Battling the High Cost of College

I’ve seen several pieces in educational media recently that suggest that a backlash may be brewing among middle class families in reaction to the exorbitant cost of many selective colleges. This nascent movement isn’t necessarily forming in reaction to the Ivy League tier of schools, which will always attract applicants no matter their cost, but more in response to the next tier of private institutions across the U.S.

A small subset of the schools now costing upwards of $50K for the total yearly cost of attendance include Bates, Carleton, Colorado College, Hamilton, Johns Hopkins, Pomona, Stanford, Swarthmore, Vassar, Washington University (SL), Williams, and many, many more….

There are many wonderful colleges across the U.S. that offer an excellent education at reasonable prices, as well as those that are consistently generous with aid and discounting offers.  Independent educational consultants can help families identify schools and enrollment arrangements that can significantly reduce the cost of attendance, and equally important, student debt after graduation. As a consultant from a working class background who was a first generation college student I am especially sensitive to such concerns, and I strive to keep my own fees at a reasonable levels, with special group discounts, pro bono clients, and offers to assist local high schools with college planning for free. My own summer college planning clinic is just such an effort, with dramatically reduced rates for students participating in an eight week, 16-hour college coaching class: (click on the “summer clinic” page).

Click here to see a pretty cool viral video out of Canada (apparently similar problems abound there) that gets to the heart of the student debt lament: the Student Poverty Song.  It’s pretty catchy and has great visuals:


RECENTLY VISITED: Introducing a Blog “Column,” If You Will

Something I particularly love about my profession of independent educational consulting is the chance to tour many schools over the course of the year in order to be able to give my clients first-hand reports and up-to-date info.  The expectation and necessity of touring and attending campus information sessions is no burden for me; it has long been true in my case, even before I became an IEC, that one of my favorite settings/places to hang in the world is a college campus.

I believe it is very important, although not absolutely essential, for students to conceptually and experientially connect with a college. To my mind, a felt connection with an institution isn’t unlike the “chemistry” of a one-on-one love match.  Social science data show that arranged marriages appear to work, and have statistically better success rates than the passionate “love matches” favored in western nations. Being a social scientist myself, but also being a somewhat typical westerner, I will advocate for both: a college that fits on paper, but also in the heart.

How many students have I known who said something like, “From the moment I set foot on campus, I knew this was the place for me”? And yet I’ve known some, like my friend Seth, who applied as a resident of northern California to Denison University, in rural Ohio (where I then worked), site unseen. Seth’s interest was based solely on the avid recommendation of a fellow employee at the video shop where he worked as a high school student. It proved to be a beautiful match-up, and by the time he graduated with his degree in philosophy, Seth was distinguished as a Denison Presidential Scholar. He followed his success at Denison by becoming a personal assistant to the playwright Tony Kushner in New York City, and eventually became an employee of the New York Times. At present he is completing his MBA at Tuck, the Dartmouth College School of Business.

I digress. Competitive colleges fall all over themselves to make an impression on prospective students. Some even suck up to folks like me, with some degree of IEC “bling” – like the lovely bag of stuff I received from Washington University-St. Louis last November. It even included an oversized pennant … how did they know I collect pennants from the colleges I visit??

Most all colleges offer regular tours and information sessions that profile key institutional factoids. Really enterprising and/or classy colleges offer additional opportunities, like the chance to sit in on a class, stay overnight in a dorm, or meet with a professor or admission staff member one-on-one.

Whatever route you choose, tour as much as possible, and make sure your visits are “official” (noted by the Admissions Office): many colleges view a campus visit as a sign of sincere interest on the part of applicants, and count a visit as a positive element of an application package.

Next Recently Visited: University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS

Lisa Ransdell, Ph.D., is an independent educational consultant in Denver, CO, a 27-year higher education professional, and head of Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC:

One Size Doesn’t Fit All In SAT/ACT Prep

Generally, there are five broad types of preparation for the SAT/ACT college entrance tests. #1: Some high schools provide workshops led by teachers or outside consultants, with content ranging from brief overviews of test formats and sample questions to comprehensive coverage. In my opinion these are definitely worth checking out, since convenient, low-cost (or free) test prep is always a good thing. Provided they are offered sufficiently in advance of your testing dates, you should have time to pursue other strategies should that prove necessary.

#2: Another inexpensive route is to prepare on your own with the help of a guidebook. There are several out there in the $20 – $40 price range and each will help prepare you in relatively similar ways. These include official guides produced by the testing companies, such as The Official SAT Study Guide from the College Board, and The Real ACT Prep Guide. I tend to like the Barron guidebooks (How to Prepare for the SAT) for their breadth of coverage, user-friendly formats and CD-Rom inserts. Most guidebooks provide full diagnostic tests, in-depth section reviews, and plenty of sample questions, math problems and vocabulary words. They also cover test-taking strategies, which are quite different between the SAT and ACT.

I would only recommend guidebook preparation for students with solid across-the-board academic strengths, for those who scored reasonably well on the PSAT, and as an initial strategy when there is plenty of time left should more in-depth preparation prove to be necessary. Guidebooks also work best for those with the self-discipline necessary to diligently and regularly prepare in the weeks leading up to the exam date. Self-motivation would similarly be necessary for those who are attracted to the idea of using one of the national on-line test prep programs (#3), such as Kaplan Online, Princeton Review Online, and one of the newest, Encyclopedia Britannica Online. These programs are more expensive, ranging from $500 – $800.

The national companies were previously best known for comprehensive classroom-based workshop review programs (#4), and these are still popular. The workshop setting may work best for those who are more motivated by having a time and place mapped out for their review sessions. They can be pricey, however, often costing upwards of $1000. These days the range of offerings from the national companies are extensive, and make full use of learning and communication technologies.

Finally, there are local private tutors (#5), some of whom exclusively do tutoring, and others who combine tutoring with other educational consulting services, such as help with the college search and admission process. As a professional, I fall in the latter category. I am up-front with clients that I am a good test-taking strategist, and strong in the critical reading and writing categories, but far less so in mathematics. I would refer a student needing deep assistance in the math area to another tutor, and feel it would be unethical of me to do otherwise.

There are two great advantages to private tutors, once you find the right one (always check credentials and references). First, the personalized attention simply can’t be beat. Second, determining in advance the number of hours can control costs, as most tutors charge on an hourly basis. Many private tutors also utilize a guidebook and /or online materials as they work with students, so there may be positive triangulation from going this route.

Some final notes: while the college application process has become more competitive and stressful in recent years, several changes in college policies have mitigated the effects somewhat. Increasing numbers of schools have diminished the weight of standardized tests in their admission decision process, and there are now several hundred test-optional colleges, including many that are highly selective. These schools place more weight on GPAs and letters of recommendation, and may request samples of graded work from the applicant. For some time students have been able to test multiple times with the assurance that colleges will only consider their highest sets of scores, and some schools practice “superscoring,” meaning they allow students to mix the highest sub-scores from different testing sessions. Students with documented learning differences have the option of requesting testing accommodations, such as extended time, and are well advised to work with a tutor who understands their issues.

Lisa Ransdell, Ph. D., is an independent educational consultant based in Denver, CO. She is a college faculty member, former higher education administrator, and president of Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC:

Happy to be Among the 26%

I was delighted to hear that a recent research study on high achieving seniors in the U.S. showed that fully 26% report having used an IEC (independent educational consultant) in their college search and application process. With high school counselors frequently managing impossibly high caseloads and the increasingly positive publicity that credentialed IECs are receiving nationwide, that number will likely climb even higher in the near future. Check out the IECA (Independent Educational Consultants Association) website for the full story and extensive information on locating and evaluating consultants:

I was so fortunate discover that my extensive background in college teaching and administration was highly relevant to this field four years ago when I decided to launch Pinnacle Education Consulting. I truly love what I do and greatly enjoy partnering with Colorado students and families on college planning.

I’m also quite proud of my clients and their achievements. Here are some of the institutions where recent clients have been accepted:

  • Colorado State University
  • Cornell University
  • Gonzaga University
  • Louisiana State University
  • Montana State University
  • Northwestern University
  • University of Notre Dame
  • Santa Clara University
  • Swarthmore College
  • University of British Columbia
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Colorado
  • University of Denver
  • University of Montana
  • University of Oregon
  • University of Texas
  • University of Virginia
  • Villanova University
  • Washington University St. Louis

Looking forward to getting my “26% Ask Me” Button at the IECA conference this May in Philadelphia!

Lisa Ransdell, PhD

Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC

Denver, CO   303-635-6620

Tips for College Planning: An Interview

Recently I was interviewed online by a writer from Alaska Airlines Magazine. I thought her questions were good and enjoyed answering. Our exchange follows below:

What are some of the most important things that students should consider when deciding where to go to college? Considerations for making a choice vary with the priorities of individual students: institutional reputation, academic selectivity and rigor, geographic region, available programs, traditional vs. alternative campus ethos, and on and on…. Increasingly, given the economy, cost is a factor. Among other things this is fueling enrollment in in-state public schools. One broad factor that I would encourage all students to investigate is the reputation of the school with prospective employers and graduate and professional schools, so they have the assurance of a degree that is truly marketable.

What are common mistakes that students make when trying to pick the right college for themselves? A common mistake is limiting options too quickly. Most students are familiar with colleges near where they live and perhaps the Ivy League and a few other well-known institutions. There are standout colleges of all types all over the U.S., many of which students have never heard of depending on where they live.

Another mistake is assuming that a given school isn’t an option given the “sticker price.” Multiple types of financial aid are still solidly available, and virtually all schools do their own discounting in order to woo desirable students.

How important is it for students to know their majors ahead of time? I have long felt that we do a disservice to 18 and 19 year-olds by expecting them to know their major, especially when 70% of college freshmen are either undecided or change their minds, sometimes multiple times! Most recent high school graduates simply haven’t had enough experience and exposure to make a realistic choice of a major and career path. Thankfully, the majority of colleges have curricular requirements that mandate enrollment in general education courses and electives, giving students as much as a year and a half before they are compelled to declare — while still making real progress toward a degree. In the meantime, there are career counselors and advisors at most schools who can help students narrow their options.

Is there only one right college for students? Absolutely not! With over 2300 four-year colleges in the U.S. there are likely multiple right colleges.  The trick is identifying them and checking them out. This fact, along with the paucity of counselors at many high schools is one of the reasons for the growing profession of independent educational consulting.

How important are gut reactions or first impressions when it comes to campus visits and choosing the right school? I validate the gut check as an important factor, but preferably at the end of a solid visit including a tour, information session, conversations with professors and students, hopefully even an overnight stay in a dorm.

What are some of Pinnacle’s most popular services? College matching (development of a personalized list of potential colleges), essay development and editing, SAT/ACT prep, career assessments/major exploration, and comparative institutional research.

What type of student would benefit most from Pinnacle’s services? Most students would benefit from individualized help tailored to their needs and interests, especially now that the college application process is more complex and competitive than when many parents attended. To get the most out of working with a college planning professional students should be invested in the process and proactive. I enjoy working with all types of students.

Are campus visits important? How can students get the most from a campus visit? A campus visit isn’t absolutely necessary, and may not always be possible, but I think it is advisable. A tour and information session arranged by the admissions office is standard, and many colleges allow prospective students to sit in on a class, converse with faculty members and students, and even stay overnight in a dorm.

How soon should students start thinking about which school is right for them? Serious consideration would ideally begin during the junior year in high school, but I advocate that families begin immersing their kids in thinking about and visiting colleges much earlier in order to establish some perspective. Early visits don’t need to involve the admissions office, and may simply involve walking around the campus, eating at the student union, and/or attending a sporting event or performance of some sort.

Does choosing the right school guarantee success? Nope: students still must attend class, study hard and commit to the process of higher education. In addition, research shows that students who become involved in campus activities are more successful than those who do not. Even a work-study position increases persistence!

Here is the link for the full article:

Lisa Ransdell, Ph.D.

Pinnacle Education Consulting, Denver, CO


Top 10 Traits Colleges Seek in Students

From IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants Association, based on a survey of members:

1. A rigorous high school curriculum that challenges the student and may include AP or IB classes.

2. Grades that represent strong effort and an upward trend. However, slightly lower grades in a rigorous program are preferred to all As in less challenging coursework.

3. Solid scores on standardized tests (SAT, ACT). These should be consistent with high school performance.

4. Passionate involvement in a few activities, demonstrating leadership and initiative. Depth, not breadth, of experience is most important.

5. Letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselor that give evidence of integrity, special skills, positive character traits, and an interest in learning.

6. A well-written essay that provides insight into the student’s unique personality, values, and goals. The application essay should be thoughtful and highly personal. It should demonstrate careful and well-constructed writing.

7. Special talents or experiences that will contribute to an interesting and well-rounded student body.

8. Demonstrated leadership in activities. Colleges want people who will arrive prepared and willing to take leadership of student activities and events.

9. Demonstrated intellectual curiosity through reading, school, leisure pursuits, and more.

10. Demonstrated enthusiasm to attend, often exhibited by campus visits and an interview, showing an interest toward attending the college.

Must You Know Your Major?

College-bound high school juniors and seniors routinely field two questions from friends and family members: where do you hope to attend, and what major will you declare? Now that many seniors are close to receiving replies to their school applications, the remaining question needlessly causes anxiety for some, and in many cases for their parents.

As a former Director of Academic Advising and Dean of First Year Students, my strong opinion is that most 17 and 18-year olds simply haven’t had sufficient life experience to make a solid choice. Data show that 70% of U.S. college freshmen either don’t know their major upon starting out, or change their major once or even multiple times. Not knowing is therefore the norm.

With the exception of highly sequenced programs, such as engineering and computer science, most students have a great deal of flexibility in their curricular requirements. Those registered for general education courses such as English, math, social and natural sciences, etc, ARE making progress toward graduation equivalent to their peers with declared majors. Between general studies and the electives that most colleges allow for, students at many colleges can progress as far as the mid-point of their sophomore year before being compelled to declare.

Ultimately, some students will fall in love with a subject upon taking a course from an inspiring professor. Others will get a clue from an intriguing internship or volunteer experience. For those who may need help, there are some excellent free sources of assistance available in the form of academic advisors, psychologists and especially, career counselors. Campus career professionals are experienced administrators of assessments that can identify aptitudes and interests and connect these with programs of study.

So, future collegians, enjoy your senior year of high school, but don’t slack off in your performance – colleges do check year-end grades! One thing you need not obsess about for some time is your future major.

Lisa Ransdell, Ph.D. is a part-time college faculty member and educational consultant in the Denver area.  Her website is

Straight from High School to College?

Myth: It’s important to launch your college career immediately after graduation from high school.

Not true!  In fact, a growing body of research in adolescent brain development offers clues as to why so many students get off to a rough start their first year in college, and why colleges see their highest attrition numbers (students who drop or stop-out) during or just after the first year of enrollment.
Now we are coming to understand that from a developmental perspective, high school seniors and college freshmen are better understood as late adolescents rather than as young adults. Neuroscientists have discovered that the pre-frontal cortex of the brain continues to develop in critically important ways until the age of 23 in some individuals. This section of the brain handles judgment, planning, and connections with other parts of the brain involved in learning, sensation seeking and emotion.
While some students may be farther along in the brain development process, and some are successful due to habits they’ve acquired such discipline and deferment of pleasure, others get themselves into trouble with poor judgment and impulsive actions. No doubt this is why a number of colleges promote the notion of a Gap Year, where students work, travel or engage in volunteer work for a year prior to starting college.  This more graduated transition helps many be more “ready” to balance the rigors and pressures of colleges with the independence it affords.
How to judge readiness for college?? A frank conversation between students and parents regarding the student’s track record in the last year with responsibility, multi-tasking and autonomy should identify if there are deficits.  If the student seems to have struggled, or doesn’t feel 100% ready to be on her/his own, a deferred start may provide just the seasoning that makes all the difference.
Lisa Ransdell, Ph.D.
Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC
Denver, CO

Sequencing College Planning Part II

In order to be optimally prepared when it’s time to begin applying to prospective colleges (fall-winter of your senior year), it helps to know that you’ve been thorough in your planning. The following is a list of things to be stressed in each year of high school in order to have that assurance:

Junior Year:

  • Continue core classes and extracurriculars as previously suggested;
  • Prepare for and take the ACT and/or SAT; take the pressure off by knowing you can repeat these tests if necessary, and that only your highest scores will count;
  • Begin to explore colleges by viewing websites and making visits when you can; try and visit a college campus whenever you are traveling; attend college fairs at your school;
  • Summer before senior year: Begin work on the Common Application ( – if you apply to schools that use the CA you’re well prepared; if you apply to schools that don’t use the CA you will likely be more than prepared.

Senior Year:

  • Complete requirements for graduation, ensuring that HEAR requirements are met;
  • Repeat ACT/SAT if necessary, making sure you do some prep first if you are hoping for score improvements;
  • Continue developing your list of possible colleges, identifying some that are reach schools, some that are safeties, and some that are likelies;
  • Request references early on, ideally your counselor and one teacher who can speak to your potential;
  • Continue key extracurriculars;
  • Have fun but don’t slack off in your academic efforts. Colleges scrutinize performance during senior year and will ask questions if you crash and burn at this point;
  • Finish honing your list of school of interest and note deadlines – applications must be received on time. Remember to inform your references of deadlines as well.

Sequencing College Planning Part I

In order to be optimally prepared when it’s time to begin applying to prospective colleges (fall-winter of your senior year), it helps to know that you’ve been thorough in your planning. The following is a list of things to be stressed in each year of high school in order to have that assurance:

Summer before freshman year: If there are any deficiency areas – for example struggles with math, fears of foreign language study or lagging some in reading level – this is the perfect time to address such issues. Enrollment in summer school or in a tutoring program for weak subjects is a great idea for a strong start in high school. Costs can be controlled if you have a neighbor or friend who is a strong upper level high school student who might welcome work as a tutor.

Freshman Year:

  • Enroll in core classes that meet the Colorado HEAR requirements for graduation and college eligibility (;
  • Explore several extracurricular activities for fun and to develop and expand yourself;
  • Visit a college campus with your family or through a program at your school – begin thinking about college as an aspect of your future, and the type of school you might wish to attend.
  • Again, hit any deficiency areas during summer months before 10th grade when you have the time to really dig deep and improve academic skills.

Sophomore Year:

  • Continue core classes following HEAR guidelines;
  • Identify one or two extracurriculars (clubs, sports, volunteer programs) that you will maintain throughout your remaining high school enrollment. Colleges are more impressed by depth of involvement over a wide breadth of dabbling in random activities;
  • Prepare for and take the PSAT as a trial run for future testing, and to qualify for National Merit scholarships.