The Educational Big Picture

A college education is a big investment, personally and financially, so students and parents will benefit from creating a good plan for selecting a college and following it through.Start with the big picture. Education professionals recommend that the student first spend time thinking about his or her goals for a college education. Parents need to give the child some room and time alone. This will ensure the student spends the next four years pursuing her own goals -- it could help keep a four-year degree from stretching into five or six.If this first step is done properly, the rest of the college selection and application process should proceed with far less irritation for all involved. Once the objectives of a college education are identified, the team should pull together.Students should list their criteria, needs and interests about the following campus characteristics: Where is a desirable location? What is the climate like? What type of school should be considered -- a two-year community college or a four-year university? What kind of campus environment is attractive? What are the school's strong points? What courses are available for the student's targeted major(s)? What kind of gender mix is desired (single-sex or coed)? What about a religious affiliation? If worship is a priority, are there on-campus or off-campus meetings or student groups available? What population size is manageable? Is on-campus housing available? If so, what kind? And how are freshman usually housed? (Housing conflicts and issues are probably a first-year student's biggest problem.) What student activities are available? What kind of athletic programs are offered? What is the academic reputation of the school and the students? What are the student body characteristics? Does everybody pledge a fraternity or sorority (and is this desirable)? What is the prevailing social life? How competitive is the college? How difficult is it to get home? And last, but far from least: What does it cost and are there financial aid programs to help? (Make sure to include all costs, including room and board, when considering various schools.)Once they've made a list of desirable characteristics, students should match it to five or six schools and start researching.Contact the targeted schools for application materials, find recent articles about the schools, and ask around about a potential network of alumni to contact and question. A valuable part of this research process is an on-site visit to the campus."Students need to identify their top characteristics and know why these things are important to them. When they go on that college tour, they need to be ready to evaluate this list," says Lydia Lisner, assistant director of admissions for the University of Richmond in Virginia.The College Board, a national association of schools and colleges, cautions prospective students against immediately ruling out schools that appear to be competitive or expensive. According to a recent survey, 91 percent of freshmen entering college in 1994 got into their first- or second-choice college. On the average, competitive colleges offer admission to about 60 percent of their applicants. (It's important to note that the more competitive the college, however, the greater weight it gives to personal qualifications.) For example, the University of Richmond received 5,204 undergraduate applications for its Fall 1995 semester, accepted 2,745 applicants, and enrolled 797 students. Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) received about 4,900 applications accepted 3,800 and enrolled 1,690 freshmen. As for expense, the College Board's research shows that about half the students in post secondary education receive some sort of financial aid, whether through merit scholarships, the federal work-study program, federal loans, or state and community funds."A lot of Virginia residents see the University of Richmond as too expensive. But 60 percent of our students receive some type of aid. Never judge a school by its price tag," Lisner says.Once a student has completed his or her research and has chosen approximately three of four schools, it's time to get serious about a polished and credible application.Almost all colleges require the completion of an official application form, which includes requests for information about the student's background, previous education, academic record, extracurricular activities, work experience and more.Most colleges also require an official high school transcript and the results of one or more standardized admissions tests. With few exceptions, these official records have to be sent directly to the admissions office from the appropriate institution. Students should allow at least six weeks for test scores to reach the college. Some colleges also require letters of recommendation from a teacher, counselor, mentor, clergyman, or other adult member of the community -- which students should also request at least two weeks before sending in the completed application."Applicants should remember that the primary focus in admissions is academic achievement. Personal essays should be concise and to the point -- one page is best. Five or six pages is too much, and 20 pages won't get read at all," Lisner says.The University of Richmond also rejects videotapes submitted instead of the essay or personal interview for undergraduate admissions. "Some students do send videos of a variety of situations, such as mock interviews. We do not have the time to review them, so do not send them."VCU's acting director of admissions, Delores Taylor, would also caution students to carefully proofread their essays: "Computers can be a big help when writing essays, but make sure all the references in the body of the essay have been changed to the name of the appropriate school!"When should students start planning for college? Lisner says the ideal timetable begins in ninth grade. Students should begin high school with a long-range curriculum plan and a college prep focus on their academic performance. If a student completes a course of study in a certain subject, such as biology, he or she should plan to take the SAT II subject test that year. This is good to keep in mind during 10th grade, when many students complete some required courses of study in science and math curricula. By 11th grade, students should prepare for and take the SAT I and II standardized admissions tests, begin their research and start visiting campuses. (Students can get study tips and practice taking the standardized exams through the College Board's World Wide Web site at http://www.collegeboard.org.)In the beginning of their senior year, students should start applying to their targeted schools.As the responses begin to come in, the College Board would also remind applicants that most students end up quite pleased with their second, third, or even fourth-choice college; but, if not, students transfer colleges regularly -- the first college selection doesn't have to be the final one.SIDEBAR: Finding the FundingWhether saving for a college education or searching for financial aid, start early.The process of researching and applying for financial aid should begin no later than a year before entering college. According to the College Board, millions of students receive financial aid each year, most of it based on what each family is able to pay.Even students from high-income families may be eligible for aid, especially at more expensive colleges. Students should start their search for financial aid with the following steps:1) Write for information about financial aid programs from each prospective college. There are three major federal programs that are administered directly by colleges: the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program (FSEOG), which provides grants of up to $4,000 for students with exceptional financial need; the Federal Perkins Loan Program, a low-interest loan program for students with demonstrated need; and the Federal Work-Study Program (FWSP), which provides jobs for students with demonstrated need.Make sure to ask about available merit and community service scholarships, as well. The University of Richmond, Virginia, for example, offers Bonner scholarships, which reward community service. Bonner scholars receive up to $3,700 annually in exchange for a commitment of 10 hours per week year-round of community service. One hundred students, 25 from each class, are eligible each year for the Bonner scholarships. Applicants are accepted based on a history of community service and stated plans for more such service in the future. VCU also has a strong merit scholarship program, according to Taylor. The schools award about 175 merit-based scholarships academic year.2) Ask for information about other federal student aid programs from the high school guidance counselor's office. The Federal Pell Grant is based on a family's financial circumstances and may be used at any college. In this academic year (1995-96), the maximum Pell Grant is $2,340. The federal government also sponsors the Stafford Loan Program, which is a low-interest loan made primarily through banks, savings and loan associations, credit unions and some colleges. The Federal Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) is another low-interest loan program that permits parents to borrow up to the full cost of education less any other financial aid the student may receive.3) Search for special sources of aid, such as a private scholarships, or grant or loan programs based on academic achievement, religious affiliation, community activities, ethnic or racial heritage, etc. Some high schools may have the College Cost Explorer Fund Finder software, which will search for appropriate scholarships. Also check with local civic, service and fraternal groups, which often provide merit scholarships. VCU's financial aid office maintains a database of these organizations on campus, and provides a free report of potential resources to prospective students."Finding financial aid only takes a little bit of research, and with all that is available online these days, you don't need to pay a service to find these award programs," Taylor states.4) Inquire about student employment opportunities at the targeted colleges, through both on-campus employment and nearby off-campus jobs.Once a student has successfully cultivated a list of potential resources, he or she can take advantage of the financial analysis programs available through the College Board's World Wide Web site: http://www.collegeboard.org.One section of this web site provides worksheets to help calculate the expected family contributions, the capacity for carrying debt, a potential loan repayment schedule, and a career analysis that show students how their borrowing plans will work against the outlook for their chosen field. The College Board says that all data submitted to them for analysis is confidential and will not be saved; nothing more identifying than an e-mail address is required to ask for these free analyses.Finally, Donald Goding, a personal financial adviser with American Express Financial Advisers, would remind parents that investing money early in their child's life is the best way to finance college."The earlier you plan, the less you have to save, too -- the interest compounds over the years. With college costs rising at an average of 7 percent per year, you need to plan ahead for inflation. It is reachable, even if you are looking at a $60,000 amount," he says.-- Carolyn McCulley

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