Last weekend I was fortunate to be one of the presenters at a college access workshop presented by Wonderworks, an enrichment program sponsored by Rice and the University of Houston. The pre-written text of my talk, called “Temporary Insanity: College Admission, American Style” is below. I welcome your comments and questions!
A few years ago The Atlantic published this article by Joe Pinsker titled "Rich Kids Study English." It's a really fascinating piece that I hope you'll take the time to read, but here's the main idea: "the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward 'useful' majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts." Hence the title. Pinsker looks at several explanations and unanswered questions about this connection with having wealthier parents and choosing lower-paying career paths. "It’s speculative," he says, "but richer students might be going on to take lower-paying jobs because they have the knowledge that their parents’ money will arrive eventually."
While the premise makes sense--if your family has more money and support then you can afford not to worry about paychecks as much when choosing your college classes--it's not the full picture.
The whole college admissions process—choosing which colleges to apply to, completing the applications, waiting for responses, and making your final choice—is often overwhelming. Figuring out how to pay for college is even more overwhelming. We’re aware that there are scholarships available, but we don’t always know how to find them, how to evaluate them, how to apply for them, and even if they’re actually worth it. There’s a lot of complexity, and each individual’s situation is different, so it’s difficult to make a few simple rules for everyone to follow.
Last week I spent two days talking to seniors at Carnegie Vanguard High School during their English class. We talked about what colleges are looking for in applicants, how the different parts of an application work together, and how colleges actually process all those applications. The students also had tons of really great questions.
But first, I had some questions for them. Before our talk, I asked them to fill out a quick questionnaire. Here are the questions I asked and some comments on their responses. If you’re working with college-bound students—either in a school setting, as a parent, or because you are a college-bound student yourself—this may be useful for you.
Everyone knows that college is expensive. There are plenty of universities whose full published price is higher than the median family income in America. The numbers can be so big that they're hard to imagine and even harder to make realistic decisions about. So here's an exercise I do with most of my consulting clients. You can do this at home with your family.
I was a little surprised to read last week that the people who have the most influence on high school students' college decisions is their parents. (You can read the full Department of Education report here.) For an example of why I found that surprising, consider that a friend told me that the number one question his high schooler son asks him about college is "why do you keep talking to me about college?" But it also makes sense, because your parents have been talking to you about college, directly or indirectly, like it or not, a lot longer than anyone else has. Unless you're going to completely ignore your family and go straight to the second-largest influence, "myself," you can get the most wisdom from what your family says to you.
I spend my time reading and thinking about college admissions from a certain viewpoint--high school students. I rarely think about parents' perspectives or colleges' perspectives. I help out with the demand part of the equation. But what about the supply side? If I could advise colleges to make their search for top-notch students more efficient and effective, what would I tell them? How would I design the college admissions game?
If I could magically change the whole system, I would basically make it a two-cycle year.
Early this October, as I was sitting in on a meeting of College Possible coaches, the program coordinator specializing in scholarships brought up this amazing stat: When their students got some sort of scholarship, 93% graduated college within six years. When there was no scholarship, only 45% graduated in six years. This is based on College Possible Minnesota's 2008 cohort, meaning their participating students who graduated high school in 2008 and have been tracked since then. So even with all the coaching and support that all College Possible students receive, getting a scholarship more than doubles their odds of graduating. This doesn't just mean "full ride" scholarships that pay for all of college, but any type of scholarship that helps make college cheaper.
Statistics rarely have stories or explanations, so it's up to us to brainstorm some reasons why getting even a small scholarship can increase your success so dramatically.
Imagine that I have three pieces of paper, and you can steal one of them from me without me knowing.
The first is a hundred dollar bill. You take it from me, you have an extra hundred bucks, game over.
The second is a lottery ticket with 50 numbers for the next Powerball drawing (they cost $2 each, so it costs $100 total). The jackpot is $100 million. If you take this, you'll probably get nothing. Or you may get a little bit of money. But you just might (a roughly 1 in 292 million chance) win a hundred million dollars. If you win the big jackpot, there's a risk that I will accuse you of stealing the ticket from me, but that would be very difficult to prove. And that would only be likely if you win the big one. You'd probably get away with it.
The third is a bank statement that includes my account number and password. If you steal this, you'll have access to (probably) more than $100 but (almost certainly) less than $100 million. But getting the money from me will take more work, and it also has an increased risk of me or my bank catching you. If you know the right...or in this case wrong...people, you could probably sell the data to someone else and let them deal with it.
Which would you choose? Why?
But maybe you're out of the most direct danger and wondering what this means for your financial aid. Maybe, on top of the distress of 20 trillion or so gallons of water being poured on our area and entire neighborhoods being destroyed, you've realized that what's going to help your family get through this is spending your college savings on something other than college.
Last week The Atlantic published this article by Joe Pinsker titled "Rich Kids Study English." It's a really fascinating piece that I hope you'll take the time to read, but here's the main idea: "the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward 'useful' majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts."
If you only read the major news headlines, you might think that there's too much demand for universities and not enough supply. The news is dominated by stories about the really, really low acceptance rates at places like Harvard and Stanford. But the reality is often the opposite: most colleges are trying to get people in, not keep them out.
As seniors work through their final weeks of deciding where they'll go to college before the May 1 deadline, I want to acknowledge that money probably plays a big role in the decision and write some posts about financial matters.
Last week I talked about Return on Investment, and this week I want to talk about student loans. No matter where you go to college and how good a financial aid package you get, there's a really strong chance you'll be taking out some loans.
You can't refuse to make other plans hoping that you'll hear back from the school that waitlisted you. Depending on the college and the year (even if you look up their statistics from last year, they may be wildly different this year), your chances of hearing good news later are either slim, very slim, or maddeningly slim. You have to move on.
Somewhere in your mind, though, you'll keep wondering what to do if it turns out you actually are one of the rare few who gets a spot later. Let's go over two different approaches to dealing with that possibility so it doesn't add anxiety to all your days between now and September.