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That’s Not How It Works, Part 2 (#TNHIW)

Attempting round two or part two of anything comes with risks. Clearly there are some shining examples of building on a story that went exceedingly well–Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, to name a few. Sci-fi and superheroes seem to have the advantage in the film space (pun moderately intended). Just look at Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, and Spiderman 2.

Kids’ movies are spottier. For every Home Alone 2 you have Chipmunks 2- The Squeakquel. Feel free to Google for best and worst in this category—I’m sure you can add some of these to your Netflix queue (or Nutflix Squeakque as the case may be).

After last week’s post I had some good suggestions from both my staff and colleagues at other schools. So, at the risk of an epic fail like Dumb and Dumber To, here are a few more #TNHIW:

Deposits and Canceling

 “I was admitted to several schools but I can’t decide, so I’m going to deposit at ALL of them.” No!!! #TNHIW. If you can’t decide on a college, don’t put down multiple deposits at $200-$1,000 a pop while you make up your mind. If you want to spend money, send me half that amount—I’ll put it towards a new dartboard and a popcorn machine (the way we make admission decisions) and mail you a quarter to flip.

Colleges and universities are part of a national organization, the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC). NACAC has established a specific timeline to help you through the college admission process—that’s why you don’t see application deadlines before October 15; it’s why you can wait on financial aid and housing details before committing to a school; and it’s why May 1 is the established national deposit deadline. (NACAC is also why schools at college fairs are not doing raffles or cheap parlor tricks, but that’s a post for a different day.)

We often hear of students “sitting on admits” without canceling because it makes them (or their parents) feel proud. If you need an ego boost, DM us on Twitter—we’ll show you some love. Look–if you decided a school is too far away, too expensive, too cold (or the opposite of any of those), or there’s another reason why it’s not a good match for you, cancel your application. At Tech, in all of our emails to admitted students and in our admission portal, we include a cancel link. If schools you’ve been admitted to are not making this process obvious, email or call them and find out how to do it.

Canceling allows colleges to re-distribute financial aid dollars and to take students off their waitlist. Good for the goose and good for the gander. Not big into the common good? Then think of canceling like breaking up with someone. It doesn’t take long and eliminates irrelevant calls, texts, and letters.

In-State Tuition

“We used to live in Georgia.” “Her grandparents have a lake house in state.” “The Falcons loss in the Super Bowls still burns…” This one may fall under the “it never hurts to ask” category, but ultimately the bigger umbrella is #TNHIW. Each state has its own rules on in-state tuition rates, but as a rule you’ll find it necessary to have lived in the state for a year prior to starting classes, and claimed it as your primary residence on your tax records. It’s helpful to know public universities operate as a part of a state system, and must adhere to the policies they set forth. So when you’re on the phone with an admission or financial aid representative and they’re saying you do not qualify for in-state tuition, it’s not because you’re the unlucky fifteenth caller of the day. They are simply conveying their state’s law, and they have to uphold it. (See policy 4.3.2)

Comparative Decisions

“My classmate/neighbor/cousin got in and I’m a better student.” “We both know my son’s smarter than…” “Last year you took a girl who is exactly like her.” Again, #TNHIW. First, we will never discuss another student with you. When applicants submit their application, they do so under the assurance their information will be used solely for the purpose of admission review and continued individual communication. A student’s application is not to be used to influence elections or talk to their “friend’s” uncle (who happens to be an alum) about how they compare to other students from their school–specifically said uncle’s nephew.  So if your lead question in an email or phone call is comparative, we will politely but consistently redirect the conversation.

And be honest—do you really know all the details about the other student? Grades, classes, testing, life circumstances, content of essay and short answer questions, major, interview dynamics, recommendation letters? In a holistic, selective review where institutional priorities and goals for the class are at play, there are infinite nuances making applicants unique and decisions less predictable and consistent from one year to the next.

Scholarships and Financial Aid Awards

“Awesome University gave my son a merit scholarship worth $10,000, and Congratulations College named him a Dean’s Disciple, which is worth $22,000 over four years. You must not really want him or you would do the same.” Well…#TNHIW. Every school has its own overall cost, endowment level, and enrollment strategy. Some colleges keep their rates as low as possible from the outset, while others publish prices and then discount tuition using terms like “scholarship” as a tool for enrolling students. Some put all of their discretionary funds into need-based aid, while others grant merit aid based on clear and defined parameters like GPA or testing.

Tuition at public schools is set by their governing system, and in many states colleges are prohibited from using tuition funds toward meeting the need of other students—a fundamental practice in the case of many schools nationally. I won’t belabor this point. You’ve seen enough variance in the admission process to know schools have extremely different missions, cultures, and recruitment approaches—the same is true with financial aid awards and packages. Money is emotional and it’s not easy to keep your emotions in check when analyzing costs of this significance. Plus, we all want a deal, right? There is great satisfaction in feeling like you’ve gotten something exclusive or special. Hey, I like catching the t-shirt tossed from courtside too. But don’t let pride or frustration or the ability to brag about a scholarship be the sole reason you make a college choice.

Don’t misunderstand me—cost matters. But ironically, each year students will select one university over another because of the difference in aid awarded, rather than the difference in actual cost. At the end of the day, if relative costs are similar and you have either the financial means to pay or the confidence in your financial investment in a particular college, I’d urge you to not let another university’s award keep you from choosing your best fit.

There won’t be a three-peat or trilogy for #TNHIW, but if you want to peel back more admission myths and misconceptions, check out this layered Onion piece.

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College Admission: False Voices and Escape Strategies

Little kids love stories. But if you are going to truly entertain them, you have to really develop the villain. Since I went to UNC, I often base my antagonist in Durham. With the Blue Devils living there, it’s quite easy to build a series of stories around the devious King K plotting in his Gothic towers to corrupt the world through sinister back channels (and occasionally back injuries). In many of these bedtime yarns, K would whisper in the ear of a good guy how he can make him more powerful, or more rich, or more safe, etc., if he/she just joins the Devils. (Note: No dig here on Duke. Great school. It just works well in anecdote… and the architecture does lend itself to the role.)

At times my kids would literally yell to the protagonist, “No! Don’t do it!” or “Can’t you see what he’s trying to do?” And in these stories, it was incredibly obvious: K was playing on their fear, or exaggerating his powers, or trying to manipulate for his own gain. They identify and call this out immediately. And that’s the point. I can make it a fairly quick story and get out of the room. Brilliant!

Identifying Voices in Real Life

But, in real life, as you get older, the tenor, motivation, and transparency of the voices around you are not as easy to discern. Messages become more nuanced, and it’s easy to be confused because many times these sources seem credible. Nobody is literally dressing up in a Devil mascot outfit with a pitchfork trying to convince you to attend a certain school or pay for a particular service.

But “false voices” are in this process, so it’s important that you listen closely. Here are a few things to watch out for as you learn to identify those who speak the truth, and those who may not.

  •  Hyperbolic language: (The quotes in this section are actual phrases that have been used, not hypothetical examples). If someone around you is continually saying things like “disaster,” “panic,” “insane,” “stress,” or “peril,” you should be very cautious. To the best of my knowledge the world hasn’t ended during admission season, even when test scores are delayed, admission applications crash, or recommendation letters fail to load. You want people around you that provide solace, wisdom based upon experience, big picture data, and the power of options. Language of fear has no place in the admission profession, so consider any trace of that a red flag. While you would not do this during bedtime tales, it’s ok to physically run from “storytellers” like that.
  • Excessive Fees: If someone is charging you for their services, you should expect sound, expert, distinguished advice. This is a life lesson. You’d have high standards and a rigorous process for selecting a financial advisor or marriage counselor who is guiding you on your investments financially and relationally, right? The same is true in the admission process. And this is where the nuance occurs, because there are some very talented, experienced professionals in the admission process who will charge a reasonable fee to assist you in college list development, application packaging, scholarship navigation, etc. There are also some parents who just went through the process with their own kid who happened to get into “a good school” and now think they are an expert. If anyone is guaranteeing you admittance to a school, promising receipt of a specific selective scholarship, or implying they have a magic bullet in their “essay crafting,” you need to yell loudly in your own brain, “NO! Don’t do it!”
  • For Profit Schools: If you are considering attending a for profit school, I would urge you to read more about debt loads, graduation rates, recruitment tactics, and scratch well below the surface before enrolling.  Often the language you see in marketing and enrollment strategy from these institutions is highly exaggerated, both in what they deliver and the results of your degree.
  •  Test preparation: There is a wide misconception that because you pay for something it’s better. Absolutely false. Khan Academy has phenomenal free preparation material and ACT is partnering to develop opportunities for free or greatly reduced tutorial options. I encourage you to start with free options before exploring fee-based avenues; particularly those “guaranteeing” certain score increase ranges.  And if you are going to invest in test prep, do your homework. There are a lot of very reasonably priced local options, including community colleges and even private high schools. These typically charge less yet get similar results to the more corporate test prep industry entities.
  • The Media: Journalists are under immense pressure to turn stories around quickly and increase readership. This means that headlines are often dramatic and frequently articles don’t tell the complete story. For instance you’re almost never going to read that only about 100 schools in our nation admit less than 33% of applicants, and that the vast majority our nation’s 2000+ schools admit more than they deny. That story is not going to sell, so the “full story” goes unpublished. Again, some education beat writers are thorough, balanced, and excellent researchers. But if you see something in print/online about a school you are interested in, I implore you to go straight to the institution for clarity and perspective.
    Bonus Tip: You’re young. Save yourself. Don’t read or contribute to the comment section below these pieces, as they quickly devolve into petty, unrelated banter.

You’re 17 or 18 years old, so I am guessing saying things like:  “No! Don’t do it!” Or “Can’t you see what he’s trying to do!” are a bit too simplistic for you. So if someone is whispering drama, fear, and hyperbole in your ear, how about borrowing from one of my favorite songs?

Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley

“Come on now, who do you, who do you, who do you, who do you think you are/

Ha ha ha bless your soul You really think you’re in control/

Well, I think you’re crazy I think you’re crazy I think you’re crazy/

And then make a run for it!

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Steph Curry and The Road Not Taken

CURRY-PROFIf you have been watching TV lately, or listening to the radio, or interacting with other humans, you know the NBA Playoffs are heating up. We’re not going to talk about the Hawks here, so don’t fear. (As an Atlanta native and longtime resident I’ve come to peace with the fact that all of our pro franchises are good enough to make the playoffs but lack the talent to advance from the first round. Literally all of them…for decades.) These days the hottest name in the NBA is Steph Curry. Curry is a uber-talented point guard for the Golden State Warriors, and he was recently unanimously named MVP of the league, which he also won along with the NBA Championship last year. To look at him now you’d think he has always lived a charmed life– beautiful wife and daughters, worldwide star, commercials with President Obama (himself a transfer student from Occidental to Columbia), and the list goes on. But interestingly when he was graduating from high school the big time college programs around the nation were not interested. He was crushed and ultimately decided to stay close to home in North Carolina and attend Davidson College.

Curry’s experience got me thinking about Robert Frost’s  poem “The Road Not Taken,” and the fact that our national consciousness is still largely focused on the traditional freshman entry process. Often news media and families do not look at the transfer route “as just as fair/ And having perhaps the better claim,” even though 1/3 of students graduating from a four year college began elsewhere, or that 1/2 of all undergraduates nationally are enrolled at a community college. At Georgia Tech, we annually enroll 850 transfer students (approx. 1/4 of our new undergraduate students). Thankfully, the press and perceived value of transfer options are improving, due to increasing political discussion surrounding college cost, value, and access, and Mrs. Obama’s Reach Higher initiative.

National Student Clearinghouse data shows that in 13 states over 50% of four-year university graduates began at a two-year school. Much of this is because public universities have established articulation agreements with colleges in their state or region geared toward enrolling transfer students. Florida is certainly a state with a strong history in this arena. The University of California system, which boasts five of the top 10 public universities also has a deep commitment to the transfers. In fact, UC-Berkeley brought in well over 2000 transfer students last year. As Tech has become more selective on the freshman side, we see more students going to another college or university for a year or two and then re-applying to earn a Tech degree. This year 1/3 of admitted transfer students applied as freshman. Five years ago that number was 1/5.   In an effort to provide students with a variety of avenues to all academic programs, we have developed a transfer pathways, including Dual Degree Engineering Program and our Arts and Sciences Pathway Program, which complement our regular transfer admission process. 

A Turning Tide?

On the private side, and particularly among elite institutions, transferring is less prevalent. Princeton recently announced they will begin enrolling transfer students for the first time since 1990 (a year when Wilson Phillips topped the charts) and Stanford and MIT enrolled a combined 30 via this route last year. While not all schools are as invested in this space, frankly that’s the beauty of a diverse system– and the importance of understanding particular institutional missions and philosophies on education. However, I do speculate that in the decade ahead, due to the increasing access to and promotion of college courses in high school; the proliferation of accredited, non-profit, credit-bearing online options; and the desire of colleges to augment geographic, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity, we’ll see more private school players in this space.

An Affordable Pathway

Type of College Average Published Yearly Tuition and Fees
Public Two-Year College (in-district students) $3,347
Public Four-Year College (in-state students) $9,139
Public Four-Year College (out-of-state students) $22,958
Private Four-Year College $31,231

This table is from BigFuture (an excellent resource for students researching colleges and looking into financial aid).

It is important to note that these figures are based on published tuition costs vs. ultimate net price. Financial aid and family need largely impact ultimate cost, but it’s clear that pursuing schools locally for the first year or two of college is often a viable financial route. We often hear from transfer students that will select a college close to home following high school, so that they can work, attend class, and live at home to save money and avoid debt. Increasingly, we are seeing  students who are offered freshman admission making these decisions in order to reduce debt upon graduation.

An Alternative Avenue

Each year we read recommendation letters and review student transcripts that describe “late bloomers” or students who did not get excited about academics until late in high school. It is also common to learn of students who had tough life circumstances: parent divorces, multiple school moves in high school, and serious health issues that diminished academic success inside and outside the classroom. If you are graduating high school and this has been your experience, I sincerely hope that you’ve been admitted to a college that you’re excited about attending. If you’re an underclassmen and this is your current experience, you should always be sure to include “special circumstances” into your applications, so that schools utilizing holistic admission processes can get a full picture of your background. Either way this is the beauty of the transfer option. It is a clean slate when you start college, because typically universities do not look back at test scores, course selection, or grades from high school when they are enrolling their transfer classes.

road less traveled

A Final Word

Whether transferring is an affordability strategy; a necessary path to your ultimate goal due to circumstances; or you wake up in a cold dorm room next November wondering “Why did I pick this place? I gotta get out of here!” think of Frost’s roads–“both that morning equally lay.” Unlike the poet who bemoans a permanent separation, the roads of transfer and freshman students converge and ultimately cross the same stage– same school name and credentials on your resume and diploma. Steph Curry held on to his  dream of playing in the NBA. He harnessed the initial setback to be his motivation at Davidson. It fueled him. It drove him to push harder and to prove himself. And ultimately, like many students who transfer colleges, it is that road “that has made all the difference.”

Key Resources: NACAC’s Transfer Knowledge Hub, College Affordability Guide, National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, Kid President on Robert Frost (notably Frost did not graduate from college but holds 40 honorary degrees).

 

Keep it simple. But not too simple…

My wife loves REAL SIMPLE magazine. Their tagline is: Life Made Easier. I think of it as the “EASY Button” of magazines. You’ll commonly see headlines like, “How Lemons Can Simultaneously Clean Your Shower and Shape Your Abs,” or “6 Ways to Get More Sleep without Sleeping.” Typically, I will flip one open, read the first paragraph, skim the second, glance at the picture of some helpful graphic or perfectly trimmed flower in an artisan glass, before I start thinking of the irony that these come so frequently they’re cluttering what is clearly supposed to be a straight-lined house (see page 28).

Unfortunately, in the admission process, especially due to the generalized media coverage surrounding our field, there are many “REAL SIMPLE-fied” subjects. Here are a few tips to help you avoid the temptation to start showering with lemons:

  • Don’t let the “sticker price” keep you from applying to a particular school. As of 2011, all colleges and universities receiving federal funds must post an online net price calculator to provide prospective students and their families estimated net price information based on your individual circumstances. While I’ve literally NEVER heard a family say, “Wow. We are getting that much in aid! That seems too generous,” most families report that the net price calculator serves as a helpful catalyst to gauge likely cost and discuss the reality of attending a particular college. Also, check out online message boards, and talk to friends from your community about their experience at certain schools. Many schools will “discount” or reduce a percentage of attendance in order to meet enrollment goals. You’ll especially see this happen at private schools in the mid to upper tier. As long as your family discusses what the ultimate package/cost of attendance will need to be for it to be affordable, don’t let the broadly published total keep you from applying.
  • Don’t believe the rankings hype. If you have been admitted to two schools and there is a significant disparity (a number for you to define) in ultimate costs, do not choose the one ranked higher based solely on that factor. Look at the current NCAA Basketball rankings. Can you really make a compelling argument that the team ranked number six is significantly better than number twelve? Would you put money on them finishing higher in final polling or that they’ll advance further in the tournament? Let’s say you had to put down $500 to align with number six and only $100 to ride the tide with number twelve? Both schools will prepare you well, they’ll support you academically and socially, and they’ll be broadly known to give you every opportunity during and after your college experience. Just as much as you expect a holistic admission process as an applicant, your selection of a school should incorporate far more than a number on a page (particularly a hotly contested and arguably arbitrary one). NACAC provides a healthy lens to view rankings through here.
  • Think more broadly than quantifiable ROI (return on investment). Thankfully, since about 2009, our nation has been more conscious of discussing ROI. The right questions are being asked about the value of a college degree and the employability of a particular major based on supply and demand. However, the metrics used for determining value and ROI, while helpful, only look at dollars invested vs. dollars earned in starting or mid- career situations. Is this college a place where you will be challenged in what you know, what you believe, how you live now, and how you will live in the future? Are the connections you make—both among classmates, professors, and alumni—the kind of people that you want to surround yourself with and be associated with in both the long and short term?

I know it’s a lot easier to throw in five ingredients that simultaneously make a gourmet meal AND leave your hair well-conditioned for life, but adding nuance to some of these otherwise overly simplified aspects of the admission process means you are doing your job and allocating due weight to the importance of this decision.

The Money Blog

I think one of the toughest parts about the admission process, especially for talented students, is the pure number of college options you have. In the United States there are more than 2,400 four-year colleges, and more US students are going abroad to study than ever before. And in the middle of all of that, everybody is sending you glossy, shiny brochures of happy, smiling students underneath trees with professors blissfully learning in the sunshine. One day it’s the snow covered mountains of Vermont or Colorado, and the next day you’re picturing yourself strolling the beach after class in California or Miami. (Talk about FOMO!)

Adjusting to Choice

Having taught, employed, and regularly observed college freshmen over the years, I’ve found the variety of choices is one of the biggest adjustments to campus life. So I completely get it. High school was a constant cacophony of bells ringing, whistles blowing, horns honking. Start, stop. Begin, end. Go to school, practice or rehearse or work, study, sleep. Rinse and repeat. The big question is what are you doing with your discretionary 37 minutes each day?

Then you land on a college campus and are no longer required to run four miles a day for the cross country team. They have food courts and gluten-free options. And your class of 350 is now a campus of 18,000. “And wait, what?! I only have to be in class 15 hours each week plus a lab? Yeaassss!!!”

In addition to all that, at any time of day or night you can find someone interested in hitting a tennis ball, heading to the library, catching a show, or shooting potatoes off the roof with a homemade contraption (just spit-balling hypotheticals here).  Figuring out how and with whom to spend time is an understandable challenge. Ultimately, you learn to make choices based on hours in the day and week and what you want your experience to look like.

Student Loans & Debt

Unfortunately, when it comes to student loans and debt, we don’t take a similar approach. Instead, discussions of affordability are largely framed by a college’s Return on Investment (ROI) or a family’s perceived tolerance for a particular debt load.

At this time of year, families are usually looking at Net Price Calculators or specific financial aid letters and asking the question,“can we afford this?”

To answer that question you need to go beyond the bottom line number and consider how you are willing to live during and after college.

  • Will you co-op or intern during your time in school?
  • Are you willing to pick up a campus job or one in the surrounding community?
  • Is undergraduate research a paid position, and how much can you earn?
  • Are you willing to put yourself on a budget each week or month during college, and how much is reasonable?

Last week we established that the average debt for a college graduate is approximately $30,000 (the average salary for a new graduate is $45,000). We also heard some good tips from Jeff Selingo and Rich DeMillo on not graduating college with more student loans than your starting salary.

This week I wanted to provide you with a sample budget from a recent Georgia Tech graduate. 

 George P. Burdell

  • Student loans:
    • $40,000 (5% interest rate)
  • Salary:
    • $50,000, entry level, with full benefits (medical/dental)
  • Housing (in-town Atlanta):
    • 2-Bedroom 1-Bath Apartment (shared w roommate)
  • Lifestyle:
    • Eats at restaurants and grocery shops, but eats/orders out more often.
    • Enjoys travel, games, movies and social time with friends
    • Single, No pets
  • Car: Used 2013 Honda Accord:
    • 30,000 miles · Automatic · 29 MPG
    • Bought at $23,000
    • Down payment of $8,000 (earned via college internship and supplemented by graduation gift)
    • Interest Rate: 3%
    • Loan Period: 48 months
    • Payment: $333/month
  • Estimated Annual Costs:
    • Medical: $300
    • Car Maintenance: $500
    • Emergencies: $250
    • Car Tax: $100
    • Holiday Events/Gifts: $350
    • Total: $1500 ($125/month)

Monthly Budget

Monthly take home pay: $2,900

Category Budgeted Amount
Monthly Bills
Car Insurance $180
Car Payment $350
Cell Phone $75
Housing $700
Utilities $150
Loan Debt $675
Necessities  
Groceries $200
Gasoline/Fuel $100
Annual Costs Fund $125
Non-Essentials  
TV (Netflix, Prime) $20
Restaurants/Dining $125
Entertainment/Travel $100
Discretionary Spending $100
Total Expenses: $2900

 

Student Loan Debt vs. Car Debt

Using this budget (which you’ll notice assumes no raises or bonuses), George can pay off his student loans in six years. This is where I completely take issue with people who equate student loan debt to buying a car. Not only does that car require gas, insurance, and routine maintenance, but all the while it’s depreciating in value. Often it’s not long after six years that you end up with another car payment because the one you worked so hard to pay off is now needing to be replaced. In contrast, the investment in your college education continually appreciates due to network of classmates and other alumni. More on that next week.

In the meantime, pick this budget apart. Add debt to the beginning assumption… decrease the salary… increase the amount you might spend in groceries or transportation costs… or lengthen the amount of time to pay off in order to distribute expenditures differently. Each of those choices is a reflection on your values, your priorities and your life goals and vision. Even if you change every row of George’s budget, you’re a lot further along in determining what you will choose to pay for, and how you can and cannot live. “Can we afford it?” is a very personal question rooted in choice. Hopefully this will provide you some of the tools and prompts necessary to answer that for yourself. Happy budgeting!