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USACollegeChat Podcast

Apr 2, 2015

This episode is the first in Series 4: Looking at Colleges Outside Your Comfort Zone. Our fourth series is going to deal with getting you outside your comfort zone of college choices. For many families, that comfort zone is actually a physical, geographic zone. We have talked with many families who would strongly prefer their children to stay near home to go to college—often that means in the same city, sometimes it means within weekend-commuting distance, and it almost always means in the same state. I saw a statistic recently that more than 70 percent of high school graduates go to college in their home state. Wow. We know that many families are perfectly happy to be part of that group for a variety of reasons, including money concerns, cultural background, safety concerns, and general worries about sending their less-than-perfectly-mature teenagers too far from home. However, we are going to talk about another reason that we think so many students stay in their home states for college, and that is the role of guidance counselors in high schools. Over the past 40 years, I have spent a lot of time in high schools all over the U.S. and have had a lot of chances to observe students and staff members at work. As an outside consultant, I have worked closely with many of those staff members—teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, and others—and I have talked for hours and hours with students and their parents, individually and in groups. I have watched guidance counselors deal with students in serious trouble—especially personal and interpersonal trouble. I have been amazed at what students have to cope with at home and at school and how guidance counselors are called upon to help them cope. That is a full-time job for anyone. Perhaps that is exactly why a high school guidance counselor cannot help your child enough when it comes to exploring college options—especially options not located close to home. That is not to say there are not some guidance counselors whose high schools have allowed them to specialize in college placement and who have become experts in the world of college and its overwhelming number of opportunities. If your child’s high school has such a guidance counselor, you are lucky indeed. But that is not what is typical, in my experience. 1. Questions To Ask Guidance Counselors If I were a parent of a high school student now (as I have been in the last decade, three times over) and if I were relying on a guidance counselor—or any other college advisor at the high school—to help my child navigate the world of college options, I would ask that person these three questions: 1) How many colleges have you visited? This sounds like a low hurdle, but I am convinced that many guidance counselors and other college advisors do not have a broad background of visiting and investigating in person a wide variety of colleges—in your home town, in your state, in your region of the U.S., in other regions of the U.S., and abroad. Even though your child might end up going to college in your home state for a variety of reasons, it is not good enough for someone to advise your child on what colleges to consider if that person has not “seen it all”—or, at least a lot of it. Your child’s college advisor should be able to talk about a variety of urban, suburban, and rural college campuses from firsthand impressions of those campuses and then to discuss whether a beautiful campus or a certain geographic location close to or far away from home or a particular type of setting makes any difference to your child. Based on my own college visits, I might ask someone trying to advise my child these questions: “Have you seen the handsome University of Washington campus or the color of the buildings at Stanford University or Thomas Jefferson’s realized vision for the University of Virginia? Have you been in the freezing cold of the University of Chicago or the sweltering heat of Rice University? Have you been on the University of Pennsylvania’s City-of-Brotherly-Love urban campus or Savannah College of Art and Design’s campus in the prettiest city in the South or the picture-perfect setting on the Thames River of the lower-division campus of Richmond, the American International University in London? Have you seen the grand LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas or the world-class Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University? Have you seen idyllic Kenyon College’s Middle Path in the middle of nowhere or majestic Columbia University in the middle of everything?” Why do you think that parents who can afford it take their children on the traditional college tour so that they can see the options? Because sometimes place means a lot. If someone has not seen, say, 150 such places—college campuses of all sizes, locations, and settings—I would not want that person advising my child. 2) How many colleges have you studied at or had family and close friends and former students study at? Yes, I know that most people (guidance counselors and other college advisors included) probably studied at only one or two or possibly three colleges, but were they all pretty much the same? Ideally, someone advising my child would have some experience—either firsthand or close secondhand—with the variety of higher education institutions available. Remember, as we said in earlier episodes, there are the public and private and combination public/private institutions, two-year and four-year institutions, liberal arts and technical schools, big universities and small colleges, single-sex and coeducational schools, faith-based institutions, HBCUs, military service academies, fine arts and engineering and business schools, and more. That is a lot. While no individual can know about each of these types of institutions firsthand as a student, I would want someone advising my college-bound child to know about most of these at least secondhand—that is, by the testimony of thoughtful family members and informed friends and trusted former students who had attended them. If a guidance counselor or other college advisor cannot be an expert in every individual college, he or she should at least be an expert in the types of institutions that are available to my child. 3) How many colleges have you worked at or closely with? Most guidance counselors and other college advisors based in high schools have not also worked at colleges, and that’s a shame. Yes, they were all once students in college, but that view is very different from the view you get as an employee at a college or even as a consultant to a college. You can learn a lot about the operations of a college when you are working backstage, and you can better figure out how those operations impact students. For example, if a guidance counselor had worked with college support services offices, it would be easier to judge what services might realistically be available for a student with special needs. Or, if a guidance counselor had worked with a number of college department chairs, it would be clearer how difficult it might be for a student to change his or her major if that student started down the wrong path. Or, if a guidance counselor had worked with college registrars, it would be easier to figure out how to get a student credit for college courses taken while a student was still in high school. Of course, all colleges are not the same. But a firsthand dose of working at a college can sometimes go a long way toward helping students choose a college that is a good fit. If your guidance counselor or college advisor does not have good answers to these questions, then get whatever additional help you might need so that your child makes the best college choice possible. 2. Inequity in College Counseling Recently, I read a powerful article in The Hechinger Report, entitled “Rich School, Poor School,” by Erin Einhorn, and the subtitle of her article tells it all: “How the class divide is widened by gaps in counseling kids for college.” Ms. Einhorn’s story tells the sad truth that many professional educators know, but would like to forget, and that many parents know instinctively. The sad truth is that there is no equity in college counseling services for U.S. high school students; in other words, a student’s chances of getting into a selective college are clearly improved by attending a great high school—public or private—where dedicated college counselors know how to make the college applications system work for those students. Quite often, those public schools are in relatively wealthy suburban locations. I worked recently with a couple of students who attended two first-rate high schools in the metropolitan New York City area. One was a famous competitive public high school in New York City, where only the best students are admitted, based on their high school admissions test scores, and where I am guessing virtually all graduates go on to college; the other was a well-respected, academically rigorous public high school in one of the richest towns on Long Island, where I am guessing virtually all graduates go on to college. To be honest, I was not impressed with the work of the college counselors in either one. They recommended to my two students mostly colleges in New York State, plus any colleges outside New York State that the students had already discovered for themselves. Now, the two schools had full-time college counselors, who had access to fancy software that kept track of where students had applied and who, at least, tried to keep students on a schedule that would get college applications done on time. Of course, these students were also supported by the strong college-going culture that is present in such schools—schools where students spend a lot of time talking to each other about the great colleges they are applying to and then the great colleges they got into. It’s just not fair, I thought, reflecting on Ms. Einhorn’s story about the vastly different college counseling services available in a private school and a public school not 20 miles apart in Bloomfield Hills and Detroit, Michigan. But what is fair? Our wise principal at the Early College public high school we co-founded in Brooklyn had an unusual definition of “fair.” Chris Aguirre used to say, “Fair is not when every student gets the same thing. Fair is when every student gets what he or she needs.” Man, with that definition, low-income students in poor urban neighborhoods should be getting three or four times as much college counseling support as upper-middle-class students in rich suburban high schools and private schools. Everyone knows that it is just the opposite now. The kids who need college counseling least actually get the most. Upper-middle-class kids whose parents and school culture could handily make up for a lack of counseling time and expertise benefit from the most counseling time and expertise. Marie and I like to think that NYCollegeChat can help make up for that lack of counseling time and expertise—whether your child is in a large urban high school where guidance counselors typically have their hands full or a medium-sized suburban high school where there is a lot of competition for college counseling services or a small rural high school where a guidance counselor might have to wear many hats. So what we are going to do during this fourth series is take you around the country to different regions and spotlight some colleges you might not have thought about for your child or indeed might not even have known about. We are going to look at some selective colleges for students with great grades and admissions test scores and some not-so-selective colleges for students with just average grades and admissions test scores. We are going to try to take you out of your geographic comfort zone to show you some places that might be more appealing to your child than what is right next door. We are also going to talk about why going away could be a financial plus for you and why going away might actually get your child into a better college than staying at home. So tune in next week. Listen to the podcast to find out about… The kind of personalized list of colleges your guidance counselor should be providing for your child What we lost when college field trips were cut out of high school activities The pluses and minuses of online searches for colleges you might be interested in Links to all the higher education institutions we mention can be found on the show notes for today's episode at Connect with us through… Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn! Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help Following us on Facebook at Ask your questions or share your feedback by… Commenting on the notes for today's episode at Calling our hotline at (516) 900-NYCC. Emailing us at to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately