Thursday, March 27, 2008
Northern Westchester Bureau Chief
Before Accepting that College Offer, Consider This
Every high school student is familiar with the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March” (Shakespeare). Unfortunately for Caesar, the “Ides of March” warning proved fatal. Caesar was assassinated on that date, marking the end of his illustrious life and career. The “Ides of March” takes on a more personal meaning for our local High School seniors. For those students it represents a
critical end to their college search. March 15th (the ‘Ides’ denotes the middle date of the month on ancient Roman calendars) is the date when most private colleges start sending out their acceptance packages and rejection letters. Twelve years of hard work and months of preparations and applications by these seniors is now reduced to the thickness of the notices they will receive in the mail this month.
But receiving an acceptance package in the mail from a college of choice is not the end of the process. In fact, according to several local High School guidance counselors and administrators, receiving an acceptance is just another step in the road towards college.
Westlake High School in Mt. Pleasant has a reputation of having a very ‘hands-on’ college application guidance program. Donna Garr, the Guidance Leader for Westlake, graciously offered her twenty years of experience to Guardian readers. As it happens, I am a parent of a Westlake High School senior currently wading through the college acceptance maze with the invaluable help of our school’s guidance department. Realizing that other Westchester families are also struggling with this critical and expensive decision right now, the idea for this article was born!
“The acceptance packages are just the first step” Garr said. “There are a host of questions that need to be answered before a student accepts a college offer”. Chief among these is the campus housing issue. Garr recommends that parents ask prospective colleges if housing is guaranteed for all four years and if so, where? “One Boston school recently had to house students at a ‘Holiday Inn’ due to overcrowding” Garr noted. “Many colleges are tripling and quadrupling up students in rooms. Some colleges offer housing on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, and some award housing through a lottery. Parents should ask what happens if their child does not get campus housing”. Also, many college students do not always return home on vacation breaks due to school commitments, internships, etc. Garr advises that parents should ask if students may remain on campus during vacation breaks.
Included in housing considerations is the issue of roommates. “How are roommates selected? How are problems with roommates handled? If
a roommate indulges in drugs or alcohol, how will that affect your status?” are all questions Garr advises students to ask. Parents should also obtain the rules for damages to college property, including dorm rooms. “How are damage fees assessed? If a roommate trashes the dorm room, are all the roommates responsible for these fees? Damage costs could amount to thousands of dollars” Garr warns “so parents need to know how a college will handle these matters”.
Garr also recommends asking each college for their attrition rate. “Parents should ask how many students actually remain in the college for all
four years.” The attrition rate represents the percentage of students who actually graduate from the college. While students drop out for a variety of reasons from financial difficulties to personal hardships, a high drop-out rate could represent a dissatisfied student body.
College Board, a national association of over 5,400 educational organizations, and the administrator of the SAT college exams, has issued an
“Admitted Student Questionnaire Sourcebook” on its web site http://www.collegeboard.com/ which provides responses from 1,449 students nationwide. The College Board’s survey revealed that over 90% of the students enrolling at a college selected the campus surroundings as a major criteria and “access to off-campus activities” and “quality of social life” as major factors in their decision. Garr recommends that parents should ask “how is my child really selecting their college? Is a boyfriend/girlfriend a factor? Plus many students may not want to go to a college where they perceive they may know too many students from their high school – many students are looking ‘for
a fresh start’. But having a familiar face around may be helpful, especially on a large campus where a student from a small high school may feel lost at first” Garr notes.
Given the unaffordable expense of college, many students will graduate with a significant level of debt. To those students, having a job upon graduation is critical. Garr advises that parents and students ask the colleges for the list of companies who recruit on campus. She also recommends that the parents and students ask what types of jobs those prospective employers were recruiting for: “students want to make sure that the recruiters coming to campus are actually looking for graduates within their majors, and not just looking for management or nursing graduates, for example” Garr notes.
Since parents usually foot most of the bill for college, many parents are surprised to find out that their payments do not entitle them to information concerning their child. “Parents should ask the colleges exactly what information they will provide - such as ‘is my child actually attending classes’?” Garr advises. “Parents do not want to find out that their child has been suspended from college after the fact. There are many issues that can affect their child’s status in college that a parent needs a ‘head’s up’ on”. Investigating this issue at several colleges, the Guardian discovered that students are considered to be attending college full-time if they are taking twelve or more credits a semester. But if a student drops a class and consequently drops below twelve credits to part-time status, this can risk not only their scholarships and merit aid awards, but also their medical insurance, parental tax credits and deductions, and their ability to graduate within four years – extending the financial burden for their parents. Therefore, parents need to ask the colleges if they will be informed of any intent by their child to drop a class before the student actually does so. Students also need to ask if they can use their High School Advanced Placement
(AP) courses to offset any dropped classes in college. Many colleges will also allow students to apply some, or all, of their AP courses to their graduation requirements.
Safety is also a critical issue for parents. Garr advises that parents investigate the criminal records of both the colleges and the towns in
which they are located. “These are public records and should be readily available” Garr notes. Since students could be spending a large part of their time socializing, working, or even living off-campus, the safety of the area surrounding the college is a critical issue. The Farmers Insurance Group of Companies issues an annual ranking of the Most Secure U.S. Places to Live. Fortunately for our local students, the localities of several private New York colleges and the major SUNY (State University of New York) campuses are listed as among the 20 safest cities in our nation – Syracuse, Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, and Long Island all make the list. Smaller towns in New York like Binghamton and Ithaca also make the ‘top 20’ list for safest communities nationwide.
Any parent of a teenager is familiar with how much food they can eat. But parents should “resist the urge to sign a student up for the most expensive food plan at their college”, Garr warns. “Parents should check the options carefully and match them with their child’s needs. Students may not be out of bed in time to eat breakfast so a parent may not want to spend money for a food plan that specifically includes breakfast. Parents should note how the school defines ‘meal’ – is it one swipe of a meal card? Students could use their meal card for just a snack, but end up being charged for a full meal”. There are many other hidden costs to attending college that may not be noted on a school’s web site or information packages. Many families may have visited prospective colleges in summer, and paid reasonable rates to
the college town’s hotels, only to find that those same hotels gouge for stays during orientation weeks, move-in/move-out periods, homecoming, and graduations. A hotel in Ithaca that can cost $89 a night in July can cost as much as $300 a night on college graduation weekends. Small college towns offer a certain appeal to many students but can be more expensive than major cities to visit during prime college events since the selection of accommodations can be extremely limited. “Parents should factor in the cost of travel and visits to the colleges and the costs of the student’s trips home to their overall cost projections” Garr recommends “Hotel stays should be
booked as far in advance as possible”. In small college towns with limited accommodations, parents often book the hotel stay for their child’s graduation as soon as their child is accepted to guarantee a hotel room.
Other hidden costs and services that parents need to take into consideration, Garr notes, are any parking fees, gym costs and availability (can the student use the pool/tennis courts/etc. and when), cleaning expenses and frequency that the dorms/bathrooms are cleaned, laundry charges, printing/ paper costs if any, club fees, and any phone/cable/internet charges. Binghamton University offers free laundry facilities to students along with free internet and long-distance phone service (plus free pizza deliveries up to 3:00 a.m. for those late-night ‘study’ sessions). City University of New York offers students accepted into their honors program the use of a free laptop. But other colleges, such as Cornell, charge students for access to the court time at the gym. Many colleges charge for printing and paper costs over a certain
usage. “Parents should actually ask who provides the toilet paper!” Garr bemuses. Students should ask the colleges what they are expected to provide for their dorm rooms and what they are not allowed to bring. “Many colleges do not allow microwaves and hot plates” Garr notes.
The most important material a parent can arm themselves with is the college student handbook, Garr recommends. “This will list all of the fees, clubs, campus rules, and consequences. If a freshman at Fordham, for example, pays a visit to a friend at a senior dorm and accidentally drops in upon a party where alcohol is being served, that underage student could find themselves facing probation charges. Even comments that may have been innocent to their fellow students in high school could have serious consequences in college where students are from many other cultures and backgrounds. Students need to educate themselves beforehand” Garr warns. Dr. Glading, the author of “Overcoming the Senior Slump” and co-principal of Yorktown High School, agrees with that recommendation. “High School students need to be given an opportunity to make mistakes in their senior year; they need to ‘fail’ while they are still at home, not when they are away at college” Glading notes. “As parents, we need to make sure that we do not send our children off to college defenseless”. Glading advises against the
tendency of parents to ‘hover’ over their children’s’ lives – a practice known as ‘helicopter parenting’ among college administrators. “Parents should walk alongside their child, but stay out of their way” Glading advises.
Glading recommends providing the students with experiences in their senior year that are relevant to their interests – like internships and community service. “Children need to experience different things” Glading notes. “Students also need to get out by themselves before going away to college. A student with an interest in the theater might volunteer on Broadway this summer to get an opportunity to see what that life is really like. But by traveling into the city, that student would also learn how to follow train schedules and ride the subway – critical life skills. European schools offer a ‘gap year’ between high school and college to students. That year offers those students an opportunity to prepare for the next level of their education. We as par-ents and educators should also be providing our students with that same opportunity
in their senior year – from teaching them how to do college-level research, to learning necessary life skills” Glading recommends. For many local families, the college decision facing them this month ultimately boils down to money. Parents should make sure that they have
filed both the federal (www.fafsa.ed.gov) and state (www.hesc.com) financial aid applications and review their financial aid packages from the colleges carefully. Parents should note that money awarded to students for work-study programs will be paid to the student directly as income, and not given to the parents to offset tuition costs. Merit grants are usually contingent upon a student maintaining a certain grade point average. And parents can negotiate with colleges if a financial aid package is not suf-ficient to meet their needs. But most important of all, parents should not forget their own needs in this decision – a student can ultimately borrow to finance their college education, but a parent has few choices, if any, to borrow for their own retirement and medical needs.
In the end, what really matters is the success of our students. Hopefully all of our local High School seniors are currently receiving an abundance of acceptance packages in the mail from their colleges of choice and are in the enviable position of having to decide which of those colleges to attend. We wish all of our local graduating seniors the best of success in their college careers and beyond.
Northern Westchester Round-Up
Croton-on-Hudson: The operator of the newsstand at the Croton train station, Theresa Fiorentino, was killed by a passing train after falling onto the tracks. Officials suspect that Fiorentino fell onto the tracks accidentally.
North Castle: Donald Trump has been ordered to stop work on an access road to his Seven Bridges estate pending the outcome of a lawsuit by local residents. The road is currently used as a hiking path but Trump’s lawsuit alleges that he has an unfettered right to use this
Ossining: Four local high school students involved in an attack on a fellow student that was broadcast on the YouTube website appeared to
court to answer charges relating to the attack. Their case has been adjourned by the Court until March 27th.
White Plains: Several hearings are currently scheduled for the public to voice their opinions regarding the relicensing of Indian Point. At the initial hearing in White Plains earlier this month, local activists complained that no microphones were provided for the public to hear
the speakers. The judge officiating over the hearings, Lawrence McDade simply noted that “the acoustics in (this) courtroom are
what they are.” Activists are hopeful that better accommodations will be provided at future hearings.