What your college counselor doesn’t know – Jay Matthews

Posted by jcmaziquemd on October 21, 2010

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.


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