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The conundrum of choosing a college

Posted by BJ Roche  October 28, 2010 11:13 AM

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This past Labor Day weekend, I attended a special cookout; it was a reunion of fellow UMass alumni from the 1970s, most of whom were returning to Amherst to bring their own kids to college.

The young people included some first-year students, many from out of state, who were excited to be at UMass; the oldsters were a mix of former student government and campus media types. As undergrads, we had waged love and war upstairs at the Student Union at a frothy time: the Vietnam war was winding down, the women’s movement was flourishing, and Watergate was inspiring a lot of young people to get into journalism.

It was a joy to be with both generations - there were even a few who I know now, as a teacher at UMass. And so it was a kick in the head for these parents to get up the next morning (heads recovering from too much good wine) to read the Boston Globe story that lamented the paucity of 4.0 students in this year’s entering class.

A friend from New Jersey opened the paper while his daughter (who actually is a 4.0), and wife were unpacking the car; to him it felt like a sucker punch. But they kept unpacking, and today, six weeks later, his daughter is happy with her choice.

I bring this story up not to rehash its accuracy; Tracy Jan’s story raised some good points about the institution. But not long after the Globe story came out, UMass was named one of the top 50 institutions in the universe as we now know it or some such thing. (And since I work on campus, I get the press releases every week about how we're the top this or that.)

The thing is, there are dozens of these lists, and a good deal of journalism about college choices out there. You can slice and dice the data to make any way you want.

But for a parent helping one single child choose a college, what matters is this: whether it’s the right fit for your kid. That may mean ignoring the lists and articles and focusing on the student’s goals and what's a manageable debt load after college.

There’s a good deal of discussion these days questioning the cost and value of a degree: Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker's book, “Higher Education How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It” is one example. And a precocious young UMass student, Zac Bissonnette, has published another book that argues in favor of public higher education, “Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents.”

Hacker and Dreifus point out that the traditional measurements that might seem important, like the proportion of tenured faculty, may actually lead to intellectual stagnation, because tenured faculty tend to never leave an institution.

In a recent CSPAN 2 BOOKTV interview (which you can watch here), Hacker points out that about three quarters of the faculty at Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Reed colleges have been on these campuses for more than 25 years. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? You decide.

Dreifus offers this advice to parents about to head out on campus tours: break away from the official tours and drop in on a few classes. I'd add: go to your kid's intended department and talk to faculty. Talk to other students in the program. Look at the course offerings. Check in at the Career Services office. Do they help with internships and jobs?

I talk to lots of parents bringing their kids on visits through UMass. And I know several parents who are shouldering tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and whose kids are now working for Americorps. This is certainly not what they were bargaining for. Here’s what I tell those starting out on the college hunt:

If your kid has his heart set on a particular career, investigate the prospects and the salaries in that field. You may be surprised to see how little some high-profile jobs actually pay. And if the plan is to move to New York City after graduation, are you ready to subsidize a year of living expenses?

This is particularly important if you're borrowing to finance college, and counting on a paycheck shortly after graduation to pay those loans off.

If your kid really wants to get to Broadway, or pursue a high-competition, lower-paying career like journalism, photography, dance, filmmaking, or sports management, you'd be doing her a big favor by encouraging more internships and a lower-cost college. (Less debt now = more freedom in career choice later.)

Check sites like salary.com, Payscale.com, or the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which tells you which degrees earn the highest salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a whole page of resources designed for career exploration, and its Occupation Outlook Handbook provides data on job outlooks and salaries.

Stop telling your kid he can be anything he wants if he works hard enough at it.

This is simply not true. And that business about doing what you love and the money following? Ditto. A successful career in any field takes more than hard work; it takes flexibility, perseverance, luck, timing, and a good economy. A college education should be broad enough to allow for lots of options.

Get real when you talk about careers with your kid. If something is a super long shot (and, believe me, no matter how much your kid loves sports, anchoring NFL Sunday Football is a long shot), talk about that.

Maybe he could pursue a management degree and get a job in the front office. Or write a sports blog in his spare time. Or coach Little League after his day job at a bank. Not every hobby or passion should - or does - translate into a career.

When you calculate college costs, factor in unpaid summer internships.

Parents get crazy when I tell them this, but the unpleasant paradox of the high cost of college is that the degree is no longer enough. Most employers now look for at least one internship on an entry-level resume. Plus, internships help build expertise, a work ethic and a professional network. Employers also look for campus leadership activities, and you can't get too involved when you're delivering pizzas 40 hours a week.

Encourage your college freshman to take some technology courses, regardless of his major.

Any field he goes into will require skills in technology and managing social media. Many colleges are now developing a technology minor, which students can take in addition to their major. It's a great add-on that will give him a competitive advantage, as well as crucial skills and understanding of how things work.

These days, it helps to have a Plan B, C, and even a D.

Are you in the process of choosing a college? We'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Post away!

READ MORE:

Over at LifeTuner.org, the new AARP site for twenty-somethings, writer Jessica Swesey has an interview with author Anya Kamenetz on how to control education costs. I've been doing some work with LifeTuner and it's a great site to tell your kids about.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

BJ Roche is a writer and teacher who lives in Western Massachusetts. She’s a senior lecturer in the Journalism Program at UMass Amherst, where she teaches writing, new media and More »

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