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USACollegeChat Podcast

Oct 20, 2016

In our last three episodes, we have been suggesting some steps to take in order to narrow down your teenager’s long summer list of college options in case it is too long. However, as we have begun to say--and frankly, I am a bit surprised by this--perhaps your list is not really too long. Let’s say you still have about 15 colleges on the list. Even though we said in our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available at that applying to 8 to 12 colleges seemed like a reasonable number to shoot for, I am beginning to like the number 15. As we have said before, don’t take colleges off the list if you believe your teenager could be happy there. And while you and your teenager probably can’t survive 25 applications, I am thinking that 15 might be survivable. But let’s see what you think by the end of this episode.

And again, let us remind you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Fill it out and file it now. Get whatever help you need to fill it out. But do it, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting to qualify for a lot of financial aid.

And, let us remind you for the last time, that many of those Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are coming up in about 10 days. I cannot see any good reason not to apply for Early Action if colleges your teenager is interested in offer it. But to do that, you would need to be pretty far down the track in completing those applications by now, including having asked for recommendations from teachers and having requested that your high school transcript be sent.

So, let’s recap where we stand in narrowing down the list--to 8 or 12 or even 15 colleges. In Episode 93, we took Step 1 in narrowing down your teenager’s list by looking at college selectivity--in other words, is your teenager likely to get in, based on his or her academic record. In Episode 94, we took Step 2 by looking at the college’s academics--that is, the availability of your teenager’s current favorite major, the presence of any core curriculum or distribution requirements, and the attractiveness of traditional and innovative college term schedules or grading practices. In Episode 95 last week, we took Step 3 by checking whether you might want to use college enrollment as a filter—that is, how many undergraduate students there are, what the class sizes and student-to-faculty ratios are, and what the breakdowns of the student body are by race, ethnicity, gender, or another demographic characteristic.

1. Step 4: Location Filter

Now, let’s look at one last filter, and it’s the one that I fear you have used from the very beginning, perhaps subconsciously or perhaps very consciously. Step 4 in narrowing down the list is using college location as a filter. Let me start off by saying that I don’t think you should use college location as a filter at all. In fact, as those of you who listen to USACollegeChat know, there is no filter I like less than this one. I never used it when I was looking at colleges, and I never used it when my three children were looking at colleges. With that said, there are two different aspects of college location that either your teenager or you might find yourselves considering.

The obvious first aspect of location is how far the college is from your home. This is what our summer assignments started with. That is, we said, “Pick one college from every state and put all of them on your teenager’s list.” Now, we didn’t really expect you to do that (though I would have been thrilled if you had), but we did hope that it would cause you to spread your wings a little and look beyond your own backyard.

This is also what our virtual nationwide tour of colleges (Episodes 27 through 53) was all about. It was an effort to take you outside your geographic comfort zone and get you to realize that the chances aren’t all that good that the best college for your child is in your hometown or even in your home state. Now there are exceptions to that, of course. But, there are many, many colleges out there--most of which you will never even consider. And that is too bad.

We understand the exceptions, and we respect them. We understand that some families for cultural reasons want to keep their teenagers close to home, perhaps in order to participate in family events or religious events. We understand that some families need to have their teenagers live at home in order to make college even remotely affordable or in order to help with family responsibilities. In those cases, we hope you find a great college choice nearby.

We also know that, for some kids, the perfect college is right at home. That happened with my daughter, who was planning a dance major, and we like to think that the best college for that is in our hometown—that is, the joint Fordham University and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s B.F.A. program here in New York City. Of course, I made her apply to out-of-town colleges with good dance majors, too; but, when she got her acceptance letter from Fordham, I knew she wasn’t going to any of the other ones. In Polly’s case, the perfect college was right at home.

At my real job at Policy Studies in Education, I have had the great privilege of doing projects for a couple hundred colleges across the U.S. I have had the chance to visit many of them in many states--huge universities you all know and little colleges you never heard of. I have seen a lot of colleges, far and wide--and I wish you could, too.

Now, let me speak for Marie for a minute. Marie, as you can probably tell from all of our episodes, is always the more practical and realistic of the two of us. Marie would say, “Have the serious talk with your kid right now. Don’t let your teenager apply to a bunch of colleges all across the country if you have no intention of letting him or her go to them. If location is a deal breaker for you, tell your kid now rather than disappoint him or her in April after the acceptances come in.” Marie, I see the value in that, but I still have to hold out hope that an acceptance to a great college in Colorado might cause a parent in New York to think twice next spring before insisting that the kid choose a college close to home.

Let’s look at location a second way, as we did in Assignment #6 (in Episode 86). There we took a closer look at the community that the college is actually located in--that is, whether it is urban, suburban, small town, or rural and what kinds of cool stuff the community surrounding the college has to offer (for example, biking and hiking trails, lakes and beaches, historic sites, cultural facilities and events, or fantastic restaurants). For some teenagers and parents, the perceived safety of a suburban or rural location warrants filtering out all of the urban campuses on the list. For others, the excitement factor of living in a cosmopolitan city warrants filtering out all of the campuses except the urban ones. I heard my own recent college graduate say to an anxious high school senior last week, “You might be a little scared of going to college in a city right now, but you will be happy you did by the time you are a junior or senior and you are getting bored with the college campus life. You will be glad that you have a whole city to explore and take advantage of.” Spoken like a true New Yorker.

So, a charming small college town, with great coffee shops and recreation areas or a giant city with everything anyone could want or something in between? This is really your call.

2. Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

So, do you have enough colleges left on the list? Try to let your teenager talk through his or her opinions about location and type of surrounding community, but let your teenager know that neither of these has to become a filter--unless, of course, you say so.

As we said last week, we are beginning to think the fewer filters, the better. You can always apply these filters next April once you see where your teenager has been accepted. That’s especially true if you are holding off on college visits (or, at least, some college visits or final college visits) until then--when you can really judge the distance from home, the ease of transportation to and from the college, and the type of community firsthand.

So, Step 4 is done. Remember that we are okay if you still have 15 or so on the list as we move into an overview of the full list next week. But, as we said last week, if you are already down to just a handful of colleges, you might want to back up and reconsider some of those colleges that you took off the list or add some new ones.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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