Saturday, August 8, 2015

Grit: Discovering Our Mental Toughness

While ascending the never-ending sequence of climbs in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains last month, I wasn’t thinking about grit. I was purely determined to pedal my way to the crest of each hill and be that much closer to my destination: the next college on our itinerary. Cycling with six college guidance counselor colleagues in Virginia, I spent the week traveling from school to school on a bike fully loaded with the clothes and supplies I would need for the week. We college-bound road warriors biked 360 miles in six days, but one day in particular truly tested our stamina as we cycled 81 miles and climbed nearly 7,000 feet.  I will not lie. When we arrived at our Lynchburg College destination just before sunset, I was done, sure I would not have been able to complete one more rotation of my pedals if my life depended on it. In retrospect, I see that grit got me there. It allowed me to keep going, even when I was exhausted, parched and had no idea what ascents might lie ahead.
Merriam-Webster defines grit as mental toughness and courage, but I also like the Wikipedia definition: perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  Time horizon matters, as grit demands the drive to follow through even when the rewards are not easily within our sight or grasp.
As we begin another application season, I often ask students about their motivation. I want to know the things that excite them, their aspirations and goals, and how they hope to achieve them.  Where does college fit into these plans? Though I firmly believe that 17 year olds need not have everything figured out, I am curious about what inspires them to persevere, even when the path isn’t clear or the challenges seem insurmountable.  How and when are they mentally tough because they are driven by something that requires focus and effort, even when rewards don’t come easy, contrary to the short-term pleasure of immediate gratification?
While some people are naturally driven, I don’t believe one is necessarily born with grit. It develops over time as we find a purpose or an interest that engages us to persevere over the long-term.  Some kids find their passion early, whether it is discovering an artistic talent, a natural athletic ability or an academic curiosity.  But having an interest is only the start.  What keeps us going, drives us to delve more deeply and fuels our desire to set and work towards a challenging goal is an understanding for how grit feeds our soul. Rarely does this happen when the goal is within our grasp and comes too easily.  More often we develop grit and find our motivation when we take a risk, push ourselves, occasionally fall short but regain our mental and physical toughness to overcome the inevitable obstacles.  Only then can we see the true rewards from the toughness, courage and perseverance that got us there.  
Though I have enjoyed cycling on and off since the age of six, my infatuation with biking was kindled through a discovery of my love for colleges. It had been 30 years since I last owned a road bike, but I was determined to reacquaint myself with the sport and get myself into cycling shape to join and keep up with a group of counselor cyclists who found a way to combine these seemingly unrelated interests.  What I discovered on that hot July day somewhere around mile 70 when I was thirsty, weary and battling possible defeat at the sight of each new hill is that it wasn’t just about getting to the next college; it was about getting to the top of the mountain without giving up.   

Monday, March 9, 2015

Studying in the UK - An Option Worth Exploring

Walking into the sunlit classroom, the first thing I noticed was the castle. The art studio we had just entered offered one of the best views of Edinburgh’s 12th century fortress perched high above the city.  Artistic inspiration sat just beyond the classroom windows and I envied the students who created their own masterpieces with this treasure as a backdrop.  Many U.S. colleges draw students with their state-of-the-art facilities, teacher-to-student ratios and abundant school spirit. The University of Edinburgh, one of six ancient universities in the United Kingdom, offers some similar but also a few quite distinctive selling points: the opportunity to study at a world class university with renowned academics in a medieval city rich in history, culture and beauty.  And that’s just scratching the surface!  Though the primary purpose of my trip to the UK was to participate in the University of Edinburgh two day college counselor program, I took advantage of the opportunity to extend my escape from the New York bitter cold and snow and toured six universities located in both quaint medieval towns and in the urban capital city, London.  I spent the week learning about academic offerings and social life while discovering the essence of each university and factors that would lead to a good fit and positive student experience.

An important thing for students to know if contemplating study in the UK is the emphasis on depth over breadth. The concept of pursuing a broad liberal arts education is virtually non-existent, though a few universities such as the highly selective University College London, King's College London and Durham University have each introduced their own version of a liberal arts course of study. In contrast to the U.S. where many students do not declare a major until the end of sophomore year, students at UK universities enter directly into a field of study to which they devote much if not all of their academic focus.

Despite our different approach to higher education, the U.S. actually owes its liberal arts foundation to Scotsman John Witherspoon, an Edinburgh graduate, Declaration of Independence signer, and the sixth president of Princeton University who introduced the Scottish syllabus to the venerable New Jersey institution.  Today the U.S. system of higher education remains most closely aligned with that in Scotland where programs are typically four years and include foreign study in year three, much like our junior year abroad.  Though students in Scotland apply directly into their major(s), or Honours, opportunities to take some courses outside one's concentration provide a foundation and flexibility to switch should a student change his mind within the first two years. The three year degree common elsewhere in the UK makes changing course far more difficult, but the financial trade-off can be substantial. In addition to the shorter program length, tuition for most programs throughout the UK is significantly lower and can be as much as $15,000-20,000 less per year than at most selective private universities in the U.S.  Citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. are also eligible to take advantage of the Stafford federally guaranteed loan program to cover costs up to the annual and total borrowing limits.

Going to college in the United Kingdom has the potential to be a challenging transition for many students educated in the U.S., but it does offer an exciting and culturally rich alternative for American students who are primed to work independently, seek a more globally diverse and academically focused experience, and know what they want to study.  While support services exist for all students, including an assigned personal tutor and smaller seminar sections with professors for every course, the onus lies with the student to self-pace and master the material in order to sit for semester and year-end exams or submit papers which will likely be the only assessments.  Despite the academic demands, students do find time for recreation. Class-free Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to sports and societies, what we more commonly refer to as clubs, providing a way to get involved in the social and non-academic life on campus. 

The concept of fit is important in the UK too and students similarly should consider factors such as academics, social life and location to find the optimal collegiate environment. Campus life will feel very different in an urban center like London than in the ancient small town of Durham where university students form communities through their residential colleges and typically eat all meals as well. 

Fortunately for anyone thinking about studying in the UK and trying to decipher the alternatives, the process is relatively transparent; even international students can readily determine each university’s admission criteria and find a plethora of information about the student body, housing and of course, the requirements for a given course of study through the The Complete University Guide which is updated annually. Admission to a university is based primarily on exam results in related coursework or standardized test scores for non-UK students including APs, a personal statement that speaks to and substantiates a student’s academic interests and a teacher/counselor reference.  To identify and compare the strength of specific programs, students can access the official League Tables, an important source for choosing where to apply.

The process of applying to a UK university is seemingly more straightforward than navigating the application process in the U.S. Students complete and submit one application, the UCAS, which is accepted by all universities, write one personal statement and can apply to a maximum of five universities. They are cautioned to limit reaches to two schools and to have an “insurance” option.  Given the availability and transparency of each university’s criteria, students should have no doubt about which schools would be their sure bet choice.  Even the cost of the UCAS application, like the price of the education, is a bargain compared to the fee in the U.S. The £23 one time application fee is less than $40 at today’s exchange rate. 

Going to the UK as an undergraduate is not be for everyone and requires that a student have a clear academic direction and purpose.  Yet did I mention that graduate programs, or post-graduate as they are known in the UK, are typically only one year? If your son or daughter is not ready to take the step and enroll as a first year undergraduate student at a UK university, the opportunity will not be lost. There's always graduate school.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Paying for College - Don't Overlook Financial Aid Forms

If you are the parent of a high school senior, it's time to turn your attention to another set of online submissions: financial aid forms. With the cost of college reaching new heights annually, many parents of college students today cannot ignore the financial aid piece of the college process. In order to qualify for financial aid or even to borrow under a federal loan program, you will have to complete at least one and perhaps two financial aid applications.  The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly known as the FAFSA, is the form that colleges require students complete in order to qualify for certain types of financial assistance and for any federal student aid.  More than 300 institutions also require submission of the CSS/Profile form, found on the College Board website, for the allocation of their own institutional resources.

Completing the FAFSA and; CSS/Profile (if also required) is the only way you will know for certain whether you qualify for need-based financial aid. College net price calculators and other online tools may give you a ballpark figure, but there are too many variables that these simplified calculators won’t capture. While parent income will be the most significant determinant, there are several factors in addition to income that influence eligibility including the age of the older parent, assets owned, number of family members living in the household and the number of children in college.  Yet the FAFSA is not only required to calculate demonstrated need. Any student or parent who wishes to borrow under the federal loan program, regardless of financial need, must file a FAFSA.  This even applies for parents who may choose to cover college costs with a Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students or PLUS loan.  A small handful of colleges also require that students complete the FAFSA in order to receive merit aid awards.  The single best way to find out a college’s documentation requirements is to visit the financial aid pages on its website where you will also find the college specific deadlines. They may be as early as February 1.
FAFSA completion is relatively straightforward, especially for those who have already filed a tax return and meet the eligibility requirements to take advantage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.  This enables filers to fill in much of the financial information on the FAFSA automatically by transferring data from the IRS.  But there is a catch. This feature is not available until two weeks after processing an electronic return and can take up to eight weeks if you file by mail.  Furthermore, the data retrieval feature will not be active until early February, too late for colleges with February 1 financial aid deadlines. This means you may still be faced with the task of estimating your prior year income and expenses. A word of advice if you estimate: better to under than over-estimate earnings since this is what will be used for the initial calculation of the financial aid award. Your FAFSA must ultimately be amended with the actual tax return numbers, so you can take advantage of the data retrieval tool at that time.  If you are certain you will not qualify for need-based aid yet will complete the FAFSA in order to borrow either a federal student loan or PLUS loan, you are not constrained by college financial aid deadlines so file your tax returns first to simplify the process. 

I also recommend that you take advantage of other resources available that can guide you through the form completion process and shed additional light on the factors that will influence your eligibility.  For a helpful guide on filling out the FAFSA form, there are online tutorials such as the FAFSA tutorial offered by Edvisors, a college financial aid website.  On the College Board website you will find the CSS/Profile and tips  for completing the form as well as the list of colleges that require it. 

Keep in mind that qualifying for financial aid is not a guarantee that you will receive a lot of free money so go into the process with realistic expectations.  Your own estimated need, your formula determined “demonstrated need,” and the amount of assistance you might actually receive can and will likely be three different numbers.  Financial aid formulas may yield a higher Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and lower demonstrated need than what you believe you can afford. The formulas are not frequently updated and consequently, underestimate today's cost of living, especially for those who reside in more expensive regions of the country. Furthermore, most colleges won’t fully plug the gap between the Cost of Attendance and what the formulas determine you should pay. Like many of us managing our personal finances, colleges struggle to equitably allocate a finite pool of resources.  So embark on this process with tempered hope and expectations. But don’t put it off. Familiarize yourself with financial aid requirements and deadlines to give yourself the best chance to receive any aid for which you may qualify.