We’re at the beginning of college admissions season for this year’s high-school seniors. One big change this fall is on the financial-aid front: Families can now file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, as of October 1 — three months earlier than in previous years, and using their most recent tax returns.
By making that change the hope is that families will know how much a particular college might actually cost before they get too emotionally attached to one campus and in time to make a reasoned decision about where to enroll. College and university admissions directors and high-school counselors welcome the change as just one of many needed reforms to fix what’s wrong with college admissions.
A few weeks ago, those counselors gathered in Columbus for the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. In recent years, there has been concern among counselors at both the high-school and college level that the admissions process is too frenzied for most students and their families.
For one, there is the competition to get into the most selective colleges, which are rejecting more students than ever before. Second, there is the concern about paying for college, and, for a growing number of Americans who have watched their incomes lag, whether tuition prices at most institutions are simply out of reach for their children.
Between sessions or in hallway chatter at the meeting of admissions counselors, I asked high school advisers how their conversations with students about going to college and admissions have changed in the past few years.
A few said they haven’t shifted their pitch, but most of the counselors in my very unscientific survey said they had tweaked their messages to ease the worry of students and their parents around this time of year. In talking with them, I heard four good pieces of advice that more students and their parents should heed:
1. Students need to hedge their bets. The college search starts as early as middle school for some students these days. Some 10 percent of colleges begin contacting students in eighth grade or earlier. Nearly half start sending materials to prospective students during their sophomore year.
By the time students reach their junior year of high school, they often have their hearts set on a particular campus. But unlike other major purchases in life — a home, a car — many families know little about what they will actually pay for college and, more important, exactly how they will finance it until a few weeks before a final decision needs to be made (that’s why the FAFSA change is significant).
Counselors have always encouraged students to consider a variety of schools, including a safety school and a stretch school, for instance. But they told me more than ever they are suggesting students cast a wider net, at least at the beginning of their search, so they don’t develop a love affair with one particular school that will be hard to break off when financial decisions need to be made in the spring.
2. Include a mix of colleges, both public and private. Several counselors told me that in the past they suggested that students look for a type of school that fits their style — a small liberal arts college, a campus near home, or one focused on their career field — and then apply to that school and similar colleges. Now they advise students to look beyond just one type of school and consider campuses of all sizes, and particularly public institutions within their home state, where their cost of attendance might be less than out-of-state schools or private colleges.
The reason is that students change their mind about what they want out of their higher education during the course of the application process. If they only look at a narrow slice of institutions, for instance, it could close off options in the spring when they sour on their choice of major or decide they don’t want to travel too far to college.
3. Don’t forget about community colleges. Too often and for too many students, the word “college” means a four-year degree. The two-year degree gets a bad rap, and so do the community colleges that offer them. That’s especially the case among parents and even school counselors who themselves have bachelor’s degrees. In their minds, the four-year degree is the only route to a respectable and rewarding career.
But the rising cost of four-year colleges has led many counselors to suggest that students consider starting at a two-year college, especially if they are unsure about what they want to do with their lives. Small first-year classes and low cost of community colleges allow students to explore careers before committing to a major at a four-year school, all while they earn valuable credits.
And counselors reported that there are more takers now for their advice about community colleges. Indeed, students and parents who have a wide variety of choices about where to go to college are increasingly landing at two-year schools. Some 25 percent of students from households earning $100,000 or more now attend community colleges, up from 12 percent just five years ago, according to an annual survey by Sallie Mae.
4. Don’t focus too much on majors. Counselors told me that talk about “return on investment” of a college degree has led many students to obsess about their major before they consider where they’re going to enroll in college.
Students shouldn’t focus too much on the college major in high school, because they’re more likely to switch their major than their college once on campus. By the end of their first year, 25 percent of all freshmen change their mind about their field of study. Another 50 percent of first-year students say they plan to change majors, according to surveys by UCLA researchers.
School counselors are a major influencer in how kids pick colleges, majors, and careers. Overall, their advice is that students should keep their options open as they search for the right fit in a college. For parents and students, too much of the admissions process has become just that: a process and another hoop to jump through on the way to graduating from high school.
Students shouldn’t think of the acceptance letter as the end of the process, but as the beginning of an exploration about their genuine passions and interests.