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14 min read

Tips for High Schoolers Beginning Their College Exploration [Podcast]

Tips for High Schoolers Beginning Their College Exploration [Podcast]

This is a transcription of a recent podcast episode where Former Dean of Admission and Strategic Advisor to Scoir, Peter Van Buskirk, is joined by Post-secondary Counselor, Amy Belstra of Libertyville High School, to have an important discussion about exploring the options when beginning to think of college. 

Listen to the podcast "Tips for High Schoolers Beginning Their College Exploration featuring Amy Belstra" here




Peter Van Buskirk 0:07
Welcome to Inside College Admissions. My name is Peter Van Buskirk, and today I'm joined by good friend Amy Belstra, who is the post-secondary counselor at Libertyville High School in Illinois, just outside of Chicago. Welcome, Amy.

Amy Belstra 0:19
Good morning, Peter. How are you?

Peter Van Buskirk 0:21
I'm doing very well. Thank you. And I'm glad that we could get you away from all the other conversations you're having with seniors now about what should I do? And how do I compare financial aid and all that sort of thing to maybe focus on some conversation that will be useful to juniors as they get started in the college process? So what we want to do today is take a look at institution types. Because in my experience, and I'll be interested in hearing your experience as well, it seems that young people begin and their parents begin the process with the list of schools that isn't very well differentiated by anything but reputation and zip code. And it's all supposed to make sense after that. Did you see anything like that in your work?

Amy Belstra 1:02
It's totally true. I think that is, especially as students are starting this process. It's all about name recognition. It's about which car decals have I seen on the back of somebody's car with you know, University of or blank college and, and, you know, trying to say, oh, I've seen that school and somebody's car, it's got to be a good school. I was sharing one of my favorite decals is one that just says, college on the back of the car, because I'm like, Yes, that's the whole idea. It's that you're proud that you went to college. Right? So I think that is often where students start for sure is just simply "Oh, yeah, I've heard of that one."


College vs university

Peter Van Buskirk 1:43
I'm going to college. Yeah, exactly. For those listening, let's kind of break it down and try to establish some points of differentiation. First between a college and a university. How, how do you talk with your advisees? about the difference between the college and university? 

Amy Belstra 2:01
Oftentimes, when in back in the days pre-pandemic, when we were doing in-person programs, I would actually ask that question the audience, you know, how do you define the difference between the two and, and some were able to pick up on it pretty quickly, others not so much. But the way I typically describe it is that a college is a school that is for the most part, and these are always sort of general loose definitions, but for the most part is going to offer undergraduate or bachelor's degrees, whereas a university may offer graduate degrees as well, master's degrees doctoral degrees, and within a university, especially a large university, you'll often see colleges within it. So the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Business, College of Engineering, etc. And they're individual entities within that university that oversee that particular academic area. So that's, I think, an important distinction for students to understand there are benefits to both. And it really depends on what they are looking for, in their education.

Peter Van Buskirk 3:06
So that the university just to recap is usually a more complex institution, and often a larger institution than the college correct. Whereas the college is devoted exclusively to undergraduate education, university can do a lot of different things. Correct. Now, I'm going to throw some things out that that I'm sure we both hear from students a lot. And I'd be interested in your response, you hear students say, well, I'll have better opportunities to do more things academically at university because it's bigger.

Amy Belstra 3:36
I hear that all the time, their assumption is there's because it's bigger, there's more options, and therefore all of these things are going to be on the buffet in front of them. When in reality, that's not necessarily the case. It may be those buffet options are limited to students in upper levels or graduate classes. And they're only available to those there may be professors that only work primarily with graduate students whose research may be really interesting. But it's a little harder to get involved in that. That's the benefit of a college is that those professors are there with one focus, and it's on the undergraduate students. So their research, I just I think their focus is on those students in their classroom and how they can help them thrive, succeed and move on then to that next level, if that's in their path.


Public vs private

Peter Van Buskirk 4:29
That's a really good point that I'd like to come back to that in just a moment. But as we're still dealing more broadly with typologies, if you will. We've talked about college, we're talking about University.  Another, I think, missed oftentimes, is the differentiation between public and private. And among colleges and universities, there are public and private. How do we help folks understand that difference?

Amy Belstra 4:51
And that's a big one. I always try to help students understand that you hear your parents every year complained about their taxes and To help kids understand that part of the part of any public university is that they are subsidized or, you know, funded partially by the taxpayers' taxes in that state. And that allows them oftentimes to keep their costs lower than a private university that doesn't get those funding sources from the state. So they can look very different in terms of total cost of attendance, the public universities are going to have a lower total cost of attendance than the private universities. But, and there's the big butt in there is that private universities have different sources of funding to bring those costs down to help families find them more affordable. You know, being in Illinois, it's interesting because I think are both public and private universities in states surrounding Illinois, because a lot of our let's be honest, a lot of our Chicago area students are pretty mobile, they're very willing to look at going outside of Illinois. And those schools have become very savvy and how to bring their costs down, either through scholarships or any other financial assistance that they can and get that cost, very similar to what it would cost a student to stay in-state. So private universities find ways to do that with scholarships. You know, scholarships are basically just I often describe them as it's a coupon, somebody's saying Here take this much percent, or this much money off the top of the cost, we're just reducing that cost, make it more palatable to you. 

Peter Van Buskirk 6:33
So, it's interesting, I think the notion that off the top that state universities are less expensive than private schools. Makes sense. If you're somebody who can pay for, if you can't pay for when you need assistance, then your ability to get assistance is going to be usually as to your point greater at the private schools than at the state universities.

Amy Belstra 6:56
Yeah, absolutely. The state universities, actually, a lot of times they are, they're limited in what they can do sometimes by the state legislature. And, you know, this is where politics can get into it, they their sources of funding are, are limited. One of the things that has emerged over the last, while you can probably help me with this, Peter, probably the last five to seven years is the thought of negotiating financial aid packages. You know, back when I was starting off in this profession, that just didn't happen. And there are still schools that say, we don't do that, you know, this is what we offer you is what you get, um, but as colleges are, you know, managing their enrollment, and trying to, you know, bring in a freshmen class, they are oftentimes willing to talk with families about, Hey, you know it, can we help you further to bring the price down and therefore make it more affordable for your family. And it's becoming something much more common in this than it used to be in private schools are more often able to do that?


Out-of-state vs in-state and affordability

Peter Van Buskirk 8:03
Well, they have much more latitude, because they're dealing with private resources rather than state-funded resources. Now, let's suppose we have a young person who's looking at state universities out of state, does that person still benefit from the reduced cost to hear you talk the State University has a lower cost provided by the tax dollars paid by the in-state families to benefit the in-state family? So somebody coming from out of state? Does that person get the same benefit?

Amy Belstra 8:33
That's the infamous it depends. Yes, sir. So it really does depend on where you are in the country, what programs may be available. For example, out west, they have a program called the western undergraduate exchange, or Wui, that families can take advantage of where participating colleges and participating is the keyword not every school in the states that are in this program, are going to participate. But those schools that do can offer families a reduced cost if they qualify. in the Midwest, we have something called the Midwest student exchange program that has a similar benefit. Typically, families paid the schools in-state tuition plus 50%. So it can be a significant cost reduction. There are also a few schools in the country that offer students the ability to earn in-state tuition, they have to jump through some hoops. They typically have to establish a year's worth of residency in that state so they stay in state and work this summer after their first year in college. A lot of times they have to get either a driver's license or register to vote or do something like that. But once they do the following three years of their college career can be at the in-state cost significant savings now there don't go out thinking there's a lot of schools that do that, folks, but there are a few out there that do.


Understanding your options before beginning a list

Peter Van Buskirk 10:02
We've established now there are a range of options, public, private, in-state out of state, large, small, the University, the college. So if that's the case, doesn't that make sense then that at the early stages of a college planning process, the student really needs to have a good understanding of what she wants and how she wants to get it before she begins to look at school. I mean, I worry sometimes that the college process starts with a list of colleges rather than any kind of reflection. What are your thoughts about that?

Amy Belstra 10:33
Oh, my gosh, reflection. That's such a keyword. Because obviously most students, let's say, juniors that are starting this process are jumping in with those basic questions that they and all their friends are talking about. It's the where it's the word size, it's, it's a lot of lifestyle, college lifestyle questions, you know, is it a school that has sports or Greek organizations or the major that I want? They start with very basic things, instead of sort of asking themselves? Does the college have a program that's going to support me? Is it going to help me figure out what I want to do is, am I going to thrive in that environment? How do they help students? So to move forward through it and really focusing on the education piece of it? Those are, those are pretty deep questions that students often need to ask themselves.

Peter Van Buskirk 11:28
And I'm glad you went there because I'm not sure that students know how to ask it of themselves. And I'm sure I suspect that if parents were alert to that line of thinking they would be happy to share the questions with the students. But what kinds of questions should students be thinking about? In terms of you talked about knowing your major some of the social aspects of a college experience? I suspect there are different variables here that need to be understood before. Again, we look at a college list. 


Taking time to reflect

Amy Belstra 12:00
Yeah, well, and I know you start with a very big one in your presentations is, why am I going to college? What's the Why am I starting here? This is is it just because it's expected of me? Or is it because I truly am looking to learn more and grow more and have that experience? So I think that's a big one. The other pieces, there's two pieces, I guess I would say is what what are my values, what really is important to me, The College Essay Guy who I love, shout out to Ethan Sawyer, he has a wonderful exercise for students called the values exercise. And it starts out with like 100 different types of values that they read through and then start to narrow down until they get to the one that is most important to them. It's a useful tool for writing essays. But I think it's also useful, I'm really saying, what is most important to you, I love having students do that, and then process it with them, because maybe it's money. Maybe it's organization, maybe it's integrity, you know, it could be any number of things. But it's so fun to hear the reasoning for why that is. And I think different colleges support different values along the way. So it's really figuring out what makes sense for them. The other piece that I think is very important is that students sort of examine who they are as a student in high school, and recognize that that's probably not who they're going to be as a student in college. You know, in high school classes are typically smaller, you know, they may be 10 students, maybe 30, somewhere in between, but those are usually you're out you're in and outside ranges, and college classes can range from five to 500 very easily, and everything in between.

Peter Van Buskirk 13:45
So give me a second me. Yes, since we're making the differentiation between college and university, is it so that the college classes would range and 5 to 500? Or in across the range of institutions, we might be looking at 5 to 500?

Amy Belstra 14:01
Excellent, excellent point, Peter, that this comes down to the size of the school and to kind of drilling down and finding out those statistics of what is the average class size, what percentage of the classes are at, you know, 30 or fewer students? If I am going to be there for four years, how many classes Am I going to take that may be bigger? A smaller college is obviously going to have smaller classes and the majority of your experience will be that way. At a larger university. Again, it does depend I will say this, but chances are much much higher that you're going to have some very large lecture classes, especially in your first couple years. And depending on your major I know students who, for example, have majored in business, which is always a popular major at many large public universities. And the smallest class they ever had in their whole four years was about 60 students. So I've heard that happen. So you really have to look at who you are as a student. In a classroom and what you want to have out of that experience, are you somebody who's very passive, who just wants to sit back, absorb the information, maybe take some notes, and then sort of teach it to yourself again, at a later date? And then, you know, provide it back to the professor on a test or a paper or a research project? Or are you somebody who likes to be part of the conversation, wants to be part of that dialogue, wants to hear what your classmates are thinking and saying, or I think there's a third category, Are you someone where that would be really good for you? To have that experience? I think a lot of students in high school I, they don't have a confident voice, yet. They're developing it. But it would be really good for them to develop that voice, but it takes them out of their comfort zone a little bit. So it's figuring out what offers you that experience. And and I don't want to, I don't want to ignore the fact that there are many different sizes of schools. There are a lot of midsize schools that offer both experiences to students and can sometimes be a sweet spot for a lot of kids, they get kind of a bigger school and a smaller school experience within one.

Peter Van Buskirk 16:12
In fact, some of the flagship state universities will have within them an honors program that is an oasis, if you will a small college Oasis within the larger university, which is a separate application process, too.


Talking about fit

Amy Belstra 16:24
Yeah, absolutely. And that I think a lot of students don't realize that is the way to, you know, okay, one of my least favorite sayings in this whole profession is you can make a big school feel small, but you can't make a smaller school feel big. And I so disagree with that. Everybody, I just want to know, there are ways to make bigger schools feel smaller, you get involved, whether it's through an honors program, you you find your people, whatever that may be, is it the people within your major? Is it people in an honors program? Is it people on your intramural team? Is it a sorority, or fraternity, whatever it is, where do you connect with others. But a smaller school, it's often easier to make those connections more quickly. But then they offer you opportunities to get out and see the bigger world as well, that as you go along. You you have those opportunities to make them bigger to experience the world where it's through, whether it's through study abroad, or an internship, whatever it may be. So both sizes can offer you opportunities. It's just whichever is the right fit for you.

Peter Van Buskirk 17:30
And fit is a big part of this. And again, you don't get fit. If you start with the list and then try to fit yourself into the institution. It works much better. If you you do the introspective reflective piece first. And then the colleges and or universities that make sense to you will begin to emerge in a logical fashion. Yeah. One quick side here on a question that I suspect you hear fairly often, as applications are being prepared in the fall, a student might be submitting an application to a University, the University application says tell us now, what will your major be? We need to know right now, what is your major? Any reaction to that? In my thought is that why are you applying to an institution is going to force you to make a decision before you're ready, because there are certainly many other types of places that will welcome you and encourage you to explore.

Amy Belstra 18:23
Yeah, I definitely feel there are colleges that want to get you on the track to your major, very quickly, that I think benefits them in terms of, you know, apportioning their advising and their class sizes and determining all of that on their budgetary end, however, does that help students? No, it doesn't, because they feel a pressure to know that when they're 16 1718 years old. And I always normalize that, you know, the vast majority of us didn't know I was going to be a post-secondary or college counselor. When I was in high school. My gosh, I never knew that. I didn't know I was going to be a counselor. I thought I was supposed to be a dolphin trainer. So, you know, I think I changed my mind five times in terms of my major in college and I like to think I was pretty normal. So it's a self-discovery process. It is and in every college, even those that do want to slot you in will give you the opportunity to say I don't know, you know, I really don't know. And, you know, certainly, the last 10 to 15 years have been difficult in terms of the you know, the economy and that kind of thing. And a lot of parents having lived through the financial crisis and all that are like, really we don't want you living in our basement forever. We want you to find a job we want you to, you know move forward with your life and choose an A major that is going to make sense for you and certainly I see that come and go in waves but colleges have definitely responded to that. They are much more cognizant about helping students sort of build resumes early, build connections early, and at least be thinking about it even if you're not ready to declare an actual major yet. So that's not a bad thing. In the long run. Absolutely. 

Peter Van Buskirk 20:15
Amy, this has been great an opportunity to really understand that there are different opportunities for students of different interests, backgrounds, and perspectives all over the country. And one of the things that sad to me is that it's predictable every year, roughly 55, maybe 60% of the students who start college will ever graduate. Which to me means that there are a lot of young people who haven't really thought through the fit part that you referenced. And I'm so glad that you brought that up. I hope that the conversation we've had today has been helpful to our listeners in understanding that there's an awful lot to be learned about institutions, takes a little bit of time to do the homework and do the research. But if you do it well, you can put together a list of colleges that makes sense to you. Any further thoughts on this before we wrap up? 

Amy Belstra 21:00
Just best of luck to everybody. I, you know, I think colleges have become very adept in the last year at providing resources for families to discover more about who that colleges and I guess I would just advise students, when you go to a colleges website, don't just do the virtual tour and stuff there. Many colleges will give you a good sense of their personality or their soul, even if you just are willing to take some time to read and maybe watch a couple of videos. Go to the website for if you are interested in a specific area doesn't mean you have to major in it, but you're interested, learn more about it, they're going to tell you so much more about what it means to study that topic, what the opportunities are, how they may help students pursue it. Learn more about student life, what do students do, just go down the rabbit hole? Take the time to do that. And hopefully, you'll discover a College's personality through that. And if it meshes well with your own. Keep it on your list. If you feel it doesn't take it off and move on. There are so many great options out there and keep an open mind. You may be surprised at what happens.

Peter Van Buskirk 22:13
Exactly. And as you suggest there are no shortcuts to good answers. So now's a good time for students who are juniors to really start doing the digging and getting past the homepage to learn what they can't thank you again, Amy, and thanks to those who have listened in I hope this has been useful and I look forward to having you join us again in a future conversation about inside college admissions. Take care, everyone.

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