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VOL. 40 | NO. 44 | Friday, October 28, 2016

College consultant says ‘It’s all about fit’

By Linda Bryant

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Diane Connolly, an independent college consultant and owner/founder of College Well Planned in Brentwood, has helped more than 500 students and their families navigate the complicated world of college admissions.

Independent college consultants are hired by parents, to provide extra help with the college admissions process. They are ideal for students who want one-on-one attention or have a school counselor with a high caseload who may not have time to help them navigate through the college application labyrinth.

A college consultant is not necessarily focused on helping a student get into the most selective school but assisting in a school that’s the best fit.

Prior to launching her own business, Connolly was head of college counseling for a Nashville private high school and reviewed application files for Vanderbilt University.

She is a member of the Higher Education Consultants Association, the Independent Educational Consultants Association, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, and the Southern Association for College Admissions Counseling.

The Ledger talked with Connolly about the advantages of small liberal arts colleges.

What are the advantages of small schools?

“First, let’s define “small school.” My own definition is a school with 3,500 or fewer students. But in reality, most small schools have between 1,200 and 2,500 students.

“As an independent college consultant, I tell my families – both students and parents – that “It’s all about fit.” That means being a good academic, social, emotional and financial fit. And for many students, a smaller private college might be just the right fit.

“As I like to remind them, every college is right for someone, but no college is right for everyone.

“Here are a few advantages of small colleges:

“These colleges focus on the undergraduate experience. Most have no graduate students working on Masters or PhDs. If there are a few graduate programs, the numbers are very small.

“This means students have the full attention of the faculty. Faculty at smaller colleges are often there because they love to teach, they love to be in the classroom. When professors at a smaller college need someone to help with research, they turn to undergrads.

“Undergrads at these schools co-author research papers, travel to conferences and have strong mentoring relationships with faculty beginning as early as freshman year.

“At smaller colleges, the faculty is more accessible. And you won’t find yourself being taught by an inexperienced grad student teaching his or her first course.

“Access to faculty means long conversations after class, maybe even in the dining hall or the campus pub. It means personal advice on careers and jobs … and incredible recommendation letters written by full faculty members who know you well.

“That’s especially important for students looking for strong summer internships and going on to graduate programs, law schools, business schools, med schools.

“It also means full access to labs and facilities. At larger universities, graduate students can be spending long hours in those beautiful research labs – where undergrads will rarely step foot.’’

“A sense of true community. Students at schools of any size can find community, and there are ways to do that – clubs, sororities and fraternities, dorm halls. But at a smaller college, that community can be easier to build.

“Smaller colleges often have a requirement that students live on campus for all four years, which means that everyone is ‘in this together.’

“Upperclassmen interact with freshmen, sharing experiences and giving advice. College is about so much more than what you learn in the classroom; I remind students to think about the community they want for the next four years. What community will best help them grow into the person they want to become? And that community can include the faculty, who may even live on campus or within walking distance.

“More accountability. The transition from high school to college can be tough; it’s the first time most students have to take full responsibility for themselves.

“Smaller colleges have ways to step in and make that transition smoother. At a large university, you may have hundreds of students in your freshmen classes; no one notices if you miss class, if you are curled up in a ball in your dorm room, or even if you left campus.

“At a smaller college, you might have 25 students – or fewer – in a class, and the professor will notice. You will get an email, a phone call, or maybe even a visit to your dorm if you seem to be MIA. People will check in, step up and help out.

“Life-long friendships and connections. There’s something about going to college in a smaller place, where you all share common classes and experiences, that builds life-long friendships. Think about high school, or athletic teams… that’s why lots of people continue those friendships today. In a smaller college, you are more likely to continue those relationships because you have more in common.

“I have had students tell me that they want more friends in college. They may be tired of their small high school and be looking for a bigger world. But I challenge them to think about how many friends is enough.

“Most people have a core group of six or eight close friends, with a dozen or more acquaintances. So even the smallest school will have a thousand or more prospective friends. Do they really need 100 or 200 or 500 close friends?’’

Can you name possible downsides of going to a small school?

“Some students thrive in a bigger world. They like the energy of large numbers, the huge choices in courses, the myriad clubs and activities.

“Or maybe a smaller college doesn’t have the specialized major that they want to pursue – aeronautical engineering, biomolecular engineering (engineering of any kind, though there are some smaller colleges that offer engineering). Interior design. Nursing. Business programs aren’t always available at every smaller college; instead, students might choose to double-major in economics and mathematics (and add a minor in Spanish).’’

When students start to think about college, do they put too much pressure on themselves to go to a certain kind of school? How hard is it to get them interested in a lesser known smaller school?

“Students – and parents – gravitate to what they know or have heard of. And larger universities have the automatic advantage of name recognition, thanks to sports programs.

“Smaller schools don’t have that marketing advantage. But I’ve found that students can get very excited when they discover that smaller colleges exist; I’ve had students who didn’t even know that such places existed.’’

Are students more successful at smaller schools?

“Often. It depends on how you define success, but yes, four-year graduation rates are often higher, retention rates from freshman to sophomore year are higher and the students go on to advanced degree programs at higher numbers than in larger institutions.’’

Are there some best practices of small schools? (If I’m looking for one, what do I need to look for in terms of knowing if it’s a good school? Metrics? Programs? Financial stability?

“Look at the metrics – check out the retention rate (from freshman to sophomore year, how many transfer out). Check to see the four-year graduation rate. If a student takes six years to graduate, how will that impact the bottom line financially? (Do the same at any college that you’re considering).

“Ask how many classes are taught by terminal-degree faculty. One place to start gathering information is the federal government’s College Navigator site (http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator), developed by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“And nothing can replace a visit to campus, and a deep dive into the college and its programs. I’ve visited more than 150 colleges – about 30 in the past year alone – and I’m always keeping up with changes and new programs. Things change in education, and parents should be careful not to assume that a college or university is the same as it was when they were 18 years old.’’

Do you want to mention any special programs/schools in Tennessee that are a good bargain or worth a look?

“Rather than talking about a specific school or program, I’d encourage students and parents to not discount any private college by its sticker price.

“Private colleges often use what is term “discounting,” and the average tuition discount rate for smaller private colleges rose to 48.6 percent during the 2015-16 academic year. (The average institutional tuition discount rate rose to an estimated 48.6 percent for first-time, full-time freshmen in 2015-16, according to a report by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.)

“People assume that their best deal financially is a large state school. Don’t assume. While that may be the case for some students, it is certainly not the case for all — especially students with strong academic records. Merit scholarships and need-based aid can bring the cost down to a comparable level.’’

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