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The College Admissions Crunch

What a Parent Can Do

Mention college applications to the parent of a high school student and you are likely to be engulfed by a tidal wave of anxiety. For most parents the process looms as a task of Herculean difficulty, where they will be dogged by the demons of Competition, Rejection, and Unaffordability. What’s a parent to do?
Besides stashing away as much money as you possibly can to pay for college, you as a parent can take several steps to improve your children’s readiness for college well before the application process actually begins. Almost certainly, the most important thing you can do is encourage the life of the mind—and not just by paying lip service to the value of good grades. Students are more likely to be engaged in their classes when their parents are intellectually lively themselves, and when they show an active interest in their children’s work. If your son is reading The Great Gatsby for his English class, read it with him and discuss it. If your daughter is studying Vietnam in U.S. history, ponder some of the issues with her—and then let that discussion guide some dinner-table debate about U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Too many high school students spend the bulk of their time on athletics, cheered on by their parents, who dream of athletic scholarships.  In truth, very few high school athletes earn athletic scholarships. According to an article by Jenny Dial in the February 1, 2010 Houston Chronicle, in 2009, a typical year, the sport where the highest percentage of high school participants  earned at least a partial athletic scholarship was girls’ golf, and that figure was only 1.6%. The corresponding figure for high school football players was 1.4%.  As Kevin Lennon, a vice-president of the NCAA has said, “We stress to parents and students everywhere that you should participate in athletics for the values and benefits that sports can give, not because you want a scholarship (quoted by Dial).”  For almost all college applicants, expanding the mind will be better preparation for college and more likely to yield financial help
In addition, as a high school parent you can take your adolescents to see a few college campuses, not necessarily to encourage application to those places, but rather to establish what different campuses look like, and to make available the atmosphere of college life. A surprising number of high school juniors have never been on a college campus. Yet another way to help is to arrange some stimulating summer experiences for your high schoolers that will foster the development of the mind and that may provide fodder for application essays. Many colleges offer summer classes for high school students, and both work and travel experiences can stretch the mind as well. Further, if your child does not to test well and your finances permit it, funding a prep course for the SAT, the ACT or both might be a worthwhile investment.
Once senior year arrives, the first thing you should do is have an honest discussion with your son or daughter about how you expect to pay for college. According to the College Board, in 2010, the average cost of a year at a 4-year public college was $16,141; at an out-of-state public school, it was $28,130, and at a private 4-year institution it was $36,993. It’s very hard for many families to afford this, and it helps if you are frank from the get-go about how much you will be able to contribute. If you are hoping for any sort of financial aid, you must first fill out a detailed form known as the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. All schools require this, and you may complete the form online (www.fafsa.gov).
Sometime after you have submitted the FAFSA, the government will send you what your EFC, or Expected Family Contribution, for each year of college is, and they will also send this information to up to ten schools that you list. The EFC consists of two components: parent contribution and student contribution. If your family situation changes, you may file a new FAFSA form each year.  Be aware that quite a few schools have their own financial forms to fill out in addition to the FAFSA.
Financial aid is generally one of three types.  Your son or daughter might receive a scholarship or grant, either for need or merit, and this money is gift aid and need not be repaid. Sometimes, too, particular categories of students, e.g., students with Native-American heritage, qualify for grants. Because a surprising number of such “quirky scholarships” exist, it might pay you to do some research on them. A second type of aid is Federal Work Study, money a student earns from a campus job. (Note: Not all campus jobs are part of this program.) Finally, there are loans, either public or private, which you must repay with interest. They may be in either your name or your child’s name, whichever seems to make most financial sense to you.
Beyond sorting out the finances of college, you can assist with the application process in several other ways. If your adolescent has a definite interest to pursue, such as marine biology, help figure out which schools offer the best programs. Sometimes a school you would not otherwise consider is the ideal campus for a particular area of study. Once your senior has compiled a list of possible schools, discuss them. Talk about the pros and cons of each place, and help your child figure out his or her priorities. Key point: remember at all times that you are not the one applying to college; what is important or appealing to you may not be to your son or daughter.
For those schools that require them, college essays can make a great deal of difference. Help your child remember past experiences, activities, and accomplishments that might be useful material. Later on, you might serve as an essay editor. If an interview is involved, sit with your senior to anticipate possible questions and alternative ways to answer them.  Then role-play an interview—and do it several times, with varying questions, if necessary. Stress the importance of shaking hands, speaking up, and making eye contact.
For further information, you might want to explore a couple of websites, www.collegeparents.org and www.supercollege.com, both created by professional counselors to assist parents. For $89/year membership, collegeparents.org offers benefits, such as dropout insurance on college tuition, as well as advice. Gen and Kelly Tanabe, authors of thirteen books on college planning, started supercollege.com. One of their services is listing numerous scholarships.
Finally—and above all—maintain a positive attitude throughout the application process. Seniors experience enormous angst. This is not the time to moan, “Oh, if only you had worked harder in high school, you’d have better options.” The United States houses close to 5,000 colleges and universities, and most have a great deal to offer. Schools in other countries are possibilities as well. Bear in mind that your child does not have to attend one of fifty or a hundred schools to have a good life.

Published: August 19, 2012
Issue: Fall 2012 Issue