Helping your child choose a college


Let us free our minds from the noise of media and politics and turn our attention to discussing the biggest decision a high school senior will make: Where to go to college.

Many of you have children and grandchildren who are in their final semester of high school, ready to take the next step.

I offer you tips from the perspective of the grandfather of a high school senior, the holder of three college degrees including a doctorate, a retired college professor with more than three decades in that catbird seat, and a careful observer of the what and what not of higher education.

First and foremost is cost. One must total up the cost of classes and books, room and board and incidentals per year and subtract any scholarships and grants. Assume that it will go up 5% a year while the student aid stays the same, thus the cost increases annually. Will the university provide an on-campus job to help the student earn her keep?

Second are loans. Some have very favorable rates and generous repayment terms. Others not so much. Figure out how much will be borrowed each year and what the total debt will be upon graduation. Keep in mind that just because loans are available on reasonable terms does not eliminate the necessity of paying them back. Your protégé must confront the consequences of the weight of debt on their future after graduation. Many high school seniors have little concept of indebtedness. They have stars in their eyes about going to the college of their dreams.

Third are the distance from home to the campus and the student’s personal ties. Anything longer than a four-hour drive is a “fur piece.” Is the senior ready to be a long distance away from home? Will she be comfortable being that far away from family, friends and a significant other? Can she keep a car on campus? Some colleges bar cars for freshmen.

Fourth is the campus atmosphere. Usually a walk around and a look around a campus gives the prospective student a clear reading on whether or not he will fit in. Visiting with current students is a good way to gauge atmosphere. Good to find out the crime rate, too.

Fifth are programs and professors. Though many incoming students are undecided about their major – a perfectly normal situation – most have some idea of what their major will be. They should make sure the campus has a solid program in their field or fields of interest and should visit with professors, tour the facilities, and sit in on a class or two to get the gist of the place. It is good to find out what percentage of classes is taught by full-time professors. The higher the better because quality control is difficult for temporaries and part-timers.

Sixth, since being entertained is a big object of students’ desires, it is good to scope out the campus football, basketball and hockey teams. Off-campus entertainment such as restaurants and bars and movie theaters are important to today’s young fun-lovers. If large entertainment venues in metropolitan areas are nearby, that is good, too.

Seventh, dormitories, better known as residence halls these days, are a big issue. Many are old and substandard. You would not want your worst enemy staying there. If the kid cannot get a good night’s sleep because the neighbors on the other side of paper-thin walls are smoking dope and playing video games late into the night, his academic performance will be impaired. It is important to note here that many scholarships require maintaining a B or better grade point average. Some dorms have worthwhile activities and group meetings for their residents. Safety is important here, as well.

Eighth, staying healthy and mingling with peers is important for students. Does the campus have a recreation center where they can work out and does it offer intramural and club sports activities for those athletes not quite good enough to play on the varsity? Colleges have put a lot of money into recreation centers lately to keep the students busy and out of the bars. Students get around this by meeting at the rec center and then going to the bar. The drinking age is still 21, but enforcement on and around a college campus is more talk than action.

Ninth, the racial and ethnic makeup of the college is important. We like to think that diversity is best because that is the world that the students will be entering after graduation. It would help if a few students from the student’s same high school are attending to provide a safe refuge while the student becomes acclimated to a more diverse atmosphere that often includes international students these days.

Tenth, to help the high school student make up her mind, give her a legal pad and write the name of each college at the top a page. Draw a line down the middle of the page. Then write “PROS” on the left side and “CONS” on the right. Proceed to list the upsides and downsides of each college she is considering. It will help her crystallize her thinking.

Finally, the most important thing to remember is to please their grandparents in their college selection. Oops, that is yours truly the grandparent of a high school senior speaking out of turn. The student must please himself in finding the right college where he will ultimately fit in, thrive and prosper. Grandpa only wants the best for his beloved grandchild.

So what is my college admission story? I grew up in Ashland, Ohio, busy mostly with high school activities like tennis and the student newspaper and not thinking very big. I wanted to go to Ohio Wesleyan University, but mom and dad could not afford it. So I went to Bowling Green State University largely because my sister was a student there and could be counted on to look after my immature ways. It worked out. I grew up. Took responsibility for myself. Had some hard knocks and learned from them. Excelled in journalism, broadcasting and campus politics.

There are lots of good colleges and universities out there where, if the student applies herself, she can get a good education and prepare for a career and a satisfying adulthood. Effort and commitment to getting a good education are the most important collegiate qualities. Many people consider their college years the best years of their life.

I have been focusing on colleges with four-year bachelor’s degree programs (that may take five or six years), but there are many other good and less expensive alternatives such as community colleges, junior colleges and trade/technology schools.

It should be noted that students sometimes drop out or flunk out of their first choice college. Usually, they regroup, find a new college to attend and eventually get their degrees. Encouraging them – not saying “I told you so” or passing judgment – is the best approach here.

To high school seniors, their parents and their grandparents I say: Take your time and make the best substantive decision you can. May 1 is the decision deadline. Good luck.

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