Selection deadline nears for college-bound students

| Monday, April 16, 2012

It's a good problem to have: Receiving acceptances from six prestigious universities and needing to choose just one. Yet, the honor doesn't make the dilemma any easier, Vivek Nimgaonkar says.

Nimgaonkar, 18, of Point Breeze, must enroll by May 1. He wants to keep his choices private, but two Ivy League schools are on his list. Nimgaonkar plans to study on a pre-med track, and can't go wrong with any of the universities. Yet, he knows that where he goes will have a profound effect on his future, and picking one school and turning down the others is so hard.

"On the days when you hear back from these colleges, you're unprepared," says Nimgaonkar, a senior at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel. "When you hear back, suddenly you have this big decision that you're not entirely ready for. I heard back from several schools one day ... and suddenly it became real, the idea that I'm going off to college."

Nimgaonkar and thousands of other college-bound graduating American seniors are facing the national deadline, May 1, to make their decision and put down a deposit. And for those who are torn between two schools, double-dipping is considered unethical and forbidden. So, stressful though it may be, it's time to pick one school and go with it.

"I think most kids are really in the throes of that decision-making process now," Tom Rossi, director of college counseling at Shady Side Academy. "There will definitely be students who are still wrestling with this on the 30th (of April)."

College options aren't right or wrong, or often even good, better and best, Rossi says. When students get many good offers from schools they like, and they cost about the same, the decision seems to boil down to Choice A versus Choice B, C and so on. Yet, think about how the college students attend affects the rest of their lives: What they study, where they live, who they meet, he says.

"I think kids understand the implications of the decision and understand the importance of it," Rossi says. "They're not sure about what they want, but they're worried about what they're letting go."

In these days of ever-rising college costs and student-loan burdens, a school's cost often becomes a deciding factor, he says. According to the College Board's annual Trends in College Pricing report, the average annual cost for tuition, fees and room and board for the 2011-2012 school year is $17,131 for a four-year, in-state public school; $29,657 for a four-year, out-of-state public school; and $38,589 for a four-year, private college.

Even students who have their hearts set on a certain school need to consider seriously whether their family can afford it, or if they can take on enough debt to finance it, he says. In cases where the cost of the first-choice school is too steep, an offer from someone's second or third choice with a great scholarship can make that school the best choice.

"You're looking at this complex decision through a number of different windows," Rossi says.

Students agonizing over the decision need to consider carefully the pros and cons of each school and its offer, the costs, and their feelings about each school, says Rossi, who believes that fate plays a hand in where teens eventually decide to go.

"I think great decisions are made with the head and the heart," he says.

Michael Poll, vice president for enrollment management at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, says that about 80 percent of the incoming freshman class (about 300), already is committed to the school, but many will decide at the last minute as they weigh their options. Poll encourages high-school seniors to sit down with their families and make a list of the top three schools, and discuss them.

Poll and colleagues encourage undecided students to take a second trip to Seton Hill to visit the campus, sit in on a class, meet students and even work out in the gym: "Something that gives them a stronger sense of what the university is really like.

"We want them to make the best decision, too," Poll says. "It does us no good if a student comes ... and then leaves.

"I'll tell students, 'Sometimes, you really have to go with what feels right,' " he says.

And have faith that things will work out, Poll says.

"I think for really strong, talented students with the right attitude, they can be successful at most universities," Poll says.

Rossi and Poll recommend that undecided seniors talk to their parents about all factors in the choice: financial realities, distance from home, etc. Parents, in turn, should listen to their kids and offer truth and advice, but not pressure them. For instance, if your teen wants to go out of state, don't pressure him or her to attend a local university.

If cost is the deciding factor, they say, try Googling "financial aid comparison," and you can find online spreadsheets that will help you compare money factors of each school.

If all else fails, flip a coin, jokes Rossi, who has a "magic quarter" in his desk.

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