students that are attracted to rural colleges, many rural communities offer great expanses of unspoiled environment, which lends itself to loads of outdoor sports, like hiking and biking.

So, whether Broadway or the Pacific Ocean or Pikes Peak is your teenager’s thing, you can find a college there.

The first task on the Assignment #6 worksheet, is simply to classify the location of each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options as urban, suburban, or rural. I am also thinking that adding a category called “small town” makes sense, given the locations, especially, of many small private colleges in the small towns of the U.S.; these small towns are not really rural themselves (though they might be set in a rural area), are not really suburban themselves (because they are not outside a big city), and are not really urban themselves, for sure.

3. Cool Stuff About the Community

The second part of Assignment #6 is something we like to call “cool stuff about the community.” Now, we can’t tell you exactly what to look for here, but you will know it when you see it. We will tell you that some college websites have whole sections devoted to talking about the community that surrounds the college. I have noticed that this is especially true for colleges in lovely rural settings; those colleges like to talk about the nature trails and bike trails and waterfalls and lakes and forests and so on that the college’s students have ready access to.

Some colleges boast about their place on one commercial list or another, like “the best college towns in America” or “the most affordable college towns” or whatever, published by various magazines and college-oriented publications. I know that we quoted these from time to time in our nationwide virtual college tour (Episodes 27 through 53). Some colleges will even reference the spots they earned on these lists in the “At a Glance” pages or lists of awards that the college has won. I recall that one of my favorites among these lists was from Travel + Leisure magazine, which is actually called “America’s Best College Towns.” Deb Hopewell opened her article in Travel + Leisure with the following paragraphs:

‘Depending on how you look at it, Santa Cruz is either the best or the worst place to spend your college years,’ says Keijiro Ikebe, a Silicon Valley visual designer who graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2002.

‘With the town surrounded by shimmering water and lush forests under sunny blue skies, the last thing you want to do is spend a beautiful day taking notes in a lecture hall.’

After all, ivy-covered walls, stately libraries, and cafeteria meals don’t make a great college town. It’s more about the distractionsand Santa Cruz is overflowing with them. There are miles of beaches with some of the best surfing in the country; mountain-bike trails at Wilder Ranch State Park; artisanal coffee bars almost as numerous as craft-beer taps; and your nightly choice of any genre of live music.

This kind of lively atmosphere earned Santa Cruz a place among the top 20 college towns in America, as chosen by Travel + Leisure readers in our latest America’s Favorite Places survey. They evaluated hundreds of towns for live music, pizza, dive bars, hamburgers, and other qualities that add up to a great college town.” (quoted from the article)

And, by the way, historic sites also figure into the equation. If you are curious, here are the top 20 college towns, according to Travel + Leisure readers:

  • Syracuse, NY
  • Lafayette, LA
  • Charlottesville, VA
  • Fort Collins, CO
  • Duluth, MN
  • Saratoga Springs, NY
  • Asheville, NC
  • Flagstaff, AZ
  • San Luis Obispo, CA
  • Boulder, CO
  • Santa Cruz, CA
  • St. Augustine, FL
  • Burlington, VT
  • Annapolis, MD
  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Williamsburg, VA
  • Bozeman, MT
  • Boone, NC
  • Athens, GA
  • Oxford, MS

In case you want a different view, you can look at Forbes magazine, which has its own method of calculating its list of best and worst college towns by using 23 academic, social, and financial measures. At the top of the Forbes list, as reported last December by Kathryn Dill, is Ann Arbor (MI), followed by College Station (TX), Iowa City (IA), Provo (UT), and Gainesville (FL). At the bottom of the list is Paterson (NJ), preceded by Yonkers (NY), Germantown (MD), Bridgeport (CT), and Arlington (VA).

There are plenty more lists you can look at, including the most bike-friendly campuses (either the University of Texas at Austin or Stanford University, depending which list you useyes, there are two such lists!). But you can also just read up on the community surrounding the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. If those colleges are in communities worth being proud of, the college will undoubtedly write about it on the website.

So, the second task on the Assignment #6 worksheet is to jot down all the cool stuff you can find about the community, community attractions, and the natural beauty (if any) surrounding each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. While your teenager shouldn’t choose a college to attend based on its surrounding community, it is clear that some communities are far more attractive to some students than othersand it never hurts to have the information available when choosing.

Download the Assignment #6 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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Episode 40: Colleges in the Far West Region—Part II

In last week’s episode, we continued our virtual tour of colleges by looking at the six states of the Far West region: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska, and Hawai‘i. We talked about public universities—both the flagship state public universities and other public universities in those states. Today, we will continue our tour of the Far West states by focusing on private higher education institutions.

Virtual tour of private colleges and universities in the Far West Region on NYCollegeChat. Episode an notes available at http://usacollegechat.org/40 #college #collegeaccess #parentsWe are going to check out several national universities, which really draw students internationally, as well as a handful of universities best known in their own region and a handful of smaller liberal arts colleges. Many of them happen to be located in the very large state of California. We feel that these are the private institutions in the Far West that are most likely to attract out-of-state students.

As we say in every one of our episodes, we want to make it clear that no college has asked us or paid us anything to name it. These are simply our choices.

1. Private Universities

Let’s look at three large private universities in California, all of which are excellent and all of which will require great to incredible high school GPAs and college admission test scores to get into. First, there is California Institute of Technology (commonly known as Caltech)—a first-rate university akin to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgia Institute of Technology.

Founded in 1891 in lovely Pasadena, Caltech is “a world-renowned science and engineering research and education institution, where extraordinary faculty and students seek answers to complex questions, discover new knowledge, lead innovation, and transform our future,” according to its website. In most cases, I take website statements with a grain of salt; but, I believe this one is actually accurate.

About 1,000 undergraduate students study in 26 programs across six academic divisions: Biology and Biological Engineering, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Engineering and Applied Science, Geological and Planetary Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. Caltech also enrolls about 1,200 graduate students—so, more graduate than undergraduate students.

Caltech boasts a student-to-faculty ratio of 3:1—so low a ratio that it is literally unbelievable (before this, the lowest we had seen was Rice University’s 6:1, which also seemed shockingly low). This means that students have unprecedented access to faculty in class and in research labs and likely outside of class as well. About 80 percent of Caltech undergraduate degree-holders go on to earn a graduate degree.

Despite enrolling really brainy students, Caltech fields 17 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams. Undergraduates live in eight Houses, each with its own character and each of which they visit during a process called Rotation.

New freshmen in the Class of 2018 are about 60 percent male and 40 percent female—a bit more balanced than the overall institution. Their average SAT scores are about 750 or better on each subtest. So, this is an institution for a very particular kind of student with very particular academic interests.

At about $45,000 in tuition and fees annually, Caltech’s cost is comparable to other top-tier universities and not surprising, given the equipment and lab expenses of operating a higher education institution focused on engineering and science.

Just a short drive away in Los Angeles, we find the University of Southern California (known as USC and, to its amazingly active alumni/alumnae, as SC). Founded in 1880 with 53 students, before Los Angeles had paved streets, USC now serves about 19,000 undergraduates and another 24,000 graduate and professional students—again, more graduate than undergraduate students and a very, very big student body for a private university. Almost one-quarter of its students are drawn internationally.

USC’s incoming freshmen have an average high school GPA of 3.73 and an average of close to 700 on each of the three SAT subtests; that’s a lot of smart kids. USC students are also athletic. USC was home to 418 Olympic athletes (between 1904 and 2010), the most of any U.S. university. And, it offers 20 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams. If you know any USC alums, you know that the Trojans play some serious football and you know that loyal alums into their eighties attend games in state and out of state. USC also offers students over 850 student organizations, including fraternities and sororities, to join.

USC has 21 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges—as many as we have ever seen—including, its College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a wide variety of career-related schools, such as its Schools of Cinematic Arts, Architecture, Dance, Business, Education, Music, Engineering, Art and Design, Accounting, Communication and Journalism, Public Policy, Dramatic Arts, and more. All undergraduates take a core of general education, writing, and diversity-themed courses.

With all of that available at USC, $48,000 in annual tuition and fees is perhaps understandable—though, obviously, still quite high.

Moving north, we come to Stanford University, located a bit south of San Francisco on a lovely campus with beautiful California Mission-style buildings of sandstone with red-tiled roofs. Leland Stanford Junior University was founded in 1885 by U.S. Senator Leland Stanford and his wife in memory of their son. They hired famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the campus—and it shows. Stanford University was co-educational and nondenominational at a time when most private universities were neither.

It now serves about 7,000 undergraduates and about 9,000 graduate and professional students in seven schools, three of which serve undergraduate students: Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences; Engineering; and Humanities and Sciences. Undergraduates choose from about 65 majors, with the top five majors all being in the sciences and engineering. Like Caltech, Stanford has an extraordinarily low and appealing student-to-faculty ratio of 4:1.

Surprisingly, given its first-rate national reputation, about 40 percent of undergraduates are Californians. Not surprisingly, given its outstanding academic reputation, about 75 percent of new freshmen have a high school GPA of 4.0 or higher and have a 700 or better on each of the three SAT subtests (including about 25 percent with perfect 800 scores).

About 96 percent of undergraduates live on campus and undoubtedly take part in approximately 650 student organizations. There are about 13,000 bicycles being ridden on campus every day. Stanford also provides a robust varsity sports program of 36 men’s, women’s, and co-educational teams. For a straight 38 years, at least one Stanford team has won a national championship (in 2013–14, it was women’s water polo).

At $45,000 in tuition and fees annually, its costs are high, but in line with other top universities.

2. Private Faith-Based Universities

The Far West has an interesting selection of faith-based universities that are well regarded, if not especially well known outside of the region. First, the Far West is home to four of the 28 Catholic Jesuit universities in the U.S.: Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, with about 6,000 undergraduates and a total of about 9,500 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students; Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, with about 5,500 undergraduates and a total of about 9,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students; Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, with about 5,000 undergraduates and a total of about 7,500 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students; and Seattle University in Seattle, Washington, with about 4,500 undergraduates and a total of about 7,500 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. These are all substantial institutions. Pricewise, their annual tuition and fees range from about $38,000 to $44,000, with the ones in Washington being a bit cheaper than the ones in California.

As we have said in previous episodes, the Jesuits trace their commitment to education to St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the first Jesuit college in Messina, Sicily, in 1548. Jesuit institutions today place a strong emphasis on intellectual rigor and a liberal arts foundation, social justice issues worldwide, and a life of service. Students of all faiths are welcome at Jesuit institutions, and I believe that most students feel quite comfortable there, even if they are not Catholic.

Turning to a different faith-based tradition, Hawai‘i has a branch of Brigham Young University, operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a perfect locale just north of Honolulu. Its approximately 2,500 undergraduates drawn from 70 countries study in a relatively strict Mormon intellectual, ethical, and social setting, as we described in Episode 34 about the Rocky Mountain region’s Brigham Young University campuses in Utah and Idaho.

Moving on to another faith-based tradition, or perhaps more like a philosophy-based tradition, we have Soka University of America (SUA), located in Aliso Viejo in Orange County, California—a short drive from the beach. “Proudly founded upon the Buddhist principles of peace, human rights and the sanctity of life, SUA offers a non-sectarian curriculum” and welcomes students of all beliefs (quoted from the website).   With tuition of about $29,000, SUA offers full tuition scholarships to eligible students whose annual family income is $60,000 or less.

Soka means “to create value.” The mission of SUA is to “foster a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life” (quoted from the website). Soka schools—from kindergarten through college in Japan—are based on the work of a Japanese educator, imprisoned by Japanese authorities for opposing World War II and defending religious freedom. The education society that he founded is now one of the world’s largest Buddhist organizations made up of laypersons.

Founded in 1987, SUA has just about 400 undergraduate students and a handful of graduate students today—about half from the U.S. All undergraduates earn a B.A. in Liberal Arts, with a concentration in Environmental Studies, Humanities, International Studies, or Social and Behavioral Sciences. All students study abroad for one semester of their junior year, after four courses of language study in their choice of Chinese, French, Japanese, or Spanish—a required international perspective.

Finally, let’s look at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, just north of Los Angeles. If you ever see its gorgeous campus perched high above the Pacific Ocean, you will never forget it. Pepperdine describes itself as “a Christian university committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values, where students are strengthened for lives of purpose, service and leadership” (quoted from the website). Founded in 1937, George Pepperdine spoke to students with these words that still guide the University:

There are many good colleges and universities which can give you standard academic training, but if our school does not give you more than that, it really has no reason to exist. The great difference between this college and other colleges is that we are endeavoring to place adequate emphasis and greater stress upon religious teaching and Christian character. We want to present to you, in teaching and example, the Christian way of life. We do not compel you to accept it. You are free to make your own choice, but we want you to know what it is. (quoted from the website)

Today, Pepperdine’s approximately 3,200 undergraduates (by the way, there are graduate programs in five schools as well) study in 44 majors in Seaver College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, after a common core of 19 liberal arts courses, including three required religion courses: one on the Old Testament, one on the New Testament, and one on Christianity’s influences on culture (for example, the arts, education, social issues, and law). There are more than 115 student organizations and 17 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams to keep students busy. More than 60 percent study abroad at one of six Pepperdine facilities—in Buenos Aires, Florence, Heidelberg, Lausanne, London, and Shanghai. There is also a Washington, D.C., facility for “study abroad at home.”

Entering freshmen post an average high school GPA of 3.6 or a bit higher and SAT scores of about 625 to 650 on each of three subtests. About 55 percent of students come from California (maybe because not many kids from across the U.S. have seen Malibu yet). Tuition is hefty at $48,000 per year, but that view of the Pacific might be worth it.

3. Colleges That Change Lives

As we have said in several earlier episodes, Colleges That Change Lives is a nonprofit organization that was founded after the publication of the book Colleges That Change Lives, by Loren Pope, a retired New York Times education editor. There are now 44 colleges and universities profiled in the book and on the organization’s website. Those that are included are not necessarily famous institutions. Most are smaller colleges and universities that have proved to be successful at developing students both personally and academically so that they can succeed in life after their undergraduate college years.

Six of the 44 institutions profiled are located in our Far West region. You should read about them in the book or on the website to learn more about them. They are The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, which we spoke about in detail in our last episode on public colleges; the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington; Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington; St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, California; Willamette University in Salem, Oregon; and Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Let’s focus on Reed for a moment and its approximately 1,400 undergraduate students studying in 40 majors (there are also some graduate students). Long known as a nontraditional college for smart students, Reed has been committed to a liberal arts education since its founding in 1908 from the estates of Oregon pioneers Simeon and Amanda Reed. Its freshmen take a year-long interdisciplinary humanities course, its juniors sit for a qualifying exam in their major, and its seniors write an original research or artistic thesis and defend it orally. Feedback from professors to students in their courses is through narrative comments rather than through traditional grades.

Reed is characterized by free thinking, lack of rules and regulations, its Honor Principle that governs both academic and social life, and small classes with open discussion. About 70 percent of its students go on to graduate or professional school, and about 25 percent go on to earn a Ph.D.

Reed offers club sports and outdoor programs, but no varsity sports. It does offer a wide variety of student organizations, funded by a student vote. Its incoming freshmen boast an average high school GPA of 3.9 and a pair of SAT subtest scores around 700—so these are bright kids in an intriguing and free-spirited academic environment. Almost 30 percent of students are from underrepresented minority groups, and about 50 percent come from the Far West states. Undergraduate tuition and fees are admittedly super high at about $50,000 per year.

Because these Colleges That Change Lives institutions are relatively small and thus are not particularly well known outside of their geographic region, it is my feeling that out-of-state students with a good high school record might have a good chance of being accepted (though that would need to be a really great high school record to be admitted to Reed).

4. Other Private Colleges

Of course, there are still more private colleges in these Far West states, especially in California—indeed, too many to discuss here. But I would like to mention one well-known consortium of colleges, The Claremont Colleges. Founded on the vision of James A. Blaisdell in 1925, The Claremont Colleges are described this way in Blaisdell’s own words:

My own very deep hope is that instead of one great, undifferentiated university, we might have a group of institutions divided into small colleges — somewhat of an Oxford type — around a library and other utilities which they would use in common. In this way I should hope to preserve the inestimable personal values of the small college while securing the facilities of the great university.

Blaisdell’s vision, which tries to have the best of both worlds, produced today’s consortium of five colleges—Pomona College, founded in 1887 and the founding college of this consortium almost five decades later; Scripps College in 1926; Claremont McKenna College in 1946; Harvey Mudd College in 1955; and Pitzer College in 1963—plus two graduate institutions and a support services entity. The colleges are located in Claremont, about 35 miles inland from Los Angeles—“within an hour of the Pacific Ocean, the Mojave Desert, the San Gabriel Mountains and the city of Los Angeles,” as the website boasts.

With a total enrollment of about 7,700 students, each college has its own campus within the same one square mile and its own students, but students are able to take a significant number of courses from the 2,500 offered across the five colleges or even to major in something at another of the five colleges. Here are the thumbnail descriptions of the five institutions:

  • Pomona College offers its 1,600 students a liberal arts curriculum, with 47 majors and a focus on the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. It has an attractive 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Despite its small size, it offers 21 varsity sports teams and over 220 student organizations.
  • Scripps College is a liberal arts college for just under 1,000 women; about 30 percent are students of color. Scripps offers 65 majors, a required Core Curriculum of three challenging interdisciplinary humanities courses, and a required senior thesis. It fields 21 varsity sports teams in collaboration with its consortium mates Claremont McKenna College and Harvey Mudd College.
  • Claremont McKenna College—once Claremont Men’s College, but now coeducational—offers its 1,300 students a liberal arts curriculum with 33 majors and a focus on economics, government, and international relations. It also has an attractive 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio.       About 90 percent of its students have an internship during their college years.
  • Harvey Mudd College offers majors in just six fields—biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics, plus a few joint majors—but also requires a humanities course and a writing course of all students. Since 1963, its Clinic Program has engaged juniors and seniors in solving real-world problems for industry clients. Harvey Mudd has a student body of just about 800 undergraduates.
  • Pitzer College offers its 1,000 students about 40 fields of study in an “interdisciplinary liberal arts education emphasizing social justice, intercultural understanding and environmental sensitivity” (quoted from the website). Students are expected to engage in community service and are given the freedom to create their own academic programs; there are no traditional core course requirements. About 75 percent of Pitzer students study abroad.

The SAT subtest scores of entering freshmen at The Claremont Colleges are strong—about 680 to 735 across the board. In 2003, however, Pitzer adopted a test-optional admission policy “following a study that proved that there was no direct correlation between academic success at Pitzer and standardized testing. Since Pitzer stopped requiring the SAT or ACT for admission, the campus has seen a 58 percent increase in diversity, an 8 percent increase in GPA, and a 39 percent increase in applicants with a 10 percent increase in retention. The College has also doubled the number of students from low income, first generation backgrounds” (quoted from the website). And that is all quite impressive.

Tested or not, students at The Claremont Colleges are smart. For example, about 40 percent of the incoming freshmen in the Class of 2018 at Harvey Mudd were valedictorians or salutatorians of their high school class. Students at the five colleges pay about $46,000 to $49,000 annually in tuition and fees for the privilege of attending this unique consortium.

If we had more time, I might talk about Occidental College in Los Angeles or Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland, California—two more private liberal arts colleges that are worth a look.

5. Looking Back

I am struck by how difficult it appears for students to get into the private colleges we talked about in this episode. Some have always been very selective, but others have gotten increasingly so in the past two or three decades. I usually think that students from outside a region with decent, but not outstanding, grades might have a better shot at getting into a college than comparable students within the region. But I am not sure that is the case here. What I do know is that there are some great choices on the West Coast that are worth thinking hard about if you have a child who has done really well in high school. Otherwise, some of the faith-based institutions and some of the Colleges That Change Lives might give your good, but not great, student a chance to enjoy the West.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why some faith-based colleges could be a surprisingly interesting choice
  • What colleges a kid might actually be able to get into these days
  • How interesting the vision for The Claremont Colleges turned out to be

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

Outside of New York State

Learn more about these topics in previous episodes…

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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

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