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.