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Studies have shown that when the economy is down people tend to go to school. This includes traditional students, those who enter right after high school, and non-traditional students, those over 25 who are starting later or returning to school.
With this in mind, we were delighted to get some advice from Mary Spiegel, Certified Educational Planner and owner of Spiegel Educational Consulting LLC in Connecticut.
CI: What are the three most important things to think about when choosing a school?
MS: For the traditional college- bound teen, the top three factors – location, and size, academic focus and fit – typically start with the physical parameters such as location and size. “Do I feel more at home on a quaint liberal arts college campus, or do I really want to hit the big city and experience all the excitement of a large university?” That is an essential decision, but one that can take a good year or so of campus visits and soul searching by the student to come up with a personal sense of what size and locale is best.
After those “geography” factors, most students will consider the academic focus of a university. This shouldn’t be approached as a “does it have my major” question because most 17 year olds should NOT limit their search to a specific major. (Unless they are 100% sure they want to be an engineer, for example.) But, certainly it’s important to consider academic factors: both the broader admissions criteria as well as academic strengths in a range of programs of interest to the student.
Finally, it’s critical to consider that hard-to-discern attribute of “fit.” I spend a great deal of time working with my student clients, getting to know their passions, interests, learning style and academic strengths before developing a list of potential “best fit” colleges to consider.
As teenagers, of course, they are constantly changing and this process of ‘best fit” is really a collection of moving targets. However, the important thing is to keep it a student-centered process, not one driven by the ambitions of mom and dad.
For the adult learner, returning to college after a gap, or perhaps facing the daunting step of starting college for the first time as an older student, the priorities are typically more practical. If they are geographically fixed for family or work reasons, obviously, the location of campus is factor number one. A working parent might like the program at a college an hour away for example, but needs to consider family and professional schedules and therefore select a school with slightly less appeal but one that fits his or her time constraints.
After location, the most important factor is clearly the quality of the specific academic program(s). Do they have the program I need? Is it highly regarded in my field? And finally, convenience (including easy parking!) and flexibility of class times to fit the schedule of a working student are important to the older student. Some very traditional four year colleges might not have enough evening and weekend classes for example; but in recent years they have all been tailoring schedules to meet the needs of this growing “non-traditional age” population.
Of course, it goes without saying that cost is a significant factor for nearly everyone these days, so that may be the presumed “top” item in both age groups.
CI: What is the biggest challenge to getting into the college of your choice?
MS: For the traditional college bound student, it is insuring that you have a realistic list. So many times I hear (too late) from parents of students who “didn’t get into any schools on their list” and they call in a panic wondering what to do. The primary reason those students did NOT get into the college of their choice was that their list was unrealistic. Really understanding the process, and knowing where your academic profile fits into the college’s expectations is essential to a successful college search.
For the older student, who perhaps started college a while ago but was not successful, it is important to research the policies of various colleges concerning accumulated credits and how they will view possible academic “bumps” in their past. Some colleges and universities have “fresh start” or “forgiveness” programs which might offer opportunities for admission despite the poor grades in his or her 1st attempt at colleges. On the other hand, there might be unforeseen obstacles you had not anticipated, such as a minimum undergraduate GPA requirement in order to attain a professional accreditation.
Another huge challenge of course is that moms or dads with young children at home will find the whole idea of carving enough time out to study and write papers almost an impossible task. It takes a supportive network of people who believe in your goals as much as you do.
CI: What is the biggest problem students face their first year of college?
MS: The traditional 18 year old undergraduate will face a great deal of change. All of the new found freedom and independence can be exciting, but also overwhelming. The anxiety of being on your own for the first time; the fears of ‘fitting in’ and not knowing what awaits you can also be a challenge for many students. I think their key survival tool is to get involved, early, in a few solid organizations on campus. And, keep an open mind about meeting new people and seeking out supportive friendships. Become a good time manager, and stay ahead in your studies. And, if you tend to take life too seriously, don’t forget to have some fun.
On a more sober note, the growing emotional issues that students face in college are alarming. I encourage all young people to know when they can’t go it alone, and to seek the help of your RA and the counseling center, early in your first year, if those feelings seem to be overwhelming.
In the academic side, many students, even very strong HS students, are surprised to find academic challenges. Even those who always got good grades in high school, get to college only to discover they don’t know how to write a true research paper. Time management is a big issue as well. They are often so used to being supported and nudged and coddled by high school teachers and well-meaning parents, that they can have a difficult time adjusting to the concept of independent learning, setting their own time schedules, and getting long-term projects done on time.
CI: What is the most difficult obstacle facing non-traditional students when they return to school?
MS: Adult learners tend to be very very focused on their objectives. They have specific career objectives, often, and they can be annoyed by the immature attitudes of some of the traditional aged students in the classroom. As one working mom and part time student told me, “when I have group projects, I like to find other ‘seasoned’ students to work with since they seem to have a similar perspective and understand family obligations.”
Also there is the difficulty in balancing home, work and school. Do I use this next hour to read for my class, or get the groceries so my kids can have lunch tomorrow? Do I finish this project for my boss by working late tonight and skipping class, or will I miss too much valuable information in the lecture that night?
On a more positive note, returning non-traditional students have many resources available to them, not only at their local community colleges but also at the continuing education offices of the four year universities in their area. Look at “university college” departments and lifetime learner offices. Call for an appointment and ask about CLEP credit policies. Find out from your state about any specific programs designed to help adult learners complete their degrees. (In Connecticut we have Charter Oak College; however, each state should have a comparable program.) You might find that your degree is closer than you think!
Mary Spiegel, CEP, is the Owner of Spiegel Educational Consulting LLC. A former Director of Admission and a Certified Educational Planner, Mary offers personalized college search and admissions support for students and families, helping students to find the right match for their college choices. For more information visit: Spiegel Educational Consulting.