Bad College Advice: Readers Weigh In

I devoted my last two college blog posts to exploring why high school counselors fail so many students with their college advice.
If you missed them, here they are:
What’s Wrong With High School Counselors
What’s Wrong With High School Counselors, Part II 
I received many great comments regarding those posts and I wanted to share some today, as well as my responses. As always, if you want to weigh in on this or any other subject, please use the comment box at the bottom of this post.

Comments from Readers

Paula, a private college counselor:

Most guidance counselor-delivered college-related presentations focus on financial aid, namely the FAFSA and a cursory mention of the CSS PROFILE. When the inevitable questions about “scholarships” arise, parents are told to beat the local bushes – clubs, activities, businesses, churches, etc – and to enter national competitions. Rarely, if ever, is there a mention of the BIGGEST source of scholarships: merit aid from the colleges themselves. Why? Because HS counselors don’t know which schools give them and how much they give.
Just yesterday I had a parent email me to ask if she had to file FAFSA since she was pretty sure her daughter wouldn’t qualify for need-based aid. First I recommended she get an estimate of her Expected Family Contribution which she did. It was $99,999. Yup, not getting any need-based aid with that! When I pointed out that she would be writing a check for the full sticker price for 4 years at the Ivy League schools her daughter aspires to attend, she seemed resigned.
Then I mentioned that there are lots of terrific schools that give 10 – 15K or more in merit $. She seemed shocked that her daughter could possibly save that much! So, I think that guidance counselors do kids a disservice by not being familiar with schools and their aid policies. Far too much emphasis is put on “name” schools when the better deals – and some would argue, the better outcomes – come from lesser known institutions.

The College Solution:

I couldn’t agree with you more! You summed up a couple of real problems with high school counseling including the infuriating practice of counselors directing students to hunt for private scholarships. Private scholarships represent the smallest source of college cash — just 4% of the awards available.
The biggest source of college grants is the federal government, but many families won’t qualify for the Pell Grant. To get the full grant you typically need to make less than $30,000. Consequently, for many families the biggest source of cash is – as you said – from the colleges themselves.
I also agree with you that financial aid presentations are typically focused on simply explaining what the FAFSA is and how you sign up for it. Counselors completely ignore how families are supposed to find generous schools, which is far more valuable.  Lynn O.

Linda Bianco, a school counselor:

Lynn, I know that counseling varies from school to school, but we’re not all bad! Unfortunately, college counseling programs do not teach much about college counseling, so most of us are self-educated. I have visited over 100 college campuses in 9 years and attend numerous professional development programs. I am well aware of and other sites. We do parent presentations and meet with our students in groups and individually throughout high school to keep them on track.
I think the solution is to have a college counseling component in the counselor training programs.

The College Solution:

Thanks so much for your comment. Of course there are great high school counselors who absolutely understand the college process and can provide valuable advice. I just wish there were more of them. I applaud you for making the effort to visit so many colleges and attend professional development programs.
I’m curious what you think of these professional programs. The financial aid/merit aid presentations that I’ve seen at some of these conferences are scarce and the sessions that I’ve attended have not been very helpful. What has been your experience?  Lynn O.

Jane, a mother:

And so… how to pick a good college counselor? how much to pay? is the $8500 weekend ‘app boot camp’ worth it? or should you spend $3000 for 4 years of advice?
Can a private counselor help your child get in?

 The College Solution

I can’t imagine that spending $8,500 for an application boot camp would be worth the money! I would think spending $3,000 for four years of advice would be a better deal.
I don’t think families should look for a private counselors to get a child into a particular school. Rather I think the goal would be find great academic fits for your child where he/she will be happy and to find schools that you could afford.
Unfortunately, a lot of private counselors also don’t understand the financial end of colleges so they recommend schools in a vacuum. I think that’s nuts! Lynn O.

Theresa Smith, mother:

Definitely found the advice from my two daughters well respected private school college counselor to be very biased. She was more interested in them attending prestigious colleges or schools the high school had relationships with. Also, there was little information or guidance on financial aid and scholarships.

The College Solution:

At many prestigious private high schools I think there is a bias towards the most elite schools. Parents send their children to these high schools to increase their child’s chances of getting into colleges at the top of US News rankings. That’s what the high schools try to deliver.
I agree that the counselors at these schools often don’t provide information about how to shrink the cost of these schools. I think the assumption is that these families are wealthy so they can afford any school, but that’s a big assumption. What’s more, families can make $150,000 to $200,000 and, in some cases, receive significant financial aid from expensive colleges. Lynn O.

 Bottom Line:

No matter where you go to high school, you should assume that you need to take the reins in the college admission process. Do your own research and don’t wait until your senior year when typically high school counselors begin helping students with college.

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  1. Parents be advised. “College Counselors” are scamming you and your student and more often than not give bad advice. So many times high school counselors have to correct their mistakes and re-direct students to the right path. Telling a student to drop Pre-Cal for NYU, recommending a 2.8 gpa student apply to UC schools, writing their college essays for them!!! It’s egregious. Colleges won’t talk to ‘private counselors’ they DO talk to high school counselors, we send in the secondary school reports, we write their letter of recommendations, we submit the students transcript. NOT YOU!

  2. “No matter where you go to high school, you should assume that you need to take the reins in the college admission process. Do your own research and don’t wait until your senior year when typically high school counselors begin helping students with college.”
    Since this is the student’s life we’re talking about, shouldn’t they take the reins in the college admissions process? You say this like it’s a bad thing. Their counselor is there to guide them through it but they need to be actively involved or else they aren’t going to find a college that is the right fit for them. The counselor can suggest great school that they think will be a good fit, but the student is the one who has to live with it. Even if the student had the best counselor in the world, they needs to step up and take responsibility in the admissions process. How else do they learn to be an adult? Too many students (and their parents) expect someone else to do everything for them.
    Your blog is very negative towards high school counselors? Why the beef? I thought this would be a blog about helping students in the college process, not ripping apart professionals. I don’t see how that’s helping anyone.

    1. Hi Cathy,
      Thanks for your comment. Obviously the college process must be driven by the student and their parents. Too many, however, think they will find answers from their counselors and wait until it’s too late to do thorough research. While I believe most high school counselors are not trained for the college admission/aid process, this blog with years worth of free content is intended to help counselors and families be better informed.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. The college admissions process isn’t rocket science but it is information intensive. If you haven’t gone through it recently, you will be on a steep learning curve. By faithfully reading blogs like Lynn’s well in advance of your child’s senior year you will be better prepared to attack the process as an informed consumer. Paying exorbitant rates to private counselors is unnecessary. Educate yourself and then if you need help, ask someone knowledgeable (Lynn answers lots of questions.) And a final word: private counselors don’t get students into elite schools; kids get themselves in.