By the time you reach the point of applying to college, you may feel that you've heard way too much advice from your parents, your teachers, your guidance counselors, your neighbors—even that guy who graduated from your high school three years ago whom you ran into at the movies last week. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about where you should apply, what you should study, and even what you should write in your essay. If you can stand it, here's one more piece of advice: forget everything you've heard, at least for a moment, and think about the most important person in this process: you. What do you want out of college?
It's a simple question with a very complicated answer. In fact, it's the theme of this 14th annual edition of the NEWSWEEK-Kaplan College Guide. Instead of focusing on different types of schools, we began by imagining different types of students and finding an environment that would work best for each one. Veteran education reporter Jay Mathews has assembled a provocative list to get you started (page 12). Want to get as far away from home as possible? He suggests Goucher College in Maryland, the first college in the country to require overseas study for graduation. Hate the drunken parties? Check out Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., a Churches of Christ–affiliated school that has been unusually successful in reducing underage alcohol abuse. If you have a fondness for tradition, you might find your bliss at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., where some students wear academic robes to class.
These are arbitrary (and, in some cases, fanciful) categories; there is no one single, absolutely perfect school for a particular student. Our goal is to help you narrow your choices by thinking about the kind of environment that works for you. Do you value diversity? Consider the makeup of the student body. Are you sports-obsessed? Look for a school with great teams. Are you a hard-core political animal? Think about an activist campus. Is green your thing? Check out schools that emphasize sustainability. Do you love theater? Ask about student productions. You'll learn best in an atmosphere that clicks with your individual interests, personality, and ambitions. And here's the take-a-deep-breath-and-relax part: there are literally dozens of schools where you can find what you need, and your chances of getting into at least one of them are much better than you think. We're here to help, using the journalistic expertise of NEWSWEEK reporters and editors and the educational resources of Kaplan Inc. (both owned by The Washington Post Company).
We've assembled an all-star team, starting with Douglas Bennett, president of Earlham College (page 8), who strikes what we hope is another calming note, pointing out that despite all the scary stats you hear about how hard it is to get into certain colleges, "there is very little evidence that these highly selective colleges provide a more effective education to the students who do gain admission than these same students would have received elsewhere." In other words, education is not a product that you can buy; it's a participatory experience, and you get out of it as much as you put into it. Students who plunge in and take advantage of what their particular schools have to offer will get a good education almost anywhere they go. And indifferent students will get an indifferent education. It's up to you.
Finding the right school and getting in is only the first step, of course. This year, paying the bills is a huge hurdle for so many families who are feeling financial pressure in the most serious economic downturn since the 1930s. The cost of college can seem overwhelming—more than $50,000 a year for the nation's most elite private institutions. Families aren't the only ones hurting. Endowments have lost billions and donations are down, which means private colleges—even super-wealthy Harvard—are suffering. Public universities aren't doing any better. Many states have been forced to slash higher-education appropriations, and universities have responded by cutting faculty, staff, and course offerings. But as NEWSWEEK correspondent Arian Campo-Flores explains (page 34), schools recognize that they need to help and they're offering more aid. That's especially important for smaller liberal-arts colleges that are in the greatest danger of losing top students to wealthier institutions. The Obama administration has also made paying for college a priority with a wide range of new initiatives, including additional grant money and more-generous tax credits.
In order to take advantage of these new choices, you have to understand how the financial-aid system works. Linda Stern's piece (page 38) on the nuts and bolts of the money side of college admissions takes families through the process step by step and explains how to get the biggest chunk of federal loans, grants, private loans, and work-study funds. She urges almost everyone to apply for some aid, so don't assume you're not eligible. As she explains, even families with six-figure incomes can qualify for aid from expensive schools. You can also negotiate with the financial-aid office over the first package you're offered. Stern says aid officers call April "haggle month" because so many parents come begging after the decisions are in.
But haggling isn't the only way to save money on the cost of college. Today, the Hollywood version of college—a verdant quad lined with ivy-covered buildings that you enter after graduating from high school—is just one experience among many. The current postsecondary landscape includes not only the traditional four-year public and private institutions, but also online universities and career schools. In fact, as Andy Rosen, chairman and CEO of Kaplan Inc., points out (page 10), fewer than 3 million of America's 17 million registered college students fit the classic profile of an 18- to 22-year-old enrolled full time in a four-year school. Forty percent of today's college students are part-timers, go to two-year schools, and are 25 or older. That means most are working while they go to school and, in many cases, can take advantage of their employer's tuition-reimbursement policies.
And that trend is likely to continue with new twists, as NEWSWEEK'S Tony Dokoupil explains (page 49). Taking a "gap year" between high school and college used to be a luxury for wealthy kids who wanted to explore Europe or volunteer on an organic farm. But now students are taking a far more practical approach, using the time to earn money for tuition. Dokoupil reports that more than a fifth of 2009 high-school graduates plan to use a gap year in this way. Students are also enrolling in five-year programs that let them take time off for work. And a substantial number are planning to join the military, still the biggest provider of college funding in this country.
The economic crisis has also triggered a growing appreciation for the benefits of community colleges. For years, community colleges were the stepchild of the higher-education system, but now they are getting much more attention—especially because Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, is a longtime community-college instructor and advocate. (Read our interview with her on page 44). Since 2008 the country's 1,400 two-year schools have watched enrollment grow by an average of 13 percent, and some have had increases of more than 30 percent, says reporter Daniel Stone (page 42). A big draw is the low tuition: about $25 a credit in many schools. Community colleges differ from state to state, but they generally also offer small class sizes, often about 20 students in remedial classes, and what many students see as a more nurturing environment where teachers can be more responsive to individual students' needs. There's also less academic pressure—a big plus.
Many students find that the two-year associate's degrees they get at a community college are enough. But a growing number are using those two years as a bridge to flagship state universities or even elite private institutions. In the past year, admissions officials at four-year universities say they have noticed more students interested in transferring as juniors. Community colleges are also undergoing a transformation in their mission, Stone says. Beginning in 2008, community colleges in more than 17 states began offering full bachelor's degrees to students who complete four years of study.
Online schools, another once neglected arm of the higher-education system, are also coming into their own. In 2008 nearly 4 million American students took at least one online course, according to a study by the Sloan Foundation. That same study found that enrollment in online courses is growing 10 times faster than that of higher education in general. Convenience is a major reason, says contributor Karen Breslau (page 50), especially for students who are sandwiching classes between a job and family obligations. In the past, online learning was automatically deemed inferior to the bricks-and-mortar experience. But as tuition costs rise elsewhere and many classrooms are packed to capacity, online seems like an increasingly attractive option, particularly for a generation that has grown up on the Web. The latest online offerings can also provide a rich educational experience that advocates say can sometimes even surpass traditional classrooms. Professors are using tools like virtual worlds, podcasts, and Webcams to create a unique learning environment.
No matter what physical form it takes, college is also a time to explore your passions and here, too, there are new and emerging opportunities. The Obama administration's emphasis on green careers is helping many students turn their concern for the environment into their life's work. Reporter Sarah Kliff (page 54) found that colleges around the country are beefing up courses in environmental studies and adding green research to subjects like engineering and biology. Campuses are also looking for ways to emphasize sustainability, often spurred by student activism.
And finally, what would college be without a little love? A decade ago, as reporter Jessica Bennett explains (page 66), the idea of a college romance playing out online would have been considered weird, nerdy, or just plain pathetic. But with the growth of social networks like MySpace and Facebook, all aspects of dating have migrated to the digital world—from flirting to breakups. Social networks also make it easier to find a partner who shares your specific interests, whether it's vegetarian cuisine or anime.
As we said, it's all about you, and you have more choices than ever. We want to help you and your family navigate the admissions process with as little stress as possible so you can concentrate on the great adventure that lies ahead. It's the journey of a lifetime. Enjoy!