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PBS: 'Ten Steps to College'

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene
College Consultants
Wednesday, August 20, 2003; 12:00 PM

Ten Steps to College with the Greenes is a PBS series hosted by college consultants and Knight Ridder columnists Howard and Matthew Greene. The father and son team provide expert advice and how-to strategies for preparing for college. Today's discussion focuses on basic steps in financial aid, finding a college that matches your personal strengths, and using the ideal high school transcript or curriculum to plan for college admissions.

The Greenes were online Wednesday, Aug. 20 at Noon ET, to discuss tips on college finances and admissions.

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The Greenes are authors of the Harper Collins book series "Greenes Guides to Educational Planning." Check your local listings for the PBS series airdates.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: Welcome everyone! We're please to be here with the Washington Post and the assistance of PBS, and we're happy to take questions you have about educational planning and college admissions,
Howard and Matthew


Washington, D.C.: What do you believe is the number one most important thing top colleges look for in high school kids?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: The absolute most important factor colleges look at in high school students is their curriculum, and how a student does in that over time. A demanding high school program is important, and colleges like students who stretch themselves academically.


Alexandria, Vs.: Good morning. Thanks so much for answering our questions today. The thought of preparing for college, no matter the age of our children, is incredibly stressful. I have a 5 year old child so my question is more financial since we have a few years ahead of us. We continue to hear about the rising cost of college tuition. Do you expect tuition costs to contine to rise at this rate? What are some things we can do NOW to prepare financially for our childrens education 10-12 years from now?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: That's a great question, since it's never too early to start planning for college, or planning for how to pay for college. College costs are indeed rising, at much faster than the rate of inflation. However, there is a great deal of financial assistance available, both merit- and need-based aid from many sources. Over $90 billion is out there for students to take advantage of. Tuition costs will continue to rise, but there are many great savings plans, like each state's 529 plan, that allow you to start saving now. Putting money away regularly is a good idea. Later on, it will be important to spread your applications across a number of different kinds of schools to open up different kinds of aid possibilities.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Hello. What are your thought's on private vs. public education in preparing kids for college?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: One of the great revolutions in the U.S. in the last few decades has been the expansion of college opportunities for students across the country, in public and private schools. The traditional feeder track from elite private schools to selective colleges has really eroded, to the point where two-thirds of students at even the most elite Ivy League colleges graduated from public high schools. There are many excellent programs, including honors, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate courses, available at both public and private schools. You should examine your local options, and potential boarding school options, and most importantly consider how each school or model will work best for your son or daughter. We talk a lot about an ideal college prep curriculum, whether a student is in public or private school, in our books and the Ten Steps to College show on PBS. Any student can prepare for college at any school. Certainly there are some educational advantages at many private schools, but these environments won't work best for every student, and there are costs involved. The large, large majority of students in the U.S. are in public high schools, and they represent the largest group of students in our colleges.


Springfield, Va.: My daughter will be a senior in HS this fall. She fell in love with the first school we visited last spring. Although she's gone on other campus visits, she's fixated on this one school. It is a state school with good programs and a good reputation, but I'm afraid she made her mind up before shopping around for other options. Also, acceptance into "her" school is likely, but not a sure thing. Any suggestions?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: This is a very common phenomenon. Now, sometimes a student really does find "the right school" early in the search process. Sometimes, however, a student gravitates toward one college because it is easy to make up his or her mind right away, rather than thinking more carefully about options, who he or she is, and what kind of education or college will work best. Fundamentally, no student needs to commit to any college prior to the May 1 Common Reply Date. That means your daughter can apply to the school she likes, and, if it's a state school, that usually means "rolling admission". She can find out if she is admitted fairly early in the fall, without having to make a commitment to the college. Then, she can apply to additional colleges, and you can encourage her to keep visiting, and keep exploring options, prior to making a real commitment in the spring. Our suggestion: just get in the car, see some contrasting schools, and explain that a visit is not a commitment to apply, let alone attend, a particular college.


Herndon, Va.: I am the father of a rising junior (our oldest) at Bishop O'Connell HS who has her eyes on William & Mary, Mary Washington and Virginia (she's ruled out Tech because of size and curriculum). Her GPA is 3.65 in an honors-heavy curriculum and she scored about 1,150 on a "practice" SAT administered by O'Connell at the beginning of her sophmore year. Her course load this year includes AP History and honors level courses for the balance (she plans more APs her senior year). She keeps herself busy outside of school with community activities, but not to the extent I see others who have their eyes on her schools also. She wants to major in English and desires a liberal arts undergraduate education before deciding on a profession. She also wants a smaller school, UVA's size is the larger end of the spectrum.

My observation is that the schools she's interested in are Ivy level competition for students from northern Virginia high schools. While we are not ruling out private or out-of-state alternatives to these three, the price of the alternatives is significantly more.

Realistically, what are our chances? Are these three really "Reach" schools (e.g., <30% chance) for her? Should we be looking elsewhere?

Thank you in advance and I apologize for the long query.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: You raise a number of key concerns here. You are looking at three public institutions, that give preference to in-state students. However, we know they are ever more competitive, especially from the area you are in. The short answer, without knowing too much more about your daughter, is that UVA and W+M will be reaches. Look at their average SAT I scores in the 1400s, for example, and their taking mostly students ranking in the top 10% of their high school calss. Mary Washington sounds like a better fit, given its size and entrance requirements. It should be more of a target, though bringing up the SATs into the 1200s will help there. Another point you reference is cost. It is true that out-of-state public institutions, and all private institutions, may have a higher sticker price. However, most students don't pay retail- that is, there is a large amount of aid available, and a good student like your daughter may be qualified not only for need-based aid, but also for some merit-based awards (often called discounts) to lure her away from home. Look at some small liberal arts colleges in Pennsylvania and Ohio for examples: Denison, Dickinson, Muhlenberg, Gettysburg. Also examine nearby publics, like Delaware, St. Mary's in Maryland, or College of Charleston.


Vienna, Va.: What are some basics for a high school senior and their parents to know during the college admission process. Is it too late by the senior year to be going through the college process? A lot of the deadlines seem like they are due in the fall of the senior year.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: It's never too late! While the admission process has been getting pushed back into junior, sophomore, or even freshman year, with SAT II tests during those early years, concerns over course and summer planning, and worries over Early Decision (binding) and Early Action (non-binding) application plans with Nov. 1 deadlines in senior fall, most students don't apply anywhere until mid-fall, or December, and most seriously begin the process now. Most selective colleges have Jan. 1 or Jan. 15 deadlines, so there is a lot of time to see some colleges here and there, to improve grades this fall and during the winter, to take SAT or ACT in Oct., Nov., Dec., and even January, and to work on applications, such as the Common Application (www.commonapp.org) that will help you apply to multiple colleges without a lot of additional work. It will be important to meet with the school guidance counselor as soon as school starts to create a plan of action and become familiar with high school and college requirements.


Baltimore, Md.: When I was in High School my guidence counselor was of no help at all in helping me with college planning and my parents, as immigrants were pretty clueless about college. Do you think guidence counselors are better trained these days? What other options are there for students these days who want to go to college but have no real guidance?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: Unfortunately, your complaint is becoming all too common. That is because we have not put enough resources into high school guidance, and more specifically college guidance programs. Nationally, the ratio of students to counselors is about 500 to 1. In some states, like California, it is closer to 1000 to 1. That means most students aren't getting a lot of proactive help. The good news is there are a lot of committed and experienced counselors out there. Your school may have one, and students can seek them out. The other good news is that there are more resources available for families outside of schools. There are many books, of course, and we hope that our PBS series will help schools and families understand more about how the college admissions process works, and what is important in the long term. Students in the end must do a lot of the work themselves, by accessing resources on the internet, in libraries, and during their own college visits.


Annapolis, Md.: I am facing a situation where I will need to return to college for a second undergrad degree. I am in my mid 40s and have experienced a series of downsizings that have all but destroyed my career. The only way out is to take another career path as I see it.

Question. These days in colleges, is it considered odd to see middle aged guys taking chem or physics labs with the kids? Or are there more and more middle aged people returning to school as a way to realign themselves in this constanting changing economy? In other words, would I feel out of place? Do some colleges have departments that assist older students? Are career placement offices sensitive to the needs of older students (not announcing their birthdates on employment applications for example)?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: One of the most interesting trends today is the decrease in the college population of the relative proportion of "traditional" college students, and the increase in so-called "non-traditionals": those over 25, or who are married, or who are returning for a second degree, or who have a GED, and so on. More and more adults are returning to college. Granted, most are not going to residential small liberal arts colleges up in the woods. They are attending community colleges, or larger public and private universities, part- or full-time, and in classrooms with traditional and non-traditional kids. They are also doing a lot of on-line learning through traditional college extension courses and new for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix. Please check out our longer articles on these concerns and opportunities at www.pbs.org/tenstepstocollege.


Somewhere, USA: HI

My son is in his second year and can't seem to pick a major. I know that what you do in college doesn't necessarily determine what you'll do for your career, but I'd at least like him to generally aim that way...what do you recommend he do?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: Many, perhaps most!, college and high school students don't know "what they want to do with their lives". The great thing about American education is the opportunity to study the liberal arts, a mix of humanities, sciences, arts, social sciences, without having to commit too early to one direction. Most colleges don't require students to declare a major until the end of sophomore year. That also means, for many students, a lot of confusion. When we're counseling students, we talk a lot about the essential skills they gain, first in high school, and then in college: critical thinking skills, writing skills, math fundamentals, communications skills overall. That really is what high school and then a liberal arts education is about. There are many business leaders out there who majored in history, or English or biology. The best recommendation for an undecided student is to do well in every course he takes, to explore different areas offered by the college, to talk with his advisor about different major options, and to begin planning for career, and a likely graduate school program (oh no!) down the line. Internships and informational interviews with professionals in different fields are additional ways to explore career paths.


Middletown, Conn.: My son is entering 8th grade. Organizational skills are a big issue at this age, and I don't believe strong academics can happen until he becomes organized and can keep track of all of his assignments. Would you agree, and do you have any suggestions for parents in terms of how best to help?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: Good study and organizational skills are the foundation for future learning success. We totally agree that strong academics cannot happen without that initial building of what some call "executive skills". Also, academic program demands tend to become more difficult as students enter high school, and particularly when they get to 10th and 11th grade and more content-heavy courses. Bright students who used to be able to wing it in elementary and middle school find they can't just get by on ten minutes of pre-exam study time. The skills required to write a ten-page research paper are a lot different than those involved in memorizing the state capitals. There are many good local tutors who can work one-on-one with students on organizational skills and study habits, as well as reading and writing skills, which underly all academic success. Also, study resources, and organizational guides, like the 7 Habits series from Covey, and Peterson's Get Wise series, may be of help.


Somewhere, Va.: I have a couple of comments from the perspective of a college teacher. I have taught at a variety of institutions, from urban community college to flagship state universities. I know these aren't strictly on-topic, but they might be of interest to someone trying to decide on a university.

Three things:

1. The quality of instruction often doesn't relate directly to the "prestige" of a school. Your French 1 class at the community college may very well be as good as, or better than, the one at Flagship U.

2. The quality and attitude of students is very important. If students are weak and apathetic, it's going to affect the quality of the class. It's the rare professor who can resist the temptation to "dumb down" a class if it's full of weak students. And again, a class of motivated community college students who are trying to overcome past academic sins and get good enough grades to transfer to a university may well provide a better learning environment than a group of 18-year-olds at Flagship U who are mostly occupied learning about beer and the opposite sex.

3. Don't assume that classes taught by "real" professors are better than those taught by grad students. If you have the bad luck of landing in a class taught by a grad student who has never taught before, it's liable to go badly. But if the grad student as a couple of classes under his/her belt, he/she may very well do a far better job than someone who's been at it for 30 years and is basically tired.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: Excellent comments! Thanks.


Fairfax Station, Va.: How important is it to visit the college campus when selecting a school? I am most likely going to UVA unless I get a full scholarship to an Ivy(yeah, right), and so my parents aren't planning on taking me touring and I don't feel I have a lot of options.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: Great to hear from a student, as well! It is essential to see a campus prior to committing to attend there. That means either before filing an Early Decision application or choosing a school in April. You can apply to some schools you don't visit, but you should see enough places (6?) prior to finalizing your list to make sure you are on the right track. UVA could seem way too big for you, or you might like something better and miss that opportunity because of a singular focus. Nearby to you are many contrasting campuses (JMU, George Mason, Georgetown, GWU, UMD, Richmond, to name a few). A couple of days seeing campuses here and there can make a big difference as you move forward.


Washington, D.C.: It seems to me that parents and students often overlook the key index of 4 year graduation rate when evaluating schools - schools with high such rates can be expected to have a serious academic atmosphere, motivated kids, enough faculty so kids can take their major courses on time (unlike big state schools),and reasonably happy kids (i.e. low drop out rate )...what do you think?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: Yes, yes, and yes. It is surprising to many parents when we tell them that most colleges and universities now report a six-year graduation rate! Graduate rate, four-year being ideal, five being still OK in many cases, is a key measure of quality, for it connotes student satisfaction, good academics, efforts to help retain students through the whole academic and social program, and so on. The most selective schools have the best retention and graduation rates on average. Many excellent schools have four-year grad rates above 80%. That said, many great flagship universities have six-year rates in the 70s or less. That is for many reasons, but is not always a sign of poor class, faculty, or resources. Sometimes students are not prepared for their public university well, but still get in. And sometimes financial or personal or family reasons force them to drop out.


Fairfax, Va.: A lot of state/public universities seem to have just as high of tuition as private colleges. Do you think that private colleges or ivy league schools are still the best of the crop for kids?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: Not necessarily. Ivy and other elite private college leaders are often heard saying that they are seeing more and tougher competition from public universities. In many cases, we are comparing apples and oranges, though (Amherst and Michigan?). Overall, private tuition/fees/r+b is higher at private institutions. However, these schools also offer a lot of financial aid, so most students don't pay full freight. 60-70 percent of students at Ivy schools receive financial aid. Key here for any student is which type of school, which model, will work best for him or her. Not all public universities are huge, and not all private colleges small, by the way.


Washington, D.C.: Do you have a list of colleges with the best health plans or a list of good health plans for students? Do any of the plans carry on after college? My child has a chronic health problem which requires high cost prescription medications.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: That's a tough one. Health costs are spiking at colleges, as they are elsewhere. I think this one will require individual research on your part. Some schools have comprehensive health centers, others do not. Some of health plans for student included in tuition/fees, others don't. Many students are taking their own (parents') plans along with them to college these days and finding local physicians or clinics. Many of the state universities have major health centers on campus and plans that students can participate in for low cost.


Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for answering my question. Regarding states 529 plans -- are these really the best way to put money away for the future? Does the money transfer states if the student decides to go to a college out of state? Do these plans really only benefit if the student goes to his or her in state school? Thanks for your responses today.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: We think so, overall, since they are so flexible (you can use the money at any accredited college, public or private, in or out of state, or, you can use the money for yourself as a parent or any relative up to first cousin, or for grad school, with no penalty), the tax terms seem good in most cases, the limits are high (usually in the $250,000 range), etc. etc. Of course, you need to check with your accountant or financial planner about whether the plans will work for you. Go to www.savingforcollege.com for a good site that talks about 529s.


Arlington, Va.: What are your thoughts on the Krueger-Dale study? They showed that for people accepted to Ivy League and state schools that where they attended made no difference in their future earning power.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: It's what you do with your educational opportunities that matters the most. Going to Princeton will not assure you a great and lucrative career or wonderful future. Nor will going to your state university or a small regional private college mean you are stuck forever at a certain level. Just look at all the talented and highly regarded people, leaders at all levels, who started "modestly" in college. Many went right to a good career and built themselves up over time. Others did so well at an "unknown" college that they went on to very prestigious graduate schools, which can make much more of a difference. The fit for any student is key, which will help him or her be successful, and then the getting the most out of any environment will make success more likely. And, by the way, we want to be sure to add that we don't consider "future earning power" to be the best measure of success.


Howard Greene and Matthew Greene: We would like to thank all of you who have submitted questions and comments, and monitored our conversation here. We hope to be back in the next two months for another chat, so please be on the lookout for more opportunities to submit questions.


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