Navigating through college choices

10 04 Colleges1

Gilford High School senior Connor Leggett discusses his college choices with guidance counselor Laurie Jewett on Wednesday. (Tom Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)

Local counselors advise students to weigh costs vs. name-brand value

By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN

Students considering post-high school education and careers have many options, according to area guidance counselors, but lists of college rankings are not much help in making a decision.

Schools.com recently put out a list of “the best four-year colleges in New Hampshire” which ranked the Durham and Manchester campuses of the University of New Hampshire as the top two, followed by Keene State and Plymouth State. The rankings seem reasonable, given the quality of education in the University System of New Hampshire, but naming Dartmouth College number five on the list raises some eyebrows.

The prestigious Ivy League college scored lower because the algorithm used to rank the schools relied upon metrics that included tuition and fees, the number of degrees and certificates offered, student services, online classes, rates of graduation, retention, and transfer.

“We’re not necessarily using those different reports,” said Laurie Jewett of Gilford High School’s guidance office. “We work hard with students on identifying schools that are right for them, looking at how do they report their schools, how are the entrance requirements met, and matching students with academic and financial needs.”

Jewett said they develop a profile through conversations with parents and students, looking at affordability, preferences for large or small, rural or urban colleges, “and we always say, ‘Visit the school, if possible, and ask, “Is this the school for me?”’ which is important. What they think they know is not necessarily what they experience when they get there. Experience it for yourself, not what others have said.”

Gilford senior Connor Leggett knows exactly what he is looking for. Taking an honors course in physics, as well as two online courses, in statistics and computer science, Leggett is trying to decide between Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Virginia Tech, while also considering the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is giving some consideration to Harvard, but is not sure the cost is worth it for what he is interested in pursuing.

Robert Rondstadt, a Lakes Region resident who is author of the book “Surviving the Tuition Tragedy” and an article “Paying for College: Lower Tuition for Everyone or More Financial Aid for Some?” emphasizes value over cost.

“There was a student who would have come out with $135,000 to $140,000 in debt from a well-known school, and ended up going to UNH on my advice,” Rondstadt said. “Going to a party, someone would be happy to say they are going to a name-brand school, but it would have taken 20 to 30 years to pay that off. It’s about finding the value.”

For the same reason, he dismisses college rankings. “You need to take what comes out in a US News and World Report survey with a grain of salt,” Ronstadt said. “They, unfortunately, do not reveal what I call the diamonds in the rough. What students really need to be looking for are world-class departments or areas of study within the college, and rankings do not give you that.

“You might have a Class A university that gets high rankings, but choose a department that is really lacking. A lot of B and C schools that don’t make the rankings may have outstanding departments in history or science or literature.

“The point is that it’s critical for students to know why they want to go to college and what they want to study.”

Resources

Jewett said some students come to the Guidance Office with no idea of where they want to go.

“My advice is always, ‘Do your research, and it takes some work, but you always want to have the doors open,’” Jewett said. “‘Come May, you decide which door you’re going to walk through.’”

Holly Vieten, guidance director at Inter-Lakes High School, said the Center for College Planning is “a huge resource” for students looking for the right fit. The Higher Education Loan Program provides education loans; the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation assists with loan repayment; Granite State Management and Resources provides help with federal and private student loans; the Center for College Planning addresses the process of applying for and managing loans, as well as offering programs on college admissions requirements and other workshops; and the New Hampshire Higher Education Loan Corporation is a lender that works exclusively with student loans.

Ronstadt said students who still haven’t figured out what they want to do should consider taking a gap year or signing up at a liberal arts college where they can take a wide variety of courses.

“You’re at a huge disadvantage until you know which field of study you’re interested in,” he said.

“That’s one of the reasons we have so many transfers. They realize after a year or two that the college doesn’t have what they need, or they didn’t know the need for a variety of experiences.”

Gilford students tend to gravitate toward particular colleges, but those choices may vary from year to year, Jewett said. A few years ago, many students were interested in Endicott College, then the next year, it was Merrimack College.

“A lot of it is what their peers are doing,” Jewett said. “We always tell students to look in-state, and then to research out-of-state colleges that may be within their means.”

She encourages students to go to online search engines to look where their personal interests lie, to help focus their decision-making.

A good option for a lot of students is the dual-enrollment options between the community college system and the state’s colleges. Students may enroll in one of the community colleges first, then transfer credits to a four-year college.

“There are some phenomenal programs with the community college system,” Jewett said.

Alternate pathways

A gap year can work best if the student has a well-thought-out plan to do something meaningful, Ronstadt said. Interesting work that looks good on a resume or something that improves a student’s chances for financial aid are useful, he said.

“It’s always a risk, if you go down a different pathway,” Rondstadt said. “You may decide the path is looking pretty good and you don’t need college. But there are a lot of ways to get educated, and sometimes the pathway you’re on allows you to get that education.”

As an avid tennis player who formed the Lakes Region Tennis Association, Ronstadt said even that sport can provide an education. “If you’re a world-class tennis player, you can really get educated, going around the world and learning different cultures and picking up a language. You can get educated in a different way on a different pathway.”

Then there is the military option, where those in the service can accrue money for college and attend with less debt.

“The essential thing is to end up with manageable debt, which for me is $20,000 or less, rather than ending up owing $50,000, $60,000, $70,000, or $100,000,” Ronstadt said.

While the number of online courses was one of the criteria for the Schools.com survey, Jewett said she does not see a lot of students choosing a school based on those courses. Once in college, however, online courses do provide an opportunity for additional learning.

“More and more schools are offering that option,” Jewett said.

“I always tip my hat to guidance counselors,” Ronstadt said. “They have so many things on their plates, and helping students choose is a tough thing to do.”

 

 

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