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CHOOSING THE RIGHT COLLEGE

RESEARCH IS THE KEY TO MAKING ONE OF LIFE’S MOST IMPORTANT DECISIONS
By Elaine Rogers |

PICKING A COLLEGE. PLANNING YOUR FUTURE. CHOOSING A CAREER. ITS

a big order. Especially when you’re a pencil-chewing, fingernail-biting teen with all kinds of big dreams, vague goals and half-baked ideas, and all your friends, parents, teachers and counselors are telling you what they think you ought to do or can’t afford to do and didn’t do but might consider looking into. Suddenly, it’s no small wonder some high school seniors and young adults “stress-out” at the thought of actually picking a college and worry that no matter what they do, they’re probably on the wrong path to everywhere or the right path to nowhere!

It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and we all know it shouldn’t be.

Especially in a state like Texas and a metropolitan area like Dallas, where the selection of post secondary educational institutions is plentiful. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, our fair state has 35 public universities, 38 private four-year universities and 50 community college districts (Dallas’ own has eight separate campuses). The Dallas Chamber of Commerce publishes a D/FW college list which includes 26 campuses offering baccalaureate and/or master’s degrees and at least 16 campuses offering associate (two-year) degrees. Add to that the metroplex’s myriad of professional colleges and technical schools, and the options are downright mind-boggling.

To keep college-bound kids from feeling overwhelmed by all the choices, well-intentioned parents ought to remind them that it’s harder to make a bad choice when there are so many good options ready. Next, individuals simply need to sit down and make some personal evaluations.

“From our standpoint,” says Gary Hanson, Coordinator of Student Affairs Research at the University of Texas in Austin. “we ask prospective students ’Do we have what you want?’ If we do, then they have to consider if it’s die best value for the money considering the prestige or the institution and the prestige and the quality of the program in their major.”

After that, Hanson adds, personal considerations come into play, like how close it is to home and whether they want to “get away,” stay close, or even commute.

College counselors advise teens to start a college search by listing specific career interests and researching the types of education and training they require. Next, it’s a matter of familiarizing themselves with the different types of schools that are out there and pinpointing which college “characteristics” hold personal appeal-like whether the campus is small or large private institution or public, situated nearby or far away and offers a liberal arts education or specialized training.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, however, as the list of college characteristics is considerably longer than potential students initially think. For example, a young adult might judge the issue of location simply on the basis of how many miles stand between it and their parents’ home. But there’s also the school setting to consider. Is it urban, suburban, small town or rural? Is it downtown or in the country? Is it a compact, selfcontained campus or a sprawling mass of buildings? Is me housing situation mostly dormitories or off-site apartments?

For that matter, what constitutes “small?”

With enrollment figures estimated at 9,500, Southern Methodist University in Dallas is categorized as a small private college. Certainly, it’s smaller than Baylor University in Waco, which lists almost 13,000 students this year, but it’s still larger than the 7,000 student population found at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. The area’s largest major college, the University of North Texas in Denton, boasts an enrollment of 25,000. And those campuses range from double to quadruple the sizes of several other small, private universities in the area, namely Dallas Baptist University, with 3,300 students, and Texas Wesleyan University and the University of Dallas, both with figures just under 3,000. Then, there’s Paul Quinn University with 650 students and Criswell College with 450, which one might think are the smallest of the “smalls,” only, that would mean Dallas Christian College and Arlington Baptist, with just over 200 students apiece, would barely even register as blips on the college map.

Compare that to local community college enrollments ranging from just under 3,000 at the Cedar Valley College campus and 8,000 at El Centra College to 11,900 at Richland College, and it’s easy to see that small is a relative term-and also that statewide figures registering a steady increase in community college enrollments is indeed accurate.

The point? Identifying preferred college characteristics is one thing, but then there’s the matter of defining them further-as in, “How small is too small and how small is too big?” The University of North Texas is the largest higher-education institution in the metroplex, but with an incredible student/faculty ratio of 17 to 1, it has the community-feel of a small college. “UNT is unique in that it offers all of the resources of a large univeristy, but offers all of the advantages and personal attention of a small college,” says Nancy Le May, Director of Marketing for UNT.

Beyond the “big issues” like degree plans, location and size, other characteristics and issues to investigate run the gamut from admission rates, graduation and retention rates, class sizes and academic rigor to athletics, social activities and clubs, ethnic and gender compositions, religious affiliations and overall campus environments. Then, of course, there’s the matter of money, i.e. tuition costs and financial aid programs.

Happily enough, it’s easier than ever to access this type of data. Besides, the college catalogs found at high school counselors’ offices and the university “view books” institutions mail out upon request, a great many colleges maintain their own websites now.

“College websites have been very popular for several years now,” says Lori Scott-Fogelman, Director of Media Relations at Baylor University. “Some people still like getting information the old-fashioned way, but I think kids especially like being able to surf the net to check out the colleges they’re interested in.”

You’ll have to look beyond the Internet, however, to properly investigate the costs of college. In addressing this issue, though, it makes sense to discuss some differences (besides size) between public and private four-year universities.

Both offer bachelor’s degrees (and usually graduate programs as well) and a fairly wide range of studies and curriculums. The basic curriculum requirements are much broader than what you might find at a two-year school and are intended to expose students to a variety of interests and potential fields of study.

Public universities are subsidized by the state government, and thus, boast much lower tuition costs than private colleges, which are funded through endowments, tuition and donations.

For example, the private universities of Baylor and TCU both cite annual tuition and on-campus housing costs of $15,000, and UNT costs $2,075 for a fall and spring semester. SMU tops them off at a whopping $25,000 per year. Those figures compare to $8,800 at the University of Texas and just over $5,000 at the University of North Texas in Denton. El Centro College is quite affordable with a tuition of $1,100 per year.

Initially, however, these dollar figures shouldn’t be taken at face value. Scholarships, work -study grants and cooperative education programs can help defray the education expenses at both public and private institutions, and sometimes dramatically lessen the differences between the two dramatically. As such, the latter is frequently more feasible than it would seem at first glance.

“Actually,” says Correlia Allen, TCU’s Assistant Director of Communications,” with all other work-study programs and need-based scholarships, plus the merit and non-need-based offerings, it’s really quite possible for a student to go to a more expensive college and wind up paying less than he would have at a public university.”

“A lot of the kids who apply here are convinced they won’t be able to afford it,” adds SMU admissions counselor, Jennifer Russell, “but 84 percent of our students receive some sort of financial aid.

Meanwhile, merit scholarships aren’t reserved only for students who rank in the top 5 to 10 percent of their class, Russell adds. “Certainly, we look for those, but we also look at other students’ school activities and their (application) essays, and a lot of these ’all-around’ students earn scholarships too.”

UNT provides $55 million a year in need-based financial aid and $4 million a year in scholarships. Baylor University lists 75% of its student population as receiving financial aid, and TCU, 63%. Scholarships range from minimal stipends to ’ full-rides,’ but according to the latest edition of Barron’s Best Buys in College Education, 34% of TCU’s freshmen received need-based financial aid, with the average freshman award consisting of “a 2,500 scholarship or grant, a $2,500 loan and a $1,300 work contract.” As such, that same report states than many TCU students pay just 60% of their educational bill.

Seventy-nine percent of El Centra’s students receive financial aid, and the school provides more than $75,000 a year in scholarships. Effective in the fall of 1999, El Centra will participate in the Rising Stars Program, which offers full scholarship and money for books to Dallas and Wilma Hutchins’ ISD students who are in me upper 40th percentile of their graduating class.

“Most colleges are pretty aggressive in offering a variety of financial incentives,” Allen explains.

The University of North Texas is one of those colleges. “UNT is very affordable,” Le May says. “We offer need-based scholarships as well as a variety of merit scholarships.”

In the process of making college choices that are realistic both in terms of one’s interests and family budget, it is often necessary to menially “close the door” on some options and choose a specific direction.

Privately-owned and operated, vocational schools offer specific training options in the fields like cosmetology, mechanical repair, court reporting, paralegal services, travel services, secretarial skills and medical assistance. Typically, vocational courses are short-lasting from five to 12 months, although some, such as court reporting, can take up to three years. The appeal of these types of schools is the concentrated curriculum, job-training focus and shorter course lengths, all plusses for kids and young adults who have already identified a strong interest in a particular career field. Some of these schools also promise job placement programs or high success rates at providing their students with interviews and entry-level job opportunities.

Meanwhile, two year community colleges help high school graduates get their feel wet before jumping into the four-year college arena. Generally, an associate’s degree is conferred at the end of a two-year study program, with most courses or course credits designed to transfer to four-year universities. Like vocational schools, most community colleges also offer specialized job training in certain areas.

“1 think a lot of people are finding that the ’traditional’ college experience isn’t a guarantee of getting the kind of training necessary to excel in some of the more specialized careers they may be interested in,” says Marcela Vargas, spokeswoman for me Art Institute of Dallas.

El Centro College is a community college in downtown Dallas thai serves a variety of students. Not only does the college serve traditional students, but it is also a continuing education institution for the downtown business community. Award-winning programs El Centro is particularly proud of include its Nursing, Allied Health, Paralegal, Food/Hospitality, and Internet Technology programs that give students an added boost in particular career fields.

“El Centro is located near west Dallas where there is a large hispanic population and near south Dallas where there is a large African American population, so we are considered a ’first generation’ school, meaning that many of our students are the first in a family to attend college,” says El Centra’s president, Dr. Wright Lancaster.

For every assumption or description of a particular type of school, there are exceptions and contradictions. The Art Institute of Dallas, for instance, might be thought of as a technical college or a junior college. “But we’re not either of those,” says Vargas. “We’re a hybrid. We don’t fall into just one easy category.” With eight distinct career plans, the private, two-year college specializes in fields ranging from computer animation to culinary arts.

After students have looked at all the types of schools available to them and examined the various characteristics they consider important, trimming down the initial list of 20 to 30 possibilities to a short list of 4 to 10 shouldn’t be that hard. However, the schools on this list should get a more thorough evaluation, with interviews with admission counselors and real campus tours if at all possible.

Additionally, many kids get stressed about their SAT scores, grades and class standings because they worry that they won’t measure up to the rigid standards set by academic institutions to determine which students will be admitted, and which won’t. Yet, students and their parents would do well to remember that self-selection by the individual student has a greater impact on the final outcome of a college admission than the admissions standards of a college.

For instance, a top-ranked teen might exceed that entrance requirement of many highly selective schools yet choose a local college because it has a small campus and is close to home. A person who is barely in the upper third of his class might have a better chance with a few local colleges, but he researches all kinds of institutions and settles on one that is 2,000 miles away. That’s called self-selection. Certainly, these choices are made within the limits set by various colleges (such as tuition costs and academic criteria) so the college admissions offices do hold some of the cards; but it is the applicant himself who makes the key plays.

SMU attempts to ease the transition from high school to college-level studies at a new Learning Enhancement Center where students go for free tutoring and an elective course called “Oracle” which teaches study skills plus speed writing, time management and memory retrieval. Likewise, TCU’s Student Support Center boast a writing center and persona! help for individuals in the form or tutors, mentors, and even secondary faculty advisors. Other colleges ranging from Baylor to UT report similar and related programs.

UNT hosts the UNT Preview Weekend each fall and spring for students to visit the campus and learn about a! I it has to offer. They can also attend a summer orientation and an optional summer bridge program that helps freshmen make the often tricky transition from high school to college. The program provides study tips and gives freshmen a chance to meet other students before they officially arrive at UNT.

In addition to the traditional student orientation, El Centro College offers the TRIO Program, which provides tutoring, special counseling, and assistance for first-time students in hopes they remain enrolled there for two years. A Developmental Studies Program offers remedial English, math, and writing courses to students who have trouble in these areas.

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