As many of you know, I conduct college planning workshops for families around town once or twice a month.  I also lecture about college and consult with a handful of independent high schools throughout the U.S. and abroad on this topic.  If I counted, I’d say that I probably speak in front of 1,200 plus college-bound students and their parents in any given year (and I meet privately with hundreds more).  And… of all the issues that I discuss in these meetings – sky-rocketing tuition, virtual classrooms, socio-economic bias on the SAT,  the lack of validity in national school rankings, an increasingly porous fire wall between admissions and financial aid offices, etc., by far and away the most shocking of all to audience members… is the new normal six year standard for completion at America’s colleges.    

Yes, folks, it’s true. What used to be perceived as an abberation for the slacker, the ‘5 and 6-year plan’ has now become mainstream.  So much so that the graduation rates you see on the College Board website or on your student’s financial aid confirmation reflect the six, not four year rates.  (So be careful when reading these statistics).
As for what’s happening in our own backyard, sadly the picture ain’t pretty.

The University of Florida, our flagship public university (no offense to those national champs in Tallahassee), is the only one that actually graduates more than 50% of its students in four years; 58.6% of Freshman Gators can expect to get their degrees in four years.  Across the corridor at FSU, that number is only 49.5%. At UCF the number drops to only 33.5%.  USF is worse: only 24.9% of their incoming freshman will leave with a degree after four years.

And the problem is not unique to Florida.  The average time it takes to matriculate from public universities in the U.S. is 5.5 years (as opposed to 4.1 years for students at private colleges and universities).  Among the top 100 schools with the best 4-year graduation rates, there are only four major public university exceptions:  The US Naval Academy, The US Air Force Academy, the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary (Thomas Jefferson, W&M Class of ’62, er, 1762, might be proud).

Why is this happening?

There are many reasons, but two are most responsible for the delay:

1. Overcrowding at state schools.  Because of limited resources, state universities don’t always have the capacity to offer students a seat in every course. Some courses are not offered every semester, especially the high-demand seminars with the top professors, so if your student cannot gain a spot in said class, then his/her college career will be elongated.

2. Failure to meet demonstrated financial need.  This one may be more complex (I offer further explanation at my public workshops).  State schools tend to be less generous in meeting financial need, which results in students taking additional, burdensome student loans to cover the “gap” in need.  After a couple three years some kids find that they must withdraw or transfer when they are unable to make ends meet.  Many private colleges with the better financial aid policies cover more of the demonstrated need, thereby reducing the out-of-pocket cost even when the sticker price may be much higher.

So, how do we help our kids buck this trend?  For starters, I begin working with my students as early as I get them (preferably before 11th grade)… and we don’t start by talking about the FOUR years they’ll spend in college, but by discovering what they like and what they’re good at, and what they dream that they’ll be doing for the forty years that follow college.  In other words: Begin with the End in Mind.  So we do.   I have a number of specialized assessments at my disposal, but you can do a similar exercise with your student on the College Board site. This serves three purposes:  one, it drives home the fact that entering college is not  an extension of high school, or 13th grade… it serves a higher purpose of preparing you for a life after you’re educated.  Two, it helps the student focus on college for this purpose, beyond the smiling faces and winning teams that they see on the brochure.  “If I like to do X, will College Y provide me with the skills, training and entry into doing so?” And finally Three, it ties a student’s high school choices, college application and admissions approach to their true passions and goals — as opposed to a college resume built on ‘what they think or heard schools are looking for.’   Admissions officers can sniff out a ‘packaged’ or padded applicant in less than 30 seconds.

Colleges want authenticity, focus and passion. And, of course, good grades in rigorous courses.

You should be working on an integrated college admissions strategy with your child well before they begin to apply.  While still in high school, help them identify their strengths and tie them to their interests, their career goals, and to their college education.   In doing so, you’ll find that when the time comes, not only will your child develop a rational and targeted list of colleges, but s/he will be better prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to them upon receiving their acceptance letters.

If you have a college-bound 11th grader at home, I’ll soon be posting an announcement about my 7th Annual Early Bird College Admissions and Application Bootcamp in the next few weeks.  In the interim, if you have any questions about paying for college then register for my upcoming College Workshops next month.  You have two options, one in Miami and another in Weston.  I look forward to seeing you there.

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