Friday, May 28, 2010

Put Tools to Use in Figuring Financial Aid

Starting in fall 2011, the federal government has mandated that colleges make available more sophisticated financial aid calculators to help determine actual costs of college. Today, only about 26 percent of students or their families use such calculators.

According to a recent poll of high school students, families aren't doing their homework, early enough in the process, to make rational decisions about financial aid. As a result, some students don't even try for certain colleges, believing they can't afford them. On the other hand, a majority of students (and their families) seem ready to "stretch" financially for a school that offers what they perceive as worth a higher cost.

Take a look at the poll; it offers a number of reminders of ways to approach this important element of the admissions process.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

When Reality Starts to Intrude

Our teen has not been shielded from money discussions, which grew more frequent over the past few years as the consultant/freelancer parent saw income take a nosedive. Our high school freshman also knows there is money set aside for school: she will have plenty of options.

Her parents are pretty practical. But we also want her to enjoy learning a range of subjects. After all, that's the joy and value of a good liberal arts education. It will be up to her to decide how to balance finding something she cares about with making a living.

Here's a take on the issue from a brand new college graduate.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Effort and Grit Trump IQ

There's a University of Pennsylvania study that seems to make the rounds every now and again about the fact that discipline and hard work enable students to outperform those with higher IQs. The Boston Globe ran a fairly detailed article about the study and others that point to success coming from perserverance and practice as much as intelligence.

As high school students begin their exams and look ahead to college, it's important for them to remember that the grit gene is just as important as the smart gene. Consistency is not simply a virtue. Often, it's also a game winner.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

For Inspiration, Try a Graduation

Yesterday we attended our niece's graduation from medical school. There can't be a better, more effective lesson in the power of determination mixed with commitment to a particular future.

The commencement speaker was a graduate of Pitt Med herself, and she had a great story to tell. A first-generation American, Nadine Gracia was brought up by well-educated parents who could only get relatively menial jobs once they came to the U.S. But as Dr. Gracia made clear, they did those jobs in an exemplary fashion because they believed in doing things right -- and setting an example. Gracia graduated with honors from Stanford, went to Pitt for medical training, did pediatrics research at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and then was named one of 14 White House Fellows in 2008-2009 during which she served as a policy advisor to First Lady Michelle Obama. Today she is chief medical officer for the Office of Public Health and Science.

Gracia related how she still had doubts -- was she doing the right thing, did she pick the right specialty and was it worthwhile working for the government? Then came the earthquake in Haiti -- and she was able to use her medical skills, French and clout of the U.S. government to make a difference in the lives of many Haitians in those early days after the quake.

Gracia's life story is astounding -- and she isn't even 40 yet. Our teen listened raptly.

I'm thinking that attending college-and-above graduations just might be an important element of the teen years. It's a reminder of what's beyond the headaches and hassles, fears and tears, of the college admissions process.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Freshman Year Danger Signs

As those of us with high school freshmen are about to see our teens go through the last sprint of projects and finals, we're probably feeling relief they survived this first phase. Or maybe we are worried to death about poor performance this year -- and what it bodes.

Family Circle does a really good job on dealing with teen issues and school. I didn't realize 1.2 million drop out every year, or about 7,000 a day. A particularly vulnerable time is between ninth and tenth grades.

So we all need to pay attention. Let's never be smug. Make sure the right classes are being taken that will enable students to reach their goal and that they are going to class. If there was a problem with a particular class, or overall academic performance in freshman year, don't dismiss it as a natural part of the adjustment period. Look into tutors or online classes as a way to strengthen any weaknesses.

And most important, as the article says, maintain high expectations. Discuss them frequently. But don't turn those high hopes into commandmants. Instead, make those expectations as much a part of life as breathing, eating and sleeping: those things we need to do for ourselves for a decent, quality life.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Spotlight on Liars and Fools

Most people have probably already heard about the oh-so-clever young man, Adam Wheeler, who managed to get into Harvard with fake transcripts. His story is pathetic on so many levels.

Why did anyone have to lie so much? Was it a game, was he just begging to get caught? How did Harvard miss so many signs (including an MIT freshman year transcript with straight As -- except MIT doesn't give letter grades freshman year.) Didn't he just look too fabulous to anyone?

Here are just some of the troubling issues this incident raises:
1. Is Wheeler an anomaly or does the admissions process, including parental pressure, drive students to lie?
2. Wheeler had scholarships, money that didn't go to deserving students; does this happen often?
3. Harvard so expects incredible applications that it seems to have disabled the fraud antennae; is this the case at other desirable schools, too?
4. Lying is so prevalent -- has it always been this way but it just wasn't as easy to catch? Look at Richard Blumenthal, the man who's running for U.S. Senate in Connecticut and who has stated in the past that he was a Vietnam vet when he wasn't.

Oh well, Wheeler shouldn't be too depressed. There's bound to be a movie about his shenanigans one day.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Admissions Pressure in Novel Form

I felt I had to do it -- read Karen Stabiner's novel, Getting In, about five families in the Los Angeles area who are determined to get their children into top schools. Stabiner is a fine writer who uses lots of funny and pointed detail, and she even blogs about college issues for the Huffington Post. But the book is making me really dread this process.

A friend whose daughter got into a great school told me to take it with a grain of salt. My own common sense tells me it's a novel, for pete's sake. There's often drama and exaggeration in this literary form. I'm still depressed.

Then I read an article on stress in the workplace. One of the chief culprits is performance reviews.

Isn't the college admissions process like an unrelenting 30-month-or-so performance review? I guess our teens survive and for the most part are better for it. But I am worried about second-hand stress on me.

As parents of a freshman, we have barely entered the fray. Guess I am reading too many scary stories, such as Getting In, before bed time. I need to get over it, right?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Do Campus Looks Count?

How important is architecture when it comes to picking colleges? I wondered about that when I read an article on campus architecture. It's written for college administrators, suggesting points to consider when it's time to build. If the campus is old, should an effort be made to create old Ivy by planting a new and similar looking building? And as a place of advanced learning in the business of opening minds, should a college completely ignore the fine and dramatic work of today's architects? Or is there a middle ground?

It's an interesting question. I do remember falling in love with the feel of campuses during college tours, or even certain elements. A lovely (as defined by the prospective student) campus just seemed to be part of the whole college experience.

At the risk of sounding like Prince Charles, I did see something recently that just didn't work for me. I am from Baltimore and always thought the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus was lovely with its classic brick buildings surrounded by green lawns. I know there have been a number of new buidings installed over the past decades, but I just recently noticed the Mattin Center. It seemed to block the vistas, at least from a major street leading right up to the campus.

I sympathize with trying to build in a city, in limited space, but the Mattin Center, home of the arts for JHU, seems instead to be anti-arts.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wasted Deposits = Opportunities?

I just learned about "summer melt", and no, it isn't the hot weather version of a sandwich classic. It's when students who paid deposits to attend a college decide to go elsewhere. With applications up at so many schools this year and students putting down deposits while they wait to hear from wait list schools, there's likely to be more summer melt than previously.

This might mean that more financial aid is available. Of the accepted students who decide not to attend, a good portion probably received financial aid offers. So now, the unclaimed money is back in the pool. There's no harm in an accepted student contacting the financial aid office to make a case for more aid -- and mentioning if there has been a change in circumstances (parent's job loss, etc.)

As of earlier this month, there were 240 colleges still accepting students because they hadn't met their desired enrollment levels.

There are still opportunities out there.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Are We Raising the Homogenized Generation?

When is the packaging of a student too much? I am wondering about that more and more. I understand putting the best foot forward, playing to strengths, enabling colleges to understand what thoughtful, probing little gems our teens are through astoundingly perceptive essays. But the more I read, the scarier the process seems. Are the parents to blame for a good part of the pressure our teens feel in high school?

I'm going to buy Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2006. In an interview in The New York Times around the time it was published, one of the authors, Marilee Jones, said, "We are raising children to please adults, and that's unprecedented. We're training them to put their focus outside of themselves, to make them measure up to everybody else's standards, and that's a huge mistake." She added, "The solution is to give kids more freedom, teach them how to create, set up systems for them to fail and to bounce back.”

It may be time for some serious introspection.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

GED Is No Answer If Your Child Doesn't Finish High School

Graduating from high school is so essential to success in life. But most of us probably see this important passage as simply a preliminary step into college.

But what if a teen doesn't graduate? Well, I suspect we'd hope the young adult would have the moxie to get a GED, which I thought stood for General Equivalency Degree but which really stands for General Education Development. If a person passes the eight-hour test, it is considered the same as a high school diploma.

Unfortunately, it isn't. Nobel Prize winner James J. Heckman has done a study that shows only 31 percent then enroll in college, with most going to two-year colleges. There, 77 percent last just one semester and then drop out. They earn an average of $30,855 a year -- about the same as high school drop outs when various non-schooling related issues are taken into account, such as household background. Here's more information about this depressing situation.

Yes, high school graduation is a ticket that has to be punched. But it's far more than that. It's an indicator of future potential and opportunity that the GED can't grant -- at least as it works now.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Financial Literacy Important, Too

Our teen's high school has a practical arts requirement, which is fine. Students have to take courses such as word processing, publishing, computer-assisted design, etc., in order to graduate. But I think there's one course that ought to be mandatory for all -- basic personal finance.

When some kids, or their parents, are taking on substantial debt to attend college, I wonder if the students understand the ramifications? Do they know how to weigh the value of the education vs. cost? Do they consider looking at a public college in order to make their start in adult life less stressful, more open to opportunities? There's no right or wrong decision as far as these life questions go, but it would be helpful if there were a base of knowledge.

In late 2009, FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), released the first comprehensive study of financial literacy in the U.S. Commissioned by the Department of the Treasury, the report found that most Americans do not plan ahead, whether having a rainy day account for emergencies or funds for anticipated events such as children’s college education or their own retirement. Nor do they understand elementary financial concepts.

And if parents don't understand the basics, who will teach the children the ABCs of personal finance?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

ACT vs. SAT -- What's the Diff?

All the schools I applied to wanted the SAT. I assumed that still held. Boy, was I wrong. There's a big business in testing, and in deciding which tests to take.

I had no idea that, according to Fortune, the octogenarian SAT and the boomer ACT (born in 1959) are fighting for college test supremacy. In 2009, the tests were taken equally, with most schools accepting either test.

Some teens take both -- and experts think that is a waste of time and money. A better idea is to find which test plays to the student's strengths. A counselor at our teen's school described the SAT as more strategy-focused, while the ACT is more content-driven. Some test-prep organizations give diagnostic tests in both SAT and ACT to help you and your teen determine which one to concentrate on.

Or start simply. Take the PSAT and the PLAN (pre-ACT) in sophomore year to see not only which scores are higher but which test seems most comfortable.

Here's a good overview of the issue. It offers useful information, including a comparison of the two tests.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Go to College? Is It Really for the Money?

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke addressed the graduating class of the University of South Carolina Saturday, telling the students,"We all know that getting a better-paying job is one of the main reasons to go to college....But if you are ever tempted to go into a field or take a job only because the pay is high and for no other reason, be careful!"

Pretty basic -- and close to what our parents may have said to us years ago. But many of us probably aren't offering such advice today, given the recent money scares, concern about outliving one's money, even the cost of college for our children's children. That's sensible, but a shame.

When I was in my senior year of college, I contacted many newspapers, eager to be hired as a reporter. I was an English major who wanted to write. I never even thought about how much money I would make. Another close friend joined VISTA and then taught for 30 years, yet another was committed to work in a museum, and she did. Money clearly wasn't top of mind.

The point here -- to echo Bernanke -- is that you're better off finding something you love to do. In the long run, you'll make up in satisfaction and personal achievement what you may not have gained in dollars.

That's easy for me to say; I certainly don't practice what I suggest. Money is important and we do need some level of assets, not debt, to help us achieve a satisfying life that isn't weighed down with money worries. So maybe the best thing we can do for our teens is to give them the tools to figure out, in general terms, how to balance the idealistic and practical.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Pressure on State Colleges to Serve Their Own

In many ways it is good news that 70 percent of the high school class of 2009 nationwide went on to college. It is causing undeniable capacity issues, however, in the schools long thought to be the good safe choice for students: in-state public colleges.

What's a public state college to do? There are constant reminders -- in the media, by counselors and others -- that out-of-state public schools are worth considering. And they are. Good facililties at a fair price. Also, bringing in students from the outside provides a more diverse experience, different perspectives -- all the things that are a valuable part of the college years. The other important benefit is out-of-staters are charged considerably more, helpful when state governments are cutting education budgets.

But if you read this, you'll understand the flip side issue. Bringing out-of-staters in means in-state kids who'd planned on attending can't get a slot. According to this opinion piece, the University of Maryland reserves a third of its freshman class for non-Maryland students. Towson University, the second largest state school in Maryland, gives 28 percent to kids who hail mostly from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

That's a blow to parents paying taxes that support these state schools, and to the teens who thought that if their applications were reasonably competitive that they would get in. The upshot is that these teens might be forced to go to a private school (or ironically, an out-of-state public school), at greater financial hardship for the family.

It's ugly out there.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thinking Back

When I was looking at colleges for me, I had a rather large collection of pre-set notions. I didn't want to stay in state, let alone in town. An all-women's college in the north was preferable to an all-women's college in the south. The best co-ed school trumped the best same-sex one. My reactions to these schools were usually based on chemistry supported by a few facts.

We visited every college I applied to, with the exception of Hobart-William Smith in New York's Finger Lakes region. I attended a get-acquainted session in Baltimore. When asked why I might want to attend, I responded with the usual stuff. Then I threw in, for good measure, that it would be wonderful to be close to Manhattan. My hometown was closer to Manhattan than Hobart! Had I gone there, I would have been forced to take remedial geography.

I suspect we all make major decisions with highly customized sets of biases and blind spots. As we get older we usually add a little more knowledge and logic to the process. Or sometimes we don't.

At least today's teens have much more information available to help them build their lists of possible college targets. But in the end, as with most decisions, gut takes over.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

More on Summer Programs

So, let's talk about summer again. This time the prompt came from a reader who wanted to know about those on-campus pre-college summer programs. She wanted to know if they were worth the big bucks, what summer would be the most optimal (after sophomore or junior year) and whether participation could help in getting into that particular college.

Here's a response from a guidance counselor I know.

"Summer programs are a great way for students to get involved in the college atmosphere while in high school. I would consider these programs if your child has a deep interest in what the program provides. I have many students going to FIT for programs in advertising, sales and manufacturing of clothing, because that’s what they love. It is important for the students to ask around or talk to their counselors about a program first, though, as part of a vetting process.

"These summer programs have very little to do with getting into that particular school, BUT it shows all colleges the willingness to work and grow in a certain field which makes a very big difference in admissions. It doesn’t have to be the most prestigious school or cost the most. Colleges want to see high school students doing something rather than nothing, especially over the summer and that’s not just limited to college programs."

And here's another take on these programs. This post suggests attending one of these programs after junior year as a way to prep for college but also points out that college admissions staff don't place high value on attending; instead they think jobs, volunteering and other learning opportunities are just as important.

There's a commonsense consensus -- these programs may be fine if pricey but there are many other worthwhile (and admissions-beneficial) ways for teens to spend their summers.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Godsend Thy Name Is Naviance

During freshman orientation last fall, we heard in passing about Naviance. But there were more pressing things to absorb that night so we forgot about it. Now, though, it's time to pay attention.

According to its website, Naviance serves more than 70,000 educators and five million students in 72 countries, providing study plans and college information. I guess you could call it a dashboard for the admissions process.

About a month ago I asked a knowledgeable mom what college directories her family used. She explained that today it's all about Naviance. Here's her executive summary on this service. "Naviance is a robust system that enables the student to input classes taken, grades received, SAT scores etc. Then the student can fill in desired attributes for a college: big school, liberal arts, engineering, rural, city, etc., and it then provides a list of the schools that meet the criteria. It even reports if the school is a target, reach or safety.

"It also tells you the number of students from your high school who applied to the specific schools you are applying to, what there credentials were and if they got in or not. Once you apply to your schools it also tracks when the SAT scores, transcripts and recommendations were sent."

Start getting to know Naviance this summer -- and urge your teen to do so, too. It's an amazing tool.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Impressive Skills Displayed in School Paper

Strictly speaking, this post isn't about college admissions. But it is about demonstrable evidence of the skills it takes to succeed in college.

I looked closely at our teen's high school newspaper over the weekend and was impressed by the good reporting, well-argued opinion pieces, clever satires and informative profiles. The paper -- in writing, graphics, layout, topics -- showed a commitment to high standards and a perspective that goes beyond the school's walls.

A good school paper is also a reminder that news doesn't just from the Internet and that it can be far more than quick snippets designed to titillate rather than educate. This paper offers a fine refection of the school and its students. The paper's staff and advisers should be proud.