The Places You’ll Go

Catherine Horiuchi

MY TWIN DAUGHTERS just finished sorting through college offers and making their decision ahead of the May 1 acceptance deadline. With nearly 3,000 four-year colleges to choose from, how did they decide?

It wasn’t easy. The pandemic didn’t just close our local public schools. It also ended visits from universities and limited school-based college counseling. Counselors compensated with lunchtime workshops, links to webinars, and lots of robocalls and emails urging students to fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Working on their applications from home, my students were deluged with glossy mailings. “The University of Chicago wants you,” I said to one twin. She laughed and replied, “No, they don’t.”

Luckily, during my daughters’ junior year, I attended one at-school event just before the pandemic hit. The presenters explained that neighboring states might be a better choice than our in-state system. They also encouraged parents to help their students build a list of seven to 10 schools in three categories: safety, match and reach. To further my education, I read several books, including The Price You Pay for College, Excellent Sheep, Who Gets In and Why and The Tyranny of Merit.

With COVID-19 disrupting the usual pre-college test taking, applications surged for high-visibility and elite universities that were offering test-optional and test-blind reviews. There was also much interest in colleges with need-blind admissions, especially those where financial aid comes solely in the form of grant money. The resulting deluge of applicants for relatively few spots made it easy for these colleges to assemble an incoming class that matched their wishes, while sharply reducing the chances that any one student would make the cut.

Faced with this discouraging math, we sought out solidly rated, somewhat selective, diverse and interesting colleges where the students’ median grade point average (GPA) and test scores resembled ours. In particular, we focused on four-year schools that had the career orientation essential to one twin, and universities with a lower net cost and the broad program of undergraduate study needed by the other.

Both had sat for the SAT the week before their high school closed, but the prevalence of test-optional and test-blind reviews diminished the value of their good scores. Meanwhile, their high school GPAs weren’t as competitive. Partly that was a result of the distance learning necessitated by the pandemic. But it also reflected the well-known academic performance hit following a parental death—in this case the sudden loss of their father in 2019.

Every college application this year included a question inviting students to describe the impact of the pandemic. Reports suggest that answers to this question heavily influenced application decisions. By contrast, my daughters’ loss of their father is a less universal and less widely understood grief, and no doubt harder for the typical admissions reader to interpret.

I had the twins write their own essays. We made a conscious decision not to play in the space where consultants “advise” students or where parents “help” with essays. Given how easy it is to game these essays, I’m surprised at their oversized importance in the admissions process.

While the girls wrote their essays, I studied key statistics found in federal data, including retention and graduation rates. An example: The state university in our city reports a four-year graduation rate of only 12% and a six-year graduation rate of 55%. Saving money short-term by going local thus creates a likely long-term opportunity cost that’s equal to two years of post-college employment income. I focused on cost, likelihood of admission, speedy graduation and low rates of loan default. This last data point is a good proxy for post-college success.

The twins ultimately decided on a handful of “good fit” schools, expecting to be accepted by one or more. The good news: Each was admitted to and will attend her first-choice school. I have modest sticker shock. The first year alone will cost more than my last full year’s after-tax salary. The best part: I will “contribute” significantly less than the FAFSA-calculated EFC, or expected family contribution. How is that?

Many schools, especially private nonprofit colleges, discount tuition through awards of merit aid. This is one reason to look beyond local public universities. Merit awards for each twin mean that sending the girls to college won’t break the bank. I anticipate today that I have enough to pay my fair share of the tab for the next four years.

My initial promise to my twins was one year of college costs. It’s up to them to show they’re ready to do right by my investment of life savings, as well as by their own investment of time and effort. If all goes well, I’ve promised to continue supporting their studies in future academic years.

What have I learned from all of this?

  1. In the aggregate, graduating from college in four years leads to a long-term positive return on investment. We don’t, however, live in the aggregate. Instead, we live in individual families and in uncertain times. To find good places for your students to apply, you need to know your students’ desires, your family’s capacity to pay, the likelihood of a positive return for the degrees they seek and how that education will feed into their career aspirations.
  2. While some top schools are highly selective, most admit a majority of applicants. For incoming students at any particular college, interquartile ranges for GPAs and SAT/ACT scores are usually available. At private schools, merit aid offers are likely if your student’s GPA and test scores place him or her in the top quartile.
  3. Your children may not be certain of their desired major or which schools might be a good choice. But some things can be teased out. Big city or small town? Big university or small college? Lots of fun or lots of academic collaboration? Avoid shoehorning your kid according to your beliefs about the next 50 years. Honestly, you don’t know.
  4. As a parent, your information needs differ from those of your child. Review all the data you can find on schools your student has suggested, including student demographics, net price and default rates for those who have federal loans.
  5. Colleges that send glossy brochures seek to boost applications and drive selectivity—and thus their national ranking—to new heights. If your student has previously shown interest in one of these schools and wants to apply, know that the likelihood of getting in is minuscule, even if your student appears to be a stellar applicant.
  6. Your student didn’t get in anywhere she applied? Or earlier thought she’d take a gap year before applying, only to be sad now that her friends are heading off to college? No worries. Many schools, public and private, have non-traditional deadlines or rolling admissions. Check out this list.

Catherine Horiuchi recently retired from the University of San Francisco’s School of Management, where she was an associate professor teaching graduate courses in public policy, public finance and government technology. Check out Catherine’s earlier articles.

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