05/14/13 — The college hunt: It's decision time

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The college hunt: It's decision time

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 14, 2013 1:46 PM

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Kelly Grace Keen, left, and Patience Hill, seniors at Rosewood High School, talk about how their families navigated the financial aid maze for college. Patience received a financial aid package to attend Meredith College and Kelly secured scholarships to pay for all four years at N.C. State University.

Rosewood High School classmates Patience Hill and Kelly Grace Keen are among the fortunate high school seniors.

They've known for a long time what they want to be when they grow up.

"I have always felt I wanted to be a teacher," Patience said.

"Ever since I was like kindergarten, I have wanted to be a vet," Kelly said.

Turns out the career decision was the easy part.

Next came deciding on colleges, then working on financial aid.

It is an annual ritual practiced by seniors all over Wayne County and it requires talking not only about where to go to school, but how to pay for it, local educators say.

The 18-year-olds estimated they each applied to seven colleges. It helped that they were able to take advantage of a free application day.

Financial aid definitely played a role in the process for the students. Patience has three other siblings, all younger, so she will be the first to head off to college, while Kelly is the youngest of three, so scholarship money would definitely better equip her parents to afford another college student.

Patience said her first choice was East Carolina University because of its education program, but when she discovered cutbacks had affected the state's Teaching Fellows program, she redirected her efforts to Meredith College, where financial aid was still available for that program.

"I sort of leaned toward that because it helped," she said. "After I went and toured the campus, I fell in love with it so it felt like the place I wanted to go."

She was able to secure scholarships that pay out every year and some loans that can be spread out over time. She is also still applying for other, smaller, awards and waiting to hear back from those. At this point, though, the bulk of her next four years are covered.

Kelly also fared well, receiving funds that take care of tuition, room and board at her first-choice school, N.C. State University.

"I have, right now, all of my college is paid for for all four years, so I'm real happy about that," she said. "A few nights ago, my mom listed all the scholarships that I have applied for. It was over 15."

The girls said the application process can be overwhelming to navigate, so they said they appreciated the help given by their school counselor, Greg Lamm.

"He would give us papers, just about the whole senior class, and we could go online and see the criteria," Patience said.

It also helped to have a plan, they said.

"I think for some people that I have talked to, like we know what we want to do, what we want to major in," Kelly said. "A lot are not sure what they will major in, so they're looking at community colleges instead of a university."

The perception of a community college has changed markedly over the years, Lamm noted, not only as an affordable option but for offering a quality education.

"Here, most of the kids are applying to two or three (colleges) at least. They're applying to quite a few," he said. "Wayne Community is still in the mix definitely. Wayne Community is one of the best community colleges in the state, and we really push that.

"We have had valedictorians and salutatorians and kids in the top 10 of their class to go to Wayne Community College just because they hadn't decided what they wanted to do."

With 120 candidates in this year's graduating class, Lamm estimated that about 65 percent will likely enroll at WCC, based on the financial aid awarded and the scholarships the school provides.

"The education there is as good as any of the 16 universities for the first two years," he said. "With the college transfer program, it's a win-win.

"Last year, Wayne Community gave us 22 scholarships. I'm hoping to get about the same this year. It's hard to turn down something that's free."

Wayne Country Day School boasts an illustrious legacy of college acceptance letters, which historically adorn a wall outside Headmaster Todd Anderson's office at the school.

"It's a mix," said Fran Shaw, college counselor. "We have got people who have applied early all over the United States, up to Chicago, out to California. Really it's a big mix this year. But all of them have applied to multiple schools."

The application process may begin early in the senior year, but Ms. Shaw it dates back much earlier.

"We have parent meetings throughout the year," she said. "We start the college process really back in the middle school years, seventh and eighth grades, just discuss what to expect and the tests they're taking.

"By the time they get to 10th grade, it gets more intense. Then we discuss what to expect in their junior year."

While the tendency might be to gravitate to state-supported schools because of the cheaper price tag, Ms. Shaw said she always tells parents not to rule out private schools.

"If it's an economic decision, go into it, it may or may not be their choice, their best choice, (but) I think now private schools have sort of stepped up and they know they have to compete," she said.

At her school, which has 28 candidates for graduation this year, it's been a "complete mix" of responses.

"We have kids who are going to private schools on basically full rides or pretty close to it," she said. "We have kids going to state schools, and some who have turned down state schools for private where finances did play a part in it."

It is not uncommon for students to apply to an average of five schools, although most would caution against sending out a large number.

"We don't really believe in what Todd calls the 'shotgun approach.' It's a waste of time and money and effort, really," Mrs. Shaw said.

For those who are undecided about a major, there may be some trepidation among parents to send their child to a high-dollar school.

"I think the parents have the most fear around that because when they're looking at going in, they just don't want to have a fifth year," she said. "I think you have got to weigh all of your options and not just look at the price tag, especially if it's a student who's a contender for academic scholarships and programs and things like that."

And then there are the students who have their sights set on a particular school because members of their family went there.

"Some have a one-track mind of where they're going to go, even if they have to pay for everything," Lamm said. "They have dreamed of going to that college and that's where they're going to go."

But what happens if their first choice school, or in the aforementioned case of family loyalty, the "legacy school," doesn't produce an acceptance letter?

"State did that to a lot of kids this year," Lamm said. "We saw the postponement on acceptance quite a bit, where they delayed or deferred. Then the majority got in, but I have never seen that many deferred."

Another trend Lamm has seen in recent years has been the economy's effect on college aid.

"I started seeing a decline in scholarships, especially in the state-supported schools -- the Teaching Fellows, the nursing loans -- quite a few that were just eliminated," he said. "They wiped out a lot of those, just so many that are gone. We almost guaranteed those scholarships from year to year, you just knew somebody was going to get it."

At Goldsboro High School, where a large percentage of students are on free and reduced lunch, students have been eligible for "a good amount" of financial aid, school counselor Jason Willoughby said.

"We had a lot of applicants this year, more than what we had last year," he said. "I'm expecting some good things whenever they start notifying us."

The school had 135 seniors this year. While military and college are the two big choices, applicants to colleges are giving themselves options, scoping out private as well as state schools.

"It looks like it's coming down to which one gives them the better package," he said. "I tell them, there's no need to apply to a school that doesn't offer what you want to study."

As a school counselor at Wayne Early/Middle College, Kerri Loury said she exhausts every angle to find scholarships for students -- even the lesser-known awards.

"I'm kind of looking at that senior class, the career fields that they're interested in. I'm searching just as much as they're searching," she said.

With 60 candidates this year, she estimated 10 or so might take the option to return for a fifth year to complete their college portion, leaving 50 to graduate and possibly half of those with an associate degree.

Each senior class has its own personality, she said, even when it comes to choosing a college.

"Every class is very particular about where they want to go, almost like a pattern," she said. "Two years ago, it was Chapel Hill; last year it was Wilmington. This class it's N.C. State."

She typically encourages students to apply early and to aim for at least three choices -- the "reach school" they might wish to attend, the "middle-of-the-road" school they are fairly confident of getting in, and then the one they're most sure about.

Money does play a role in it, she said, but first things first. Get accepted, visit the campus to make sure it's a good fit. And then seek out the financial aid options that are available.