Casting a wider college net

Harvard University

(MoneyWatch) Who is worried about getting into college?

In my experience it's affluent families, whose children enjoy the most college options, who are the ones most likely to be stressed.

I've had many conversations like the one recently with a mom whose children attend an exclusive private high school in St. Louis. She was incredulous as she told me about all the rejections that bright students she knew had received from institutions like Duke, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins and the Ivies.

I asked the mom what percentage of high schools seniors she though got into their No. 1 school.

"Ten percent?" she replied.

I laughed at her guess.

A financial advisor, who had been listening to the conversation, offered his own guess. "Five percent?" he volunteered.

Actually I had been laughing because the mom's guess had been so ridiculously low.

Reality versus myths
According to the latest yearly UCLA survey of college freshmen, the percentage of students who got accepted to their first-choice school was actually 76%.

Aiming too low
During that same trip to St. Louis I spoke at the girls' high school that I attended. My high school is not in a tony neighborhood and most of the students come from middle class families.

I asked the parents this question: How many of you are stressed about your children getting into good colleges and universities.

Most did not raise their hands. Many of their daughters will be heading to public universities within Missouri or regional Catholic universities, where the admission requirements are not too tough. What these parents are primarily worried about is how to pay for college.

Casting a wider net
Many middle-class families are intimidated by high price tags and assume that they could never afford expensive schools. They assume that a bachelor's degree from a state university will always be the most affordable. This, by the way, isn't true.

Wealthy families with bright children, who attend top private and public high schools, tend to aim for the same two or three-dozen elite institutions, including those that the St. Louis mom rattled off. They don't want to "settle" for schools that aren't in the top echelon of US News & Word Report's college rankings.

Both groups fail to appreciate that there are many wonderful schools that can be great academic choices for students that won't necessarily cost a fortune and that don't reject nearly all their applicants.

When looking at colleges, all these families need to throw a much wider net.