Key Insights into College Admissions

Episode #43. Host Jonathan Hughes and co-host Julie Shields-Rutyna talk to Mark Stucker of the Your College-Bound Kid podcast. Mark is also an author and the founder and owner of School Match 4U, a personalized educational consulting firm. They discuss Mark’s podcast, alternatives to college, how to conduct a holistic college search, the value of college, and several college admissions trends, including test-optional and test-free schools, virtual admissions, and more. If you enjoy the MEFA Podcast, please leave us a review.

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Resources Mentioned in the Episode:

Your College-Bound Kid

School Match 4U


0:00 Intro

0:55 Interview with Mark Stucker


Jonathan Hughes: [00:00:00] Hey folks, this is Jonathan, the host of the MEFA Podcast, and I just wanted to jump in here at the beginning of this episode to tell you that this episode is not like our other episodes. So today's entire episode will be a conversation between me, Julie, and Mark Stucker. He's the host of the popular podcast, Your College Bound Kid, and we're going to talk about college admissions and college access, touching on topics as diverse as ChatGPT, Affirmative Action, College rankings, test optional colleges, loving every college on your list and a whole lot more.
So we really run the gamut here. And I think you're really going to be entertained and you're really going to learn a lot from Mark cause he's fantastic. So enjoy that and I will be back afterwards for the wrap up. Mark Stucker is the founder and owner of School Match 4 U a personalized [00:01:00] educational consulting firm.
He's the author of "171 Answers to the Most Asked College Admissions Questions", and he hosts the podcast, Your College Bound Kid, which just recorded its 300th episode. So congratulations on that Mark, the show in its own words, combines in-depth knowledge and insights about college admissions and college life with a lighthearted and entertaining style.
Mark calls it a passion project, and that won't come as a surprise to anyone who's heard it. So there's a lot more to say. But I'm going to let Mark, of course, bring us up to speed on everything. Welcome to the MEFA Podcast, Mark Stucker.
Mark Stucker: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me, and thanks for that flattering introduction.
Jonathan Hughes: Oh, sure. No, we're very pleased that you're here. So why don't you tell us about your background and any, any sort of educational roles that, that you've served in and, what brought you up to this point in doing Your College Bound Kid?
Mark Stucker: I started in admissions in 1991 in Dallas, Texas, a school called Phillips [00:02:00] and I worked there for less than a year, but it was an underfunded college that literally closed when I was working there. And so I was a little dispirited and didn't necessarily think I'd found my calling. Well, fast forward 10 years later, we're now living outside of Philadelphia and my youngest daughter was enrolled in a a private K through 12 school, and I was in outside sales at the time. I just became a super active volunteer, started helping with tours and following up with families. One time the Admission Director said, when we get a next opening, the next time there's an FTE opening, I'm offering you a spot. And from then on it was like over. I knew that was what I wanted to do. And so it took another year of volunteering.
So those of you who are looking for a job out there, just become a super active volunteer and if they like you, it might work. And so I did boarding school, college counseling, boarding school admissions, and college counseling for nine years at the West 10th School Westchester, Pennsylvania. And I was the road runner, traveled all over got to be really every role, like for while I was over 90 tour guides and I just advised our [00:03:00] recruitment policy and our rating system and then I got to be chair of the admissions committee for five years. And I was also an adjunct college counselor with a real vet in, in season pro Susan Tree. So she was teaching me the ropes of college counseling and I was sort of learning holistic admissions and, and after doing that for nine years, I came to Atlanta to become direct.
Down here where I am now in Atlanta working with families with the college counseling process and boarding school placement, both. And after one year of that one of the families said, listen, can you help my brother? And I've got people in my fraternity. I'd love for you to help. And so I had to get that approved because I was working for a CBO at the time, KIPP.
And they said, as long as you're not doing it on, you know, company hours. So that grew from 2010 to, you know what it is today. And in 2016, well, in 2012, I did a big video series, 10 hour video series trying to put a counselor in a box and, but I found that things changed a lot and so, he kept having to go back and do [00:04:00] video editing.
It got really expensive, so that was a project. I did a boarding school documentary in 2016, and then I launched the book, you mentioned "171 Answers..." In 2017, and then at the end of 2017, we launched the podcast. And we go live every Monday and Thursday with an episode. But one thing I will say is both my parents are educators.
My sister's an educator. Both my daughters currently right now are in education and my, my oldest daughter have 26 and 24 year olds Davidson grads in UGA and NC State. My oldest daughter has a Spanish tutoring business, and my youngest daughter, she has two credits left at NC State, but she's working in student affairs at Duke, so it's just kind of in the blood and on my grandmother's side. So I think I just kind of returned to my roots.
Jonathan Hughes: It, it really does seem that everything seems to flow from your passion for education, and so you weren't kidding about the volunteering piece?
Mark Stucker: No. It's important to do what you love. Like, you know, we say that all the time, but I mean, it's really, really true. If you do what you love, you never feel like you work a day in your life. Like, I don't [00:05:00] mind the long hours because it's, I'm just having fun. It's not work. I mean it is, but it's not.
Julie Shields-Rutyna: So I'm wondering if you, can you tell us a little bit more about your podcast and why you started this podcast?
Mark Stucker: I guess it's probably not surprising. I was kind of a personal podcast junkie myself. I was just like devouring them and you know, it has evolved. So originally the concept was I would work with a parent who I had worked. Through the college process. So I have this parent who's in education herself. She actually works right now in the alumni office at North Carolina A & T, but I'd worked with both of her kids. I'd placed them at boarding school, I'd placed them in college, working with them, and we said, why don't we have this idea like a parent and sort of a college expert, and that that was the origin. We were going to launch it in September of 2018. And we said, you know what?
I don't think we know what we're doing. Let's pump the brakes. We hired a consultant and we thought, oh, we hired a consultant. All the work's done. Well, then he said, now your work's about to begin. Go listen to every podcast you can listen to. Tell me what you like and [00:06:00] what you don't like. So then we did that and you know, we kind of came up with a format.
We took a little bit from this, a little bit from that, but. The, format we have is, at that time, it was a Thursday only podcast. One thing we were determined to do is to be religious about dropping an episode the exact same time every single week. And that just that just really grew out of us not liking it.
When we would find a good podcast that, oh, three weeks in a row, then you're gone for a month. So we just tried to emulate the things we admired and eschew the things we disdain basically and so one podcast, I can't remember the name of it, it might be like Sell More Book Podcast. I think that was it. They had a segment where they always took a question from a listener and we kind of liked that and they, had a segment where they looked at some article in the news related to books. So we kind of like that. So we came up with the idea of, okay, let's have a segment related where a question a listener sends in a question.
We'll do a segment where we look at some hot topic in the news related, either college admissions or college life. [00:07:00] And then we'd have an interview. So we find a thought leader who's an expert, and that could be anything related to college admissions, financial aid testing. And then at the time we took my concept of my book, which had just come out, "171 Answers...", and one week we devoted to a chapter in that.
So a funny story. So I'm loving this thing and I'm all in it, and we get to like round chapter 120 in my book, or episode one 20, and I'm talking to Anika, who is my partner, and I'm sort of talking about the future. Like, can you, can you imagine like, is this going to a be fun in like five years? And she's like five years, you know, what are you talking about?
Like, like, I thought we were going to go until the book ended 171 weeks and end the podcast. She said, I didn't know I made a lifetime commitment. So we're really close to this day when, but she, she ended up retiring out at the end of, at the 171, that first episode. And then brought in some, some, some more people.
And then we've, we've made some recent [00:08:00] changes. Probably the biggest change we made was in June when we decided to go to two episodes and to bring on more people, sort of experts in the field of College Admissions. I felt like people were hearing a lot from me, but there's so many incredible people I knew that know more than me and know different things from me.
So of our hosts, one's in St. Louis, one is in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, one is in Los Angeles. You know, one is, one is in Philadelphia and one is in Boston, and we have over 150 years of experience of college admissions and college counseling amongst us and some of them are on a once a month rotation.
And this is a new thing, you don't even know, I literally just announced it today every third month because there's of course, th four months in the year where you have five weeks, not four. We're going to have an admissions professional from Colorado. Come on in the news so we can have somebody who's like right in the thick of things, you know, in committee talking about how all these things are processed.
And so, and we picked that [00:09:00] because we've had a couple fantastic experts, Karen Christoff who was at Smith for over 20 years and is at Colorado College. And then Hilary Dickman, who's also fantastic. They've been guests and our listeners love them. And one thing you learn when you're doing podcasts is that you have to have good chemistry.
I learned this early on. I remember somebody wrote in and said, I love your podcast and I don't even really care anything about college admissions, but I just like the way you guys get along and I remember saying what, you know, that is the most bizarre thing, but I've kind of, it's one of the things I've kind of learned that people can read if you like each other.
One other thing I wanted to say about the podcast around a year ago now, we decided that we wanted to not only focus on college admissions, but also success in college, so we did a survey of our listeners and we found that 31% of them have a kid in college. So now we're also taking about one third of our interviews that are, you know, with people like career centers and academic success centers and, and study abroad and, you know, anything [00:10:00] related to, you know, good study habits, success in college.
And then the other thing I want to say is, one of our goals is to get our website on as many public school resource pages as we can because we have a pretty robust website and a lot of the interviews and the deep dives we do on colleges, that's kind of evergreen content and, and so that's like kind of our big vision is, you know, how can we help the access issue and broaden the gap between the haves and the have nots.
A lot of our listeners, quite honestly, they are really into college. Like our podcast is long, and the kind of person that listens is really into this. And we certainly have listeners that are first gen and that are, you know, zero EFC but a lot our, our audience tends to lean toward, you know, at 58% have masters or higher, 21% have PhDs and, and the average income's pretty high.
And so that's great. God bless everyone trying to get in and I'm so grateful for them committing to [00:11:00] education that way, but we're also trying to sort of bridge the gap and so that's kind of our longer range mission.
Jonathan Hughes: As you mentioned, you are really focusing on college admissions, but you have, you know, other sort of thought leaders having to do with all sorts of aspects of college, but I, just can't wait to get into this conversation of what's going on in admissions right now.
So, can you tell us some of the trends that you're seeing in college admissions, which is a, of course, a. Sort of hot topic all across the country right now.
Mark Stucker: So there's a lot. This is a time where, where there's a lot of upheaval and college admissions and, and even in the last six weeks there's been even more.
So I'll just throw out some of the things that are hot topics and then you can pick the ones you might want to go a deep, deep, have a deeper dive on. So certainly the growth of test optional admissions, and even what some people call test blind. Test free, score free. These are now 85 schools that will not even see scores, even if you want to submit.
Of course the UCs and the CSUs are about 30, [00:12:00] you know, 32 of those 85. But that movement's growing. The test, optional movement really had been already growing for, for years. I mean, Bowdoin has been test optional now for 53 years. Bates around 40. So this movement's been going for a while and it had been picking up steam, but with the pandemic, I mean you're talking about schools that couldn't take the test because test centers were closed, so they had to get innovative.
And now when you look at something like the Common Application, which is by far the biggest way students apply to college, they accept over a thousand colleges, but they accept the majority of the more well-known ones that get a lot of applications, be there be public or private. 95% of common app schools are test optional.
So the growth of test optional, that's definitely a trend, but it's also sort of a trend that's at the crossroads because now it is like a fork in the road. Now you can take the tests, so now it's not okay. You can't take the test because test centers are closed. But what schools found was they got, they [00:13:00] got a lot more applications when they went test optional.
They also got a lot more applications from places that were very hard to get applications, which they've always been trying really, really hard to get. And now they're, a lot of them are doing their own internal studies. We're they able to test optional kids and have them do as well? But there's a bigger factor, and it's probably best articulated in what, what happened when North Carolina made their decision to go test optional.
You know, most public schools have systems and those decisions are made at the Board of Regents, Board of Governor's level. And so when North Carolina came out and said, we are going test optional another. They, they explicitly said, we feel our schools would be at a competitive disadvantage because all of our competitors are.
And so that's what's going on now. Another thing, students are questioning the value of college. So college is really coming, un coming under attack. And that's really an outgrowth really. That goes all the way back to, to the, you know, I mean, really the financial crisis we thought we saw through [00:14:00] '07 and '09.
Where an inordinate number of students came out and were the whole proverbial working in living your parents' basement or working at Starbucks. And that sort of the confluence of that and the astronomical rise of college and the fact that college is really being questioned, especially in certain circles for sort of being indoctrinating people with, with you know, a philosophy that may not be consistent with some values that people want in their home. Now you're seeing people really question the value of college. And then you also have, because it's been so hard for employers to find workers in the past where an 18-year-old might get an $8 an hour job, now they can get a 22 -$25 hour job working for DoorDash or Amazon delivery or something like that.
So all these factors together are making it. Then you've got what's been called a number of things from the enrollment cliff to the demographic cliff to the birth dearth. That has to do, once again, it kind of goes back to that [00:15:00] same time, you know that that same global financial crisis we had '07 - '09, where people had less kids, and that always tends to happen during difficult times as people say, "Hey, these kids are expensive, let's have less of them."
And so you can just go 18 years out from those. And schools are just looking at those births and there’s, you know, a lot of trepidation. How, where are we going to get people, you know? Then you've also got continued out migration from the northeast and the Midwest to the west and the South. That's making it very difficult for certain states, you know, financially.
So that's certainly a challenge. You, you're seeing the gap between well-resourced and modest modestly resourced. That continues to be a problem because one thing the pandemic did is flagship public schools and and highly selective privates have experienced soaring applications. You know, the drop-off has been with community colleges and regional publics, and then we also have the growth of virtual admissions.
Now, this really grew [00:16:00] out of the pandemic. Because admission officers couldn't travel. They, they were, I mean, there was no travel. Flights were, airfare wasn't going on. Nobody was visiting. I mean, people are scared they're going die. So people, college fairs shut down, college visits in person, shut down really in some places for more than 18 months.
So what are you going to do? You still have to pay your staff in administration and, and faculty and, and, and electrical bills. So virtual admissions just took. and everybody, and by virtual admissions I'm talking about normally when you would go onto an admission site and you'd sign up for a tour, it was in person.
But now, almost every school in the country, if you go to the admission site and you say you want to, you know and you want to visit, it's going to be in person. There's like in person or virtual. And so schools got really creative with their virtual. It was, you know, really good information sessions and tours.
[00:17:00] Student panel discussions and parent panel or faculty panel discussions and virtual classroom experiences, and you want to major in engineering, we'll do a special session for you. You're nursing a special one for you. And what they found was it just took off person after person, after person said, what in the world were we doing, not doing this before?
There to a man and to a woman. Every single person. And I interview these thought leaders all the time. We've had I think 130. Interviews with thought leaders on our podcast that's within a couple might be a little higher. They all say the same thing, like, there's no way in the world we would ever go back to this.
A quick story. I attended an event from six highly selective liberal arts schools that was normally a counselor breakfast. And Seth Allen at Pomona was one of the ones on the, you know at this event. And he said, you know, I love you guys and I'd love to be having a breakfast with you, but we never had 875 people at a breakfast like we have right now.
Yep. [00:18:00] And, and so, so the growth of virtual admissions would be another trend. One of the big things right now of course is loan forgiveness, because there's a lot of legislation on that and I probably don't need to say more of that because you guys are the financial experts, but obviously they're, you know, Biden's program being challenged and being in for the Supreme Court on that Same, for affirmative action.
Schools are very, very concerned about that. And one of the concerns is they don't know what the ruling's going to be. So they feel like they're flying blind a little. I had one admission director say to me that we don't know if the scholarship that was given 50 years ago for black kids where the donors died.
If we're not going to, if we're going to be allowed to do that anymore, and do we have to track down, like whoever's been designated in the donor's place who's not even here with us. So everyone's seeking out their legal counsel and their general counsel. And everybody's expecting a, major overturn.
The listening to the [00:19:00] original arguments that came out and the fact that they took the case up, most people think that they did not take it up to reaffirm lower court ruling. So that's a big, a big hot topic ChatGPT that's really the thing that's got a lot of buzz right now. What are we going to do about it?
Jonathan Hughes: Just in case anybody's not aware of what ChatGPT is, if you could explain it and, and how it fits into admissions.
Mark Stucker: Yeah, so, so it's artificial intelligence and it's an ability for any individual to go speak into your computer and say, write a great essay for me on, you name it. Or people are using them for love letters or for passing medical exams.
I mean, it's, and the thing is this is a higher level of sophistication. It's not like this is brand new, but the, but the, there's a higher level of sophistication. Most people oh, story that we did on our podcast. A professor approached a student and said that this is the most incredible essay I've ever seen. [00:20:00]
Did you actually write it? and he said, no, I had ChatGPT write it for me. And so, so this is now a real hot topic because if people can, if this artificial intelligence has got to this level, they can pass off as just the most incredible writing. What do we, what do we do?
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Well, yeah. I think there's so many places we could dive in. So I'm just going to dive in here because this is, this is a question that's on my mind. You mentioned that many students are questioning the value of college these days, which we know and that makes us we don't like that at MEFA because it, seems like it's certain populations of students who are probably fearful of the cost, maybe fearful of what they hear.
Loan debt and just decide I'm not going to go that route. But I guess in my mind, I wish that students would have a more ho, holistic view of, it's not college. College is one thing, [00:21:00] a leafy green campus far away. Or not. I'm going to stay home and work. Continuing on after high school can take so many forms, so many paths.
How can we expand that, that view of opportunity and, and all of that for more students? And what are your thoughts on that?
Mark Stucker: This is a complicated question because one of the reasons why the attack is there is because there is more competitors, you know, you've got badges, you've got certificate programs, you've got the growth of online.
You know you've also got increasingly more companies, not all definitely saying that they will bring somebody on without a college degree that they used to require a college degree for. So I, I don't think it's a bad idea that people look at all. I don't think that everybody [00:22:00] has to go to a four-year residential college at 18 away from home.
Not everybody's ready for that. You know, some people would be better doing community college or would be better doing tech school or would be better taking gap years. I think the idea is education is extremely important and you need to get education in different ways. So part of the attack is that there are a lot more competitors out.
So it's sort of the confluence of everything, right? There's a lot more competitors out there. College is being perceived as liberal indoctrination in certain places, so therefore it's being disparaged. Why would you go pay money to get indoctrinated with an ideology that's not consistent with our family values?
There's interesting, and the most recent survey that that says is college worth the money? There's a 30 percentage point gap between Republicans and Democrats, so this does have. You know, some political lens and to angle to it, but not exclusively. Not exclusively because like I [00:23:00] said, a lot of it is also the cost of college.
Also juxtaposed with the fact that people were not always impressed with the results they got from going to college during, during, you know, that '07-'09 period. Because unfortunately there are, there's a higher percentage of people with, with college degrees in certain majors that are questioning even if it was valuable.
So, you know, so it is a conversation that's an important one. I see. I, I do see great value to it. And of course, the research even shows there's financial value too. Like if you look at lifetime earnings, it's like a complete, you know, consistent project, high school only lifetime earnings. You go up to two year, that's higher. You go to four year, that's higher. You go to master's, that's higher. You go to doctorate, that's higher. And so, and of course I'm almost feeling uncomfortable with that too because education is more than just money, [00:24:00] right? More education is, is figuring out who you are and learning critical thinking skills and becoming a more interesting person and, and, and meeting interesting people and figuring out your path. And so many different things. Finding yourself. So there's so many aspects of education that can't be quantified purely in financial terms, but if you need to look at the ROI, the ROI is there. But I do think it's important that we accept the fact that there are a lot of competing way, there are a lot of alternative ways right now to get an education that didn't exist before.
And you're seeing growth of certificates and badges and, and, and online programs and, and, you know, employers taking people on and paying for them or putting them through six and nine month programs. So, you know, I think there's, I think it's a mixed bag. I mean, I'm staunchly in the camp of it's worth it, but I also think people need to figure out why they're going and who they are and what their timing is and whether or not on an individual basis, [00:25:00] if it makes sense for them to amass certain amounts of debt. In some cases, it does. In some cases, I think it doesn't.
Julie Shields-Rutyna: We talk to a lot of parents, John and I and all of MEFA. We talk to a lot of parents and students, but mostly parents who are, you know, very anxious about this whole process. And it's overwhelming and I think that's one of the reasons, maybe those lists US News and World Report Top 10, top hundred, you know, they.
It's a place to turn to, to take away some of that overwhelm and looking for answers to, to shorten the process or what, what, what would you recommend, what are some other ways that, that families could go about this? Lower the stress level and do a more holistic search that, that, you know, would for the student and for the parents who are helping them and all of.
Mark Stucker: Yeah, I'm not a fan at all of US news composite, cumulative rankings. [00:26:00] You know there's a reason why we don't rank churches because people think that's ridiculous. Like, I might worship in a more charismatic way. Someone else might be more reflective. I might like a small urban church. Someone else might want a large church.
So we think rating churches, but somehow we have thought that we can. Schools now you can rank schools in categories. You can say this is the hardest to get in. This is the most expensive. You know, this one produces graduates with the highest incomes. You can do things like that. But it's putting the whole sauce together.
And I have a saying that I like to say, because I've seen this to be true from when I did admissions and I see it all the time. And that is numbers do voodoo on the brain. So that that's, there's a problem if a family looks up a ranking. And they see one school is 17th and another school is 47th. They can't get that out of their mind and they give it some authority because they feel like, well, of course the school's going to say it's good.
So I need an outside source. One of the things I'm seeing, a more [00:27:00] recent trend I didn't me, I mention is the backlash against US News. US News has had so much power that, and I've had, I've interviewed college presidents on the podcast as well. They've consistently talked about the pressure they get from the board, to bring up those rankings because that's what alumni want to see. That's what parents want to see When the rankings, when the school's ranked higher, their yield goes up. Yield is the percentage of it admits that accept your offer. So if you go out with a hundred offers, do 10 enroll, or do 80 enroll, or do 50 enroll?
So school's yield drives the bus because you have to, you know, you have to. Put heads and beds and you have to, you know, you have goals you have to hit. And so, so the thinking is as you improve the brand, then your yield will go up. You can also charge more because people will feel it's more valuable. I have people that say to me all the time, I'll pay X amount for this goal, but I won't pay it for this goal.
So, so they feel I can get more revenue. So, so in the, for a long time now, US News has been driving [00:28:00] educational and US News has never really had a real commitment to access inequity the way some other rankings like Washington Monthly and others do. So what has caused people to do is divert money from need-based aid to merit-based aid, because if you can, we call it buying kids, but if you can elevate the caliber of the student you're enrolling, then you can go up in the rankings but then you know, you're moving money from well-resourced families to more well-resourced families and neglecting those who really need it the most. So, so what, what can you do? Well, one thing that I like to have all my students do is proven to be really helpful, and I don't get a penny for this, but Frank Bruni wrote a great book, you know, called "Where You'll Go Is Not Who You'll Be," and basically what he does in that book, Frank Bruni is, a New York Times writer and public prize winning author he goes through about 300 people in like major leaders. Like he'll look at who won Pulitzers, you know who won who? You know who won. You know you name, you [00:29:00] name it. You know MacArthur Genius Awards and Rose Scott. He'll go through all of it and he shows CEOs and all. He shows how often they did not go to an elite and it's an exercise that I've had my students do, is literally read that book and send me a a description of each book chapter. It's been very helpful because he's so persuasive and he has so much data that it liberates people a lot. One of the problems I see with families is they have a very narrow list of what they consider to be a good.
You know, there's a saying it's not hard to get into college, but the colleges that everybody wants to get into are hard to get into. And so, and this is particularly true in affluent suburbs and for private school families, you know, and, and one of the things that I'm always trying to do is educate people on how few spots are actually there for somebody like you.
So recently on our podcast, I [00:30:00] interviewed Hillary Dickman, who's an admissions officer at Colorado College, and she explained an exercise she's done with her own daughter, where she would look at a school, her own daughter's going through the college process, and they look at how many spots are there available.
So let's say it's a liberal arts school. You know, that has 2000 kids in their class, you know two or 2000 students in the student body. So then, you know, they're bringing in, let's say 500 a year. And so she literally went through, okay, let's you, you're not competing for the male spots and we know they're trying to be 50 50.
Let's take them away. Okay, this school has 15% international. Let's take them away. This school has 15 to 20% per. You're not Pell. Let's take them away. She literally goes through and counts the number of athletes. At the schools and says, even if all of them are not recruited athletes, those are still spots going to athletes.
And some schools like Bates and Boden have admitted that as much as 40% of their incoming class can be athletes. And then you go through and you [00:31:00] take away all the students that got in early decision versus regular. And so running, running this exercise, and it turns out that there's, she said, I, she went through it and also she looked at diversity.
She said, my kid's a white female, so let's take. Spots that went to other, you know, other ethnicities and races and there were like a hundred spots in the whole country when she did this. And then I say divide that by 50 states. So there's like two spots on average in regular admission. And people don't, don't have a clue.
So, and one of, in fact, the hardest thing for me as a counselor is the fact that 90% of people have unrealistic expectations when I start working with. people just have no, they don't have any idea what 43,000 high schools, that's 86,000 valedictorians and Salutatorians enter the top kids in countries, huge billion person countries like China and India are applying.
And [00:32:00] then you take all their recruit all what like called the hooked applicants. So recruited athletes, the biggest one. But it could be development admits, it could be celebrity kids, it could be, you know historically margin. Demographics or unique geographic locations or faculty kids? You take all of these.
What, what oh, I'm trying to remember his name. He, former mission officer at Brown and Columbia. He likes to divide all of applicants up into two categories. You know, he goes, there's people that have a lobby, a built-in lobby, and then there's just folks, and if you're in that, just folks. . It's very, very difficult because schools admit according to their institutional priorities and what they view as a balanced class.
And so I try to help people understand with the, you know, examples, like, I like to use the football team. You might be an incredible quarterback, but if you already have seven quarterbacks, you might be the 10th rate player in the country. But if we have seven quarterbacks, we need like linemen and, and running backs and safeties, [00:33:00] and, and it's helping people to realize that because people really honestly don't realize.
Hard it is to get into certain places and college admission officers tend not to be as brutally honest about that because one, they don't want to discourage everybody. And two, if you're speaking to an audience who you don't know who's out there, you might have the best, you know, quarterback in the state out there.
Or you might have someone that can build a new $30 million student center you're trying, trying to raise money for the last five years. So they have a 10 to speak to the exception. And in some cases they're judged by bringing more applications in than the year before. So they're not necessarily encouraged to deflate application flow because it looks like you're not doing your job.
Like, you know, you're, we have you flying all around the country, hotel, airfare, rent, car meals, and you're bringing in less applications than the year before, like what's going on? So I don't know if that was helpful, but, but those are some of the challenges.
Jonathan Hughes: [00:34:00] Knowing that a lot of families, a lot of students, a lot of parents perhaps, do have unrealistic expectations. What are some things that students, and I'm really curious about parents, like how can you help parents to help students through this process that might be difficult?
Mark Stucker: So one of the things I try to do when I'm working with a parent, I try to find out why. is there so much passion for your kid to go to an elite or highly selective school?
And I find parents break down. I mean it, this is an oversimplification because a lot of times they do things with mixed motives, but they tend to break into two categories. There are people that are just convinced that if they don't go to that school, it's going to really limit their job opportunities or their trajectory of their careers.
those are the easiest ones to work with because there's a lot of data you can show them and, and then when you show them all that data, you can really expand their view of how many schools are out there. So if we set the factors, there's around 2,400, [00:35:00] 4 year degree granting, you know, nonprofit schools out there.
Like do you, do you think 10% of them might be good? Is that possible? Well, you know what, if you're looking, when they look at 240. There's going to be all kinds of opportunities because the average acceptance rate out there is 67%. The harder one is the one that's really focused more on status. So for example, I was talking to college Cal College counselor in California, and she said, you know, mark, I have a lot of parents who graduated from UC Irvine's real estate program, which is top-notch and check this out.
She said that are making seven figure and guess what? UCI is not good enough for their kid. Wow. That's the hard one. The one that wants, you know, as a, as a former college counselor at my old school once said to me, I can give kids great schools all day, but if they won't put the t-shirt on. You know, if, if, and, and, and I feel for [00:36:00] kids because, and, and there's a lot of parent pressure here too, especially in affluent suburbs and in private.
They are, you know, everybody wants to be respected. Kids want to be respected. You know, parents, you might have a parent that's paying $40,000 for their kid to go to school and their friend or their neighbor's, like, why are you spending $40,000? Like, what are you doing? Go to public schools. So then the college list is kind of the, sort of the opportunity where, where they feel like I'm validated for this and they don't want to feel like, you know, they wouldn't have any additional different options than they would've had if they didn't pay the money. And for kids, especially in affluent suburbs and highly competitive privates, is that this pecking order almost emerges where kids get evaluated by whether they went to a quote unquote good school or a not a good school.
And that's mostly judged by selectivity. It's mostly based on how hard is the school to get in. You know, I say to kids and families. From my experience, people keep track in four ways. [00:37:00] Rankings is one, acceptance rates are another. Average test scores is another. And the fourth one is just when they throw a name out.
Do people, are they impressed or is it kind of like, oh, sort of thought maybe you could do better, you know, whatever. Like there's a calibration that happens as. Names off all their peers and parents and everybody. And I feel for kids because everybody wants to feel respected. And if that's how you feel that people are keeping score, if that's how you feel, you're being validated or invalidated, it just puts inordinate pressure.
And that's why the worst thing to me is when kids are getting the pressure in school and then parents sometimes they don't even realize, like when they say things like, you can do better than that. The message that sends to the kid is, am I going to let you down and be seen as a failure in your eyes if I don't get into that school?
Like I've heard that school's really hard to get in and then they feel pressure. So there's a whole psychological [00:38:00] dynamic going on here that's not healthy. And I'm sure, you know, we could have talked about another trend, which is the rise of mental health issues.
Jonathan Hughes: Yeah, no, I, mean this is such an emotionally fraught, I mean, we see it from a financial standpoint as well.
Mark Stucker: Can I share one other thing, Jonathan, I'd like to do I mentioned, I mentioned reading that book. You know who gets in and why. So both Yale and Harvard produced this list every year. You just look up where Yale Law School students went for undergrad, where Harvard Law School students went for undergrad.
I love showing that to. They will see a range of schools. They'll see designer names on there. They'll see flagships, but they'll see regional publics. They'll see open enrollment schools. They'll see such a range of schools, and it's a good way of, so showing that any school can take you where you're trying to go.
If you, you know, if you work hard and you do something you love and you're good at, and you have a good network and you're doing something, you know, and, and you [00:39:00] employ some of these other skills motivation and drive and persistence and resilience. Networking and people skills. People skills just take people really, really far.
And now all of those students, they had really high GPAs. They tended to do really well on the lsat. I know that their recommendations would've been great. I know their writing was great. I know they had great, you know, practical experiences, internships and things. So it's not like they're just willy-nilly admitting anybody.
But the point is, If you talk to anybody that does professional school admissions or graduate school admissions, they will say one of the big misperceptions out there is that, is that we're only interested in elite schools, or elite schools is a major advantage, you know, versus other schools. Like, we're looking for people who did extremely well, where they went and we're, and there's talent everywhere.
Jonathan Hughes: Julie, do you have a final question that you want to ask?
Julie Shields-Rutyna: Well, I guess I, in a way, I don't, because I like that. I think that's a good [00:40:00] place to end. And honestly, I feel like this conversation could go on for three hours. Me too.
Mark Stucker: Well, at least I didn't bore you.
Jonathan Hughes: No, let me ask, well, let me ask one more, and it might be, maybe I shouldn't, but it's, it's, it's sort of a wrap up type of question.
We mentioned all these different places that people can go, you know, to different types of colleges and, and, and different paths that people can take. So how do we get students to go where they need to go?
Mark Stucker: So there's a couple of things. One, we like to do a lot of work on the front end. Just like college majors and testing people to see where their interests lie.
And, and we're looking for the intersection between their aptitudes being defined as areas where they have natural abilities and their interests to, to identify some things, you know, fields of study. And we understand that those may change, but we like to think we can get you into the right state. We may not get you into the right city, but we can get, okay, we've done enough [00:41:00] testing.
To figure out that you really would thrive in, in healthcare field. We don't know if what that means. We don't know if that's going to be nursing or doctor or biotech or you know, research or, or you know, PA or whatever. So we do a lot along that and we identify things and we have people read the descriptions of every single course you would have to take with that major.
Does that excite you and then if it still does, let's say people are torn between three or four things, I don't know, marketing, advertising, international business, then let's work toward utilizing a network to get you into shadow opportunities and get you into these environments and see what it feels like.
So I think doing some work on the front end to identify where people's interests, intersection between their interests and gifts. That's a good place. Then we, you know, we have an extensive questionnaire. There's 120 students. This is a School Match 4 U or independent educational company. We have multiple people that work with students.
120 questions for students, 50 for parents to really [00:42:00] identify what it is that they're looking for. Because there's a kid, for example, that would thrive at a place like BU, I just use BU as an example. Right? Sort of like a, your classic sort of urban school. NYU, GW, Georgia State, like bleeds into the city, not self-contained.
There's a kid that is like a fish in water in that environment, and there's another kid that would die there. So like, so the questionnaire is good at identifying what are those characteristics of a school that are important to you. And then it's about B, bringing it together and having a really balanced list.
And the kids that go through this process with the least stress are the ones that. a balanced list. And I, by that I mean several schools that are likely schools, no sweat schools, they're highly likely to be admitted at, but they can still take them where they're trying to go. And then there'd be some more challenging schools on the list, and then how many they [00:43:00] have.
That varies from person to person, you know? But we try to challenge the notion that you always need to go to your most selective schools. Do I think selectivity is one factor? Yes. I do think who you're around is important, but it's not the only factor. And so not just worshiping at the altar of selectivity, but what are these other factors to you that are important?
Maybe some for someone else, it's a co-op program because they really want to get involved in alternating between work, work and school. You know? And it could even be other things. I mean I've seen people that like you know, thing, even things that might not seem like they're educational. Like I get a charge in being in an environment with lots of school spirit and the big game and all that kind of stuff.
We don't diminish those factors because that's part. Like balance in your life. And so getting the right environment and then having a balanced list, and it would take almost all the pressure off. I, I remember this student I was working with like 20 years ago. I was at Westtown School and she never got into Brown.
And, [00:44:00] and I thought she was going to be really disappointed and I sort of tried to put that consoling hat on and, and she, what are you talking about? Like you told me to love all my lists. I still have a lot more schools I haven't heard from. Like that's the place where we're trying to get everybody to where they have a balanced list and they realize that all these places can get them where they're trying to go and showing them the data can help.
Like you know, you look at those institutional research pages and some of that data, once they really are convinced that I don't have to go to Designer U to have a great career and a great call experience, they get totally liberated.
Jonathan Hughes: Well, Mark, we will hopefully meet again soon for hour two of this conversation because as Julie said, I feel like this could, we, we could talk for hours and hours.
Thank you so much for being here. Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Mark Stucker: No, I just want to say this was a lot of fun. Like I can talk about this stuff all day too, so I really had a blast. And thank you guys for inviting me. This is fun.
Jonathan Hughes: Well, thank you, Mark. I really enjoyed [00:45:00] that, and I know Julie did too, and we weren't kidding.
We would love to have you back on the show whenever you want to come by. And folks, if you enjoyed this episode and you want to hear more from us on all topics related to planning, saving, and paying for college and career readiness, as well as reaching financial goals, you can follow us wherever you find your podcast and please remember to review us because it helps us to do.
What we're doing is to keep getting the show out in front of folks like you. You can also check out Mark's podcast. You're a college bound kid on those platforms, and their website is your college bound Once again, our appreciation to Mark Stucker and everyone over at your college bound kid.
Thanks to Julie Shields-Rutyna, thanks to our producer Shaun Connolly, and thanks to AJ Yee for his help in getting the show up and posted so that everyone can listen to it. Once again, my name is Jonathan Hughes and this has been the MEFA Podcast. [00:46:00]

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