PTA Coffee Break: College admission panel answers questions

Laguna Beach PTA Coffee Break hosted a panel of experts at the Surf and Sand last month to discuss launching a child into college.

Laguna Beach High School Principal Don Austin, private college counselors Kristen Thomas and Lisa McLaughlin and experienced parents and kids gathered to discuss the process from many perspectives.

The more than 50 attendees demonstrated that this is one of the most confounding processes in our parenting life. In the changing economic climate impacting our California state system and our own financial options, understanding the current climate becomes even more critical.

"Everyone who wants to go to college can," Austin said, yet emphasizing, "don't get into a sweatshirt (Harvard vs. Stanford) battle with your buddies."

The parent's role is to help the child find out more about who they are and help them find the right fit. Selectivity is not the same as educational quality. Going to a top-tier school is not a prerequisite for success or happiness.

Nancy Giangeruso, parent of two launched boys, exemplified a healthy parental attitude. Her sons represented "both ends of the spectrum," one being a C-student who went through community college and is now at a state school.

The other knew he wanted to go to an Ivy League school "since second grade," and is now doing well at Princeton.

Parent Kathy Springer and daughter Tara shared their story. Kathy had a good experience at community college but wanted her daughter to have more of the college away-from-home experience so they compromised by sending her to Santa Barbara City College with a plan of transferring to UC Santa Barbara. Now she is living back home to complete some math requirements. She wants to pursue speech pathology yet is on a 40-name wait-list at Cal State Fullerton.

The ultimate goal should be the fit between the school and the child. Colleges review a student's GPA, the rigor of the academic program that GPA reflects, standardized test scores (SAT, ACT), extra-curricular activities and evidence of an authentic passion. The challenge is for the student to stretch to the fullest without burning out.

"Take the most rigorous courses within reason [which is] different for every kid," Austin said.

Standardized test scores matter because GPAs aren't comparable from school to school. Test prep "makes sense." Laguna Beach High School is in the process of aligning its training toward the ACT, although both SAT and ACT scores are acceptable.

For the test-averse, there are more than 800 colleges that don't require standardized tests (see Fairtest.org).

McLaughlin, founder of Edvantage Consulting Services, spoke about the changing climate of the community college in today's new economic environment with higher unemployment and massive budget pressure on all the California state schools.

Last year, 29% of LBHS grads went to a two-year school and 58% went to a four-year. California community colleges have their highest-ever enrollment of 3 million students against a backdrop of a $400-million budget cut.

"Kids believe the rules are different for those going on to community college," McLaughlin said.

That is, a less stringent high school schedule is needed. Not so. Kids must take math and English placement tests to get into community colleges and many need to remediate.

Once accepted into a community college, it can be difficult to cobble together requirements to get into the transfer program of choice. It's important to know what the goal is in advance so that a student can take the proper prerequisites.

"Getting in is easy, you need to get out" without getting bogged down in overcrowded courses where a student must wait-list or even worse, find that required courses aren't available.

Only 14% of students transferring from a community college to a UC school will actually graduate two years later.

On a brighter note, Suzie Speirs, LBHS regional occupational program coordinator, introduced this exciting high school opportunity.

Kids can take specialized courses in five different career pathways throughout the county for credit and gain invaluable experience in possible career fields of interest.

For example, a kid can work in a veterinarian's office, or as a "first responder" EMT for credit and experience.

This is the only way kids can explore these careers before they become 18. At LBHS, kids can pursue retail management, silk-screening, graphic arts and dance.

LBHS senior Emily Writer told of her ROP opportunity to explore (and commit to) sports medicine.

Speirs added that ROP experience makes a student stand out in the college admissions process. Gaining life and work experience for credit while building a child's resume make ROP something all kids should explore.

KATE ROGERS lives in Laguna Beach.

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