The hunt for college

Geeky Boy is entering his senior year, which means that he’ll be applying to college in fall/winter. He has not been particularly proactive about it. Last year, he was struggling with depression so clearly had more pressing issues. Still, he managed to take SATs and visit two schools. Only one of those schools was one he proactively said anything about. I find it frustrating, but I’m trying to be patient. We visited a state school this week and he wants to visit some schools in the Boston area. So, I think he will have a nice list of schools to apply to. Still, the whole process is anxiety producing. For me, I worry about his not so good grades and where those will hurt him. They’re offset by good SAT scores. But will that be enough? Will some school see his potential? Is there a place that will be better for his success? It’s hard to know.

I’ve watched and am watching friends go through this too. They have the same anxieties even when their kids have a much “cleaner” record than mine. They see 18% percent acceptance rates and know that their kid doesn’t have any better shot than any other kid, necessarily, with a similar record.

And then there’s the money. Many of my friends, mostly academics, have little to no money saved up. So the school their kids ultimately will go to might depend on an aid package. We talk about loans, against our houses, for our kids. And we worry, about paying the loan off or paying our kids’ loans off. We worry about whether it’s worth it. We worry about whether they know what they want to major in or whether they don’t and whether that will net them a job. Geeky Boy isn’t thinking about any of this, really, some of it, maybe. Certainly more than I did. I just thought about having “the college experience”.

To some extent, it’s all a crap shoot, which is exactly what many of my colleagues said of the academic job market years ago. Look how that’s worked out. While I try to remain practical and know that there’s always community college as a truly viable and affordable option, I can’t help but feel like the deck is stacked against us, and by us, I mean most of us.

8 Replies to “The hunt for college”

  1. Been there, done that. Maybe I have some insights you’ll find useful. First, you’re describing the typical high school male. They don’t think about the future. Girls are *much* better at that at this age. Second, and I think this is the most important thing: You son needs to find the best school that fits him, not necessarily the best school in terms of prestige. That school is out there, in fact, there are probably more than one of them. So maybe you need to think differently about your search. Do you think a small liberal arts school would be a better fit than a large comprehensive university? What is he passionate about, if anything? What are his hobbies? How does he like to spend his time. Look for schools that are strong in those areas. Sometimes you need to look below the surface to find them (like not just using college guides). Talk to your acquaintances about schools they know about, but don’t listen too much if they start talking about prestige, because that’s not what your son needs most. With respect to financing, the question should be what’s the alternative? Sure college is expensive, but so is unemployment. The data continue to show that college is financially worth it. You know my bias, also: There are plenty of fine public universities out there that are much better bargains than Ivy League schools. Have hope!

  2. Good luck! It feels much better on the other side. My daughter leaves for college in 3 weeks.

    There’s some helpful info and support on CollegeConfidential.com if you can avoid the “chance me” threads and the meanness. Our high school parents of 2012 thread in the Parents forum was great (we just “graduated” to the college class of 2016 thread last night). The individual college forums can have good info, too. I believe there’s a long thread on schools for a “B” student. There are also periodic threads for students where test scores are better than grades.

    Our rule was that she had to apply to two financial (places we knew we could afford) and admissions (places she was guaranteed to get in/would get notice early enough to apply elsewhere) safeties. That would guarantee that no matter what, she would have a choice come April. Her safeties certainly weren’t “name” schools, but she was confident that she could find/make opportunities there.

    It’s nice if you apply somewhere with rolling admissions or early notification so that you get a lift fairly early in the process. I’m not a big believer in early decision unless you’re absolutely certain and you can afford it. Early admissions is fine, though, but if it’s single-choice early admissions be sure and check all the restrictions. Some places allow you to apply SCEA and to a local state school, others don’t, etc. Many times, there’s a slight bump in your changes if you apply in the early group. Evidently, legacy pretty much only matters if you apply early.

    Have you looked at the Net Price Calculator at the colleges he’s interested in? Each college is required to have one and it should help you see what the COA would be for your family. However, reality is that you can’t tell anything for sure until the financial aid papers come (sometimes as late as mid-April).

    My favorite part of this process? Admissions offices get from approximately January 1 to April 1 to read applications and make decisions. Students have the month of April to go to accepted students days, evaluate financial aid offers, and accept a single school by May 1.

    My second favorite part is the financial aid paperwork. One school wanted FAFSA by 2/15. The IRS doesn’t require companies to issue all the forms until 1/31 and I believe brokerage stuff can come out later. Some schools also require the CSS Profile and iDOC and others have their own forms. iDoc requires a stack of paper and it can’t be e-mailed or uploaded — it must be snail mailed. And, the iDoc address didn’t have 1 day delivery (express mail) from our city.

    The Common App became available the night of 7/31, so he can go ahead and start it if he wants, even if he doesn’t know what schools he wants to apply to yet.

    It would probably help if you/he could get his school counselor to note in the counselor letter that his depression affected his grades, but that he has it under control now.

  3. A cousin didn’t get into any of her top four schools this past year, much to everyone’s extreme surprise, and although I think her ultimate choice is a great fit, it was a scary wakeup call about the realities of those acceptance rates.

    We are huge fans of small liberal arts schools in regions other than one’s current residence. They offer great personalized educations and because having students from all 50 states is usually important for the brochure, there’s a chance to stand out if you’re not from the usual catchment. Beyond that, we’re avoiding thinking about the issue for another three years. Mostly avoiding it, anyway.

    I think _The Gift of an Ordinary Day_ is extraordinarily wise and wonderful on precisely the issues you’re facing, fwiw.

  4. I have worked in admissions before. First of all, don’t take a loan against your house. If you can’t afford the college, you will probably get the option of a PLUS loan, which is a better set up.

    Second, I second the “look for oddball schools” advice. I’ve found that smaller colleges–both smaller state schools and smaller/less well known privates will work really hard for kids that are a bit off the beaten path and kids that show potential even if their grades don’t mimic that potential. Might he like an unusual place like Hampshire, up in middle MA, or a Warren Wilson in NC? If in state is a goal, Penn State Mt. Alto is a small campus in a small town, but linked to a larger system–and is pretty forgiving–provided you want to study one of the things they offer.

  5. and I just realized that I offered up advice that you didn’t ask for. I’m sorry.

    But this whole getting into college thing is hard. I think they should serve parents champagne at freshman/woman orientation just to celebrate making it through the process.

  6. Steve, great advice, and I am doing better on ignoring some of my friends/colleagues who focus on prestige. My son does fine at this aspect of his search. And we are looking mostly at publics (in and out of state) and smaller privates. UVM, Temple, Pitt, Hampshire are definites, and we’ll be adding a few more to the list. I’d love, of course, for him to apply to UMW, but not sure he wants to go south.

    Jo, thanks for the advice! I will look at the net calculator at some of those places. We also have a tuition benefit that will make a place much more affordable. Temple is a rolling admissions school. I’d like to see him apply there right after he takes the SAT again. Honestly not sure if he would get in, but I think it would be a good wake up call one way or the other.

    Susan, we do plan on a PLUS loan as opposed to borrowing ourselves. Those are just the conversations I’m hearing around my peer group. Oh, and no worries about offering advice. I need it! I have a very good friend who’s a college counselor at a nearby school who has been a great help. But no matter how much information you get, you still feel like it’s not enough. And everyone going through this is kind of in panic mode. Doesn’t help the nerves, ya know. 🙂

  7. I also recommend college confidential. The thread to peek in on is the 2013 thread (for your son’s graduation year, and the one’s before and after). There are also a few “what I’ve learned” threads that are really useful.

    My kids are no where near college age, so I’m reading the threads to get insight into academia and changing society than for practical advice (though the advice worms into my brain, too). My big take home lesson has been that things are different than they were 25 years ago when I was applying to college. The CC parents have been there before you and know those differences and have thought about how to make the new system work for their kid.

    Stay away from the kid-based threads, though (including the chance me’s). Go straight to the parents forum.

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