The Hard Truth About What Matters Most to College Applicants

Recently, the Obama administration issued a new College Scorecard, with guidelines for what students should consider before deciding on a school, as well as new information and tools regarding financial aid.

In addition, the U.S Department of Education announced changes to the FAFSA requirements that ought to simplify the filing process for families beginning in the 2016-2017 academic year.

Both pieces of news provided an apt backdrop to this month’s New America NYC event, From Application to Enrollment: How Can We Help Students Make Better Decisions About Going to College? The evening’s discussion among higher-education experts revealed that today’s prospective college students are dealing with two main concerns — misinformation and, most importantly, money.

What the Researchers Shared

The event opened with Noodle Expert Rachel Fishman, Senior Policy Analyst with New America’s Education Policy Program, and Carolin Hagelskamp, Vice President and Director of Research at Public Agenda, who presented research the two organizations conducted about people intending to go to college — many of whom are older, non-traditional students. Across age spans, Fishman and Hagelskamp asserted, Americans are degree-driven and looking to enroll in higher education primarily to improve career and income prospects, as well as to build skills. Of those surveyed, only a small minority want to take classes to learn about the world, and an even fewer are concerned with social engagement. While students stress over finding the right program and how to combine education with their family and work lives, the main worry they face is financial. Significantly, most are misinformed about tuition and financial aid options, and don’t even know about the availability of substantial federal grant and loan programs.

What the Experts Revealed

The researchers’ presentation was followed by a lively discussion among experts in college admissions, high school guidance, and student-success programs, moderated by Money Magazine’s Kim Clark. She began by declaring that bad college decisions lead to significant debt and a lifetime of problems. “What are the biggest mistakes people make in how they select colleges?” she posed to the panelists.

Student Mistakes

Paul Marthers, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management and Student Success at SUNY, claimed that many students only consider the short-run, narrowly focusing on their immediate interests rather than imagining the long-term effects of their educations. Laura Bruno, Assistant Dean of Enrollment Management at CUNY’s Queensborough Community College, added that people often apply to the schools that their friends attend. She also cautioned that colleges measure “demonstrated interest,” and suggested that applicants make themselves known to their top-choice schools by attending (and signing in!) information sessions, emailing admissions officers to convey interest, and requesting an interview if schools offers them. R. Ummi Modeste, a college advisor at City As School High School in NYC, warned that students should not look at the cost before applying — “You don’t know yet what the cost will be for you.”

Parents can also complicate the experience of applying to college, said Modeste, if they expect their children to apply to schools that are genuinely out of their academic reach. She urges teenagers and parents to visit campuses. Often, a child will know right away which ones are poor matches and will tell her parent that she doesn’t want to apply just to be rejected.

Bruno also recommended that students think outside the box as they compile their lists of schools they’re interested in. She noted that NYC, like many other cities, is saturated with good high schools, and since colleges often limit regional acceptances, applying only to local and popular institutions may not serve an applicant as well as casting a wider net.

Economic Barriers

Both traditional and non-traditional students alike face financial barriers when it comes to college entry. According to Modeste, the middle class gets hit the worst because many of these families aren’t eligible for the types of government or institutional aid that go to low-income learners, nor can they as easily write a check to cover tuition and other expenses as high earners can. Bruno observed that admission is also affected by access to solid preparation at the secondary level and that “the high school landscape is an uneven playing field.” According to her, 70 percent of low-income students at elite colleges come from 15 U.S. cities — the ones that have stellar public schools.

Carmel Paleski, Director of Academic Affairs for the Manhattan Educational Opportunity Center at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), added that first-generation college students are impeded by costs in two ways. They’re exposed to constant discussions of rising tuition which dissuades them from applying, even to schools with generous aid programs or lower overall fees. And for those who do make it to a college away from home, they have to deal with the hidden expenses of dorm life, such as shower shoes, extra-long sheets, or the necessity of leaving campus during Thanksgiving break. Moreover, many of these students feel they are outsiders, which, while it is harder to address in policy, remains a real factor for student success.

Possible Solutions

At one point in the discussion following the conversation about barriers, Clark sighed. “Wow, that’s depressing.”

Fortunately, the speakers also offered solutions for some of the challenges students face. For example, SUNY offers courses in financial literacy. Paleski, herself a first-generation college graduate, encouraged others not to be shy when financial difficulties arise, and to reach out to staff in their financial aid office: “First generation students don’t want to ask, they don’t want to stand out or be different. But there are often emergency funds available to them.”

Tailoring solutions to the cold reality of a student’s situation was an overarching takeaway from the evening’s discussion. The experts agreed that students shouldn’t be pushed to attend college if they aren’t ready, and shouldn’t be made to feel like failures if they need to defer to spend a year working, boot camp, or remediation programs. Otherwise, all of these experts agreed, you’re setting a student up for failure from the start — and saddling her with debt.

What the Experts Concluded

Don’t default.

Just as it began, the evening ended with money talk, though with a shift from addressing how to get to college to what happens after you finish. “How does a graduate deal with debt?” was one audience member’s question. “Whatever you do,” cautioned Paleski, “do not default.” Use Federal Student Aid to learn about loan consolidation, loan forgiveness, and income-based repayment plans. Call your school’s financial aid office to discuss options.

“Bad credit can ruin a life. And make it so that you never go back to school again.”

Noodle is here to help: Check out the site's free advice on paying for college, written by education experts like Judy Batalion.