How To Research Colleges Virtually

Episode #3. The current pandemic has left many students unable to visit college campuses or take campus tours. Students may now be wondering how they will narrow down their college choices without having these crucial experiences. On this episode of The MEFA Podcast, MEFA's Associate Directors of College Planning Jonathan Hughes and Jonathan Sparling break down everything you need to know about researching colleges when you can't visit campus, including how to know if a college is a good investment, online tools you can use in the absence of campus visits, and what resources colleges are offering prospective students to help them get a feel for campus. If you enjoy the MEFA Podcast, please leave us a review.


Jonathan Hughes: Welcome to the Navigating the course to college podcast. My name is Jonathan Hughes. I'm the associate director of college planning and education and MEFA.

Jonathan Sparling: I'm Jonathan Sparling, also associate director of college planning and education with MEFA.

Jonathan Hughes: Thank you. So on our show today, we'll be talking about researching colleges when you can't visit campus. You'll hear some clips from a webinar that we hosted last week on this topic, which featured some guests, we’ll also open up the mail bag, read some customer questions. See what's on the minds of parents and students these days. But, uh, first we have news. So Jonathan, this is typically a busy time of year with things gearing up for the fall. And of course, factoring in the pandemic and all the just decisions that colleges have to make to open up in the coming year. Tell us everything that's been going on.

Jonathan Sparling: Yeah, absolutely. So this year, uh, unlike any other, certainly for a number of reasons, but, um, you know, colleges are dealing with a lot of decisions that have to be made and they are approaching very rapidly.

And so, you know, one of the, one of the biggest pieces of news that we continue to see is that colleges are announcing their plans for the fall. Um, more schools are coming out with what their plan is for the fall semester. Whether they are planning to be a fully online, whether they're planning to be fully in person or whether they are planning to offer some type of hybrid approach.

You know, we are seeing colleges put forth plans to be on campus. Um, and whether that's, everyone's going to be on campus or, you know, they're going to have on campus offerings with some hybrid options where, uh, you know, you might. Everything from being on campus for a little bit of time, and then maybe some students go off or, you know, offering students that may not feel comfortable being on campus, the opportunity for virtual learning.

Um, you know, we're seeing those plans roll out, but, you know, for those traditional colleges that were more residential based, uh, we are seeing them come out with, with plans to, uh, at least. At least try to be on, on campus in the fall. There's a lot that still needs to be figured out. But given the time of the year in college bills are come out traditionally end of this month, beginning of July.

So colleges are starting to make those decisions. So, you know, for any folks listening, definitely if you are planning to attend in the fall, the college will probably have made announcements already. Um, so certainly make sure to check those out. And then the, the Chronicle of Higher Education has a running list as well as they hear from what schools are planning to do.

They are updating on that list. Chronicle has made that particular list open to everyone, which is great. So you can go in and, and as they hear announcements, they are putting out what the particular college is planning to do.

Jonathan Hughes: That is regarding how colleges are physically planning to open and what they physically plan to do with the space at college.

But I know that there are some other things that have come up about how many students are being admitted to college. How many students are choosing to take a gap year and what the college is terms of their acceptance. So can you speak to that quickly?

Jonathan Sparling: So not only are colleges, you know, making decisions about what their plans will be, but they are also more than previous years hearing from students that are potentially thinking about deferring a year. Um, you know, maybe taking that gap year, uh, we've heard some from, from students and families that are, um, you know, they were planning to go away for school. And now maybe they're looking at a local option, a more of a community college or state school that might be a little more feasible. A survey that went out, this organization called Education Dive.

Um, they, they reported that. Um, around 775 schools had space as of June 1st, um, compared to 706 schools. And you know, that, that it says that this the fluctuation is typical through the years, but just to give an example or a comparison, uh, last year at this time only 419 colleges said that they had space as of May 1st.

And so this isn't looking at all colleges across. Uh, the country, but it is a subset of colleges that answered this survey. So, you know, fairly large increase in terms of how many colleges have open seats. And when we say open seats, we mean that there are, there's still room for students, uh, to go in the fall.

So it means that the college hasn't completely filled their class. Uh, they are still accepting students and there would still be room. For students to be part of that fall 2020 class. And so we've seen that a lot of colleges this year have actually gone to their wait lists, uh, which, um, for folks that they're, you may have been waitlisted at a particular school.

Um, and you're seeing that the college is now offering you admission, uh, simply based on where their enrollment numbers are falling in. Now what's really interesting is that it's certainly not equal across the board. Um, you know, there are some colleges that are impacted more than others. Uh, but what is, I guess, a little bit unique is that it's not necessarily limited to, um, a certain sector of colleges.

So you're seeing open seats, both at privates and publics, and even at some privates that are, um, traditionally. I guess more competitive. And so, you know, I think this is kind of impacting across the board for sure.

Jonathan Hughes: But when you mentioned, you know, for students that are on the wait list, it's probably better than most years to have been wait-listed and you're more likely to be admitted off the wait list.

The other big piece, when we think about the waitlist. Even when you were admitted at the waitlist in most years, um, you know, you're probably not looking at aid or not looking at a lot of financial aid. Is that something that you've heard anything about this year as well?

Jonathan Sparling: Yeah, that's a great point. So, you know, in addition to, as you mentioned most years, that waitlist, uh, you're kind of taken off the wait list and typically you're not seeing a ton of, of scholarship offered, um, because, you know, it's, it's a kind of an enrollment game where you're, uh, typically your top choice. And so from the college's perspective, um, many students that come off the wait list, uh, some colleges actually employ need aware processes in their, their waitlist, uh, strategy where they, they would be without going too deep there, they're not looking at the finances of the family throughout the enrollment process.

But when they came to the waitlist, they might take the family, family finances into consideration. And so what's different this year is not only are folks coming off the wait list, but we are hearing that schools are also discounting, um, and offering some scholarship or grant dollars to those students.

Jonathan Hughes: Right, well, thank you. And speaking of aid, uh, one, one other update is, uh, every year, this is the time of year for new loan rates. So we got some new federal loan rates, right.

Jonathan Sparling: July one is July one is when they're set for the upcoming year, but usually end of May, beginning of June, the new rates are published and, you know, kind of set for the upcoming year.

And so yes, for the direct loan program, those rates have been set and, um, very, very low. Um, so the undergraduate. Subsidized and unsubsidized set at 2.7, 5%. The plus loan, the parent, the direct plus loan 5.3% and the, um, the grad loan at 4.3%. And so across the board about a 40% decrease from last year.

Certainly if you do need to borrow, um, you know, this year is, is definitely a time that you're gonna want to strongly, strongly, and we highly encourage you to take out those, um, those direct loans, uh, for the undergraduate, uh, first, right? Because the rates are just extremely low. Um, and so, I mean, and that's not what we say all the time.

Jonathan Hughes: Did you say 40%?

Jonathan Sparling: Yeah, roughly 40, 40% decrease from last year, which is, um, and the rates themselves are some of the lowest that they've ever been.

Jonathan Hughes: Which is great news for borrowers.

Jonathan Sparling: Yeah. And it's great news for borrowers, right? And so, you know, if you do need to borrow, definitely explore those, um, because, uh, you know, you won't be subject to a very high interest,

Jonathan Hughes: And that brings us to the end of the news segment.

And now we're going to go ahead and open up the mail bag. And this is the section where we talk about and we read some questions that, uh, customers have sent into us. Um, our first question was an email that came in from Curtis and Curtis writes, hello, my daughter is attending college in the fall. I plan to apply for a loan to pay for a portion of the cost.

I assume I need to wait until I get the actual bill from the college, which is at some point in July. So I know the exact cost before I applied for the loan. Is that correct? And to me, for loans, considered them process quickly enough for the timing. So, um, this is, you know, we we've pick this question obviously, because this is the time of year for this question.

And, um, this is, I know a popular one, so a lot of people are wondering, they know what they need to borrow roughly, but do they have to know the exact amount that they have to wait for? And are they behind, do they need to apply now? Do they wait? Um, and so what would you tell this, this person.

Jonathan Sparling: In terms of timing you're right on time.

Uh, we, you certainly can go out and apply now, uh, if you know, roughly what you're going to need, but when you do apply for that loan, you are putting in a set amount and you can certainly make adjustments later in the year. But usually we, we advise families to know what you want to borrow. So from a timing standpoint, you're right on time, you have plenty of time.

You can wait for the college bill. You can take a look at it, kind of do a final analysis on your end and say, all right, we know that for the year, we're going to owe $20,000, but we can pay $5,000 in a payment plan over the course of the year, we can pay $5,000 from savings. Um, and you know, we can actually pay a little more.

Maybe we can pay $2000 from some short term savings. And so in that case, you know, the five, the five and the two, we only need to borrow a loan for $8,000. I shouldn't say only, but you're, you're looking at $8,000. So there are some advantages to waiting for the actual bill to come because you can take a hard look and make sure that that's what you want to borrow.

And then from a processing standpoint, from the lender's perspective from MEFA, for any other lender, it's a, it's an online application. And so the credit decision is instantaneous. And so you, you certainly are okay on that end. And traditionally we say most loans will come in, most loan applications will come in late, June, July, and August.

Jonathan Hughes: I always tell families that you can do everything that you need to do in an afternoon with us. And then everything after that point is between MEFA and the college. And that could take about two to three weeks. Right? So, um, I would say to people, I would give it about four weeks or so before the school needs the funds.

Question number two. So it's from Nathaniel and he is an international student. Um, no, actually he's not an international student. He's an American student, but his parents live internationally and they are not American citizens. He writes, I'm writing to you after reading our article on your website regarding applying for the FAFSA.

So with international parents, um, I'm an American born of international parents who live in Delhi and I need your suggestions. Number one, how can my parents file their tax information with FAFSA? When one of them file files local taxes, and the other one does not. He means in India, one of them files Indian taxes and his other parent does not. Um, Secondly, will I mostly likely be called, will I most likely be called for FAFSA verification?

If so, what documents do I need regarding proof of income? Um, and then number three, if I applied with the FAFSA and didn't get any aid, will I get aid from the college? So. Okay. Bunch of big questions here, essentially, the reason that they want your taxes or your parents' taxes is because the formula just wants to see how much the income was in the year for the parents or for yourself.

So, um, it's not that the form of the, the tax form is so important. Um, but they want to know what it is that the parent earns. So what you would need to do in this circumstance, regardless of who filed, what taxes, um, in India, take the parent income, whatever it was that the parent earned it. And you can use the tax form for that.

Or if there wasn't a tax form, just do it to the best of your abilities and actually convert that to us dollars. And file the FAFSA with that information. Um, it's not going to be a really smooth process necessarily. You're probably going to have to talk with the financial aid office, which leads to the second question of will I most likely be verified.

And if you don't know what that is, that is if the college has a question on your financial aid forms and they need further information. They'll reach out and ask you for any of you to get that to them so that they can finalize your financial aid award. And that's called verification.

So if you don't have taxes that you filed, but you haven't said that you're a non filer, you said you have income, but you don't have taxes. Yes. The college will probably, um, select you for verification. So, um, in that case, you just have to work with the college financial aid office, get them whatever documents you can so that, you know, that can, that process of verification can be completed and they can finalize your financial aid package.

And then finally, if you don't get aid from FAFSA, will you get aid from the college? So if this is a, maybe a more complicated question, but, um, you know, if you're filing FAFSA, you're an American citizen, the likelihood that you won't get any financial aid, even federal student loans, federal direct student loans is, is very, very small.

So most everybody who files a FAFSA and is eligible to receive federal aid gets a federal direct subsidized or unsubsidized, federal direct loan. Um, now the college may use the information on the FAFSA to base their need based financial aid package on that, but they can also give merit. So it's going to depend upon the college and what forms they're going to look at to assess your eligibility for need based aid.

And then in addition to that, um, does the college do merit aid and would you qualify for merit aid? So taking it a little, little bit at a time, get the income to the school, see what the school needs, get the verification to the college and then we'll piece it out. It's probably a long process, but you'll be able to do it.

And finally, our last question doesn't actually come in from, um, an email. It's based on a conversation I had with a student who, and it's going to sort of dovetail into our main topic. And so that's the reason I wanted to save it until the third question. But I was talking with a student who was a student at a four year public university and was considering transferring into a four year private.

Her question was, is a degree from this college, on a return on investment basis, is it going to be worth the degree from this college? The four year private, um, in earning power? Is that going to result in an earning power sufficient to justify taking on this extra debt for the transfer. So I thought that was a great question.

You know, there were a couple of tools that we could, that I could point her to like the college scorecard, which is the first one that always pops into my mind. And that is really designed as a federal tool if you're not aware, to help people with just this decision. Right. So is this particular college, we always talk about education as an investment, is this a good investment? So how well, does this college, this particular college that you might be looking up on the college scorecard do, um, graduating their students. Um, and what is the earning power or the average salary after enrollment?

Graduates of this college can get a little tricky to tell, because at some colleges, and I was telling you about this, Jonathan, um, there is an engineering college that somebody might be looking at versus a liberal arts college.

And so the scope of, uh, majors and areas of study and careers that you could, um, that could result in graduating from that liberal arts college is going to be much greater range than it would at the engineering college, for example. So, um, it really pays at some colleges to drill down into major and see what the salary ranges.

And that is an enhancement on the scorecard that they've actually just, uh, in, in recent years added that you could actually do that. Um, what are some other resources that, that, you know of?

Jonathan Sparling: One of the other places that I always encourage folks to check out is the college website and in particular talking to, uh, you know, the career services office, or even the alumni office likes to publish statistics about, um, you know, alumni job placement rates, uh, average starting salaries and even salaries, some number of years out post-graduation.

So five years, 10 years after graduation, you know, the other thing that I would, I always talk to students about and families is, you know, you can certainly research this. Option at the undergraduate. Um, but you know, the student or any particular student, are they thinking graduate school. And so, um, you know, that's, that's another area where you might see, you know, and, and so even if you kind of finish out the undergrad one spot, you're saving money there.

So thinking about the ROI of your entire educational experience, and maybe not just the undergrad, if indeed you are planning to go grad, um, you know, I used to work at a higher cost institution. And so, um, sometimes we would have those conversations, even if you don't go here as an undergrad, might be an option for grad.

And at which point, now you're looking at collectively two degrees. And you saved money a little bit at the undergrad. And so, you know, maybe you can afford to borrow a little bit more at the grad level.

Jonathan Hughes: Good point. Good point. I think that does it. I think this is time. That's a close up the mail bag. If you have questions make sure to email at, that's And next time we'll have some more good questions and maybe it will be one of yours that we read. So, um, but as I said, I did want to leave that last one. Until last, because it does dovetail nicely into our final segment of the show, which is researching colleges when you can visit campus.

So just last week, me, I hosted a panel webinar on this very topic, and that content came from two UMass professors, Tim , who's the associate professor of counseling and school psychology at the college of education and human development at UMass Boston. That's a theme and a longer title than we have.

Um, Dr. Richard Lapin. I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. It's the professor of education at UMass Amherst. So, um, I gotta be honest, my first impression of this and I want to hear yours too, but, um, this is obviously the it's very topical right now. So researching colleges, when you can’t visit campus, because it was a pandemic, most people cannot visit campuses.

Um, but just watching it, I was struck by how non-pandemic this specific, this is it's especially relevant right now. But I think that, uh, most of what they talked about it's that there are great ways to think about choosing the right college period, right?

Jonathan Sparling: Yeah. Yeah, no, I thought it was, I thought it was fantastic.

And I think it was, as you mentioned, you know, there's, everything is rightfully so through a lens of pandemic and COVID-19, but you know, some of the, what they spoke about and you know, that the seven questions to consider, which we'll, you know, we'll talk about it a little bit, but I just thought it was, you know, it struck me as a, as a, as a way to hopefully take a little bit of the emotion out of the decision, which we know that, um, you know, we all have for many different things, but yeah, I thought it was a, just a nice way to break down what is a very large decision for many families and can be a very financially large decision for many families, um, and more of a, uh, a systematic way.

Um, Which makes sense. Cause they are professors. So I think, no, I thought it was great.

Jonathan Hughes: Yeah. Yeah. And we'll definitely, uh, you know, I want to talk about the emotion in a minute, but one thing that even before it gets that I'm always sort of striving when I hear particularly folks talking about admissions, it really is a two way street.

Right. And so it's not just a college choosing to admit a student, whether or not they'll accept the student, but it really is also a student choosing a college and choosing to attend that college. And so they both have to kind of feel each other out sometimes. And so this begins the discussion that they had about demonstrated interest.

Right? And if, if you don't know, that is a, uh, a metric that a college would use to gauge how interested a student is in attending a particular college. So, um, so do they email the college? Do they open the college’s emails, engage with the college over social media? All of these things go towards demonstrated interest and demonstrated interest can be a factor when a college is choosing to admit a student, right? So how bad does the student appear to want to go to this college?

Um, and one thing that I learned from, from the webinar, is to zoom out even further than that, um, is that many, if not most colleges participate in something called a common dataset initiative. That is all interi commitment to sort of report in a, in a uniform way so that you can compare college to college, uh, on their statistics.

So, and one thing that the professors highlighted the webinars that, uh, if the college does participate in the common data set, now you can visit that online. You can Google the name of the college plus common data set, and you can view all the statistics on just about anything that they can tally. But one of the things that they had that they highlighted that I thought was really useful is there's a grid.

That have various factors, pretty much any factor that colleges may use in their decision to admit a student or not, and then breaks down how important if at all those factors are to this particular college. So, you know, academic rigor would probably be rated most important. Um, you know, first generation might be important.

Something might be considered or not considered a, if it's an SAT® score, ACT scores from colleges, big news, Harvard, right. Uh, recently, um, for next year.

Um, you know, I think when you're, it can be a great resource for students to look at, to see how important is something to this particular college is demonstrated. It's just really important if it is. Make sure you open emails and make sure you reach out to that college, make sure you do to demonstrate interest.

So I thought that was really, really interesting. That was one of the first things that they discussed. And then, you know, it was one of the things that I mentioned then I'll shut up is that I wanted to play a clip, actually, it's Dr. Lapin and talking about this is something, this is what you mentioned earlier, making a sound decision based upon facts versus emotion. So let's, let's hear what he has to say.

Video Clip: You know, this really gets down to emotion, you know, balancing off of emotional decisions with more fact-based objective data. Uh, and that, it seems to me everything about college decision-making unleashes our emotions. I mean, we could, they have lots of good examples to talk about.

And then particularly when you can't calculate the odds of success or failure, or when you're in situations of uncertainty and making decisions, emotions take over and emotions dominate. And one of the, one of the difficulties here is that these emotions camouflage the risks that are involved and actually really want to talk about, um, uh, one of the ways in which colleges do that too. They're going to sell you on the idea that there aren't risks that are involved, and there are risks at every college that are involved.

And I think what Tim and I have come to thinking about it is that, um, what we want you really to do is embrace the risk and, and when you embrace the risk, then that's going to really help you to make a more informed decision, because you're really gonna start challenging. You're gonna think about how do I match and fit up with a college, but then what are the kinds of the risk management kinds of things that I should be taking into account?

Jonathan Hughes: Well, I thought that was really great. And if you have been in this field speaking with parents, speaking with students, that resonated so much with me. Um, this is, or can be a really emotional decision for a lot of families, a lot of students. Um, and you know, there there's, there's no taking that away, but I think you made a great point when he said, when you don't have the facts.

Yeah, you're making a decision based upon emotion and your emotion to make a decision based upon emotion and may not be the best decision for you. And especially, you know, if it's a based on negative emotions like fear, or, you know, you want, you don't want to go here because all your friends are going someplace else or, you know, you don't care what you have to do.

You just have to borrow as much money as you can to get this student into this college or through this college. Um, and I think the biggest point in which emotion can take over is this decision of where am I going to go to school? And what's the right school for me.

Jonathan Sparling: Yeah. I, you know, I think it, you know, we, as you mentioned, we talk about this all the time and, and you know, it's tough not to have emotion creep in, um, and you know, certainly a good amount of emotion is warranted and welcomed and smart.

Um, but you know, kind of ignoring those facts and, and you know, it is, uh, and colleges will admit this, right? They are putting, they're putting their best foot forward. Um, and so they are, it's, it's recruitment. And so they are doing what they can to, uh, you know, put the best light of the institution and they will, you know, they are going to make you feel as a potential student, uh, very special. And not to say that you aren't, or that you can’t continue to get that once you get to campus because many colleges do all for it. But just know that it is it's a recruitment process and that, um, you know, and so that can sometimes heighten emotion as well.

You know, one of the, one of the questions that the professor spoke about was, you know, really understanding how much it will cost to attend a particular college and, um, again, we speak about this a lot, understanding kind of the true costs of attending college. Thinking about an in terms of the total educational experience, not just one year, but you know, if it's an associate's degree two years, if it's a bachelor's four years, at least.

Um, and so, you know, um, I think there, there was a, it was a good, um, there was a good breakdown and review of, uh, college navigator. Uh, which, uh, provides some really good data about, um, you know, how much families are paying on average and the average amount of aid that they're receiving from a particular school.

So college navigator, another really good, a good site to, uh, to see that. And, um, you know, one of the, one of the biggest takeaways of that whole section was, um, the, the breakdown between what is referred to as the sticker price, um, or the, you know, the published price versus the, um, you know, the actual price that families will pay. And, we have, uh, a quick clip here as well, that, that kind of breaks down the importance of that.

Video Clip: You can tell whether what your chances are essentially, uh, paying the sticker price by looking at this, there are some institutions, might even say many private colleges where all students, 100% of the students receive a 40% discount, for example. So you can find this right there in the college navigator, uh, to see how accurate. You know, essentially how many people pay the listed sticker price. And in this case, almost nobody pays the listed sticker price.

Um, and I suspect that here, the 3% of students that, that are paying the sticker price, the full tuition, are international students. That's tends to be the case in situations like this. Um, and again, that $17,000, $17,626 is an average. So, um, students who are above quote unquote above the academic profile for the college tend to get more money. And people who fall below the typically admitted profile, um, may get a little bit less money, but that's the average amount of money is that $17,000. And that's taken off the tuition price. The room and board is obviously, um, separate from that.

Jonathan Sparling: You know, again, just a really great breakdown, uh, and, and thinking about the importance of that sticker or list price versus the net price or, or the actual price and what folks pay. And, um, you know, in this process, you know, there's obviously a lot that goes into it.

Um, there's a lot, we talked about the emotion, but, you know, from the cost perspective, you know, not necessarily. Not necessarily being scared away or turned off entirely because of that sticker price, but using the tool and using the data out there to understand what my actual net price might be. And then when you have all of that, making a truly informed decision about, you know, if the school costs, the published price is $40,000 a year, but I'm receiving aid and it's being discounted by, you know, 60% then really that's the, the net number I should be using it.

Speaking of the, you know, kind of, the topic obviously was researching colleges when you can't visit campus. But not only looking at, or watching this webinar, but last night, actually, we had a separate webinar with four admissions professionals and it was about

Jonathan Hughes: Yeah, it was great.

Jonathan Sparling: So it was launching your college search during COVID-19. And so, you know, some of the same information was discussed that the panel members talked about, you know, where, you know, the importance of having, uh, you know, kind of clear goals and objectives when you're searching for colleges, but they also talked about, you know, ways to connect with the school as well.

And, and, one of the main takeaways that I thought was fantastic was, you know, colleges recognize that virtual is obviously. what has to happen and what is happening. And so they are adapting pretty quickly with, um, you know, virtual tours, which a lot already had, uh, the opportunities for, uh, virtual appointments.

Um, there are some, uh, you know, really creative, uh, you can drive up to campus. Some campuses are offering kind of drive up to campus and, you know, different ways to, yeah. And so I think that, you know, in addition to kind of having the, a set plan. Which I think was, was covered very well in the research in colleges when you can't visit campus.

Um, you know, definitely take a look at that recording and hear from some admissions folks about, you know, some unique ways that colleges are, are engaging with students in a virtual environment.

Jonathan Hughes: I think we're done. I think that's. Yeah. So I want to thank everyone for listening. If you have questions, please give us a call at 1-800-449-MEFA.

You can email us at and you know, you never know, you might get lucky and wind up in the mailbag. If you do that, um, you can connect with us on social. Uh, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. It's @mefatweets. Um, and, you know, visit the site and see what we have coming up for webinars and upcoming events.

Oh, and of course, if you like the show, please subscribe it to it, wherever you find your podcasts, right. Could be Spotify could be Apple, iHeartRadio, wherever podcasts are offered. So. Um, that about does it, we'll see you next time. Good luck navigating your course to college.

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