The decision to go to college and what college to attend are the first major adult decisions many young people will make. The choices are really endless — with so many options from community colleges and trade schools to traditional four-year programs, both big and small, near and far, public and private — the decision can seem overwhelming. Add in the desire to balance fiscal responsibility with the ideal college experience, and it’s no wonder many families find the decision daunting. But there are lots of resources out there to help, and these Johnston families offer their advice and experience in the hopes that it will help others in their college search.
How to prepare
The road to college doesn’t start with senior year, but much earlier. Johnston guidance counselors encourage students to begin thinking about college as they enter high school, each year doing more and more to prepare.
“When it comes to college planning, take as rigorous a course load as you can without being overwhelmed,” says counselor Stephanie Guthrie. “Be balanced. You still want to participate in extra-curriculars and have fun, too.”
For those students who aren’t sure what they want to do after graduation, taking a variety of electives along with core classes can be beneficial. That way, students can get a taste of various possible careers, like engineering.
Students can also explore various career options through websites like ACT Profile or I Have a Plan Iowa. ACT Profile is a free college and career planning self-assessment that helps students pinpoint their unique interests, values and skills. Based on their answers, personalized results are then populated onto interactive career and major maps. I Have a Plan Iowa is a great tool to help students explore career options through interest inventories, personality profile and ability profiles. This can help them determine possible career paths for which they are most suited.
Choosing a school
After all the preparation comes the hard part — choosing which school to go to. There are many options out there, so Guthrie recommends that students start with an open mind and make a list of schools they think they might be interested in.
“Include a variety of schools in your initial list,” she says. “That might mean community colleges, private schools, big schools and smaller schools. Then the next step and most important thing is to visit the schools that you can.”
That might not be feasible for each school, and, in that case, you can ask your counselor to put you in touch with a student who can give his or her thoughts on the school. Many colleges also offer virtual tours on their websites. Be sure you go into your visit prepared with a list of questions. Johnston guidance counselors recommend the following:
How many students attend?
Does the college have a commitment to diversity?
Do professors or teaching assistants teach undergraduate courses?
What is the average class size and the student-faculty ratio?
Will I graduate in four years? What percentage do?
Who will be my academic advisor? How often do we meet?
Are faculty members easy to reach outside of class?
Do you have the academic majors or programs that interest me?
What international programs are available?
What percentage of students participate in international study?
What percentage of students do an internship?
What computer and educational technology is available for students?
What percentage of students do research with faculty?
What athletic programs are available?
What kinds of programs do you offer in the fine arts?
What do students do for fun? Do most go home on weekends?
Do you have the extracurricular and co-curricular activities that I’m interested in?
What are your admissions requirements and important deadlines?
Are there organized service opportunities?
What types of housing are available?
What are some special features of the campus?
What is the cost of tuition? Room and board? Other miscellaneous fees?
What types of scholarships and other financial assistance are available?
Do you accept AP tests? Community college credits?
What percentage of your students are employed or are accepted to graduate programs after graduation?
Another major factor in choosing a school is determining your budget and managing expectations about finances. Guthrie again recommends that students and parents go into the process with an open mind.
“The sticker price that you see might not be what you end up paying,” she says. “Many schools offer financial aid and scholarships that greatly offset the cost, so that’s something to keep in mind.”
Students can apply for scholarships directly for a particular school in addition to private scholarships. There are many online databases available where students can put in their own unique criteria and determine which scholarships they might qualify for.
A parent’s perspective
Michele Poss has already sent two children to college, and she has another heading there this fall. Ben is going to the University of Iowa. Though he originally wanted to attend college in California, it quickly became apparent that Iowa was the better choice for him.
“He saw it was more reasonable to stay in-state when it came to cost,” she says. “Make your kids look at their dream schools and then also practical schools. Ben thought he wouldn’t like the University of Iowa, and then when we visited, I could see it in his eyes that he could see himself there.”
Poss says her kids have all chosen different schools. Her oldest attended Drake University, and her second chose Bethel College. She says she encouraged them to look broadly at first to see what might be the best fit. She says of course she didn’t want them to go too far away, but if that was what they really wanted, she’d support them.
The hardest part in sending each child off to college has been the change in family dynamics. They are a tight-knit family, and the remaining siblings really miss those who leave.
“When my oldest left for Drake, my youngest daughter Emily slept in her room for two months,” Poss says. “Now this year when Ben leaves, we are adding an exchange student for the year to fill up the house again.”
Lisa Severino has also sent one child off to college and has another going soon. Ben, 20, is a junior at the University of Denver, and Katie, 17, is a senior at Dowling.
Severino says when Ben was choosing a college, he knew he wanted to continue his swimming career, so he was interested in finding a college that offered a swimming program in addition to the program of study he wanted.
“In some ways that made it easier and in some ways that made it harder, since it limited things somewhat,” she says. “Other things that were on his criteria list were things like size, academic programs and whether he’d be able to get to know his professors easily.”
Severino says she thinks he might have preferred to stay a little closer to home, but ultimately Denver was the best fit. It can be tricky to figure out visits — he can’t just come home for the weekend — but they make it work.
“That’s something to think about, though,” she says. “If you are going farther away, you need to think about the cost of getting them home and back to school and all that travel. Now he’s in an apartment, so there is a cost to getting them set up there, too.”
Though she says the process was extremely overwhelming, they got through it. And so will all the other parents preparing to send their kids off to college.
“Get them on campus and get a feel for it,” Severino says. “Go with your gut. It’s really then time to let them go and have their own experiences and see what they want to pursue.”