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Dr. Jane S. Gabin
Dr. Jane S. Gabin After 10 years in university admissions and another decade as a college counselor in the NY metro area, Dr. Gabin works as a researcher, writer, and independent educational consultant. She graduated from Queens College and has a PhD in English from UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.
Q: Over the summer, we took our daughter to visit a number of colleges. We saw a lot of impressive things: beautiful buildings, nice dorms, modern labs, and so forth. But the cost! We have heard our friends telling us how much college is costing them, but we never actually realized it until now. The cost of going to college is more than many people even make in a year! Why is it so expensive?
A: It costs a lot to run a college. What students pay covers some, but not all of the cost. There are the faculty salaries (plus benefits like health insurance), generous administrators’ salaries (the college president, vice presidents, provosts, vice-provosts, deans, associate deans, assistant deans, and so forth), and staff salaries (the department managers, administrative assistants, librarians, admissions staff, student services directors, and so on). What about infrastructure? Buildings have to be maintained by the buildings and grounds crew, heat and electricity must be provided, buildings painted when needed to keep a fresh look. Libraries must stay current by ordering the latest books and renewing subscriptions to journals. Maybe the Classics Department doesn’t have to order many new items from year to year, but the Biology and Chemistry Departments need new equipment all the time.
You get the picture. A school’s budget is enormous.
The cost of attending college has risen much higher than the cost of living. What could account for that? Those of us who went to college some time back remember that dorms were kind of crummy (some still are), but we put up with because it was college. The cafeteria food wasn’t great (remember “mystery meat”?), but hey, it was college. These days, everything has to be state-of-the-art to entice the applicants: dorms rooms that are more like hotel suites, varied cuisines displayed alluringly at dining hall food stations and top-notch equipment in the student recreation center.
And today’s colleges advertise—a lot. There was little of that 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, if you were interested in a college, you wrote to them and they mailed you a catalog that listed all the courses offered and if you were lucky, there were two or three photographs included. Today colleges have websites, glossy recruitment brochures and videos—all produced at high cost. They also pay the College Board for names to add to its mailing and e-mailing lists. True, a number of high-profile colleges do not advertise—because they do not need to. But they are in a tiny, elite minority. Most colleges are in a competitive scrum to fill their seats.
I am just raising issues for you to consider. But this does not help you with planning for your own family’s expenditures. So here is some practical advice:
Think seriously about public colleges and universities. Their tuition, and therefore overall cost, is usually at least $10,000 less than private colleges of comparative size and value.
Your best value will be your own state university. Save the pricey schools for professional or graduate school.
Remember that the projected cost you see is the “sticker price”—what is charged before financial aid and scholarships are offered. If your daughter is a good student, more financial incentives might be forthcoming from a school that is eager to have her enroll. Make sure to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) on time to improve your chances of getting some financial aid. You can learn more about completing the FAFSA at www.understandingfafsa.org.
Lots of us worked our way through college and we did fine. See if you can find schools offering “work-study” arrangements.
These ideas may help you and your family contain the high costs of college. Today’s market pressures are making many schools adopt a business model for their operations. You too can use this strategy. You are consumers looking for high quality and solid value and schools that want your money need to be accountable for their costs.
Q: After I graduated from high school in 2006, I went to community college. But I wasn't prepared mentally or physically; I quit going to classes, gave up, and failed out. Now I am 24 and feel ready to take getting a degree seriously. I live in a town where there aren't any counselors who will give genuine advice because I am low-income. I am interested in psychology. I've always felt like I was made for helping people, and being a therapist is the career meant for me. Am I too old to get this degree, and how do I begin this long journey? Please help me—and be honest.
A: Honestly, it's not too late! Although it does not seem young to you, 24 is delightfully young and full of promise. But even if you were 34, 44, 54—I'd say the same thing: it is never too late to learn. Actually, you are in a good spot—since you have experienced the real world for a few years, you are mature enough to realize that education is a serious thing. On the whole, professors themselves find that older students are more dedicated, insightful, and full of purpose than many 18 or 19 year olds.
Can you be a strong college applicant with just three years of high school? Two students in very different circumstances want to know.
Q: I live in Honduras, a country where only a few schools offer four years of high school. I attend a school that has only 10th and 11th grades. As an 11th-grader, I am currently a "senior" and am preparing to apply to Ivy League colleges and the best universities in the US. However, I am not sure if American colleges (especially the most selective ones) will recognize my diploma with only three years of high school. I am a straight A student with solid extra-curricular activities and test scores. Is this particular situation an obstacle to my applications? Or will I have to complete 12th grade in another school before applying?
Q: I attend a very large, overcrowded urban public high school in the U.S. I have taken good classes, including some honors courses, and have a GPA of 3.8 out of 4.0 at the end of my sophomore year. But high school really isn't pleasurable for me, and I am thinking of graduating early. Because four years of English are required for a diploma, I figure I can double up on English next year (which is my junior year). This way, I will meet all the minimum course requirements and can graduate a year early and start college a year earlier. Is this a good idea? Will missing a fourth year of high school count against me?
A: Both students have the same dilemma—should they apply to colleges with just three years of high school? If they meet the college or university's entrance requirements, can they apply? Yes. But will they be at a disadvantage? In the first case, perhaps; in the second, definitely!
Q: I am a sophomore in high school. When it's time for me to apply to colleges, would it be important to list if I had a website? Is that something that could help my application? Also I enjoy writing short stories in my free time. What can I do to show the colleges my writing, if I do not have a portfolio?
A: You are asking two excellent questions. Let's start with the second: You should start to set up a writing portfolio now. Add a story each time you finish one, and also keep a list of ideas you get for stories. Please remember to back up your files—it's heartbreaking to lose creative writing!
As you explore your college options, look for those that have creative writing programs. Those colleges may require applicants to submit an online portfolio. While it is NOT a good idea to send unsolicited stories, poems or writing samples with an application, the common app does have a box at the bottom that says "use this space to tell us anything else you want us to know." There you could talk about your writing, and include a link to your portfolio. Know that unless it's a small school, and unless you are applying to a writing program, admissions officers may not read it.
Q: After we spent a lot of money on test prep and our daughter spent a lot of time studying for the SAT, the College Board messed up the June 6 SAT! So all of our effort is for nothing. What is going to happen? What do you suggest we do?
A: By now, everyone is aware of the problem with the administration of the June 6 SAT: A printing error on test booklets forced the College Board to discard two of the 10 sections. It's bad luck all around, and the College Board will do what it will do to make amends, in this case waiving the fee for students who want to retake the exam. It's not the first time something has happened, and I'm sure it will not be the last.
About nine years ago, the College Board erred in its scoring of hundreds of tests, and students received scores that were anywhere from 100 points or more lower than they actually achieved. And I remember when my daughter was applying to colleges about a dozen years ago, and she needed several SAT Subject Test scores. She took three tests, but only two scores arrived. When we inquired, we learned that the College Board had somehow "lost" her literature essay. "And it's really too bad," said the apologetic College Board service representative, "because she scored well on the short answers!" She had to re-take—at no cost, of course—the entire exam. It's almost inevitable that there will be problems from time to time, especially when dealing with huge amounts of data on a national basis.
Two inquiries came in this week from parents wanting to know how the type of high school their children attend will affect their college admissions. The scenarios are different but the answer is pretty much the same, so I'm answering them together.
1. How important is the choice of high school on college options? We have been happy that our children are doing well in middle school and even happier that they are enjoying it so much. This school will transition into a grade 6–12 next year. But we have heard that, coming out of a new school without an established reputation, they will be seen as less appealing to colleges. Many, if not most, parents around us are in a frenzy preparing for the specialized high schools exam, saying that one of these schools is the only pathway to the best college opportunity.
2. My daughter is a happy freshman at one of the specialized high schools. Her grades are in the low 90s in the humanities and in the 80s in math/science. But at her high school, 92 is like the edge of a cliff: 92 and up means you get to do electives, APs, and have a range of college options. Below 92, you do not. It really seems that binary. Ironically, it seems that her chances at a future with choices would be higher elsewhere. Should we seek to transfer out?
Q: Our daughter is being home-schooled, so we have a couple of questions about getting her ready for college. Are there AP programs available for home-schooled children or would college classes be an acceptable alternative? Is there a list of scholarships and grants that we can go through to help her financially? Last, are there specific curricula or electives that would aid her in her acceptance or transition into college?
A: Admissions officers ask the same questions about home-schooled students that they ask about students in traditional schools, that is:
1) Can this student handle the academic work at our college or university?
2) What might this student contribute to the life of our college or university?
Q: I am a junior and all I hear about is how impossible it is to get into popular colleges. A lot of my friends who are seniors did not get accepted to their first-choice colleges and are going to have to attend other schools. This has made me very nervous about what's going to happen to me next year. What do you suggest?
A: As I am sure you have heard, part of the problem is the Common Application, which is both a blessing and a curse. The Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple schools, and the blessing is that it enables students to do this while saving them the bother of writing the same information (except for the essay supplements) over and over again. The curse is, the larger volume of applications sent as a result of the Common Application makes being accepted to any school much more difficult.
Another part of the problem is that students persist in applying to the same colleges as their classmates. They have been advised to diversify the geographical scope of their applications, but they don't listen.
Colleges' reliance on part-time, "contingent" faculty who work without employment benefits and are generally paid far less than full-time, permanent teachers is not a new problem: It has been going on for over 30 years. But disenchanted part-time faculty—and full-time faculty who agree with them—have become increasingly vocal about the practice.
Not only is the hiring of large numbers of contingent or "adjunct" faculty members poor labor practice, but, according to Professor Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University, it affects "the education of most students, especially undergraduates, in a very negative way." Schrecker was interviewed for the February 25, 2015 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education during the week that had been declared a period of national action by part-time faculty. Adjuncts and their supporters wanted to call attention to their working conditions, which usually involve low pay, no benefits, inadequate office space, and little or no chance of promotion. For students, the adjunct situation involves constant teacher turnover, the inability to form meaningful or lasting relationships with teachers and working with a demoralized faculty.
Q: I've been denied by two schools already and now I'm waiting for the decisions from my other colleges. One school has asked me for my first-semester grades as well as an essay that explains why my grades have been inconsistent. Is this a good sign, or not? I have such low confidence now, and I'm worried about being admitted anywhere. Am I on the right track?
A: This will come as news to you, but ALL colleges to which students have applied—even colleges to which they have been admitted early—ask high schools to send first-semester grades. They want to be sure that all applicants are keeping up with their academics.