Thursday, December 15, 2011

I'm Not the One Going to College

Earlier this week Mark Sklarow, Executive Director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association wrote a blog piece that generated a lot of buzz. It was titled: "Getting Kids Into" Ivy League Colleges: Absolutely NOT the Job of an Independent Educational Consultant.

He was a little fired up because he'd been reading a lot of membership applications that espoused "insider knowledge" and "admission secrets" that would translate into an "advantage" for the student working with the consultant.

Outrageous claims like this get me a little fired up too. Admission to a college is not a prize to be won. Don't forget-- you still have to GO to college once you're admitted. This is why ethical independent educational consultants focus on the student as a whole and help students discover schools where they can be successful.

Think about this scenario-- Let's say Emma is a solid student at a good high school with good standardized test scores. She could get into any number of schools, but a school such as Harvard would be a long shot (and an academic struggle, to boot). Maybe she applies anyway and gets in. Any number of people would question her turning that down.

But this is exactly why admission is not the prize. Emma might flunk out. Or she might struggle to graduate in seven years with poor grades. Is that worth it? Or is worth going to a school where she could graduate with honors, be a leader on campus because she's not struggling academically, and graduate on time? That's the scenario I'd rather see.

If the Ivies were the end-all, be-all, then the thousands of other wonderful colleges out there wouldn't exist.

I'm not yet a member of IECA, but I strive to abide by their Principles of Good Practice. This is why I will never claim to get a student into college. Students get themselves in, IEC's help get everyone through it all.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

3 Things to Remember About Your College Application

It's official-- we are in the throes of the holiday season. Between the constant holiday music and piles of decorations everywhere, there's no escaping it. And what do the holidays mean? Stress! Yet somehow it all manages to come together, even if it's at the last minute.

We're also in the the throes of another season, college application season, and that means another stressful deadline lurking behind the holidays--the regular application deadline. Those who applied earlier will actually get an answer soon; what a lovely present that could be. Just like the holiday eventually sorts itself out with some thought and organization, so do the college applications.

There are a three things to remember that I think will help, even if you've already got an application in.

1. Colleges want you
Think about it--do you think a college would exist without you, the student? This isn't meant to be a if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods-and-no-one's-around kind of question but they need you, they really do. Yes, a lot of it is business driven, with staff to pay and a lot of building upkeep, but the professors are also there to teach YOU. None of it can really exist without students.

2. Admissions officers are people too
Ever see a teacher outside of school, in regular clothes? It's kind of a weird feeling, isn't it? Kind of like they shouldn't be there? Admissions officers seem like that too. Who are these people? Talk to them; you'll find they're quite reasonable. They're looking for the best qualities in each application they comb through.

3. You will go to college
I know sometimes it feels like this isn't true. And I don't doubt how disappointing it will feel if you don't get in to your first choice. But if the list of colleges is a thoughtful one, there's more than one good choice on that list. The common denominator in this whole equation is you. You are the only one who can make your college experience great. Take advantage of the incredible opportunity that's in front of you. If you do that, you'll thrive. And what's stressful about that?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

5 Myths About Student Loans

This week I'm going to challenge everything you know about student loans. Well, actually, Mark Kantrowitz is. He's the publisher of FinAid and FastWeb, which are among the best resources out there for financial aid and scholarship information. And they're free. (It's been said before, but it bears repeating, don't ever pay for a scholarship search.) This piece is from the Washington Post's series whose aim is to challenge everything you about a wide range of topics. So here it is--consider yourself challenged. 

From Mark Kantrowitz and the Washington Post

Many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters are struggling to repay student loans and want their debt to go away. An online petition calling for cancellation of all student loans has gathered more than 600,000 signatures over the past 11 weeks. President Obama responded, in part, last month with an improved income-based repayment plan, but most of the protesters and petitioners will not qualify for it. The increased attention on education debt has also brought attention to many misconceptions about how people borrow to pay for school.

1. Forgiving student loan debt would help stimulate the economy.
People who want all student loan debt forgiven argue that getting rid of monthly loan payments would lead to increased consumer spending, thereby providing a quick boost to the struggling U.S. economy. However, only about 40 percent of all outstanding student loan debt is actively being repaid. The remaining borrowers are still in school or otherwise not paying their loans back, so they wouldn’t immediately benefit from forgiveness.

And a “forgiveness stimulus” would have a limited impact. According to my calculations based on data from the Education Department’s Direct Loan Program, annual payments and default collections total about 5.6 percent of these outstanding direct loans. If this proportion is similar for other kinds of education debt, then forgiving the nearly $1 trillion in outstanding student debt would inject at most $56 billion per year. Not a paltry sum, but certainly small compared with more significant stimulus efforts.

2. All education debt is good debt.
Certainly, taking out loans to pay for college is an investment in your future and a key to a better-paying job. So it’s good debt. But too much of a good thing can be bad for you.

Students who graduate with high debt often must abandon certain career aspirations. I’ve spoken to hundreds of borrowers who are behind on their student loans, and they tell me they have delayed major life events, such as buying a car or a home, getting married, having children, or saving for their children’s college education or for retirement. According to a recent survey by Monster Learning, about a third of recent college graduates have to move back in with their parents to save on living expenses.

A good rule of thumb is that students’ total debt at graduation should be less than their expected starting salary — ideally, a lot less. This will allow them to repay their loans in 10 years. Otherwise, they will need to use an alternate repayment plan, which reduces the monthly loan payment by stretching it out over 20, 25 or even 30 years. This means that when their own children start college, some of these people will still be paying off their old loans.

3. If you declare bankruptcy, your student loans go away.
Neither federal nor private student loans can be discharged in a bankruptcy unless the borrower files an “undue hardship” petition — which often involves a very harsh and high standard that was set in a New York state case more than 20 years ago. It requires that the borrower cannot maintain a minimal standard of living while repaying the loans, that the circumstances that prevent repayment will probably persist for most of the life of the loans and that the borrower made a good-faith effort to repay the loans. In the words of one bankruptcy judge, a successful undue hardship petition requires a “certainty of hopelessness.”

According to the Educational Credit Management Corp., a guarantee agency that manages the student loans of federal borrowers with an active bankruptcy filing, about 72,000 federal student loan borrowers filed for bankruptcy in 2008, but only 29 succeeded in obtaining a full or partial discharge of their loans. That’s 0.04 percent. You’re more likely to die of cancer or in a car crash than to have your loans discharged in bankruptcy.

4. Widespread defaults on federal student loans would worsen the government’s deficit.
Some people argue that the student loan “bubble” could be the next to pop. Yet despite the recent increase in default rates to nearly 9 percent, federal education loans remain profitable for the government.

And the government has strong powers to compel repayment on defaulted loans. For example, it can garnish up to 15 percent of take-home pay without a court order for a borrower who is 12 months behind on student loan payments. The government can also intercept federal and state income tax refunds and lottery winnings, and offset up to 15 percent of Social Security disability and retirement benefit payments. Default rates would have to more than triple for the government to lose money on federal education loans.

5. The federal government should get out of the student loan business — the private sector can do it better.
Private loans make up a relatively small percentage of total education debt. Some private loans currently offer lower interest rates than federal education loans — but most of those rates are variable and restricted to borrowers with excellent credit or with a creditworthy co-signer (usually a parent). Interest rates are unusually low now, but the rates on variable loans are likely to start increasing soon.

The federal government, on the other hand, seeks to increase access to a higher education in addition to earning a profit. The federal Stafford loan is available to all students without regard to the borrower’s credit history. The federal PLUS loan requires that borrowers not have an “adverse credit history,” but this is a weaker standard than the ones used by private lenders.

But there’s more the federal government can do. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Education Department have proposed a plan to standardize financial aid award letters, so that they provide better disclosures of college costs and aid. College is becoming less affordable. Tuition rates at public colleges are growing at above-average rates, and low- and moderate-income students are increasingly being priced out of a higher education. Families need federal and private student loans to help pay for college, but they also need clear, correct and comparable information about college costs and financial aid so they can make informed decisions about affordability, and so students can graduate without crippling loan debt.

Mark Kantrowitz is the publisher of FinAid and Fastweb, financial aid Web tools, and the author of “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Are you doomed to high unemployment because of your major?

So, what's your major?

When you're a senior in high school everyone asks where you're applying college. The follow-up question inevitably will be about your major. Most people change their major at least once in college. I myself switched from business to psychology. For some, it can be a tough choice to make. There's been a lot in the news recently about whether or not college is a worthwhile investment, especially when you consider just how many recent graduates are struggling to find jobs. Unemployment rates for people aged 20-24 is at 16.5%, 10.9% for those aged 25-29. All higher than the national unemployment rate of 9.0%. Couple that information with the recent news about student debt climbing ever higher and, well...

Feeling any pressure to pick a major that pays well?

A friend emailed me a link to an interactive chart by the Wall Street Journal. Based on 2010 Census data, I can sort by unemployment, popularity, and earnings.

Do the most popular majors pay? Are you doomed to high unemployment because of your major?

Keep reading to see how the most popular majors fared.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Organization will set you free

I re-tweeted a NACAC link to a list of schools that extended their November 1 Early Decision deadlines due to that delightful October snowstorm. Thankfully my neck of the woods was only snowy for about a day, but those who live farther northeast were not so lucky.

These schools were generous to offer those extensions, but there's a life lesson here that we've all learned before: don't leave things to the last minute. That will be especially important to remember as a college student. There's more freedom in college and there's responsibility that comes with that. You'll be in class less than in high school and you'll need to be more proactive in those off-hours. Do you know how long it takes you to write a paper? How long will the research take? There's a really good chance that there will be a weekday where you only have one class. Can you maximize that time efficiently? You'll be the only one hounding you to study.

The goal, always, is to get the work done and have fun later. If you can plan your time right you won't have to watch your friends hang out without you, and you won't be tempted to blow off your work either.

Monday, October 31, 2011

In case you missed it...

This week there was just too much going on--too much to do, too much to read, too much everything. Add an internet outage and hey, necessity is the mother of invention, right? Because of this, I will now have a semi-regular feature to bring you. Here's a roundup of the week's most interesting stories.

Student Loans
College is expensive, we know this . It's probably the only time where it's almost considered responsible to take on thousands of dollars in debt because it's an investment in your own future. (Not like credit cards, which are usually an investment in new shoes and dinners out.) And now it's getting political attention--Ron Paul wants to end student loans. And then there's the White House. There has been a push to make the process more transparent (see net price calculators ) and now there is another effort to simplify: A one-page form to compare college aid offers. Right now they're asking for feedback, so we probably wouldn't see it for a little while, but I'll be watching to see how that plays out. Finally, an interesting "experiment" in community colleges and for-profit institutions-- limiting the amount of federal loans their students can borrow.

Amidst reports of yet another school jumping their conference ship (ahem, West Virginia.) Let's start with some good news: more athletes are graduating. There are some proposed NCAA reforms, namely a $2,000 increase in scholarship amount and increasing academic eligibility standards. No new proposal is without controversy, however-- as a Chronicle analysis shows that "Division I athletes, on the whole, appear to be better off, financially speaking, than the general student body". Even college administrators aren't convinced, saying that these reforms don't address underlying concerns.

Happy reading!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

2011 State of College Admissions

The National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, has released its annual State of College Admission report. The association culls information from surveys it sends to colleges and universities. This year's report outlines some interesting trends as they relate to enrollment, social media trends in the admissions process, information on high school graduation, acceptance rates, and factors in admissions decision-making.

Here are some highlights:

1. Number of High School Graduates Has Peaked after Decade of Growth
There were 3.33 million high school graduates in 2008-09. In 2010-11, that number will dip to an estimated 3.28 million. The decline will continue, but rebound eventually and remain there through 2017-18.

2. College Enrollment Continues at All-Time High
By 2020 college enrollment is expected to increase to 23 million, up from approximately 20.4 million in 2009.

3. Racial/Ethnic Minorities and Low-Income Students Underrepresented in College
Only 55 percent of high school completers from the lowest income quintile transitioned to college in 2009, while 84 percent from the highest income quartile went on to college.

4. Application Growth Continues
73 percent of colleges experienced an increase in the number of applications received from 2010. For students entering college in 2010, 25 percent of them applied to 7 or more schools.

5. More Colleges Use Wait List; Chances of Acceptance Drop
48 percent of institutions used wait lists for fall 2010 admissions. In 2009, that number was 39 percent. An average on 28 percent of students were accepted off the wait list, a six point drop from fall 2009.

6. Admission Offices Identify Grades, High School Curriculum and Test Scores as Top Factors
In order of importance: grades, curriculum strength, standardized test scores, overall high school GPA, essay, demonstrated interest, class rank, counselor and teacher recommendations, and extracurricular activities.

7. Student-to-Counselor Ratio
US Department of Education data in 2009-10 showed a public school student-to-counselor ratio of 460:1 (that's including K-12 schools). NACAC data indicated an average ratio of 272:1 in secondary schools (including part-time staff). ASCA's ideal ratio is 100:1.

8. Time Spent Counseling for College
Public school counselors reportedly spent an average of 23 percent of their time on college counseling. Private school counselors spent 55 percent of their time on college counseling.

9. College Counseling Staff
26 percent of public schools had at least one counselor (either full- or part-time) on staff dedicated to college counseling, compared to 73 percent of private schools.

10. Cost to Recruit
$585 was the average dollar amount spent by colleges and universities recruiting applications for fall 2010.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Just how important is the essay?

In a word… very. That's not meant to oversimplify. No doubt you've heard that the essay is the best way for an admissions officer to learn about who you really are. Your grades and test scores aren't the things that define an applicant. If they were, why would colleges ask for more?

Joyce Carol Oats said "…as soon as you connect with your true subject you will write". No matter what question the essay actually poses, underneath it all the real question these schools want to know is "who are you?"

It's a hard question to answer. Don't know where to start? Still struggling? No matter where you are in this process, these three starting points can help you find your topic.

1. Free write
Forget about the essay topic at hand. Set a timer for 5 minutes and don't pick your pen up from the paper. Don't worry about grammar or whether or not it makes sense. Is there still time left on the clock? Keep writing. When you're done, underline any ideas you think might be worth expanding.

2. Idea clusters
Maybe you already know your writing topic. Write it down in the middle of a blank piece of paper and circle it. Any ideas related to your main idea will be connected to this with line and another circle. Any ideas worth exploring? Try free writing (see above).

3. Say it out loud
This is how I would start a session with a client. If you're having trouble getting the ideas from your head to the page, talk it out. Tell a story. Keep a notebook next to you when you have a brainwave, but keep going. If you're feeling inspired at the end of the conversation, dive right in and write!

You'll do several revisions of the essay, so don't worry about it being perfect from the get-go. Hopefully you'll find that the more you get into it, the more you'll find to write about.

One note to parents--try to be as hands-off as you can be during this process. Not only is this a critical part of the application, but it's also a very draining. Proofread it, don't edit. There's an important distinction there.

There are no bad topics, just bad writing. (It's an essay about YOU, how can that be a bad topic?) Just be thoughtful.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

4 Tips for All 4 Years continued

There's a lot of information here and a lot to think about. Don't get overwhelmed. Everything's manageable if you pace yourself.

Freshmen and Sophomores, you can find your tips here. Juniors and Seniors, it's officially college crunch time.

Junior year
1. It's time to work.
This is by far the most important year for your grades. Think about it--when you're applying to college there's a good chance your first semester of your senior year won't be over yet. So which year's grades will be sent? You got it. Don't worry if your grades from 9th and 10th grade aren't perfect. You'll make a strong argument for yourself if your Junior year grades show an upward trend.

2. Lead.
By now you should be involved in activities you care about. This is the year to start to take a leadership position. Go after an editor position if you're on the school paper or chair a committee.

3. Study for the test.
I already mentioned your grades…am I repeating myself? The PSAT, SAT, and ACT are all tests. You'd study for a history test or a vocab quiz, so why wouldn't you study for these? Prepare yourself--it's worth the effort.

4. Start the list.
This is when you think about college in more concrete terms. What do you want to study? Who offers those programs? Maybe it's been your dream to go to State U., but what if they don't have the program you need? Expand your horizons. There are thousands (literally) of schools out there and you'll attend the one that's right for you.

Senior year
Don't think for a minute that because your applications are in you can go easy on your work. Colleges have the option to rescind and believe me, they'll do it. You've worked hard for three years, don't let it all be for naught.

2. A little organization goes a long way.
There are a lot pieces to your applications and you've got to keep it all straight. Colleges get inundated with material and they'll lose stuff. Make sure you have copies of all of your material.

3. Fill out the FAFSA.
Hopefully you've taken a thorough look at the family finances before this. Think you don't need to or that you won't qualify? Do it anyway. There are grants, scholarships, and work study opportunities that require the FAFSA. Don't miss out on something because of an assumption.

4. Breathe!
Take some time to enjoy your last year of high school. You've accomplished a lot and you should reap the benefits of it. Go to events you wouldn't normally go to. You've been thinking about the future a lot, but don't forget to enjoy the now.

Listen to what he says

I'm sure a lot of people are posting things like this today, but for good reason. Jobs will give you a lot to think about in just 15 minutes.

Innovate. Don't be afraid to fail. Follow your heart. Do what you love.

Steve Jobs' 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

4 Tips for All 4 Years

Ah, October. The official start of fall. Everyone has been back in school long enough to establish some routines, get some grades back, and if you’re a freshman, get a handle on this whole high school thing. If you’re a senior, college is looming large on the horizon. (And if you’re one of my senior clients I’m encouraging you to get your applications finished by Thanksgiving.) But seniors aren’t the only ones who should be thinking about college right now. Here are 4 tips for all 4 years. Today, Freshmen and Sophomores:

Freshman Year

1. Sign up for some activities.
Start to get an idea of what you’re interested in and what activities you’d want to see through to Senior year. It’s ok to sign up for a bunch of different things now because the whole point is try.

2. Start off on the right academic foot.
Make sure your course load is in line with a college preparatory degree. Requirements will vary from college to college, of course, but they’re looking for 4 year of English, 3 years of science, 3-4 years of math, 3 years of history, 3 years of foreign language, and 2 years of art.

3. Start volunteering.
Don’t do this just because you think this is what colleges are looking for. This goes hand-in-hand with your activities. Just sign up for things you think might be interesting. It doesn’t have to be forever but you never know when you’ll find something you’ll really like.

4. Read!
You should absolutely be reading for your assignments, sure, but I’m talking about soaking up other information too. Books, magazines, opinion pieces, anything. There’s a big world out there and it’s important to be well-informed. And besides that, reading is a great way to expand your vocabulary for when you have to take the (drum roll) SAT’s or ACT.

Sophomore Year

1. Keep up the good work.
Your grades will always be important. If you had any struggles, now’s the time to sort it out. No one said it was going to be easy but it’s only a weakness if you don’t do anything about it.

2. Remember those activities?
Time to start getting serious. There’s no need to stick with something you absolutely hate, but hopefully you’ve found some things you can really get into. If you haven’t, get at it. If you have, now’s the time to ramp up your involvement.

3. Test Prep. Yes, those tests.
As a sophomore, you can take a practice PSAT or the PLAN, which is the pre-ACT. If you do well, then that’s fantastic! If you don’t, then you’ll know where to focus your energy. And remember, it’s only practice so even if you do well on the practice PSAT you’ll still need to take it again as a Junior. If you don’t want to take any actual tests, then get yourself some prep books. Just make sure they contain actual test material.

4. Have some fun!
High school is not simply the means to get to college. Go to dances, go to games. Or don’t, if that’s not your thing. High school is an experience for us all. There will be high points and low points, to be sure, but believe me, you’ll be stronger for it.
Juniors and Seniors, tomorrow is for you!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Day One

I think the best place to start is to answer the question, “what, exactly, is an independent educational consultant?” (I myself couldn’t have answered that question a few years ago.) This was actually the jumping off point for a nearly week-long seminar that I attended earlier this summer. That seminar was the Independent Educational Consultant Association’s Summer Training Institute and it was a turning point for me.
I’ve spent the last few years earning my master’s degree in education (secondary school counseling) and completing online courses for UCLA’s College Counseling certificate program, all the while working my towards what I hope is long career helping high school students figure out their post-secondary plans (and maybe some potential graduate students too). None of this felt really “real” until I spent 4 days at the end of July alternating between freezing classrooms and an uncomfortable dorm room. And it was so, so fun. Really. Mentally exhausting, sure, but still fun.
So what is an independent educational consultant? After much discussion about traits and responsibilities, here’s what the group of approximately 100 attendees decided: “An informed ethical professional who works collaboratively to assist families and students to maximize their potential and reach their educational goals.”
Notice there’s nothing in there about getting a student into college or packaging an application? That’s not what IECA and its members (one of which I intend to be) are about. Intrigued? Read more about IECA here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

This project...

This is one piece of a new, independent educational consulting practice. I can’t get your student into college, but I can help get them through the process. This page is meant to cover topics as they relate to higher education. It’s a lot to keep up with, but that’s what independent educational consultants are here for.