College Planning Today
The world is changing. Should your education plans change with it?
By Gary Carroll
Why do you want to go to college? This is the first question that College Planning Specialist and Coach Luanne Lee asks potential college applicants when she first meets them at her office. Surprisingly, she often sees blank expressions and hears only silence or vague answers, even though the response to that question sets the stage for all other aspects of the college preparation process. Answering that question is the first step along a challenging and complicated road.
Speaking honestly, many students would admit the social aspects of what used to be “college life” and the chance to be independent and away from home make college attractive. But in today’s Covid pandemic environment, socializing, sports, dorm life, even use of bathrooms and showers will have severe restrictions. Most universities will offer only limited classroom instruction, and distance learning—sometimes from home—will dominate. This changes the whole college experience, and may change the way students, parents, and potential employers, think about it. Rather than a life experience, it becomes strictly an academic activity. If the student already has a career in mind that requires a degree, of course, move ahead with the application process. But if a student does not have a specific goal in mind, it is prudent to slow down and think a bit more.
When parents or students seek Luanne’s assistance, she begins the process by testing students to determine what career to pursue. She uses a combination of three assessments for career, personality, and communication to help a student identify strengths in careers for which they are well suited. Luanne then helps parents to connect with the Bureau of Labor Statistics to identify the education/ training required. In many cases, attending college may not be the best choice. Luanne says that changes in the job market indicate that employers in many professions no longer see college as an essential prerequisite to hiring. In fact, in some cases colleges might even sidetrack students away from preparing to do the job for which they are best suited.
Luanne notes that it appears the job market is starting to turn, as there seems to be a growing interest in job seekers pursuing trades. She encourages students with an aptitude for trade work to investigate careers that don’t require a college education but rather can be learned through apprenticeships, job shadowing, and technical training.
Early school classroom closures in the spring have complicated the college application process. Many students were unable to take SATs and colleges have minimized or eliminated its role in the selection process, often substituting FairTest.org. Normal support from students’ secondary schools, securing recommendations and proper application material, has been complicated as well.
The two most important things potential applicants need to realize are that college today is big business and college is not for everyone. There is intense competition from both American and foreign students for the most prestigious schools. Even outstanding academic students may be disappointed to learn that their first college choice may not accept them. Universities today may not necessarily look for the most well-rounded student, but rather for those that will fill a niche that will make the entering class as a whole more diverse—meeting diversity criteria and foreign student goals, meeting athletic needs, as well as finding the very best academic students, etc.
Moreover, the cost of college has dramatically increased in recent years. Students and their families could easily find themselves using savings or loans well above $100,000 to pay for four years of undergraduate studies, even at schools with relatively modest price tags.
Students can apply for a federal student aid loan (FAFSA) in their own name, in which case the parent has no financial responsibility at all. FAFSA currently will provide $5,500 to a freshman, $6,500 for sophomores, and $7,500 for juniors and seniors. In addition, many private charitable organizations also award scholarships based on merit and financial need. Students from families who have an annual income of less than $24,000 are eligible for a Pell Grant of over $6,000—the only free federal money available.
Luanne notes that students with financial needs should not rule out looking at schools outside of the state which may offer scholarships for their desired area of study. In many cases, it makes good financial sense for students to spend their first two years of undergraduate study at nearby community colleges (be sure to check that the credits earned there will transfer to the college of choice), rather than spend so much for a four-year college away from home.
What Students and Parents Can Do Now:
- Research trends in the potential job market
- Research possible professions to determine their requirements
- Decide whether college is right for the student
- Develop a financial plan on how to pay for college or technical training
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To learn more about federal government aid, contact financialaidtoolkit.ed.gov/tk.