The great college aid game: suspense in a teen's first adult decision

For five New Rochelle High School seniors, the great college aid game is reaching a suspenseful climax: Getting into a school is hard, but making the adult decision about a school – with all its financial implications – perhaps is harder.

By , The Hechinger Report

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    Playing the great college aid game, New Rochelle High School seniors (from left), Matisse Clayton, Haleigh Doherty, Esteban Acevedo, Adaugo Ezike, and Camille N'Diaye-Muller have all been accepted to various colleges – and financial aid will play a big part in which they choose.
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    New Rochelle High School senior, Matisse Clayton (right)– speaking here with her school counselor, Jessica Dorsett-Posada – has been accepted to Temple University in Philadelphia and Catholic University of America in Washington and is waiting to hear from other schools. Matisse says she tries to focus on her favorite class this semester, calculus, to help push out the college admissions anxiety: “I must have thought a hundred times today ‘Am I going to get in?’ ”
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This is the third article in a series following five New Rochelle High School seniors on their quest for college financial aid. The project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Karen Rose still remembers the student from a few years ago who was crying hysterically after class because she hadn’t been accepted to Georgetown University. Ms. Rose, a veteran social studies teacher at New Rochelle High School in suburban New York, knew that the girl’s academic record more than qualified her for Georgetown, which was also the alma mater of the girls' parents and other family members. And yet, inexplicably, she was rejected.

“All I could say was, ‘You know, if your parents and your grandparents and your aunts and uncles tried to get in today, they probably wouldn’t because it’s much harder,’ ” Rose recalls. And as it gets harder, more and more students are going to be disappointed – and bewildered. “They’ve done everything right, and yet they’re not getting what they were supposed to get,” says Rose.

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Fear of dashed hopes dominates the corridors of New Rochelle High School with just six weeks until college-bound seniors have to make their first adult decision: where they will spend the next four years.

For many of these students anticipating the final round of college acceptances, rejections, and financial aid offers – the fear of making a mistake when they choose is just as great as the fear of rejection.  They’re also thinking ahead, to the fall, when they will be on their own for the first time.

 “In this time between the last semester of high school and the first semester of college, there’s a lot of emotion whether it’s expressed explicitly or not,” says Karen Levin Coburn, co-author of “Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years.” “The student is thinking about identity. Will I ever find my place? Who will I be in this new school? It’s sort of starting over, which is liberating and exciting but also terrifying.”

Being accepted to the schools of their dreams isn’t the only obstacle. Their first adult decision may be about money.  More than three-quarters of current college freshmen were admitted to their first-choice schools, according to a recently released survey from the University of California at Los Angeles, but only 56.9 percent chose to attend, an all-time low for the annual survey. Students cited high costs and financial aid as the reasons they declined their top schools.

Those are very real issues for students in economically diverse New Rochelle. Wealthy students don’t have to worry, and students whose families are below the poverty level are eligible for many scholarships. It’s the middle group – including some of the five seniors this yearlong series is following – who are the most affected, says Rose, families “who cannot afford $50,000 a year, but make too much to get any money. That’s the biggest group right now.”

Haleigh Doherty, the youngest of four, has known from the start that money would be a major factor in her decision, especially because her father, Brian, has been diagnosed with lung cancer. She applied to schools where she thought she would have a strong chance of getting a scholarship based on her grades, and Fairfield University in Connecticut offered her a $25,000 annual scholarship. Last month, she spent two days at the school as part of a program for accepted students and was very impressed with Fairfield’s strong sense of community and study abroad program.

All along, Haleigh’s parents have said it was her choice – and she took that responsibility seriously. As she got ready to make her decision, she thought about her two older sisters, who both ended up transferring from their first colleges. That was something she wanted to avoid.

“I put pressure on myself to make the right decision,” she says. “I really didn’t want to have to go to a place and then end up not liking it.” 

By the end of her time on the Fairfield campus, she felt comfortable enough to make that choice, which she announced to her siblings by e-mailing them a picture of her wearing a Fairfield sweat shirt.

A generation ago, the majority of colleges notified students about admissions decisions on the same day in mid-April. But now a wide range of admissions policies such as early decision and rolling admissions means that some students already know what their future holds, while others have to wait until the end of March, when many of the elite schools release their decisions.

“They have control over the process when they’re doing their applications but once they hit send, they lose control and now it’s like the great unknown until the end of the month,” says Michael Kenny, New Rochelle’s guidance coordinator.

The disparity between those who know and those who don’t exacerbates the stress.

 “There’s definitely a lot of anxiety,” says senior Adaugo Ezike. “People are happy for those of their friends that did get in. There’s a shared feeling of joy.”

They are also comforting each other when bad news arrives. Two of Adaugo’s friends were accepted to the same top school, but one was not and, Adaugo says, that friend was “devastated.” When these friends get together now, they try to talk about other things, says Adaugo, who has been accepted to two State University of New York campuses, Stony Brook, and Binghamton, but is still waiting to hear from a dozen other schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, the colleges her older brothers attend.

As she waits, Adaugo also worries about what will happen to her family when she leaves. Her youngest brother, Dioka, 14, has been diagnosed with autism. “He needs attention,” she says. “Being the only one at home is going to be very different for him.”  

She worries about her parents as well. “Whenever they need to go out, it would usually be one of us taking care of him,” she says. “Now they would have to hire someone. That’s going to be a big adjustment in my household.”

Feeling torn between past and future is common for seniors at this time of year, says Ms. Coburn, who is also a consultant in residence at Washington University in St. Louis.  “A lot of them can’t really imagine leaving and going away to college even though they’ve been preparing for it their whole lives,” she says. “They often feel pulled between wanting to savor everything, being with their friends, being in school, and feeling like, ‘I’ve got to get this decision behind me and I’m ready to start something new.’ ”

For many students, that tension makes it hard to concentrate on classes. Matisse Clayton, who has been accepted to Temple University in Philadelphia

and Catholic University of America in Washington but is waiting to hear from other schools, admits to a case of “senioritis.” “You don’t really like doing any type of work,” she says, “even homework. I have to drag myself to do it. After all the stuff applying, it’s like I’m done with school, I’m done with everything.”

And her case isn’t the worst she knows of. “For people who have already gotten in, it’s senioritis to another level,” she says. “They just don’t care at all.” She hesitates a minute. “Maybe they care a little bit because they don’t want to get a different letter saying, ‘Oh, sorry’ ” from a college if their last semester grades plummet.

“School is still on and their grades still matter,” says Mr. Kenny, the guidance coordinator. “They still need to continue to perform in the classroom.”

To get past her senioritis, Matisse tries to focus on her favorite class this semester, calculus. That helps push out anxiety, she says. “I must have thought a hundred times today ‘Am I going to get in?’ ” she says. 

At the same time, she’s also thinking about what she will miss most when she leaves. Alvin & Friends, the restaurant her parents run in downtown New Rochelle, is closed on Mondays, and that’s when the family of five, including her younger brother and sister, all get together for dinner. “My dad will cook or we will pick up from our favorite restaurant, which is usually sushi,” she says. “We don’t have our phones out. We catch up on everything that has been going on. I like those moments a lot.”

Even in this era of constant texting, moving out of the house means breaking some of those close bonds, which can also be unsettling. “What’s going on psychologically is that they’re wanting to be independent and there’s this underlying fear of whether they can handle it,” says Coburn. Parents, too, are feeling the strain, she adds. “They want to know that they can send their children off, that they will be able to take care of themselves, and yet there’s still this desire to parent, to protect them, to make sure they do it right.”

Esteban Acevedo has been getting lots of advice from his parents, who attended college in their native Colombia. “They tell me to remember to eat all three meals, to always do my laundry, to sleep, to not leave my homework for the last minute.” Esteban, who hopes to be a doctor, has been accepted to three State University of New York campuses – Binghamton, Stony Brook, and Albany – and is still waiting to hear from other schools.

Leaving home will be particularly bittersweet for him. His father, the first in the family to come to this country, was living here for a decade before Esteban and his mother and younger sister joined him just four years ago. Now, they will probably be separated again.

“My dad wants me to go to NYU or a New York school,” he says. “He really liked that I got into the SUNY schools. I think that because my dad didn’t see me for so long, he actually wants me to stay in the state or nearby.” Will that affect his choice? “I understand him, but I don’t think that’s going to change my decision if I want to go far away.”

Students like Haleigh who have already been accepted are visiting campuses to see where they would feel comfortable. Camille N’Diaye Muller learned in December that she had been awarded a full scholarship to Princeton University through a program called QuestBridge, which matches high-achieving low-income students with elite colleges. But until last month, she hadn’t seen the school. In early January, the co-chairman of Princeton’s regional alumni schools committee offered to drive her to campus on Alumni Day, Feb. 22.

“It was wonderful,” says Camille, who is considering a career in international law. A highlight was seeing Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (class of 1976) receive an alumni award. Camille, a dedicated dancer, also talked to a student about Princeton’s dance program, which impressed her. At the end of the day, she felt close to a decision but says she still wants to hear from other schools.

At some point soon, Camille says she will sit down at her desk, where she labored all fall over her applications. She says she’ll probably come up with a list of pros and cons for her choices.

“I really like writing things down and seeing how it works out,” she says. But in the end, she knows that “there is no real bad choice. My college experience is what I make of it.”

As they head toward their personal finish lines, Camille and the other students should be cheered by the ultimate fate of the rejected Georgetown applicant who wept in Karen Rose’s classroom.

“She ended up at Villanova,” Rose says. “She loves it.”

This project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University. © 2014 The Christian Science Monitor and the Hechinger Report. © 2014 The Christian Science Monitor and the Hechinger Report.

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