If you are a parent trying to help a child apply for college, you know how hard the process can be. Figuring out what to do and not do can be bewildering. In this post, Liz Willen, editor of The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education, offers some help. This post was produced by The Hechinger Report.
By Liz Willen
It’s the thick of college application season, and your child is diligently churning out common application essays while simultaneously studying for four or five Advanced Placement exams and researching scholarships, right?
Well, maybe not.
In households across the United States right now, (including my own) there’s likely a good deal of procrastination – along with frustration and anxiety about the endless array of essays and electronic forms to fill out. That includes the dreaded and still over-complicated federal FAFSA, a federal form with 108 questions and 72 pages of instructions that determine financial aid – all guaranteed to take weeks off your life.
Way too often, large public high schools don’t have anywhere nearly enough guidance counselors to provide one-on-one advice and instruction. The national ratio of counselors to students at public high schools is just one to 285: with only one college counselor for every 338 students, a recent Hechinger Report story found.
Only one in four public high schools have even at least one full-time college counselor, compared to three out of four private ones. I know there is a void at the New York City public high school my son attends.
That’s why when I was asked to give a presentation about college admissions at his school recently, I came up with a handy list of do’s and don’ts for parents, some based on many years of covering education – and others based on trial and error in my household and the homes of my siblings, relatives and friends.
At the top of my list is a simple tool called Tuition Tracker, showing what students really pay for college – based on income – instead of what the so-called sticker price you can read on any website says. Tuition Tracker allows you to view trends and estimates from more than 3,700 U.S. colleges and universities in the U.S., and is part of a joint project developed by The Hechinger Report, the Education Writers Association, and The Dallas Morning News that uses federal data to show how financial aid and tax credits for tuition have shifted from lower- to higher-income students.
For example, the cost of attending Pennsylvania State University runs about $30,000 a year for in-state students. At Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia, it’s nearly twice that, yet Swarthmore ends up being less expensive for most students, according to one of our stories that used Tuition Tracker. How could that be? The answer is that Swarthmore is among the private liberal arts schools offering hefty discounts, bringing down the average cost to even less than taxpayer-subsidized Penn State’s.
I wish more high-achieving low-income students would not be scared off by a college’s “sticker price,’’ although it is certainly understandable why they would be. At Swarthmore, the website tells you that annual tuition and fees come to $59,610.
Last year, a study by researchers at Stanford and Harvard universities kfound that many low-income families are so intimidated by prices and so unaware they may qualify for substantial aid they don’t even bother to apply. I hope our Tuition Tracker project helps parents understand why very selective colleges can be more affordable than they might think. Yet without enough guidance counselors and financial aid experts on hand encouraging them to apply, they may never find out. That won’t help the United States get any closer to meeting President Obama’s goal for the United States to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, a goal that could be in jeopardy, as Michigan State University College of Education School Dean Donald Heller recently pointed out.
When I stood before dozens of parents who are feeling overwhelmed by college deadlines recently, I wished I could give more specific help and guidance. I hate to think that our overly stressful and complex college admissions process drives away kids who truly deserve great opportunities.
My personal tips are entirely unscientific and based on lots of nagging and micromanaging that may have been counterproductive at times – but ultimately did the trick. And while in-your-face parents are annoying, it is simply unrealistic to think most busy high schoolers can navigate admissions and financial aid on their own. Parents have to strike a balance between being overinvolved and uninvolved – the stakes are too high.
For what it’s worth, here are my top 10 “don’ts” for parents, particularly of high school seniors.
- DO NOT begin every sentence with the phrase: “DID YOU DO…?’’
- DO NOT double-team your child, even if you are lucky enough to have two parents who are involved. Designate one parent to handle financial aid while the second helps keep track of applications.
- DO NOT talk about your child’s SAT or PSAT or ACT scores — except in private! If they are perfect or great, congratulations, consider that a real strength in the application – your child is good test taker. But it really doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. And it’s just not good form to talk about test scores in front of other kids and parents or compare scores with friends and siblings. It’s no one else’s business. Great scores don’t necessarily guarantee top choice admissions, bad or mediocre ones don’t necessarily doom them.
- DO NOT constantly yell, nag, compare, beg, plead, punish and put your child down when you get anxious about the ordeal. Instead, pick one admissions task at a time to tackle with them together.
- DO NOT think of college admissions decisions as a reflection or referendum on your parenting skills or how you raised your child.
- DO NOT pin all your hopes on one or two colleges that felt right to you. Check to make sure you aren’t living in a fantasy world based on an idea or ideal you have on what college should be like, because you aren’t the one going. Also, check in advance to get a sense of how much aid you might reasonably expect.
- DO NOT anticipate much personal attention, guidance and hand-holding from school counselors if you attend a large public high school. Their caseload is too big and they simply do not have the time.
- DO NOT write any of your child’s essays. It will be obvious the voice is not theirs.
- DO NOT talk about nothing but college admission at home. If all goes well, it could be the last year your child will be living with you. Do you want them to look back and remember that all you did was nag, berate, compare, micromanage and yell? Change the subject every now and then; watch a game or a funny movie.
- DO NOT miss important deadlines. Figure out a way to stay on target – via an email relationship with your child, shared calendars, a chalkboard or a whiteboard.
Finally, if you have figured out what works well – pass it on!
(Correction: In No. 8, an earlier version mistakenly said yours instead of theirs at the end of the sentence.)