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By Peter Van Buskirk

The next few days are a point of reckoning for many high school seniors. After months, if not years, of searching and sorting through college options, the choice of a college all boils down to the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date and what for many students is the $50,000 (or more!) question, “Where do I send my enrollment deposit?”

Students and parents alike are obsessed with finding the answer as is evidenced by these queries.

From a student, “Is it better to go a school that has given me a $20,000 scholarship, a summer internship opportunity and the promise of a letter of recommendation from the college president at graduation—or should I go to a ‘better’ school that hasn’t given me any of these things?”

And from a parent (unrelated), “Four schools have given our child varying amounts of scholarship assistance. How do we determine which of them represents the best ‘value?’”

In each case, the answer lies within the student. To infer otherwise is to devalue, albeit unintentionally, the young person’s goals, learning style and character. At this point in the decision-making, there are no absolutes that can be applied with certainty.

Each question—and others like them being asked in countless households around the country—seems to imply a natural order among colleges that doesn’t really exist. While it’s true that colleges differ with regard to how they engage young people educationally, the differences are most appropriately defined within the context of what the student brings to the table.

The student who couldn’t decide between an attractive package from one school and the basic offer from another “better” school was allowing the “look of the label” (read “brand name”) to influence his assessment. In essence, he was asking, “Which will look better—rather than which will work better for me?” The truth of the matter is the biggest differences between the two schools are cultural and geographic! Given his career goals and hands-on learning preference, the answer should have been clear to him.

Similarly, in asking her question, the parent was comparing brands in an attempt to lend objectivity to the choice of a college without factoring her child into the equation. Rather than asking whether College A was “worth” the difference in out-of-pocket expense to the family, she might have pursued a line of questioning that focused on her child’s comfort level with the various academic cultures and learning environments. In other words, assuming an ability to meet college costs at any of the schools, the questions might have been, “In what type of environment does my child function comfortably and, that said, where is he most likely to be meaningfully engaged such that he can achieve his educational goals?”

In assessing college options, then, it is reasonable to assume that a student is not likely to be confronted with any that are truly lacking. And, in fairness, the folks raising the questions referenced above were trying to make fine distinctions between good and valid options. They simply needed to recognize that some will fit better than others and, in order to find that fit, they needed to refocus on the students’ core priorities.

As you make your final choice of a college try to ignore the label or brand of an institution. It won’t be easy (and it probably sounds like heresy!) but, as you are probably coming to realize, the labels can be a huge distraction to your decision-making. And, believe it or not, the name of the place you choose now will carry less weight than you imagine after you have graduated from that institution. It is what you do while enrolled that gives greatest definition to your future prospects, both personally and professionally, in life. That’s why finding the best fit is so important!

Focus, then, on your objectives as well as what you have learned about the style and content of a given college’s offerings. As you do, keep the following questions in mind:

  1. Which school gives me the best opportunity to achieve my educational goals by virtue of its curriculum, faculty and facilities?
  2. In which learning environment will I be able to “do my thing” most comfortably?
  3. Which college will challenge me to develop my skills to their fullest?
  4. Where will I find a community of “scholars” that brings out the best in me as a person?
  5. Which college has demonstrated that it is most likely to invest in my success?

Think for yourself and you can’t go wrong!  Happy decision-making!

BCF Readers’ Forum III


Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

Dear Peter,
My son is waitlisted to the undergraduate engineering program at a very selective university for the fall 2017. The school reports that approximately 2,200 students asked to remain active on its Wait List and only 4 from 2,200 were ultimately accepted to the freshman class. So, it would appear the chances of a waitlisted applicant getting admitted to the University are less than 0.2%? If this info is accurate, would these waitlist probabilities be similar at other colleges?
Paul

Dear Paul,  
I must confess that I am generally very cynical about data self-reported by colleges. In particular, data derived from WL activity can be very “soft.” For example, colleges will only count as “admitted” from the WL those students who receive letters confirming the admission. The typical protocol for admitting students from the WL is for admission officers to contact them directly with a “verbal” offer. Letters of acceptance are only sent to the students who say “yes.” For example, it is not uncommon for admission officers to call 50-60 students—or more—before receiving 20 affirmative responses. The calls to students that failed to yield positive responses are not counted among the acceptances.
 
Moreover, admission data is often reported well before WL activity has been completed. While it is possible that the university in question only “accepted” four students from the WL by the time it reported its WL numbers, it is also possible that many more students were contacted and accepted after the report was submitted.
 
Having said that, the data/probabilities are likely to be similarly “soft” at other schools. I will say this, though, the WL is a dead-end for students who do not choose to remain active on it at a given school. On the other hand, those who remain active—visit the campus (again!), update their files with new information and make sure they are accessible (cell phones, emails, etc.)—have more reasonable chances of admission than they might have imagined.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son has been accepted into five colleges, each of which has offered $20,000-$25,000 in scholarship money out of about $65,000 a year tuition and board. The problem is we have no money for his college and I’m not sure he can or should get a student loan for $40,000 a year. The FASFA was based on 2016 income when our combined income was $140,000. However, my husband lost his job in 2017. Between unemployment and short-term sales jobs, he earned less than half of his 2016 income. This year looks even worse financially as my income will significantly decrease while I am out of work due to recently diagnosed health issues. How do I go about contacting the colleges and sharing my new financial situation?
Ann

Dear Ann,
I would urge you to present a detailed explanation of your evolving situation to the financial aid officers at the colleges in question and ask for an appeal of your son’s financial aid status. Any documentation you can provide regarding employment, income and medical expenses will be very important. While you might be able to accomplish the appeal by phone, I would suggest you try to accomplish the meetings in person (call in advance to make an appointment). Contact information for the financial aid offices should be found on the award letters you received from the respective institutions.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I hear from many parents that our child needs to have volunteer hours included in with her college applications. Are these necessary and, if so, to what extent? Our daughter plays high school field hockey and occasionally volunteers at the field hockey clinics offered in our area. She hasn’t expressed any interest in volunteering in other areas and, with free time being so limited due to her field hockey club practices and clinics, I wonder if she NEEDS to be more diverse in her volunteer hours for her application. I was hoping you might be able to elaborate on this.
Hal

Dear Hal,
The best thing you can do is support your daughter’s development in those areas that are of interest to her. While volunteering/community service can certainly be a valued part of an applicant’s credentials, so can talent development and leadership. I would advise your daughter to continue investing in the things that give her joy in life. If volunteering becomes one of them, great. Regardless, it is most important that she continues to grow with her involvements.

I would like to add that you might stop listening to your friends on this topic! Unless they are or have been admission officers, they have no relevant expertise and know little more than you do at this point. The “noise” that envelops the college going-process can be maddening if you don’t find a way to block it out or at least process it with perspective. Enjoy your daughter’s teenage years with her—they’ll be gone before you know it! Help her to stay true to herself as she reaches into the uncertainty of the future. And help her find colleges that will value her for that person she is becoming.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Is it a bad thing to drop a foreign language in the Senior Year if you have taken the 3 required years?
Arlene

Dear Arlene,
Much depends on the selectivity of the college in question. The more selective the college, the more important it is for a student to demonstrate breadth of curricular involvement through the senior year—and that includes language studies. If the student elects to drop a high-level course in the senior year, then the replacement course should be of the same level of academic rigor. Dropping a fourth year of Spanish for electives of less rigor is not a good idea. On the other hand, dropping it in order to take a second high-level science (for example) could be justified.

By the way, you reference “the 3 required years.” Please do not confuse requirements for HS graduation or minimum “requirements” posted by some colleges as an expression of what will be appropriate or most competitive in the college admission process.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter was accepted to two schools, each of which is requiring her enrollment overseas—one for a semester and the other for a year—before she begins as a full-time student on their respective campuses. She has been admitted to two other schools, one with a scholarship and the other without special recognition. Her goal is to go to law school and maybe get a joint degree in business (JD/MBA). She has good options but is a bit confused about the overseas study requirement. Will she have the same opportunities at those colleges as she will at the others?
Alice

Dear Alice,
The enrollment opportunities your daughter has received at the first two colleges are not traditional offers of acceptance. While she should be able to achieve her educational/career goals at those colleges, there are some practical considerations. For example, students starting in September get the full advantage of orientation programming, first-year seminars and dedicated advisement while acclimating to both the academic and social routines with their peers and professors. Students starting at mid-year or a year later are effectively entering as transfer students. Unfortunately, the “process” doesn’t stop or slow down to accommodate them.
 
I often talk about the importance of finding a college that values the student for what she has to offer. In all candor, the offer of delayed entry enrollment puts your daughter at the “back of the line” in terms of who is being valued in the entering class. She—and others who are required to begin their studies elsewhere—are effectively being “stashed” at those places. While she will be allowed to enter discreetly through the “back-door” at each institution, she won’t count as an admitted student and her credentials will not be included in the profiles of admitted students. Her eventual enrollment will, however, enable the institutions to admit fewer students (and appear to be more selective) in the following year.

That said, she can still achieve her goals at the delayed entry colleges. The study abroad opportunities notwithstanding (window dressing in my opinion), though, delayed enrollment relative to her cohort does mean she’ll be starting at a competitive disadvantage.
 
Your daughter is fortunate to have options. I would urge her to proceed with eyes wide open relative to the implications of delayed enrollment.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I know it should be up to my son to decide which school he wants to attend, but I can’t help wondering if there is more than one “best college fit” school for him?  Is it wrong of me to convince him to attend “College A” because the odds are better for him at finding a job after school?  Fundamentally, I know he has the rest of his life to work and only one chance to have a great college experience, but I can’t seem to get past the phenomenal job statistics presented by “College A”.  It would be a shame if he were to graduate and have a tough time finding a job.

However, I have a feeling that my son might have a better and happier college experience at “College B” with its large and beautiful campus, athletic teams, and more traditional approach to academics and internships.  He would probably have more fun there, too.

Do you have any advice for this mom who has been losing sleep over her dilemma?
Rose

Dear Rose,  
Even though you (and your son) are on the homestretch of this process, some of the toughest decisions are yet to be made. This is a time, however, when you have to allow him to trust his own judgment.

One thing that I learned as a parent in the process is that, hard as it might be at times, as our kids move toward adulthood, we (parents) have to give them the opportunity to find their own way. While that might go against our very nature (after all, you have spent 17 years trying to protect your son from anything bad that might come his way while giving him every opportunity to succeed), at some point you need to ask yourself, “For how long in his life do I want to the responsible for everything good—and everything bad—that might happen in his life?” Hard as it might be, I suggest giving your son the opportunity to own the decision-making and the direction his life will take as a result.
 
There is no guarantee that the choice of a college he makes will turn out to be perfect. On the other hand, I truly believe he can’t go wrong. Marketing of programs aside, there is likely very little difference between the two programs. Your son’s eventual success will be determined by his comfort level with the school he has chosen. The more comfortable he is, the more likely it is that he will avail himself of all the opportunities that will be present for him.
 
The bottom line: there is a good chance your son is ready to find his own voice in the matter. If so, he will prosper in whichever environment he chooses.
Peter

By Peter Van Buskirk

Admission decisions have been hitting in-boxes fast and furiously over the last couple of weeks. While much of the news is good, some carries with it a curious, if not confusing, announcement: “We’re pleased to offer you a place on our Wait List. Let us know if you would like to remain active on our Wait List.”

As encouraging as the words might seem, the reality is this is not an acceptance letter—nor is it a denial letter. This can be particularly jarring to students sitting at the top of their class with impressive resumes of achievement throughout their high school years. So, what is it then? It’s an invitation to participate in the college admission version of “over-time.”

If you choose the “over-time” route by electing to remain active on a WL, your chances of gaining admission are better than you might imagine! On the other hand, if you are fatigued or discouraged by the admission process and want to leave your game on the field of Regular Admission, you will have no chance in “over-time.”

The Back-Story
While selective colleges and universities have historically maintained Wait Lists as “insurance policies” against coming up “short” of their enrollment goals through Early Decision, Early Action or Regular Admission, the WL has taken on a more strategic look in recent years. No longer an insurance policy, the WL is now used to burnish institutional credentials (improve yield and increase selectivity). Think of it as “Early Decision” at the back end of the enrollment process. It is not hard to imagine strategic backroom conversations: “Why should we take so many low-yielding students—often at a yield rate of 20% or lower—in Regular Admission, when we can put them on the WL to see who is really interested? Then we can take them at a 75% yield rate.”

Setting the Stage for WL Activity
At the outset, a lot of students worthy of admission are offered WL status. While some of them might have presented flawed credentials, others are quite strong in every way. Many of the latter would have been admitted had they made stronger, more consistent demonstrations of interest throughout the admission process. The number of students offered WL status at a given college will often match the number of students it admits in Regular Decision. For example, if 2,000 students are admitted Regular Decision, then a similar number will be offered WL status.

Typically, 25%-50% of those offered WL status will take some sort of action (email, letter and/or campus visit) to signal a desire to remain active on the WL. It is this group that comprises the new applicant pool should the WL be needed. By the middle of April, the “active” WL will have taken shape at most colleges and, soon after, admission officers will begin to assess the need to admit more students.

While the initial ordering of students on Wait Lists typically reflects the relative academic strengths of the students, other agendas (athletic recruitment, alumni connections, the need to “balance” the class demographically, etc.) can strongly influence their positions. (Thus, the importance of sending any new information, e.g., grades, honors, awards, that might speak to these possibilities.)

However, there are three factors that can override the consideration of any of the above: ability to pay, the likelihood that the student will enroll and the student’s general accessibility.

Three Keys to Success in “Over-Time”

  1. Should you decide to convey your interest in remaining active on a WL, make sure you resolve any uncertainty that might have existed about your ability to pay. If you have discovered through the FAFSA that you don’t need financial aid, or you have learned that a family member will be a source of funding for you, make it clear in your WL messaging that funding for college will not be an issue for you. Students admitted from WLs prior to the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date are typically those who do not need any financial assistance. Students admitted from the WL after May 1 will receive need-based financial aid on a funds availability basis (so, don’t expect merit scholarships).
  2. Aside from asserting your intent to enroll if admitted from the WL, a strong indication of your interest and intentions is a visit to the campus. Even if you have been there already, go back. Check in at the admission office. Take another tour. Visit academic departments of interest and make an attempt to connect with the admission officer who recruits in your home area as it is that person who will likely be your strongest advocate if admission from the WL is considered. Be careful not to plan your visit around formal activities for admitted students as you will get lost in the shuffle during such programs.
  3. Finally, make sure you are accessible. When you respond with your intent to remain active on the WL, provide your cell number and email address. Make it easy for those who might admit you to find you!

The “Call”
Notice of acceptance from the WL will likely come in the form a phone call, text or email in which you are informed of the opportunity and given a very short period of time (often 24 hours or less) to accept it or not. Ideally, such calls would come before May 1 so you can factor the opportunity among the other offers of admission you have received. Should May arrive without an offer of admission from the WL at your preferred school, you would be wise to submit an enrollment deposit to a college that has admitted you so you are “covered” in the event the WL doesn’t come through. If you subsequently accept an offer from one college’s WL, you would forfeit the initial enrollment deposit at the other college.

Calculating the Odds
As you contemplate “over-time” on the WL, it is tempting to calculate the odds of admission. To help you with this, colleges are strongly encouraged by the National Association of College Admission Counseling to provide data reflecting their experiences with WL activity in past years. The data provided, though, is often “soft” or incomplete.

For example, a college might report that, of 2,000 students on the WL the previous year, only 20 were accepted. On the surface, these odds don’t seem very promising. The data won’t reveal, however, that only 500 of the 2,000 chose to remain “active” on the WL or that admission officers might have contacted 100 students (or more!) before they got commitments from 20. In effect, 20% of the students on the active WL might have been given the opportunity to accept an offer. In some years, colleges with greater enrollment needs from the WL will nearly exhaust their active WL possibilities before filling their classes.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that many colleges only report WL activity through the end of May. When this happens, the number of students contacted and subsequently enrolled from a given WL could turn about to be much greater than that which is reported.

The Bottom Line
While there can be no guarantees, if you hang in there with a WL situation, good things can happen. Patience and persistence (stay on the college’s radar in polite and appropriate ways) can indeed pay off!

By Peter Van Buskirk

It’s crunch time for families in the college selection process. The admission decisions are in and, with less than a month remaining before the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date, students are now turning their attention to the final choice of a college. It’s an exciting—and nerve-wracking—time to be sure, especially for families trying to reconcile cost and affordability against limited means and/or cash-flow concerns.

If you are in that number, there is a strong likelihood you applied for financial aid and are now trying to interpret the financial aid award letters you received from various colleges. Months ago, as you engaged in the grueling task of completing the financial aid applications, it was the promise of the “just reward” that kept you going. Now that the award letters are in hand, you are left wondering, “What does it all mean?”

A young woman shared with me the financial aid award letters she had received from ten different colleges. Never mind that she had allowed her list of colleges to grow too long (16!)—she had been admitted to ten and had received various forms of financial aid from each of them. With an EFC or “Expected Family Contribution” (per the FAFSA) of $5,000, the award letters were predictably generous. They were also troublingly inconsistent.

For example, two of the schools, at total costs of $39,825 and $61,740, respectively, appeared to cover the entire cost of attendance with financial aid. The first included modest “self help” (loan and work study) totaling $2,565, in addition to more than $37,000 in grants and scholarships, in its financial aid offer.

The second college issued a financial aid award letter that featured $36,900 in grants/scholarships. The balance, ($24,840), however, was covered by loans and work study! On the surface, it seemed both schools were being quite generous in covering all of his costs. Upon closer examination, however, the difference in “out-of-pocket” expense for this family at the two schools would be greater than $20,000—all with the same EFC!

The wide variance in financial aid awards in response to the same financial circumstance is the result of “differential need analysis” (using the need analysis that is most favorable to the institution’s objectives) and “preferential packaging,” a widespread practice that enables institutions to create financial aid awards strategically in an attempt to leverage the enrollment of the students they value most. In the case of the latter, students who are more highly regarded typically receive financial aid that includes greater portions of grants—and, possibly scholarships.

Conversely, the attitude toward other students, whose credentials were strong enough to warrant their admission, but not strong enough to gain them superstar status at a given school, is that “if they (the students) want us badly enough, they will find the means to make it happen.” It is when families, often deliriously wide-eyed with their students’ acceptances into high profile schools, buy into this logic that they open themselves to unreasonable debt burdens.

As you compare financial aid award letters, then, you need to get to the bottom line “out-of-pocket” expenses for each. Where does the bottom line create the least amount of debt exposure to your family? Unfortunately, the award letters don’t always spell that out for you. The following tips are offered to make sure you are comparing “apples and apples.”

  1. Identify the total cost of attendance for each institution. This will include tuition, room and board as well as books, supplies, activity fees, lab fees and possible transportation expenses. You may need to consult the school’s website for a complete list as very few award letters provide a complete documentation. A phone call to the financial aid office can produce the same information.
  2. Add all of the grants and scholarships listed on the award letter together. These funds comprise the “gift” aid you are receiving—money you don’t have to re-pay. The sources of these funds may include the state and federal governments as well as the institution itself. It is not actually cash you will see. Rather, it represents a discount on the cost of attendance.
  3. Subtract the total amount of “gift” aid from the total cost of attendance to determine the total out-of-pocket expense for your family.
  4. In most cases, institutions will offer a standard “self-help” component to the financial aid award that includes a Guaranteed Student Loan (Stafford) of $3,500 and a campus work-study opportunity worth up to $1,500. These are funding sources that will help you address out-of-pocket expenses. Note that the two figures are likely to increase in subsequent years: the total cost of attendance and the amount of the loan eligibility attributed to the students. Moreover, additional loans authorized for the student or the parents (PLUS Loan) may be offered in place of “gift” aid in years 2-4.
  5. A word of caution is in order here. If you have somehow managed to pool your family resources into coverage of costs for the first year on the assumption that, because you will appear more “needy” in the second year, you will be treated to more financial aid—guess again! Colleges and universities typically budget financial aid for students in years two, three and four based on the EFC of the first year. They will have contingency funds available for emergent situations (catastrophic health issues, changing employment status, loss of life, etc.), but not for families who claim sudden poverty because all of their funds were committed to the first-year expenses. In the case of the latter, get ready for a heavy dose of loans for both the student and the parents.
  6. It is not uncommon for the total amount of financial aid offered, both “gift aid” and “self help,” to fall short of making up the difference between the Expected Family Contribution and the total cost of attendance. This practice, known as “gapping,” is symptomatic of preferential packaging and is employed by institutions that choose not to meet the full need of the student with financial aid. In such cases, the student is left to his/her own devices to find the remaining funds. Unmet need of this nature becomes another factor to consider with your out-of-pocket expenses.
  7. Know the difference between grants and scholarships. A grant is awarded because you demonstrate financial “need.” It should carry forward in subsequent years as long as you continue to demonstrate need and remain in academic good standing. A scholarship is offered in recognition of merit and will likely carry with it academic and/or performance renewal terms.
  8. If you receive a financial aid award that includes both grant and scholarship components, be sure to read the renewal criteria carefully. It is possible that the institution could “pull” the scholarship if performance criterion are not met in subsequent years leaving you to find the resources elsewhere (more loans!).
  9. In the event you do not qualify for need-based financial aid and are trying to reconcile out-of pocket expenses (full cost of attendance) against scholarships that have been awarded, you need to know that you are at the mercy of the institution. The cash flow issue is yours and not theirs. While some might respond to an appeal, don’t expect big changes in scholarships amounts.
  10. Appeal financial aid awards, including scholarships, with information, not emotion. If your family’s financial circumstances have changed since you completed financial aid applications, submit written appeals to the colleges in question along with documentation of the new circumstances. Some colleges will invite you to submit “better” financial aid awards from their competitors as part of an appeal. In any case, keep your cool. You are only entitled to the financial assistance that the institution decides to give you.

In the final analysis, you will have to complete your own cost/benefit analysis to determine whether there is sufficient value to you (educationally) in accepting a financial aid award that might be less than you need or would like. Now is the time to weigh your options carefully. Make sure you are entirely comfortable with your ability to manage the cost of attending a college before you submit an enrollment deposit.

Visit the BCF Recommended Resources, “Financial Aid/Scholarships” section, for a “Comparing College Costs Worksheet” that will help you organize and compare the data you are seeing on various financial aid award letters.

 

“You’re In! Now What?”


Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

The annual college admission lottery is finally being played out this week. After months of waiting, most applicants will find out where they have been admitted and by the time all of the mail is open, you should have options—quality options. Some will include scholarships or special recognition. Others will simply convey the invitation to enroll. In any case, congratulations! Your hard work has paid off and you get to make the final choice of a college destination.

You need to choose well, however, to ensure a successful experience over the next four years of college. Now, more than ever, you need to be attentive to the details. As you enter the final phase of decision-making, start by rechecking your priorities. What was important when you initially constructed your list of colleges? Has anything changed? Why? The answers to these questions will be your compass as you make decisions in the coming weeks.

The elements of a good college fit apply now more than ever. Even the “best” college (by acclaim) won’t help you reach your goals if getting through four years at that school is likely to be a struggle academically. Choose wisely. Stay within your ability to comfortably embrace the academic programs and achieve the educational goals you set for yourself.

Using your priorities as a guide, it’s time to examine more closely the colleges that accepted you, including those that might not have been at the top of your list. Return to their campuses where you can immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and overall culture of the places. How do they feel to you? The following are ten tips for getting the most out of these campus visits:

  1. Spend a weeknight in a residence hall; eat at least two meals in the dining hall and go to two classes in different disciplines including an introductory first-year class.
  2. Talk with professors from the academic departments that interest you as well as the appropriate pre-professional advisor for those programs. Ask them what they teach, who they teach and how they teach. Do they engage undergraduates in collaborative research or independent study? Look for evidence that they (and their colleagues) are invested in helping undergraduates achieve their goals. Do you see a home for yourself in those environments?
  3. Pull students aside in those departments as well. Ask them about the courses they take. Who teaches them? What do they like about them? What are their opportunities to apply what they are learning? How accessible are their professors? What would they do differently about their learning experience thus far? Can you relate to their experiences?
  4. Ask to see data reflective of outcomes. What is the graduation rate in four years? Five years? What happens to students in your major at graduation? What percent go to graduate school, PhD programs or professional degree programs? How many get jobs? What are the average starting salaries? Ask to see the data for the last five years. Colleges are obligated to give it to you—they just might not volunteer it!
  5. Hang out. Watch people. Listen to them talk. Ask them what they think about campus life, politics, sports, religion, or whatever is important to you.
  6. If you are a recruited athlete, meet with the coach as well as members of the team. These folks may be your support system for the next four years. Where will you fit best?
  7. If you have academic support needs, talk with the coordinator of the Special Needs Support Center or the Writing Center. Look for evidence that you will get the support you need.
  8. If you have financial concerns, make an appointment with the financial aid office. Take copies of your financial aid application AND your 2016 tax returns for reference. Document changes in your family’s circumstances. Don’t assume that troubling financial differences will be worked out after you enroll. By the way, borrowing is a choice families make—it is not a requirement. In comparing financial aid awards, ask the admitting institutions to project the likely student debt over four years. Colleges can provide this information as well. Student debt of up to $30,000 over four years should be manageable after graduation. Much more than that, however, could saddle you with an unreasonable financial burden as you attempt to become established personally and professionally after college.
  9. Ask to see safety information, crime statistics and campus escort programs.
  10. Use good judgment as you explore the social scene. Know your limits…

In other words, take in as much as possible during your campus visits. Allow yourself to get past the rankings, reputations and car stickers to a true understanding of what makes the most sense for you. Most students who emerge from this process acknowledge that much of the decision-making comes down to a gut feeling. Let your gut go to work for you. Make sure the college you choose fits comfortably and feels good before you commit yourself.

Finally, a word of caution is on order. Your life is about to change as colleges roll out the “red carpet.” You’ll be invited to acceptance parties and open houses in your honor. Prominent alumni will call to wish you well. Some schools may even offer to fly you to their campuses for the weekend.

In the midst of all the ego food being tossed your way, you need to stay focused. Do your own detective work and remain true to your priorities. Much of the activity over the next four weeks will be staged by colleges for your benefit. Now that you have been admitted, they want you to enroll—and that’s fine. Just make sure you sort through the excitement to find evidence that the school in question truly values you for what you have to offer and is prepared to invest in your success.

BCF Readers’ Forum IV


Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Dear Peter,
My daughter received merit scholarships from five private colleges, ranging from $18,000 to $26,000. After applying the scholarships, each school’s cost of attendance for us would be similar. But the academic requirements for retaining the scholarship from year to year vary: several require a 3.0 GPA, one a 2.8 GPA, and one a 2.0 GPA.

Unfortunately, the one that only requires a 2.0 is at the bottom of her list. I assume these requirements are set in stone, but would it be out of line to ask the one she decides to attend if the GPA requirement is negotiable? Or, would it be appropriate to ask each of the colleges what percent of students actually do fulfill the requirement and therefore, receive the scholarship funds each year?
Ari

Dear Ari,
Scholarships and financial aid awards tend to reflect an institution’s confidence that a student can perform at a reasonably high level in its programs. Colleges with higher expected renewal GPAs are typically more competitive and can expect a higher level of performance from their scholars. I wouldn’t worry about this—your daughter was offered a scholarship because the institution has a high level of confidence in her ability to meet the “mark.” She should be fine as long as she continues to perform as she has in the past. While you might ask the colleges about the percent of students who fulfill the requirements of their scholarships (yes, they are usually set in stone), I would not try to negotiate the GPA requirement.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son is a high school Sophomore and we have begun gathering information online from a number of colleges that might broadly fit his needs. Most schools indicate the average GPA of admitted applicants. I have two questions about this. Are these figures generally weighted for AP and Honors classes, thus inflating this average? Second, our high school uses a 100-point scale for grades, not the GPA on the 4.0 scale that most colleges show. What is the generally accepted way to convert the 100-point scale to the 4.0 scale?
Joe

Dear Joe,
High school grading systems are like finger-prints—while similar, no two are alike. As a result, the GPA and weighting questions are heavily nuanced. Making things even more complicated is the fact that many college admission offices recalculate the GPAs using metrics that correspond to their own values/purposes. The GPA information reported by colleges is intended to provide a rough measure against which students can assess their likely competitiveness.

The same is true when trying to anticipate concordance between a 100-point scale and the 4.0 scale—each high school interprets its curricula differently. That’s why admission officers are careful to assess applicant credentials contextually. When I was dean of admission in charge of selecting a class from more than 4,000 applicants, we had to research/understand academic programs and grading systems at more than 1,500 originating high schools around the world.

Frankly, while I don’t want to encourage a reliance on standardized testing for any reason, comparing the student’s SAT or ACT “super-score” with the distribution of test results for enrolled students at a given college provides a better indicator of likely competitiveness. If the student’s super-score is at the middle/mean of the distribution, then his/her chances are just like everyone else at that college. For example, if the school admits 25% and a student’s super-score is right on the average, then the probability of admission is probably no better than 25% unless a very strong non-academic “hook” can be demonstrated.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter has been placed on the Wait List at her first-choice college until May 15. While she did not apply Early Decision, she had clearly indicated this to the school on her application. She will need financial assistance and our concern is that she might need to commit to a financial aid award elsewhere by May 1. What do you advise?
Maia

Dear Maia,
The situation you describe is actually not that uncommon, especially where financial aid is involved. The college in question clearly likes your daughter; it simply identified others whom it found to be more worthy of admission and financial aid during the Regular Admission process. The delay in notification until May 15 is likely indicative of the school’s need to make sure sufficient financial aid is available (after Regular Decision students with financial aid have been enrolled) to help students with financial need who might be admitted from the WL.

If this school remains your daughter’s top choice and she would like to be considered for admission from the WL, she needs to stay on their radar screen in order to have any chance of being admitted. She will also need to make sure she has a “Plan B” in place by either submitting an enrollment deposit at one of the schools that has admitted her or asking one of them for an extension on the deadline for her enrollment deposit. (Sometimes a college will extend the deadline as a courtesy.) If an extension is granted, your student needs to make sure any financial aid that has been offered will be honored at the new deadline.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My Senior received a letter from a school offering him admission under a program to enter in the Spring of 2019. He is treating this as a rejection and maintains adamantly that he will not attend the school under these circumstances and that taking courses at a local university or abroad, as suggested by the college to facilitate his transition in January, would doom his chances of getting in to med school. How do we look at this? It’s a letter of “acceptance” from a great school. Why would a school offer such a program, though? Do they need to have students that will come in when others leave after the first year? Is it a gimmick or a ruse?
Fred

Dear Fred,
The situation you describe is an enrollment sleight of hand that is becoming more common among selective institutions. With many more admissible students at their disposal than can actually be admitted, they are effectively “stashing” some of them for later enrollment. This enables them to carry high-yielding students forward into the next enrollment cycle thereby reducing the number of students to be admitted at that time.

This tactic also allows colleges to creatively manage their admission statistics. In this case, your son would only show up as a non-admitted applicant for the cohort entering in the Fall of 2018. (The only students whose credentials appear in the cohort summary for the fall of 2018 are those who enter as full-time students for the first time in the first semester of the academic year.)

By encouraging students to study abroad or take courses at a local college for an interim semester or two, the school in question is effectively changing your son’s future application status to that of “Transfer” in acknowledgement of the work done at other places. Having been guaranteed enrollment at some future point, they have completed the “stash” by affording themselves the academic pathway to enroll him later.

That said this option can work for him, but at some cost. He is correct that starting mid-year is a bad idea—especially if he wants to pursue a premed curriculum. If he has another viable option to start in the fall of 2018, I would urge him to give it serious consideration. Alternatively, he could wait until the fall of 2019—take a “gap” year—before starting his freshman year with the first school if that is indeed an option.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son is quite disappointed that he was not admitted to his first-choice school. He has been admitted to the Honors College at our flagship state university. He is thinking that he will accept that opportunity with the intent to transfer to his first-choice after one year. Is that feasible?
Raj

Dear Raj,
I’m sorry to hear that your son was not admitted to his first choice, however, it would appear he does have at least one quality option. He should feel good about that opportunity and embrace it. If he pursues it earnestly (and doesn’t transfer), there is no reason to believe that he won’t experience the same professional opportunities that might have come to him otherwise.

Regarding a transfer, in the abstract it is certainly feasible. I would urge against that mindset as he gets started, though, as his thoughts will be elsewhere when he needs to be focused on fully acclimating himself into the Honors program (it that’s what he chooses). He can’t afford to let the transfer possibility become a distraction when success in the Honors program will be predicated on fully immersing himself there. I suggest he begin the Honors program with the intent to complete that degree and, then, turn to his initial first choice university for an advanced degree—not a bad combination if he can pull it off! It won’t happen, though, if he can’t refocus on the opportunity at hand.
Peter

By Peter Van Buskirk

For families of students recently admitted to college, the coming weeks are critical to the final choice of a college. With a May 1 enrollment deadline looming, important decisions must be made. After months, if not years, of researching options and “shopping” for the best “fit,” it is time to determine which opportunity represents the best investment. It is also a time when the cost of attending comes more sharply into focus. Given what is at stake, you might consider the following guidelines as you engage in a cost/benefit analysis of your college options.

1. Ask important questions. “Why am I going to college?” The answer might seem like a forgone conclusion at this point, but articulating it again can add clarity at a time when other factors may be clouding your vision. “What do I expect to get out of my college experience?” Specifically, what are the three things you want to accomplish by the time you graduate from college four years from now? Use these priorities to guide you further in choosing among the colleges that accepted you. Which of them provides the best opportunity to achieve your goals?

2. Take a look at the cost/value proposition. Start by looking at the price tags. What is the comprehensive cost of attendance at each school? If you expect to be a full-time, residential student, this number will include room, board, and related fees—on top of tuition. Be sure to calculate the total for the year if that hasn’t already been done for you.

The total cost, less any scholarship or grant money you have been awarded, represents the adjusted cost that you will need to meet from your own resources (savings, loans, work study). Is the cost of attending a given institution justified by the value that is attached to achieving your educational goals? The question to ask is: “Will my experience as a student and the likely outcomes (earning potential) merit this level of financial exposure to my family?”

I recently heard from a family inquiring about the relative benefits of attending two colleges where the differential in the projected debt burden was $60,000 ($100,000 versus $40,000) over four years. My response: “Is the value of the projected educational experience that much different to warrant the added debt?”

N.B. Student debt is a choice you make—it’s not an obligation. That said, reasonable student borrowing ($25,000-$30,000 over four years) is a healthy way of promoting accountability and responsibility on the part of the young person.

3. Be discriminating in your evaluation of financial aid award letters. Some colleges might present seemingly generous “packages” that are much less robust when you subtract the amount of self-help (loans, work study) you will need to assume. It is important that you compare the actual EFC (Expected Family Contribution) for each institution.

Ideally, each college would arrive at the same EFC and respond to you with the same financial aid. That is not likely to be the case, though, because schools work with different formulas for need analysis and pricing scenarios.

For example, you might receive substantial assistance at a high-priced private college but not be eligible for much assistance at a lower priced state-supported university. Or two private institutions that appear similar might provide financial aid awards that are very different in terms of the amount your family is expected to contribute as well as the composition (scholarship, loan) of the awards themselves. Remember, each institution will direct its resources toward the students it values most.

4. Get clarity regarding the numbers! If you are confused by the contents of your financial aid letter or you see dramatic discrepancies between awards received from different schools, now is the time to seek clarification. While financial aid officers are not inclined to negotiate financial aid awards, they are usually willing to hear appeals based on new information. A few will even offer to match the offer of a competitor. There are no guarantees associated with the appeal process, but you have nothing to lose by asking.

Note to Parents: Most successful appeals are driven by data, not emotions. If you initiate an appeal, remember that you are seeking clarity and fair treatment. You cannot, however, expect or even insist that your student is entitled to anything more or less.

5. Consider the cost/value proposition. Look at each college option within the context of what you are getting in exchange for your investment of time and money. Be careful not to confuse the prestige or ranking of an institution with the strength of the academic opportunity you are seeking. Your success in life beyond college will hinge much more on how you take advantage of your undergraduate experience than on the name of the institution you choose to attend.

Again, stick to your priorities. If you have been diligent about searching out a learning environment that fits you well—a program that meets your needs, style of instruction that is consistent with the way you like to learn and a degree of rigor that is commensurate with your ability and preparation—you will find the best educational investment values for you.

Additional tips for assessing value among your college options:

  • If you have been offered a merit scholarship, make sure you are clear about the criteria for renewing it after your first year.
  • Find out how each institution will apply the credit associated with any community-based scholarships you might receive to your cost of attendance. Some colleges will reduce the amount of scholarship they are offering; others will reduce the amount of self-help (loan, work-study) in your financial aid award.
  • Ask for a review of your potential college credits (AP, IB, courses taken on college campuses) as collectively they have the potential to reduce graduation requirements and, as a result, your out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Determine the likelihood that you will be able to complete your degree requirements in four years. Ask to see data on graduation rates and post-graduate placements.

BCF Readers’ Forum XV


Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Dear Peter,
My mom is completely set on me needing to figure out what my major (and future career) will be RIGHT NOW. She doesn’t think it’s responsible or sensible to go to college without having one picked out. I’m so scared of this, I’m only sixteen and can’t decide what I want to do forever. I have some ideas, but which route I will go is still unclear. I’m looking at colleges that offer the classes I would need to start going in either direction, so why would I need to settle on one right now? If you have any advice on this situation, it would be much appreciated.
Lisa

Dear Lisa,
Your college years are all about self-discovery—learning how to learn, becoming a critical thinker, finding those things about which you are most passionate. That’s why most college students change their minds about their majors at least once—half of them twice—as they become exposed to new ideas. Moreover, surveys of people who graduated from college 25 years ago show that approximately 90% are now in careers that didn’t exist when they graduated from college. There is something to be said, then, for choosing an education that will prepare you for, not just your first job, but your second, third and fourth as the world continues to change around you.

Rather than resisting your parents, let them know that you are keeping your eyes and ears open to career possibilities. Share with them the information you are finding so they can experience your discovery process with you.

Your plan to look at colleges that might have academic areas that could be interesting to you, but that won’t force you to declare a major immediately or won’t penalize you for changing your major once you are enrolled makes sense. They will enable you to try out some of your ideas before having to commit to any of them. You’ll find this to be true of liberal arts colleges and many general studies programs at universities.

Finally, try not to let the stress you are feeling overwhelm you. Just remember that, once enrolled, you will have the opportunity to refine your thinking as you take different classes. Think of it as the “smile and nod” approach to your parents. It is far less contentious and will give you the space you need to make decisions for yourself.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter wants to try applying Early Decision to an Ivy League school. Our financial situation will put her in desperate need of “need-based” financial aid. If she does apply ED to the school and we find out she is not offered enough Financial Aid to make attendance possible, can we decline the offer and be released from the commitment?
Marla

Dear Marla,
Your daughter should not apply ED anywhere until you have fully resolved any contingent factors, including those related to cost and affordability. While it is possible to abandon an ED commitment due to unresolved financial aid considerations, that process is complicated and can have severe implications for your daughter’s applications to other schools as well as future applicants from her high school to the college in question.

In order to resolve questions about financial aid, I strongly recommend that you ask the school for an “early estimate” of your expected family contribution. If you provide your 2016 IRS tax return, the college can do a need analysis on the spot and give you a sense of your EFC. When they give you a number (your EFC), be sure to follow up with the question, “Since this amount won’t cover the total cost of attendance at your college, what might we expect in a financial aid award?” They can tell you this as well.

While colleges might not volunteer early estimates (not the same as information provided by their web-based Net Price Calculators), they are obligated to provide them upon request. I suggest presenting your financials in person, if possible. IF you are not completely comfortable with the conversation and your likely out-of-pocket exposure, your daughter should NOT apply ED—the financial aid response will not get better later.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My Sophomore is currently choosing classes for next year. He’s an advanced student taking his first AP class (US History) this year and doing pretty well in that. His school is just starting their International Baccalaureate program next year. While they are touting the IB Diploma route, it’s can be pretty restrictive with regard to the classes he’d be able to take.

The question is whether the IB Diploma is valuable enough, from a college admissions point of view, to outweigh the restrictions? The alternative is for him to just take a mixture of AP & IB classes, which would be rigorous in their own right.
Erik

Dear Erik,
I am a real fan of the IB as it is one of the premier academic programs in the world. Not only will your son learn about “things,” he’ll learn how to think critically about things in the process. If there is any way he can see his way through the perceived restrictiveness of the IB curriculum, he should find that he is well-served by it as a college applicant and, subsequently, as a college student. That said, he needs to choose the curricular direction with which he feels most comfortable. That could be an orientation to either the IB or AP—or a combination of both.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I received a decent scholarship offer from a university’s Honors Program, but would like to try to appeal my scholarship. Whereas other schools have a specific slot on the Portal to do so, this university does not have any specific structure. I have researched a little and found some students had success in appealing their scholarships, but I cannot find the process to do so. Should my letter go to admissions directly or to the financial officer listed on my portal? I am visiting the university in a couple weeks, would it be best to bring it in then?
Evan

Dear Evan,
You should appeal a performance-based scholarship award at the admission office and I suggest you communicate the appeal directly to the staff person who recruits in your area. Appeals of need-based financial aid awards should go directly to the financial aid office. Regardless, I would start the appeal now (phone, email) and indicate that you look forward to following up, if necessary, during your upcoming visit.
Peter

Dear Peter,
In the Common Application, there is a section for listing up to five academic awards. Does a visual art award belong to the academic award category? For example, is an individual national visual art award more impressive than a state robotics team competition award? By the way, my child does not plan to pursue a visual art major in college.
Sharon

Dear Sharon,
Both awards are very impressive and worthy of being listed among the five academic awards on the Common Application. That said, the state robotics team competition will probably fit more logically with your student’s extracurricular activities as it is an extension of involvement there. The visual art award should be listed with the academic awards.
Peter

Dear Peter,
How can we keep personal data private? Between College Board, Naviance, ACT, FAFSA, Common App, and all the tech companies that colleges and universities use, these companies have more info than Homeland Security and can create personal profiles using personality tests etc. How can a student be guaranteed cyber privacy?
Ken

Dear Ken,
Colleges are indeed working diligently to profile potential candidates and it is hard for students to keep personal data private when they are eager to make good impressions on colleges and avail themselves of informational opportunities. Keep in mind, though, that personal information cannot go anywhere via the College Board, ACT, Naviance, FAFSA, or the Common App without the student’s authorization.

Information sent to colleges is confidential and should be secure. Most “breaches” of cyber privacy occur when students forget to decline the option to have their information shared when registering for tests, scholarships or summer enrichment programs or, more likely, when they register to participate on college/admission related websites or forums.
Peter

Dear Peter,
We just received a financial aid award package from a college that lists a deadline to accept the financial aid by the end of March. Our daughter is not very interested in attending that school, but wants to keep the option open. I thought we could wait until May to formally accept their offer of admission. If we accept the financial aid award, does that obligate her to enroll?
Jordan

Dear Jordan,
Your daughter should not be expected to make an enrollment commitment until the Candidate’s Reply Date which is May 1. Schools that require a commitment to financial aid, scholarships or preferred housing prior to May 1 are operating outside of the Statement of Principles of Good Practice as articulated by the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

My guess is that the acceptance of the financial aid award involves an enrollment deposit indicative of your daughter’s plans to enroll. If the school seems to be insisting on a non-refundable enrollment deposit, you might ask for an extension until May 1. If is not granted, and your daughter is not inclined to make an enrollment commitment, then she will have no choice but to pass on this particular financial aid offer.
Peter