January 27, 2010

Why the "college hunt" genre is unrepresentative, and the shame of the College Board Profile

This morning's blog entry by Valerie Strauss is typical of the genre: a perspective on what it's like to apply to a number of selective colleges and universities and hunt for financial aid. And it's all wrong, both from a policy perspective and (I'd argue) even a hypercompetitive parents' perspective.

Policy perspective: the colleges most students attend are not very selective. Even for the ones that don't accept all applicants, most accept the majority of applicants (including most public universities). And even in the world of "very" selective institutions, you might be surprised. Sure, both Harvard and Stanford will reject more than 90% of their applicants this year, but most of the "very" selective private liberal arts colleges accept 25% or more of applicants... and we're at the peak of the baby boom echo, so it's only going to head up from here. (Math problem: If you're a high school senior and apply to colleges where you have a 50% probability of being accepted, and the decisions of each college are random and independent, how many do you need to apply to to have at least a 98% chance of being accepted into at least one?)

So the problem is generally not getting accepted into one college but being able to pay for it and being able to take all the classes you need and succeed at them. My daughter is applying to a few places where the tuition/board combination is high enough where some institutional aid would be very nice, and last night we completed the FAFSA, which is one half of the financial-aid paperwork for one of her desirable colleges. (I'll have more to say about the other half later.) The administration's promise on a simplified FAFSA has been fulfilled, at least from my experience: you don't need a CPA to fill it out, especially for families who are eligible for Pell grants and state assistance. The administration's proposal for a 10% cap on income you owe on college loans would be another step, and a definite improvement on the new income-based repayment option. Given the gap between Pell grants and tuition at a number of public universities, pushing on income-based repayment may be more valuable in the long run than expanding Pell grants.

Where Strauss is correct from a public perspective is the gap between the time high school counselors can spend shepherding students through the admissions process and the reality of the need. I'm thinking here primarily of high school students who would be first-generation college students. There aren't too many guidelines for a ninth-grader to keep in mind, but they're probably not repeated often enough: get your act together now to make sure your first semester grades are at least a mix of Cs and Bs, and they need to head up from there; read more than what's required; go as far in math as you can; take SATs or ACTs in your junior year; tell your parents to put their financial information in one place starting early fall of senior year; expand your college possibilities in one dimension from what you're being told by those around you. I suppose there are others that high school counselors use, but for the barebones, students whose parents never attended college can get into a fine public university following this.

If there's something that worries me apart from the high school curriculum and funding for poor students, it's the narrow way most high school students think about where and how to look for colleges, and the way that adults encourage that narrowness in part from their experiences or perceptions or because of tacit knowledge. There are sometimes circumstances that restrict students--those who need state assistance will be staying in-state, and often first-generation college students (especially young women) live at home while attending classes at a public university, at least for a year or two. (I know of one very large community college where faculty get the benefit of teaching incredibly talented first-generation students because their parents wouldn't let the students move away for a few years.) High school students can be creative in working with family preferences--Orlando high school students often prefer the University of South Florida (here in the Tampa area) and Tampa area students often prefer the University of Central Florida (Orlando) as a "far enough away from home so I'm not visited by my mom twice a week, but close enough to drive home on weekends" solution. But that's like chain migration: if you hear about an option from someone you know, you can use it.

What about the options you don't personally know? I've had some conversations with teenagers and parents in the past year or two where presumptions have become stereotypes and blinders. One parent completely dismissed a nationally-known public liberal-arts college because she knew some students with learning disabilities who saw that as a friendly place to attend... so it must not be good enough (i.e., prestigious). A student who is one of the most hard-working teenagers I have ever known and interested in engineering schools didn't know the difference between tuition-dependent private schools and those with endowments and substantial institutional aid. She was thinking very hopefully on an engineering school within driving distance that is tuition-dependent and where there was no way that she could get aid (and thus attend). She hadn't thought of CalTech at all, though it's well off and where she might get a boost because of the dominance of men in their undergraduate enrollment. Another student who moved to the U.S. four years ago was disappointed in her board scores and thought colleges wouldn't want her. She's another incredibly hard-working student, one who admissions officers would drool over in reality. For the students in these cases, I'm not worried because it didn't take much to persuade them or their parents to think a bit more broadly (and optimistically). For the millions of talented high school students I can't persuade personally to think a little more broadly about colleges, I worry about the mental shortcuts we take when looking for colleges. It's an understandable but sad statement about our country when some of the most effective recruitment of college students is done through Saturday television broadcasts in the fall.

Private perspective: As I wrote above, the FAFSA is one of the pieces for institutional aid for a college my daughter is keenly interested in. The other is the College Board Profile. Last night, I printed out their 19-page worksheet and filled in answers for the several-hundred questions about parental income and assets so my daughter can enter the data this afternoon. I'll just say this to the admissions officers for the private institutions using the College Board Profile: you've just demonstrated to me why your efforts at recruiting a diverse population of students is often a facade. When your chosen tool (which you don't have to pay for) is several orders of magnitude more difficult to complete than the old, more complicated FAFSA, it's clear that you don't have a clue about how to get poor students to apply for financial aid. And College Board? Shame on you for requiring poor families to pay for the privilege of having one more barrier to receiving financial aid.

My daughter will do fine, and unlike other college seniors, she hasn't panicked. Several years ago, when it was clear she was interested in Type X college, her mother and I talked about the financial feasibility of that. (I'm a public-university professor in a relatively low-paid field. Well-off? Definitely with respect to human history! Able to send my daughter to Type X college on my and my wife's income alone? .... uh, what type of cat food tastes good?) We figured we could expand her horizons, but given that her spine is stiffer than mine, I expected it would be in one direction.  Let's see: ask her to consider Type Y college? Not going to happen. Z? Not a chance. Type X-public? Hmmn... that worked. In the fall of her sophomore year, I told her that if she could find a Type X college that would let her visit classes, either public or private, I'd take her. And she found such a place, so we went. As a result, we spread out college visits over a few years, not a few weeks. That first college is still on her "very interested" list, and overall she liked (and applied to) roughly half of the places we visited, most of which were Type X colleges. Her interests have changed a bit, but she'll do fine in any of the places she's applying to, and it's her life, not mine. Yes, she's been accepted to at least one. As I stated above, if you've worked hard in high school and you're not set on getting into the One True Place for You, you'll get in somewhere you can learn a great deal in.

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Posted in Higher education on January 27, 2010 12:05 PM |