Guiding lights for heavy decisions
For most high school seniors who are heading to college, the stressful process of choosing and being chosen by a college is over by the time graduation rolls around in June. For many of them, graduation is as much a celebration of finally having a plan in place for the following year as it is a recognition of completing high school.
The relief is in part a result of the work of the high school guidance counselors whose work as college advisors help students realize what it is they want from a college. Before a high school senior can create a college wish list, several daunting questions must be confronted. Rural or urban setting? Small or large school? What is the student profile like? And, most importantly, how am I going to afford this?
It is the counselor who guides the student through these questions as he or she discovers what is important, even if the student has never considered these standard questions. Lately, money is often the most significant factor. Scholarships and financial aid are increasingly important considerations in choosing a college. At Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, an increasing number of graduating seniors are going to school in-state because it is less expensive than out-of-state colleges, either private of public. For years, guidance counselors gave conservative advice about choosing affordable colleges, but because every year the cost increases, students have begun focusing on schools their parents will consider affordable.
"The whole process was kind of different for me," says Claire Lindsay, a graduating senior at the Vineyard high school. "I had to do all of the decision making when I was a junior because I went abroad this year. I knew I wanted to major in art, though, and I knew I wanted a school with a good painting program. My guidance counselor couldn't have been better or more helpful. I had Mary MacDonald, who helped me narrow down my schools to five or six. Then she helped me determine what were my safeties and reaches, based on the schools with prominent art programs on the east coast."
Michael McCarthy has been a guidance counselor for 32 years, ten of which have been at the regional high school. Over the past several years, he has recognized that financial support is fast becoming the deciding factor for Island graduates
"Cost is a bigger factor now that schools are becoming more expensive," Mr. McCarthy says. "The cost of college has gone up dramatically over the past couple of years." As costs have risen, Mr. McCarthy has noticed that students are aware of the implications for family finances, and, as a consequence: "They look at in-state and inexpensive schools," such as the University of Massachusetts, Bridgewater State College, and Westfield State.
An increasing number of highly qualified candidates apply to colleges every year, but only the very best may be offered scholarships and significant financial aid. Guidance counselors believe students must pause to consider whether their top choice is worth the student loans and debt, if their college acceptance is not accompanied with a merit scholarship.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
With the increased expense of college come more decisions, deliberating, and often, significant travel. In the past, many students applied to schools all over the country without having seen the schools until the day they arrived for freshman orientation. Now their guidance counselors encourage students to visit the colleges they are considering, to get an interview, take campus tours, and participate in a "prospie weekend," during which a prospective student can get the feel of the school.
Mr. McCarthy notes, "Similar types of decisions are made when students visit schools, based on how comfortable they are, and whether they fit in, whether they need personal attention from an instructor, whether they have special needs that should be met by the school, or specific departments that should support them in arts or athletics."
A campus visit gives an idea of the different aspects of college life, beyond the statistics in the college guides. A student's major may often be selected based on the excellence of the particular academic programs being offered at the chosen school. For a student who has a clear idea of what interests him or her, college visits can help reveal the quality of the school's English program, for instance, or the size and emphasis of the environmental studies program.
Ms. MacDonald says her most important advice to students lately is to look at a prospective school from all angles. "Definitely go visit the schools and do lots of online research. Students should use all their senses to figure out whether they would be comfortable there. It is more common now to visit as students realize they need to get a feel for the schools far away from home."
At the same time, the growing intensity of college admission competition has led to an increasing number of good schools trying their hardest to boost the appeal of their top-level education to the students who have distinguished themselves. If only the competition among colleges led to education at more affordable prices.
Alix Cabral, a Chilmark resident who graduated in 2007 from Falmouth Academy, attends Colorado College.