What I Wish People Knew About Going to College

Recently my favorite blogger Swistle had been writing about the college search process as her oldest son has starting looking at schools. It has been fascinating for me to read about how parents approach this process as I am usually on the other side, trying to figure out what will entice a student to be interested in the college I work for.

For almost 20 years, I’ve worked in higher education. I’ve worked for big universities (35,000+ students), small private colleges (1400 students), community colleges, and for one very uncomfortable week, a for-profit school. I started as an admissions counselor and am now a college vice president for student affairs, which means I oversee everything from admissions to financial aid to advising/counseling– basically if it has to do with a college and doesn’t involve the classroom, that’s my gig.

I often blog about my experiences with parenting or body image stuff. These are areas where I’m still trying to figure things out. I decided tonight that maybe it would be fun to write about something I actually do know a lot about: the college search process. So, I’m going to do that but with the major caveat that these are MY opinions and not those of any current or former employers (whose names I’m not gonna mention anyways). Behold my subjective list of things I wish all families knew about getting into college/university (I’m just going to say college for the rest of this, but assume universities are included):

  1. There is no such thing as a perfect college: There are literally thousands of post-secondary institutions in the US. The range in size from under 100 students to almost 50,000. While there are clear differences between the student experience at a small private liberal arts (SPLAC) college and a big public university, there isn’t nearly as much difference from one big public to another. They are far more similar than they are different. I 100% believe that people who have a great experience at a particular school could probably also have had a great experience at another. College often ends up being defined by the relationships you make there, far more than anything that is structural to the school itself. Even students who think they’ve found the perfect school are often wrong. Nearly 1/3 college will transfer at some point in their experience. So, what’s the take away? RELAX. Focus on choosing the right TYPE of college for your kid (small vs big, public vs private) and know that there is a chance they’ll want to transfer eventually anyways.
  2. Extracurricular activities aren’t actually that important: Okay, so here is the truth. The VAST majority of colleges aren’t that selective for admissions. If your kid wants to go to Harvard, then yes, extra curriculars matter. But if you are looking at a public university or a less selective SPLAC, whether you get admitted or not is really about the academic record: does the kid have a GPA of 2.5 or higher? Did they take 4 years of math and English? Done. When I worked at a large public university, I was also involved in the scholarship awarding process and guess what– that was also a total numbers game. GPA + ACT/SAT scores + Number of AP classes= scholarship.  So, yes, your kid should do extracurriculars in high school, IF they enjoy them. But don’t do it as a way to play the college game unless they are driven to go to the 10% of colleges that are selective for admissions.
  3. The truth about scholarships: There is this pervasive myth that drives me crazy when it comes to colleges and it is “there are so many scholarships out there.” The truth about scholarships is that there are many out there but the majority of students aren’t going to be competitive or eligible for them. There are two kinds of scholarships: ones provided by the school and external awards. The school based ones vary from school to school in terms of the criteria for awarding and whether or not they are need or merit based (need in terms of financial aid versus academic merit). Some schools will automatically review all students for eligibility, some require a separate app. This is a thing to put on your “questions to ask list”. For external awards, some of them will have incredibly specific criteria (the tall scholarship is one of my personal faves) and some will be very general. Is it worth applying for them? Depends. An average student (GPA 3.0-3.5 or below) is probably not going to see a lot of return on investment for doing lots of scholarship apps unless they are in a very specific pool for a very specific scholarship.
  4. There is a good chance nobody will read your kid’s application: Most admissions decisions at larger schools are made by computers, not people. When I was an admissions counselor, I would get over 10,000 applications from my territory. I actually reviewed about 250-400 per year. I reviewed the very very top for scholarships and the handful that were *JUST* on the cusp of being admissible by the computer. The rest I never saw. A computer algorithm made the admissions decision for me.
  5. Financial Aid: Every US citizen is eligible to apply for financial aid via the Free Application For Financial Aid (FAFSA). There are three types of aid that get awarded via FAFSA: Pell Grants, loans, and work-study. Pell grants don’t have to be paid back and are awarded to students with a low EFC (expected family contribution). Loans include subsidized and unsubsidized student loans and parent loans. Work-study is basically money a student could earn, if they took on a campus job. Everyone gets something but middle class and higher families may find that they only qualify for parent and unsubsidized loans. You still need to fill out the FAFSA as many schools will look at that info to determine scholarship eligibility.
  6. EFC: Let’s talk about this a little more. Your EFC is determined by a couple of factors: family income (as reported to the IRS), family size, and certain assets (investment and savings accounts are looked at, home equity and retirement accounts are not). Your EFC doesn’t include any considerations for how much debt you have, what your monthly expenses are, or how much money you WANT to contribute to your kid’s college expenses. It is an imperfect system in some ways (yes, it does sort of punish those who have saved more versus those with no assets) but it is what we have. Private colleges often look at the EFC and the total financial aid award and determine if there are ways to bridge the gap between those numbers for strong applicants.
  7. Loans: I’m of the school of thought that loans are, for most families, a necessary evil. In many ways, taking out a student loan is a pragmatic decision. People with college degrees earn, on average, nearly a million dollars more over the course of their working life than someone with just a high school degree. So, is taking on $25,o00 in debt worth it? Most people say yes. That being said, there are big exceptions to my general belief that loans aren’t the end of the world:
    1. Parent loans are no bueno: If you have a student college age, you are probably approaching the age when saving for retirement needs to be a priority. If you have to take out a parent loan, the college you are looking at is too expensive for you.
    2. Private loans: If you don’t get enough money in federal loans to make attending a school doable and you begin to consider private loans, look again at my first point and choose a more affordable school. Private loans are how students finish a bachelor’s degree with over $100,000 in debt.
    3. Be mindful of major: When I worked at the SPLAC, I often cringed at the number of students going into majors like social work and elementary education who were attending a college that cost over $40,000 a year. I am ALL FOR people going into the helping professions but am deeply concerned by students who will exit with loan debt that is higher than the median salary range for their field.
  8. Consider what you think the point of college is: Is college a place to get training for a job? A place to make a transition into adulthood? A place to make future connections (e.g. spouses and networking)? Getting the “college experience”? The stepping stone to graduate or professional school? The answers to these questions are SUPER important. If getting a degree to be more employable is the goal, there are affordable ways to do that: start at the community college and then transfer to a local public university and live at home. If you are driven by the desire for your kid to have “the college experience”, you are probably going to pay more for that.
  9. Students need to have skin in the game: Students who don’t pay for college are students who feel no sense of urgency to finish. Make them responsible for at least part of the costs. A good approach here is to have students make small loan payments every month while they are in school. This helps not only keep the loan from building quite as high (especially those that accrue interest while the student is in school) but also reminds the student that they are paying for this experience so they maintain a sense of urgency about finishing.
  10. Not every kid should go to college right away: In the course of my career I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve seen who are only at college because it is the thing you are “supposed” to do. College isn’t 13th grade. The amount of freedom offered makes it very easy for an unmotivated kid to slip through the cracks. We, as a country, really should embrace the gap year concept. Some students would do much better to wait a year or two and then starting college. A year or two of working at the kind of job an 18 year old gets without a college degree can be a great motivator to think seriously about what they want to get out of college.
  11. Community colleges are a valid choice: Community colleges are a terrific choice for a lot of students. I wish that more middle class families were open to the idea of them, either for transfer or for vocational degrees. There are GREAT career options open in technical and vocational fields and many people don’t consider them for no other reason than snobbery.

I realize, now that I’ve started this, that I could write probably many blog posts about this. But in the interest of this not being ridiculously long, I’ll wrap it up here and do that annoying thing of ending a post with a question: what do you want to know about getting a kid (or adult, really) into college? Or about succeeding in college?

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10 thoughts on “What I Wish People Knew About Going to College

  1. Gretchen Meyer says:

    I wish everybody who has a student looking at college would read this, print it out, post it on the fridge, and look at it every single day. You really laid it out – good job!

  2. Kristen says:

    I recently started teaching at a college and it is such an eye-opener. Love the community college advise as well as the gap year idea. I see so many freshman who are just lost little lambs and are very unclear about why they are on campus in the first place. I would love to hear more about what helps students succeed in college, what skills can we help students develop. We have a long time before we have to think about college as a family (ha 15 years), but I love seeing these conversations. Thanks for your writing!

  3. HillaryMN says:

    Yes, this was AWESOME. Thank you so much. My older kid has already decided on community college (thank goodness), but my younger one (8th grade next year) is still undecided (and appropriately so!) – she swings between wanting to be a computer programmer and a novelist, but I think she’s going to trend toward a 4 year liberal arts college. In her early high school years, what’s the best thing to focus on to keep her options open? It sounds like GPA (rather than extracurricular activities, volunteering etc), am I right? Also, she is most likely going to a small charter high school and won’t have AP classes during the school year. Will I need to look at other options for her to do AP classes (online, summer school), or will she still have options without them? Can PSEO classes stand in for AP classes? Thanks again for this.

  4. Jesabes says:

    I want to know the best way to save! I seem to remember from the comments on Swistle’s post that they way we’re doing it – individual 529 accounts for each child – will protect subsequent children from the firstborn’s college taking allllll of our money, but how should my husband and I save? Do we only get our retirement accounts? If we have cash savings when the children reach college age are they just going to vanish?

  5. Kate says:

    My oldest daughter is ten years away from college and I still found this completely fascinating. What great information!

  6. Michelle B says:

    First, I’m going to echo Jesabes – I want to know the best way to save! I have 2 young daughters, and my husband and I are in the fortunate position that we save a healthy amount each month. We’re not the kind of folks who will be able to afford 2 Ivy league educations with ease, though, so we need to be smart about it. I just don’t know where to put it, especially in a way that allows there to be money available for kid #2.

    Second, I’ve heard from several parents of college-age kids lately that they know of students who have encountered trouble by first going to community college. Apparently more and more colleges aren’t accepting many community college credits, rendering much of that effort to save money upfront moot. Have you heard of this trend?

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