- photos by Hillary Harvey
- Students like Kate LaValle can be overwhlemed applying to colleges.
After her daughter Elle took the PSATs junior year at Red Hook Central High School, Emily Houpt would open her mailbox to find it brimming with college catalogs, envelopes, letters, and brochures. The pile on Elle's desk grew until her room filled. "That's when I realized," Houpt says, "it's an ocean."
Schools have become savvier in their marketing according to Erica Hezi, a guidance counselor for Ardsley High School. "This is big business. [Schools] put cookies on their websites, and track visitors. They pay the College Board for names of students who are within a band of scores," she explains. "It's upsetting for us as counselors because we have kids who think they've been earmarked, but it's often recruit to reject. If a thousand students apply, and only 250 are selected, it bumps up their selectivity rating."
Hezi says, "In my school, the average number of applications is 10 to 12 per student, but I've seen kids apply to 28 schools." With application fees, test score fees, and professionals offering writing help and test prep, Hezi feels students have to be savvy consumers. "They have to get away from bumper sticker mentality. You're not going to college for a name; you're going for an education." In a brutal job market, millennials have a fondness for demonstrated results and a wariness of overextending themselves financially.
"It's a very anxiety-provoking transition in a child's life," Hezi says. "Parents have their expectations, and sometimes in that push for the best, they overlook what the child is really saying. And kids lack the experience and maturity to know what they want. The most important thing is that kids are on a journey. Life is a process. They may not get into their number one school, and they may ultimately choose a school that's inappropriate, but there are always other options. It's important to embrace the process instead of being intimidated by it."
Buying An Education
For some families, spring break is college shopping time. During her junior year, Elle and Houpt toured schools and at some, Elle was interviewed. Many schools have moved towards alumni-conducted interviews, but there's a trend now to exclude interviews altogether from the application process. Houpt felt they got better with each college visit: clarifying what they liked, noting questions asked by other kids' and using that to inform their questions at the next college. For schools Elle was truly interested in, she always sat in on a class. Other than that, Houpt played little part in Elle's college application process. Seeing the potential for overwhelm, she hired Sandra Moore of Next Step College Counseling to guide Elle through the process.
In the current college market, the field of independent educational consultants, like Moore, is booming, and digital options now provide virtual guidance. Moore comes to it from a lifelong career on both sides of the college admissions desk. Her method is to help students figure out their wants and needs, then determine which colleges would serve those interests. "Kids get hung up on feeling they need to prove their worth. I help empower them throughout the process," Moore says. She broke the process down into the next manageable item on Elle's to-do list.
"Buying a college education is financially akin to buying a house," Houpt says. "Why wouldn't I get advice from an expert on this huge purchase?" With annual private school tuition approaching $70,000, Moore says affordability must be factored in at the outset. "Most families don't understand which schools are generous with need-based and merit aid. Rather than ruling out expensive colleges based on sticker price, families can learn to figure out actual net costs from the get-go." Most colleges have a net price calculator on their websites, so after a short questionnaire, parents can estimate the costs before their kids apply. Houpt tried it at all five schools Elle applied to and said they were all accurate.
College financials are Moore's area of expertise. Through blog writing and pro-bono talks, she walks families through need-based and merit aid application processes. For the 2017-18 school year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms came online in October 2016 rather than January 2017, which allowed parents, for the first time, to use real tax numbers rather than estimating.
Working with Moore, Houpt says, removed the feeling of urgency from Elle's application process. "Unless you're someone who can only go to the Ivy Leagues, the goal isn't to get into the best college," Houpt says."The goal is to get into the best college for you. Because there is no best college. It doesn't exist, but people get sold on that idea."
- Kate LaValle surrounded by the materials colleges sent her.