When Should Families Start Talking About Paying for College?

Financial aid deadlines at colleges across the nation typically arrive in mid-February. When should your family start the conversation about paying for college? Is it better to have the cost conversation early on, or wait until a student has been accepted to his or her dream college?

The “D” Word

I don’t swear a lot. Occasionally, but not that often. Partly that’s because I’m not apt to losing my temper, and I also remember being told that cursing lacks creativity. That always stuck with me, and I think it’s had a lasting impact.

THE ‘S’ WORD

Recently, my seven year old son came home extremely upset because a neighbor kid had used “THE ‘S’ WORD!” Despite being the Holidays I was pretty sure we weren’t talking about Santa, so I immediately started considering how I’d respond. I asked him to tell me more and as he began I started thinking about my advice. Something surrounding how “THE ‘S’ WORD” is not appropriate and you can get in trouble for using it and…. then I heard something that made me pause. “Yea. He was like, ‘that is just plain Ssssssss’… and then you know… and then, ‘Pid.'” Ok. Totally different “S word.” Totally different lecture. Totally different approach. Now we are moving into how that word is insulting, and lazy, and all the other synonyms that are more interesting.

THE ‘D’ WORD

But it got me thinking about college admission. Logically. At this time of year a lot of schools are releasing their EA and ED decisions. I’m already seeing posts on social media and hearing more from friends in our neighborhood talk about their son or daughter. One of the biggest questions surrounds…. “THE D WORD!” Nope… not deny. I suppose that’s kind of like the actual “S WORD.” Pretty clear. If you are denied, it’s frustrating, it’s upsetting, it’s a tough blow. But at least you have a decision and you can move on. I’ll write more about this in a future post, but it’s a lot like breaking up. You know where you stand… and who you won’t be standing next to. Unfortunately, defer and deny both start with the same letter. But their implications are extremely divergent.

If you are deferred admission from a school, it’s important for you to remember three things:

1. You are not denied. If a school did not think you were competitive or a good fit, they would have denied you. This sounds harsh but it’s true. There is a reason you got a different “D Word,” so pay attention because the message is as different as the two “S Words” above.

2. Finish the drill. Getting deferred is not fun. It means being in limbo a while longer. Now you are going to need to send in fall grades, you may need to write an additional essay or tell more about your personal activities. But you are not denied. The school that deferred you wants to see more. They need to understand perhaps how you’ve done in a challenging senior schedule, or if your upward grade trend will continue, or if you can juggle more responsibility outside the classroom with your course load within. And they likely also want to see how you stack up with the entire applicant pool. So defer is a “hold on” or a “maybe” or even a “tell me more.” So do that. If you liked a school enough to apply, you should finish the drill. After all, it’s called an admission process. Sometimes that means more than just one round. See it through by submitting what they request and put your absolute best foot forward. OR cancel your application and be done. But don’t go halfway and stop giving your best effort.

3. Check your ego.  The truth is that you should do this when you are admitted, denied, or deferred. After all, an admission decision is not a value or character decision. Don’t blur the lines. If you are deferred from a college you really want to attend, you need to give them every confidence that you should be admitted in the next round, or even from the wait list. If a school asks for a mid- spring report, or they call your counselor, or they ask you to come in for an interview, you have solid grades and interesting new information to share. Your job as a senior is to finish well.

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How To Pay For College

how to pay for college

Recently, a good friend of mine told me that after his wife delivered their baby he went down to the hospital cafeteria and the “panic” of paying for college was all he could think about while eating his soggy salad. While I challenged his priorities and encouraged him to definitely practice his swaddling technique, he was likely just responding to the frenzy of conversations among older peers in his neighborhood, workplace, and community who are currently in the throes of this conundrum.

With the price of higher education rising much faster than inflation, many students and families find themselves struggling to pay for college, or looking for ways to reduce or offset the costs. To that end, we’ve developed a series entitled “How To Pay For College” designed to help, with expert advice and creative ways for meeting this challenge.

Check out our first installments with author, columnist, and visiting scholar Jeff Selingo and Rich DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U).

And for parents much closer to writing checks and packing bags for college, here are five tips.  

A Family Affair, Part 3

“Look Beyond What You See”

If you have ever watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you will remember Kostas “Gus” Portokalos issuing a challenge: “Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek.”  So call me the Gus of college admissions. Here’s a few examples:

What’s the value of college visits?

It’s just like dating… all about getting a good image in your head of what you are or are not looking for- and what will be a good fit for you

Colleges that use demonstrated interest?

It’s like deciding who you’re going to ask to prom. You don’t walk down the hall blindfolded and grab someone (Please. Please. Don’t do this!). You want to get a sense that they may say yes.

Double depositing?

Two-timing.

Okay… so maybe I need to work on some of these a little bit. But the point is there are parallels between everyday life (and love) experience and the college admission process. Hopefully these begin to help clarify what’s often seen as mysterious or veiled.

In an earlier post, we established that I speak Disney. In The Lion King 1 ½ , Rafiki encourages Timon to “look beyond what you see.” Those words really stuck with me because of how tough they are to live out, especially in high school. Even with access to information and connections all over the world, our daily exposure and interactions have incredible influence on the decisions we make and our view of ourselves and of our world.

No matter where you live, there are a group of schools that you regularly hear about on TV or see on bumper stickers in the school parking lot or drive-thru line. If you read national news about college, particular related to rankings and admit rates, the school set is even more limited.  So it’s easy to develop tunnel vision and believe there are only a handful of colleges for you to consider. In truth, there are  more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States alone, and more students are going abroad for college every year.

Look beyond what you see.  I wrote this last year but it bears repeating. “Look at the alma maters of Fortune 100 CEOs and you’ll find as many public or not well known schools as you will Ivy League schools. The pathway to success does not always go through Cambridge or Palo Alto. Does the college you are considering facilitate your ability to continually learn, adapt and think analytically? Many schools do this phenomenally well. Too many families stretch financially for a brand, when the better option may be a college off the beaten path.” 

Students:

As much as you may love cheering for a certain school’s football or basketball team, it does not mean that it’s a good match for your education. You may have a picture of yourself as a baby in a onesie from your mom’s alma mater. Or you may be admitted to the same school as your best friend, or a place with an exceptionally low admit rate. But I urge you, “look beyond what you see.” It’s not easy. It takes the willingness to trust yourself and to diverge from the common route in your community or family. Ultimately, that self-awareness, confidence, and self-reliance will prepare you not only for success in college, but in life well beyond too.

Parents:

Maybe you’ve dreamed about a particular school for your student (remember the picture of them in that cute onesie?). If that dream is driven from your desire to boast of their admittance or attendance, I implore you to take a step back and examine if you really believe it will be a good fit for them. While they may not tell you, your opinion and approval influence them heavily. I know that can be hard to believe based on some of your interactions lately, but I talk to students all the time who say parental pressure is a major reason for their college selection. Too frequently that leads them to make a choice that was not truly right for them.

As you navigate this road, take heart and remember the wise words of Rafiki, “It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all through despair and hope, through faith and love.”

The Coalition Application, perspective for professionals

Since the Coalition Application was announced in September, it has spurred significant press, healthy debate, and at times, heated criticism.  Let me be clear: I do not work for The Coalition Application.  So just as much as we tell students not to take one tour guide’s voice as gospel, please know this is not intended to be inclusive of all members, nor is it the “party line.”

What It Is (always wanted to be able to use that phrase in an article, so we’re off to a good start):

1) The Coalition Application is an alternative to The Common Application. It is not meant to replace The Common App, nor will it. It is another application option which provides relief for some schools that previously had a “single point of failure with only one application (which, as you may recall, created difficulty in 2013 when Common App struggled in initial launch).

2) It is a platform that brings together a significant number of colleges and universities, rather than proliferating disparate applications for individual institutions. That union is positive because it creates a larger college landscape for students and encourages breadth of consideration. Whether you work at a private or a public school, whether urban or rural, whether elite or Title I, we all want our students to look beyond the places they’ve always known. Isn’t that partially what college is all about: vision, options, and expanding horizons?

3) It is a group of schools that have had success on many levels in the landscape of American higher education. These places have some of our nation’s best support networks, internship programs, and retention rates. In the South specifically, it includes schools like Clemson, NC State, and UGA (who previously were not members of the Common Application); all schools that have made phenomenal commitments to student access, diversity, support, and success consistently throughout their histories.

My high school alma mater, like many urban public schools, had an abysmal counselor: student ratio. Counselors had a only a few minutes during a student’s entire high school career to discuss post-secondary options. Talented low SES students were often told to look at the local community college or the military, and perhaps college later. Today that’s still happening. It takes approximately 10 seconds to tell a student: “If you apply to one of these schools, you may not get in, but if you do, you will have access to the help you need, likely graduate on time, and will not be burdened by debt when you finish.” I realize a myriad of societal forces encroach between that advice and college matriculation, but the “elevator speech” is practical.

What It is Not:

1) I wrote this upon the initial announcement:  “The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is not a panacea. Not all low SES students will even hear of this platform and option, let alone successfully use it to be admitted to a top tier school.” Some of the most passionate ire surrounds incorporating the word “access.” This is a goal. It is aspirational. And it’s very public. That’s all positive, because it motivates member schools to produce classes that reflect their participation.

2) It is not going to completely transform our nation’s socio-economic strata. However, what if, between adjustments The Common Application makes due to increased pressure, and the gravity, influence, and investment of Coalition Schools in this new platform, more Pell-eligible students graduate with lower average debt? What if more students from rural communities apply to and ultimately attend schools where they’re now noticeably absent? That would be a successful shift. That would be a step toward transforming the demographic picture of higher education in America. And that is a step worth attempting.

3) It is not going to to ruin a student’s high school experience. I’ve read hyperbolic phrases like “landmine,” “catastrophic” or “tossing a grenade.” The ability for a student to save some of their best work during high school in a central place that can be pulled into a college application is potentially fatal? Many feel that informing freshman (and their parents) they can do these things will elongate the admission process; that it will “strip” them of their high school career; that it will overwhelm counselors in schools who have high demand parents and communities.  I don’t doubt some of those scenarios could play out.  But those manifestations are due to culture. In “college preparatory schools” and “college going cultures,” educators educate. You put parameters in place that help your community navigate and thrive in the college admission process. Continue to set the rules, provide the insight, and be the expert. Tell your headmaster or principal or superintendent what you need to succeed. Sound hopeless? Sound impossible? Sound unlikely?  Culture is big. Shifting it takes leadership and unified community commitment… and time. But who has a better chance of doing that: A school focused almost exclusively on sending students to college or one with a 450:1 counselor to student ratio where most parents did not attend college and things are the same way now as they were 20 years ago? If creating a platform, rather than merely an application, can help move the needle on college awareness, yet creates some turbulence, I’d contend we’re all better off.

What I Don’t Know:  Lots. Seriously, lots. Not sure how Donald Trump can still be viable in election discussion; not sure how to respond when my four year-old daughter tells me she is going to move to California if I keep saying I love her; not sure about a lot acronyms I see on Twitter; so, again…lots.

What I Know: Students take their cues from us. We owe them sound advice, vision, and an example that is worth following. We owe them a commitment to trying new things, to not being content with the status quo, and to finding solutions to problems that are worth solving. None of that happens alone.  There has been far too much negative dialogue in our profession over the last year. Admit rates at selective schools are down, tuition rates nationally are up, and caseloads for everyone continue to escalate, so certainly there are quantitative factors. I implore everyone to consider how we interact in online forums; examine how the implications of phrases we use fan the flames of anxiety; and minimize common terms like “other side of the desk,” which, wrongly construed, can be unnecessarily divisive. Ultimately, we control the tone, the narrative, and the relationships. Let’s recommit to modeling for students, families, and the press that our field is committed to serving students with authenticity through professionalism.