Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sticker Shock, circa 2022 (or, Forget College: Dad and I are Taking You to Greece)

Mark Kantrowitz, founder of both the and web sites, has devoted his career to helping families understand college financial aid and assisting them in seeking out scholarships to help offset the rising costs of college—costs that are significant.

Need examples? The 2009-2010 cost of attendance (that’s tuition, fees, room, board, books, transportation, etc.) for UCLA, a public school, is $27,000 per year for a student living in the dorms. At Harvard, a private school, the cost of attendance is about $53,000 per year. Multiply those numbers by four years, and you’ll understand why so many of today’s parents feel faint when they look at the price tag of college.

But if today’s parents feel queasy, what about those of us whose children are still in elementary school? After interviewing Mark on my radio show in October and November, I decided our family really needed to follow his advice and get back into a regular routine of monthly saving for our two boys’ college. But first I’d need to figure out exactly how much college might cost by the time they graduate from high school, so we could calculate backward to figure out how much we’d need to save each month.

So off I went to’s “College Cost Projector” calculator. The results were shocking and have ultimately changed my view of where education will be by the 2020s.

The cost of four years at UCLA, starting in 11 years at a 7% per year increase from today’s cost? $252,326 for son #1, and $288,888 for son #2, who would start college two years after his brother (in 2023). Harvard? $495,307 for four years for son #1, and $567,000 for son #2. Our projected total for four years of college for two children? Between about $541,000 (if both go to public college) and $1,062,000 (if both go private). Um, what?

Does it make me a hypocrite to believe that education is priceless, but refuse to accept that my husband and I will need to fork over $500,000 to $1 million to send our two children to a four-year college when they graduate high school in the 2020s? Because truth be told, if I had $1 million to spend at that point, I’d hire a wise yet underpaid adjunct professor from some good college and buy five plane tickets (one for the professor and one each for me, my husband, and our boys) and travel the world for as long as the money held up to study ancient Greece in Greece, the Renaissance in Florence, Chaucer in England, biology in the Galapagos Islands, etc.

A more realistic vision of the future? Online education. The technology is getting better, the price is right, and online degrees are starting to gain more of a sense of legitimacy and respectability. Don’t get me wrong; I would love to have my sons participate in the quintessential college experience of walking along a grassy quad, discussing politics or Thoreau or the previous weekend’s Big Game, and getting a taste of pseudo-independence as they are responsible for their own time but not their bills or their own cooking. There are so many great colleges out there, and they offer a fabulous experience for their students. Until this past month, I assumed that our boys would someday head off to campus. But am I willing to spend more than $500,000 for them to experience that green quad? Frankly…no.

We’ll still save for college, but will hope that between now and 2021 that 7% per year increase will slow way down, or that somehow our salaries will keep up with or even surpass the rising cost of college (not likely, I know). But I suspect our family will not be alone in re-thinking what is important to achieve in four years of college and exploring and weighing all of the options for getting there.

If you are a parent, at what point would you say, “no” to the expense of a traditional college experience?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Traditions and Transitions

Last night during a trip to Boston's Logan Airport to pick up relatives arriving from afar for the Thanksgiving holiday, we couldn't help but notice a busload of college students disembarking at the airport and preparing for their flights to homes far away. Travel over the Thanksgiving holiday is an annual, national ritual, but for families whose young-adult children are returning home for the first time since starting college, the transition home can be more difficult than they might expect.

Why? According to Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D., author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children, the experience of going away to college and being responsible for one's own behavior, schedule, eating habits, etc., means that the student will be, in ways both small and large, a different person on arriving home for Thanksgiving than they were when they left home a few months earlier. Parents, too, will have made adjustments to their new daily lives without their child in the home, and perhaps even to their homes themselves (by reconfiguring the student's room into an office, for example). That first homecoming can highlight these changes, and it can be a surprise to both the family and the student.

I interviewed Dr. Nemzoff about this phenomenon a year ago on my radio show (See "Managing Expectations for Holiday Homecomings"). Her observations are well worth listening to as the parent and student re-define their relationship and their boundaries.

Nemzoff makes the insightful observation that we parents will spend about 18 years raising children, and two, three, or even four times that amount of time as the adult parents of adult children. Which, of course, makes it well worth investing the time to make a smooth transition from treating our children as, well, children, to treating them as the adults that they are becoming and ushering in a positive, mutually supportive relationship for the years to come.

Have a very happy Thanksgiving.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Importance of Extracurriculars

I get to see a lot of college applications at this time of year, and I never cease to be surprised by how many students have so little to report on their applications regarding extracurricular activities. To my mind, extracurricular activities are key to keeping students motivated, helping them try out potential career interests, and having them see the real-world applicability of the topics they are required to study during class time. And lo and behold, being motivated, testing out careers, and understanding why they are studying what they are required to study will all help students in the college application process. It's a win-win situation, yet a few students each year seem to be unaware of all the opportunities available to them.
I'm not just talking about being on the student council or joining the French club. I'm talking about going one, two, or three steps beyond the ordinary, to the realm that requires creativity and originality of thought to pursue your passions. For example, students who are interested in French might join the French club, but they might also look into spending a summer at the Canoe Island French Camp in Washington State (yes, they offer financial aid), spend a summer or even a year abroad as an exchange student, encourage their parents to host a French exchange student, or subscribe to audio magazines such as Champs-Elysées to improve their comprehension and fluency. All those activities will not only help the student be a better French student, but a French student with a broader worldview. And, as a secondary consideration, a stronger college application.

Let's try another, more general topic. Leadership is a key trait many colleges look for, and one that is specifically called out on the Common Application. When students list an extracurricular activity on that application, they have room to note whether they were the team captain, the vice-president of a club, etc. The implication is that they wouldn't get to be a leader without both a long-term commitment to the team, club, or organization, and the vote of their peers (although I am reminded of a tongue-in-cheek club at Stanford, whose description was simply, "We are a resume-building club; everyone is a Vice-President.") Students can find leadership roles in nearly any organization. To take it further, participation in activities such as the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards or the even longer-term ventures such as an Eagle Scout rank (for Boy Scouts) or Gold Award (for Girl Scouts) earns the student a double whammy of leadership and community service credit on their college apps (not to mention scholarship opportunities).
I don't mean to imply that these things should be done solely for the purpose of padding a college application. The primary goal is to help a student make discoveries about what their interests are and what opportunities are out there. The secondary consequence just happens to be a stronger college application, but that is because the individual will be stronger--more resilient, more confident, and more mature--for having these types of experiences.

My favorite source for finding amazing extracurricular and summer activities is You can search their free online database by topic, by region, by summer vs. school-year. Here is where students can learn about all sorts of opportunities to indulge very specific interests. Sports broadcasting camp, anyone? Pyrotechnics camp? Dinosaur Academy? Many programs offer financial aid, and for those that don't, creative students can sometimes apply to a local organizations for assistance in coming up with funding for special opportunities. But you'll never know until you go looking.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rolling Admissions

I've come across many students in the last few years who are so worried about being accepted into college that they report, "I'll go anywhere they'll take me." This is not coming from students who are barely able to skate through graduation with minimal grades; these are well-rounded A and B students who see the admissions statistics for the most selective schools and presume that their chances of getting into a "good" college are slim. That presumption, in turn, creates more and more stress on the application process.

Several counselors I know recommend to their students that, all else being equal in terms of fit for a student, they include at least one "rolling admissions" school in their list. Rolling admissions schools don't wait until a single-date deadline has passed and then evaluate the whole batch of applications against one another. Rolling admissions means, basically, that as applications roll in to the admissions office, they are evaluated and given a thumbs up or thumbs down quickly, usually within two to six weeks of arrival at the admissions office.

This means two things for applicants. First, you don't have to wait until spring to hear whether or not you've been accepted, and if there is an offer of admission, you have at least one college in your pocket, and can therefore stop stressing quite so much about your other applications. Second, it means that if you are a qualified applicant and apply early in the cycle (August, September, October), you have a greater chance of admission than the superstar student who drags his feet. Why? Because once a rolling admission school reaches its capacity for acceptances, they're done. A great student who comes along late may just miss the boat.

The more popular the college (think University of Michigan), the more quickly the class fills up. On the flip side, less well-known colleges that use rolling admissions will keep their admissions open until they've reached capacity, and that could be much later than some of the application deadlines for regular decision colleges (usually January 1 through January 15). If a student self-describes as the next Einstein, and applies (unwisely) only to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, that student may end up with three "We're sorry to inform you..." letters in April and then be saved by a rolling admissions college that is still accepting applications in late April or May.

The bottom line is this. If you have any rolling admissions colleges on your list, get to those applications right away. If you are feeling panicked that you aren't going to get in anywhere, perhaps it's time to find a rolling admissions school for which you are well qualified and would enjoy attending, and get that application in so you can buy yourself some peace of mind.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The College Application Essay

It is one of the ironies of college admissions that students who claim to be ready for the academic rigors of college--which includes the ability to manage one's time and pace oneself through long research projects--nearly universally procrastinate on writing their college application essays. But like all big projects that seem daunting at first, the college essay is best tackled in several small steps over a long period of time.

The first step, and the one that causes the most consternation in students, is to figure out what topic to write about. The Common Application, widely used by private colleges throughout the U.S., offers students six topic choices for the long essay, including "#6) Topic of your choice," which is both helpful and not at all helpful at the same time.

The trick is to take the time to reflect on yourself. Many students find this rather uncomfortable, to sit quietly and think back on their own lives and try to tease out where and how, exactly, they came to be the people that they are. But that is exactly what the colleges want to know--who you are outside of the grades and test scores, how you think and what you value.

So try this. Create a timeline of your life, and try to pinpoint any small moment--a conversation, an experience--that, looking back on it, may not have seemed so significant at the time but on reflection somehow changed or more clearly defined who you are and where you are going in life. Remember, it's never too late to have an epiphany, and epiphanies can often be good fodder for application essay topics.

Once you have a few small moments written down, try jam writing about the topic--write as if no one were looking or editing or caring about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Just tell the story of that small moment. If you find one where the memories and thoughts flow rather quickly, you may be on to something in terms of a topic.

The second step is to use the good bits from the jam writing session to launch the actual writing of the essay. Your choice of approach, language, organization, and suspense (or lack thereof) are all fair game for the admissions officer's critical (or complimentary) eye.

A small story always works best when writing an application essay. It makes the topic more interesting for the reader, certainly more interesting than composing an essay that is just a listing of your high school accomplishments. You should plan to write at least two drafts of each essay before you get to a final version. Allow yourself the gift of time to write a decent draft then set it aside for a week. You'll be amazed when you come back to it how quickly you'll see what needs to be strengthened and what needs to be pruned. Work through your second draft, and get input from others you respect, but be mindful that even good advice is no good in this case if it changes the tone of your essay into something that is not "you." Let it sit on a shelf for another week or two, and you'll be ready to read it one last time with fresh eyes and create a final version. Then, and only then, should you do a final proofread for spelling, punctuation, and grammar, each of which must be absolutely, flawlessly perfect in the final essay you submit to the colleges.

As inspiration, I'd like to point you to an article from a recent issue of Stanford Magazine, in which they published the opening sentences of several application essays that helped earn the writers an offer of admission at that uber-selective school:

Good luck!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Welcome to HippoCampus Goes to College

Greetings! This new blog is intended for students interested in the college preparation and college admissions process. While other blogs under the HippoCampus umbrella deal with specific academic subject areas or life as a student, this blog focuses on what students can DO with what they've learned in classes. In particular, we look at extracurricular activities that might help inform a student's choice of majors or careers, the process of selecting colleges to which a student might apply, and the application process itself.

I bring to this blog a background in college admissions counseling (both independent and as an adjunct counselor at a private high school), as a graduate of the UCLA Extension College Counseling Certificate program, and as a graduate of Stanford University with a long history of work in the fields of writing and editing. I currently produce and host the Countdown to College Radio Show, in which I interview deans and directors of admissions, school counselors, college professors, and others involved in the nitty gritty details of helping students prepare for and succeed in college. The show's interviews are available for free downloading and listening at

But in this blog, I get a platform for sharing the ideas and views gained from my own experiences at both public and private high schools, the coursework I did at UCLA, the interviews I've conducted on the show and the students I've worked with in person. I hope you find the insights and suggestions to be immediately relevant and applicable to your circumstances, and that they help smooth your path through the process of transitioning from high school to college.

Beth Pickett