Monday, December 5, 2011

Making College Affordable - Time to Speak Up

I’ve been reading a lot about the cost of college lately. The talk these days is often about how to improve transparency. Thanks to a recent government mandate, families can now go to the website of any federally funded college and try out the school’s Net Price Calculator. This new online tool will ostensibly help families and students estimate their out-of-pocket costs for a college education. That’s the good news. Yet, net cost naturally leads to a conversation about how middle and lower income families will come up with this elusive figure which is still far beyond many family budgets. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan asserts that three-quarters of all Americans believe college is too expensive for most people to afford. The fact that none of this has dampened the year-over-year rise in applications is indeed mind-boggling. Even Penn State’s applications are up this year, but that’s a topic for a different post.

College has become so far out of reach for so many families that last week Mr. Duncan implored higher education officials to make college costs an urgent priority and asked that they think creatively about ways to address this profound issue for our college-going population. Meanwhile, students and families still reach for the golden ring to attend expensive and elite four year colleges, often putting themselves in debt beyond their probable ability to repay. The most recent statistics on student debt show that seniors are graduating with average loan balances in excess of $25,000. Some of this is eligible for Obama’s income-based repayment plan for federal student loans, but more and more students are forced to borrow private loans to close the gap. Interest and principal on these loans will have students repaying their student obligations for much of their adult lives, perhaps forcing them to forego or postpone putting a down payment on a home or making contributions to retirement funds. Forget about funding their own children's education.

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education published a special report, What Private College Presidents Make, which shows compensation for the leaders of our nation’s colleges and universities, and also compares the president's salary to each institution’s pay scale for its faculty. At some, not all, the gap is staggering, not unlike the discrepancies we find on Wall Street. The report is quite timely given Mr. Duncan’s remarks last week. While cutting college chief executive pay won’t in and of itself make college affordable, focusing on leadership compensation seems like a great place to start. Suffice it to say that not nearly enough has been done to stop this runaway train so that we, as parents, are not further mortgaging our own futures and watching our children do the same.

We read about the steady rise in student loan balances and defaults each year, but nothing concrete has really been done to stem the rise of what will, without a doubt, be our next sub-prime crisis. I think about this everyday as I advise families on paying for college. For many it is not really a question of whether the funds are accessible; lenders are still eager to make student loans, and there is an even more tenuous link to affordability than there was in sub-prime mortgage lending where presumably some collateral existed. It is all too easy to hide our heads in the sand and hope that miraculously our children will be able to repay the loans when the time comes and still be able to live the American Dream.

I am not suggesting that everyone go to the nearest computer and sign the Occupy Student Debt Campaign online petition which calls for student debt forgiveness, free public education and greater transparency at private colleges. However, this product of the Occupy Wall Street movement has prompted me to think about my own responsibility to my children and to the families I advise. For the first time, I am encouraged to write to my representatives in Washington and ask that they make college affordability for all students a priority. I am hoping that I can persuade others to do the same. I look down the road and wonder what will happen when college is only accessible to the truly privileged in this country while the majority is saddled with student loans they will never be able to repay. The image is painfully clear and I'm not liking what I see.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

When Early Decision Makes Sense

One of the greatest misconceptions perpetuated each application season is that the best way to improve your chances of getting into college is to apply Early Decision (ED). Yes, I am fully aware that colleges such as Bucknell accept double the number of applicants ED versus regular decision and that UPenn fills 50% of its freshman class with students who apply under the binding early admission process. My beef with clinging to the notion that ED will always improve your chances is that it is not so black and white, but rather depends on several factors. One must look behind the pure percentages to truly understand what drives the numbers and who is actually getting accepted early. I am not disputing some very compelling evidence; I just want students and families to understand when it makes sense to apply early and when it does not.

Here is what the numbers don’t tell you. Many in the ED pool, especially at Division III and Ivy League schools that have Early Decision, are recruited athletes. Since these colleges are forbidden to “pay to play,” coaches encourage recruits to apply early so they can assemble their teams with greater assurance. While coaches cannot guarantee acceptance, they often have a liaison in the admission office to vet athletes before they get too far into the process. Legacies, as well, may have an edge especially if they apply early, so this probably encourages a disproportionate number of applications from those with family ties.

That may not leave as many spots as you first thought for non-athletes and those with no prior connection to a school. However, don’t despair. Colleges like students who demonstrate interest and what better way to do that than to apply ED? Moreover, a higher proportion of Early Decision acceptances improves a college’s yield, or the percentage of students who accept an offer. The yield for ED accepted students is theoretically 100% so the more students admitted under this program, the higher yield a college can report. Yet schools also want to maintain or raise their standardized test score and GPA averages which ultimately translate into better rankings. In other words, they must balance the management of yield with showing stable or improving student academic ranges.

Who should apply to college under a binding Early Decision program? Students who are certain beyond any doubt that this is where they want to go AND who are within the college’s range of accepted students for both test scores and GPA are most likely to benefit from applying ED. True, a student at the low end of the range may have a better chance of admission applying early, but that individual usually offers some other desirable attribute. If an applicant is below the college’s ranges, an early application will likely meet with an early rejection which never feels good, especially if friends are bubbling over with news of their acceptances. Not only is this wasting a possible ED option, but it means that potentially the first response from colleges will be a negative one. If a student has not completed his or her other applications, it may be tough to get motivated, a real problem if the deadlines are now only two weeks away.

Early Decision is generally not a good plan for a student who hopes to improve his or her grades. If the first semester senior year grades are especially important for showing maturity and growth, then better to wait and be considered in the regular pool of applicants. A positive trend will be favorably noted. Applying early will mean that the student gives up an opportunity to share this important piece of his or her story.

Finally, ED may not make sense for students who are dependent upon financial assistance. More and more colleges are gapping, as they are unable to fully meet demonstrated need. If there is a concern about whether the financial aid will be sufficient, I advise students to apply regular decision to be in a position to compare offers. In some cases, this might even give the student leverage with a first choice college should the package for a comparable school be materially better.

Deciding where to apply to college will likely be a young person’s most significant life decision to date. Choosing to apply Early Decision should be made with the care, deliberation and thorough evaluation of all the factors that such an important decision warrants.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tour de North Carolina - A Great Way to Visit Colleges

The first week in July I discovered that touring colleges by bike with a group of college counselors is an ideal way to experience the warmth (both literally and figuratively) and charm of the South. Towels, box lunches, water bottles, granola bars and power gel greeted us at the schools. We dined like kings and queens during our stay and were treated to accommodations worthy of upper classmen students! Though campuses are quieter during the summer months with far fewer students, we took advantage of the trade-off: lots of face time with admission deans and directors, faculty and even a college president. A chance to hear what’s on the minds of the deans can give one an interesting perspective on a university, its mission and goals. It provides a different lens into the heart and soul of a college.

North Carolina is home to wonderful state and private universities. My trip took me to eight of them, ranging in size from under 1,500 students, up to the largest, NC State, which enrolls 25,000 undergraduates. It is difficult to identify anything that all of these colleges share in common, but I managed to find that one thing. Red brick! With no exception, every college we visited sported stately brick-paved walks and old Virginia red brick structures. The ubiquitous red buildings and lush greens added a certain charm and gentility to many of the campuses we visited.

We started our tour at NC State in Raleigh which occupies a 1900 acre campus dotted with historic buildings along side modern state-of-the-art facilities. The recognized university for “techies” in the Tar Heel State, NC State offers 18 engineering majors and boasts strength in textiles and design. The university, well regarded for its basketball, is eager to make known its academic brawn too, and attract more students from outside North Carolina. Students who get their applications in by the November 1 early action date will automatically be considered for merit aid.

Leaving NC State, we headed west to UNC Chapel Hill. One of the newcomers this year to the CommonApp, Chapel Hill is anticipating a 20% increase in applications, making this highly selective school all that more competitive, especially for out-of-state students for whom enrollment is capped at 18%. There is better news for transfers, however, where the cap does not apply. Despite the university’s selectivity, Steve Farmer, Associate Provost and Director of Undergraduate Admissions, emphasized that they do not seek out the highly competitive Type A personality students. “A lot of smart kids and a great heart” is how he would characterize the student body which has an especially high commitment to community service. UNC Chapel Hill is now encouraging students to take a gap year with its newly formed Global Gap Year Fellowship Program, made possible with an anonymous $1.5 million grant, giving 30 admitted students the opportunity to do a year of international service. At this most prestigious UNC, every student gets a liberal arts education, regardless of field of study. For financial assistance, the university describes itself as “need conscious,” meaning that it makes every effort to make UNC affordable to admitted students who would otherwise be unable to attend.

We arrived at Elon after a 40 mile ride and just ahead of sunset which meant we had to wait until the morning to explore this beautifully lush and expansive campus. A midsize university with just over 5,000 students, Elon has a clear mission, founded on five principles: leadership, research, internships, international and service. Like UNC Chapel Hill, Elon is also encouraging accepted students to consider a gap year with its newly formed program that includes a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) experience and a service learning component in Costa Rica. Also new at Elon is its spring admit program for a select group of students who were not accepted for fall term. Academics are strong in many disciplines, though perhaps the university is best known for its fine business, communications and performing arts programs. A new multi-faith center is on the drawing board. Elon offers academic, community service and performing art scholarships.

Towels and bottles of ice cold water never looked better than those that greeted us at Guilford College in midday. A Quaker school of just over 2,000 students, Guilford is a bit of an anomaly in North Carolina. More hippie than preppie, the students are passionate about their causes and at the top of the list is the environment. Sustainability is the buzz word here and appears to drive every decision and practice. Since many of its building are included in the National Historic Register, Guilford has gone to great effort to preserve the history while upgrading facilities to meet its “green” standards. We toured the expansive organic gardens and viewed the composting process. How many colleges do you know that have their own bike shop? Students can rent bikes for a nominal fee while also reducing their carbon footprint. Not surprisingly, two popular majors are Peace and Conflict Studies and Justice and Policy Studies.

Our final destination day 2 was High Point University located in the furniture capital of the world. Every building on this pristine campus of mostly new construction is adorned with beautiful furnishings, and students have exceptional facilities available to them. Calming classical music can be heard outdoors throughout the day as one strolls past benches with seated statues of historic figures in science, literature government and the arts. The focus on the physical surroundings is by design; High Point believes that exposing students to fine service and beautifully appointed facilities will foster a stronger sense of respect and responsibility among its graduates. High Point is in a growth phase, both for its physical plant and in student population. With just 400 freshmen a few years ago, the university will grow to 5,000 undergrads over the next few years, while also expanding programs and majors. “Undecided” is the second most popular major, yet business, communications and education are big draws, and interior design is surely a signature major. High Point offers many academic scholarships and the cost of attendance of approximately $40,000 is substantially less than the most expensive private colleges. However, the college admittedly “gaps” students, so it may be difficult for students to attend who have significant financial need.

A hilly route to Wake Forest gave us a sense of things to come as we headed west…more hills! This test optional private university of just over 4,000 undergrads has a small community feel, while being part of a larger research university with professional schools in law, medicine, business and theology. Wake’s application process in a word: thorough! At a time when many colleges are dispensing with evaluative interviews, Wake has moved in the other direction and now requires them for all applicants, in person or by Skype. Intellectual curiosity, passion and an awareness of the world outside the individual’s own sphere are what they seek to uncover through the comprehensive process. Wake Forest wears proudly its often used moniker: “Work” Forest. Students don’t mind telling you that they study harder than most, but they play hard too. Greek life permeates the social scene and sports, especially basketball, are big at this Division I school. If you happen to visit the campus after a big athletic victory, don’t be surprised to find the Quad blanketed in toilet paper, as students partake in “rolling the Quad” to celebrate the event. While Wake has many strong academic programs, business and political science are the most popular majors. Construction of a new business school will break ground this year.

Catawba College, with just 1300 students, may not be well known outside of North Carolina, but don’t overlook this theatre and music powerhouse. The music department is one of only 12 in the nation that offers popular music as a major, with an emphasis on songwriting and performance in every type of popular genre, as well as the business side of music. The theatre department is all encompassing, with strength in both performance and production. I am not a fan of rankings, but I feel compelled to share that Princeton Review ranks its musical theatre program #1 in the country. Other popular areas of study are business and athletic training. The Center for the Environment has recently spearheaded a program for clean air. Catawba is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and still enjoys a strong relationship with the church, though religion courses are not required, nor is the weekly worship service. Students do take advantage of the Lilly Center for Vocation and Values which encourages self journey to find the right life vocational calling. Despite the religious affiliation, the college has more of a community spirit than religious feel.

On my final full day we cycled to Davidson College located in the heart of the charming and quaint town that bears its name. Davidson straddles two identities. With just 1,800 students, Davidson looks and feels very much like a small New England liberal arts college. However, the Davidson Wildcats compete with far bigger rivals in Division I athletics and are most recognized for the basketball team that reached the final eight at the NCAA tournament in 2008. Davidson’s celebrated honor code governs all aspects of academic and student life and is a declaration embraced by students and faculty alike. Despite the economic downturn, the college remains committed to the Davidson Trust and its philosophy that the college’s education should be available and affordable for all qualified students. Davidson was one of the first colleges to dispense with loans for students demonstrating financial need, and claims that it will not back away from this policy though others have as endowments have suffered. The college also awards merit aid to approximately 10% of students, with grants ranging in size from $1,000 to full cost.

There is no substitute for visiting college campuses, but nothing compares to a taking that journey on a bike, carrying one’s own gear and spending the night in the college’s dorms. It takes a little more effort and preparation, including the physical training, but the perspective that one gets on each school is unique and personal. I can’t think of a more enjoyable or enlightening way to visit colleges!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hobbies are not just for College Applications

When it comes time to fill out college applications many students panic at the thought of having to list their extra-curricular activities. They question whether they have enough activities, the “right” ones, and if their list will persuade the admission staff of their commitment to these pursuits. “If I don’t have a passion, will colleges even consider me?” is the unproductive thought that plays repeatedly in many students’ heads. Sometimes I wonder if the pressure to pursue “extra-curricular activities” actually discourages less confident or rebellious students from getting involved. The shame of it is that engaging in activities often becomes more about impressing college admissions than finding pleasure and meaning in one’s non-academic pursuits. The focus on figuring out what colleges want to see is misguided; the more important question is: are you developing and exploring interests and hobbies that provide personal satisfaction and which will continue to enrich your life, even beyond college?

We engage in hobbies for a variety of reasons, but largely for personal fulfillment and to give purpose to our lives. It’s about choice, not obligation. Whether social or solitary, active or sedentary, philanthropic or artistic, the things we do that are individually meaningful can trigger the release of pleasure-inducing dopamine or lead us to form new social groups with people who share our interests. But one of the best things about hobbies is that it is never too late to discover new ones. Take it from me; last year I more or less traded in my running sneakers for cycling shoes. I signed up for a college counselor bike tour in southern California because it seemed like a great way to visit colleges, share the experience with colleagues and get some heart-pumping outdoor exercise. What I had not anticipated is that I would become hooked on cycling.

This summer once again I am participating in the college counselor bike tour. Our destination is to the south: North Carolina colleges and universities. Last year at this time I was marking off the days to the trip, filled with a mix of excitement and trepidation. New to cycling, I had concerns about keeping the pace, conquering hills, carrying my own gear and releasing my toe clips with sufficient time before a stop to avoid falling. I had premonitions of an embarrassing Arte Johnson moment, toppling over on my bike in a klutzy move reminiscent of the Laugh-In tricycle routine…a self-fulfilling prophesy.

With just 12 days until this year’s trip (and counting), I have no anxiety and feel only the excitement. I have already experienced the adrenaline rush that for me comes with the joy of cycling and sharing the ride with other adventurous counselors. Hobbies can also motivate us to challenge ourselves and improve our skills. I am a stronger rider today and therefore, more confident. I am happy to report that I no longer get stuck in my toe clips.

Many of my friends from last summer have also decided to participate again this year, anticipating another action packed week of great cycling, plenty of laughs and lots of support. The cycling trip takes us to Duke, NC State, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Elon, Guilford, High Point, Wake Forest, Catawba, Davidson and Queens College. We carry our own clothes and gear, and stay in dorms; it will be as close as possible to a true college experience. I actually visited many of these colleges as recently as two years ago, traveling by bus with a group of independent educational consultants. Even so, it never occurred to me to pass up this bike trip. The cycling, the camaraderie, the exercise, and yes, the professional benefits inspire me. I always gain something new from subsequent campus visits, whether it’s a different perspective or the reinforcement of something I had previously learned. This time around my vantage point will be different; after all, I will arrive on each campus by the power of my well-trained legs, my bike and my determination.

There is no one path to uncovering our passions and interests. I first happened upon the counselor bike tour and took up cycling after reading a posting on a college related listserv. One’s interests are sparked through exposure, receptiveness to new things, a suggestion from a friend, but most importantly, through self knowledge and an understanding for what makes us happy. When the interest is genuine, the commitment and endorphins will follow. That’s what will get a college’s attention.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What China Can Teach Us about the Value of Liberal Learning

Are American parents appalled or threatened by what author Amy Chua portrays as the excessively demanding Chinese approach to education and childrearing in her best-selling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom? Many of us defend our less-disciplined, more permissive style of parenting by citing the creativity and superior critical thinking skills that our approach fosters. Our children’s generation may lose ground to the Chinese on math rankings, but they will have the lock on thinking out of the box. Is this a fact or our convenient rationalization?

Thomas L. Friedman’s Op Ed article in yesterday’s (June 15, 2011) New York Times (Justice Goes Global), may throw that argument under the bus. The same Chinese culture that emphasizes rote learning over creative thought could be on the verge of a metamorphosis. Friedman points out that the person recently named most influential foreign figure in a China Newsweek special issue is not a powerful business executive or politician, but rather a popular Harvard political philosopher named Michael J. Sandel. How did a U.S. professor become a Chinese superstar? With the help of technology, Professor Sandel’s classroom is now virtual; his public television philosophy course series is available online and has gained popularity around the globe, even in China.

Sandel’s classes explore issues of morality and justice. Students are encouraged and expected to challenge, debate and reason with each other in the classroom. Access to Professor Sandel’s lectures has been greeted with much enthusiasm in China and elsewhere in Asia. Educators and students have begun to recognize the power of discussion-based learning and see the strong connection to creativity and innovation. In at least one Chinese university, the undergraduate education is experiencing a major reform that will incorporate deeper philosophical thinking, reasoning and debate into the curriculum.

Friedman suggests that questions of morality and justice are global issues which students everywhere can and are eager to discuss and debate on a deeper level. Even the Chinese have come to recognize the benefits of liberal learning, the responsibility to challenge and question, as a means to produce more innovative and creative thinkers. Kudos to China, though we shouldn’t treat too lightly the significance of this potentially radical change in the country's approach to education. We have already lost ground to Asia in the production of scientists, engineers and professionals in other STEM fields. What might it mean for U.S. productivity and leadership if China and other Asian nations adopt an academic model that will emphasize innovation too? I’m not suggesting that we obsess about U.S. world dominance. Yet we should not overlook the connection between critical and innovative thinking skills and economic security. These are the skills that will enable future generations to create and keep jobs and industry in the U.S.

Herein lays the value of a liberal arts education. A student’s major is almost irrelevant. The more pertinent factor is whether students are compelled to question, challenge, debate and think critically while exploring issues across a broad spectrum of disciplines. Though it is easy to comprehend why students in today’s economy feel a need to pursue a more concrete course of study directly identified as pre-professional training, in the long run the absence of the critical thinking piece will catch up with us.

So as we compare our parenting style to those of our Chinese counterparts, we should not assume too hastily that we have the inside track on creativity and innovative thought. Strict discipline will probably continue to be the childrearing norm in Chinese households. However, let’s not be lulled into a false sense of security about our creative edge. They just might not be too far behind in that department too.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

You Think the Admission Process is Tough? – Just Ask the Dean!

As parents of high school students who will soon embark upon or have just completed the application cycle, we tend to have a myopic view of the admission process. It is all about us (and hopefully our children are included in that plural first person pronoun). We succumb to the anxiety that the admission process can create, and pray that the outcome will be relief and joy rather than disappointment. Would it surprise you to learn that college admission folk are equally stressed this time of year? No, I am not naïve enough to believe I am preaching to a sympathetic audience. However, I think it is useful to see the colleges’ perspective in order to better comprehend how it drives their decision processes.

Eric Hoover, a staff writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, addressed the topic of greater admission uncertainty in his May 8, 2011 article, “Admissions Deans Feel Crunched by the Numbers.” Through interviews with deans and staff at five colleges, Hoover explored some of the global issues confronting universities and how these institutions are managing in such uncertain times. The bottom line: colleges, like all businesses, must hit their numbers in order to survive. Any shortfall in enrollment, especially without a comparable reduction in costs, can have consequences with material implications for future financial health.

The question facing all universities today is how to instill predictability in a system that has become anything but certain. Larger waitlists and other strategies have been designed to counter the effects of the almost inevitable “summer melt.” Villanova, just one of many such examples, offered a waitlist spot to nearly 5,000 candidates, more than three times the size of its expected freshmen class. Colleges know that they have not finalized the class by the May 1 National Tuition Deposit Day. There will always be students who change their minds mid to late summer because they get off a first-choice waitlist, finally make a late decision after double depositing (which, by the way, runs counter to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice), or simply choose to withdraw due to late stage reservations or financial concerns.

So in addition to larger waitlists, colleges are pursuing strategies to discourage double depositing and to increase predictability, evidenced by Beloit College’s decision to increase its deposit fee from $200 to $500 last year. The result: the college’s summer melt shrank by 60%. In its quest for more certainty, Beloit also decided to capitalize on its reputation for having a quirky, offbeat culture. Rather than marketing to everyone, the college is taking the opposite tack; it makes no apologies for consciously not waiving application fees and actually discourages students who probably would not find Beloit the right fit. Theoretically this should be a win for the college while also benefiting students. Applicants are more likely to self select; they apply because they see themselves fitting in, not because it is an easy additional application to submit. With fewer, though more serious applicants, colleges like Beloit that are clear about who they are may have a higher admit rate. Yet they are hopeful that this will translate into a more robust yield too.

Others schools such as the University of Mary Washington in Virginia have adopted a strategy to seek out a group of less traditional applicants: transfer students. As community college enrollment increases due to students' personal financial limitations, colleges such as Mary Washington have begun to establish credit-transfer agreements with certain two-year institutions. The community college route is gaining respectability as a more cost efficient means to a four-year college degree and Mary Washington is capitalizing on that trend.

Land grant universities, which were established to educate in-state residents, are exploring new ways to counter severe budget cuts, including the enrollment of more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition. One university, Colorado State, has begun to offer three levels of scholarships specifically for non-residents who meet certain academic benchmarks. This tuition discounting strategy is designed to attract more out-of-state candidates who will still pay more than their in-state classmates, yet will have the opportunity to attend a desirable state university at a more reasonable cost.

Mr. Hoover’s research reveals ways that colleges are taking a more strategic approach to enrollment in order to effectively navigate an environment of uncertainty and re-focus their recruitment. How does this impact our students and us, as parents? As we help our children through the college admission process and also strive for greater certainty and less stress, making the effort to understand a college’s message, objectives and whether it is the right fit can also lead to better and more predictable outcomes for our kids.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ten Trends in Higher Education

The economy is limping along and college applications are up. What’s the connection? There may be none or perhaps the increase is driven by students’ concern about not having financial options. More likely the application trend is related to technology, the burgeoning use of social media in admissions and colleges’ obsession with creative marketing as a means to attract students. Whether or not the economy and college admission trends are correlated, both offer insights on what we can expect in the higher education realm in the future. In the absence of a crystal ball, I offer up what I see as 10 notable trends in admission and the strategic paths that colleges have begun to pursue.

- Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges are becoming even more selective, as the number of applications continues to rise at double digit rates. Preliminary reports released several weeks ago were startling, indicating that six of the eight Ivies will admit fewer than 10% of their applicants this year, achieving new all time lows. There are no signs on the horizon that this trend will reverse in the near term.

- Applications across the board are up substantially, despite the fact that the number of students applying has leveled off. Why are students applying to so many schools? The answer is largely that it is easy to submit multiple applications given today's technology, with the rise also fueled by the erroneous belief that more applications improve one's odds of admission. The list of colleges that use the Common Application expands each year and many schools are now making use of “fast” applications. Students are invited to apply by a certain deadline and colleges will waive the application fee AND the essay! What better incentive is there to apply?!

- More students are choosing to know and even commit as soon as possible, taking advantage of early decision and early action applications. Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia each recently announced plans to reinstate single-choice early action which they had abandoned just a few years before. Cynics see this move as a reaction to losing high achieving students, especially minorities, to other Ivy League schools that were able to hook desirable candidates earlier in the process. Expect to see the pressure to apply early continue, despite the fact that it may not be the right way to go for every student.

- Social media continues to change the way that students learn about schools and connect with others. Colleges today all have Facebook pages and are taking advantage of social sites to reach out to potential and admitted students. The corollary to this is that students need to be even more careful about what they post on these sites, even on their personal pages!

- The gap year is not just about college readiness anymore. Taking a gap year was literally a foreign concept just a few years ago and was far more common in Europe, but today many students seek outdoor adventure, travel and language study programs, community service, or work experience before pursuing their college degree. The number of organized programs, both nationally and internationally, has proliferated, and opportunities are available at many different price points. Students use the time to do good, mature and pursue something personally fulfilling. Most claim that these sojourns have tremendously enriched their college experiences.

- January admission is an idea that is catching on, and is one way that colleges are choosing to manage enrollment and fill the beds of students taking a spring semester abroad. Many colleges now offer January admission to students who might otherwise be waitlisted or rejected, and the list of schools is rapidly growing. University of Southern California, Northeastern, University of Rochester and the University of Miami are just a handful leading this trend. Students accepted to their dream school as a January admit need to ask themselves: do I want to go to this school even if I must begin mid-year or is it better to enroll for the fall at another college along with the rest of the freshman class? Some schools actually offer the option to start later. At Middlebury College in Vermont a February start date is by choice. By having a separate February admission pool, Middlebury hopes to encourage more to take a gap semester and explore a different type of experience before entering college.

- Enrollment management is here to stay. Colleges can no longer ignore the fact that assembling a class has major bottom line implications. As a result, schools are continually experimenting with new tools to attract and enroll students. Merit aid, also known as tuition discounting, is still the favorite carrot to garner the interest of students they hope will round out the class.

- Demonstrating interest is important to many colleges at all levels of admission selectivity (though many of the most selective do not track this). If yield is important, it follows that being able to gauge student interest is a valuable tool to colleges. Technology today enables colleges to track contact and to record every interaction that students initiate…even if and when they open the e-mails they receive from the school!

- The classroom is now virtual; online programs are proliferating, and not just at for-profit institutions. Just today Fordham announced that it is starting an online masters degree in social work. While online learning programs are primarily at the graduate level, it is only a matter of time before distance learning college degrees become more commonplace and gain greater acceptance.

- Dwindling government support is prompting public universities to question the value of state ties. Several are seeking greater autonomy, especially in the areas of tuition setting, procurement, and public/private partnerships. Flagships in Wisconsin, Oregon and Louisiana have proposed such separation, while the State University of New York (SUNY) frequently revisits the issue, especially in years when state support is cut. While many educators believe that eliminating a bureaucratic layer will reduce costs and improve delivery, critics are concerned that these moves will be detrimental to state systems as a whole. It’s not clear how this will play out, but I think we can expect to see some greater autonomy over the next few years.

You may have noticed that my list of 10 does not include ever-increasing tuition costs and the ongoing endowment pressures at the nation’s colleges. These are driving some of the other trends I've noted. Expect the higher education landscape to continually evolve as colleges develop new ways to manage admissions, their budgets and how they deliver their product.

Monday, February 14, 2011

School Counselors and Independent Consultants Working Together

An article I wrote titled "School Counselors and Independent Consultants Working Together" was published last week in the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling newsletter. In the article I talk about the benefits of guidance counselors and independent consultants collaborating on behalf of students, yet I also seek to clarify the role each one plays and the value each brings to a student's college search process. Since I occasionally am asked the question, 'how is what you do different from what we can expect from the guidance counselor,' I have decided to share the article here in my blog.

When I began working as an independent educational consultant, I was admittedly naïve. It had not occurred to me that school guidance counselors might not welcome me with open arms. After all, weren’t we working towards the same goal, doing what we thought best for the student?

Today I have a better understanding for a guidance counselor’s position, though believe more fervently than ever that the relationship between school counselor and independent consultant should and can be collaborative. Within my own school district I have come to know and truly appreciate the challenges of the guidance staff. While I have the luxury to focus solely on the goal of finding the right fit for college and guiding students through that process, I recognize that college admission is only a small part of the school counselor’s responsibilities. Discipline, scheduling, transcripts and recommendations are not in my job description, and my case load is generally much smaller. Therefore, I can spend more time getting to know a student outside the school environment. This often leads to a more holistic picture of his or her personal as well as academic needs for a college experience.

Independent educational consultants are not substitutes for guidance counselors, but they can supplement what counselors provide. When guidance staff and IECs work together, the process runs more smoothly and effectively for everyone, most of all, for the student. So here are some thoughts that will hopefully foster a better understanding for the value that each offers, which can ultimately work to the benefit of the student.

- Guidance counselors often have the inside scoop on how students from their school fare in admission at specific colleges. IECs can benefit from this knowledge which only adds to the trove of useful data for compiling a college list.

- Independent consultants generally spend far more time on the road visiting colleges since their travel is typically not restricted by school calendars and district budgets. Many IECs visit at least 50 colleges a year. We can be a great resource for school counselors hoping to uncover lesser known gems that might perfectly suit a student.

- The better I do my job, the easier I make the life of the guidance counselor. I keep after students about deadlines, and parents often call me first with their questions and concerns. I hope and believe that this lightens the counselor’s load and alleviates some of the stress that builds as due dates near.

- Many IECs develop specializations, whether in learning disabilities, athletic recruiting, or performing and visual arts. Collaborating with someone who understands the nuances of particular programs will most likely result in greater success for the student.

A recent study done by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education noted the rapid growth in the field of educational consulting. Up to 26% of seniors nationally now use an IEC to assist with their college planning process. However, the study also cautions parents and others to be wary of independent educational consultants who do not abide by certain standards and practices. IECs who are members of organizations such as NACAC, NYSACAC, IECA (Independent Educational Consultants Association) and HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association) commit to hold themselves to the high standards that their affiliations require. School counselors might want to advise families contemplating retention of an IEC to carefully check one’s credentials and affiliations before making a commitment.

Families retain the services of an independent educational consultant when they feel their child needs extra assistance, much in the way they hire a tutor for additional help beyond the classroom. We are all members of the same team. In this case, the objective is not about scoring a goal, but rather ensuring students have the best guidance and options for college.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Colleges Need to Change with the Times

The financial health of colleges is looking up. Alumni giving and endowment returns are on the upswing so the future is rosy, right? Well, not quite. Though returns in 2010 averaged 12%, endowments are still around 20% below their 2007 levels. And since schools typically draw down 5% of their endowments each year to cover operating expenses, this 20% decline means less money to spend on students, whether for academic programs, financial aid or capital improvements. The solution for many colleges is to raise tuition, which is why the cost of attendance continues to outpace the rate of inflation. The question begging for a satisfactory answer is, how long can this continue, especially since the bill for a four-year college education is already out of reach for most families?

How did we get into this situation? The race to attract students has motivated campus upgrades and enhancements to surpass the competition. Ask yourself honestly: if you have visited college campuses recently, were you most impressed by the schools with new dorms, student centers, state-of-the-art labs and sprawling athletic facilities? Unfortunately all of this now comes at the cost of academic programs and the increasing debt load that students are carrying.

With the exception of the colleges and universities that still have large endowments to support their student populations (and by that I mean the size of the endowment per student), most schools will not be able to continue along their current paths indefinitely. They will ultimately price themselves right out of business if they don’t change with the times and differentiate themselves through their programs and offerings. Many colleges have already come to the realization that they cannot be everything for everyone. SUNY Albany, for example, is in the process of phasing out its programs in Italian, Russian, French, the classics and theater.

Why is this important to families? The college your child is applying to today may have a different profile and focus in the future. Perhaps never before on this scale has the business of higher education been so desperately in need of a restructuring. In a way, colleges are experiencing what many individuals have recently had to face. The world has changed; what we know and the skills we possess may no longer be relevant, and we are then confronted with the task of reinventing ourselves to survive. Just like individuals, colleges that possess self-awareness and succeed in capitalizing on their strengths are the ones most likely to adapt to the changing times by embracing a clear mission and vision.

So when you visit college campuses, try to look beyond the newly renovated and air-conditioned dorms that you can now find at New England schools where it is cold throughout most of the school year, or the fabulous athletic facilities with the climbing wall that your child will never use. Read in between the lines and listen closely to how a college conveys its mission, or whether it has one at all. What majors have been eliminated and what are they now emphasizing? Colleges are starting to realize that they are just like people. They have to be flexible and adapt to the times.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Awarding Institutional Funds - The Black Box of Financial Aid

How colleges use their own institutional funds to provide assistance to students is often the black box of the financial aid process. Just consider the 500 or so private colleges and programs that make use of the CSS/Profile form to determine the allocation of institutional aid. If your son or daughter is applying to one of these schools or is currently attending one, then you may already be familiar with this comprehensive form that asks for multiple years of earnings and a full list of your family assets, including your home. But what you may not realize is that colleges pick and choose which pieces of this collection of data they wish to consider in the calculation of their applicants’ financial need. Colleges take advantage of a practice known as Professional Judgment. While the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for federal aid purposes is standard regardless of the college, professional judgment allows schools some flexibility to set their own terms for distributing their institutional funds. This is one of the reasons that financial aid packages for the same student can vary significantly from college to college (that, and the fact that many colleges “gap” students, meaning that they do not fully cover demonstrated need).

Don’t waste your time trying to decipher the formula or determine which of your assets a college will consider. The process is far from transparent and few colleges actually disclose on their websites the factors that come into play in their decision making process. While admittedly I have not done an exhaustive search, Princeton is one of the few exceptions I have found. And for anyone interested, Princeton does not consider home equity in its calculation. As an aside, you might want to inquire with the financial aid offices on your child’s college list as to how they treat home equity in today’s economy, given that banks have made tapping that resource increasingly difficult.

So why is any of this worthy of mention? Understanding how colleges use financial aid formulas and why aid may vary from school to school can partially demystify an often perplexing process. It also underscores the fact that if you are applying for financial aid, you won't know what college will really cost until you have the award letters in hand. The bottom line is that it may be as important to apply to financial safeties as it is to include colleges where the probability of admission is high.

If cost is a factor for you, then hedge your bets by having your child apply to both public and private colleges, recognizing that the private option may turn out to be the better deal. How do you identify the financial safeties? You should approach it the same way you find right fit colleges. First, know that this is an art, not a science; there are no magic formulas so you won’t know for sure until your child is accepted and receives an aid package. So start by understanding your student’s chance of being accepted. The more desirable he or she is as a candidate, the more likely the school will be generous with money. The most obvious way to get a preliminary idea for one’s chances is to compare grades and test scores to those of the average student admitted.

Recognize that schools which state they fully meet demonstrated need are less likely to gap. However, keep in mind that for colleges using either the CSS/Profile or a proprietary form, the specifics of their calculations will not likely be disclosed to you. You can, however, make use of resources such as College Navigator to get a sense (not an assurance) for how generous your child’s college choices are likely to be with need-based aid. You can search colleges by name and look at the net price for different income ranges. The major shortcoming, however, is that there are virtually no details for families making above $110,000 annually, but the website can still provide some insights into what students pay.

While the lack of transparency makes it tough to project your true out-of-pocket expenses when it comes to paying for college, there are ways to get a better handle on the probable cost. Approaching the financial aid process strategically will hopefully lead to more affordable choices and less disappointment in the final analysis.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Take Advantage of Education Tax Credits

It's time again for the dreaded annual exercise of filing tax returns and financial aid forms. But I offer encouraging news for many taxpayers faced with college tuition bills and other related expenses. Buried in the year-end extension of the Bush-era income tax cuts was the far less publicized renewal of educational tax benefits. For taxpayers who meet the income qualifications, these benefits provide some welcome tax relief and should not be overlooked as you begin to prepare your 2010 tax return. Eligible taxpayers who pay qualified educational expenses will want to take advantage of either the American Opportunity Credit, a tax credit of up to $2,500, or of the $4,000 Tuition and Fee Deduction, depending upon which provides the greater savings given one’s particular tax rate and circumstances.

The American Opportunity Credit, which was recently extended through 2012, will permit taxpayers who pay qualified tuition and related expenses to claim a credit against their federal taxes of up to $2,500 per year per student. Here’s how it works: Taxpayers can reduce their tax liability dollar for dollar for the first $2,000 of qualified expenses, plus take an additional 25% on the next $2,000. If you have a tax credit which exceeds your actual tax liability such that you cannot use some or all the benefit, you are eligible to receive up to 40% of the amount of the tax credit, or a maximum of $1,000. As long as your income is $160,000 or less for married couples and $80,000 for single taxpayers, you can take advantage of the maximum credit. The credit is ratably reduced for higher income levels and fully phased out at $180,000/$90,000. In order to take advantage of the credit, married couples must file jointly. A parent claiming the credit must also be the person paying the expenses for the eligible student, which can be oneself, a spouse, or a dependent, provided no one else has claimed the student as an exemption.

Families might find that, depending on their tax rate, it is more beneficial to take the $4,000 tuition tax deduction. The deduction is a direct adjustment to income and can be claimed even if one does not itemize expenses for tax filing purposes. Many of the qualifications are the same as those for the American Opportunity Credit, including income levels and the joint filing requirement for married couples. Unlike the tax credit, the deduction is per taxpayer and is not calculated on a per student basis. Therefore the tax credit is likely to be more favorable than the deduction for families with multiple students in college.

Taxpayers who paid interest on education loans can also deduct up to $2,500 in interest expense, thereby reducing the amount of income subject to taxes in the year the interest was paid. As with the other benefits, proceeds of the loan must have been used for qualified educational expenses. Furthermore, the taxpayer must be the borrower on the loan. Income limits to take advantage of this deduction are $70,000 and $145,000, for single and married individuals, respectively.

If someone in your family, yourself included, was a college student in 2010 and/or you paid student loan interest, don't lose out on the opportunity to take advantage of these tax benefits. Consult a tax specialist to ensure that you receive the maximum benefit available to you.