Welcome to the College Ahead blog!
I'm Julia, a certified college counselor specializing in college planning, preparation, search and admissions. Welcome to my blog. For more than 12 years, I wrote a newspaper column titled College Corner. This blog continues that tradition. I’ve been an independent college counselor for more than 20 years. That means I’ve worked with dozens of students and I’ve seen the successful resolution of dozens of different challenges. Read more about my background here.
First and foremost, this blog is about you! If you want to see a topic addressed here, or if you have a question about college selection or application, feel free to email me. I’ll do my best to answer it, or if necessary, find someone who can.
My professional motto is “Navigating the college search and admissions process with confidence and optimism.” I want you to approach this transition enthusiastically and I’m here to help you do that.
- Destination Maturation
Julia Surtshin, The Journal of College Admission, Summer 2015
- Where to Start Your Summer Search for Colleges and Financial Aid
Brent Huntsburger, The Oregonian, June 2013
- Reassuring Words About Financial Aid
Higher Education Consultants Association Newsletter, January 2009.
- College Consultant Tries to Allay Jitters
(Interview) The Oregonian, November 2007.
- Liberal Arts & Professional Education
Under 25, Spring 2002.
- How to Write That College Essay
Under 25, Winter 1991.
“With my grades and test scores, where can I get in?” Oftentimes this is the first question students ask when they come for an initial appointment. Typically I respond that I don’t know them well enough to answer that question, and respectfully add that they have, in my opinion, asked the wrong question.
It is NOT about where you can get in.
Rather than determining which institutions will accept them, students should be asking which colleges have the mission and resources to provide them with the experiences they want and need to accomplish their goals.
This turns the college search and admission process on its head in some very important ways.
Colleges That Change Lives: A Pretty Audacious Name, an Even More Audacious Mission
The folks at the non-profit, Colleges That Change Lives understand this distinction and are dedicated to helping students connect with higher education opportunities that build knowledge, character, and values.
Forty-one colleges nationwide have been awarded the CTCL distinction. Although they have varying missions, different admissions requirements, and wide-ranging academic programs, all are dedicated to fostering the growth of undergraduate students. CTCL colleges include such diverse institutions as Agnes Scott College, an all-women’s college in Atlanta; St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota that is best known for its outstanding vocal performance programs; Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Hillsdale, Michigan; and St. John’s College, known for its Great Books program.
The West is well represented among CTCL schools. Reed College, Saint Mary’s College of California, The Evergreen State College, University of Puget Sound, Whitman College, Willamette University are all members of the group.
If this sort of student-centered education seems appealing to you, you’re in luck. The CTCL folks are coming to town!
Colleges That Change Lives College Fair
Wednesday, August 1, 2017 at 7 pm,
Oregon Convention Center Ballrooms 203 and 204
777 NE Martin Luther King Blvd, Portland, OR 97232
This is an unusual opportunity to hear some very wise folks talk about college admission in an entirely new way. You won’t hear a lot of hype about testing, but you will hear talk about “holistic review”. With the frenzy ratcheted down, the focus is on student reflection and the importance of “match”, between student needs and campus means.
The college fair begins with a 30 minute information session, followed by approximately 1.5 hours of free time. According to the CTCL website, “During the college fair, students and families are invited to collect information from and speak directly with admission representatives from the colleges and universities that inspired the book Colleges That Change Lives.”
This timely op-ed piece from the New York Times is important reading for everyone. Read it, share it, post it.
Students, know that your friends, your parents, your teachers, everyone is more concerned with your welfare than with your grades. If you have more than just a few days when you don’t feel okay, please let someone know. Sharing lessens the burden.
Do you have a soon-to-be senior? Maybe a rising junior? Is the “whole college thing” frequenting your radar screen more often than ever? If so, keep reading.
If you think that this “college stuff” is intrusive, let me tell you that your college-bound teen is probably way more stressed about this transition than you are. Without the perspective that comes with experience (read age), teens can feel that college admissions decisions determine their chance for future success and are judgements on their personal worth.
This is where you come in. How you handle the college search and application process can have a huge impact on how they handle things. Although your teens may kindly (or not so much) ask you to keep out of their college search, you do have a significant role.
Summer, with its more relaxed schedule, is a great time to rethink how you view the college search and admission process and catch up with your teen about his/her thoughts about college. That being said, many students dread the “college talk”. Here are some suggestions for connecting with your teen.
1. Tell your teen that you’d like to catch up about the whole college thing and ask for a time
when he/she would be ready to chat.
Then, listen, listen, listen! The college search process is often a time of personal reflection, change and growth. Share your thoughts and opinions only after you’ve heard what is important to your teen. You could learn some interesting things.
2. Be honest about restrictions and needs. If there are financial, geographical or other factors that restrict college options, communicate them early in the process. Once you’ve established college search parameters, allow your teen to have as much independence as possible.
3. Communicate your optimism and confidence. Your teens, though they may not show it, need
cheerleaders. When their self-esteem waivers, as it may, they need you, more than ever, to remind them of their worth, their skills, their talents, and that where they attend college is not the final verdict on their happiness or success in life.
4. Consult an expert. Whether you have questions about what colleges might be most suitable for your teen, want to better understand financial aid, or are ready to pull your hair out because your rising senior hasn’t taken any standardized tests, there are professionals to provide guidance.
Independent college counselors are experienced in working with high schoolers and their parents. They can give you and your student information, perspective, support and strategies. Further, most know of top notch test prep professionals, college financial planners, psychologists who specialize in working with teens, and learning specialists, and can make excellent referrals based on your needs.
5. Consider a road trip. Although ideally college campus visits take place when classes are in session, summer may offer the flexibility you need. A college visit can be as quick and informal as walking through a campus to get a feel for size and location, or more structured as offered through the admission office.
More on campus visits in another post.
6. Honor your teen’s uniqueness. Don’t compare your teen to others, especially siblings. There is so much about the college admission process that is evaluative and comparative: grades, test scores, the list of activities and leadership positions. Teens need a break. Make home a “judgement free” zone.
7. Keep your need for information and control in check. Although it’s reasonable to want your
teen to keep you apprised of his/her thinking about college, frequent college talks stress some teens, making them really closed lipped. Try to refrain from frequent inquiring and micro-managing. Make mealtimes “college free”.
8. Take college rankings with a grain of salt. The best college for your teen may not be the most competitive to get into or the highest on some college list.
9. Don’t confuse selectivity with quality. Selectivity is a function of popularity, nothing more. Price to some extent is also a function of popularity. Quality is something else entirely. To make matters more confusing, quality is not objective. What makes one college great for a particular student may be irrelevant to another. Your teen is an individual and should evaluate colleges based on his/her own carefully thought out priorities.
10. Let your teen be a teen. If you’re anxious, have heard horror stories from other parents, or
are worried about financing, your teen’s procrastination or the impending empty (or emptier) nest, handling it without your teen is usually best. If you need counsel, seek out a professional.
Books on parenting teens through the transition from high school to college
Bruni, Frank, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2016.
Kastner, Laura, Ph.D. & Wyatt, Jennifer, Ph.D., The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2002.
Lythcott-Haims, Julie, How To Raise An Adult, Henry Holt, New York, 2016.
Springer, Sally & Reider, Jon, Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College 3rd Edition, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2017.
May 1 is Coming
Seniors — You’ve got two weeks before you need to deposit at the college of your choice in order to secure your place in the Class of 2022. May 1 is right around the corner. No doubt you’re rethinking your priorities and revisiting college campuses to determine the best “fit”. That’s great, but in your enthusiasm, don’t forget about “financial fit”.
Unless college affordability is of no concern, you need to carefully scrutinize the financial aid award letter each college sent you to evaluate what is really being offered.
Not All Award Letters Are Created Equal
There is no standard form for college financial aid award letters. Different colleges include different figures making comparison difficult. All award letters include the cost of attending, but some will include only direct costs such as tuition and fees as well as room and board, while others will include indirect costs such as transportation, books and personal expenses. Be sure to compare total Cost of Attendance (both direct and indirect costs) figures.
Understand the Difference Between “Free Money” with “Self-Help” Aid
Scholarships and grants are “free money”. This is money that is given to you. In scrutinizing offers of free money, you need to know if the gifts are renewable for each year in college and, if so, under what circumstances. What happens if your financial circumstances change? What gpa must you maintain to keep your scholarship? Are you required to take a certain number of units each term? Is the grant or scholarship dependent on your major? What happens if, through no fault of your own, you are unable to graduate in four years? As they say, “The devil is in the details”. Unfortunately, few award letters provide these details, so you’d be wise to inquire before making decisions.
Furthermore, award letters typically include “self help” (loans and work study) figures. While these sources of aid are undoubtedly helpful, keep in mind that they are not gift aid. Loans must be paid back. Some award letters include only direct student loan amounts (both subsidized and unsubsidized), while others add PLUS loan amounts. While both of these are loan programs, they carry very different terms concerning eligibility, interest rates, lending amounts and other significant details.
Work study figures are simply maximum allowances, not gifts. The amount of money allotted must be earned. If you don’t secure a work study job or don’t work the maximum hours offered, you won’t have that amount of money to use.
What to Look For
The best way to compare financial aid offers is by creating your own spreadsheet.
Begin with the total Cost of Attendance including both direct and indirect costs. You’ll probably need to estimate at least part of this including transportation and personal expenses. Then deduct the total of your grant and scholarship awards. This result is the actual cost for your first year. Now deduct any work study you’ve been awarded. This figure is the amount you’ll have to either pay or finance.
Compare this figure across all the schools you’re considering. This is arguably the most crucial figure to wrap your head around. Although your award will include loans, remember, eventually these must be repaid.
Now it’s time to consider how much of your award is in the form of loans, and what type of loans are offered. Because student loans and parent loans are two very different things, and it is critical to understand view them as separate line items.
Direct student loans may be subsidized or unsubsidized. The only difference is that for subsidized loans, the federal government pays the interest while you’re attending college. Unsubsidized student loans accrue interest as soon as funds are disbursed, though you aren’t required to begin paying that interest until six months after you graduate.
PLUS Parent loans carry very different terms from student loans. Parents are the borrowers and must qualify for the loans. Interest rates for PLUS loans are higher than for student loans, and repayment and forgiveness terms are very different.
The Bottom Line
Once you deduct the loan amounts you’ve been offered, you’re left with the amount of money you’ll actually have to come up for the first year. How does this compare with the “Expected Family Contribution” figure from your “Student Aid Report”? If the total amount of aid offered is less than your Expected Family Contribution, you’ve been “gapped”. If you’ve been “gapped” you’ll need to come up with this as well as your Expected Family Contribution.
Consider how much you can actually afford out-of-pocket and how much you’re comfortable financing. We’ve all heard horror stories about students graduating with $100,000 in debt, seriously compromising their plans for the future. This happens when families become so enamored with an institution that they believe it is worth attending at all costs.
What is Reasonable Debt?
For most families, at least some debt at college graduation is a fact of life. But, how much student debt is reasonable? How much “skin in the game” should students have? What level of borrowing is manageable without stifling plans for graduate school or buying a house?
Although there is no one right answer for all situations, there are a couple of rules of thumb. One school of thought is that borrowing should not exceed the limit imposed by the Department of Education’s student loan program which is currently $31,000.
Other schools of thought consider post graduation earnings, meaning that engineering students might afford to borrow more that someone preparing for a career in early childhood education. Mark Kantrowitz, a college financing expert and frequent contributor to Money magazine’s online column, says that your total college debt should not exceed your total annual income after graduation. Other experts suggest that monthly student loan payments shouldn’t exceed 10 percent of your pretax, post-graduation income.
The time for figuring out how much debt is reasonable for you is now, not when your loans go into repayment.
Deciding between schools with varying costs can be confusing. Although it is possible to objectively compare college costs, balancing costs with value is a subjective endeavor. Determining whether attending College A is “worth” more than attending College B is very personal.
Although where you attend college can have a huge influence on your future, what you do during college will have even more impact. During this time of final decision-making, take time to compare costs and consider value.
Whatever school you decide to attend should meet your education and personal needs without either crippling your future or jeopardizing your parents’ home or retirement. Taking on a reasonable amount of debt is a wise investment in your future. Taking on too much debt is likely to cause regret.
Picture a college where the atmosphere is collaborative rather than hierarchical, where students develop close relationships with faculty, and where all students are awarded $2,500 for a study abroad experience? Pretty sweet, wouldn’t you say? Well, that’s Whittier College.
What They’re Saying
The Fiske Guide’s profile says, “Whittier College is fast becoming a global training ground”. Niche/College Prowler rates Whittier favorably across the board. Current student reviews on Unigo emphasize the small, friendly, cooperative community and the demanding yet supportive faculty.
Location, Location, Location
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the small liberal arts college which is located less than 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles. This location affords students opportunities to access the vast resources of one of the world’s major cities, while at the same time enjoying the feel of a small town suburb. Uptown Whittier, is a vital, student-friendly community, with restaurants, shops and coffee houses within easy walking distance of campus.
In true liberal arts fashion, the curriculum stresses the value of different types of understanding and is structured around four core categories including community, communication, cultural perspectives, and connections. Students must take at least six credits from each division (Natural Science, Social Science and Humanities/Fine Arts). Students may opt to participate in the Whittier Scholars Program which allows them to design their own academic experience with the guidance of a faculty advisor.
All classes are taught by faculty members who hold terminal degrees in their fields. Class sizes are small with more than 75% of classes having fewer than 30 students. Faculty members know their students well. They engage students in research and support them when they apply to graduate and professional schools.
Whittier enrolls approximately 1600 undergraduates. The student body is diverse: 44% are students of color and 25% are first-generation college students. Geographical diversity is a campus priority and the college has recently added a Pacific Northwest Regional Representative to its admission staff.
Whittier is a tight-knit community. Two-thirds of students live on campus and the majority of them stay on campus during the weekend. Students are friendly, energetic, and open-minded. There are dozens of clubs and activities as well as a broadcasting radio station and video production studio. A small but noteworthy group of students join local societies, Whittier’s version of fraternities and sororities.
Admission & Financial Aid
Whittier admits students with a wide range of academic credentials. Students with “B” averages, as well as those with higher gpas can find themselves challenged and supported. All accepted students are automatically considered for merit scholarships. Whittier is test optional for students who have a minimum weighted gpa of 3.0. Test optional applicants are considered for merit scholarship but not the highest awards. Talent awards for music, theater and art range from $1,000 to $12,000 per year. The college’s retention and graduation rates are well above national averages.
Whittier, in my opinion, is an under-appreciated gem. It provides a nurturing academic environment for a wide range of students. Academic high flyers who want to steer clear of cut throat competition will appreciate the rigorous but supportive academic culture. Students who are looking to “up their game” will find faculty who are push students to produce their best possible work and are dedicated to helping them further develop their academic skills and sense of efficacy.