College Search? Don't Count on Guidance Counselors

As you help your frantic high school senior complete college applications, you probably have a few unchallenged assumptions about the college search: Princeton would be lucky to have your little scholar, you'll be living on Ramen noodles for the next four years, and your teen's high school guidance counselor has steered him to the right schools. No doubt you're right about one and two, but you may want to rethink No. 3. The odds are high that your child's counselor actually doesn't know as much as he should about admission strategies, standardized tests, and scholarships.

“They talk like they know much more than they really know,” says Steve Syverson, vice president of enrollment at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

To maximize the chances of a happy outcome in your child’s college search, we’ll give you the tools to act as your family’s in-house college counselor.

It’s not that counselors are slackers. Their workloads in public high schools can be staggering: The National Association for College Admission Counseling has documented numbing student-counselor ratios, such as 986:1 in California and 799:1 in Minnesota.

What’s more, the good ones have learned on the job — you can be fairly certain that they haven’t been taught much about the college-admissions process. Bob Bardwell, a vice president at the American School Counselor Association, estimates that only two dozen or so graduate programs offer a college counseling class.

Public-school counselors often know little about colleges outside their state. At one Wisconsin public high school, Syverson says, after counselors talk to students about their intended majors, they give them information about programs at the University of Wisconsin. Kids are steered to state schools despite a large universe of private colleges that could include better academic fits and significant price discounts.

Financial-Aid Knowledge Gap

Financial aid is a critical area where counselors routinely drop the ball. Although counselors often tell parents they need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), they rarely explain how to find the schools that might offer aid based on the results. Some counselors are even confused about the difference between the FAFSA and the CSS Financial Aid PROFILE, the form that many elite private colleges use. Parents need to understand the differences between these two forms because they might qualify for aid at a school that only requires the FAFSA and be disqualified at colleges also requiring the PROFILE.

Many high school counselors also mistakenly believe that the best way affluent parents of smart students can shrink the cost of college is to have their kids apply for private scholarships from groups such as Rotary and Lions clubs. The vast majority of merit scholarships, however, come from colleges themselves. A study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy concluded that the average private scholarship is a measly $1,982. In contrast, according to College Board, the typical student at a private college is receiving $14,400 in yearly grants from their schools.

Be Your Own College Counselor

If you suspect your child’s high school counselor is a novice, here’s how to navigate the process alone:

  • Answer the financial aid question. Determine whether your family will qualify for financial aid by running preliminary numbers at the federal government’s FAFSA4Caster site. For many selective private colleges, you’ll need to use a calculator for the PROFILE form.
  • Hunt for generous schools. If you won’t qualify for need-based aid, look for colleges that award merit aid to affluent students. Lots of schools fall into this category, including Rice University, Boston College and Pepperdine University. If financial assistance is a must, hunt for schools that package financial aid awards with little or no loans, such as Amherst College, Emory University, Washington University in St. Louis and Stanford University.

    You can determine how magnanimous a school is by looking at its Common Data Set. For a quick cheat sheet on colleges with great financial aid, check out the Project on Student Debt.

  • Expand your college search. Cast a wide net. The federal College Navigator is a great search engine for finding and evaluating schools. It lets you generate a list of candidates by selecting criteria such as state, academic major and private or public institution.
  • Be organized. The college process is easier if you follow a game plan. On the College Board’s website, you’ll find a time line that shows students what to do during each of their high school years.
  • Use Naviance. Many college-prep high schools use a software program called Naviance, which lets students and parents research colleges and check the admission track records of previous students at your teen’s school based on their test scores and grade point averages. It’ll help you and your child get a rough idea of his chances of getting into a particular college.

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