Technology takes over college applications
Standard Achievement Tests (SAT) have been taken, grades sent in, essays written. College applications are landing on desktops in far-away admissions offices, and most of this year's high school seniors can sit back and relax, or else wait anxiously for their results. Meanwhile, this year's high school juniors and their parents are about to begin the process.
According to Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) guidance counselor Mary MacDonald, roughly 75 percent of the graduating class will move on to college next year, with about 10 percent going to two-year colleges and the rest attending four-year schools. Those who don't go to college immediately might join the military, go to work, or participate in volunteer and travel programs like City Year and Americorps. Ms. MacDonald says that the most competitive colleges have also begun encouraging students to take a "gap year" to travel, work, and/or volunteer before entering college.
Michael McCarthy, MVRHS guidance director, says that for him, the big change this year is there's a lot less paper in his office than in years past. The school has recently begun using a computer program, Naviance, which allows graduating seniors to submit most of their applications online. It compiles transcripts, SAT scores, letters of recommendation, essays, and the student's resume, then enables the student to send them off to colleges.
Naviance makes the process more efficient, but does it make applying to colleges any less stressful for graduating seniors?
"I do think it did make things less stressful," says Clarissa Murphy, a senior from West Tisbury who has applied to four colleges. "The computer lets you to send it in as each part is done, rather than waiting for everything to be ready, then getting it all into an envelope. I just called the schools and asked them if they got my stuff, and all of them emailed me back."
The program also eases communication between students, teachers, and guidance counselors. "If I log into my Naviance account," Ms. Murphy says, "I can see the progress of everything. I can see if my teachers have written my recommendations. The section where you fill out your resume makes it easier for them to write their letters of recommendation, and you don't have to make separate copies. My guidance counselor, Mr. [John] Fiorito, would stop me in the hallway and say, 'I can see that you haven't done something,' too."
Ms. Murphy adds, "It's the first year that we've used Naviance, and it was surprisingly easy. They really made sure that the teachers and everyone knew how to use it."
Electronic applications can also speed up colleges' response times. "I just found out that I got into Wentworth today," Ms. Murphy says. "They sent me an email. Now I just have to wait and see what kind of money they offer me. I'm almost done!"
The program aims to streamline the entire application process. Students log into Naviance starting in their freshman year. In the web-based program, they can complete career interest surveys, generate electronic resumes and portfolios, file transcripts and test scores, and explore colleges. Parents, guidance counselors, and students can all log onto the system, with differing levels of access to information.
The program suggests colleges based on cost, location, and available majors, as selected by the student. It also compiles much more detailed data than students would have had quick access to in the past. Within each college's profile, a student can see a graph of previous years' applications from MVRHS. It shows the former students' GPA and SAT scores as data points (without any names attached), and which of those were admitted, rejected, or waitlisted by that college's admissions officers.
Money is a big factor in choosing a college for a lot of Vineyard families. "Middle-income people here often don't qualify for need-based financial aid," says Mr. McCarthy, "but the high cost of living on-Island is making it impossible for them to pay the expected amount." He says that students and their families often take on debt to finance a college education, but it's impossible to say what percentage of Vineyard students are graduating from college with substantial student loan debt.
About 50 students, a third of the MVRHS class of 2010, have applied to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, making it the most popular school for this year's seniors to apply to. Other state schools have become increasingly competitive in recent years, in part because their lower costs make them more accessible to families who don't quite qualify for need-based aid. This year, tuition, fees, room and board at Bridgewater State will cost only $15,000 a year. Tuition and fees at Cape Cod Community College are only $4,320 a year, but that doesn't include the cost of living, commuting, health insurance, and books.
At the more expensive private universities, high costs make the idea of "working your way through college" obsolete. Tufts University is among the costliest, with tuition, fees, room and board at a hefty $53,000 for the current school year. It would be a very rare college student who could make that kind of money in a summer, but fortunately many of the highest cost universities also give substantial need-based scholarship grants. Those grants can sometimes make a private university more affordable than state schools.
As this year's graduating class works out the details of how to pay for college, the junior class is just beginning the process, browsing through information about colleges on-line, scheduling campus visits, and sharpening their pencils for the SAT, which includes an essay section as well as multiple choice questions. The process is beginning again, smoothed along by the new technology of on-line applications which became the norm for this year's seniors.
Amelia Smith, a freelance writer, lives in West Tisbury.