DISCLAMER: Again I must inform students that this post is directed at the parents in the crowd. So if you are a student looking for info about MIT or the college process, you are in the wrong post. SCRAM! This is an adult swim.
Welcome back to the Nance Effect! Hopefully you found a few nuggets of wisdom in my last post that will help you and your child survive the process of choosing the right college for him/her. As you may suspect, this blog is written from the point of view of a man of color to an audience of color. With that said, I believe that the vast majority of my writings are applicable to the masses. Everyone is welcome, come on in, the water is just fine.
In my first piece I addressed philosophical issues and solutions for surviving the college decision process. In this piece I want to address specifics – in particular, down and dirty pitfalls that make this process focus on the wrong factors and make it a living hell for all involved.
As previously noted, I’ve spent the last six months talking to your offspring about the college process. I must say that they have handed themselves with extraordinary grace, intelligence, maturity and savvy. Still this process is as counterintuitive as a good golf swing or skydiving – or for those of us with young children, paying more for daycare than rent. (I know, I know, that’s another conversation altogether).
Despite all that your children are saying – or in some cases not saying – they need you to help get them through this process. Here is where it gets counterintuitive for you; to be effective you must say more by saying less. You must make your words count and you must help to keep your kids on the right decision making path. AND YOU MUST LET YOUR CHILD MAKE HIS OR HER OWN DECISION. Avoid the minefields or at least know where the problem areas dwell and your child will be the better for it.
Every year I scratch my head as many minority students fall into the trap of not attending a school such as MIT because they did not understand the Financial Aid process. Don’t let your child fall into this trap. Here are a few myths/traps.
- How do you know that you can’t afford MIT if you haven’t seen the financial aid package? Raise your hand if you’ve had a conversation with you child about just how much you can afford to spend on his/her education. What’s that, 4 or 5 hands? Just as I suspected. Look, I know how anxious this topic makes you. Guess what, so does your child! Whenever I’m recruiting for MIT I start my presentation by stating the costs of MIT for 4 years. Without fail, the majority of students are quick to point out that I should move on because their parents can’t afford MIT. So parents, I pose the same question to you that I ask your children: How do you know that you can’t afford MIT if you haven’t seen the financial aid package? It’s not the advertised sticker price of a school that you should worry about; it’s the final, parent contribution that should draw your attention. And you won’t have that until your child’s financial aid package is complete.
- Make sure that you complete all requested paperwork in a timely manner. Once your child is admitted, the decision-making clock begins. It is difficult to make a decision if you don’t know the terms of the financial aid package from a given institution. Not knowing can be paralyzing. There is no doubt that this missing factor will add lots of stress to an already stressful process. Remember, many institutions have a finite amount of financial aid that they dole out on a first come, first serve basis.
- Know the ways that financial aid is packaged. At MIT a student’s financial aid package consists of a combination of grants, loans and jobs from private sources, MIT and the government. Grant aid is an award based on financial need that the student does not have to repay. Loans are a type of financial aid, which must be repaid, with interest. The federal student loan programs are a good method of financing the costs of your college education. These loans are better than most consumer loans because they have lower interest rates and do not require a credit check or collateral. Some even provide a variety of deferment options and extended repayment terms. Federal Work-Study (FWS) provides undergraduate students with part-time employment during the school year. The federal government pays a portion of the student’s salary, making it cheaper for departments and businesses to hire the student. For this reason, work-study students often find it easier to get a part-time job. Eligibility for FWS is based on need. Money earned from a FWS job is not counted as income for the subsequent year’s need-analysis process. (These definitions were taken from the FINAID website. Additional financial aid definitions can be found here: http://www.finaid.org/questions/glossary.phtml
- When in doubt, always go to the source! You should visit the web site of the school and also find out the email or phone number of the financial aid counselor who is handling your child’s case. Call/email if you have questions. Although it may be tough to get through, persistence pays off.
- Not every scholarship is equal. Yes, there are many schools out there promising full-ride scholarships. There are also many car dealerships offering you a new car for $99.00 down and $99.00 per month. If you were buying a car and it sounded too good to be true, you’d be suspicious. The same should be true of scholarships.
- Know what questions to ask about financial aid. What is the appeal process? How will the institution count outside scholarships? What is the policy for divorced parents? Is there a payment plan? What are the residency requirements (for state schools)? Is this award need-based or merit-based?
- Know the questions that you should ask about any “fantastic scholarship offer”:
- Is it guaranteed for 4 years? Many of the full-ride scholarships only cover year 1 or maybe year 2; then the grant aid (free money from the institution) is replaced with loans.
- Does it come with a minimum GPA requirement? Some scholarships require students to maintain a specific GPA. In some cases, the scholarship is terminated if a student drops below the minimum.
- Is it tied to a specific major or program? If the scholarship is tied to specific major or program, your child may lose funding by simply changing his/her major of focus of study.
- What out-of-the-classroom requirements are attached to the scholarship? This is important because it can really suck up your son/daughter’s free time. A scholarship that requires 75 hours of community service per semester can make for a rough transition to college.
- If at all possible, make sure that your children visit campus before making a decision. They should visit even if they visited before being admitted, because they’ll be in a completely different space now. Your child’s previous visit brought her to us as a candidate. Now she comes to interview us. We know that her savvy has grown exponentially and that she now comes seeking answers to very specific questions. Before she asked about majors and now she’ll ask about classes. Before she asked if there are sororities on campus and now she’ll ask about the pledging process. Your child is not just coming to go to school here, she is also coming to live here for the next 4 years.
- If there is a minority visit program, do it. Campus visits are particularly important for minority students because they need to get a feel for the campus climate. Additionally, they need to understand the community that they will be joining in visceral ways. This happens quickly when they are immersed in the campus climate via these types of programs.
- Should parents attend? Yes, with some rules. Of course you are welcome to attend campus open houses for admitted students. We call ours CPW (Campus Preview Weekend). You need to feel good about where your child will study and play. However, you must remember that this is his/her decision. I don’t care how close you and your children are, they will act very differently in your presence. Remember the Eisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
- If you decide to attend, remember to observe the following rules:
- Part ways at the beginning of the program and don’t reconvene until the program is over. (Except for those few joint activities.)
- Attend all of the parent receptions and seminars. We spend a lot of time putting these programs together to answer your many questions. Don’t forget that many of us are parents too!
- Compare notes with other parents. If you have specific questions, ask if it is possible to speak to parents of students who have been through the process already. Some institutions even provide a list of parents to contact from your hometown.
- Visit Financial Aid First! BRING ALL PAPERWORK WITH YOU! In fact, try to get everything to the Financial Aid office before you arrive.
- Go to all the places that provide care for your child. Go to the medical center so you’ll know how the staff handles cases of illness, eat in the dining facility so that you’ll know what the chow is like, take the campus tour so you’ll know how far she has to walk in the cold, go to campus safety so that you can understand how safe your baby will be.
- Take plenty of notes. On your trip back your child will babble on and on about what he/she experienced. Notes help you to ask the kinds of questions that promote sound decision-making.
- Encourage your children to do the same. If the experience was good, they’ll rattle on forever. If the experience was bad, they’ll become very tight-lipped. Lists can help you to understand and interpret the visit.
- Ask a ton of questions! This is a very complicated process. If you don’t ask, we’ll assume that you understand everything.
I could go on forever with tips for choosing the right college but I’ll stop here. I can’t say enough times that this process can be overwhelming if not managed properly. Also remember that this can also be a beautiful experience. If you avoid the common pitfalls and communicate with your child, you will bear witness to a defining moment in his or her transition into a young adult. After all, isn’t this one of the moments that you’ve sacrificed and planned for all of his/her life?
Enough from me, let me hear from you. Do you have any suggestions or pitfalls to avoid?