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How To Navigate A Campus Tour

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The summer brings many familiar family rituals; barbecues, beach vacations, sleepover camp and college visits. The college visit almost always includes at least one parent (and requisite high school student.) Other configurations include; both parents & high school student, both parents & high school student & other sibling. The high school student is as likely to be wide-eyed and humbled as he/she is to be petulant and infuriating. (It is interesting to watch the sullen teen rise and fall in his/her fevered pitch of resentment according to the hard sold enthusiasm of his parents.) These potential customers are given the tour of the property, offered one or two logo emblazoned keepsakes & given a shiny reference sheet (either in heavy card stock or in app form). It’s really like any other open house, except the “agent” showing the property is usually a current student and nobody asks about the taxes, energy bill or condition of the roof. In fact, it’s rather fascinating to overhear what people don’t ask on a campus tour. Questions about meal plans, housing, and campus celebrity appearances are a sure thing. Less common, but still overheard are questions about majors, athletics, and faculty accessibility. These generalist questions are quite appropriate given the fact that the tour guide is in fact a student. But deciding where to spend the next four years and perhaps $200,000 necessitates more than broad strokes.

Some potential students (and their entourage) sit in on a class. This is probably mildly entertaining for the visitors, but not entirely relevant. Summer school classes bear little resemblance to regular classes; they are small, often taught by graduate students, and are more endurance test than educational experience. To make a decision that could possibly pave the way for a teenager’s professional and personal life warrants more than a show and tell. Most people (unless they have money to burn) would not purchase a home without having an inspection first. With any large expenditure or potentially life-altering endeavor, a little crawling through the basement and poking at the eaves is in order. Real questions about specific majors, research opportunities, job placement, lifetime alumni support, 3-year baccalaureate degrees, joint degrees, advanced degrees, graduate school admission rates (and more) need to be asked and answered. (A college or university committed to transparency will have a website that will clearly and visibly answer some of these questions.) Depending upon the size of the institution, a student (and entourage) should meet with a college dean, dean of students or vice president of enrollment. Admissions officers are very knowledgeable and helpful but their area of expertise is that of the front end, not the middle or back end. The President of an institution will be approachable and perhaps a compelling speaker, but rarely has full working knowledge of how the sausage is made. The people who can answer specific questions about educational opportunities and outcome are those who wrestle with and analyze those issues on a daily basis.

There is a lot to glean from visiting a campus and getting a feel for the environment. Sitting in a college town coffee shop can be a heady experience for a 17-year-old kid. Picturing your 17-year-old kid in one of those sweatshirts, traipsing off to class can be overwhelming for a parent. It can be a very emotional time for a family. Is this the little boy I carried, is this the little girl at play? For some families the road to the college tour was bumpy and relief is the primary emotion in play. That’s why it’s important to develop a strategy before leaving the house. What do you and your student want to get out of an undergraduate college experience? What are your investment expectations? These are hard issues to focus on if your primary concern is the acceptance letter. Try as hard as you can to let go of that. Shopping is always a two-way street. You can’t possibly know if an acceptance letter is meaningful until you know if the school is the right choice. Modeling this research and course of inquiry to your student (and his/her sibling) is priceless. A college student is a customer and he/she should navigate higher education as such. Setting the tone before freshman year may very well result in empowering that freshman to ask questions and pursue opportunities throughout his/her higher education experience.

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Posted by on August 1, 2013 in Education

 

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Education By Degrees

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Higher education was once a luxury item for Americans. Families who had the means and/or men, who didn’t need to support their families of origin, went to college. There were no entrance exams or even much to speak of in the way of requirements. If you could find your way there, and were of the ‘right’ background, you could give it a go. There was no such thing as ‘student life’. Oh the students did live, but they did so under their own direction. Boarding houses, spare rooms, and inexpensive restaurants were the origin of the student life species. Slowly colleges and university became more accessible, less religious, and somewhat more diverse. The G.I. Bill may have been the greatest diversification of higher education. People (mostly men) from all backgrounds were now attending college for the first time. This phenomenon created an awareness and glimmer of opportunity for families across the country. College began to seem less of an elitist pursuit and more an intrinsic part of the American Dream.

Fast-forward and we are now experiencing the aftershock of a similar deluge of students. The baby boomers’ children attended college in large numbers. Colleges/universities competed for these tuition paying people by out positioning each other. Monies were spent to upgrade and to market a ‘student life’ experience that would appeal to a generation who lived larger than their ancestors. Concurrently, government spending in higher education ebbed and the stock market did that bad thing. Tuition and student debt rose. A few years before all this, employers began to view a baccalaureate degree as a minimum requirement for almost every job. At face value this would appear reactionary. Well of course a B.S. or B.A. is a requirement! Why wouldn’t it be? After all, everyone has one! But the truth is probably a bit more calculating than that. The fact is that as all this was happening in higher education, K-12 was changing as well. A high school diploma rarely delivers a workplace ready employee. A high school diploma was once an accomplishment in and of itself, and a ticket to secure employment. That 50% of incoming college freshman need remedial work, speaks to the state of a high school diploma. College work has not gotten more difficult, if anything there are curriculums so breezy they would make those boarding house dwellers of yesteryear spin in their graves.

Skyrocketing tuition plus the baccalaureate replacing a high school diploma as a requirement creates a perfect storm of sorts. We are beginning, and will continue to see the formation of two tracks of higher education. Some of us remember (or heard stories) of these tracks in K-12. Certainly we’ve heard of programs in foreign lands that still adhere to tracking. Students who were seen as being more practical than scholars, were steered into technical vocations. Those perceived as having scholarly potential were readied for higher education. There are many colleges across the country that cater to average students. (There is something to say for college being an experience for all learners.) Colleges, in these cases are charging and receiving extraordinary amounts of money to create workplace readiness. These colleges are private as well as public and diverse in their origins and how they deliver degrees. They are doing nothing but fulfilling a need and addressing a reality. Some of these schools have a great alumni network and/or stellar career placement. But what of those that don’t?

We’ve created a very expensive and time consuming way to obtain what we consider a minimum education. The ridiculousness of considering a baccalaureate a prerequisite for all kinds of work is equal to the state of many high school degrees. Public education should be producing young men and women who can write, speak, calculate and think. Colleges (with their enormous expense) should not be taking the place of K-12 public education. 50% of incoming freshman are paying (big bucks) to complete their high school education (via remedial work.) Employers need to rethink what skills are actually needed for each job. They need to beef up their Human Resources offices and return to placement testing. Certificate programs (offered in high schools or in community colleges) should be created in partnership with large-scale employers. It is simply not sustainable, this gerbil wheel we’ve created. There are young men and women spending years and money they may or may not have, because their public education is not all it should be and once was.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Education, Uncategorized

 

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Parent’s Student Debt

During the past few years parents have been borrowing money for their children’s education with increasing frequency. Consumer loans, credit card loans (and the scariest of all) home equity loans are taken to provide higher education to children. Presumably much of this debt is incurred due to a sense of obligation to one’s children. In theory it’s hard to fault such sentiment but in actuality it’s terribly flawed.

  • Higher Education is not a birthright
  • Incurring debt for someone else’s asset is risky
  • Parents (by definition) are older than their children & have less time to rebuild assets

It can be a dreadful feeling to discover you cannot give your child everything you wish for them. It is the rare parent who has not had his Bob Cratchit moment at one time or another. If we were to redefine what we wish for our children we might be able to assuage those Cratchit moments. Do we really wish for our children to attend a four-year private college, and study whatever they choose without cost consciousness? If so, why? Why would we think that shielding a young adult from making realistic decisions about economics and their future is ‘giving them everything?’ Isn’t giving them a realistic understanding of dollars and sense and the world at large, a gift that will last a lifetime? College isn’t (or shouldn’t be) summer camp. It’s not a protected and posh enclave where our adult children should experience life. If it ever wasn’t it simply isn’t anymore. College is a commodity and should be treated as such. Higher education is not one size fits all. We spend a lot of energy trying to match a student’s interests and personality with an institution. Affordability is the starting point for the selection process. If a four-year private college is not affordable, the value to a student of a community college+public college is far higher than a private college.

Public college still costs money and the person to incur that debt (if there must be debt) is the student. If the parent can help the student repay the loan, wonderful. Besides the obvious very real economic risks to a parent in incurring debt on behalf of a child, there is risk to the child as well. Being shielded from the realities of financial life does not help anyone make practical decisions. Being aware of the burden a parent has taken on also affects decisions. Attending college without contributing in a significant manner (i.e., summer jobs, scholarships, loans, work-study, etc.) is no longer the norm, and hasn’t been for quite some time. College is not finishing school and it’s not a series of laurel wreath opportunities. It’s a means to an end and a significant number of students don’t achieve that end. (Imagine losing one’s house or retirement without even a child’s bachelor’s degree to show for it!) Nothing helps a person (especially a young person) take something more seriously when it’s his or her own money at stake.

College has become crucial for future workers; as such we need to rid ourselves of our romanticism about the experience. Getting ready for the big great world is a process. It shouldn’t start after tossing one’s cap in the air. Putting one’s home or future security in jeopardy to delay that process is simply unwise.

 

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2012 in Education

 

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