Opinion: Picking a college no easy task

This week’s writer is Andrea L. Torello, M.Ed., of Vergennes, president of College Bound in Waltham and senior associate at Strategies for College in Shelburne.
I was thrilled to see an article on preparing our local youth for the college search, selection and application process on the front page of the Addison Independent recently.
I have been a college counselor since 1991. I was also director of guidance at Rice Memorial High School for eight years.  I have helped hundreds of students find and attend the college of their dreams. It can be a joyous and exciting time. But in the 24 years that I have been doing this work, I have also seen the process become more complicated, the competition become more intense, and the cost of attending college reach unconscionable levels. These changes are clearly causing angst for the parents in that article, and most parents of teens that I know. I’d like to offer some thoughts that I hope will be helpful.
Nowhere in the world is choosing a college as difficult as it is in the U.S. In Canada and Europe, for example, the bulk of students typically choose a large public institution located in a large city near where they live and attend for free or for a very reasonable cost. In the U.S. students choose from over 4,000 public, private, or for-profit institutions in every imaginable size and setting.
Determining which of these colleges are quality institutions and a good academic and social fit can be an overwhelming task. The number of college rankings is endless, and often meaningless. Coming up with an informed and well-chosen list of colleges to research and possible apply requires a great deal of education, experience and expertise.
Applying to college has become increasingly complex and competitive. Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of first-year students from Stanford, refers to the ever-increasing competitiveness of higher ed as the “admission arms race.” While all colleges want you to think that it is uber-difficult to get in, in fact that is only true for about 40 elite private schools.
Beyond these “top” schools, there are hundreds of other wonderful small private schools that are in a dogfight for students because they have priced themselves out of the market for the number of students who can actually afford their price tag. This has, in turn, made public schools more competitive as students and family turn to public schools as their only affordable choice.
But does this mean that students need to fear that “they won’t get in anywhere”? Absolutely not. It just means that students need to choose their schools well and need excellent and thorough guidance on how to best present themselves on their applications.
Finally, the cost of a college education has become a source of great anxiety in this country. Well over 70 colleges now report their total cost of attendance to be over $60,000 per year, yet only half of those schools meet 100 percent of need for students who cannot pay that extraordinary amount of money. That means that students are being allowed, even encouraged, to borrow an unconscionable amount of money to fund their college education only to find themselves in crushing debt upon graduation. As everyone knows, this is now a national crisis. I have seen this happen a heartbreaking number of times to students and families who were not advised well. Once again, making good financial decisions about how much a family can afford to pay and/or borrow is a topic that takes very specific training and expertise.
For these reasons and many more I do not have space for in this letter, it’s understandable that the parents of Middlebury Union High School students seek more guidance for their young adults. I also understand MUHS guidance counselors are thoughtful and dedicated people who genuinely care about the young people in their charge. With a 200:1 ratio, however, they simply do not have the time this task requires. Guidance counselors have a wide range of expertise, but they are not, and cannot be, experts in college counseling. It is a field of expertise unto itself. So where, then, do we seek solutions?
This is a community rich with resources, intelligent citizens and generous thinking. While the school itself needs to do all it can to address its students’ needs, we could all put more time and effort into helping our young adults realize their full potential. I hope this letter serves as a call to action for everyone that has something to offer. If you have expertise in the areas mentioned above, let someone know. Be part of the solution.
There is a post-secondary opportunity for every student, no matter what their interests, their high school experience, or their financial situation. This is not just one person’s idealistic, overly optimistic view. I know this is true from my personal experiences working with students since 1991. Let that be our collective goal, to see every graduate leave high school with an achievable plan they are excited about.

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