I’m writing this as I’m coming down the highway, heading home from a trip to the place where I plan to spend the next four years. I’m talking, of course, about my chosen college. In only a couple of weeks, the more than year-long process of applying to schools and for scholarships, altering and re-ordering my preferences, and preparing to venture into the next stage of life has been decided with a few celebratory acceptance letters and two curt rejections. I’m fortunate to have been accepted to the school I had hoped to attend, but I’ve also sat through crying and trying nights with those who, for no obvious reason, have not been as lucky. In this brief, tumultuous time I’ve had many revelations about the entire process and have come to several conclusions that I think any parent should bear in mind as they prepare their young scholars for embarkation on the same journey.
Most pertinent to higher education, if not your pockets, is the exorbitant cost. Yes, your child will get into college (we’ll talk about where in a moment) and, yes, you will have to foot the bill, at least for a little while. Most parents and students alike are thrilled when a college boldly announces that it will meet “100% of demonstrated financial need,” but that thrill turns to a bitter despair when they learn that the college determines how much money a family needs. Let me tell you, colleges certainly don’t think you need enough money to go on the same vacations you always did, and few are willing to negotiate. Many of them will also count outside scholarships as assets and therefore reduce the aid they offer accordingly.
That said, there are good deals in the academic world of which families need to be aware, though they so often are not. For example, most states have generous “access” scholarships available for state universities, such as Georgia’s acclaimed HOPE scholarship program. Better yet, the University of Alabama offers a no-questions-asked full-ride to incoming freshman from any state that scores a 1400 on the SAT and has a GPA of at least 3.5. This is an enticing deal, one which I have known many bright students to accept over offers from schools like Wake Forest and Duke. Honors colleges at these universities offer a highly competitive academic environment at an affordable price that is hard to bargain with in this economy. On top of that, more and more schools are adopting “no-loan” policies and offering grants instead, and many private banks provide student loans with interest rates as low as 2.9% (compared with some federal student loans with interest rates as much as 5% or higher). The bottom line is that prices are often commensurate with the caliber of the colleges that they’re attached to, and salaries are often tied to degrees from those colleges. You will be able to pay for college, but the amount is determined long before the bill ever reaches your mailbox, and in large part by your child.
I say that your child will get into college, and I mean it. The range of universities is astounding, and there is one for everybody. For the sake of this article, however, let’s focus on what it takes to get into the universities that will help your child pay back his or her loans the most. Conventional wisdom says that good grades in high school and high test scores will get Jack or Jill into a good college. Conventional wisdom forgets to mention that Johnny, Danny, Tyrone, and Rodriguez all have good test scores and straight A’s as well. Students are competing against an unfathomable number of other students and unconscionably high standards when they apply to elite schools. The Crimson published an article recently stating that Harvard’s acceptance rate for the class of 2016 will likely be as low as 3%, and that’s among the best and brightest students out there.
Motivated students will review these statistics more than anyone else, calculating their chances at different schools, justifying and re-justifying why they anticipate being among the 17% accepted to Vanderbilt, or complaining about why they didn’t get into schools X, Y, and Z. A number-cruncher myself, I can tell you that students won’t know the significance of these numbers no matter how long they pour over them. I’ve seen talented academic spitfires turned away from schools to which they were almost sure to be accepted, but the reality is this: students have no idea what they’re up against. Gone are the simple days of good grades, ‘elite’ means ‘groundbreaking earth-shaker’ now.
Yes, prices are not the only college qualities, or perhaps quantities, that are higher than ever. The stakes and standards are sky-high, and year after year students and parents will not know this until after decision letters are mailed. College preparation truly requires excellence for all of the 12 years prior to matriculation. Good grades and strong SAT and ACT test scores are a must, but even the $1,000 tutor that many parents now entrust to get their youngsters into top schools isn’t a panacea. Colleges want to see leadership in clubs and sports and all kinds of extracurricular activities. From birth to the age of 18, students only spend about 13% of their lives in school, and universities fully expect the other 87% of their time to be used wisely. Spring of senior year is an exciting time for parents and students, but they both must realize that it is the end of College Prep Road. Students only have one chance at life, and if they want to make it big in the constantly more competitive college admissions process, they better live to the fullest every day. Parents, you’ll be glad that they did when April rolls around. Without the hardest of work, April truly can be the cruelest month.