Right about now, anxious high school seniors are learning which colleges will admit them. There’s bound to be excitement, and probably some tears. But once the euphoria wears off, there are questions every student should ask a prospective school before making a commitment.
Selecting a college can be tricky, especially for students who are the first in their family to attend. Counselors say it’s not enough to pick a school with great academic programs. Families need to know how much support colleges will provide to help students earn a degree. While students should have asked many of the following questions before applying to college, there is still time. Better now than never.
What sorts of mentoring or tutoring programs are available? Even students who earned stellar grades in high school might find themselves overwhelmed by the rigors of higher education. Colleges generally offer writing clinics or other types of tutoring sessions for students. No need to wait until problems arise. Find out ahead of time where your child can go for help. Be sure to ask about mentoring programs. Some colleges provide one-on-one mentoring or group programs for first-generation or minority students. These initiatives can keep new students engaged and help them navigate college.
What is the graduation rate for students like my child? It’s good to know the graduation rate for the general population, but it’s better to know the specific rate by gender, race or socio-economic standing. A recent study by Education Trust found that while more than two-thirds of public four-year universities and colleges have raised overall graduation rates, the gains actually varied by race. Graduation rates for full-time white students at these schools increased 5.3 percent between 2003 and 2013, but only 2.1 percent for full-time black students. There are similar inequities when it comes to low-income students, who are typically eligible for federal Pell grants. If there are disparities in graduation rates, ask what the school is doing to address the problem.
What percentage of students land internships? Employers prefer recent graduates to have some work experience, making internships a critical part of the college experience. Pretty much every school has a career counseling office, but not all are aggressive in helping students find assignments. To be fair, students have to play their part in looking for internships, but having advisers who are actively working alongside them could make a difference.
You should also inquire about on-campus research opportunities for undergraduate students. Students at some schools can spend a few hours a week working under the direction of a faculty member. This is another form of work experience that looks good on a resume.
“Typically at a smaller liberal arts college, you’ll have more of an opportunity to work with a professor than at a large comprehensive university,” said Kevin Fudge, manager of government relations and community affairs at the nonprofit American Student Assistance.
What percentage of your students are employed within six months of graduation? And how many are working in their field? While a college education is far more valuable than just being a means to employment, getting a job is still important, especially in the era of five-figure student loan debt. Most schools can give you a breakdown of post-graduate employment rates across various majors. You can also get aggregate data on earnings from the College Scorecard, a search engine created by the Obama administration. Unfortunately, the information on the website is not broken down by degree, which means science and technology graduates could skew the results. Still, it’s worth checking out.
How much on average have costs gone up in the last few years? It can be difficult for colleges to make predictions about increases in tuition, fees, room and board, especially if the school is dependent on state appropriations. Still, getting some information on recent increases could give you a better sense of what to expect in the coming years. The good news is price increases have leveled off in the last few years, with schools reporting an average increase of about 3 percent, according to the College Board.
Some schools have even put a freeze on tuition, but keep in mind that’s just a part of the overall cost of attendance. Ask whether housing prices, activities fees or any other mandatory expenses have risen over the years.
“Students need to think longterm and figure what will it truly cost to earn a degree,” said Lisa R. Micele, director of college counseling at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School. “Are they really going to finish that degree in four years? Cost of attendance can be confusing if you are not looking at the full picture.”
What are the conditions of the scholarship offered by the school? Depending on the college, the acceptance package may include a financial aid award letter — if not, then one is sure to follow. This critical piece of paper informs students about the grants, scholarships and loans available to them, but not much more. Colleges are rarely explicit about the terms attached to the money, so it’s up to you to ask.
If your child lands a grant or scholarship, be sure to find out whether that money is available for following years. Colleges have been known to offer freshmen a lot of money to get them in the door and to offset low federal loan limits, but then pull the aid sophomore year. You should also ask whether the scholarship requires the student to maintain a certain grade point average. If so, ask whether students can reapply if they fall below the requirement one semester, Micele said.
Can the school provide more money? Chances are the scholarships and grants schools offer will fall short of what your child actually needs. It never hurts to ask for more, since there is often a little wiggle room in financial aid awards. You will have a stronger case if your family finances have changed since the time you filled out the FAFSA, the form the government and colleges use to determine need — and some merit-based aid. A job loss or death of a parent are the kinds of special circumstances that could warrant a bump in funding, Fudge said.
What’s more, FAFSA doesn’t capture all circumstances that might affect a family’s ability to pay for school. There’s no line on the form to include the cost of caring for an elderly parent or special needs child, the kind of expenses that could warrant more aid. So if you weren’t able to share that kind of information with the school, now is the time to bring it up to see if that shakes free some more assistance.
Does the school offer payment plans? Many colleges offer monthly payment plans that let families spread out the cost over the fall and spring semesters. This can be a great alternative to borrowing money to pay all at once or it can be used to reduce the amount borrowed. Colleges usually offer plans that are broken into five, 10 or 12 payments over the course of the school year. Enrolling in tuition plans usually costs less than $100 a year, and there are often late fees attached.
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