Interviewer: How do you work with students and families on college preparation?
Zach Galin: I typically start working with students and families in students' junior year. We begin the process by taking a look at a student's coursework, their grades, and begin planning for standardized tests, and also, making sure that they're in the appropriate classes. I think a lot of times students may end up for one reason or another, in a class that may be too difficult for them, or not challenging enough for them. That's where we start. We go through the full gamut of things that colleges are looking at, anything from their grades and test scores to recommendations, extra curriculars, letters from outside coaches and employers, to make sure that they have everything that they need when they're going through the college application process.
Interviewer: How has that changed over the years in terms of what's important, what's useful, and your approach to the college preparation process?
Zach: I think there have been a few cycles of how the college application process has changed over the past 20 years or so. About 20 years ago, it started to become increasingly more competitive to get into some of the very selective schools. A lot of counselors, both private counselors and school counselors were pushing students to be well rounded, the idea of the well rounded student, someone who excelled in sports, and extracurricular clubs, and volunteering, and, in school, of course, academically.
I think though, in the past seven to 10 years or so, schools have been starting to look for well-rounded student bodies. They're looking for students who have had a broad range of experiences, but have started already to excel in one or two in particular.
I tend to see a lot of students come in saying, "I've done all of these different things, and look how well-rounded I am," yet, they haven't really developed any leadership, or expertise, or significant skills in any one of those things.
I think schools are now starting to look for students who have some skill or experience in smaller numbers so that they can build a more well-rounded student body, as opposed to having a student body full of relatively well-rounded people.
Interviewer: Given that, when you look at your work with these students and their families, how do you define success, Zach?
Zach: I think a lot of it now is finding what a student is really interested in. Now, freshmen are probably not going to know exactly what they're interested in, and I always recommend that freshmen take a broad look at all the things that their school and communities have to offer. Then, starting in their sophomore year, start to figure out, "What are the things that I actually like doing?" Those are the things to start to pursue a little bit more strategically, spending a little bit more time with those, weeding out some of the other things that have become superfluous and you think you need it because of your resume. I really recommend that students don't do a whole host of activities just because they think they look good for college.
Interviewer: [laughs] I appreciate that.
Zach: They should be doing things that they love and that they enjoy doing. Now, they need to start developing some leadership and skill in those things, so that they can show that they've dedicated some time and energy to developing that interest. But, certainly, you don't need to be a student who is on the student newspaper, and student council, volunteering at four different places, having three jobs, spending your summers in Europe, et cetera, and, yet, you've never really developed an interest or a passion in any of those things.
I talk to a lot of parents, especially of young men, who are interested, let's say, in playing video games, and the parents are very concerned that they won't get into college because all they like to do is play video games. Well, it's a very legitimate interest that they have, and I think it can absolutely be explored.
I once had a student who was so into video games, and when I started working with him and his family, I recommended, "Hey, can you play these games competitively?" Here was a very big first-person shooter game, and he did play competitively, and I asked if he had friends who played. He said, "Yeah, they all play from their homes," and I said, "Why don't you get people together to play these games?"
Two and a half years later, he's running a county-wide competition at his school to see who's the best player in one of these first-person shooter games. Now, that's absolutely showing the initiative and leadership that colleges are looking for, but it's in an area that the student was actually passionate about. It's certainly nontraditional, especially from the parents' perspective. They were very worried about this.
He did very well, and developed all of the skills that you could get by being the editor of your newspaper or being your class president.
Interviewer: Cool. Again, given your experience, and you start with a pool of students and families, how many should go to college? How many do? How many should do something else? What's your sense of that?
Zach: That's tough. I definitely have a skewed view of the high school graduates. Most students that I work with are already on track for a four-year institution. That is not to say that necessarily everybody is. I have worked with a variety of families at different points, some whose students haven't yet demonstrated that they have matured enough or developed enough to be sent off to a four-year institution on their own. Some families opt to send their child to a two-year institution or stay local, with the idea that, "Prove yourself, and then, we will help you financially and emotionally. Go away to finish your degree."
I've also worked with a number of families where the students are average academically, but they're certainly not average people. They go through the college process. They look for some of the schools that they think that they'll be happy in, and, all of a sudden, in their sophomore or junior year of college, they really find themselves.
They become social, they start actually focus in on their academics and perform well, they start to figure out what their interests are career-wise. Every student is really going to mature and develop at their different rates. Not everyone is ready at 18, so necessarily go off to a four-year institution. Some go off widely and develop quite a bit from there.
I think it's a very case-by-case basis. I wouldn't be able to give you a percentage of who should go, who shouldn't go, and who should do a two-year option to start, but they're all options that are available.
Interviewer: Have you had many students who came up through either home-schooling or online schools? How does that play out?
Zach: Well, I've only worked with a handful of home-schooled students who, I guess, you could consider online students, because, once they got to high school, they really maxed out the capacity that a parent or caregiver was able to help them, and they started to transition to things like the Florida Virtual School or Venta classes to finish their high school degrees. It's the same thing. You have to succeed academically, especially for selected colleges. You have to do well on the test at the college and take the test. There are a handful of schools that, now, they don't require it. You have to find some things to do outside of the classroom.
It's very similar. It's just a very different setting in terms of where they are attached and willing to work. I hope for them to find outside opportunities.
Now, home-schooled and online students tend to have jobs or internships more often than students who are in school, because they have much more of a flexible schedule, so they're getting a lot more of life experience or work experience, which, I think, colleges are actually starting to value more and more.
It's a little bit of a different experience, but, again, it's the same process for them.
Interviewer: The cost of the game obviously keeps going up. What are you seeing with your parents and families there? Is it a movement back to public schools or are they absorbing the cost? How is that playing out?
Zach: It's a very difficult conversation. I try to put all of the information on the table for families. It's a very personal and strategic decision that they have to make. I do see a lot of families, especially in Madison, whose goal is to have their son or daughter go to University of Wisconsin at Madison. Now, that's not necessarily the best school for every student. It's a great institution, academically and socially, and it's very well known, but not everyone thrives in such a large environment and urban environment, and there are other options for them.
But you have to make sure that the student is also being academically challenged, so, sometimes, parents, because of cost, will start to look at other schools whose sticker price is low. Looking at some of the other state schools, or looking at other schools that have low sticker prices, it may not be academically challenging enough for their child.
So, what I work with those families on, is really taking a look at other schools, perhaps private schools, where the sticker price may be high, but between financial aid and merit aid, they're going to be able to almost match what the University of Wisconsin at Madison is going to charge. A great example of this is Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
You get a certain number on your ACT and they're going to give you somewhere near $20,000 a year. It's a great option. If you're academically talented, private schools are going to give out money.
So, what I recommend the families to do is, as of October of last year, there's something called net price calculators. Every college in the country is now required to have, on their website, something called a net price calculator.
A family can put in information about their income, their assets, and rip out returns. An estimate of what the school would actually charge you out of pocket, what loans you should take out or will have to take out, what grant money you're going be offered.
Some of these calculators are very accurate, some are a little less so. Some involve a lot more information and some are a bit more superficial. It gives you at least a sense of...The sticker price is not always what it actually costs to go to school there, and that's from a financial aid perspective, a need based aid perspective.
There's something else, the common data set, which is what US News and the College Board use to get information about schools and then rank schools. Each school actually, on their websites, will publish their common data set, and within the common data set, there's a section for aid.
They will describe how much money they gave out, how much of it was federal money, how much of it was institutional money, and how much went to students who demonstrated need, and how much of it went to students who earned it, through merit. I think a lot of families who are on the cusp. We talked about middle-class. I'm not exactly sure where that's defined, but middle-class families who don't necessarily qualify for federal financial aid.
To pay sticker price would be out of their budget. There are a lot of schools that will give out money to students who are academically talented and the common data set is a great way to take a look at, at least how generous the school is with those types of students.
Interviewer: Do you have a sense of when you look at all these different colleges and the schools you work with for these students, do you have a sense of the range of costs, the real costs? It's interesting to me when I look at this to see there's the advertised price and you said it, Miami of Ohio is one great example. They all have this price on their website. Would you say, in general, that across all of the students who go to these schools that the net price maybe is 80 percent of that or 60 percent of that, or what do you think the real price of higher education is these days?
Zach: Well, it's tough. Obviously, a big factor in the matter is going to be the parent's income and assets. That's a tough call. Let's take the example of a parent qualifies for no need based aid. What I typically see happen is if you take a student who attends a school that is, what I would consider sort of a half step down academically from what their range is, they're looking at cutting the tuition cost in half.
Housing and all the incidentals are still there, but the tuition, if you were to take a half step down, would be half of what the sticker price is because a lot of these schools are very generous. They're very interested and motivated in getting students who are above their average academic student to their school, for either good reasons or rankings reasons, and they have large endowments to do this.
Interviewer: Did I lose you? Oh, no.
Zach: No, I'm still here. Can you hear me?
Interviewer: Yes. So, you were saying, they have large endowments. Essentially half...
Zach: They have the capacity to fund their institutional priorities and one of them may be to attract more academically qualified students, looking at a GPA, the level of rigor of their coursework, and standardized test scores.
Interviewer: Well, that's actually a reasonably optimistic outlook then for keeping it somewhat affordable, I guess.
Zach: The other piece of it is students should have a stake in the game. There is an appropriate amount of debt that a student can take out to fund their own education. I think it's very appropriate for the student to feel like, "I have a financial stake in this." What I typically recommend, and this is not my recommendation per se, but it comes from a variety of sources that say look at the average starting salary of a graduate from that institution. That amount is approximately what you could take out as a student.
At UW Madison, the average graduate earns about $41,000 a year, so it would be appropriate for a student to take out about $41,000 in loans to finance his or her education there. It's an interesting and, I think, a good proxy for figuring out what the debt could be. I also think it's good for students to have this financial stake because it encourages them to finish on time.
We know that almost 50 percent of end stage students at UW Madison don't finish in four years. Taking that fifth year, basically, is going to cost you somewhere between $60,000 and $70,000 between tuition, housing, incidentals, and lost wages.
Interviewer: Lost wages, right.
Zach: If you were apply that to a private school, you're now paying about the same price as a private school, if you got out of the private school in four years.
Interviewer: Interesting. Are you seeing a change in where, let's say, Madison area kids are going. Or is it the same? You identified UW and then there's a variety of other schools. Are the paths all similar or anything new?
Zach: I think you definitely have a diverse group of people here in Madison. You have a lot of transplants from other parts of the country who are typically more willing to take a look at a broader geographic range of schools. If a family comes from the East or West Coast, they're OK with sending their child to the East or West Coast. But families that are Midwest-centric sometimes set a geographic boundary around Madison. Maybe it's six hours or so, six hours driving time, so they can include some of the schools near Twin Cities. The issues with these geographic boundaries, though, is that schools are pretty spread out here in Wisconsin, and in Illinois, and in Minnesota, and Iowa. There isn't the density of colleges that you find in a place like Ohio even.
A lot of times, I encourage families to at least look and see, "What are you cutting off by setting this relatively artificial boundary, geography wise," and start taking a look at schools that may be in Ohio, or in Indiana, or in Michigan. I understand that there are potentially added costs if you have to fly to a school.
There is some level of comfort that parents take in having their kid be a drive away, and I get that, but I think it's worth considering, "What are you taking out of the equation because you set this boundary?" And then, being thoughtful and saying, "I'm comfortable with taking these out of the equation."
Interviewer: How about students' majors over the arc of your experience? Are you seeing something new? You gave this example of the video game thing. Are students still pursuing hard sciences, or liberal arts, or business? What's the range of what they're thinking about doing and actually doing?
Zach: It's all over the board. You still see a lot of students who are business majors, or some variant thereof, a lot of students who are looking at psychology or something similar, but I would say most of my students, I haven't run the numbers on it. I think more than half of the students that I've worked with have changed their major at least once. That's fairly consistent with some of the national statistics. A lot of students go to school thinking they are going to be interested or do one particular field, and then they change their mind, which is, I think, normal and appropriate, and part of maturing and growing up. How does this affect the college application process?
I think when students' families or parents box the student into a major, they start looking at schools that either excel in that field, or they have a very strong program in that field, but not necessarily in other fields. I often see a lot of students who say, "I really want to go to school X because they have this great program in the field I'm interested in." Then when I ask them, "Well, what happens if you decide you don't want to pursue that field? Would you be comfortable at that school in a different field?"
A lot of times, they actually answer, "No," which I think is very interesting, because they are putting a lot of faith that they are going to become a veterinarian, and they are going into a pre-vet program at a school that had a very good pre-vet program, but didn't realize that, "Oh, I could be a biology major at another school, and that could me to become a veterinarian, and if I decided I didn't want to be a biology major of a veterinarian, I could major in medieval literature."
I think you have to find a school that at least has the field that you're interested in. If you're interested in architecture, you shouldn't go to a school that doesn't have something that could lead to a career in architecture. But, should you go to a school that you otherwise wouldn't have gone to because you think they have a great architecture program, I'm not sure, given the number of students who change their minds when they are in college.
Interviewer: Is there much competition with what you do? Obviously, you have a website, your social media and all that. Tell me, when you start talking with students and parents, are there a lot of other people? Is it difficult? Is it a decent market? What's the business like?
Zach: I think there are a couple of other people in the Madison area who do this. I think a few of them focus more on the financial aid side of it. I am not a financial planner, but there are financial planners who, I think, probably do a great job with helping you with that component of it. This may be a relatively new thing here in Madison, because the university in Madison has become so competitive to get into now that there's this need to help look at a broader range of schools, both geographically and academically, that maybe hasn't existed here before.
If you were go to the coast, or you go to even a place like Chicago, you're going to see private college counselors show up fairly often, and it's actually pretty common for families to hire someone to help them through the process, because this is a major decision. You're about to invest what could be between $100,000 and $250,000 in your child, in their education, and in their future, and a lot of families would like to have somebody help them through the process.
Now, can you go through the process on your own? Sure. Families do it all the time, and they are very successful at it, but some families just want an additional guide, or support, or someone to bounce questions off of, and also someone to help their child through the nuts and bolts of the process, which has become increasingly complex and competitive. There are a few other people in Madison who do this.
I think it's much more common on the coast, and I think as we see schools' budgets get cut, and support staff get cut, there is a greater need for additional services to be provided outside of school.
Because caseloads for school counselors have become enormous and so varied that their focus may not necessarily be on selected for your institutions, or helping a family navigate the college application process, when they have different priorities, or even just incredibly large caseloads.
Interviewer: It makes sense. Now, thinking about the future, there's Corsera, there's Udacity. There are a number of online higher-ed plays that are pure online. I almost refer to them as synthetic, where they're trying to weave what they consider to be the best of the best. You do this, you can have courses from MIT, Berkeley, the whole deal. How is that going to play out? Is it going to be effective in the next 10 years, or will it end up on the rocks? What is your sense?
Zach: It is very exciting to see the developments that occur. The big step is going to be when somebody confers a degree based on these courses. Right now, you've got a bunch that you mentioned that offer online courses. Some are starting to offer credit for them if you do some complex, apply your credit to one thing, which you have to then transfer to another thing, and another thing, and maybe you can patchwork it all together into a degree. But there's still a big emphasis attached with having a degree from a particular name brand institution, and until those name brands start to accept these online courses, and perhaps put them together into a traditional program that gets you a degree, they're going to generate a lot of traction not with your tradition 18 to 24 year-old students who are looking for that residential experience, and also a degree from the institution.
I think they're having an enormous effect on nontraditional students, the adults going back to school, people looking to finish their degree who have had a bunch of coursework. But, again, for your traditional 18 to 24 year-olds, there's going to be a market for the residential college experience, which may be hybrid and have some online coursework involved. Again, if you can't get your degree from MIT online, then it these courses are not going to change the landscape.
Interviewer: I agree with you. I think that when they step over the credential line with something that has meaning, I think that's going to be the moment. My own guess, and this is simply a guess or a theory, is that the way they'll do it is, given their pedigrees amongst the financial community, and obviously the tech community, I think they will cut deals with some of the big companies and say, "You can invest in our deal, but then you have to hire X number of our students." I think that will be the moment that it becomes a big deal, because they will have another out. You say, "All right, you go through this for four years, or two years, or three years, and we're going to guarantee you a job if you do A, B, C, D." I think that will be the killer app, let's say, of these guys, frankly.
Interviewer: Especially with name companies.
Zach: ...and you're going to have to see a big name do it, because you've got a lot of these private, liberal arts, traditional, residential undergrad schools who are doing a lot of online coursework themselves to generate revenue so they don't have big endowments, and that is still not the popular way of going about it for 18 to 24 year-olds. Another thing is that I think there will be a market for the residential experience. There is a lot to be gained by going off to college in a traditional sense. If that's what all of the top most competitive students are doing, it will continue to have an effect on the rest of the market, in that students who are academically average are still going to want to mimic that experience at a traditional school.
But if you see a school like Brown, or Harvard, or MIT, or Stanford come out and say, "We are offering a full online degree. This is the cost, this is how you can put your classes together, and it doesn't come attached with the stigma of being online. You get it. You got it," you will see some change, but you will still have students who want to go and spend their four years there.
Interviewer: I agree. I have two last questions for you, Zach. One is, if we jumped into a time machine and you were 18 or 17 today, what would you study? What would you do?
Zach: I started in a very quantitative major, when I was an undergrad, and then I moved into a more people centered major. If I were to go back, I would definitely stick with my quantitative background. If you enjoy numbers, if you have a knack for them, there are a lot of different places where you can apply a quantitative background and be very happy. I came in late to the game to education. I decided late in college that I was passionate about education and working with adolescent students.
You can do that still with a quantitative background. You can do almost anything with it. If I were to go back, I'd probably either continue as a math major or become an engineering major so I could build a number skill.
Interviewer: Hard science, OK. Then last question. You're talking to the parent of a child in elementary school, third, fourth, fifth grade. What do you tell them, thinking ahead to their college days, their higher ed days? Whatever that looks like. What do you tell them today?
Zach: Save your money.
Interviewer: Money, money, money.
Zach: Work with a financial planner to make sure you're saving appropriately. I know that if you were to extrapolate and make projections for 10 or 15 years from now, it probably would seem incredibly ridiculous, the amount that the sticker prices will be.
Interviewer: It's ugly.
Zach: That's first, obviously, is for the parents to do. Then there's third or fourth grader, or someone in elementary school that's really helping them to love to learn. Colleges are looking for students. First and foremost, they want students, students who have excelled academically in one area or multiple areas to really help facilitate that love of learning. I think a lot of emphasis sometimes, for families, is on athletics, which is great especially in elementary school.
You still want to support what's going on inside the classroom, whether it's reading with your kid or having him or her read to you, doing the math homework with them, trying to make some of the concepts fun. Explore little science experiments in your house.
Any way that you can encourage them to continue to learn and to read, and to work with numbers, is obviously going to be helpful for college. I don't think you need to be having them write their personal essay when they're eight or nine years old, or even start any clubs at that age. Definitely, you need to get them on the path to loving to learn.
Interviewer: Cool. Well, thanks so much for your time today, Zach. Anything else you want to add before we go? I appreciate it very much.
Zach: The one thing that didn't come up, that I do want to put in is the idea of employment. This is actually a relatively new trend. I think colleges are starting to really like to see students who have entry-level employment experience, which I think is different. You had a lot of parents pushing kids 10 years ago to become the captain of a team, or to become the president of a club, and colleges have now realized that's what everyone wants and tries to do, but there's a lot gained from having entry-level experience, whether it's being a bagger at a grocery store, or a cashier at a retail store, or serving at a restaurant.
Those entry-level experiences are going to give you a lot of credibility with working with a diverse group of people, dealing with customers, having a boss, doing so much grunt work that's involved in it, not being too good for some of that type of work. I just wanted to add that in there, that I think work is a great experience for college and college applications.
It also is very helpful for families to have that little bit of extra income, and it's helpful for students to be supporting their recreational activities. If they want to go to the movies, they can work and earn some money to do that.
Interviewer: Exactly. To follow up on that, when you think about the cost of college, and, obviously, there's parent money, family money, and then there's borrowing, what percentage do you recommend that students' work can contribute to that?
Zach: Again, it's going to be very specific to each family. I think students should help out a reasonable amount. I think that above and beyond, basic housing and food costs should really be on the student, so that they can start to learn to budget their money, and to earn some of it as well, whether it's through a summer job or a part-time job during the year. I think there's a big push, especially in high schools, on learning about budgeting and personal finance. I think if you come out of college and you haven't had that experience yet, the real world's going to hit you pretty hard. Things add up that I think it's important for students, especially in college, to start to realize that it's their first time living on their own, and of course parents want to help them, but there is a level of help that's too much and doesn't help students learn what the value of a dollar is, and also how to manage their money.