Play it S.A.F.E. with College Planning
When Partners For Achievement was founded in 2012 and I delved into statistics regarding how successful kids are at making their college planning choices, I was appalled. Consider these nuggets of information:
- 37 percent of students transfer to another college. That means their original choice was a poor fit.
- 80 percent of college students change their major at least once. Guess what happens when you change your major? You likely won’t graduate on time, and the tuition bills will continue to mount. Students need to identify potential areas of interest as early as possible.
- 24 percent of students graduate in four years. The average length of time is 5.8 years. Scary, right?
- 71 percent of graduates have student loan debt, with the average total at more than $37,000. That figure has almost doubled in the past decade. Even scarier, right?
- Only 21 percent of students graduate with a job in their major. Why spend all that time and money on an education and then wind up unemployed living back at home with your parents?
What to do? At PFA, we created a college planning process to help students think through building their college lists in a more intentional way. Our S.A.F.E College List Strategy helps students identify the proper fit in four key areas: social fit, academic fit, financial fit and employment fit. We introduce students to S.A.F.E. as soon as they enter the PFA program, and they follow it right up until decision day. Most kids’ college lists are based on what their friends are talking about, their parents’ limited knowledge or from watching high-profile college sports on ESPN. That may be a fine way to begin the conversation about college, but ultimately, families need to approach college planning more strategically.
Here’s a closer look at the four pillars that make up PFA’s S.A.F.E. College List Strategy:
School Location: The school’s location is paramount. Do you want to commute? Do you want a three- or four-hour drive? Or are you considering schools all across the nation? These are key questions to consider. We had a student who initially wanted to go to school in California, and we told her, “Before you eliminate the rest of the country, do a trip.” After the long flight to California, losing a piece of her luggage, picking up the rental car, and then battling L.A. traffic en route to the hotel, she was in tears and said to her mom, “I can’t go to school in California.” Kids don’t know what they don’t know. This is one example of why S.A.F.E. is so vital in the discovery phase.
Size and Setting: The school’s size and setting matters. Some students like large schools, others prefer a smaller-school experience. Some students want an urban setting while others prefer a college town. Consider the different school options. At a large research institution, you’re likely to have courses in huge lecture halls with 100 plus students. Alternatively at a smaller liberal arts school, class sizes may be capped at 30 students with a professor who knows your name. The only way to find out what’s right for you is to visit a variety of schools.
Activities and Interests: Participating in activities, clubs, sports, Greek life, programs for studying abroad, and service opportunities builds your college experience. Students want to be around classmates who share their values and interests, and these social aspects will help them determine if the school has the desired vibe.
Majors and Minors: Does the school excel in a student’s major? Does the school offer a comprehensive minor that will actually help you achieve your academic and career goals? These are the types of academic questions you need to ask yourself.
Support Services: If a student has an IEP or 504 plan, does the school have a good support system? Does the university have a strong reputation for support services to help students with learning differences? Some universities provide great support services but most do not. It’s important when reaching out to college reps to ask these questions and request specific information.
University Selectivity: Do you want to attend a highly selective university? If not, you may not need to stress yourself out by taking a full load of AP classes in high school. The level of selectivity of a college is going to dictate the level of academic coursework taken in high school. For students who are not on a highly selective college track, it’s OK to take less rigorous classes. What’s important is the alignment and balance between a student’s goals, academic performance and college list. Students are under a lot of pressure. While AP classes are the right choice for some students, for others the rigor can be overwhelming. We encourage students to challenge themselves by taking the highest level class where they think they can get an A.
GPA Weighted vs. Unweighted: Do the colleges on your list consider weighted or unweighted GPAs? Over half the colleges in the USA don’t consider weighted GPAs, which means an AP or honors “C” is still a “C.” That will impact both your admissions and merit-based aid potential.
Standardized Tests: How do various colleges treat standardized tests? Do they superscore the SAT and ACT? If so, that’s an incentive to take the tests multiple times. On the other hand, if you’re a good student who just doesn’t do well on standardized tests, look at colleges where the SAT and ACT are optional. There are now more than 1,000 test optional schools, many of which are very good. If you are going to pursue this path, find out what other factors and requirements are considered in the school’s admissions process.
This is the big one. The financial aspect isn’t about the sticker price; rather, the key is your actual out-of-pocket costs. Some things to consider:
Actual Price: Is the college good about giving need-based and merit-based aid? First, families need to consider how aid packages are determined. There are three factors for aid eligibility:
- Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is determined after completing the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile financial aid forms, will be used to assess your family’s eligibility for need-based aid.
- A student’s GPA (weighted or unweighted) and standardized test scores (composite or superscore) determines merit-based aid.
- And the final factor, also the most confusing and elusive one, is each school’s history of giving need- and merit-based aid. The challenge is every school does it differently. At PFA, our point of differentiation is we track need- and merit-based aid packages at a range of schools to help our families drill down on potential costs.
How many years of school for you?
- First-year retention rate: If a low percentage of students return for a second year, that’s a red flag.
- Graduation rates: Schools are required to publish a six-year graduation rate, you want to find out what percentage of students graduate in four years.
- Additional schooling: Some students choose career paths that will require graduate school. Families need to take into account the extra costs for additional schooling.
Career Services: Consider the quality of the career services office at a school. Does the college have a good reputation for helping kids identify job shadowing opportunities and land internships?
Job Placement: Does the college have a track record for job placement in the student’s major? It’s great that all the engineering majors from the school are getting jobs, but what about the kids who are studying marketing?
Alumni Network: The alumni network is another important factor. Northwestern University, my alma mater for example, is renowned for the way its alumni help graduates entering the workforce and maintain strong networking relationships after graduation and beyond. The strength of the alumni network should be another key aspect to consider as you evaluate the lifelong return on the investment into your student’s college education.
The results of PFA’s S.A.F.E. College List Strategy have spoken for themselves thus far. Remember those statistics I rattled off up top? Here they are again in a brighter context:
- 9 percent of PFA kids wind up transferring to another college (the national average, as you’ll recall, is 37 percent).
- 14 percent of PFA kids change their major (nationally, 80 percent).
- 90 percent of PFA kids graduate in four years (nationally, 24 percent).
- 82 percent of PFA kids graduate with a job in their major (nationally, 21 percent).
The message is clear: Play it S.A.F.E. You’ll be infinitely more pleased with the results.
PFA’s High School Program includes guiding students with a S.A.F.E. College List Strategy. For more information about PFA’s High School Program click here.
Kevin Krebs is the founder and CEO of Partners For Achievement. Read more about Krebs and the rest of the Partners For Achievement team.