The college admissions scandal has exposed the extreme lengths some wealthy families will go to secure a spot for their child at their dream college.
It’s possible to find and stay in a college with life-changing potential, even without exponential resources.
It’s possible to find and stay in a college with life-changing potential, even without exponential resources. Indeed, the schools that educate the bulk of American college students get a small fraction of the attention and aren’t nearly as selective as the colleges caught up in the alleged bribery scheme.
Here are a few tips to finding and staying in a school that’s right for you:
1. Don’t obsess over prestige
“Stop worrying about getting into one of those elite institutions that less than 1% of students go to,” said Elizabeth Morgan, the director of external relations at the National College Access Network, a membership group for organizations working on college access, cautions against obsessing over achieving those qualities.
Always pay attention to graduation rates. Many of the colleges educating the bulk of American students lack resources, which can make it difficult for students to get through school.
The difference in post-graduation earnings between students who attend a state public flagship college and students who attend a more elite college isn’t much, said Doug Webber, a professor at Temple University who studies the economics of higher education. Students who attend elite colleges often make more money, but that’s at least partly due to connections they made before they ever became freshmen, he said.
2. Always pay attention to graduation rates
Many of the colleges educating the bulk of American students lack resources, which can make it difficult for students to get through school. You may fall foul to the same lack of support that drove previous students out of college before graduation. “Completion matters,” he said.
3. Do what you can to improve, but feel confident
Though Morgan advises padding your resume or obsessing over test scores, there are some free resources students can use to improve their applications. For example, you can take practice standardized tests at these sites for free: Click here for the SAT and click here for the ACT. Morgan also advises students to be confident in their preparation. “You have a lot to offer,” she said.
4. Fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible
Students who don’t have unlimited resources to pay for college should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which opens each year on Oct. 1, as early as possible, said Faith Sandler, the executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, which works with low-income students applying to and attending college. That way, they can at least identify themselves as someone who could qualify for aid from their school, she said.
5. Apply to a range of schools
Sandler also recommends students apply to a range of schools. She also advises students who might have financial constraints to avoid applying to a college through its early decision or early action program. “To be preemptively deciding that one school is the one and only school is really dangerous for students who don’t have an open checkbook,” Sandler said.
Students who don’t have unlimited resources to pay for college should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which opens each year on Oct. 1, as early as possible.
A good list should include at least three or four schools with a range in selectivity, Morgan said. Though these schools may measure up differently on various metrics, Sandler cautions against using phrasing like “safety” or “fall back” when characterizing schools on the list. That way, students can feel empowered to make a decision about which college is best for them based on a variety of factors.
“Students should be applying to schools that they would be proud to attend and that they think are good fits for them,” she said, instead of “viewing from the get-go that any of those choices are potentially of lesser quality no matter what set of rankings they’re looking at.”
6. Look beyond the sticker price
College pricing isn’t always transparent, so students should rid themselves of that assumption, experts say. As a general rule, public colleges are going to be the most affordable options for students. But in some cases, private colleges that seem expensive may offer generous financial-aid packages to low-income students.
In other words, know the difference between the sticker price and the actual price, Sandler said. Students who want to see how much they might actually pay to attend a given college can consult the school’s net-price calculator, which provides an estimated price for a school based on a student’s income and other information.
7. Remove rumors from your mind
Sandler says she frequently hears from students reporting a piece of dubious, third-hand information about the college process. “Discount or, at least, verify advice people give you who are not professionals in this field,” Sandler said. That advice is likely even more important in the current environment where headlines continue to swirl surrounding the opaque college admissions process.
8. Don’t panic once you get there
Often when students first arrive at college it can be tough to adjust to the academic, social and financial expectations. If students find themselves struggling, “The worst thing at that point is to freak out and beat up on yourself,” Sandler said. “The best thing is to figure what resources exist and take advantage of them,” he said.
9. Free resources that may help students get started
Big Future is a site from The College Board that can provide students with a guide of sorts on how to apply to college, Morgan said. Get Schooled is a site with free information on applying to and paying for college that also has a free text help line, he added. Bottom line: The more research you do in the months and years leading up to college, the better.
10. Find the right fit for your lifestyle
Once students have been admitted to college, they should weigh a variety of factors when considering their options — not just prestige — experts say. That may mean choosing a school that has affordable child care nearby or is close (or far away from) home or has a particular suite of professors in the field you plan to study.
Roughly 70% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduate with student debt, so avoid taking on too many student loans. Financial-aid consultant Mark Kantrowitz advises students against borrowing more then they expect to make during their first year out of school. That will help avoid unnecessary anxiety and the need to work too many extra hours on top of your school work.
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