Getting ready for college: Questions and answers

Tuition is up, and many students are unsure what to do. Two college placement experts offer guidance and encouragement on the process.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With costs soaring, getting to and through college is more difficult now than ever, and that has many students skeptical about whether it’s even worth the effort.

The Notebook wanted to offer practical information and advice on how students can successfully navigate the college-going process. To do that, we talked to two local college placement experts, Thomas Butler and Karen Campbell, asking them questions that high school students may have.

I’m not sure college is really for me. Why do you think it is?

Karen Campbell: The traditional four-year, residential, liberal arts, undergraduate experience may not be for you. But you need education or training beyond high school so that you can care for yourself and your family and have choices in your life.

Thomas Butler: Also, what you’ll accomplish and earn likely will be predicated on the credentials and degrees you obtain.

How can I find the college that is right for me?

Campbell: There are a lot of ways to kind of touch and feel colleges. Visit the PhillyGoes2College website and the School District of Philadelphia website. Visit several campuses. You’ll get a sense very quickly of what you don’t want, and that helps you narrow down the 4,000 options out there.

Isn’t community college just like 13th grade?

Campbell: That’s very old thinking. Community college can be a money-saver. And it can be a gap-filler in terms of preparing for college-level work.

Butler: Community college has two sides – the academic/ liberal arts piece and the career training piece. Community college students tend to be older, career-oriented and intent on getting that associate’s degree or certificate.

What about a trade school?

Campbell: You want to make sure the school is preparing you for a career, not just a job. There are many displaced workers who got trained for one thing only, and that thing dried up.

I’m a person of color – should I look for schools that have a lot of people like me?

Butler: Just because you’re a person of color doesn’t mean you should limit your search. The question to ask is whether you feel assured someone on campus will care about your well-being from the day you enter to the day you leave.

Should I stay in-state or consider out-of-state schools?

Campbell: Going out of state almost always requires more money. Typically, no one thing really drives a student’s decision – not color, location, or school type.

Butler: Yes, this is a very holistic process.

The statistics about how few kids from my school go to college are really depressing. How can I stay motivated?

Butler: Forget the numbers. It’s about you.

Campbell: You need to start surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals – if not at your school, then maybe your church, or some program you’re involved in. Many more students in the city than you think are doing well in college, working hard and aspiring to great things.

I don’t think I’m prepared for college coursework. But other kids are going to think I’m dumb if I ask for help. Should I get a tutor?

Butler and Campbell (in unison): Yes.

Butler: Seek out tutoring for one semester or maybe even just one test, and you’ll see the benefit. Your successes will start to build up.

Campbell: You are no less strong for seeking support, whether it be academic, emotional, financial. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s actually a sign of strength.

I get good grades but I scored in the 300s on my SATs, like most kids at my school. Should I be worried?

Butler: Usually there’s a correlation between SAT scores and grades. So, for a parent reading this, if there’s this incredible disconnect, you need to ask the school, what’s going on?

Campbell: The bottom line is that the distribution of money is still very much tied to statistics. So, SAT, GPA, class rank – they all matter. It doesn’t mean you’re out of the game, but we need to think about alternatives.

It seems everyone I know who went to college ended up dropping out. Is that going to happen to me?

Campbell: You need to have a clear sense of why you’re there. Take advantage of your college’s academic, financial and other counseling services. And by the way, you’ve paid for them, whether you use them or not.

Butler: Get yourself to the college’s career services center. You need to stay focused on the door out, on the career you want after graduation; then you’ll see yourself finishing and you won’t drop out.

My family doesn’t think I need to go to college; that I should go straight to work. Is that a good idea?

Butler: Go straight to college. No matter what you may earn now, you could triple or quadruple those earnings with a degree.

Campbell: It’s really the difference between having a job and being able to pursue a career, having a long-term focus rather than a short-term fix.

But I can’t afford college, seriously. My family can’t help me at all. What should I do?

Butler: Apply for a Stafford loan, through the U.S. Department of Education. You’re eligible, and the Stafford is what we call good debt. You don’t have to [begin to] pay it back until six months after graduation. Finding additional dollars is difficult because many families are not able to sign off on a second or third loan.

Campbell: Borrowing beyond the potential of your earnings can be a problem. If you major in philosophy, and borrow $20,000 a year, multiplied by four, that’s the debt you’re graduating with. And what is the average salary in the philosophy field? Not much.

What is FAFSA and is it important?

Campbell: Oh, it’s the gateway to everything, the difference between going and not going –because all grant money that you might be eligible for hinges on your submitting the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid,] eligibility form in a timely fashion.

Butler: Federal Pell Grants are for low-income students and don’t have to be repaid. And there are state grants too. But if you miss the FAFSA deadline, regardless of that money sitting there waiting for you, you can’t get it. So, talk to your school’s college counselor about FAFSA the fall of your senior year so that you won’t miss the deadlines next spring.

People always talk about how there’s all this money for poor kids to go to college, but my family can’t find it anywhere. Where do I look?

Campbell: There is this false notion that people are going to find you, the poor kid, to give you that money. You have to search out those opportunities and write essays to get those scholarships. Good grades are not enough.

Butler: I tell students of color, you are not the flavor of the month anymore. More scholarships now go to merit than to need.

My mom already has student loan debts from my older sister. Should I take out loans in my own name?

Butler: The technical answer is, yes, you can apply for loans in your own name beyond the Stafford loan. The reality is you don’t have a credit history and you’re going to need someone to cosign the loan.

Campbell: So the Stafford is really all you can get that is truly yours.

I really need a full-time job. I think I will try to go to college part-time. What do you think?

Campbell: For our population, I say go full time. The likelihood of persisting through to a degree on a part-time basis really diminishes because life gets in the way. And as a part-time student, you lose access to the maximum amount of aid money you can obtain.

Butler: You might look for a school that offers cooperative education, so you will graduate but also have work experience.

I’m worried about the cost. I should probably just rule out going to a private college, right?

Butler: Keep in mind that private colleges have large endowments and may give you more aid.

Campbell: The school that really values your talents will try to come up with the money you need. When there’s a good fit, the cost is not the thing.

I want to study ancient literature, but my counselor is suggesting engineering. Should I be practical or follow my passion?

Campbell: Don’t be pushed into a career you have no talent or interest in. But do pay attention to your end goals and whether you’re being realistic. Can you pursue your passion in a club or as a volunteer?

Butler: But, if you can demonstrate that you’ve done your research [and] you have a plan, I’m going to say, “Go for it.” If you are passionate about your work, then you’ll do it well and do well financially.

I’d much rather work with my hands than sit in a classroom. Where can I find opportunities?

Campbell: Look into the co-op options that many colleges now have. Also, depending on your major, there are more opportunities than you may think to actually touch, feel, and taste what it is you want to do.

Butler: We need to do that career assessment. If this student is an applied learner who likes tinkering, then let’s find some hands-on experiences. Then you can bring knowledge into the classroom and do better.

I don’t want my friends to feel like I think I’m better than them. How do I go to college, keep my friends, and deal with that pressure?

Butler: Not to discount your old friends, but you will discover new friends when you get to college. You have to evaluate what’s important in your life. And if your friends are not for your betterment, then are they truly your friends?

Campbell: You’re going to have to have a certain level of inner resolve. And again, keep that eye on the prize and that will help carry you through that turbulence.

I’ve had my heart set on going to Temple since I was in the 8th grade. Should I focus on the school I want or apply to a lot of different schools?

Campbell: You should never put all your eggs in one basket. And it doesn’t lessen your desire or interest in any one institution. What it does is give you options.

Butler: But if your grades aren’t “Temple-ready,” start at community college, do well, then transfer to Temple to get that degree.

I should probably just live at home, right?

Campbell: That’s not always viable. Juggling issues at home and keeping up your grades at college can be too much.

Maybe I should just take a year off to get myself together.

Campbell: There are two issues here. One, you lose access to maximum financial support. Two, the likelihood of your actually enrolling after that year off, especially as a low-income, first-generation going-to-college kid, diminishes dramatically. Taking a year off, you lose a lot of footing, and you lose a lot of financial opportunity.

It’s going to work itself out, right?

Butler: It doesn’t work itself out; you work it out. So, this is a very real process. You have to own it; you have to do it. That’s the answer.