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College Bound… But Where?

This week Georgia Tech’s Vice Provost for Enrollment Services, Dr. Paul Kohn, joins us on the blog. Welcome, Dr. Kohn!

If you’re a high school senior, it’s almost time to commit to the college or university you’ll be attending in the fall.  As you go through this process, it may seem daunting to have multiple options to choose from… confusing to figure out finances… and confounding that your friends appear to know exactly where they are headed and the reasons why.  Meanwhile, you can’t decide whether you want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or pizza for dinner, much less decide where to go to college.

You probably have some concerns, doubts, and fears. Is this really the best school for me?  Am I good enough to succeed there? Will I fit in? Who will I live with and where?  Then others, maybe family, add: is it going to pay off?  Aren’t you going to miss home?  How will you deal with the cold, or the snow? Will you be safe? Are you really going to borrow that much money? You may have friends who are choosing to stay home and either skip going to college or start out at the more affordable and familiar local junior college—and by their example, your concerns just loom larger.

If you weren’t already worried, you might be now! Before you get overwhelmed, here are a few tips to help you get through this process and make the best decision for your future.

STOP!  First and foremost, if you haven’t congratulated yourself on reaching this milestone where you stand upon the threshold of attending college, then do it now! Stop and remember all you have accomplished, how fortunate you are to have choices and how blessed you are to be facing such possibilities. Believe it or not, relatively few people graduating high school this year will go to college next. What may seem like problems are really gifts.

REFLECT upon how you reached this point in your life.  You worked hard.  You asked lots of good questions.  You learned to make good choices.  Others have likely helped and supported you on this journey.  Your skills, your intuition, and your mentors are with you and they will help guide you to make a good choice.  You got yourself to this point in time. Trust your instincts, but also be practical.

MAKE A LIST of the pros and cons of the final choices you are considering.  Review your list with friends, relatives, and teachers.  Listen to the thoughts that come to mind as these guides point out details about you or about the schools.  Distinguish between your past actions versus your thoughts of the future.  I personally think our past actions and choices provide much more insight into who we truly are than the way we think we should be.

For example, I have a friend who says he loves going to concerts, but his actual behavior reveals he hasn’t been to a live show in years.  When he told me he was thinking about moving to Austin to enjoy the thriving live music scene, I challenged him, and he recalled the 101 excuses he routinely has for not going to any shows—and  he lives in New York City!  What do your actions tell you about yourself, and are they more telling than your beliefs?  Now go back and rewrite your list. Narrow things down to two options.

If you can afford the time and expense, go visit the finalists one last time.  If you cannot, watch some YouTube videos about life at each school.  Read about the accomplishments of current students, recent grads and professors.  Get inspired.  Transform your quandary into: which of these two great schools would be perfect for me?

Then accept that the answer is neither—there is no perfect place! Come October, you will second guess whichever choice you made because you’ll be one month (or more) into the semester. You may have no idea what grades you are achieving, you’ll face more exams, papers, problem sets and group projects, and life overall will feel stressful.

When you go on social media, it will look like your friends at other schools are having the times of their lives, while you’re mired in stress from making a bad choice.  Don’t let social media be your barometer for relative happiness. You’ll get through the assignments. You’ll survive the stress.  You’ll learn how to succeed in a new environment, make friends from distinctly different backgrounds, and see how the power of a positive attitude can make an enormous difference in how you experience the stress of decision-making, the stress of uncertainty, the stress of the unfamiliar.  If you truly hone these skills, you may begin to see all the stress as part of the adventure. For that is what is truly ahead of you–one of life’s most remarkable adventures, in which you will build memories, skills, relationships and goals you may have never dreamed of.

TRUST that you’re where you are because of your ability to make good choices, and send in your deposit. Stop agonizing over where to go, and start picturing yourself in your new school colors, cheering for the team, pranking your roommates, talking with professors, and deciding if it matters which side of the bread you put the peanut butter on and which side you put the jelly.  Either way, it’ll still be a PB&J and if you believe it’s good, it will be.

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Money Talks

Listen to the audio version here.

(No…It’s not about that.)

I spent some time with a good friend in Charlotte, NC last week. The first thing he said when we sat down was, “Been adulting hard lately, brother.” He went on to tell me about dealing with some incredibly tough and delicate HR issues at work. This week he’s staring down the barrel of another round of necessarily honest and inevitably uncomfortable meetings with a few employees.

After I left his house, I was thinking about a conversation I have coming up. I’m calling it The Three P’s: puberty, pornography, and pregnancy. Before my son turns 11 in May, I’m going to take him for a hike and then a meal at Waffle House and cover these topics.

I’m still debating and continually second guessing myself on the order, analogies, anecdotes, and appropriate amount of detail. Regardless, it’s going to be a rip-the-Band-Aid-off experience. I’ve heard a million ways to broach all of these topics. I’ve read articles and books on “raising boys” or transitioning to adolescence. I’m not sure if my plan is the right or best way to do this, but I am sure it has to be done.

Undoubtedly, some of you are wincing as you read this. Others (those who enjoy watching people trip on the sidewalk or take punishing hits in sports) would probably enjoy a Go Pro view on that day to witness in real-time the train wreck of awkwardness and bemusement. Others (not putting any wagers on percentages) are likely nodding in support or considering what you did/ should have done/ wish you’d said differently/earlier/ more directly.

Whether at work, at home, or in our community, life inevitably presents us with these critical but cringe-worthy moments and conversations. While incredibly tough, it is so much better to have them than to put them off or completely avoid them. When it comes to the college search and selection experience, the topic most families unfortunately do not discuss early or thoroughly is finances.

The Timing of the Talk

Any admission or financial aid director can share countless painful stories about families in April of the senior year who come to their office in tears. Having received a financial package, the reality of paying for college is upon them, and they have not had earnest conversations along the way.

Now, after the student has been offered admission, bought the college hoodie, and changed all online profile pictures to indicate they’re enrolling, financial lines are being drawn and emotions are running high.

If you are the parent of a junior, now is the time to start having these discussions. While you do not need to itemize all of your expenditures or accounts, you will be so much better off if you are willing to honestly and openly discuss your overall financial situation and how it relates to paying for college.

The truth is most students have no idea how much you pay in taxes, or what percentage of monthly or annual income goes to your mortgage. Understandably, they have not given any real thought to how adding college tuition may impact your family’s life and other financial obligations or goals.

“Opening the books” shifts the financing college conversation to a partnership and a collective investment. As a student’s first significant adult decision, they should be privy to the expense and implications of their college choice. These talks will help you have better discussions about opportunities to offset costs through jobs, co-ops, or internships. They will inform the questions you ask  about return on investment, careers, salaries, and how the school helps students pursue employment opportunities during and after college.

Yes, I understand this feels uncomfortable. Again, you are talking to someone who is about to discuss the darkest recesses of the interwebs with a 10-year-old. So let’s do this together!

Set Limitations

How much are you willing to invest in your son or daughter’s college education? Particularly in states with strong public university systems, we often hear parents say, “I am willing to pay for any of our state schools or the equivalent price, if my daughter chooses to go to an out-of-state public or private school.”  Consider and honestly discuss what limitations you want to establish. I’m not saying these should keep you from visiting or applying to a school that looks like it will cost more than your determined threshold, but setting limitations early will prevent feeling “gut punched” in April of the senior year when financial aid packages show up.

Set Conditions

“My parents will not pay for a school south of Virginia,” or “They have already told me I’m on my own if I look at schools west of Colorado,” or “We will pay for $40,000 a year for College X, but we are simply not paying that for Y University,” or (though short-sighted and not recommended) “we will only pay for a college that is ranked in the top 50.”

What are your family’s conditions, and why? College is an investment. Your family’s goal is to be confident in the dollars you spend. If you talk about why you are putting conditions in place, they will not come across as irrational or arbitrary, but rather instructive and rooted in love.

Photo credit: CNW Group/Credit Counselling Canada

Set Expectations

What role will/should your student have in paying for their own college education? Is there a flat amount or percentage you expect them to contribute? Setting clear expectations before applying to college allows them to consider how they can work and save money during high school, as well as ask colleges about opportunities for on-campus jobs, or the prospects for (and salaries associated with) internships or co-ops while in college. Instead of being divisive, setting expectations can unify your family because “the problem” of paying for college becomes a joint effort—one to solve together.

Discuss Loans

Last year, the average loan amount for students graduating from four-year colleges was approximately $30,000. Their average starting salary was approximately $50,000. Take some time to discuss the concept of loan tolerance and repayment. Check out our mock budget from The Money Blog and put some real numbers on paper.

I get you would rather be talking about The Voice or debating which Marvel movie should come out next, but having these honest, open,  and important discussions early is essential. Again, critical but cringe-worthy.

If you want to trade topics, let me know. I’ll come to your house and talk finances. You can go hiking with my son and walk him through what’s about to happen to his body. Just promise me you won’t be that family in April of the senior year in some college dean’s office passing the tissues, pointing fingers, and yelling things like, “I wish you’d told me!”

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Not so Fast

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Strategy and Enrollment Planning, Matt McLendon, joins us on the blog. Welcome, Matt!

One of my favorite puzzles comes from the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by economist Daniel Kahneman. The riddle is deceptively simple: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The answer? Five cents. Despite many years of reading that problem, my intuition always says 10 cents. (Curious? View an explanation of the answer here.) Kahneman’s argument is we have two mental systems in place. One system thinks quickly and makes snap judgements, while the other requires effort and strains our mental capacity. It turns out, the intuitive or fast answer is often wrong. To arrive at the correct response requires us to slow down and use reasoning, not intuition alone.

A Ball Park Figure

Photo credit: https://www.ballparksofbaseball.com/

The baseball riddle occurred to me during a chat with Director of Admission, Rick Clark, on how much of the news about college admission focuses on a tiny subsection of the overall number of colleges. In particular, the universities with a large number of applications and exceedingly low admit rates receive a lot of press. This attention leads to “fast thinking” errors among many students and families, leading people to believe the best choice is the most selective, and not getting into one of those schools spells disaster for the future.

Recently more has been written about the challenges this belief brings to the college admission process.  This article by Jeff Selingo written a few years ago and Frank Bruni’s book Where You Go is Not Who You Will Be are two examples.

Despite their data, anecdotes, and logic, I can hear the argument from those saying, “That’s all well and good, but I still want to go to one of those institutions.” To which I say if that is where you want to go, then I hope you do. However, I also urge you to consider Kahneman’s baseball example and take the time to “think slowly” and realize there are many more options than may first appear. Doing this requires extra thinking, setting aside biases, and really considering your interests and goals, as you contemplate where to attend college.

Throwing a Curve Ball

Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education created a chart showing institutions with an admit rate greater than 50% who also boasted high first to second year retention rates. Many of these schools you have heard of before—and some may surprise you. All around the country, numerous colleges and universities are taking steps to improve student outcomes. The Chronicle list was a good reminder that many colleges in our nation do an excellent job helping students succeed—not just a select few.

After reviewing that information, I wanted to look at the data in a slightly different way. I conducted a quick analysis using a subset of IPEDS data comparing admit rates to graduation rates for four-year degree granting institutions in the United States.

As you will see in the descriptive chart below, colleges and universities with less than or equal to 20% admit rates have remarkable graduation rates. Do you notice something else? There’s not that many of them! In my selected data set, just over 40 colleges and universities fit those criteria.

 

This second chart below, however, tells another story. There are well over 400 schools with admit rates over 50% and a graduation rate at or above the national average of 60% (NCES, 2017).

Many of these of the colleges and universities in this second group are doing good work to help their students graduate. However, much of what is in the media and within social circles is dedicated to those schools in the first set.

What does this mean for you? To return to our baseball bat and ball problem from before, I encourage some extra thinking with your college choices.  You may be a fan of a particular school since kindergarten, but what about the schools you’ve dismissed? Are you writing them off based on fast or slow thinking? Do a few of them deserve a second look? Don’t forget the incredible number of colleges you have to consider, visit, or apply.

Step Up to the Plate

Here are a few things to consider as you approach the college admission, and selection, process.

  1. Start with your why. Why do you want to go to college? A great post on this topic from a few years back talks in more detail. We also have a great tool in our college planning guide. Both these will re-frame your thinking on what you look to get out of going to college, not just where you’ll go.
  2. Dive into the data. There are many effective tools that are easy to use and can benefit you, the largest of which is the College Scorecard. This tool allows you to compare multiple institutions and draws from the data colleges and universities are required to report. Compare a few metrics such as retention, student debt, and employment. Do any surprise you?
  3. Set aside biases. Are you overlooking a particular school based on a hunch? Check out a few that are outside of what you think may be for you. Remember all those brochures you received in the mail you tossed in the recycle bin? Pull out a random sample of five and read them. Even if you don’t apply, you may find some information that helps you clarify why you like the universities you do.
  4. Read widely. I’ve given a few examples already, but also look into what professionals are saying. I know your time is limited, but there is a substantial amount of information out there on college admission. An excellent place to start is the admission professional association NACAC. While a good deal is for professionals in the industry, there is a lot you can gather from what the practitioners are saying.

My hope is that you will approach your college admission experience the way baseball players approach the game they love—prepare, study, work hard, but when the lights come on and the game starts— play your game and enjoy!

References:

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Success Isn’t Guaranteed—Try Anyway

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us on the blog. Chaffee has administered prestigious scholarship programs for the past 20 years, and is also a past president of the Undergraduate Scholars Program Administrators Association. Welcome, Chaffee!

Let’s start by admitting that not everyone’s experience growing up in the United States is the same. Rural, urban, and suburban life looks different, and there are certainly other differences when considering family background and other factors. Having acknowledged that, I think it’s fair to say the people of Generation X (to which I belong) grew up with a great deal more freedom to explore the world around them as children than today’s kids and youth. By late elementary school I could explore the neighborhoods around me a mile in any direction.

Talk to my Baby Boomer parents and they’ll tell you that not only were they given even more freedom, but also asked to work harder at an earlier stage of life. My father mowed lawns, drove a tractor, roofed houses, and used hatchets as early as fourth grade. Compare these experiences with today, where I know thriving middle schoolers who aren’t allowed to walk 500 yards to the nearest corner with a traffic light because of concerns about safety.

I don’t share these views to judge parents or children today. After all, today’s world is bigger, especially online. Taking more safety precautions is necessary. Yet coinciding with these observations is a feeling that several colleagues and I share—a feeling supported by frequent recurring experiences. High school and college students today do not experience failure because 1) they’ve been shielded from them when they occur or 2) are steered away from undertaking opportunities that might result in anything but clear success.

Take the Opportunity to Fail

Although versions of this topic have been trending the past few years (and even before that in some circles), I want to provide insight which I hope is new. I want to talk about why students should put themselves in circumstances where success is not guaranteed. When you look at it as an opportunity for success as well as failure, the intention and aim become different. Simply looking for opportunities to fail can be a hollow exercise, but earnestly pursuing a goal that may or may not be reached is an opportunity for a win-win experience, regardless of the final outcome.

I had a student ask me to write a recommendation for them for the Truman Scholarship, a nationally competitive and prestigious scholarship for public service leadership. Some regard it as having the most rigorous application of any of the major national and international graduate scholarships. As you can imagine, the percentage of people awarded from among applicants is quite small. Despite the odds not being in anyone’s favor, the student elected to try. By clarifying purpose, thinking about future goals, losing sleep, and sacrificing comfort all in hopes of a slim chance to leverage the scholarship toward making the world a better place, this student gained tremendous personal insight. This kind of personal insight only comes through testing oneself, working hard, and reaching for something most likely out of reach. Did it yield a scholarship? No.

Undaunted, the student went on to apply for the Marshall and Mitchell scholarships as well. Again, hard work and sacrifice led to self-awareness, goals clarification, personal insight … but no scholarship. Yet on the horizon was the famous Fulbright Fellowship for graduate study in another country, which my student ended up receiving.

Seems like three losses and a win, right? I count it as four wins. Each attempt helped my student to grow. Each attempt taught lessons in perseverance, grit, and humility. Even if my student had not won the Fulbright, it wouldn’t change my mind. Four wins, zero losses. I believe that if you asked my student, the response would be the same. The win was in trying to reach for the stars and the growth that resulted.

Pursue Possibility

I’ve been fortunate over the past seven years to travel with my students on outdoor leadership expeditions in some beautiful – and physically challenging – environments around the country and the world. These trips are led by experts in Georgia Tech’s outdoor recreation department. Scholarship programs around the nation often encourage or require their scholars to participate in these types of adventures with similar organizations. There is no defined “win,” only an expectation that you’ll make it from the start to the end, persevering through trying circumstances. Blisters, aching muscles, exhaustion, cold or heat, insects, cuts and scrapes. They are all there. Getting through means relying on your own inner strength and your team.

For a very few, these trips are easy (at least at first). For most others, they will mess up the cooking, go slower than the team, or otherwise “not be great.” Yet when they talk about these trips days, months, and even years later, many speak of how the difficult circumstances on the hike resulted in the ability to handle the rigors of college life better than they would have done otherwise.

One of my favorite illustrations of the points I’ve been making comes from the movie, Meet the Fockers. In it, Jack Byrnes, played by Robert De Niro, notices his son-in-law, Greg Focker, played by Ben Stiller, has a 9th place ribbon displayed at his parent’s house. Not second or third … but ninth. I love that Focker’s parents encouraged him to participate in something that he clearly did not win (and they probably knew he wasn’t going to, either). No matter what the outcome, Greg had to come to terms with the fact that he did not experience success, at least not by traditional measures. Did he learn something from competing, from trying, from watching eight others do better than he did? The movie doesn’t go into this, but I suspect he did.

If you’ve seen the rest of the movie, you know that Greg messes up a good bit, but in the end, how he handles these failures and keeps picking himself up amplifies his fiancé’s love for him and earns him the respect of his future in-laws. All that said, in real life I wish his “award” for competing wasn’t a ribbon but a pat on the back from his parents. Because part of the lesson in trying is not everyone gets a trophy nor deserves one.

If I were to outline a lesson from all this, it would be to challenge everyone to pursue possibilities where the chances for a win are moderate to slim. The challenge must be measured though. The more talented or well-trained an individual, the more they should pursue even more difficult experiences. Whether one is in high school, college, or well beyond, remember that we grow by reaching skywards, not by standing still.

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The College Visit Checklist

This week we welcome Associate Director for Guest Experience, Andrew Cohen, to the blog. Welcome, Andrew!

Back in November I wrote a blog post about moving to Atlanta over the summer, and how that move was a big step out of my comfort zone.  I often think back on my initial interview and visit to Atlanta. I imagine my first visit to Atlanta felt similar to what many students experience when they visit college campuses. Once I knew I was seriously considering a move from New York to Atlanta, I realized how important it was to not only find answers to all my questions, but to also take the time to really get to know my (at the time potential) new city. From walking around campus to trying out the food, my overall experience helped me better understand what life could look like in this new place.

I’m now more than six months in and am working with our staff to prepare for our newly admitted students to flock to campus to see if Georgia Tech is the right fit for them. Whatever college you’re considering, it’s important to make your campus visit about more than just the standard information session and tour. Take advantage of these tips to help you make the most of your time on campus.

Allow yourself extra time to explore.

During my first visit to Atlanta, I allowed myself to spend an extra day in the city to better explore the overall feel of the area.  If I was going to move here, I needed to know if I liked it.  I explored the area around campus and different neighborhoods, and also experienced some of Atlanta’s local highlights, like Ponce City Market.  When you plan your visit to campus, try to allow extra time to become more familiar with the area rather than rushing to visit another school or catching a flight home.  After your “official” visit is over, further explore academic facilities for your intended major, eat on campus, or spend some time in popular places like the student center (don’t forget to eavesdrop while you’re there!).

Talk to Students

See these tour guides? They’re also regular, every day students. Talk to them!

During your time on campus there is a real benefit to speaking with current students.  This is a great way to get an authentic look at what it is like to be a student at the institution you are visiting.  Whether it is the person behind you in line for food in the dining hall or a student employee working in one of the departments you visit, students are usually happy to chat with you. When I visited Atlanta for the first time, I had dinner with friends who lived in the area, and they gave me some great advice about moving from New York and living in Atlanta.

Build Your Own Visit

During my initial visit to Atlanta I wanted to be sure to experience some of the local highlights. I planned a full day of exploring, which included things like eating breakfast at the Silver Skillet, walking on the Belt Line, and visiting some of the downtown tourist attractions.  Just like these extras that I was able to add on, it is important for you to customize your visit to make the most of it.  When not restricted by time, you can make a whole day out of your time on campus, even if you are only scheduled to attend a 2-hour information session and tour.  At many institutions, departments and colleges offer sessions about specific academic programs.  Even if there is not a formal session scheduled, reach out in advance and talk to someone, as chances are someone would be able to meet with you.

Experience the Weather

This one is a bit more difficult because you cannot always visit during specific times of year, but it definitely is important to understand the weather you might encounter during your college career.  I went to school in Upstate New York, where it is cold, grey and windy for a large portion of the academic school year.  It is very different to visit there in the summer than it is in February.  Although weather was not a big factor for me personally, if it is for you, make sure to plan your visit accordingly.  If you are going to live somewhere for four years, it helps to know what it will feel like.  (Although it does get cold in Atlanta, I have been enjoying the much milder winter!)

Ask for Advice

Georgia Tech admission staff appreciates the work of school counselors! #nscw19

Prior to my visit to Atlanta, I reached out to a number of people to get advice.  I got food recommendations, learned local lingo (like OTP and ITP), and learned more about Georgia Tech. Utilizing resources like your college counselor are crucial throughout the whole college decision-making process.  Ask for their advice before you visit campus.  They can help ensure you make the most out of your visit.  They may be able to put you in contact with a student at the institution you are visiting, or share some information they know about the school.  A conversation with your school counselor will help better prepare you for your visit, which in the end will result in a more informed visit.

(To all of the counselors reading this post – thank you for all of the work that you do with students, we really appreciate it.  And happy National School Counselor Week!)

On behalf of all of the campus visit professionals around the country, we are looking forward to seeing you on campus over the next few months. Happy Visiting!

Andrew Cohen joined Georgia Tech in 2018 and currently oversees the guest experience for all Undergraduate Admission visitors. His love for providing visitors with informative, authentic and personal experiences started as a student tour guide at his alma mater, Ithaca College. Andrew’s passion for the visit experience has lead him to his involvement in the Collegiate Information and Visitor Services Association, where he currently services as the Treasurer on their executive board.

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