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Death, Taxes… and Debt?

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Fairly soon after the celebrations of the New Year conclude and the college bowl games have blown the final whistle, I get a little depressed. It’s not because the weather is grey and cold, or because application review has me questioning if I’ll have any eyesight by the time I’m 60, but more so because I know tax season is rapidly nearing. I hate doing taxes. Collecting the items, filling in the boxes, fearing I’ll miss something and end up curled in a cell corner for evasion…you know the typical, reasonable trepidation.

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin said, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Has student loan debt now become the third inevitability? As tuition costs escalate nationally, 70% of students attending four-year colleges are now graduating with student loan debt. The average amount of that debt for those finishing in 2014 was approximately $29,000. More concerning is that the average debt at graduation has risen by more than twice the rate of inflation over the last decade—from $18,500 in 2004.

The Institute for College Access and Success sponsors a Project on Student Debt that provides excellent state by state information on load averages and percentage of students graduating with debt. On their site you can also download the full report that details trends and geographic distribution information, as well as strategies and recommendations for reducing debt burdens.

If seven of every ten students nationally are going to incur debt and less than 100 colleges and universities nationally meet 100% of demonstrated need, the question for most families and students is where is the line between reasonable and burdensome debt?

To answer this question I spoke with author, columnist, speaker and visiting scholar at Georgia Tech, Jeff Selingo and Rich DeMillo, Executive Director for the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech.

Next week we’ll explore this topic more fully and show a sample budget for a student graduating with $40,000 in student loans.

The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Part 2: Admission Counselors

CODE RED

If you’ve seen A Few Good Men (sidenote: ranks in my wife’s Top 3 of all time) then you remember this exchange in the Navy courtroom as Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) examines Col. Jessep (Jack Nicholson—never married to Cruise) about whether or not he ordered a Code Red that led to the death of an enlisted Marine.

Kaffee: *Colonel Jessep, did you order the Code Red?*

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.

Col. Jessep: *You want answers?* a-few-good-men-quotes_288x288

Kaffee: *I want the truth!*

Col. Jessep: *You can’t handle the truth!*

Anyone else’s blood pumping?! Man, what a great scene. Anyhoo… yesterday we looked at some of the lies students tell. Today we spin the mirror around and take a look at college admission counselors.

I frequently have the opportunity to speak on panels and hear colleagues describe their college or university at high school programs. Some of the trite responses and canned information gets incredibly frustrating at times, and this is one reason we urge our staff to rely on “stories not statistics” in relaying the Why Georgia Tech message. You can only listen to so many admission folks talk about “great study abroad programs” or “find a professor and a few friends and you too can start a club” before you start having flashbacks to Charlie Brown cartoons. Yet while those lazy, vague descriptions may become mundane, they’re far more tolerable than the lies we tell.

Lie 1- “We are looking for reasons to admit you, rather than deny you.” I’ve heard this from numerous admission representatives at highly selective schools and I’m only two utterings short of standing up next time and coughing, “BS!”

I always suspected this was false, even when Tech was admitting more than 50% of applicants. Now that we’re closer to 30%, I see that it’s a confirmed lie. (Note: schools admitting more than 50% likely would not say this because they don’t have to, but if they do, it is true in their case, so please don’t reference me if you call them out in public).

Here’s how you know this lie can’t be true: You are shopping online for a new backpack for an upcoming trip, and you have some parameters of what you need. You land on REI’s website and they have 638 different backpacks available. Here’s your criteria:

  • Less than 5 lbs… hold more than 65 liters…. include a hydration component… allows for a sleeping bag compartment… water resistant… and less than $300.

All of a sudden that 638 becomes only 10 options. Your search ruled out things that did not fit your criteria, and left you with fewer options to find the best choice. I realize that all metaphors ultimately break down, but stick with me. Let’s say that the backpacks are applicants and you are an admission counselor. Isn’t the same concept true? You start by filtering out what’s not “in range” based on the number of students you can admit given class size and traditional yield projections. That’s why when you hear colleges say, “most of the students who apply could be successful here” they are being honest. If you did not have all of those specific parameters, then easily half of the backpacks would do—they hold stuff, go on your back, and are in price range. It’s a backpack. But schools admitting only one in every four or five students have lots of various filters, parameters, needs, and wants. When it comes down to that last 10 and they can only “buy one pack,” they may be looking for reasons to admit you rather than deny. But like Lt. Kaffee, you are entitled to the truth—and now you have it.

Lie 2- “Be Yourself.” You will most often hear this line referring to essay writing or interview preparation. It’s unhelpful, insincere advice… and it’s a lie. Be myself? Ok, well I enjoy violent war movies, I sneak out with my friends and drive around town most Saturdays at 3 a.m., and I am excited about all of the good looking girls at your college. How do you like me now?! I think we debunked this one a lot faster than number one.

Here’s the translation: use your essay or interview to communicate something insightful or revealing that does not come through in your grades, classes, extra-curricular participation, etc. Readers and interviewers are wanting to take something away that provides additional insight into your life, background, quirks, passions, etc. They’re looking for something that will help them advocate for you in committee that tells your story beyond the numbers. You don’t have to hide the fact that you sneak out, but if you go there give perspective into why that is indicative of who you are more broadly, i.e. it is representative of your curiosity or your sense of adventure. We owe you explanations of why and how we make admission decisions, and you owe us a more reflective and insightful illustration in your writing.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the Lies Parents Tell.

The Lies We Tell Ourselves, Part 1. Students.

I run, but I’m not a REAL runner. But I am a competitor. So when someone passes me or is faster than me, I always tell myself that they’re just in the first quarter mile. Conversely, when I pass someone, I convince myself that they’re fresh and barely getting started, while I’m nearing the end of my jog. It’s ridiculous. But we all do this on some level, don’t we? “I’m not gaining weight, this scale is always five pounds too high.” “Going out with friends instead of studying for tomorrow’s final will be fine. I’m really at my best after 2 a.m. anyway.” “This shirt is expensive, but I need to look good and land this  job.” On some level, we know these thoughts aren’t true but they help us justify our actions, they make us feel better, and they provide us a little bit of hope that we love to cling to.

These little lies also happen in college admission, and we’re all guilty- students, college admissions counselors, and parents. Let’s start with students.

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Students:

Lie 1- Applying to multiple schools with extremely low admit rates increases my chances of getting into one of them. Statistically incorrect. If every school you apply to takes one out of every five students (or less), you are entering a complete crap shoot, as we examined in Holistic Admission, The Struggle is Real. Each year I hear from a student or about a student who applied only to Ivy League Schools, and was not admitted to any of them. Or worse, from the student who applied only to one ultra-selective school, only to learn in March they’ve been denied and are left scrambling for options. Maybe you’re too young to have seen the cinematographic masterpiece Dumb and Dumber in which Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carey) asks Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly—also briefly, and I mean briefly, Carey’s wife) the chances of them ending up together. He suggests one in a hundred to which she replies, “I’d say more like one in a million.” Christmas pauses, considers, and then replies exuberantly, “So…you’re telling me there’s a chance… YEAH!” Like I said before… it’s the hope we love to cling to.

If you’ve been tuning out counselors, teachers, or parents who advise you to apply to a “foundation” or “safety” school, it’s time to snap out of it and get one or two more applications in NOW. If you’ve been looking at data in Naviance or from prior years matriculation lists from your high school and see no one with your profile has been admitted to a particular college over the last few years, then I implore you to submit at least one application to a place you could see attending (not only one that will admit you, but likely offer you a scholarship too).

Lie 2- I have to go to X institution if I’m going to have a really successful career. Look at the Fortune 500 or Fortune 100 list of companies and their CEOs. Most come from schools not categorized as highly selective. While this is a purely monetary measure, it demonstrates that you do not have to attend an elite college in order to be highly successful. Similarly, ask any parent or teacher that attended a prestigious school about their experience and their experience now 20-30 years after graduating from college. They’ll inevitably rattle of plenty of examples of classmates who have not “succeeded,”, and an equal or greater number who are not happy, content, or thriving. The college you attend does not dictate your life trajectory. Getting into a school earns you nothing but the right to pay tuition. It’s the work you do once there, the contacts you make, the worldview you gain, and the opportunities you grasp and capitalize on that will have the primary bearing on your future success—however you define that.

Lie 3- The school I get into and attend represents my success and standing. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and this is a very noble trait. In its best form, it leads to people serving in the armed forces or sacrificing their own stat sheet for a team win. But when it comes to college admission, unfortunately, this often goes the other way. Take Eric. Yesterday he was admitted to Stanford. Congratulations, Eric! Only 5% of applicants will be this year. Today Eric proudly threw open the schoolhouse doors with his chest out, his hair flipping, and his chin unnaturally high. The other mere denizens of the school (including his teachers and administrators) were simply thankful to be in his esteemed presence. Eric perused the cafeteria at lunch as he considered whom he should grace with his presence….. Eric had been admitted to Stanford. But he’d also become a complete jerk. Don’t be like Eric.

Tomorrow we’ll hear the lies college admission officers tell.

A (Fox) Worthy Approach to Admission

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When asked to name some of the greatest minds in history, many would respond with Plato, DaVinci, Descartes, or Tesla. Certainly there would be controversy in assembling such a list, and ordering would be nearly impossible.. However, when it comes to establishing a clear front runner today, it’s much easier than looking back through history. Clearly, one man would rise to the top… Jeff Foxworthy (and you were worried this was going to be an idle diatribe about college rankings!).

I am confident we can all attest Foxworthy’s portfolio is impressive and wide-reaching, from The American Bible Challenge to Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader to the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. What launched such success, brilliance, range and influence? Well, certainly his education at Georgia Tech did not hurt, but ultimately it was his astute ability to help others with effective, actionable self-realization. Foxworthy utilized extensive qualitative research to develop what is known in modern psychology as You might be a redneck. His approach was simple—systematically use “if – then” prompts to suggest indicators of this condition and help listeners self-diagnose.: If your family tree does not branch, then you might be a redneck. Valid and noted, sir.

I think many parents can use Jeff Foxworthy’s approach to take a pulse on how they’re doing. Ultimately, this litmus test comes down to pronouns.

  • If you’ve recently said, “We are taking the SAT next weekend” then you might be overly involved.
  • If you said to a friend in the bleachers last week, “Our first choice is Columbia” then you might be overly involved.
  • If, as your daughter was leaving for school the other day, you said, “Let’s ace that Calculus exam!” then you might be overly involved.

Shift from Parent to Partner

Listen, I get it. We’ve already established that “people love their kids” so your desire to help and see them thrive is absolutely commendable. But this spring is the right time to make an intentional shift from parent to partner. We talk a lot about this concept in our orientation and first-year programs. Stepping back (not away), changing pronouns, and providing opportunities to make practical, diurnal decisions before heading to college is critical.

If you have a high school senior, they are going to be on a campus somewhere in a few short months (grab some Kleenex, but keep reading). And once there, your student will face options and opportunities each day that you’ll never know about. Bolster your confidence in them now by stepping back and empowering them as they navigate this spring. If you have a junior or underclassmen, you can set a pattern now for your support and direction and control of the college admission process.

Going for a college visit soon? Let them find the hotel and make dinner reservations. Talk through the budget, the details on logistics, and what they’re wanting out of the trip beyond seeing the school.

Son was deferred by a college? He should be the one to reach out to his admission counselor or to verify that all necessary transcripts or supplements have been received.

Laundry/Credit Card bills? Who is taking care of those things? And who will during freshman year in college? Or who will when they’re 24? The time to provide opportunities to become more independent and more aware of limitations is now—while you are there to answer questions and give guidance.

I’m no Jeff Foxworthy but I am hoping you’ll take these prompts to heart, watch your pronouns, and seize the opportunity to start making that frightening yet crucial shift from parent to partner today.

 

 

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?