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 http://www.mappingyourfuture.org/. 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 (http://www.bls.gov/) 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!”