By: Heather Miles Austin
It’s summer, but that doesn’t mean 13, 14 and 15-year-old East Valley students should be playing video games all day. Experts reveal that summer is one of the best times for high school freshman and sophomores to begin making important college decisions by going on campus tours, exploring potential careers and evaluating financing options. Sound overwhelming? It can be, but through the advice of peers, fellow parents and financial experts, the road to college becomes a little clearer.
A few years ago Kryslen Holt was trying to decide her academic future. Now a senior at ASU’s PolyTech Campus in Mesa, Holt serves as a career peer in the Career Center. She spends her days helping ASU students make the important transition from student to professional.
Often however, she gets to work with young teens touring the campus. In addition to offering career assessments, she advises junior high and high school students looking to find success at the university level.
“We talk about what they can do at the age they are at, but emphasize exploring potential careers as early as possible,” explains Holt. “ If they are too young for internships, I tell them to seek out volunteer opportunities or try to get involved with a business that looks interesting even if it is just entry level – any exposure helps them get a feel for that industry and company.”
She added, “If they think they want to be a veterinarian, call a local clinic to do a shadow day or volunteer on the weekends – see if they can handle the daily tasks associated with that job.”
She also recommends involvement in high school clubs and extracurricular activities related to potential careers as freshman and sophomores before difficult career choices need to be made.
Mother Knows Best
During the past few years, Mesa mom Kindra Hughes has become a college expert through her own children’s experiences. With two children in college, a son that just graduated from Mountain View last month and a daughter entering her sophomore year at Mountain View next fall, Hughes has learned the dos and don’ts for helping her high school aged c hildren prepare for college.
“You have to start even before they are a freshman, when they are in junior high,” Hughes explains. “If they aren’t getting good grades in junior high or learning important skills like writing, it is too late to teach that once they are in high school when grades really count.”
Although Hughes’ children excel academically, earning exceptionally high marks on entrance exams and receiving scholarship offers, she admits college preparation is about more than just grades.
“It has been a lot of learning on my end with my older kids,” she explained. “Through trial and error we figured out what college entrance exams they tend to score higher on, when they do better on the test (fall junior year), and that you can practice as a sophomore before it counts. Just as important has been finding out early about scholarships from high school counselors or other parents, staying on top of college requirements that change frequently, and always letting my kids know what is expected.”
Parental expectations are a big part of her children’s success. The Hughes family emphasizes the importance of academic and fiscal responsibility early in order to prepare them for success in college when they are on their own.
“At our house college isn’t a question. We say ‘when you go to college, not if you go to college’, and our children know we expect them to make school a top priority and try their hardest,” explains Hughes. “We also try to prepare them financially by helping them learn to save for college, paying half for extras they want to participate in and general budgeting.”
“We worry if we just give them everything now, they won’t know how to provide for themselves later,” she added.
Another hard conversation the Hughes parents aren’t afraid to have with their children in high school is responsible career choices.
“While my oldest son has many interests and talents, he would have loved to just write all day – but my husband talked to him about choosing a career that could pay the bills and writing on the side,” said Hughes. “He lovingly, yet realistically let him know that just because something is interesting doesn’t mean you can make a living in it.”
Hughes has also seen the importance high school volunteer and extracurricular involvement can be. Not only does it look good on resumes and college applications, but it can help shape future career choices.
“A few of my kids have been interested in medicine, but when they struggled to find a hospital that would allow them to volunteer as high schoolers, they called around until they found a nearby nursing home they could help out in,” said Hughes. “Since then, several of my kids have been able to do extensive volunteer work there and figure out several aspects they liked and didn’t like for future careers.”
Hughes’ final words of advice to parents trying to help prepare their children for college may be somewhat surprising.
“I have to mention friends,” she added. “It is really important that your kids have friends that are also serious about going to college. If they hang out with kids that don’t take school seriously, it is harder for them to. My kids are around intelligent kids which not only pushes them academically, but helps them to think and talk about college more.”
As an East Valley father of two teen-aged daughters, student financial aid expert Brian Cox can empathize with parents struggling to prepare children for college. In addition to teaching smart financial habits and attitudes early, Cox recommends taking high school freshman and sophomores on campus tours to facilitate important conversations about potential careers and financing. Then parents can follow-up the in-person visits with online research to formulate the best plan for their family.
“Most parents and students don’t know about the free online resources that can help make college and finance conversations easier,” Cox explained. “Take the time to become the expert in your own financial future with resources that let your child compare different schools, see how likely they are to graduate and pay off loans, estimate salaries for different careers, and get a real glimpse at their future.”
Cox’s tips include:
1. Compare starting salaries on www.salary.com to help shape future career choices.
2. Research a school’s federal loan default rate, as an indicator of success in repaying debt. (http://1.usa.gov/CollegeDefaultRates)
3. Look at each school’s new net price calculator to get a better feel for the actual vs. sticker price. Or try the University of Phoenix calculator.
4. Compare each school’s four-year graduation rates, the percent of students who successfully graduate and in what time frame to help determine your chance for success. (http://www.collegeresults.org/)
5. Consider the value of a state university (as well as commuting, if possible vs. staying on campus.) (http://bit.ly/ValueofStateSchool)
6. Shop around using a free resource like TuitionU.com to find the best/lowest rates for loans to fill the financing gap after you have exhausted free money (grants, scholarships) and cheap money (federal loan program.)
As an executive for Cology Inc., one of the nation’s premier student loan technology and core processing organizations, Cox sees first-hand the heartaches that can happen if parents don’t begin important college affordability and financing conversations at a young age.
“While difficult, talking to children early and frequently about college, the costs and plans to achieve goals is an important responsibility for parents,” Cox added.