Wake up to the truth about ‘dream schools’

The college admissions scandal — which recently led to a 14-day prison sentence for actress Felicity Huffman — exposed a group of wealthy parents’ obsession with getting their kids into the “right” school. Prosecutors say the families paid bribes, faked test results and pretended their kids were athletes to get them into selective colleges.

Unfortunately, many less affluent families also fall for the delusion that some schools offer golden tickets for their children’s futures, says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution.” Whether it’s an Ivy League college or a high-priced “dream school,” too many people believe certain educations are worth endless effort, stress — and debt.

In my latest for the Associated Press, the most important facts to know as you navigate the college admissions process and decide how much to spend.

Most colleges worry they won’t have enough students

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailGetting into an Ivy League school is basically a lottery for smart kids. There are no guarantees. Winning admission at many highly-regarded public universities is easier, but only by comparison. UCLA accepts about a quarter of its applicants, instead of the single digit acceptance rate at Harvard or Yale.

Look outside that privileged circle of “name brand,” well-known schools, though, and it’s a whole different universe. Most colleges are worried about getting enough students to enroll, not about how many they can turn away. The competition is particularly tough for small- to medium-sized private colleges that don’t have fat endowments. You can read “College is a now a buyer’s market,” my Reuters column this week, for more.

Here’s another fact you may have missed when reading breathless media accounts of “how hard it is to get into college”: where you go matters a lot less than your experience while you’re there. Elite schools apparently offer no advantage it comes to success in life.

I attended a small private college in the Pacific Northwest: Pacific Lutheran University. My alma mater recently named me one of its distinguished alumni. I was honored to be part of this impressive group, which included best-selling author Marissa Meyer and Air Force flight nurse/helicopter pilot Ed Hrivnak, who wrote the book “Wounded” about his experiences in Iraq and who was one of the first responders to the Oso landslide disaster in Washington state.

Research indicates a good reason for our success after school was the relationships we had with our professors. They weren’t far away creatures at the bottom of some cavernous lecture hall. They were accessible, they taught in small classrooms and they cared about our progress.

It’s only in the past few years that I’ve fully appreciated my college experience. For years I wondered if I should have attended a name-brand school. (I was accepted as a transfer student to Stanford, but opted not to go, since the financial aid office offered loans rather than the scholarships and grants I got at PLU.) Now I’m really glad I studied where I did.

So my advice to families contemplating college: open your eyes, and look beyond the name brands. There are some real gems out there that will be happy to have your kids and that will give them what they need to succeed.

Can you submit too many college applications?

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailI only applied to one college, and I opted for early decision. There’s no way I’ll let my daughter do the same thing.

Recognizing how much the world has changed is key to getting our kids launched right. These days, a half dozen applications may not be enough, as I write in this week’s Reuters column, “How many college applications is too many?” College consultants say there’s a rising level of unpredictability to admissions, which means you may want more than two safety schools, two matches and two reaches.

One issue I didn’t get into for lack of space was the public vs. private school aspect. Private school students typically have access to counselors who are essentially dedicated to getting them into good colleges. These counselors usually stay up to date not only on colleges’ statistics but also on their changing needs (that is, what they’ll be recruiting for next year). Private schools often subscribe to services like Naviance, which help students see exactly where they stand relative to the stats (GPA, class rank, test scores) of a college’s existing student body. With intel like that, private school students (and families who hire private consultants who offer the same services) can get a pretty good idea at where they have a good shot at getting in and where they don’t.

Public school students, by contrast, may be assigned a counselor who has 400 other kids in her caseload plus duties that have nothing to do with college admissions. Families may be on their own in trying to figure out where to apply.

The good news is that most colleges still accept most applicants–the Ivies and other highly selective colleges are a small fraction of the total number of higher learning institutions in the U.S. Also, there are sites such as Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s The College Solution and CollegeData.com to help sort through the options.

Still, if you’re not getting help in winnowing down your application list, it can make sense to err on the side of applying to too many colleges rather than too few.