Prepping for College Tours, Part 1

With everything going on, I had to bump my last Atlantic writing project until late August. It’s too hard to get interviews over the summer with higher ed people anyway. With one less obligation, I’m feeling more like myself. The crazy levels have been ratcheted down a notch. In the unlikely scenario that I get bored in the next few weeks, I can go back to it.

So, now I’m honing on the kids. Ian needs a special ed program for next year. I have to drive him to two final schools for visits in the next few days. And I’m making a plan for the summer school tours for Jonah.

It’s probably not ideal to look at colleges over the summer. There won’t be many kids on campus. Schools use the summer to do construction projects, so there will be more workers than students on campus. But summer is the only time that we’ll have, because every weekend in the fall will be filled with cross country races. Missing school during the week isn’t an option. So, summer it is.

My parents never took us on college tours. In fact, my parents did almost nothing to help us with picking colleges or applied to colleges. I don’t think anyone even proofread my essay. They were first generation types. People who stumbled into college with brains and good luck. They lived at home, applied to one school, and worked their way through college.

My dad was the youngest of four kids raised on the South Side of Chicago. His father passed away two months before he was born. His mom raised four kids and supported her parents with a job in the girdle department at Marshall Fields. During the depression, my grandfather was paid by the steel mills in stocks rather than a salary. My grandmother lived off of that stock money for years after he died. My dads’ brothers didn’t even finish high school.

My dad was a mediocre student in high school. Lots of C’s. He started off semi-abused by nuns in Catholic schools who bluntly told him that he would “never amount to much” and finished off at the South Side High School. He went to University of Illinois at Navy Pier for two years, where some excellent professors suddenly turned him onto education. He transferred to University of Chicago; he still remembers fondly the Cobb Hall Coffee Shop. Then Amherst for a masters and Fordham for the PhD. I think there was a brief stop at University of Nebraska, too, but I can’t remember where that fits in.

My mom was raised in worse circumstances. Her dad was alive, but he was a mean drunk filled with bitterness over having to bow and scrape before rich people at the Waldorf Astoria. With her sixth grade education and my grandfather’s insanity, my grandmother was not equipped to take care of her kids. When they moved to the Bronx in the 1950s, my mom at fifteen found the best Catholic schools, took the admissions tests, got her sister through that process, and got scholarships. Later, when it was time to go to college, my grandfather fought her. He said that girls who went to college were prostitutes. He made her pay for the whole thing, her sister’s education, and rent to my grandfather with three jobs. She was pregnant with me when she finished at Hunter College.

So, handholding me through the college process didn’t occur to them. As a second generation college student, I knew that I had to go to college and I knew that they would pay for it, as much as they could. My mom signed me up for an SAT class. But I was the one who scoured Baron’s Guide to College and devoured the Lisa Bernbach book on colleges. I had something that they didn’t have. I had choices. I mean not a lot of choices. Kenyon, my first choice, didn’t give us enough financial aid, so I had to go to SUNY Binghamton. Still, my parents gave me the jet fuel to get to college and the feeling that I had options.

Jonah is third generation. He has the jet fuel, and he has a parent who knows how the system works. I’m doing all the picking and the reserving spots on the college tours. He is simply too busy with classes and running.

Maybe I’m doing too much. I think about that a lot. But then again, I know so much more about the system. College is simply too expensive to allow him to make a mistake.

Private colleges aren’t really an option. Without perfect SAT scores, he won’t qualify for a full merit scholarship. We don’t qualify for financial aid. All our savings have gone into retirement accounts to make up for the years of zero contributions during graduate school. So, state colleges it is.

(more later)


27 thoughts on “Prepping for College Tours, Part 1

  1. “College is simply too expensive to allow him to make a mistake.”

    Exactly how I feel.

    Don’t underestimate how much aid you can get, though. My cousin is going to BU on a hefty merit scholarship.

    I hear you about summer visits. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I hate weekend traveling during the academic year, and S hates to miss any school days. But our summer is also getting kind of booked up like whoa.


  2. Private colleges don’t require perfect SAT scores.

    Forgive me, but I have gathered from reading your blog over the years that you are not disposed to like private colleges. Sometimes, though, private colleges can offer a less expensive route through college, especially in these days of declining state support for colleges.

    Like everything in life, “It depends.” For many students, being savvy about all the options can lead to a better outcome. And what seems less expensive at first may end up more expensive in the long run. I recommend and for first stops to try to gauge college costs.

    For example RPI and SUNY Binghampton. According to College Scorecard, RPI costs about 50% more than SUNY (~$16 K) per year. However, ten years after graduation, the RPI alumni who took out federal loans are earning ~$23K more per year. And then, looking at College Navigator, the net cost varies with family income.

    For a family making between $75,000 – $100,000, on average the net price for RPI is $33K. For the same income level, SUNY Binghampton is ~$21K (in-state student.) So it would cost that average family about $12K more per year, but the difference in lifetime earnings mean that the private college could be the better choice, depending on the student’s career interests. (In general, tech-oriented students will earn more after graduation.)

    I have neighbors who have sent children to the Colorado School of Mines. They are very, very happy with their net cost, and the quality of education their children are receiving. The further a student is willing to go, the more generous the merit aid might be. “Geographic diversity” and all that.

    A nice boy with “the jet fuel” who could contribute to a college’s social/athletic life might get very nice merit offers, particularly from private liberal arts colleges. It is important to gauge how your kid’s SAT/ACT scores stack up in context, i.e., in comparison to the college’s 25th to 75th percentiles. Both College Navigator and the College Scorecard, as well as Big Future from the College Board, provide a graph of those percentiles.

    For more granular information, you should check out colleges’ Common Data Set.


    1. However, ten years after graduation, the RPI alumni who took out federal loans are earning ~$23K more per year.

      You’re implying causality when it seems far more likely to me that both the higher income post-graduation and the decision to spend more for a private school are both caused by higher levels of parental income.


      1. I looked up Kenyon. The income 10 years after graduation was less than SUNY Binghampton’s income. (SUNY Binghampton enrolls 27% of students from families eligible for Pell Grants; Kenyon enrolls 10% of Pell-eligible students.) Many colleges that don’t offer sufficient STEM majors may enroll more students from wealthier families, (particularly if they don’t offer much aid), but the post-graduation income doesn’t correlate with family income. It correlates pretty strongly with choice of major.

        At a certain level of income, many colleges have the same sticker cost, particularly at colleges that only offer need-based financial aid. If you look at the college navigator for different colleges, you can see that schools vary wildly in their policies on tuition.

        For example, for a student from a family making up to $48,000, the average net price according to College Navigator is:

        Kenyon: $7,391
        SUNY Binghamton: $13,534
        RPI: $25,623
        Rutgers: $14,073
        CSofM: $21,964
        Harvard: $3,866
        UChicago: $6,582

        For a family making $110,000 and more:

        Kenyon: $45,263
        SUNY Binghamton: $22,275
        RPI: $38,371
        Rutgers: $27,086
        CSofM: $28,144
        Harvard: $37,275
        UChicago: $40,693

        Now, one should take into consideration that students at RPI and CSofM, and STEM majors at the other colleges, would be more likely to score paying internships during college.

        I could pull more examples, but the point is that IT DEPENDS. There is a reason middle class parents get very concerned about their children’s GPA and test scores during high school. It can make a huge difference in the cost to the family.

        Barrett, the honors college at ASU, has very attractive offerings for National Merit Semifinalists. The University of Alabama does as well.

        In my opinion, it is best to look at the child and define what his/her interests are, when considering colleges. If a high school senior wants to become a middle school teacher, an expensive out of state college is not the right choice. The standard in state university with the best teacher’s prep program, and a successful placement rate, would be a more rational choice.

        There’s another game going on. Colleges are effectively selling spots in their flagship universities to out of state and international students. This is forcing some students to decide to go out of state to public flagships elsewhere. I don’t think this is a good trend, as out-of-state publics can be more expensive for the student than private colleges.


    2. “A nice boy with “the jet fuel” who could contribute to a college’s social/athletic life might get very nice merit offers, particularly from private liberal arts colleges.”

      Come to think of it, a lot of colleges are desperate to even out their gender balance (it can be about 2-1 on some campuses like the one my husband teaches at). I don’t know if they are willing to pay for that, but being a boy may came in awfully useful.


    3. “A nice boy with “the jet fuel” who could contribute to a college’s social/athletic life might get very nice merit offers, particularly from private liberal arts colleges. ”

      False. My son lettered in football, swimming, orchestra and jazz band, his SATs are in the top percentile, he is a National AP scholar. He didn’t get in to most of the private colleges he applied to. The ones that did admit him, offered no merit scholarships. I have talked to the college counselor at the high school, which is ranked in the top 100 schools nationwide, and she says very few of the students get merit scholarships anymore. This has changed in the last few years, but it has not yet become common knowledge. A lot of the schools seem to be prioritizing full-fare students from foreign countries, since the income stream is better from these.

      That said, he is in fact going to a private liberal arts college. With a small music scholarship, plus a small merit award (after I called the financial aid office and had a small tantrum – had to call back and apologize later), plus work-study, the cost is about 8k per year more than state school. Since this college will offer the chance to continue to play in an orchestra/ensemble, and the chance to swim competitively, plus its academic benefits of small classes and teaching professors, I am borrowing the money to pay for it. At the state schools he would not have the music or the athletic opportunities.

      Interestingly looking at that college scoreboard, graduates of the state school earn about $4k p.a. more than graduates of the private school..
      Research shows the difference in lifetime earnings is 100% due to choice of major, except for minorities. The college does not matter, except for minorities and those whose parents did not go to college. Network effects are substantial in those cases, where college does make a difference.

      Research paper at NBER, Estimating the Return to College Selectivity over the Career Using Administrative Earnings Data
      when we adjust for unobserved student ability by controlling for the average SAT score of the colleges that students applied to, our estimates of the return to college selectivity fall substantially and are generally indistinguishable from zero. There were notable exceptions for certain subgroups. For black and Hispanic students and for students who come from less-educated families (in terms of their parents’ education), the estimates of the return to college selectivity remain large, even in models that adjust for unobserved student characteristics.

      US News story,
      Applicants, who shared similar high SAT scores with Ivy League applicants, could have been rejected from the elite schools that they applied to and yet they still enjoyed similar average salaries as the graduates from elite schools. In the study, the better predictor of earnings was the average SAT scores of the most selective school a teenager applied to and not the typical scores of the institution the student attended.

      In an E-mail, the researchers explained the exceptions: “While most students who apply to selective colleges may be able to rely on their families and friends to provide job-networking opportunities, networking opportunities that become available from attending a selective college may be particularly valuable for black and Hispanic students and for students who come from families with a lower level of parental education.”


      1. also note that although my wife and I are college graduates, we are immigrants and our US network is limited. The research mentioned above was another factor in the decision to hock up the extra for the private college..


      2. Anecdotes/not data. Nevertheless, a close friend with a son who falls into the “nice boy, but not over scheduled, with good scores but not straight-A/national merit scholar” bucket reported he was offered merit scholarships. He was a STEM-inclined boy who preferred small, liberal arts schools with engineering programs. The private schools which offered him money were 1) at least 3 states away, 2) offered engineering majors (but not national powerhouses), and 3) were lower on his list of preferences than the private college he chose in the end. The merit offers made the decision more difficult. You would recognize the names of all four colleges involved. The college he chose in the end had the highest average SAT scores; it offered him no money.

        His SAT scores were (reportedly) well above the top of the other colleges’ range. His grades probably (from his mother’s laments over the years) showed lopsided strength in STEM, coupled with geeky outside activities.

        Colleges are paying close attention to “demonstrated interest.” That means that top-scorers may not be seeing the merit offers, because the colleges know very well where they fall in the pecking order of colleges. As applicants are applying to more colleges, admissions offices don’t want to end up with more accepted students than they can house. They also don’t want to let a “good enough” student who will yield if accepted pass through their fingers for a tippy-top student who pines for the Ivies. (If you search for “Tufts Effect” you should find explanations of the phenomenon.)

        Sports aren’t really an advantage for applications, unless the student’s a recruitable athlete. That means they’re talking with coaches, they’re taking part in “summer showcases,” they are bound by all sorts of NCAA regulations. Their application process is entirely different than the regular process, and it starts earlier. Both my kids had classmates “committed” (orally, not by contract) to elite colleges in sophomore year of high school–which, if you walk it back, means they were noticed in late middle school.


      3. Cranberry said:

        “Both my kids had classmates “committed” (orally, not by contract) to elite colleges in sophomore year of high school–which, if you walk it back, means they were noticed in late middle school.”

        Holy cow!


      4. @Amy P, “Holy Cow” indeed.

        But I don’t envy them. It’s an expensive gamble, with a huge opportunity cost. Lots and lots of high school athletes get injured between sophomore and junior year. It’s probably a consequence of poor/over-training at earlier ages, adolescent growth, and unrealistic demands on a growing body.

        When such an injury happens, it’s usually too late for the athlete to reorient him-/herself to Model UN, the physics olympiad, robotics club, community service, etc. Sports demands a great deal of time. The social groups don’t mix all that fluidly in high school. Sports teams love injured teammates spending time on the bench and at games cheering on uninjured teammates.

        Even when it works, the student is committing to a college years before she should. Kids change a lot between sophomore and senior year. They’re also limiting their choice from, say, 8 colleges to 1 college, mostly on the strength of one person, the coach. And playing high-level sports at college makes many majors impossible due to time demands and scheduling conflicts.

        (This isn’t sour grapes. Together, all the members of my family have the athletic abilities of a potted fern.)


  3. RPI is an engineering school — one of the highest paid professions. SUNY Binghamton has an engineering school, but it’s best known for its liberal arts college. Engineering majors always make more than history majors.

    But I’ll get to the public v public college thing in a bit. Let me just do a brain dump on first generation, second gen, and third gen.


  4. I’m both the least credentialed adult in my family (either my current household or the one I was raised in) and the only one employed in academia.


  5. I’m similar to you in that I did all the research, applications, etc. all on my own. We differ in that I’m the first generation to attend university. My parents knew that education was important but were out of the loop in terms of how you actually navigate the system. Luckily in those days it wasn’t as competitive nor was it as expensive (even in Canadian terms).

    To be in that situation today, I don’t think I’d have much of a chance. I had the marks but no contacts to help figure it all out. With lower costs and less competition there was more wiggle room once you were in. Much easier to switch programs, etc. Much easier to at least get to the table.

    Huge kudos to both your parents for the effort and determination and grit (read the book Grit? Worth a look) to hang in there and get their post secondary education.

    Back to college today – it’s such a different world. The stakes are so much higher because of cost and competitiveness and also the uncertainty around jobs (which profession/career?). And that filters down to selecting high schools and extra curricular activities.


  6. If Jonah scores well enough on the SAT to become a National Merit Finalist there are a few state institutions that provide a good bit of institutional aid (ie., free tuition, some help towards room and board). Three that I know of are University of Alabama, University of Oklahoma, and (I think) Arizona State. The state schools often have specialized programs that students apply for that can allow students to be part of smaller communities. (We just finished a College search for my daughter and I have all this specific knowledge that will be obsolete within 5 years, so I’m trying to share as widely as possible).


  7. The University of Alabama offers scholarships to both finalists and semifinalists. For semifinalists, it’s:

    As a National Merit Semifinalist, once you are admitted to UA with a 3.5 cumulative GPA, we will offer you a Presidential Scholarship, which pays the value of tuition for four years or eight semesters. You must be admitted by Dec. 15 of your senior year in high school to receive this award.

    For finalists, it’s: Value of tuition for up to five years or 10 semesters for degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate (or law) studies
    One year of on-campus housing at regular room rate* (based on assignment by Housing and Residential Communities)
    A $3,500 per year Merit Scholarship stipend for four years. A student must maintain at least a 3.3 GPA to continue receiving this scholarship stipend. If a corporate-sponsored scholarship from the National Merit Corporation is received, the total value cannot exceed $3,500. (For example, if you receive a corporate-sponsored scholarship of $2,000 per year, UA will contribute $1,500 per year to reach the total stipend amount of $3,500.)
    One-time allowance of $2,000 for use in summer research or international study (after completing one year of study at UA)
    Technology enrichment

    Important point: deadlines matter. Note that the semifinalists must apply early to UA to receive this award–you can’t wait until January 1st. I seem to remember applications for Georgia Tech need to be in on the early side, in order to be considered for scholarships. (Looks it up.) Yes, October 15th.


  8. You should look at this university here. I don’t know what the scholarship situation is, but there seem to be lots of people from New Jersey and New York around.


  9. For a different perspective, do a little research on the college options for Ian, such as Landmark, the College Internship Program, and Defiance in Ohio (there are others as well, those are the ones off the top of my head).

    You think you have sticker shock now!


  10. Every UMC parent wants to offer advice on college, but it’s hard to offer useful advice without some knowledge of the candidate’s academic and overall qualifications. I understand that Laura may not want to discuss these issues too publicly. I will say that, although some of the state U’s may have fairly mechanical criteria, it was not my understanding that merit scholarship awards were less holistic than admissions generally. So SAT scores are not dispositive. The main point is that you have to drop down a level, or maybe two, from your best admission to get a good merit scholarship offer.


  11. For the past few years, my daughter has insisted that she is going to college as far away from me as possible, i.e., San Diego. But this past week she has been all “BU, BC, Northeastern, UMassAmherst.” Ugh. I want her to see the world, not hang out with the same liberal Northeasterners*.

    *Yes, I know I am a liberal Northeasterner, but contrary to popular belief, I try to avoid being in a bubble, and I certainly want my kids to experience ideological difference, although apparently my daughter has a reputation for being The Socialist in school.


  12. Our girls are third generation on my side and I spent a lot of time counselling Eldest as she went through the process of considering universities. I worry sometimes that we influenced her too much but she’s clearly in love with the Big City U, despite being well aware of its many failings, so there you go. She surprises her friends with her savvy about universities but we do spend a lot of time discussing them: occupational hazard.

    I know we have been holding the reins even more tightly with Autistic Youngest who was told that her only choices were the in-town institutions. We’ll see how she does this year with her intro classes at a slightly less than full–time load!


  13. The data in that report is important and interesting, but I don’t think that folks suggesting a private college for a well-adjusted, smart, NJ teen with a fair amount of social capital are suggesting Southwestern Christian University.

    I’m imagining that one suggests schools like Vanderbilt and Tulane and Willamette, who use merit aid to bring the cost of attendance in their schools to something they hope will be comparable with public state schools. Or to run the NPC calculators at the schools that offer financial aid to make sure that none of them offer aid that bring you into the relevant range.

    As you pointed out in your follow up post, different kids face really different prospects and process. Having the ability to fully fund any school changes the decision making quite substantially. Being able to fund unpaid internships and apartments in NYC yet more levels of choices.


    1. Agreed.

      Good advice goes a long way for the college search. A parent or advisor who can sort through the options is a huge help. Unfortunately, many parents don’t seem to understand the implications of compound interest, nor the effects of delaying repayment of student loans.

      The book _Paying for the Party_ pointed out that those college women (in the party dorm) whose families couldn’t finance success on what the authors dubbed the “party pathway” did not do well at their Big State university. Often the women who had given up & transferred to a regional state college did much better in the long term than those who remained at the original university. The authors also noted that parental support made later success more likely. The supports they cited were such things as the ability to travel to a distant city for an interview. The ability to secure an apartment in a city away from home, rather than requiring graduates to live at home (often in a rural, isolated town.)

      It depends on the student and the family. There’s no guarantee that anything will work. College itself is a gamble. As NCES notes in “fast facts,” The 2013 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2007 was 59 percent. That is, 59 percent of first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2007 completed the degree at that institution by 2013. (That includes public as well as private.)

      The chances of success increase with selectivity. I suspect it increases with test scores, as well. There are many students who will not pass college-level courses. When looking at results for a college, you have to account for the impact of open admissions policies. Is a high failure rate due to the college, or to the students’ earlier preparation? This verges on the philosophical.

      It does no harm to throw in a couple of reach schools, unless the student’s first choice is close to an automatic admit. Even then, I’ve heard of unpredictable outcomes in the whole process. It really pays off to do research. There are many different opportunities at different colleges. For example, there is a program at Tufts which admits undergrads in their sophomore years at Tufts, UMass Amherst, WPI, and UVM to the Tufts Veterinary school. Why those 4 colleges? I have no idea. I do know that it is harder to get into vet school than medical school, and vets are not paid on the same scale as doctors. If a high school student wants to be a vet, Tufts is an excellent veterinary school. A good first list could start off, Tufts, UMass Amherst, WPI & UVM.


  14. My grandparents both had a little college. Their kids all went to college and got graduate or professional degrees (although my dad worked blue collar jobs throughout my childhood). Although I didn’t have a great deal of help with essays and stuff, my dad is a bit of a savant with regard to the college application process. I don’t know how he did it, but in a small town back in the very early 90s, he was the guy who knew about SATs, doing SAT practice tests over and over again, and financial aid. I also did the Johns Hopkins SAT for 7th graders. It’s a complete mystery how my dad learned all that pre-internet, although he did stay in touch with his college friends. However, I only applied to three colleges (University of WA, University of Southern California and Wells (?)). I don’t think I even knew where Wells was, and I have no idea how it wound up on the short list. I got early entrance to USC in their Resident Honors program and Thematic Option and then walked with my high school class for graduation the next year. (My dad was very keen on me doing early college entrance.) Probably not coincidentally at all, my dad’s old college roommate’s son had done exactly the same program at USC.

    For our kids, we definitely have as much or more know-how as my dad did when I was a kid. Our oldest did the Duke 7th grade SAT, although I don’t think we prepped her as hard for it as my dad did me. (But at the same time, I think she is a much mathier child than I was at the same age.)

    Purely economically, it would be easiest on us if all of the kids went to my husband’s college (it would cost less for us per year than their private school), but at the same time, I’d feel bad about telling them that they HAVE to. The current plan is to cap parent help to the equivalent of UT Austin for four years (but with the possibility of a fifth year for a double major). I would ideally like the kids to work, but I understand that there are @#$%^&& unpaid and underpaid internships that make that unfeasible for certain professions. So, fingers crossed! The only really bad thing coming up is that we are on course to have a college senior and college freshman at the same time. If we can just get safely past that year, things should be OK.

    I’ll have a college freshman in four years, if all goes well.

    And the race begins!


  15. I know a number of solid but not elite-college material students who received “merit” scholarships. I would actually call these discounted tuition for schools that compete with the public universities for students. They use their scholarships to bring the price down for the students who are enough better than their average students.

    The super-elites, in general, don’t offer merit scholarships (or athletic scholarships, though Stanford is an exception). A few schools who are trying to climb into the elite do offer merit scholarships. But, in general, to get merit scholarships, one must be much better than the average student, a student that a school is trying to woo from elsewhere (and, the superelites don’t use money to attract those students — Columbia has a profile in its alumni magazine saying that they recruited an athlete by having a pottery program available — which was important to him).


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