Friday, December 17, 2010

The ABC's of Financial Aid

It’s mid-December, two weeks away from the New Year. Many of us live by milestones that remind us how quickly time flies...birthdays, holidays, change of seasons. One of mine, I shamelessly admit, is the start once again of the financial aid cycle. With college applications hopefully finished or in the final stages, it is time to look ahead to the next set of deadlines, those for submitting financial aid forms. Bemoaning and complaining about the financial aid process is a yearly ritual. Yet it need not be so cumbersome and daunting. Familiarization with concepts, knowing deadlines and being organized is the key to successfully navigating aid forms and triumphing over the process. Here is my annual college financing primer which highlights some of the critical terms you will need to know.
The Cost of Attendance, or COA, refers to the total annual cost of college, not just tuition and fees. Don’t forget to factor in room and board, books, transportation, and other personal expenses when trying to estimate what a year of college will cost. College financial aid officers look at the total COA when they package aid awards. Come October 2011, colleges will be required to post the COA on their website.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, is used by colleges and universities to determine eligibility for financial aid. All students must file a FAFSA in order to receive any federal student aid. This includes the non-need based unsubsidized federally guaranteed Stafford student loans, so if you anticipate borrowing for college, you will have to complete the FAFSA. It becomes available online January 1, 2011 for the 2011-2012 school year at Prior to filling out the form, both the student and one parent must each obtain a pin number which is in essence your electronic signature. You can register for a pin at Be sure to record your pin in a place where you can easily retrieve it for future use.
The Expected Family Contribution or EFC which is calculated from the information you provide on the FAFSA is the amount determined to be what the family can and should contribute to the cost of the student’s education. The EFC is based on the family’s current assets and prior year's income, including both the student’s and parents’ financial data.
After completing and submitting your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report, or SAR, which will show your EFC.
Nearly 600 schools also require that families complete the CSS/Profile form for the allocation of their institutional funds. The CSS/Profile is administered by the College Board and can only be filed online. Families can currently access the Profile for the 2011-2012 academic year by going to the College Board’s website:
Now that you are familiar with these terms, there are some additional things that you should know about financial aid awards.
- Your “demonstrated need” (the COA minus your EFC) won’t necessarily be the amount shown on your SAR if the college also uses the CSS/Profile or another financial aid form. These methodologies are not the same, and therefore will produce different results. Institutions allocating their resources will naturally rely on the methodology that sets a lower threshold for your financial needs, so don’t be surprised if the aid package is less than you expected, even from schools that claim to meet demonstrated need.
- Colleges tailor the CSS/Profile formula to their specific institutional requirements. In other words, your demonstrated need may vary from school to school. For example, some colleges consider the equity in your home; others do not.
- The college offering the most financial aid may not necessarily be providing the best package. One has to look at the composition of each award. A financial aid package that meets need with grants which do not have to be repaid is far more attractive than one comprised entirely of loans.
- If your financial situation changes materially after you’ve filed the forms, such as loss of employment, you should notify the colleges immediately.
Lastly, be sure to visit the tuition and financial aid page of each school’s website (often buried in the Admission section) to check on requirements, deadlines and merit aid, if awarded. Meeting these deadlines is crucial. Since financial aid is a limited resource, getting things in early can make a difference. The sooner you complete the FAFSA, CSS/Profile and any other required forms, the better your chances of receiving financial assistance.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

In Search of a Mascot

During my recent visit to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, our tour guide casually shared a small, though perhaps not so insignificant detail: the school has been without a mascot since 2007 when the controversial native Indian Chief Illiniwek was retired in response to NCAA sanctions. While I’m sure this is not news to the Big Ten fans among you (I am shamelessly showing my ignorance about big time college sports), this revelation started me thinking. Do spectators need a mascot to foster loyalty and pride in their teams and school? How does the absence of a mascot impact school spirit, sales of logo emblazoned clothing, and even the prospects for a winning season? The mascot-less Illinois football team is currently in 8th place in its conference, but it would be quite the stretch to point the guilty finger at the erstwhile Indian chief mascot who has been gone nearly 4 years.

What makes the University of Illinois’ situation so unusual is that nearly every college and university in the United States has a mascot, regardless of the size, athletic division, or visible school spirit. Yet Chief Illiniwek’s disappearance from the Urbana campus doesn’t appear to have had any dampening influence on university pride. That’s not to say that students aren’t lobbying for a new mascot. I was struck by the swarms of orange clad students all over campus, proudly displaying their loyalty by donning school colors.

Whether or not a college is noted for its school spirit, the mascot is a symbol that engenders allegiance and instills a sense of being part of a community. Mascots reveal a fun and lighthearted side of any college, including those better known for their academic rigor than their football teams. Whenever I visit my daughter at her small New England college, a school that would probably rank low on anyone’s list of “rah rah” campuses, I can't help but notice the ubiquitous display of logos and official school attire. This sight tells me that students feel connected to the community and share a bond with others who, like them, wear their colors proudly. Even in the case of Illinois, a university still in search of a mascot, its well entrenched traditions and pride have clearly outlived the demise of a symbol.

So here’s my point. Most colleges, with or without a mascot, successfully foster a sense of community among their students. School spirit is a term that has become synonymous with “rah rah," but in fact, it exists wherever students find common ground and come together as a community. The next time you visit a college campus, notice how many students are wearing their school colors and logo, and find out about traditions and activities unique to that college campus. And don’t forget to inquire about the school mascot.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

College Costs - Achieving Greater Transparency

Even in a down economy with inflation almost non-existent, the cost of a college education continues to rise at a shocking 5% a year for private colleges. It’s not surprising that more families are asking the question: can we afford this? Improved disclosure requirements under the federal Higher Education and Opportunity Act (HEOA) may not help you pay the bill, but they will take some of the guess work out of the process.

Until recently it had not been so easy to determine a school's true Cost of Attendance or COA, which includes all the expenses associated with going to college, beyond just tuition and fees. Fortunately for the college consumer, schools are now required to provide reasonable estimates for all costs, including books, travel and other personal expenses. HEOA also stipulates that colleges have until October 2011 to display net-price calculators on their websites. These calculators will enable families to obtain a ballpark estimate of the net cost to them, after factoring in the financial aid package they might reasonably expect to receive from the school.

For those who do not wish to wait until a year from now, there are ways to get closer to estimating the actual amount they will pay. One of the best sources is the US Department of Education’s College Navigator website: This site provides a treasure trove of data pertaining to individual college costs and average financial aid awards based upon income ranges. Type in the name of a school and you will have access to the most current data reported to the U.S. government by the college. My only caveat is that you use these ranges as a guide; they are not a reliable determinant of what you will ultimately pay. Financial aid results are driven by a rather in-depth review of your personal data. Simply comparing your income to the school's posted ranges might be misleading, as income alone does not capture your full financial picture. You won’t know your actual out-of-pocket cost and the composition of the financial aid package until you file your aid applications and have the final award letters in hand.

The soon-to-be required net-price calculators will be an even more powerful tool for gaining an understanding of college costs. Colleges have the option to either build their own or use a template created by the federal government. At a minimum, the calculator must contain eight data elements designed to determine dependency status, estimate the Expected Family Contribution and approximate the COA. A handful of colleges, including Princeton, MIT and Purdue University, have gotten a jump on the task, and have already posted calculators on their websites. Even if your child is not applying to one of these colleges, you might want to play around with their calculators to get a sense for how varied your financial aid results could be from school to school.

Familiarizing oneself with the cost of college before a student actually applies will help families realistically adjust their expectations and target schools that are good fits both academically and in terms of affordability. The schools with the highest sticker prices might not be the most expensive after financial aid. Net price calculators which will be school specific should be reasonably effective in providing a ball park estimate. But as with many things, the devil will be in the details. You should use these tools to ensure that both financial and academic safeties find their way to the college list. Creating a list with affordable options will help everyone sleep better at night.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Demonstrated Interest - Making Your Intentions Known

How important is it to let a college know that you really want to attend, beyond merely submitting your application? “Demonstrated interest” refers to any way in which a student reaches out to a college to show that the school is a top choice. Whether it is a campus visit, participation in an alumni interview, or reaching out to an admission representative, demonstrated interest is now a factor in the admission process for roughly 50% of the colleges that participated in a recent National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) study.

Why has demonstrated interest become so important in the admission process? The short answer is, blame it on the economy. With colleges feeling pressure to manage enrollment, especially during times of economic uncertainty, the better they can predict who will attend, the more successful they will be at filling the class and generating tuition dollars. Furthermore, improved enrollment forecasts can benefit a school’s rankings. Colleges that both lower their acceptance rates and increase yields (the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll) are likely to see their national rankings benefit too.

The obvious next question is, what is the best way to demonstrate interest and which schools care? Applying Early Decision, of course, is a clear indication to the school that it is your first choice. Since Early Decision is binding, the college has no doubt that your interest is genuine. Other ways to show you are serious about a school is by visiting the campus, scheduling an interview, especially if the college recommends it, and contacting the admission representative who covers your region. Seeking the answer to a question that is not readily available on the college website is a great way to initiate contact. When you visit a campus, be sure to fill out the information form in the admission office so that your visit is duly noted. Some colleges will tell you outright that your expression of interest is a factor in their admission process. Either way, it does no harm to get on the mailing list and contact your regional representative, as long as your questions are thoughtful and not excessive...never stalk!

However, not all colleges and universities consider demonstrated interest in their admission processes. Wondering why you weren’t asked to fill out a form when you toured Yale? Not surprisingly, the most selective colleges do not factor in demonstrated interest and therefore do not record who shows up and who doesn’t. During a WSJ/Unigo webcast presentation (Unigo is the college search website that features reviews from current students), the dean of admission at Wesleyan shared that one-third of the incoming freshman class had not visited, interviewed or contacted the admission office prior to or after submitting an application. Her point: the school does not factor demonstrated interest in its admission process. Some colleges, including Duke and Stanford, will tell you outright that it makes no difference.

So how do you find out who cares and who doesn’t? It is not exactly the question you want to pose to the admission office, so play it safe, get on the mailing list and schedule that interview (on campus or with an alumna) if interviews are offered and recommended. A well posed question might win brownie points at the college that values your expression of interest. You have nothing to lose. Just don’t stalk.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Commitment to Match Financial Aid - The New Ivy League Approach

Paying for college is one of the most pressing concerns for families today, which is why I feel compelled to share ideas that may help families manage the cost. Followers of my blog have read my postings on the merit aid “arms race,” or how colleges use tuition discounting to attract the students that they especially want to enhance their class profile. However, a battle for exceptional students has now taken hold at the top tier of selective colleges: the Ivy League.

As many of you know, the eight Ivy League colleges, along with a handful of other highly selective schools, do not offer merit aid to students. Even those with mega-endowments use their financial aid resources exclusively for students who demonstrate financial need. This naturally figures; such colleges and universities have no trouble drawing top students, so there is no incentive to offer grants just to lure students away from other schools. Besides, merit aid awards run counter to the more important mission of access regardless of cost. Yet that does not mean that these toughest admit schools aren’t thinking about ways to compete with their peer institutions for students. With little fanfare, two universities, Cornell and Dartmouth, decided to go head to head with other Ivies, using financial aid for precisely that purpose. Both universities will soon match the aid packages that students are awarded by other Ivies and a few highly competitive schools too.

Back in 2007-2008, partly due to government pressure to spend their endowments on students rather than lose tax-exempt benefits, some 40 top tier schools dispensed with loans for the neediest students. Two universities with the largest endowments, Harvard and Yale, set an even higher bar in order to also benefit middle income families: At Harvard students with family incomes of less than $60,000 pay nothing, while those who make less than $180,000 have their costs capped at10% of their income. For Yale students, the income ceiling which allows students to take advantage of the 10% maximum out-of-pocket is a whopping $200,000. Cornell, having a far larger student body and much smaller endowment, is in no financial position to compete with such hefty aid packages for all of its students.

Yet not wanting to lose out on some of these gifted students, Cornell has found a way to compete without offering such generous awards across the board. Starting with the class enrolling for the fall of 2011, Cornell will match the offer of other Ivies to which the student has been accepted. Cornell has issued the same match policy for students accepted to Duke and Stanford. However, if your child happens be one of the students in this high class problem category, don’t expect Cornell to come to you. It is up to the student to approach Cornell to request the additional aid based upon the competing package.

Sure, this will affect a very limited group of students: those who are smart and lucky enough to be accepted to at least two Ivy League schools while also qualifying for financial aid. Yet the concept of competing aid policies does expand the notion of affordability of an Ivy League education to a broader universe of middle income families. The student who would choose Cornell or Dartmouth over Harvard will no longer have to factor cost or potential outstanding debt into the equation. This is a positive step forward for college affordability. But just so you don’t think I’ve completely taken leave of my senses, let me assure you that I am fully aware of the most difficult hurdle which remains: Getting in!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It's Mid-August - Must Be College Ranking Season

Today the U.S. News & World Report published its annual Best Colleges 2011, the granddaddy of school rankings that students and their families too often use as the definitive source and arbiter for academic quality. Sure, USNWR provides a detailed explanation of its methodology as if to suggest transparency. Yet it still fails to convince this reader that the formula inputs offer anything but a highly subjective assessment that does little to assist students in finding schools that are the right fit and that will provide a meaningful and fulfilling college experience.

This year USNWR tweaked its criteria, with the most significant adjustment being the weighting of input from other education professionals. Though this now accounts for 22.5% rather than 25% of the total ranking, the methodology still places far too much emphasis on some subjective measure of a school's reputation. The good news is that only 15% is determined by administrators from competing institutions who I’m certain rarely if ever step foot on the college campuses they are judging. Even if they do, is this not a conflict of interest? For the first time high school guidance counselors have a say in the rankings and make up 7.5% of the 22.5% reputational factor. I am skeptical whether this actually helps students make informed college decisions. Most high school counselors know that students would be better served by considering fit over someone else’s opinion of a college’s place on a list that has questionable criteria.

Here is my question for every student and parent who feels compelled to look at the college rankings: what is there about this list of colleges and the way it is presented that gives you any insight about the academic strengths, the quality of life, the social scene, or the support services, academic and otherwise available at each school? I am not suggesting that all of the factors are meaningless. For example, I also believe that graduation and retention rates are important. However, a couple of statistics do not tell the whole story. The top schools on each of these ranking lists, for the most part, are all well endowed and can provide substantial need based aid. What about colleges of quality that cannot afford to be as generous with financial aid? In this economy many students are forced to take a leave from their education due to lack of adequate funds to pay tuition and support themselves through school. In other words, the economy is hurting retention numbers for some fine colleges that cannot spend as much as they would like on aid. My point is, too little information about what drives the numbers often leads one to draw the wrong conclusions.

But is it a “good” college? My own 17 year old has finally learned to stop asking me that question, though when she occasionally slips, she quickly recovers with, “I know, I know…don’t confuse selectivity with quality.” She’s finally catching on! Isn’t it curious that the colleges with the lowest rankings also have the lowest acceptance rates? The correlation between acceptance rate and a ranking which is supposed to order schools by some measure of “best” is especially troubling to me.

U.S. News & World Report is not the only publication to issue its assessment of colleges this month. recently published its list of America’s Best Colleges which has many surprises that will have you scratching your head, especially when compared with the USNWR rankings. And lets not short change Sierra Magazine’s current ranking of the Greenest Colleges. If you are not happy where your own alma mater ranks on any of these lists, be patient. Another ranking is sure to be released shortly.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Three Year Degree - Ingenious or Falling Short?

The cost of a college degree continues to rise. One might think this is incentive enough to get through as quickly as possible. On the contrary, the national average for students graduating college within six years is only 53%. While this graduation rate is disturbing, it does not tell the whole story. Some extend their stay to balance work and school, the former a necessity in order to be able to afford the tuition costs. Others have fallen victim to budget cuts and class schedule reductions, making it more difficult to register for and complete required courses on time.

Despite the trend towards extending one’s colleges years, programs are becoming more prevalent at universities around the country which offer the opportunity to earn a degree in three years. These programs are not for everyone yet their proponents claim that the benefits are multiple: students save on tuition, room and board, colleges achieve better utilization of their resources by offering classes year round and graduation rates improve.

With cost pressures driving many decisions today, several colleges, including University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY and the University of Illinois now offer a three year degree. To ensure timely graduation, these programs generally include priority registration and special advising to the students which enable them to adhere to a tight timetable and to stay focused. Bate College in Lewiston, Maine has offered the three year degree since 1965, yet to date few students have actually taken advantage of it.

Proponents cite the cost advantages for students and more rapid turnover for universities as students earn degrees in a shorter period of time. Those in support of these programs also believe they will force positive changes in curriculum as colleges seeks ways to cover a multitude of subjects in a more condensed time frame. This, they profess, will lead to a greater emphasis on inter-disciplinary learning.

The three year degree is clearly not for everyone. Students who benefit must be prepared to step onto the fast track. Often workloads are heavy and schedules require year round attendance to finish within three years. Are you prepared to declare a major after your first year? Forget the three year degree if you want to explore a variety of subjects before making that decision. It is also not a practical route for those who must work to support themselves through college.

Critics question the practicality of three year programs when students already have a tough time finishing in four. Three year programs also challenge the very essence of the college experience which goes beyond academics alone. Students who finish in three will have limited time, if any, to participate in extra-curricular activities and take part in many of the social aspects which some might argue are a primary component of college life. Students would also be forced to forgo pursuing courses out of sheer interest, since the truncated time schedule will restrict the ability to explore. Last but not least, some question whether the three year degree serves the needs of the market, where employers are placing new demands on college graduates. Having a specific skill is often not what those hiring really want to see. Today’s business leaders are redefining the necessary core skills for success, e.g., global and inter-cultural awareness, teamwork and problem solving skills, ethical reasoning, critical thinking and decision making capabilities. Will a rush to get through in three years short change students in these areas? There is no doubt that some serious curriculum re-design must be part of any trend to finish college in record time.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tour d'Admission - My Reflections

After months of anticipation and training, I find it difficult to believe that the southern California college cycling tour has come and gone, at least for this rider (a few of my colleagues have continued on for another week). The experience, not surprisingly, was about more than just visiting colleges. I anticipated good cycling, informative college visits and the pleasure of traveling with a group of likeminded, adventuresome college counselors. Even with that expectation, the high that I am still on, 4 days into my return, feels bigger than just the joys of a good trip. For the past few days I have been asking myself what made this experience so different from other college visits, vacations and travel I have done. Tonight as I sat down to write this posting, not exactly sure where I would take it, an answer came to me: I feel like I just had my own mini college experience.

On Sunday night, July 4th, 17 strangers came together on the campus of the University of the Redlands in the California town of the same name. We arrived in shifts throughout the day, got our dorm room assignments, and met suitemates and fellow cyclists. Once we were all settled in, we gathered for an outdoor “icebreaker” pizza party on an unseasonably cool night for July (June Gloom one month late, we were repeatedly told). We were also treated to the truly spectacular Redlands fireworks display, complete with skydivers and musical entertainment.

Still on east coast time, many of us retired early, spending our first of several nights in university housing. The following day we had to be awake and alert for our morning tour of the University of Redlands, followed by our first venture out on the bikes. I’m speculating that a good handful of us were a little anxious in anticipation of our first ride together, a 45 trip to our next destination, the Claremont Colleges. Remember the odd sensation of excitement mixed with nerves during the first few days of college? I guess you can say that some of us were experiencing those uneasy emotions all over again.

Over the course of the next few days we all found our “bike” legs and started to feel comfortable with each other. We were truly an eclectic group, coming from virtually every region of the country and bringing along a variety of backgrounds and experiences. However, we quickly came to appreciate our differences, quirks, and senses of humor. We stopped and helped each other when panniers fell off unexpectedly on the road, tires went flat, or in the case of yours truly, the resident diabetic, a stop for some sugar refueling was in order. Cycling on long, high traffic thoroughfares, through Los Angeles city streets at rush hour and up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, we learned what it meant to take responsibility for ourselves, as well as help and look out for others. Some of us sported scrapes and scars from minor mishaps (I took the award for most falls off the bike from a stationery position…those darn clip-ins!). One of our members gave the rest of us a good scare, ending up in the hospital with dehydration on the last night. We all heaved a sigh of relief the next morning to learn the cause of her fainting, and see her regain color and her smile. Unfortunately, she and another companion finished the last leg in a car rather than on bikes with the rest of us, but were there to meet us at each stop along the way.

I made wonderful new friends on this trip, just like my college experience, and we are already talking about our reunion at the annual NACAC conference in the fall as well as the location of next year’s college cycling trip. As I reflect on the past week and feel this amazing sense of accomplishment, I also think about the experience of going off to college. It’s about taking responsibility for oneself and sometimes for others. College is a time to learn and explore new things, as we did on our college visits, to make choices, individually and collectively, be flexible and open to the unexpected and seek the opportunities to expand one’s horizons. I’ll go out on a limb and include our farewell lunch at the In and Out Burger as just that type of mind and palate expanding experience!

We all recorded our trip with photos, mine taken on my Blackberry, and our trip has been immortalized in Jacques Steinberg’s NY Times blog, The Choice, which of course was a thrill for all of the riders. ( But the best part of this experience are the feelings and memories that pictures and blogs can’t fully capture. They are just the thoughts that make one feel good all over again when the mind momentarily wonders back there.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

COWS Take on a New Meaning in Wisconsin

In the world of college counseling, COWS have taken on a different meaning, even in the dairy farm state of Wisconsin. COWS is the acronym for Counselors Observing Wisconsin Schools, a college tour which traverses the southern half of the state and includes 5 colleges. The 5 schools are Ripon College, Lawrence University, the University of Wisconsin (Madison), Beloit College and Marquette University. These colleges have all been around since the mid-1800’s, and were founded just about the time that Wisconsin gained statehood in 1848.

Visiting so many colleges over the course of a year (50 or more), I frequently get the question, how do you keep them straight? Copious notes and the occasional photo on my Blackberry help, but the true benefit to visits and the best memory aid is getting a sense for a college’s mission, what sets it apart and, of course, what type of student would thrive. The facts I commit to paper. The feel of fit is something I get from seeing students, talking to members of the college community and trying to get a sense of the campus vibe.

More and more colleges are stating their mission on the website. A good mission statement will tell you right out what is important to the college community and what it hopes to do for its students. It’s worth taking the time to find and read it when you are exploring colleges.

So I start my tour recap with Ripon College, a residential college of 1,100, where two-thirds of the students come from within the state. Ripon’s mission emphasizes preparing students of diverse backgrounds (ethnically, if not geographically) for lives of productive, socially responsible citizenship. It is an intimate learning community where students truly receive a richly personalized education in the liberal arts. With a tag line of “More, Together,” Ripon fulfills its mission by providing a supportive environment that encourages students to get involved and support each other. Students that thrive at Ripon like the small, close knit community where they feel comfortable assuming leadership roles. The sciences are popular, as is history/government, communications and business. Greek life exists and attracts 40% of the student body, though the focus, not surprisingly, tends to be more community service in purpose. 35% of the student body is involved in Division III sports, which includes the newest addition, cycling. In fact, the new president, a big cyclist himself, has made a unique offer to the student community. Anyone who does not bring a car to campus gets a free bike!

Our journey took us next to Lawrence University in Appleton, a happening town of 70,000 with many interesting restaurants and entertainment venues. Situated on 80 acres along the Fox River, Lawrence, like Ripon, is relatively small with just 1,400 students. Yet despite the size, the college boasts a world renowned music conservatory which offers many of its hallmark programs. Love for music abounds, even among non-music students. Lawrence is also a residential college, a factor that is tied very much into the school’s mission. The college may be small, but that does not imply a homogeneous student body. 12% of its students are international, and 75% are from outside Wisconsin. Given this diversity in a small residential community, acceptance and appreciation for differences is expected and highly valued. Students sign a social code which provides the foundation for respecting others. They are self-described “quirky,” creative and open-minded. All are encouraged to do some type of independent study during their stay at the Lawrence. The student who thrives in this environment is ready to take charge of his or her education and shape it. At the same time, the college provides ample support to ensure that students succeed. In addition to music, popular majors include biology, psychology, English and studio art. 60% of students take advantage of study abroad programs built around their academic curriculum. Do not assume that Lawrence is just for artsy types. With 25% of students participating in 23 Division III varsity sports, their interests are as diverse as the student body itself.

Our next destination was the state capital, Madison, to tour the flagship University of Wisconsin. This is truly an urban university, though bordered by two lakes, Mendota and Menona, which provide a lovely lakeshore region to the campus. U of W is big: 41,000 students with 28,000 undergraduates. There are over 750 clubs and activities and no shortage of things to do, both on campus and in the city. The 8 undergraduate colleges and schools include the College of Letters and Science, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, School of Business, School of Education, College of Engineering, School of Human Ecology, School of Nursing and School of Pharmacy. Students are admitted to the university rather than to a specific program, and complete at least 2 semesters before applying to a program of study. How do students create a sense of community in such a large academic setting? Students find ways to make the university more personal through clubs they join, their classes and as part of residential life. The university does offer Residential Learning Communities which allow students to live and study within their place of residence. It goes without saying that sports are BIG at Wisconsin. Camp Randall stadium is home to the Division I varsity football team. There are 22 other Division I sports which also draw the crowds. Students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison know how to have a good time. Yet they are also active, involved citizens of the Madison/University of Wisconsin community, with a passion for their causes.

We left the hustle and bustle of Madison and drove southeast to the far more serene town of Beloit, just north of the Illinois/Wisconsin border (90 minutes from Chicago). Beloit College is small with only 1,300 students, but homogeneous it is not. Most students are from outside Wisconsin, hailing from 48 states and 47 countries. Such diversity forces students to get to know people different from themselves, though this is not a chore. After all, Beloit students chose the college for a reason. Beloit curriculum is writing intensive. There are no core courses, but there are distribution requirements. Beloit believes that its First Year Seminar Experience is unique, though others have tried to copy it. Students are free to choose any one of a selection of topics that will challenge them to think critically, articulate their thoughts verbally and in writing, while interacting with a small group of classmates as they explore the topic. Known for its exceptional anthropology program, Beloit is also strong in modern languages, and offers Japanese, Chinese, German, Spanish, Russian, and French. An intensive summer language program also includes Arabic.

What sets Beloit apart? It is amazingly diverse for such a small school in the Midwest. Teachers primarily teach, but also do research with students. Everyone is on a first name basis. Student-centered is the phrase frequently repeated. The feel of the campus from both faculty and students is open, laid-back and casual. Relationships among students and faculty are central to this community, and they endure beyond graduation. Students who thrive at Beloit want to question and challenge. They are engaged, opinionated, politically active, liberal and have a multiple of interests. It is not uncommon for students who choose to double major to pick two subjects that are seemingly unrelated. The student body has a real say in what goes on. There is room to take risks, but the atmosphere is at the same time nurturing. Many students take advantage of the free tutoring offered.

Our last stop before flying home was the city of Milwaukee, home to Marquette University, one of 28 Jesuit higher education institutions in the country. Located in the heart of the city, Marquette is defined by its diversity, urban setting and Jesuit connection and traditions.
Founded in 1881, it is the newest of the 5 schools we visited, though still steeped in history. The center of campus is home to the 15th century St. Joan of Arc Chapel which was dismantled, transported to the U.S. from France and gifted to the university in 1964.

Marquette’s 12,000 students come from all 50 states and 70 countries. About 60% of students are Catholic, though students say that religion is present, yet not imposing. The 8,000 undergraduates are each enrolled in one of the universities 7 colleges which include Liberal Arts, Business, Engineering, Education, Nursing, Communications and Health Sciences. The application process is the same for all students, yet applicants specify which school they wish to attend and may include their second choice. Even after enrolled in a specific college, students throughout the university must complete the same Core of Common Studies. There is a highly selective Honors Program of fewer than 500 students. Sports are very important at Marquette. A Division I Big East Conference member, Marquette’s basketball team always draws a crowd. The school has neither football nor baseball, but that doesn’t seem to do much to dampen school spirit.

Who thrives at Marquette? Students who feel a strong connection to the university really care about community and the Jesuit ideals of caring for the whole person. Overall, students are academically motivated, yet very well grounded.

Whether it is the Midwest location or coincidentally, a core element of each school’s mission statement, the importance of a unified community comes through loud and clear on all of these campuses, despite how different they appear. Students feel connected and valued. When exploring colleges, read the mission statement and ask yourself if it speaks to the essence of what defines the school's philosophy and approach to the academic and social experience. A closing and noteworthy point: all of these colleges, especially the private institutions, offer fairly generous merit aid to qualified students, another reason they are worthy of a closer look!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Balancing Education Dreams with Smart Debt Decisions

I have transgressed from topics related to financial aid during the past few weeks, but want to return to the issue of affordability, college choice, and financial responsibility. This is now a perennial subject for the press, which is not surprising given the high and unabating cost of college, mounting student debt averages, and the state of the world economy which shows no signs of returning to good health any time soon.

The New York Times published an article by staff writer Ron Lieber on May 28, 2010, “Placing the Blame as Students Are Buried in Debt.” In this article, Mr. Lieber addresses the borrowing-to-pay-for-college dilemma by following the travails of a 26-year old woman who graduated from NYU with nearly $100,000 in college loans. When she chose NYU eight years earlier, she and her mother were determined that she should attend the “best” college, never factoring in the debt repayment burden upon graduation. I put “best” in quotes to emphasize the frequent mistake people make by equating quality and selectivity. This confusion often leads families to pick colleges based primarily on name recognition, without considering numerous other critical factors such as cost, fit and yes, academics.

Having amassed a hefty sum of private and federal loans, the young woman chronicled in Lieber’s article now finds herself in a situation where she does not earn nearly enough to meet her monthly loan payments. She, like many others, went heavily into debt to pay for college, never considering whether the nearly 6 figure investment in her education would yield a return that would make it worthwhile.

Who is to blame? The banks made loans available with little or no credit checks, the student borrowed without projecting her ability to repay the loans, and neither the university nor the banks counseled her on affordability before she amassed so much debt. Sounds vaguely like the sub-prime mortgage crisis, but with one major difference: the way the law reads today, student loans cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy. In other words, the borrower remains on the hook, even if he or she files for bankruptcy.

Curiously, NYU was one of the few universities in the country last year which actually took the initiative to contact families about debt before students enrolled. The university called 1,800 families who qualified for financial aid to ensure that they were aware of the debt they would likely have to incur. To the school’s surprise, this outreach effort had no impact on the enrollment rate. As a result, NYU ceased with such calls this year, though the university still struggles with how to best advise families on borrowing and paying for college, as well as where its counseling responsibility ends with respect to affordability.

In my view, every party here ought to be held accountable. However, the student and family will be the ones left paying back the loans, so the bulk of the responsibility lies with them. Am I implying that borrowing for college is a bad thing? Absolutely not! Financing a college education is a worthwhile investment, provided the ultimate return on that investment is positive. How does one assess that, especially before one has even decided where to enroll? One of my favorite college financial aid resources is the website This website offers a myriad of useful information, but one of its best features is the calculators which enable you to project forward and estimate future debt payments, based on expected borrowing and interest rates. One of the calculators even suggests what someone would need to earn monthly to comfortably pay back his or her student loans. Other resources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics site ( provide average salaries by region based on occupation. Students who have an inkling about what they want to do when they graduate can get a sense for how much they can expect to earn. Both these resources are good starting points for understanding affordability with respect to borrowing for college.

Before you choose a college based on name recognition alone, especially if you will need to borrow, understand the potential financial responsibility after graduation. As I have recommended in prior postings, financial "safeties" or college options that are likely and affordable, are as important to put on the college list as schools deemed to be an academically secure admit.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Novel Way to Visit Colleges

The process of deciding where to apply to college often begins with well-meaning suggestions from family and friends. They all have the perfect school in mind for you! Yet the key to finding colleges where the fit is right is to do your homework and research the schools. Then take a road trip. College visits are the best way to get a sense for life on campus and whether a college or university provides the academic and social experience that makes a student say, “I know I could be happy here.” Exploring college campuses can be fun as well as informative. Take it from someone that knows; as an independent educational consultant who visits fifty campuses a year, I am always excited to experience that “aha” moment when I see a college that I sense will be a great fit for a particular student.

Independent and school counselors regularly take to the road to expand or update their knowledge of the many higher education options available in order to best match students and colleges. Throughout the year, but especially in spring and summer, consortiums of colleges organize campus visits designed specifically for counselors and educational consultants. Anywhere from a few days to a week’s time, we zigzag across states by bus, with the hope of getting a firsthand look that will better enable us to understand the essence of a college and therefore, know whether a school would be a good fit for a student.

This summer a group of counselors from across the U.S. will come together in southern California and tour colleges by less conventional means: on bikes. Why not take a bus, car, or train, you might ask. These 19 hardy souls, myself included, are looking to combine a professional objective, expanding our college knowledge, with a host of other goals that include satisfying a love for cycling and physical exercise, camaraderie, personal fulfillment, and last, but not least, for fun. I would be disingenuous if I declared that I held a long-term passion for cycling. In fact, prior to officially committing to the tour a couple of months ago, I had not been on a bike in years. But embracing the challenge to train and the desire to see colleges in a novel way was all the motivation I needed.

On July 4 the group will gather at the University of the Redlands, about 65 miles east of Los Angeles, where we begin our journey. The first order of business will be to rent bikes, followed by the installation of racks and panniers to store our clothing and gear for the week. Yes, much to my chagrin, there is no SAG vehicle bringing up the rear (an Internet search taught me that the acronym stands for Support and Gear), which would carry our stuff and come to the aid of riders in need of assistance. I will learn the true meaning of “packing light” knowing that for one week’s time I will serve as my own pack horse.

Our travels take us to 14 schools including University of the Redlands, the five undergraduate colleges that comprise the Claremont Colleges consortium (Claremont McKenna, Pomona, Pitzer, Scripps, and Harvey Mudd), University of LaVerne, Azusa Pacific University, the University of Southern California, Cal Tech, UCLA, Occidental, Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount. We will cycle 30 to 50 miles a day, stopping at each campus long enough to learn about the schools and get a sense for the academic and social communities. Our last stop each day will likely be our place of rest for the night, and since our accommodations will mostly be in dorms, we will truly get a firsthand college experience.

I am stepping up my training as I count down the weeks to the “College Tour de California.” I am looking forward to the trip with great anticipation, but I am also excited about the prospect of meeting with students when I return. I know there is a good chance I will discover just the college that will make me want to say to a student or two, “I’ve got a great school in mind for you!”

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Competing in a Global Society - Change the Educational Model

Are U.S. schools preparing our students to compete in a global society? According to Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and someone I had the privilege to hear speak a few weeks ago, even the most elite of our K-12 educational institutions are not teaching our kids how to succeed in today’s world. His interviews with corporate executives and firsthand observations in classrooms at some of the country’s most prestigious high schools led Dr. Wagner to conclude that the U.S. suffers from The Global Achievement Gap. This also happens to be the title of his most recent book. The way our students are taught in school leaves them ill-prepared to succeed in today’s workplace.

One of Wagner’s more profound influences was journalist Thomas Friedman, and specifically his book The World Is Flat. Friedman’s premise struck a chord with Wagner: any job that is routine will eventually become obsolete either due to outsourcing and/or technology. Haven’t we already experienced this phenomenon and seen some dramatic changes in the labor landscape during the past few years? Though partly accelerated by the recession, job loss has also been a function of more fundamental changes in our work environment. Those who succeed are nimble and creative thinkers, i.e., adaptable, entrepreneurial and embracers of change.

What does that imply for the way we should be teaching our kids? Success is no longer about what we know; it’s about how we think. Yet the focus in the classroom is still about test taking. Students are not encouraged to ask questions for which there may be no clear answer. They are evaluated on right answers, rather than creativity and inquisitive thought. Until we shift the focus, we will fall further behind other countries in productivity and innovation.

Such profound change rarely comes easy, but Dr. Wagner proposes 7 key survival skills for careers, college and citizenship which he asserts are imperative if we are to begin to reverse the U.S.’s slide vis-à-vis our foreign competitors. In a nutshell, students today need to learn how to think critically and problem solve, work collaboratively across networks, be agile and adaptable, take initiative and be entrepreneurial, communicate effectively, know how to access and analyze information and lastly, have curiosity and imagination. Though you may think much of this sounds familiar, we still fail to properly teach these skills, in school, leaving our kids ill-equipped when they enter the workplace.

Critical thinking is really about asking good questions, evaluating different points of view, and seeing the connections of cause and effect. It is not about knowing the answers. The shortcomings of AP exams are a case in point. There are no essay questions on these exams. The test is graded (one to five) on the accuracy of the regurgitation. As Dr. Wagner points out, the tendency is to teach content, not competencies.

Successful people are those who embrace Wagner’s 3 C’s: Critical Thinking, Communication and Collaboration. They are also willing to push boundaries. Creative risk taking leads to innovation, which is increasingly important as change comes faster and faster. Did you know that Google gives and expects every employee to spend 20% of his or her time just messing around, free thinking while not working on any specific project? What Google has discovered is that this is how its most innovative ideas are developed. Imagine such an approach in our schools!

How should we adjust our thinking as parents? How we hold ourselves and our institutions accountable must shift to outcomes. The measure of accomplishment for our schools should no longer be making the grade by sending more students to highly selective colleges. Seeing more students graduate and with the tools that they need to succeed is the more meaningful yardstick. No one says it will be easy to make such wholesale changes to our educational institutions. However, recognizing that we are not adequately preparing young people for today's world is certainly a start.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Canadian Universities - A Great Find North of the Border

Nearly a year ago I posted a piece about the benefits of going to college in Canada. I cited reasonable cost and proximity to the U.S. (at least the northern states), as well as the opportunity to experience a truly international academic environment. My comments on the great value of Canadian universities were based on what I had learned, yet not firsthand knowledge. Last week I had the opportunity to test the accuracy of my impressions; I spent 3 days touring 7 universities in the province of Ontario. I came away even more convinced that Canadian universities provide a high quality and affordable option to students who are motivated, directed and those who desire the international diversity that such an experience offers.

My Canada excursion began on a Sunday which also happened to be Mother’s Day (it was not my preference to be away from my family, but college tour buses do not wait!). First point of note: it is so easy to get to Toronto! Just one hour flying time from the New York City airports and a 20 minute drive into the city made the outbound travel experience far easier than even going to the Midwest. For full disclosure I must note that long U.S. Customs lines in Toronto on the return were aggravating, however a frequent Canada-U.S. traveler standing behind me provided assurance that this was unusual.

But enough about the travel; more importantly, how do Canadian universities compare to U.S. colleges and what type of student would thrive at a school north of the U.S. border? Canadian universities share some common characteristics with each other: they are predominantly public, large by our standards (25,000 is an average size university), research oriented, big on pre-professional programs, and many have co-op learning options (students incorporate and get academic credit for paid work experiences in their course of study). What we label academic departments or programs, the Canadians call “faculties.” Much like in the U.S., students choose a university based upon fit, both academic and social.

For example, the University of Waterloo is well known for its engineering (13 separate disciplines) and math faculties, though the arts (more or less the equivalent of our liberal arts) still draw the largest number of students. The university appeals to students who are innovative, unconventional, and seeking ways to find connections to the world. Did you know that the Blackberry was invented at Waterloo? With greater insight into Waterloo’s academic approach, this no longer comes as a surprise. The university is also proud to tell visitors that all intellectual property belongs to the student, not the school. It’s no wonder Mike Lazaridis, Blackberry’s inventor, gives back generously in time and funding to his alma mater.

If artistry is your thing, Canada’s oldest art school, Ontario College of Art & Design, is an exciting learning environment in the heart of the vibrant city of Toronto. The school is not focused on job training for careers in the arts, but rather educating young people to develop their thought processes, be problem solvers as well as socially responsible citizens, using art and design as the medium; I would call it a cerebral approach to teaching fine and visual arts. Those who thrive at OCAD are artistic, curious, involved in their communities and enjoy the challenge of looking at the creative process from a more intellectual perspective.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Ryerson University in downtown Toronto, a school of 25,000 primarily catering to undergraduates. Talk about diversity: there are 142 countries represented among the students! With a strong pre-professional focus, Ryerson notes that faculty members work in their fields; they do not just teach. There are numerous strong programs, too many to list here, but it is probably fair to describe the university’s vision as discovering ways to marry innovation with the business of whatever discipline one chooses to study. Communications and media are big. If what you want is a focused, pre-professional education, this might be an excellent option.

For those who want the feel of a prestigious UK institution, yet prefer easy access from the States and a more likely chance of admission, the University of Toronto might be just the ticket. Stepping onto the St. George campus with its ivy covered buildings is like being transported to Oxford or Cambridge. It is big (50,000 undergrads, 20,000 grad students on two campuses), but the residential college system, similar to that of Yale and those hallowed institutions across the pond, allows students to feel connected to a community, even in a very large university. Students choose the University of Toronto for its 14 professional faculties (especially strong in engineering and music, but others are equally renowned) and its excellent research opportunities. I am personally indebted to this top notch research institution, for it is here that insulin was invented. This academic powerhouse is part of a cosmopolitan city rich in culture and diversity, with fabulous eclectic cuisine, and sports and athletic venues. Who thrives here? Students at U of T are mature, independent, and want the diversity and vibrancy of a city school community. As with many of the Canadian universities, classes, especially for introductory courses, are very large. Motivation and self-discipline are critical factors for a student’s success.

It would be a serious oversight if I didn’t comment on one of the best things about Canadian universities for foreign students: the cost! Most programs are less than $30,000 a year, and that includes the full cost of attendance. Furthermore, U.S. students attending many Canadian universities can take advantage of the U.S. federal student aid loan programs, as well as federal tax credits. Many of these universities also offer merit aid to academically deserving students.

For those of us raised in the U.S., we too often associate scholarship with the Ivy League and other prestigious American colleges and universities. My recent trip to Canada confirmed my hunch that we should consider looking beyond our borders to discover academic gems. The scholarly environments offered by many Canadian universities make them a very appealing option for students in search of a major research university where a top notch education can be had for a relative bargain.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Picking a College - One Student's Approach

When Kira, a National Honors Society student and gifted athlete was thinking about college, she decided to take a less traditional route than that followed by many of her fellow schoolmates who dreamed of admission to highly selective New England colleges. As a junior living in Westchester County, NY, Kira knew she was ready to broaden her horizons and to meet people outside the northeast who had different life experiences. She also engaged in early conversations with her parents about affordability, right fit (academically, socially and financially) and family values. While Kira’s parents let her know that the choice was ultimately hers, they openly spoke about cost and value, sharing their thoughts on strategies to find schools that matched on all fronts, including financial.

In today’s tough economic times, many families are seeking ways to make the cost of college more manageable. Having the conversation with teenagers about college cost and affordability is usually not easy, especially when young people have their hearts set on an expensive and highly selective school that does not offer merit aid. Many families in affluent Westchester County do not qualify for need-based aid. However, that does not necessarily mean that the cost of college is something they can comfortably afford. Some will decide to take out substantial loans which may put serious pressure on future cash flow, both for the students and the parents.

Kira’s family took a different approach and one that I frequently advocate: have the conversation about affordability, perceived return on investment and family values early, know what the options are, understand what’s important to everyone involved, and know if and how you can afford to pay for it. When families talk through these issues early and develop a sound strategy, the outcome is more likely to be positive.

Kira’s experience is one example of how that approach successfully played out. She has just completed her freshman year at Washington College on the Chester River on the eastern shore of Maryland and is thrilled with the choice that she made. She attributes her success in finding the right fit to the methodical and thoughtful way she went about her search. Having made the decisions to look beyond her backyard and the northeast, Kira and her parents headed south, starting in New Jersey, and visited campuses of various sizes to get a sense for what felt comfortable. One thing Kira quickly realized, coming from a small high school, was that “small” by college standards could still feel large to her. A class of 400 to 500 students was still double or triple the size of her high school class. She also did her homework on colleges that offered merit aid and knew that as a strong student, she would be eligible to receive money from several schools. While she is a competitive soccer player, Kira was aware that the Division III schools on her list would not pay her to play in keeping with the NCAA rules.

Kira ultimately narrowed her list down to eight colleges, and included SUNY Binghamton so that she would have an in-state option. The cost of attendance at the SUNY schools is about one-third the cost of many private colleges and universities. In the end she was admitted to all eight: Loyola College in Maryland, Elon University, James Madison University, Wofford College, College of New Jersey, St Mary’s College of Maryland and Washington College. Three of the six private colleges (Elon, Wofford, and Washington) did indeed offer her money. Fortunately, those that gave merit aid included two of her top choices, Elon and Washington. While Wofford’s aid package was substantially higher (and in Kira’s words, “very tough to turn down,”) she knew that the money offered by Washington made this a better overall fit when considering all factors. As a member of her high school’s National Honors Society she received $10,000 per year from Washington, as well as a sizeable annually-renewable Hodson Trust-Beneficial Merit Scholarship. However, the big surprise was her selection for the recently established Presidential Fellow Program which put her together with a group of 30 other accomplished freshmen who share this distinction. The fellows in this program take advantage of specially organized and wide-ranging activities and events, which include dinner with the college president in his home, a behind-the-scenes tour of Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington and a trip to the Maryland State House for private meetings with legislators.

Kira’s satisfaction with her college choice is not just about the money and the fellowship honor. She is loving her experience at Washington College for all the right reasons: the fit could not be better. She relishes the camaraderie she has found with her soccer colleagues, the quality of the courses, the small class size (even for required freshman seminars) and support she gets from both professors and coaches, especially while she balances both academics and a sport, and the student diversity of experience and socio-economic background. One of the things that did surprise her about the college is the emphasis on writing, which Kira said is intensive and required for all classes, including math courses. Though she describes the writing requirements as demanding, she knows she is learning excellent skills and habits that are essential to whichever career and life path she chooses. Kira has so embraced the WAC experience, she is now also a tour guide for the Admissions office.

Kira’s strategy for her college search and her positive experience once on campus will hopefully inspire others to think out of the box when identifying and selecting a good college match. Finding the right college fit means focusing on many factors, and that means thinking broadly about identifying excellent financial options too.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Vermont Colleges - Something for Everyone

Many people assume that April is not the best month to visit Vermont. The snow begins to melt, giving way to muddy fields and trails. But travel to Vermont in April is exactly what I did last week with a group of 37 high school and independent counselors, along with 4 Vermont college admission officers who served as our guides. We visited 17 schools in a 6-day college tour that took us up, down and across the Green Mountain State. What I discovered is that Vermont is truly beautiful year round, not just in winter, summer and fall. It is also home to a group of colleges and universities that provide a broad spectrum of wonderful options in higher education.

Our trip yielded many surprises and discoveries, starting with the variety and breadth of educational opportunities that this state with fewer than 700,000 year-round residents has to offer. Vermont truly has something for everyone, so it should come as no surprise that it attracts students from all over. The majority of those enrolled hail from beyond Vermont's borders. Whether you are looking for a flagship public research university, a military college, pre-professional programs, a work and service learning experience, a school devoted to students with learning differences, top liberal arts, or state colleges that offer unique programs and financial value even to out-of-state residents, there is a good chance that you will find a school that meets your needs in this beautiful northeastern state.

The unique qualities and programs of each school were fairly easy to keep straight, but I also began to notice some characteristics that were common to nearly every college we visited, beginning with the shear beauty of each campus. Mountains, lush hills and lakes define the landscape, even for the colleges situated in the heart of Burlington, the largest city in Vermont and a thriving college town. The second thing that struck me was that nearly all of the colleges we visited offered a liberal arts core education, yet each with its own clearly articulated approach that made the experience distinct. Lastly, the Vermont schools share an appreciation for the environment, whether it is just a part of the collective consciousness or an integral component of the curriculum. This, after all, is the Green Mountain State.

So after 17 colleges in six days I am challenged by the task of conveying a sense of each school, in a few hundred words or less (not unlike staying within the word count limits on the Common Application). Here are some quick thoughts and observations, and why they might be choice picks:

University of Vermont (10,000 undergraduates, 2/3rds out-of-state) - Best small liberal arts feel in a major public research university; No concerns about classes predominantly taught by teaching assistants as undergrads dominate the student body here; It's all about them! Offering sound programs in all of the liberal arts, UVM is also known for its Business, Nursing, Education and Engineering.

Burlington College (170 free spirited students) - Where artists and activists shape their own hands-on liberal learning; Popular courses of study include Cinema Production & Film Study, Fine Furniture Making, and Transpersonal Psychology. While tiny by most standards, Burlingon College's community is part of the larger Burlington cityscape. Additionally, it is a member of a three college consortium with Saint Michael's and neighbor, Champlain College.

Champlain College (2,000 students) Top choice for an academic experience that uses liberal arts as a lens to view real world issues and practices; Its unique Upside Down Curriculum has students engaged in their major course work starting as early as the first year. Majors fields of study include Communications & Creative Media, Information Technology and Sciences, Education & Human Studies, and Business. Within thes broad areas, Game Programming, Digital Film Making, Graphic Design and Digital Forensics are popular.

Bennington College (750 students) - “Interdisciplinary” is more than just a buzz word here; This is the place for the creative and independent student who wants to design his or her own interdisciplinary plan of study and put critical thinking into practice. Student-faculty relationships are more central to the experience than at other colleges, with weekly advisory meetings. Fine and performing arts, languages, as well as creative writing and architecture are big draws.

College of Saint Joseph (450 students) - Where a small and nurturing environment caters largely to first generation college students who seek to blend theory and practice. Students enjoy the security of a small campus with internship opportunities and an emphasis on pre-professional studies, i.e., Criminal Justice, Business, Education, Human Services and Sports Management.

Green Mountain College (750 students) - Top choice for the environmental liberal arts experience and one of 5 colleges in the Eco League of Environmentally Aware Colleges; At Green Mountain, reducing the carbon footprint takes on a whole new meaning. Popular academic programs include Environmental Studies, Resort & Hospitality, Biology, Education and the Arts. It is one of two colleges in Vermont with a working farm managed by students.

Saint Michael’s College (2,000 undergraduates, 80% out-of-state) – A small fully residential college with a big perspective on community; This Catholic institution prides itself on the close-knit campus and the students' celebration of differences. Communications, Journalism, Business, Education and English Literature are popular majors at this test-optional college noted for strong and dedicated academic advising.

Middlebury College (2,400 students) - Vermont’s own little Ivy and a top contender for best facilities on one of the most beautiful college campuses around; Known as a premier institution for the study of languages, Middlebury is also especially strong in English Literature, Environmental Studies and the Sciences. The college welcomes students to take a gap year and enrolls 90 freshmen for February admissions.

Southern Vermont College (500+ students, 2/3rds out-of-state) - Nurturing and small, SVC has a pre-professional focus with a liberal arts core; The college promotes a project-based learning experience and strong community partnerships; 61% of students are first generation; Strong majors include Nursing, Healthcare Management, Business with an emphasis on entrepreneurship, Sports Management, Criminal Justice and Creative Writing. Forensic Nursing will be added next year.

Vermont Technical College (1,000 students) - 98% placement rate for graduates of this vocational school; Fields of study range from Business Agriculture, Fire Studies and Architecture, to Nursing, Dental Hygiene (only program in VT), and Veterinary Technology. Aviation Technology will be added next year.

Marlboro College (300 students) - Where smart, intellectual, and self-described “weird” students seek a very personalized learning experience in a self-governing community; The college has a writing intensive curriculum with a focus on tutorials as a foundation of its academic approach; Test-optional.

Norwich University ( 1,250 corp of cadets, 950 civilians) - Where the oldest military academy in the U.S. and a civilian college co-exist; Students are drawn to the structured life style and leadership opportunities; Corp members maintain the option, but not the obligation, to join the military upon graduation; Popular majors include Nursing, Architecture, Engineering, and Criminal Justice.

Sterling College (105 students, 78% out-of-state) - One of seven work service learning colleges in the U.S. and the only one in Vermont; “Working Hands, Working Minds” is the motto at this back-to-nature college community with a science-based, environmentally focused curriculum. Students pursue Conservation Ecology, Sustainable Agriculture, and Outdoor Education & Leadership; Students must work at the school as part of their academic experience, including running the campus farm which also serves as a hands-on classroom. Our group had the pleasure of arriving early enough in the season to see the newborn rabbits, lambs and goats, and also observe a class in sheep shearing!

Landmark College (500 students) - Having a learning disability is not a handicap, but rather a pre-requisite for admission here. Those who attend this 2-year college study liberal arts and also learn to better understand their own disabilities in order to overcome academic challenges; 80% of students transfer to a 4 year college. The college measures its success by what students do after. And successful it is.

Castleton State College, Lyndon State College and Johnson State College
These 3 state colleges enroll under 2,000 students each. Unique academic opportunities abound, as all three have carved out their own academic personalities and specialties:
- Castleton State – in addition to Nursing and Education, Castleton is strong in sports related majors including Sports Administration, Training and Physical Education. While financial pressures have forced colleges to eliminate some sports teams, Castleton just added football. The team plays to sell-out crowds and has a spirited school marching band to cheer it on.
- Lyndon State – Electronic Journalism, Music Business & Industry, and Atmospheric Sciences are just some of the premier majors that put Lyndon on the map. The Emmy award winning school television station reaches 9.000 households in VT and NH, with its college reporters out in the communities covering local news.
- Johnson State – Perhaps the most arts focused of the state colleges, Johnson State has a strong program in the performing arts, especially for jazz. Other popular courses of study are Business, Outdoor Education, Hospitality in Tourism & Management and Wellness & Alternative Medicines.

Distilling these 17 schools down to quick sound bites does not nearly do them justice, but hopefully I have given you a flavor for some of their unique qualities. Please feel free to contact me if you wish to learn more on any or all of them. As you or your sons and daughters consider college options, keep in mind the wonderful possibilities that Vermont has to offer.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Setting Goals - Challenge and Attainment

It is a beautiful day and I am in my office writing rather than getting on my bike. Why is that so significant? I am chastising myself because I am officially “in training” and should be taking advantage of afternoons such as this to cycle. Yes, I have committed to do a tour of colleges in southern California with a group of counselors during the first week of July. We will travel exclusively on bikes, covering 50 miles a day and carrying our own gear. As many of you know, I am a runner, not a cyclist. The thought of riding for hours on busy and hilly roads in a pack of cyclists with the weight and bulk of my week’s worth of belongings strapped to my bike is both exhilarating and terrifying.

You may be wondering why I am doing this if I am concerned about being up to the challenge. At my age (let’s just say I am over 40) what am I trying to prove? Frankly, this is not a question I am asking myself. I am doing this for several reasons: as a college consultant I know the importance of seeing schools firsthand in order to best guide my students towards finding the right fit. This is why I visit 50 to 60 colleges every year. I am also looking forward to meeting others in my field, mostly school guidance counselors, who share my professional objective. I anticipate a special camaraderie developing within this group of 14 after sharing an adventure filled week on the road. But one of my primary reasons is merely to have a goal; something challenging, yet attainable.

We all have goals in life, some we set for ourselves and others that are assigned to us. They give our lives purpose and direction. The ones that offer the greatest rewards and satisfaction are those that challenge and push us to attain something we might otherwise not have achieved. Is there any feeling more gratifying than working towards something that we’ve earned from sheer effort, thoughtful planning and persistence? In the absence of setting objectives, we often lose our way. We have nothing against which to measure progress and success. The goals in our lives instill discipline and motivation. And if we get off track, we must look within for the inner strength that drives our personal resiliency. It’s the stuff that builds confidence and makes us stronger.

How we set goals is important too, both for ourselves and for our children. Goals are not a “to-do” list. A truly enriching goal should result in something more than just one finished homework assignment or a clean room. Longer term goals force us to have a plan, be disciplined and focused. The true pleasure should come to the one who achieves the goal rather than the person who may have assigned it. Goals must be attainable, yet challenging; sweat is expected, but the blood and tears are not a prerequisite. (I say this as I look down upon my scabbed knee healing far too slowly after a silly spill on my first outdoor ride; I felt foolish and ten years old again). The child struggling through one too many AP classes who is suffering physically and emotionally under the stress, may be experiencing more harm than good. In too many of these cases, students end the semester feeling worse, not better about themselves. Instead, we should help our children discover the satisfaction of achievement from mastering a challenging task that pushes rather than paralyzes them. We as parents should help our sons and daughters set goals that ignite their passions and help them build resiliency and confidence.

The west coast bike tour is now just 12 weeks away. I will definitely get some cycling in this weekend. The training and ride will be a challenge, but I am up to the task. I am already anticipating the pride, satisfaction, and yes, exhilaration that I know I will feel in July.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Student Loan Reform - What Does it Mean for Me?

The recently passed healthcare reform bill will not only bring historic changes to how healthcare is provided; it will also change the way students borrow to pay for college. That’s right. The Obama proposed student loan reform was a late addition to the reconciliation bill passed last Sunday by the House. So the passage of healthcare reform this week also brought sweeping changes to federal loan programs for higher education as well as steady increases in financial aid for families with the most significant needs. The major changes to student financial aid fall into 3 categories: increases to Pell grants, elimination of the bank-based student loan program, otherwise known as the Federal Family Education Loan program or FFELP, and a modification to the loan repayment plan that will make it easier for graduates with modest income to repay their education loans (there are additional changes, though these are the three that most directly impact financial assistance for students).

Increases in the maximum Pell grants which are available to students whose families demonstrate the most significant financial need (typically income less than $45,000) will now be tied to the Consumer Price Index (though the original proposal was higher at CPI + 1%). The maximum award for 2010-2011 is $5,550 and will stay constant through the following two years. The grant size is expected to reach $5,900 by 2019-2020, nearly $1,000 a year less than that projected under President Obama’s original proposal. While the final version has been applauded, it is not expected to keep up with increases in college tuition, room and board, if history is any guide. Assuming the rise in cost of attendance continues to outpace the rate of inflation, the changes to the Pell program will do little to make college more affordable for students in the Pell eligible income bracket.

The big change in the federal loan program is the discontinuation of the bank loan option for federal student loans. The bank-based option has been available to colleges and universities since 1965 and accounted for as much as 80% of the federal student loan market. The federal government pays fees to lenders, though assumes the risk if the loans default. The Obama administration has made elimination of the FFEL program a primary goal for student aid reform, projecting a 10 year savings of $61 billion that will be used largely to support the increase in Pell grants. After July 1st all colleges and universities that participate in the federal Stafford loan program will join the Direct Loan program, shifting the administrative management from lenders to the colleges themselves.

How does this change impact students and their families? There are really two ways that borrowers will be impacted. No longer will students at colleges that participate in the FFELP program need to find a bank lender. Instead, those who apply for federally guaranteed Stafford loans will deal directly with the colleges’ financial aid offices. Secondly, the interest rate on the PLUS loans, which parents can access to pay their children’s college costs, is 7.9% with the Direct Loan program, versus 8.5% for the erstwhile bank program. With interest accruing while the student is in school, the difference can become significant over four years.

Changes to the income-based repayment plan, which became effective last July, will further ease the burden on students once they begin to repay their school loans. The purpose of the plan is to make it easier for graduates with low incomes to stay current and potentially limit their loan obligations through debt forgiveness. The bill just approved will make the repayment option available to more borrowers by lowering the debt to income threshold from 15% to 10% of discretionary income. Additionally, loans still outstanding after 20 years (versus the current 25) will be forgiven. The one catch is that this provision will not go into effect until July 1, 2014 and will only benefit those who borrow after that date.

So who are the winners and losers with the student loan reform bill? Low income students are winners, as they are now assured federal grant money that will grow with inflation. Whether it is enough to keep them from losing ground against rising college costs is in question, though doubtful. Student borrowers under the federal loan program should probably be indifferent to whether they borrow from a bank or through their college. The modified income based repayment plan is without a doubt the best deal for college graduates, though high school seniors who will start college in the fall lose out since the changes don’t become effective until July 1, 2014, the year they graduate.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Race to Nowhere - The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture

I want to make all of my readers aware of a new documentary film by director Vicki Abeles titled Race to Nowhere. This documentary explores the negative impact of America’s high pressured and achievement-focused culture on our nation’s youth. Are the demands and expectations placed on young people today leading to a generation of burned out, depressed and disengaged youth? This is the conclusion of many educators, therapists, and other professionals who work with students and appear in interviews throughout the film. The method of teaching is also, arguably, leaving graduates ill-prepared to enter the workplace. Educators feel pressured to teach to tests rather than develop minds and impart skills necessary to succeed. Sadly, the despair felt by many youths has had and continues to have repercussions that impact and even destroy families. Ms. Abeles’ goal is to raise awareness of this distressing trend with the hope of starting a national dialogue that challenges our beliefs about the effectiveness and sanity of our education system and culture.

While the film is not yet widely distributed, screenings are taking place around the country. The movie is coming to the New York area the week of March 22. For those of you who live in or near Westchester County, you will have the opportunity to view this enlightening documentary on Tuesday evening, March 23 at 7:30 pm at the JCC Mid-Westchester in Scarsdale, NY. Tickets can be purchased in advance at the film’s website and by going to the “Screenings” page. Whether you can attend the screening or not, I encourage you to check out the website and watch the 3 minute film trailer. I believe this is a movie every parent to see.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What is the Value of a Liberal Arts Education?

Is a liberal arts education a luxury? With more than half of all undergraduates now choosing more “practical” majors such as business, nursing and engineering, it appears that many young people and their families are questioning the value of a liberal arts education. The question on parents’ and students’ minds today, especially given the escalating cost of a college education and the state of the economy, is will my son or daughter (or I) be employable?

This week the Chronicle of Higher Education is running a series of articles which examine what it titles ‘The New Liberal Arts.” The special report explores the question of value, and also cites the changes in college curriculum in responses to the shifting demand. Many traditional liberal arts institutions have added pre-professional programs. At the same time, several colleges with a more career-oriented focus are incorporating a liberal arts approach, placing greater emphasis on critical thinking and intellectual exploration. The idea is to help students develop important analytical and problem solving skills in addition to preparing them for a profession.

Returning to the question about the value of a liberal arts education, I wanted to share an article from the Chronicle series written by Sanford J. Ungar, the president of Goucher College and former host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” His article, “7 Major Misconceptions About the Liberal Arts,” seeks to dispel the myths that a liberal arts degree isn’t worth the cost, especially when compared to pre-professional training. Ungar’s article can be accessed through the link Mr. Ungar makes several compelling arguments, key among them is the notion that students must be prepared for change, especially given the evolving demands of society today. One thing is almost certain: many careers which will be available to the Millennial Generation in their lifetimes do not presently exist. The challenges we face today have created an even greater need for college students to graduate with a broad based education that prepares them to think critically and outside the box.

But how does that factor in the perceptions and expectations of those who make the hiring decisions? Don’t employers want to hire young people who have specialized in a particular field of study, especially in a buyer’s market where unemployment is running at 10%? According to Mr. Ungar, a 2009 survey for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 75% of employers nationwide encourage students to seek a liberal arts education. 89% want to see greater emphasis on communications, both orally and written. Analytical reasoning, critical thinking, creativity and the ability to innovate were also cited as important skills required by prospective employers.

One piece of advice I give to those in the midst of a job search, especially anyone who has been employed in a downsized industry: think in terms of your skill set, not your last job description. In our fast paced and changing society industries and jobs will come and go. The value of a liberal arts education will last a lifetime.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tuition Caps, Cost Cutting...Working with Less

Preliminary steps taken by two prestigious New England colleges in the past week may signal new trends in higher education. One week ago Middlebury College announced a plan, pending board approval, that would limit annual cost of attendance increases to one percentage point over the Consumer Price Index. This week Brandeis University released its proposed cuts to academic programs as part of ongoing efforts to address its financial issues. The timing of these announcements has interestingly coincided with the publication of a joint study by two non-profit policy organizations, Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, regarding public disatisfaction with colleges. Roughly two-thirds of the survey participants said that federal stimulus money should be used by colleges to hold down tuition, even at the cost of program cutbacks. Middlebury and Brandeis are apparently ahead of the curve and taking that message to heart.

Middlebury’s announcement may not seem like much, especially with inflation at an historic low. But in fact, it is a big deal for a college to commit to a cap for an "indefinite" period when average annual cost increases at four-year colleges have exceeded 4 percent. Other schools have imposed one year tuition freezes, only to raise price more than the rate of inflation the following year. Middlebury’s move obviously won’t improve its bottom line, though if one believes that demand for a college education is not inelastic (in other words, an increase in price will negatively affect demand), then this action should certainly raise the school’s desirability. But that’s what makes this move so noteworthy: as one of the most selective colleges in the country, Middlebury has only seen applications increase in recent years, even while its tuition has risen.

Brandeis’ move is gutsy, though born out of necessity. Imagine the premier Jewish-sponsored university in the U.S. abandoning Hebrew as a major. However, if the proposed reorganization is adopted, there is probably truth to the school’s claim that the impact on undergraduate studies will be minimal. For example, many departments will be merged rather than completely eliminated and changes will be phased in so as not to disrupt the education of current students or impact those applying for the coming fall. The biggest losers will be graduate students, as university-sponsored PhD programs are cutback or terminated (a topic for another day: the fate of university funded doctoral programs). Hebrew may no longer be a major; however, students will still be able to study the language while majoring instead in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. What Brandeis has done is likely to become more prevalent at colleges across the nation. Programs with few degree candidates will be cut if determined that they may no longer be justifiable.

What does this imply for trends in higher education going forward? Middlebury’s move may likely put pressure on its peer institutions to do the same. Yet many well-endowed colleges are feeling the pinch even without slowing tuition increases. The lost dollars will have to come from somewhere. Expect financial aid to take a hit. Williams’ move to end its no-loan policy opened the door for Dartmouth…others will no doubt follow. Middlebury, by the way, was not among the 40 or so universities that did away with loans in need-based aid back in 2007-2008.

Colleges have for the past two years examined all possible ways to cut costs, so Brandeis’ announcement is not that surprising. Staff layoffs, salary freezes, and varsity team eliminations have become more commonplace news. What makes Brandeis’ step so notable is where it has chosen to reduce expenses. I offer up advice I have shared in the past. Students should do their homework when researching colleges. If they have an interest in a highly specialized major that may have few degree candidates, inquire about the ‘safety’ of that program. If academic programs are eliminated, hopefully others will follow Brandeis’ example and phase them out over time so that current students are not impacted.

Are colleges finally getting the message that controlling costs and making education affordable, even at the expense of some programs, is among the top concerns of families with college age students? In the case of tuition caps, one school does not make a trend, but I will remain optimistic.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Making College Accessible - How You Can Help

I am going to totally change gears with this posting and pose a question (actually two): 1) Do you ever shop online, and 2) if I told you that your online purchases could benefit underserved high school students at no additional cost to you, would you be willing to help? I bet most of you would answer yes to both.

The New York Association for College Admission Counseling (NYSACAC) is a not-for-profit organization with a mission that includes promoting access and equity in post-secondary education, and developing and supporting the college counseling profession. As co-chair of the Development Committee of the NYSACAC Executive Board, I am involved in fundraising initiatives in support of this mission. NYSACAC has established an affiliation with that will allow members and non-members to support the association’s initiatives while shopping on-line. The link to Amazon is posted on the NYSACAC website ( and can be easily accessed on the “Donate” page. You can alternatively go directly to the “Donate” site by clicking on Every purchase made through NYSACAC will benefit underserved students by funding important programs that improve college accessibility. So please consider shopping through the NYSACAC website the next time you want to buy a book or make other purchases through Amazon. It involves one easy extra step that could lead to a disadvantaged child taking leaps and bounds.
Another way to support NYSACAC and its mission is to donate directly. One of the special programs that NYSACAC offers is Camp College, a three-day college experience for students who might otherwise not have adequate opportunities to learn about the college admission process. By accommodating 150-200 students each summer, this program gives disadvantaged youths a chance to experience life on a college campus while also meeting with high school counselors and college admission officers who educate them about the college process. Many people volunteer time and resources to this much needed program. However, the cost to send one student for a three-day session still runs about $160.
If your own son or daughter has access to good college planning resources, you understand the value of such guidance. Imagine how critical it becomes for a first generation, underserved student for whom going to college is never discussed at home, nor presented as an option. Would you consider helping a less fortunate student realize his or her college dream by making a donation to NYSACAC for the benefit of Camp College? For $160 you can sponsor a student, though contributions of any amount will truly make a difference. A donation at the sponsor level will pair you with a particular student, who will know that he or she is able to participate in Camp College thanks to your generosity. Donations for the benefit of Camp College can be made by going to the NYSACAC website, clicking on the “Donate” link and following the directions from there. Thank you for any support you can give.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Are "No Loan" Aid Policies a Thing of the Past?

First it was Williams earlier this month; now Dartmouth has announced that it is pulling back from its “no loan” policy for students who qualify for financial aid. Anyone who has been reading about college investment losses should not be surprised by this development. A couple of weeks ago a study on college endowments reported that these investment portfolios in the aggregate lost about $95 billion in value in the 2009 fiscal year (June 2008 to June 2009), contracting 23% on average. Since colleges such as Williams and Dartmouth rely on endowment earnings to fund a major portion of their operating budgets, these investment losses have significant ramifications.

Back in late 2007 and early 2008 about 40 highly selective and well endowed colleges instituted no loan or limited loan policies for their student aid programs. This trend took hold after Senator Charles Grassley, Republican from Iowa, suggested that colleges and universities be held to the same standards as foundations that must spend 5% of the value of their investments annually in order to maintain tax exempt status. Yet as colleges grapple with structural deficits, even after a series of budget cuts, the practicality of these policies is now being revisited.

With Williams and Dartmouth taking the first steps, it is just a matter of time before others follow suit, as none of these colleges has been spared the economic pain. Both schools have stated that the reinstitution of loans in financial aid packages is a necessary move in order to preserve educational programs. Each has emphasized, however, that the return to loans will not affect students who demonstrate the most significant need. Dartmouth, for example, has stated that it expects this to impact those students whose families earn above $75,000, for whom loans will comprise $2,500 to $5,500 of the financial aid package per academic year. With income under $100,000, loans will not exceed $2,500.

So what does this mean for financial aid, in general, at colleges across the country? Without a crystal ball, I can only make some educated guesses. Neither Williams nor Dartmouth has backed away from fully meeting demonstrated need, and I expect that maintaining this policy will be a priority. We will just begin to see a higher percentage of loans in the packaging. The selective schools that currently have no loan policies generally offer need-based aid only (no merit). That of course, will not change. But what about other colleges that use merit aid to attract students and shape a class? Many of these colleges do not have the hefty endowments that prompted the no loan policies in the first place. They rely heavily on tuition to meet their budgets and fund aid.

Given the importance of filling seats, I predict that merit aid as an enrollment management tool will continue for many colleges. In fact, schools that survive by maintaining enrollment numbers may find merit aid even more important. Offering some tuition discount, past experience has shown, attracts students who still bring in tuition dollars. These are the ones that also raise GPA and standardized test score averages.

But back to need-based aid...will we continue to see less generous financial aid packages? Pure economics would suggest so. Don't be surprised to see other highly selective colleges dial back their no loan policies, especially now that two of their prestigious peers have already taken the plunge.