Class Struggle

Guidance counselors' weak spots: Financial aid, potential private school bias

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 2, 2010

I love high school counselors. For an education writer like me, guidance counselors have been wonderful sources of information.

An insightful new book on the admissions process, however, has convinced me that many hardworking and thoughtful counselors have a weak spot I have overlooked. Both they and I don't have as deep an understanding of the intricacies of college finance as is needed in this era of huge tuition bills. There is also something about the way many high schools publicize college admissions success that might tempt counselors to recommend expensive private colleges over less costly state schools that are just as good.

Perhaps this is not such a problem in the Washington area. We have some of the most experienced and erudite admissions advisers. But the issue is worth considering as families face the difficulties of financing college in a weak economy.

The book is "Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships or Mooching Off My Parents." The author is Zac Bissonnette, a 22-year-old journalist who is a senior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Prematurely wise about college marketing and career building, he discredits a number of admissions myths, using his own research and sources such as Lynn O'Shaughnessy, a columnist and the author of "The College Solution."

Bissonnette believes families borrow far more money than they need for a successful college investment. Public universities provide just as good an education and a start on a desired career as private colleges do. That's not a new argument, but his follow-up point is: Most students who attend college, private or public, use few of the resources available to prepare themselves for satisfying lives and careers.

I have never seen research supporting Bissonnette's notion that high school counselors have an incentive to ignore this fact and push students toward prestigious private colleges. But he is right about competitive pressures, particularly in private schools, that downgrade public alternatives. "If you're the parent of an eighth grader, which prep school will look more appealing," Bissonnette asks, "the one sporting banners from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton or the one with banners from a handful of community colleges and a couple of state universities?"

Forgive me, my counselor friends, but it is time to replay the old private vs. public debate with a more balanced view of where future happiness lies.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company