In light of last spring’s college admissions scandal, where parents allegedly paid “fixers” to open “side doors” onto prestigious campuses for their kids, a lot of questions have emerged about what matters most when it comes to choosing a school. Is a top-shelf school really worth cheating for? There are, in fact, a kaleidoscope of perspectives on what to consider. And in conversations with a handful of high school counselors, college professors, recent graduates and parents, several key themes emerge.
Shavone Adams is director of college counseling at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey. Adams lists four obvious factors to consider: “the cost, the student’s major, the location and post-secondary employment rate.”
Beyond this, though, Adams says she’s amazed by something families often overlook or do not know.
“Lesser-known and second-tier schools usually offer the benefit of more financial aid and merit scholarships, smaller student-to-teacher ratio and more access to academic resources, student assistance and miscellaneous programs,” she says.
Adams likes to remind students that despite the fact that elite schools are like name brands, there are literally thousands of colleges across the U.S. and a lot of great opportunities at lesser-known schools for students willing to consider them as options.
Angela Butkus, a recent Cal State L.A. graduate in her mid-20s, says that these schools also offer a full range of academics and other programs. “Lesser-known universities still give a deep and rich education to their students,” Butkus says.
Starting with the Student
The pool of experts I spoke with had a common piece of advice for young people ready to explore college options: Student, know thyself. Granted, many students enter their undergraduate period without having chosen a major or career path, but the more students understand their own ambitions and desires, the better-informed decisions they can make.
“A would-be college student should first be in tune with their personal interests, needs and goals,” says Allan Aquino, who has been a professor of Asian American Studies at Cal State Northridge for almost two decades. “After all, college should ideally be about enriching and building one’s life, and a learning environment is only as good as its community members. Ultimately, the name of one’s school is incidental when it comes to however one defines success.”
Advisors also agree that parents need to help their students comprehend the big picture while allowing them space to grow and develop. Dana Worden, a high school counselor in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, says parents can best assist by really understanding their children’s needs. “Knowing your student, knowing their strengths and weaknesses and knowing where they will flourish are the most essential considerations,” says Worden. “Ask your student what feels right and trust them if something doesn’t fit. A scholar who is not engaged in the academic program will not feel connected enough to continue.”
Kate Maruyama is a former professor of creative writing at Antioch University and the parent of a 19-year-old son who is beginning his first year at Sonoma State. She offers insight for those who do not know exactly what they want yet. “While your average 18-year-old may not know what they want to do for the rest of their life,” Maruyama says, “they can focus on their short-time goals. And if the goal is to get a B.A. and see where they are after four years, the options for colleges are broad and wide. I tell them to cast a wide net. You’d be surprised. There are great scholarships at some schools you wouldn’t imagine! See where they get in, see what scholarships might come their way and then decide as a family. If the school is far away, travel needs to be budgeted in as well.”
Campus Culture and Community
Prospective students should also keep in mind that there’s much more to college than attending classes and earning a degree. “College life is about exploration and fulfillment, not just competing for career goals,” says Aquino. “One’s college years are overflowing with choices and options, and though this dynamic can be overwhelming, it can be, with the right attitude, a great blessing. Even if one is not ready to declare a major, I’d certainly suggest looking into colleges with an overall environment of mentorship and community support.”
At Cal State L.A., Butkus says she found the kind of mentorship and support Aquino is talking about. The close-knit community of professors and students helped foster her writing skills and equipped her with the tools she needed to find her current career as editor at Sapere magazine, a publication focused on the arts. “When I first applied for Cal State L.A.,” she says, “I never thought that I’d be given the opportunity to interview a Black Panther, or be introduced to the art of magazine editing. Both instances paved a way for me to realize exactly what I wanted to do with my life beyond being submerged in literature. Those instances made me elevate my thinking of how I wanted to design my life.” Butkus continues to work as an editor and freelance writer, in addition to working in the fashion industry.
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Butkus says that if the culture and spirit of a school are kindred to the particular student, success is much more likely. “If a child chooses to attend an elite school because of notoriety or the idea that institution’s name will further their career but doesn’t necessarily fit in with the overall feel or culture of the school,” she says, “then that student risks becoming disassociated with their peers and putting less effort into their studies.”
They could also be wasting a whole lot of cash. “There is a belief that an elite school is your ticket to success,” says Maruyama, “and this is not often the case. Just the name Yale or Harvard on a resume doesn’t necessarily guarantee career success, and at $300K that is a serious concern. It is useful in getting into medical school or law school if that is the aim, but I would argue that the clubbish ‘in’ feeling folks go for by seeking that pedigree really only benefits kids who are already in that socioeconomic set. It’s a B.A. I tell my advisees and my kids to save their pedigree for grad school; that is where it shows and helps.”
Demographics and Debt
Rocio Carlos is now a writing professor at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but she worked for several years as an English teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. She advises prospective college students to also consider the geography and demographics of their various choices, because some schools in other parts of the country could expose students of color who grew up in the L.A. area to extreme culture shock. “They may not be emotionally equipped to constantly explain themselves and to see them-selves erased from syllabi when everything about public school in Los Angeles seeks to create diversity and visibility,” Carlos says.
Adams also discusses diversity with her students, giving them the room to apply wherever they want, but letting them know that certain schools have the potential to give students “academic, social and socioeconomic culture shock.” Ultimately, college is about being exposed to new ideas and new places, but students should have some idea of what they are getting into.
Carlos adds another checklist item that many parents may not want to hear but that shouldn’t be ignored: the culture of partying and prevalence of alcohol and misconduct that some colleges have become known for. She wonders whether parents consider sexual assault on campus and a school’s policy on reporting and student safety in helping determine where their child might choose to go. “We work so hard to get students into school that we may not prepare them for what is part of a campus culture,” she says. “If I was sending my kid to the school, I would want to know what their assault stats are and what their policy is.”
Simple economics must also play a role in the search. “You must consider the costs you will incur,” says Worden. “You do not want to be paying off college loans 20 years after you complete your program, or not be able to make the payments. For some, starting off at a community college is clearly the more affordable option.” Community college can have the added benefit of giving students two more years to mature before transferring to their school of choice.
Ultimately, the school your child chooses must be a fit for the entire family. “I advise my students to sit down with their families and look at everything: What it is they want to study, tuition, possibilities for scholarship, how it stacks up against their state schools, and what it is they want most out of their education,” says Maruyama. “If a school choice is going to plunge the kid or the family into debt for the next decade, I advise against it unless there is a specific money-making goal in mind, such as admission to a med school or law school, a long-term plan that will incorporate paying that debt back.”
Every family and every student is different, but if you build a list of potential schools based on tuition, financial aid and scholarship opportunities, your student’s potential major, the school’s academic strengths and geographic location, you have a good start at making a sensible decision.
Mike Sonksen has been a professor at the community-college and four-year-college level and currently teaches at Woodbury University. Also known as Mike the Poet, his latest book, “Letters to My City,” was published by Writ Large Press.