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Planning for higher education today

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Posted: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 6:45 am

Each fall, after crossing the hurdle of back-to-school fever, parents of high school juniors and seniors have the added burden of facing the confusing college application process. News stories remind parents of the spiraling tuition costs and increased unemployment among college graduates while colleges sell parents on the need for a degree in today’s changing American economy.

While there are plenty of legitimate worries out there when considering college, there is good news. First, college graduates remain on track for a more financially secure future than those who opt out. Moreover, scholarship money is also readily available if you seek it out from college counselors and online sources. Finally, while the college application process is stressful, you can make it easier. Let me explain how good planning can turn a confusing and emotional choice into a rational one.

Perhaps the most important place to start is recognizing the need to formulate a long-term strategy regarding your child’s goals. Each new semester as I get to know my students I ask them about their major. Most have a solid idea, but many remain undecided. Having a goal means deciding with your child where he or she wants to be in 10 to 15 years and the right college degree can be a critical component that decides the outcome. People can change their minds, which can be part of the process, but knowing what direction to take will pay dividends while searching for a school.

Because core curriculum remains uniform across the country and among public and private schools, it is important to weigh items like cost and the school’s mission. A great option to take if finances are limited is to consider fulfilling core classes like English 101 at a community college and then transferring later. If you decide on taking that path, research whether the credits will transfer to the degree-granting institutions under consideration. Another item is student formation and if that fits your child. Formation has become a mantra for many religious and elite schools, where administrators emphasize things like social or status-based norms as part of their broader educational mission.

Be careful not to just take one aspect of a school for granted. Think instead about how your child will fit in at a school based on all of the factors. For example, when I taught at Harvard I saw a collection of Type-A personalities who would excel because they pushed and used the extraordinary resources available to them. In contrast, introverts are typically less successful at a place like Harvard. Additionally, while a university might have a great reputation it might not be strong in the areas that will serve your child. In other words, just because a university offers a particular major does not mean that the professors there are all experts or benefit from the necessary resources. Sometimes, a lesser-known or state school might have a strong cohort of faculty that will provide the necessary skill development and post-graduation networking opportunities for a successful career.

Speaking of resources, parents must take into consideration who teaches. How many full-time professors teach compared to adjuncts and graduate students? What is the student-to-instructor ratio? Does the library offer diverse resources? What is the retention rate and what connections do alumni foster within the private and/or public sectors? These questions apply to the university and to the individual departments. Don’t let the admission counselors, tour guides, or administrators off the hook until you know concretely how the institution will prepare your child for success.

Overall, you must formulate a plan that leads to a goal. Identify potential careers and then the related college majors. Study the schools’ websites and send emails or call faculty in the departments to obtain a broader view. Compare information from at least eight to 10 schools that meet the criteria from across the country and apply to at least six. Once you have collected the necessary information you will then be well prepared to craft entrance essays that meet the caveats of each school, collect relevant recommendations, and prepare in earnest for exams like the SAT. Once you set goals and make a plan, follow it to ensure that your child’s success will be much more predictable and positive.

• Robert Niebuhr, PhD, is a faculty member at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. He is director of American Global Academy, which prepares students for tests like the SAT. For more information, visit

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