Getting Into College - A Helpful Tool

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I’m often asked by friends how to get their high school senior into the best college or how a returning adult should go about looking for a good program. People are hopeful that my insider perspective will give them a trick or tip that will save them lots of money and/or help make their graduate lots of money upon completion.

I really do get just how messy and hard seeking a college or university can be. We’re about 6 years away from our own little girl heading off to college (aside from the likelihood of dual credit classes she’ll take before then) and it’s scary when considering all of the possibilities. This is why so many people pay admissions “coaches” $5-10,000. They want help walking through the swamp on some kind of safe footing. They need help finding scholarships, grants, loans, and more. They want their kid to get into the best possible school, at the price point they can afford, and not leave anything on the table.

I am writing this because we recently started working with some friends who are in this exact situation. Their daughter is a 4.2 GPA student with decent community service, but they are not in a position to pay a lot for tuition (they have 3 kids and there will be a time when all 3 are in college together). They also do not want their first born to have huge student loans when it is all said and done, especially as she is not sure what major she wants. There is no carrot of a doctor’s salary at the end (although, well more than 50% of med students leave that program, which should likely give pause to anyone thinking of going that route). So, she is looking at both in-state and out-of-state schools, trying to juggle all of the variables.

And the schools do not make this easy. What is it worth to go to college these days? It’s incredibly difficult to put a number on it. Yes, studies show that a degree will yield a larger monetary percentage, per paycheck, for the rest of one’s life. But the horror stories of well credentialed people in jobs that require no credentials are also prevalent. Plus, as schools push harder and harder for students to declare majors as fast as possible, yet with most 40-year-olds wishing they could go back and tell their 18-year-old self to pick something else, this all starts to feel really, really intimidating.

So, here is a small bit of advice, from an “insider” to people looking at which college to attend. I hope you find it helpful.

  1. If you already know what school you or your child will go to, good luck. Family traditions or specific programs are a good “hook” for a lot of people.

  2. For everyone else, know this. The “best” schools in the country are likely not the best education at all. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE claims to have the best teachers, the best programs, the best facilities…yada yada. It’s all marketing. (It’s amazing to hear people tell me everywhere I go how their Business, Nursing, Education (etc) school is Ranked #1…everyone is ranked at the top on some list…) At the end of the day, there are way too many variables to make any of those claims for your son or daughter. It comes down to individuals, specific teachers, desired outcomes, advisers, study habits, maturity, and many, many more. So, the college up the road can (literally) give you the same advantage as the big state school or the out-of-state, private university if you manage your education correctly.

  3. The one advantage of University X over College Y is in the networking. The reason Harvard produces so many leaders and wealthy people is not the education. Those students are whip-smart before they set foot on campus and they would be successful no matter where they went to school. No, it’s all about the networks. You could actually argue that the instruction at Harvard is far worse than other places, because it’s mostly lectures by researchers who often dislike teaching, droning on about their pet projects. Students learn there through other means and they are successful because they are networked with people who are wealthy, entrepreneurial leaders who already have prime jobs lined up upon graduation. So, unless you can both get in and afford one of the 10 hyper-networked spots in the country, don’t worry about it. 99% of employers don’t pick you because of your school’s name. They pick you because you have a piece of paper from anywhere and because of your interview, skills, etc.

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A Helpful Tool

Now that the above is out of the way, let me show you a little known tool that is super helpful. It’s not perfect, nor is it the end-all, be-all, but it’s worth knowing about for sure. A few years back, the Federal Government put a college scorecard into place. I am surprised at how few parents know about this, but equally surprised by how many high school guidance counselors are unfamiliar with the tool. It allows you to quickly see some basic info about any accredited institution in the USA, also allowing you to drill down into more detailed information. As an example, I’m using searches from Colorado, where I both live and where I also went to two universities for my three degrees.

The scorecard platform also allows you to easily compare schools to one another, seeing some macro issues side by side. This became apparent to me when our friends said that they were looking at two of the three “main” Colorado schools, but they were not sure of the actual prices. So I looked them up here and was shocked to see who charged what.

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It’s obviously important to note some things. No tool is perfect and there are some contextual issues which matter!

First, these numbers are aggregate averages reported to the Government and then fed to this scorecard. So, while it is good to know how many students actually graduate, know the numbers are not “perfect.” Even if you see that a school graduates 45% of their students, remember that is likely lower than you are thinking as transfer students change things, as do certain programs, etc. At one school where I worked, there were three very distinct populations: online, satellite, and on-campus. The numbers shown on this scorecard for that institution is a 44% graduation rate. But in reality, the online program sees a 22% rate, the satellite campus sees a 55% rate, and the on-campus sees a 40% rate. Yet on this visualization, it is shown in aggregate.

Second, It’s also important to note that price shown here will very likely be different than you or your student would pay, especially as an all-in price. Staying in the dorms? In-state or out-of-state? Need 10 books one term and only 3 books the next? In our friends’ case, their daughter was offered a standard $6000 “discount” (available to anyone with a 3.8 GPA or higher coming out of high school), whereas another school offered her an actual scholarship because of the 4.2 GPA she carries. But just about any reduction in price is going to require a conversation. (Note! This does not require an application! You can speak with most admissions counselors, especially during campus visits, without paying $300 to apply to a school!)

Finally, salary upon graduation is highly contextual. Note the starting salary in the first scorecard image above from Colorado School of Mines. Of course it is higher than the other three state schools as Mines graduates mostly engineers, architects, and the like. UNC (my Alma Mater) likely graduates the most Liberal Arts students, which correlates directly to salary. A K-12 teacher, HR representative, or County Sociologist will never see starting pay higher than an engineer.

But similar to TrueCar pricing and Car Fax reports for autos, at least you can go on that campus tour a little bit more informed. You can look through the scorecards basic comparables, then dive deeper on some of the more detailed information for schools at the top of your list.

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I know, there are a lot of other variables that I did not go into here. I realize some kids go to college so as to grow up. So, while online education can be cheaper (although not as much as it should be, but that’s another blog), for some students, the desire for the “college experience” is too important. For that, some conversations with various student services people might be important. Other students need a pre-degree, before going onto an advanced one. At that point, it’s worth your time to talk with some places offering the advanced degree and see if they have recommendations for undergraduate schools. And for some, price is not only the main criteria, but perhaps the only one. (I hope you will look at my recommendation for a far more affordable college option I shared in this blog!)

I wish it was not so confusing and murky, but at least there are some ways to navigate the landscape without blindly trusting what any given college or university tells you. It just takes a bit of homework and some quality, candid communication. But know this. In the end, if you can afford it (including the aftermath of loans), so long as the degree is obtained, it really does not likely matter where you go. The degree will absolutely matter in terms of your personal happiness (which is why you hear so many people lament getting X degree, when they really want to do Y for a living), but the paper is the paper. Don’t second guess it. Just finish!

The rest will take care of itself.

Good luck and good learning.