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What your college counselor doesn't know

I love high school counselors. For an education writer like me, obsessed with the ninth through 12th grade years, guidance counselors have proved to be wonderful sources of information. The best part of my college admissions book, “Harvard Schmarvard,” was a list of the 100 most underappreciated colleges in the country, which I created by surveying hundreds of high school counselors who knew which non-famous campuses were getting the best reviews from their former students.

An insightful new book on the admissions process, however, has convinced me that many hardworking and thoughtful counselors have a weak spot that I have overlooked. Both they and I don’t have as deep an understanding of the intricacies of college finance as is needed in this era of huge tuition bills. There is also something about the way many high schools publicize college admissions success that might tempt counselors to recommend expensive private colleges over less costly state schools that are just as good.

Perhaps this is not such a problem in the Washington area. We have some of the most experienced and erudite admissions advisers. But the issue is worth considering as families face the difficulties of financing college in a weak economy.

The book is “Debt-Free U." The author is Zac Bissonnette, a 22-year-old journalist and entrepreneurial prodigy who is a senior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Prematurely wise about college marketing and career building, he discredits a number of admissions myths, using his own research and sources such as Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a MoneyWatch.com columnist and the author of “The College Solution|: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.”

“Many high school counselors know precious little about financing a college degree [and] ..... seem to be intimidated by financial aid issues,” O’Shaughnessy says. “From what I’ve seen, the financial advice that many high school counselors dispense focuses a great deal on meeting deadlines.”

Bissonnette believes families borrow far more money than they need for a successful college investment. Public universities provide just as good an education and a start on a desired career as private colleges do. That’s not a new argument, but his follow-up point is: Most students who attend college, private or public, use few of the resources available to prepare themselves for satisfying lives and careers.

Bissonnette has huge ambitions for his life and has found all sorts of programs, mentors and alumni contacts at UMass to set him up as well as if he had gone to Harvard. The sad thing is that so few undergraduates appreciate what their colleges could do for them if they took the trouble to look.

I have never seen research supporting Bissonnette’s notion that high school counselors have an incentive to ignore this fact and push students toward prestigious private colleges. I suspect counselors would find many parents demanding their dismissal if they were caught whispering Bissonnette’s public university siren song to their children.

But he is right about competitive pressures, particularly in private schools, that downgrade public alternatives. “If you’re the parent of an eighth grader, which prep school will look more appealing,” Bissonnette asks, “the one sporting banners from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton or the one with banners from a handful of community colleges and a couple of state universities?”

Forgive me, my counselor friends, but it is time to replay the old private vs. public debate with a more balanced view of where future happiness lies.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | September 2, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Debt-Free U, High school counselors are weak on financing college, Zac Bissonnette book, tendency to favor expensive private colleges  
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Posted by: josecailin1 | September 2, 2010 6:56 AM | Report abuse

Completing the paperwork was the only "help" offered by my guidance couselor, unfortuately I got waitlisted for my dream school because the his section of the paperwork was incomplete.

Posted by: learningasIgo | September 2, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

It is important to use all resources available in order to really get your college applications together, and unfortunately that often means going somewhere else besides the guidance office. Visiting the bookstore can certainly be helpful, especially with some of the books listed in this article on the shelves.

Another great resource for high school seniors is Fat Envelope, http://www.fatenvelope.me/videos . They have many short videos that offer the basics of college applications, including getting teacher recommendations, writing your essays, and taking standardized tests.

Every college hopeful should use every resource available to them in order to get into the right college for their needs, and there are many other options than just your local high school.

Posted by: megamelfina | September 2, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

It's quite unrealistic to expect high school guidance counselors to have a detailed knowledge of college financing. They shouldn't even try unless they have some particular expertise. Of course if they are old enough to have put their own child through college, them maybe they can give some useful advice on finances.

The most important service that a high school guidance counselor can render wrt finances is to advise aspirants that a worth while undergraduate degree can be obtained from a multitude of colleges and universities. High school students should be advised that the only "dream" colleges around are those that are affordable.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | September 2, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Honest to god, it's absurd that you'd be focusing on this as a problem, as it's only something that affects the chichiest of rich area schools. To the extent that high school counsellors know their kids at all in most schools (including upscale suburban ones), they routinely DOWNGRADE kids' expectations. I have seen this time and again at all the major schools in the Bay Area, from rich kids to low income kids.

Totally bogus "problem".

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | September 2, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

This post is very misleading because the elite private schools have very generous financial aid packages to middle-class families. For many families, it may well cost less out of pocket for their child to attend Stanford than UC Berkeley.

Now if a family is considering a 2nd or 3rd tier private college that doesn't offer the same kind of generous financial aid as the elite schools, that's a different story. And I think there probably is pressure on counselors to push the "brand name" schools even when it may not make financial sense because of the prestige factor.

My youngest brother was a good student in high school but not an overachiever. He didn't bother to apply to any of the Ivies, not even the one at which he was a legacy, because he knew that he wasn't a competitive candidate. But he didn't apply to our state's flagship university either, because in the environment in which we grew up, that was treated as tantamount to "failure".

Posted by: CrimsonWife | September 2, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

How many of the college counselors even suggest a cash-strapped student start at a community college and then transfer to a four-year college later on? The local community college coordinates many of it's courses with the state universities and is abandoning the quarter calendar in favor of the semester one used by the state universities. A student with an associate's degree from the community college can in most cases simply enroll at a state university with no loss of credits--and a lot less debt for those first two years. But my experience with guidance counselors and teenagers has been that if they want to attend a community college for anything besides a technical program, they have to discover it on their own. There's still a feeling that community colleges are only for those who can't get into the "real" schools.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 2, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

And a word for the small, less-elite private colleges that give tons of money to thousands of students every year: I think it safe to say that guidance counselors at nearly every high school in the country (excepting high-achieving and/or elite schools that have "college counselors") usually don't have the time or the resources to really know which are the best schools to which the hundreds of students on their caseloads should apply. Most of the excellent counselors I know in this area don't recognize the names of great schools like Earlham, Occidental, and Rollins, for example, because those schools are not local and don't have big football teams.I know two counselors (hardworking, caring professionals) who tell kids who don't have a prayer of getting into a top-tiered school, "Oh, apply to Harvard if you want to. Give it a shot; you never know!" This kind of advice is part of the reason Ivies are consistently overrated and that excellent small schools like the ones mentioned above are overlooked by students who would do so well at them.

Posted by: babyjack2009 | September 5, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

To babyjack2009 -
I love to recommend some of those great schools you mention (and, yes, I've heard of and know about all three of those schools, believe it or not). In my area, great schools that may not have a lot of name recognition among my students include Grinnell, Cornell (IA), and Beloit, among many others. My problem is the reverse of what you write - how to get kids and parents to realize that it's okay to apply to a school that's not in the Big Ten or the Ivy League.

Posted by: beth78 | September 5, 2010 11:10 PM | Report abuse

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