Tag Archives: Parents

College Application Deadlines: It’s the parents’ turn.

Hello, second semester, senior year. After the last few months discussing college applications, the focus now shifts to financial aid applications. financial aid

Parents often ask whether these applications are worth the time and trouble. My short answer:  Yes. These applications offer the possibility of funding a college education — grants, loans, and scholarships. (A number of colleges use the FAFSA and CSS College Profile along with the student’s file to determine merit awards or scholarships.)

As Michelle Obama recently said to northern Virginia high school students and their parents, “Don’t leave money on the table.”

The applications
FAFSA—Every college, from a local community college to a very selective private college, requires the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA determines a student’s eligibility for any federal aid, whether grants, subsidized loans, or work-study funds. The application is free; the 2014-15 school year version became available January 1, 2014.

CSS Profile—Most private colleges, which award their own funds in addition to federal aid, also require a completed CSS Profile, from the College Board. (These schools often have the strongest needs-based financial aid,) The Profile is not free; it costs $25 to send to one college, and $16 for each additional submission. (According to the College Board, “Students who are from low-income families with limited assets will automatically receive fee waivers.”) The 2014-15 school year form became available in October 2013.

Others—Certain circumstances, such as business or farm ownership, may require additional forms. Some colleges have created their own forms to be completed in place of, or in addition to, the FAFSA and the CSS Profile.

The documents
Financial aid applications are not so different from recipes, when it saves time to gather all the ingredients before you begin to cook. Start with these documents:

  • Most recent signed, completed tax returns
  • Social Security number
  • Driver’s license
  • Current statements from banks, retirement accounts, investment accounts, and any other assets
  • Current income and expense information, such as W-2s, 1099s, 1098s, etc.
  • Any untaxed income records, such as child support, workers’ compensation, etc.
  • Any other documents related to assets or income

The frustrations
The timing—This all sounds straightforward enough, but the timing involved makes it complicated and, yes, a bit frustrating. The FAFSA, CSS Profile, and other financial aid applications request specific information from our tax returns—and often these applications must be submitted—before the returns can be completed.

Providing estimates—The FAFSA and the CSS Profile offer the opportunity to enter estimates for the previous year’s Adjusted Gross Income, itemized deductions, taxes to be paid, etc., then changes can be made after the tax return has been completed. Changes will have to be made because colleges also require the completed tax returns or an online link to verify the application.

Yet, providing estimates presents a bit of a nightmare for households with incomes that vary, such as small business owners, consultants, realtors, farmers, or salespeople. Also, some items may sound simple enough, like a tuition credit, but are not because of frequent changes in the rules.

Early returns—Estimates will only go so far. Some colleges require signed, completed tax returns by February 15.

The quantity—College application year is the most complicated since students are applying for financial aidwith a variety of due dates and submission procedures from the full list of high school senior’s colleges.

So I get frustrated. I complain. I procrastinate. I write blog posts instead of completing the forms. Frustrating though it may be, it is doable, and it’s important to do for a number of reasons.

The why
Many college advisors recommend that every family should complete the FAFSA, at least.

  1. While some families may assume they make too much money to qualify for aid, there is only one way to find out. You have to apply.
  2. Meanwhile, American colleges currently operate within a system of very high Costs of Attendance, which can be whittled down to lower net costs through aid, merit awards, and scholarships. Very expensive private colleges, especially those with healthy endowments, may offer a much lower net cost, indeed one that could be comparable to that of a public university. There’s only one way to discover a family’s net cost for each college.
  3. Many colleges, especially private colleges, use the FAFSA and CSS Profile as a part of their merit awards and scholarships qualifications. One form I just saw included this permission request: “I hereby grant permission for Student Financial Services to release my academic transcript and information about my financial aid to your prospective scholarship donors.”
  4. Even families with high income and asset levels may wish to access unsubsidized Stafford loans, with favorable interest rates and repayment beginning after the student leaves college.
  5. Finally, families who may not quality for aid with one child in college are likely to see a change with two or more in college at the same time.

Now it’s time for me to stop procrastinating and follow my own advice.

This post appeared in slightly different form on True Admissions, the blog of College Admission: From Application To Acceptance.

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How close to home is too close?

How close is too close when it comes to choosing a college–for students and parents?

My husband drove our son, Mod Squad Pete—a second-year UVa student—back to college Sunday evening after Thanksgiving. The drive takes between ten and fifteen minutes, depending upon traffic. Meanwhile a Midwestern nephew drove a couple of hours back to his college in St. Louis, and our niece flew back to her college in Los Angeles from her home near Boston.

Screenshot of The Chronicle of Higher Education graph. Follow the link for the interactive graph.

Screenshot from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow the article link for an interactive graph.

Distance was just one of many factors involved in their college choices. Our nephew looked at a number of pre-engineering programs and selected a college that offered him a chance to play baseball, a President’s scholarship, and proximity for easy home visits. Our niece only applied to film schools—she’s majoring in production—and all but one were in California, prime location for access to the movie and television industry. At 3,000 miles from home, she’s one of the consistent twelve to fifteen percent of students who travel more than 500 miles for college. (See the graph accompanying Libby Sander’s Ties to Home in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

When Pete was in high school, we spent a couple of years expecting him to go to college 700 miles away. As it turned out, he chose a college seven miles away. Many students in our area either dream of attending UVa or want to avoid attending a college so close to home. Our son was in the latter group, yet changed his mind over the span of his senior year. Pete now will attest to what local UVa students had said to him:  there’s an entirely different and new world to explore on grounds, and it feels much further away from home than it is.

Making it work. When considering being that close to home, much depends upon the student-parent relationship (like most everything related to college).

Some parents have a hard time letting go. As Bella English wrote recently for the Boston Globe, in ‘Snowplow parents’ overly involved in college students’ lives,

In one extreme case of parental over-involvement, a college senior in December 2012 won a protective order against her parents for stalking and harassing her. Aubrey Ireland, 21, told a Cincinnati judge that her parents often drove 600 miles from their Kansas home to the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, unannounced, to meet with college officials, and falsely accused her of promiscuity, drug use, and mental problems.

Other parents–most I suspect–have raised their children with an eye toward both the increased freedom and responsibilities the students gain when leaving home.

Jennifer Conlin captured a sense of appropriate limits, writing for The New York Times, in When college is close to home, what are the boundaries?

“It was hard at first because I wanted Laura to immerse herself completely on campus, but I also wanted her to come home for family birthdays,” Ms. Wirth-Johnson said.
Leslie Gardner, who lives in Brooklyn and whose daughter, Rebecca Glanzer, is a sophomore at Columbia University, echoed the same sentiment.
“I worried that it would be too easy for me to access her,” she said. “But I also worried that she might access me too much.”
Both mothers said they waited patiently the first few weeks of college for their daughters to reach out to them.

Up to each family. Navigating a comfortable path for visits and phone calls is up to each family to figure out. We said something like this to Pete:  We won’t show up without calling first. We won’t bug you to come home often, but we’ll let you know what’s going on here, and we will want to hear what’s going on in your life.

We’ve enjoyed the benefits of his being nearby. We get to attend performances by his student jazz ensemble. We’ve had opportunities to meet and host his friends. Pete dropped by unexpectedly on a fall Sunday; he had to drive past our house on the way to set up an event at a local vineyard. Naturally, we don’t care if he shows up without calling first.

We don’t know where our daughter, M.S. Julie, will be next year. Near or far, we want her to establish independence and then share her stories with us as we watch her grow. We won’t hover, or smooth the path for our college students; we’ll just be right here when they need us.

This post appeared in slightly different form on True Admissions, the blog of College Admission: From Application To Acceptance.

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Q&A: Our daughter’s a freshman. Should we be concerned about her grades?

A friend and parent of a high school freshman just asked:QandA block

Q.  You know our daughter; she’s very interested in athletics, and not so much in academics. She does okay, but I’m wondering:  should we be concerned about her grades this year?

A.  Ahhh. That’s a question each family has to answer for itself, since the level of concern that one might have (I won’t take on “should”) depends upon so many factors, such as:

  • How much time does she spend on schoolwork compared to her peers?
  • How stressed does she get now about her schoolwork?
  • How do her grades compare to what you think she’s capable of achieving?
  • What sort of colleges do you hope she could attend?

Then you might consider this, which seems obvious now, but we still had to learn by going through it with our first child:

While we talk about the elements of the student’s high school record–course selections, grade point average (GPA), and extracurriculars–that go into a college application, the application process is timed so we’re really talking about a high school record of the first three years.

"The Freshman"

“The Freshman”

Most seniors submit their applications anywhere from mid-October for an early admission application to the end of December for a regular admission application. The transcript will, in most cases, indicate course selections and a GPA through the end of junior year. The student’s extracurriculars could include the first part of senior year, but any opportunity to demonstrate strong areas of interest and leadership would require taking action in earlier years.

Guidance counselors will try to help students understand the importance of their grades and increased rigor in course selections from year to year.

It can be hard, though, for a freshman or sophomore to take this as seriously as the parents might (or as the parents might want her to).

I wrote recently about a UVa admissions counselor visiting our high school. (See Straight talk from a UVa admissions counselor:  everything’s important.) After that session, one of the attending parents complained at length to the guidance counselors that they didn’t require all students to come listen to the admissions counselor. The counselors responded that none of the information was different from that they shared with students when planning course selections every year. The parent insisted that students would pay more attention to the UVa representative than they would to the high school counselors and, certainly, to their own parents.

That may well be. I have no idea what works in other households; I barely know what works with our own teens. When we were trying to get their attention–talking about courses, grades, or extracurriculars–we tended to (and still do) talk about doing the best they could to keep as many options available to them as possible, whether that’s access to college or an internship or a job.

Good luck!

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Fluffy Credits, or how do I get my kid into the top 10 percent?

A friend and parent of a high-school freshman recently wrote:

Q.  I have a question for you regarding high school academics and the college search. We were having dinner with friends last night (one kid @ McGill, one on his way to Johns Hopkins, and one in high school) and mentioned that G. is taking health and PE this summer in order to get them out of the way. They told us that some uber-reaching students will actually hold off on taking health until senior year because they’re trying to game the system a bit and make sure that they don’t have any “fluffy credits” on their transcripts when they’re applying to colleges.

Have you heard of this and what do you think about it?

A.  Heh. Fluffy credits. What a great term.QandA block

I’m a bit agog at the thought of seniors taking 9th grade health, but I’m sure it happens. This is all to do with weighted course credits, as in when Honors and AP courses earn five points for an A on a four point scale.

A student earning straight As through high school, and taking a larger number of  non-weighted classes, such as arts electives, PE, band, etc., can end up with a lower weighted GPA than a student who maxed-out the weighted classes. That straight-A student will have earned an unweighted 4.0 GPA, but here’s the reason those uber-reaching students are putting off [non-weighted] health until senior year:  class rank is based upon the weighted GPA.

First, though, more about the GPAs. You’ve likely seen  @UVADeanJ’s tweets during reading season–she and her colleagues across the country run into true weirdness, like an applicant with a 12.31 GPA.

@UVADeanJ tweet@UVADeanJ tweetThis is why the school profile is so important for the colleges–they get the context of the GPA  and how each school weights grades (or not) from the profile. I’ve been told by a reliable source that UVa recalculates all of the GPAs for its applicants, to build comparables (and that a local high school math teacher has the part-time job to help with this).

August 28, 2013 Letter to the Editor, Charlottesville Daily Progress

“Albemarle shouldn’t rank students,” August 28, 2013, Charlottesville Daily Progress. Click to enlarge.

Whether that’s true or not, many colleges look for where that student’s GPA stands in comparison to his or her peers:  the class rank.

Why the class rank matters. A top class rank is crucial for those uber-reaching students you mentioned, the ones trying to get into very selective schools. At UVA, for example, 93 percent of the incoming class was in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and 98 percent were in the top 25 percent (or quartile).

See Frederick Smyth’s recent letter to the editor encouraging Albemarle schools to stop reporting class ranks because of the import colleges place on this arbitrary cut-off.

“Rankings are crude attempts to simplify complex academic records and often create impressions of meaningful differences between students when none exist.”

. . .

“Being in the top 10 percent is no guarantee of admission… but a lesser label, such as being in the second-highest 10 percent, nearly guarantees rejection.”

Most high schools don’t publicize a class rank of graduating seniors, as in listing the students in order by GPA. Instead, they determine where the GPA cut-off is for the top 10 percent (or decile), the top quarter (or quartile), the top half, etc. Which of those categories the student meets does get reported to colleges, at least in our school system.

Here’s what our counselor told us during Mod Squad Pete’s junior year:  you cannot tell ahead of time where the top 10 percent GPA cutoff will be for any given class, because that will be computed only at the very end of the senior year.

What she could tell us was where the top decile and quartile cutoffs were for the previous year’s class and, if Pete had been part of that class, where his GPA would have positioned him. (This also provided some much-needed incentive to maintain his senior year grades.)

Here, from our high school’s website,  are screenshots from the school’s profile, from three different years. A weighted 4.50 GPA sounds really good, but in 2010 a student with that GPA would not have made the top decile. In 2008 a weighted GPA of 4.010 made the top quartile, but not in the other two example years.

Class Rank based on weighted GPA

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.37.15 PM Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.38.23 PM

That’s a long-winded explanation of fluffy credits and why some students put them off until senior year. I’ll get to what I think of all this next time around. Thanks for the great question!

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First day of senior year: she looks forward. Me, not just yet.

Our school begins today. Writing this the night before, I feel confident predicting that we will be rushed, packing lunches, eating breakfast (or carrying it to the car), feeding the dog and bird, gathering school supplies, pausing for a quick photo, and dashing out the door.

And since we’ve been to this rodeo before, I feel confident predicting that’s the way Mod Squad Julie’s senior year will go, too:  dashing from Back-to-School night to Spirit Week, submitting early applications, basketball practices and games, submitting regular applications, midterms, receiving college decisions, making her own decision, AP exam weeks, and graduation. Just like that.

first day of school

The Mod Squad’s first day of school, a few years ago.

This is when I stop dashing for a moment to look backwards…

Back to a full year during preschool when Julie proudly added an “h” to her [real] name, because she liked the letter so much.

Back to watching Julie and her fast-speaking, ever-smiling girlfriends ice skate in French immersion elementary school.

Back to an infamous middle school science project, when she ran out of things to say about Mme. Curie, so she transformed it into an art project spelling out radium in a variety of languages.

Back to her first days in a high school of 1100 students after an eighth grade class of fifteen, when she wondered how M.S. Pete (a junior then) knew so many people.

Back to now, when she’s excited about senior year and looking ahead to next year when, as Michael Gerson puts it, her life will be “starting for real.”

We’ve watched Julie mature from a quiet freshman to a strong, confident young woman. She scheduled her senior year so it serves as both a capstone to high school and a half step toward college. She’ll have a heavy course load, yet more free time than ever, excellent training for a college schedule next year.

For now, though, as we head into this first day, I wish her a great, safe, fun senior year. I hope we can all appreciate every moment of it.

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Q&A: Son is a HS freshman — Where to begin?

A friend and parent of a high school freshman recently wrote:

Q.  I googled a college-related question a few days ago and by chance stumbled upon your Dr. StrangeCollege blog!
In the time it took me to find an answer to my question (partially from your blog and other online sources), I discovered that I am alarmingly overwhelmed by my complete and utter lack of preparedness. Clearly, I should start reading something about college, since L. is now in high school. I found it strangely comforting to think that I could go back and read your blog from the beginning. I feel calmer already!
Do you, in fact, have someplace that you recommend us poor, frightened, slightly nauseous newbie parents start learning about the whole process? Books? Websites?QandA block

A.  I have a lifelong habit of looking to books when I have a question. Here are a couple I would recommend for an overview:

1. The College Solution, a Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price (2nd ed.), Lynn O’Shaugnessy.

O’Shaugnessy has a website with the same name as the book; she also blogs for CBS Money Watch. While her focus is financial, she writes succinctly and with a good deal of common sense about most college-related topics. It’s a good quick introduction.

What’s fascinating is the motivation behind a school’s decision on which applicants capture a price break and which don’t. I can’t delve into this topic without at least mentioning this fact: Private and public colleges and universities routinely employ in-house enrollment managers or hire consultants who devise ways for colleges to use their institutional cash as strategically as possible to assemble their freshman classes. Typically this means helping institutions leverage their own revenue to attract the kind of teenagers they covet. Enrollment management practices have turned financial aid from primarily a utilitarian way to help disadvantaged students into a powerful tool to attract high-achieving students and the wealthy.

2. Crazy U., One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, Andrew Ferguson.

Ferguson is a journalist and magazine editor, but this is his story of the eighteen months from his son’s junior HS year through to leaving for college. He writes beautifully about the emotions involved (for parents and child), tells very funny stories (especially about the things parents say to each other), and digs deeply into areas you’ll probably want to know about, like college rankings, standardized testing, etc. This is what it looks like to parents today. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry. We made Mod Squad Pete read this one and it’s time for me to put it on M.S. Julie’s reading shelf.

It wasn’t until Christmas was upon us that I realized why he’d been so calm about writing his essays. He hadn’t been writing them.

“It won’t take long,” he said, after I pointed out that he hadn’t much time left. He had logic on his side, as he often did — inadvertently. It wouldn’t take him much time to get it done because there simply wasn’t much time to get it done. QED. By mid-January, when the last of the essays was sent off and all creation seemed to relax with a sudden release of held breath, a mother told me that she and her daughter had put in three solid months of work on the essays, “every day after school and weekends.”

“We did three months of work too,” I said, ” in twelve days.”

You might start here.

You might start here.

If/when you want to read more about things your son could be doing right now, you might look at Elizabeth Wissner-Gross’s two books. Her sons were both skilled and interested in a math/science track, so there’s an emphasis on STEM competitions, but there are plenty of gems in both books. I like these for cherry-picking tips related to a child’s specific interests:

What High Schools Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know), Create a Long-Term Plan for your 7th to 10th Grader for Getting into the Top Colleges

Keep in mind that grades are the currency by which opportunities are bought in today’s meritocracy. No matter how many after-school activities or advanced level courses your child has on his résumé, no most-competitive college or selective summer program will be impressed if your kid earns less-than-top grades.

What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know), 272 Secrets for Getting Your Kid into the Top Schools

The important picture to keep in mind is that admissions officers read hundreds of applications, and sameness is detrimental.

This might be the time for a few readers of this blog to call me out as an obsessive. Accepted. Especially when I admit that these are merely the books one might read to get ready to read about the specifics of selection, application, essay-writing, and financial aid. Recommended reading for those topics still to come.

This is also probably a good time to reiterate a few beliefs I hold:

  1. What the kid brings to college in motivation, study habits, and acquisition of real-life skills will make much more of a difference than getting into a top-ranked college (especially when the rankings are based upon such ridiculous criteria as college administrators ranking each other).
  2. There is a college for every student — if college makes sense for the student. “Only 2% of institutions accept less than 25% of their applicants. Those 60 elite schools (out of 2,421) educate just 3% of the nation’s full-time undergrads who are attending four-year institutions.” That from Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog here.
  3. Start thinking about finances — and what your family thinks makes sense to pay for a BA or BS — now. Talk about it with your student when he or she is still building the long list of colleges, before winnowing that down to a short list.

Good luck, newbie parent, to you and your student!

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What we learned at college orientation (and why we’re glad we went)

Fridge, microwave; who needs a dining hall?

A couple of weeks back, Mod Squad Dad and I joined Pete for his college orientation. This decision wasn’t an automatic “yes” — we live near UVa and are fairly familiar with the grounds. This is a busy summer with work, children’s activities, and other obligations, so we paused before taking a day and a half to take tours, listen to administrators, and eat at a dining hall.

We’re glad we went.

There’s plenty of advice available online for both students and parents about orientation.

Melissa Woodsen wrote a guest post for Countdown to College Coach, Making the most of college orientation:

…the BostonGlobe reports that most parents found the events to be more than worthwhile. With events ranging from “Meet the Dean” to model classes and seminars on “Letting Go,” parent orientations offer an in-depth understanding of today’s college experience that can’t be had from a distance.

From GreatCollegeAdvice.com, see Signing up and Preparing for your Orientation Program, by Cara Ray:

Once you arrive at your orientation, make sure the STUDENT is taking the lead.  This is your first step into finding your place on campus. The faculty and staff on campus expect that you will be making decisions, not your parents. Carving your own way starts right now!

Cappex College Insider offers a list of what to expect and tips on how to best take advantage, in What to Expect at College Orientation:

Expect: Logistical tasks such as getting your student ID card, creating a school email (if you haven’t already), and registering for classes.

Tip: If you have the option, try to attend an orientation session earlier in the summer. Since you’ll be registering for classes before the late summer orientation students, it is more likely that you’ll get the courses you really want. Register for the number of credit hours your school recommends for freshmen. You can always drop a course if you get to school and the course load is too heavy.

From the US News blog, Twice the Advice, 6 Tips for Parents at College Orientation

2. Learn what resources are available for parents: Many parents—especially when the first child is leaving for college—have to get used to letting their child do the communicating with the school. There are often legal reasons for this, but it’s good for the growing up process as well.

That doesn’t mean parents are without a voice, however. During orientation you should learn when and how you can communicate with the school. If you don’t hear that information, ask.

Here’s what we saw and learned:

1. Parents asked questions we may not yet have considered.

Room for books, laptop, and keyboard?

  • Is using an illegal ID an honor code offense?
  • Will a bike (laptop, dorm room, etc.) be safe from theft?
  • What time should we arrive on Move-In Day?

2.  Parents asked questions we don’t really care about.

  • How many washing machines in ___ dorm?
  • How long will it take to get a triple room (assigned due to over-booking) de-tripled?

3.  Excellent administrators handled all questions professionally and thoroughly. This, in fact, was one of the most rewarding reasons for us to attend orientation:  the organization of the two-day event, the presentations and responses from administrators, the good humor and evident intelligence, the discussions of curriculum options and extra-curricular choices — all these reinforced our good feeling about Pete’s college choice.

4.  Administrators talked about what to expect and made specific requests of parents before our children go to college.

  • Talk with them about time management. Their time in high school was highly structured. College will require a huge adjustment to working within non-structured schedules. Teach them how to use unstructured time.
  • Discuss how to respond to problems. What steps have you taken? Have you talked to the RA? Have you talked to the Dean of Students?
  • High school typically requires black & white answers. College requires more thought in grey areas, critical analysis, tough thinking. Anticipate some confusion and frustration while making that developmental change.
  • Students will sign a roommate agreement form when they arrive, but many areas of possible discord can be talked through themselves, especially an agreed-upon policy on locking the door, overnight guests (and frequency), using each other’s things.
  • Have your child sign up for text alerts. They need to opt-in.
  • Make sure they thoroughly understand three terms:  effective consent, sexual misconduct, incapacitation.
  • Have them repeat, “Don’t drink what you didn’t make or open yourself.”

Orientation coupons

5.  The dining hall food was fine. Sure, Pete will tire of it at some point, but the food choices were excellent. But perhaps Pete wishes we hadn’t tried it out? The coupon reads:

A reminder: parents eat free when they visit during the 2012/13 academic year (beginning 8/24/12) at our residential dining rooms. (Two parents per student meal swipe, per visit. We regret that other family members are not eligible for this promotion.)

Just kidding, Pete. Four weeks from today, big guy.

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