Sunday, March 15, 2009

Seeking Good College Values

Juniors are now moving into the college research and selection part of the college admission process. There are many factors to consider, but clearly an important one is cost. Sometimes this gets overlooked by students as they seek “name” colleges; and at other times it becomes a limiting factor because students (and parents) think anything but state institutions are out of range.

It is not unusual for me to meet with a student and his or her parents after college applications have been sent to a list of selective and expensive colleges – seemingly picked from someone’s list of “best of” – and hear of their anxiety about being able to afford any of the choices, even if accepted.

The first thing to keep in mind is that though all colleges are different, and contrary to what the “rankings” pretend to reflect, there is little difference in educational quality among most colleges, and much greater difference in approach and environment.

Another scenario that comes through my office is the student (and family) that clearly would benefit from a small liberal arts environment but has limited his or her choices to large state institutions because of cost.

The second important consideration in seeking god college value is to know that many private colleges have endowments designated to help attract students through merit scholarships. Even in these uncertain economic times, many colleges plan to maintain or increase these funds in order to sustain enrollment. This “half a loaf is better than none at all” mentality will mean that good students will still find themselves being awarded merit scholarships.

Keep in mind that scholarships are used to attract, and keep, good students, and that those (selective and well-ranked) colleges that get many more applications from strong students than can be admitted do not give many awards. But, because there is not a huge quality difference between those colleges and those that want more of those strong applicants, students should be looking to those “lesser known” colleges to provide opportunities for affordability.

Thus, since quality need not be as significant a concern as one is led to believe, and since scholarships are available from good quality but lesser known colleges, students need to step outside the bounds of the “known” colleges and look more broadly and deeply for some great options, both educationally and economically. It is not necessarily, and sometimes not monetarily (and educationally), wise to constrict one’s college options because of reputation or sticker price.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Importance of College Visits

As the college admission season wanes for seniors, it begins in full for juniors at this time of year. The endless talk about college acceptances and rejections and the process of making a final choice trickles down to the juniors from above and they begin to think about their potential choices.

The most important aspect for students in making a good choice about which colleges to add to and keep on a list is the college visit. Many facts, and myths, abound about colleges, and students need to keep in mind that they are selecting a college that will suit them for their continuing education. I caution students about making a college choice by “default” – choosing a college just “because” it’s the state university; it has a big-time sports program; it is highly selective; etc. Not that a student will end up in a bad situation resulting from a decision based on these or any other perceived quality, but because the purpose of attending college is an education, a student must dig deeper to find the true characteristics and qualities that will fit him or her and allow the best learning experience. The chance of finding that enriching intellectual and career-preparing four-year collegiate experience is much more likely when there is good research to back up the decision. And because the cost of a college education is expensive, it is worth a student making sure that it is money well-spent.

THE best way to do this is to make a visit to a college and see for oneself what it offers. Just as one wouldn’t marry a person based on reputation, a student should “date” a college some before deciding if it is the right match; and a college visit is a key component of that “dating” experience.

A good visit should be more than just the perfunctory information session and tour. Students and parents need to keep in mind that those are essentially marketing tools for colleges – means to encourage students that the college is a great place to go to school. One must go beyond those general experiences and get a clearer sense of the personality of the college. Here is a link to a wonderful piece on how to “Test Drive” a college – Doing these ten things will give a student a great sense of how good a match a particular college might be and will empower his or her decision.

For further tools or information about visiting college, please feel free to contact