Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Campus Perspective

We suggest that you weigh this perspective as about 15% of your decision.

Campus Size:  Campus sizes can range drastically from school to school, from under 1000 students (the size of your high school or smaller), to over 35,000 students (the size of a small city!).  Do you want a small school? A medium school? A large school?

  • Small schools typically have under around 2,500 undergraduates attending.  Smaller colleges tend to have smaller class sizes.  You may have fewer lecture courses and more courses that emphasize class participation and hands-on learning and far more interaction with the faculty.  Professors will usually teach the classes as opposed to teaching assistants.  Smaller colleges may also offer fewer academic programs and may also have fewer activities and extracurricular programs to choose from.  Smaller colleges may have a strong academic advising system and a strong sense of community and connection on campus. 

  • Medium sized schools range in size from about 2,500 to 10,000 students and will usually offer a happy medium between small and large schools, depending on which end of the spectrum you’re at. 
  • Large schools typically have over 10,000 students.  Larger schools will tend to have larger classes and a wider variety of academic programs and extracurricular programs to choose from.  They may also have well-funded athletic programs, big sporting events, and state-of-the-art research facilities.  Classes may be taught by professors, but some will be taught by teaching assistants.  It’s hard to know what size school you may thrive on, so you need to visit at least one school in each category to see what attracts you and where you can picture yourself. 

Geographical Location:  There are over 4,000 colleges in the United States.  You need to think about where in the United States you want to be for the next four years of your life, and maybe even more considering many college graduates settle in the area they went to college in.  Seriously weigh the pros and cons of attending college close by home, far away, or somewhere in between.  Can you get there by car or is it a train ride or a plane ride away?  Consider whether proximity to home is worth the risk of attending a school that may not be the best fit for you.  Think about optimum distance: somewhere that’s close enough so it’s easy to get home for holidays or for a weekend here and there.  Keep in mind, it can get expensive to purchase an airline ticket every time you want or need to go home.

Once you decide on the general location you want to be in, you’ll need to then think about whether you want to be in an urban, suburban, or rural area?
  • Rural campuses are located in the country, near farms or wilderness areas and are usually in a small town.  Rural campuses can provide access to outdoor learning opportunities, such as agriculture or environmental science.  Most students live on campus on a rural campus, which tends to increase a college’s sense of community.
  • Suburban campuses are in small cities, large towns, or residential areas near cities.  They can combine some of the best features of both urban and rural areas, offering access to nearby cities and outdoor activities.
  • Urban campuses are located in cities.  Some are spread throughout a city, others are self-contained within the city.  They usually attract culturally diverse students and there are plenty of options for entertainment on and off campus.

Campus Religious Affiliation:  There are many colleges out there that have specific religious affiliations.  If religion is very important to you, consider the colleges that are specific to the religious community you are from.  If you are looking at schools that have a religious affiliation but you are not a religious person or are not even a member of that religion, make sure you do your research before attending.  Visit the school and make sure that you feel comfortable there.  Is the community welcoming?  Will they judge you for not being part of their religion?  You need to make sure that you will be in an environment you will be very comfortable in.  Religious schools may also have academic requirements not affiliated with non-religious schools, so make sure to do your research.

Chemistry with Campus:  Does the college feel like home?  As cheesy at it may sound, do not discount the feeling you get when you step foot on the college campus.  Usually you will feel some kind of chemistry when you are on your visits.  We’ve had students go to visit their number 1 school and decide to knock it off of their list because of the way it made them feel, even though they weren’t sure exactly how to articulate that.  We’ve also had students be dragged by their parents to visit a random school they’ve never heard of it and then the school becomes their number one because they just fell in love with how they felt when they were on campus.  Follow your gut feeling and the instinct you get when you visit these colleges.

Any additional tips to share?  Leave your comments!

About Smart Track™ Toolkit: The toolkit is a web based service that assists families with everything from admissions and test prep, to student athletics and financial aid. Our intuitive software and on-demand workshops are key components to making sure students find their top choice colleges, and families can afford to send them there.

About the author: Laura Guarino is the Student Services Coordinator with the College Resource Center, LLC. Laura has a degree in Human Development from Boston College and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in School Guidance Counseling.  She is also enrolled in a certificate program in College Admissions Counseling.  Laura is at the forefront of the college admissions process for the families of The Smart Track™ Toolkit.

Connect with us

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How To Make Your Final Decision

At this point, you only have a few more weeks until the May 1st deposit day and I know that some of you are still hemming and hawing, trying to make your final decision on which college you will attend in the fall.  Here we’ll share some helpful tips with you that will hopefully make that decision easier and more effective.

Know yourself and what you really want:  Go back and review your college goals that you had back in the fall when you were getting ready to apply to school.  Are they still the same?  Why do you want to go to college?  What major are you considering?  What are your tentative career goals?  Has the answer to these questions changed at all since you applied?  Look to your college list and think about which college will fit best to fulfill your goals and will fit with your personality.

Reconsider distance: Seriously weigh the pros and cons of attending college close by, far away, or somewhere in between.  Can you get there by car or is it a train ride or a plane ride away?  Consider whether proximity to home is worth the risk of attending a school that may not be the best fit for you.  Think about optimum distance: somewhere that’s close enough so it’s easy to get home for holidays or for a weekend here and there.  Keep in mind, it can get expensive to purchase an airline ticket every time you want or need to go home.

Review your finances: Sit down with your parents and take a careful look at your finances.  Compare your financial aid packages from each college.  Things to consider:
  • Total amount you or your parents are expected to pay at each college (difference between the amount of aid and the cost of the college)
  • Proportion of loans vs. grants/scholarships
  • Overlooked costs: travel, living expenses, books, etc.

Your goal is to discover which college(s) is more affordable.  Are there financial or other circumstances that may affect your decision?

Rank your priorities: Make an extensive list of pros and cons.  Identify several aspects of college life and numerically rank each by importance to you.  Examples include: cost, size, location, majors offered, study abroad, sororities/fraternities, housing, food/dining options, surrounding community, athletics, career services, academic advising and support, extracurriculars, co-op/internship opportunities, etc.

Compare academic programs: If you have a designated major or area of study, find out how similar programs at different colleges compare.  Are the programs accredited?  Compare requirements for the specific major at the different colleges.  Compare sizes of the departments.  Are the courses more theoretical or hands-on?  Do the courses leave time for other things you’re interested in (study abroad, internships, etc)  Are there enough faculty members in the department and how accessible are they?

Revisit:  Even if you’ve visited before, visit again.  This is a MUST.  Consider doing an overnight visit, this can give you some serious insight into what it will really be like to attend that college.  You may look at the school differently once you know you’re in.  Attend classes and talk to professors.  Eat in the dining hall.  Make a list of 10-15 additional, in-depth questions for your trip. You should have no unanswered questions.  Reach out directly to faculty members in your field of study and talk to current students and other people on campus.  Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions.

Employment / Post Grad: Are faculty members still actively engaged with employers in a given field?  This can open doors to internships, research opportunities, & jobs. Does the campus have a strong career services center?  Ask about job fairs, on-campus interviews, ratio of student to career counselor. How often can you get into the career center to talk to someone? Visit CollegeResults.Org – they provide data on retention rate, graduation rate, and transfer rate.

Waitlisted?  The college may not make you an offer until after the May 1 decision deadline, so you need to decide whether or not to stay on the wait list.  Only stay on the list if you are truly interested in that college.  Find out whether there are any conditions to the wait list (ex. fewer housing and financial aid options).  Even if you remain on the list, prepare to attend another college.  Choose the best fit from the colleges you’ve been accepted, fill out the paperwork, and send in your deposit.  You’ll forfeit the deposit if the college that waitlisted you offers you a place and you decide to accept (about 28% of students are accepted off of the wait-list).  If you do decide to stay on the waitlist, continue to be proactive.  Contact the admission office to find out if the college ranks wait-listed students or has a priority list.  Write a letter to the admission office.  It’s time to mention any additional information.  Have your grades gone up?  Have you received any awards or accolades since you’ve applied?  They need to know.  Emphasize your strong desire to attend and make a case why it’s a good fit.  Study hard.  You will most likely be reevaluated based on your third and fourth quarter grades.  Stay involved.  Show that you’re committed to sports, clubs, and other activities.  Request another (or first) interview.  Reconsider the colleges that accepted you.

Trust your instincts: Chances are, if you’re having a tough time deciding, you would probably be happy at any of the colleges you applied to.  In the end, go with your gut instinct.  Don’t procrastinate.  Even if you didn’t get into your first choice or your dream school, there is no one perfect college.  You can be happy at a variety of schools.

Any additional tips to share?  Leave your comments!

About Smart Track™ Toolkit: The toolkit is a web based service that assists families with everything from admissions and test prep, to student athletics and financial aid. Our intuitive software and on-demand workshops are key components to making sure students find their top choice colleges, and families can afford to send them there.

About the author: Laura Guarino is the Student Services Coordinator with the College Resource Center, LLC. Laura has a degree in Human Development from Boston College and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in School Guidance Counseling.  She is also enrolled in a certificate program in College Admissions Counseling.  Laura is at the forefront of the college admissions process for the families of The Smart Track™ Toolkit.

Connect with us

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Does Financial Aid Make College More Expensive?

This Story Appeared in The Boston Globe
March 25, 2012
By Paul Kix

If a college economics class does its job, students will soon realize that even their professors don’t understand why their schools are so expensive. Over the past three decades, college tuition has increased at more than double the rate of inflation. Outstanding student loan debt in the United States now exceeds $1 trillion, a national burden even greater than that of credit cards.

Yet no one agrees on what makes college tuitions so high. Plush state-of-the-art gyms? Classroom technology? The cost of health care, the glut of administrators, too many professors focusing on research at the expense of teaching?

Then there is another theory, one that for 25 years has remained as controversial as it is counterintuitive: that the culprit is federal financial aid. Schools know that students have access to tens of billions of dollars in grants and loans, the thinking goes, and they raise tuition because the aid lets them do it.

This idea — essentially, that federal aid enables college administrators to get greedy — is known as the Bennett Hypothesis, after William Bennett, the conservative thinker who was President Reagan’s secretary of education. Since he first floated it in the 1980s, the Bennett Hypothesis has been debated in economic journals, congressional reports, and popular books. Studies have affirmed it, affirmed it in part, refuted it entirely, kind of refuted it, and many gradations in between.

It is, to say the least, a tough thing to test. And its unruliness stems in part from the colleges themselves. All traditional colleges accept federal aid, and they spend their money in idiosyncratic ways. Is a college public or private? Has its home state just slashed higher-ed funding? How does it fare in the U.S News & World Report rankings? Are there other competing universities nearby? These differences tend to shield the whole issue in opacity.

But a recent study has looked at the effects of financial aid in an unexpected place: for-profit colleges. The for-profit sector — national chains like The University of Phoenix as well as smaller technical institutes — has grown tremendously in recent years, and it offers new and little-examined data on the price of an education. For an economist, the beauty of the for-profit sector is that such schools can choose to either receive federal aid or not, allowing for a cleaner comparison than with traditional schools.

The recent paper, by economists at Harvard and George Washington University, compared more than 2,650 programs within for-profit schools in three states over multiple years, and found that the schools receiving federal grants and loans set their tuition roughly 75 percent higher than those institutions that go without government support. This discrepancy in costs has everything to do, the authors write in the study, with the aid the schools receive — “lending credence to the ‘Bennett hypothesis’ that aid-eligible institutions raise tuition to maximize aid.”

The National Bureau of Economic Research published the paper in February, and since then the argument over the Bennett Hypothesis has returned to the front of the debate over college costs. Conservatives crow that the study proves what they’ve known all along. Even liberals admit the hypothesis seems legitimate. Six days after NBER unveiled the paper, Vice President Joe Biden told an audience at Florida State University that “government subsidies have impacted upon rising tuition costs.”

The authors of the study caution they researched the for-profit sector only, and haven’t tried to test the hypothesis among traditional four-year colleges. Even if their finding holds and is applicable to conventional schools, it still leaves a very tough question: What to do next? Conservatives have already proposed cutting aid as a weapon against tuition increases. But it’s unknown whether that would stall the escalating cost of college or just limit the number of low- and middle-class students who might attend. If college is already too expensive, and aid only exacerbates the problem, it raises the unsettling prospect that making college cheaper might actually exclude some poorer students.


College tuition wasn't always a national crisis. As recently as the 1970s, the price of tuition actually declined by 17 percent at public universities, and 13 percent at private ones, according to data from the American Council on Education, a leading higher-ed lobby.

By the 1980s, however, things had changed. The price of tuition started to climb: By the end of the decade, it was up 47 percent at public universities and 54 percent at private schools, according to the council. What was different? Student populations were changing; college degrees were becoming more important. And Congress had mandated more federal assistance. In 1978, President Carter inaugurated the modern era of financial aid by signing the Middle Income Student Assistance Act, which had the effect of offering federally subsidized student loans to anyone who qualified for college, regardless of income. During the Carter and Reagan administrations, the government further expanded federal aid, including Pell grants and Perkins loans for needy students. From 1978 to 1981, total available aid grew by 70 percent, to a total of $14.7 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

As Bennett tells the story today, he formed his theory while serving as Reagan’s secretary of education from 1985 to 1988, touring roughly 60 universities and meeting with provosts and presidents. For a Republican like Bennett, that meant asking them why college tuition was so high. Why was it growing two to three times the rate of inflation? Bennett says university officials told him the answer had to do with the federal assistance the schools received. When parents or students balked at higher prices, college administrators could tell them not to worry; federal aid meant the true cost of college would be much lower. The argument had a cyclical perversity to it: As tuition climbed, so did the number of students who relied on aid to offset it. The very loans meant to help students afford college were making college more unaffordable.

Bennett took to The New York Times’ opinion page, and on Feb. 18, 1987 wrote: “[I]ncreases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase.” Though federal aid policies may not directly cause tuition to rise, Bennett argued that “there is little doubt that they help make it possible.”

The research done on the hypothesis since then is enough to induce whiplash. In their 1998 book, “The Student Aid Game,” economists Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro said public colleges and universities tended to increase tuition by $50 for every $100 in aid. In 2001, however, in a report for Congress, the National Center for Education Statistics found no evidence to support the Bennett Hypothesis anywhere. A 2003 study by Cornell University economists Michael Rizzo and Ronald Ehrenberg didn’t find evidence among public schools, but a 2007 study from University of Oregon economists Larry Singell and Joe Stone found a nearly dollar-for-dollar match at private institutions.

The professor whose work sparked the latest brouhaha didn’t set out to start one at all. She wasn’t even looking at the Bennett Hypothesis. Stephanie Riegg Cellini was an assistant professor of public policy and public admninistration, and economics at George Washington University and interested in the for-profit education sector, an industry that other academics seemed to be ignoring. She found that even the federal government had no idea how many for-profit schools there were. In California, the government estimated there to be 500 such colleges, but these were only the schools that received federal aid for their students. Cellini counted roughly 2,000 for-profit colleges in the state, most of which did not receive federal aid and were not accountable to anyone but the board that licensed them. (Some schools choose to forgo aid for various reasons, one of them being the accreditation that accompanies it is too expensive.)

Cellini presented her findings at a lecture at Harvard in December 2009. Afterward she met with Claudia Goldin, an economics professor there, who recommended they pair up. “I’m a data digger,” Goldin says. The data from certain states were rich with details. And because some of those colleges offered aid and some didn’t, one thing Goldin and Cellini could test was the Bennett Hypothesis.

They focused on colleges in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida, three states in which they could see comparable data on tuition and programs offered. The authors discovered that the schools that received aid charged roughly 75 percent more in tuition than the schools that didn’t.

The economists tried to control for quality. Maybe the aid-receiving schools graduated more students or offered more and better classes. They didn’t. They charged higher tuition, it appeared, because they got aid. “Sound economic theory suggests that if you can get more money to raise tuition, you will,” Cellini says. The National Bureau of Economic Research published their paper last month.


Their work came at a timely moment. The National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys issued a statement in February saying they feared student loans will be the next “debt bomb” to ravage the country. The new education plan President Obama outlined in January uses federal aid as a stick, proposing to tie how much schools receive to how low they can keep tuition. And Vice President Biden, out promoting the plan at Florida State, said something must be done because the Bennett Hypothesis seemed to be real: “It’s a conundrum,” he added. (A White House spokesman, Matt Lehrich, tells The Boston Globe: “There is no evidence to suggest that federal aid is a driver of tuition increases, but it’s absolutely true that the formula we’re using to distribute campus-based aid right now has not created the right incentives to bring down costs and promote affordability in higher education.”)

Days after the study was made public, and partly in response to it, Andrew Gillen, an economist at the free-market Center for College Affordability and Productivity, issued a 32-page report that he called “Bennett Hypothesis 2.0,” arguing that to prevent further tuition increases, it was time to start limiting federal student aid to only those who need it, and only at the dollar amounts they need. Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, took Gillen’s proposal a step further, arguing on the higher-ed website Minding the Forum, “The federal government needs to wind down its financial aid commitment. Restrict eligibility for aid to truly low-income students. Impose performance criteria for aid recipients: mediocre students will lose aid. Make the college absorb some of the risk for loan defaults — a lesson we should have learned from the financial crisis.”

But it’s unknown whether cutting aid would actually work, in part because it’s hard to draw a clear causal link between aid and tuition, especially among the not-for-profit colleges that make up most of American higher education. Goldin and Cellini both declined to comment on the applicability of their paper within the traditional, four-year sector.

Higher-education advocates tend to point to state funding as a more important driver of tuition: As states cut support, students need to pay more; when universities have more support, they’ve sometimes actually lowered tuition. In California, for instance, tuition declined in eight out of the 10 years in the 1990s, says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, because the dot-com and real estate booms helped the state Legislature fund colleges at adequate levels, easing pressure on the state’s large public higher-ed systems. On the other hand, nationwide college prices climbed from 1984 to 2009 regardless of whether state funding levels were down or up, according to a report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers. Moreover, as Neal McCluskey at the free market Cato Institute pointed out in a recent blog post, cuts in state funding don’t explain “constantly increasing private school costs.”

Because the data contradict themselves, it’s always more politically expedient for members of Congress and a sitting president, regardless of anyone’s political leanings, to expand federal aid. That way no qualified student is denied access to college. To put Bennett’s idea to the test — to cut large swaths of federal funding to hopeful college students — takes a courageous politician, who risks the wrath of not only students and their parents but American universities and their leaders.

This is why federal aid keeps growing. Last year, for the first time in history, students took out $100 billion in loans — money that will end up as revenue for colleges and as debt for students. President Obama wants to lower these costs of tuition by tying the flow of aid to the value schools offer. Gillen thinks one way to do that is to make more college graduates take an exit exam that quantifies what they learned, and that future students could use to decide if they were getting their money’s worth. “It’s not as hard as some people think to begin to reform the system,” Gillen says. But given the huge amounts of money involved, he points out — for the students, the government, and the schools at the heart of it — it won’t be easy either.