Illustration by David Busby
Life used to be so simple for parents of private high school students. Make sure Jimmy's report card is up to snuff, dutifully steer him around two or three campuses, write a check for a few thousand dollars every semester and start converting his room into a home theater.
In an era of very real economic worry for many, if not most, families, admitting a child to college is no longer the stuff of routine, even at prep schools. Both the family and the college have a lot at stake — tuition continues to soar, putting financial aid packages much higher on a family's priority list.
Meanwhile, students are feverishly rounding out their résumés to distinguish themselves from their increasingly accomplished competition. No longer will great test scores secure you a spot at your favorite university; you're expected to demonstrate talent, leadership and passion. Meanwhile, hundreds of colleges spend enormous amounts of time and money trying to convince you that four years on their resplendent campuses will be the best of your life
Luckily for students, high school counselors pride themselves on being excellent matchmakers between student and college. "One of the most unfortunate myths is that we're like Hollywood agents, cutting deals for students, but that's not the case," says Jim Jump, academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher's School. "I see my job as an asker of questions. There's a philosophy of thought that the best school is the hardest school, but not everyone is going to be happy at Harvard. I think the right environment is key."
At St. Christopher's, as well as at most private schools, the process begins in ninth grade and includes the entire family. Counselors take it slow for the first couple of years, using the time to get to know the student. Before their very first commencement ceremony, the newly established Millwood School had spent the previous four years teaching those students how to manage their time, their choices and their finances. "Our college counselor helps them see that the next four years are so important in terms of academics, community service, clubs, leadership, sports and activities," explains Dr. Eileen Atkinson, assistant head of school. "Colleges now want students who have unique hobbies and interests to add to the diversity of their student body."
"It's not like we're sitting down with you as a ninth-grader and talking about a specific college," says Collegiate's director of college counseling, Brian Leipheimer. He's a fifth-generation educator who swore he would never go into college counseling like his parents. But the opportunity to connect with students and help them realize what they have to offer the world was too rewarding to pass up. "[College counselors] get to see every angle and facet of a kid, more so than anybody else in the school. Every student has a story to tell, even the ones who say, ‘There's nothing exciting about my life.' " At Collegiate, the process begins with leadership exercises, essay questions, conversations about their passions and even the Myers-Briggs test. And with two years of groundwork laid and relationships built, Leipheimer and his colleagues are ready to start matching students to colleges by their junior year.
St. Catherine's upper school director Cathy McGehee takes a similar approach to gradually constructing a holistic view of each child through personal interaction. But there's another component to the process that the school's faculty and administration try hard to emphasize — one that's best taught early. "At St. Catherine's, and at independent schools all over, we're building character. So here, we talk to them about how their integrity matters," McGehee says. Students are encouraged to take control of their "digital résumés," that is, the host of information that college admissions counselors can discover about applicants online, if they choose to do so. Put simply, don't undermine all of your hard work by posting an inappropriate photo on Facebook.
In a given year, Richmond area private schools are visited by upwards of 80 college admissions counselors. And because these private institutions don't labor under state restrictions on when and where these representatives can interact with their students, independent high schools have the luxury of arranging more face time. It's less to give students an edge in the admissions process — the representative is there to sell the college, not to take notes on which student has the best vocabulary — than it is an opportunity for high-schoolers to get a sense of what's out there.
Chet Childress, associate director of college counseling at Trinity Episcopal School, uses a buffet metaphor to describe the benefits of experiencing as many colleges as possible during the admissions process.
"Students get to visit all these schools, and it's like sampling them to find out the elements you really like about each. Then you put those things on your plate and apply to schools that have all of them." Some students may know that they're heading straight to Mom or Dad's alma mater, but Childress finds that most are interested in exploring the options. Though software and questionnaires can spit out viable colleges and universities that fit user-entered preferences, students still trust the recommendations of their counselors. Plus, the lack of peripheral duties that tend to creep into the job descriptions of their public school colleagues allows private school counselors to spend many more hours getting to know each student in order to make more individualized suggestions.
No matter what type of school a son or daughter attends, parents are universally feeling the double pinch of recession incomes and inflated tuition. "Every family without the last name of Rockefeller wants to talk about affording colleges now," says Leipheimer, who found financial aid to be a much more infrequent conversation when he began counseling in the mid-1990s. Combine financial concerns with the notorious "helicopter" parenting-style so rampant among this well-meaning generation, and you can bet that families are included in the process more than ever before. But the counselors don't mind. "We help parents become equal partners instead of managing partners, and we encourage them to let their child cultivate a personal relationship with us," explains Leipheimer. "But that said, I'm not the one paying for Sparky to go to college. It's a family decision."
For those who have younger children at home and have been eyeing tuition prices with increasing unease, Jim Jump, of St. Christopher's, believes you might just be witnessing the inflation's peak, or close to it. "We've been saying for years that the tuition bubble is going to burst, and as private colleges hit the $60,000 mark, I wonder whether or not that threshold has finally arrived."
And if it hasn't, fear not. As colleges compete for a wider pool of qualified candidates, their willingness to help families sort out tuition options has become part of their sales process.
In the hope that their students will gain an advantage within that pool of qualified candidates, private schools have created their own proprietary programs centered on prepping teenagers for one of the most important decisions that they've ever had to make. St. Catherine's sophomores can travel with their counselors to visit regional schools during their experiential term, and every upper school student at Millwood meets with an advisor three times a week to narrow down their college choices, and to hone their time- and financial-management skills. In collaboration with the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, Trinity offers students a summer program called The College Edge that helps them perfect their approach to the common application. It's all designed to help your kid become a knockout candidate for the right school, with the hope of a generous financial aid offer.
It's a process riddled with anxiety for students and parents alike, but the focus shouldn't be solely on an impressive diploma followed by a neatly packaged career. These schools want their students to learn the skills to help them lead fulfilling lives as thriving members of a community. "From our lens, we're trying to do more than get them ready for college," says Cathy McGehee, of St. Catherine's. "The process is much more about self-actualization — students finding out who they are. Our mission is to prepare students for life."