Across 16 years as a grant writer for a nonprofit that helps low-income kids apply and get into college, I kept up to date on the latest research and statistics, best practices, and trends in college admissions and access. I also spent several summers serving as a writing coach to guide kids through the process of writing personal statements for their college applications. Though I’m no longer in that job, I’m about as well-versed in the college application process as a person can be.
Or so I thought.
Because when it comes to getting my own daughter (now a junior in high school) into college, I’ve got to find a way to turn all that theory I’ve accumulated into something useful in practice.
Can You Rely On Schools For Help On How To Apply To College?
In my work, we specifically focused on low-income students, many of who would be the first in their families to go to college; these kids need more support because they often come from families and communities lacking the experience and knowledge of the college planning process.
Yet, now that I’m a civilian in the area of college admissions and access, it’s easier for me to see the bigger picture: the school guidance system in this country is broken—for everyone. In my daughter’s high school experience, counselors have disappeared as quickly as drummers in Spinal Tap; over two years she’s had four counselors—three of them in just one year. From that, I pretty quickly learned that there was very little chance a counselor might get to know my kid well enough to provide individualized support.
And, when school counselors do stick around it seems like they’re being asked to spend more time serving as social workers than providing academic guidance in general and college planning specifically. What little support there is for families in many public schools is outsourced to nonprofits and consultants, many of whom provide “free” initial seminars that conclude by marketing their paid services. And the meager information provided is usually targeted at juniors and seniors—a serious financial misstep now that FAFSA asks for prior-prior year taxes pegged to the sophomore year.
Handling College Admissions When You’re Middle Income
Talking to the parents of my daughter’s friends, it’s also become clear that applying to college is even complicated for adults who do have college degrees. Seems there’s a good reason there’s a booming market for expensive private college planning consultants. But what if, like my family, you’re in the middle? Not on the radar of nonprofits rightfully helping those who need more help but also unable to pay the thousands of dollars to get a consultant’s aid to get your kid into a college you can actually afford.
My husband is a writer/director/actor who works as an artistic director of a tiny theater in our town and I have always worked at nonprofits; needless to say, we have little saved for retirement or college. We’re right smack in the middle of the income spectrum—which is exactly where you don’t want to be when it comes to financial aid. Our EFC looks more like a nonprofit salary than it does a figure we’re expected to have available for tuition. We’ve always been upfront with our daughter about the lack of a college war chest and the need to get good grades and test scores to qualify for scholarships and merit aid, and thankfully she’s (mostly) listened and seems to understand the challenge ahead.
When The College Consultant Is Your Mom
So, we’re going into this battle with me as the general and I’m both fascinated and anxious about how that’s going to work. When I helped kids directly on the job, I was Ms. Lisa or Ms. Yoffee—a professional, someone to be respected—i.e., there wasn’t a lot of pushback, and certainly no door-slamming or icy-silent drives in the car. With my daughter, I’m mom—the one who nags about cleaning the cat box and getting enough sleep; and now I’ll be adding researching colleges, writing essay drafts, and completing applications to the list of eyeroll-inducing things I pester about.
When I started that college access job, my daughter wasn’t even born. I just had a passion for the mission and loved knowing that our work helped hundreds of thousands of kids who otherwise wouldn’t have had support get the help they needed to choose to pursue a college degree. Now I’m also grateful for that time because it’s put me in a position to guide my own kid and help friends through this process.
Still, I’m unsatisfied. Going to college (and not incurring significant debt in the process) should not depend on random factors like what zip code you live in; attending a school lucky enough to be served by a nonprofit or agency equipped to support all students in college access; or having a parent (or being friends with one) who just happens to know enough to serve in the role of counselor.
CONNECT WITH OTHER PARENTS FIGURING OUT HOW TO PAY FOR COLLEGE
Lisa Yoffee is a freelance writer with a background in theatre and film who accidentally discovered she had a passion for college access after a friend asked her to volunteer for three summer days as a writing coach helping low-income students craft personal statements for their college applications. That weekend became a career at the nonprofit College Summit which, during her time with the organization, went from serving hundreds of local students to tens of thousands of students nationwide.