College Planning Blog

Welcome to Best College Fit (BCF) College Planning Blog, an ongoing discussion of the factors that impact the college planning process. This space will keep you abreast of critical planning strategies, introduce you to key resources and comment on timely issues that relate to your college planning effort. We look forward to staying in touch and seeing your comments as we progress through the college planning process together.

Archive for April 2018

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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 4.18.18


Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at Peter@BestCollegeFit.com.

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.

To learn more about financial aid and meeting college costs check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook. (Available in the BCF Bookstore; $20)