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Friday, March 19, 2010

Professional College Counseling Pays Off In The End

Q. My daughter is a sophomore in high school. A couple of her friends are working with college counselors, not in the high school, but rather, private counselors. Why would a family pay for college counseling? Is it worth the price?

College Planning Professionals
A. We often hear from parents about how great their student's high school is. We hear how much they love the student's experience, curriculum, clubs and extracurricular events. What we seldom hear, however, is how great the college advising is. (You might think this is limited to public high schools, but surprisingly, this comes from some private high school patrons as well.)

With the average student-to-adviser ratio in our local (CUSD) public school district somewhere between 750:1 and 1,000:1, is it any wonder? While these dedicated servants love, guide and advise their students – often with a passion – the fact is, they are woefully outnumbered, and with the horrific budget issues facing our state, it doesn't appear to be getting better anytime soon.

While the guidance advisers are aware of the high cost of college and that the college-planning process has become increasingly complex and confusing, there is little they can do to effectively counsel their students. There is no time or funding to seek professional growth.

A report recently published by Public Agenda/Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ( reveals the reality of the guidance received by high school graduates who are college-bound. It doesn't reflect well on our state of affairs at the national level, but it does shed some light on the fact that students need help. More students are dropping out of college than are graduating. And this can be avoided.

Now to the point of this week's column – while the report referenced above reveals why college-bound students need help from independent college counselors, it doesn't say how to find that help. The higher the student's academic and personal performance, the more the family needs expert guidance, especially with the competitive climate of today's college admissions. Sadly, many high schools take the position that there is no need to seek professional guidance.

So for a plan of action, let's start with what not to do. Be wary of seeking advice from friends. Just as you wouldn't seek tax advice from a teacher or legal advice from your hairdresser, seeking advice from those who are not experts college planning will cost you in the long run.

Finally, here are three tips to assist you in assessing the competence of an independent college counselor:

• Interview the counselor, focusing on his or her experience in college-funding strategies, a thorough understanding of EFC, student positioning and academic/career placement, and what the counselor's ideal student client "looks like."

• Realizing that the No. 1 reason students don't complete college is "financial hardship," make sure your independent college counselor understands the complexities of financial aid – both need-based and merit-based. And confirm his or her willingness and competence in working with your existing financial adviser and accountant. If you don't have such a team of financial professionals, your independent college counselor should have a network of experts to refer you to who know the implications of income, assets, trusts, investments, etc., relative to financial-aid eligibility.

• With over 2,300 four-year colleges, make sure your independent college counselor has the tools to find the college with the right fit. Keep in mind that affordability must come first, followed equally by academic, social, cultural and spiritual fit.

If a counselor can assist your student in graduating in four years from the college he or she enters as a freshman in an affordable fashion for the student and the parents, it's hard to put a monetary value on such an accomplishment.