June 1, 2015

Making the match of college

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The college banners hanging in the Aspen High School commons go up when a student is accepted there. It's a broad cross-section of American colleges and universities: big and small, urban and rural, east and west and in between.

Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times

The college banners hanging in the Aspen High School commons go up when a student is accepted there. It's a broad cross-section of American colleges and universities: big and small, urban and rural, east and west and in between.

ASPEN — Kathy Klug likes to say “college is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”

Those words have become something of a mantra among forward-thinking college counselors. To Klug, who leads the college counseling office at Aspen High School, the phrase means that choosing a post-secondary path is more about finding the right fit for the student and the student’s family than the credentials or prestige of the school.

There is a school out there for virtually every kid, but that match won’t happen if the kid and his/her parents covet the most selective institution with the finest reputation. Instead, the process must include many variables. The academic program is important, and so is the probability that a student will be admitted. Also crucial are the school’s size and location, the institutional culture and the cost.

To approach this task consciously, a college-bound senior must ask some probing questions: “Who am I? What do I love to do? Where do I belong?” And once they’ve understood their own aims, they must consider the available options, the financial picture and all the other nuances of this difficult choice.

Aspen High School senior Gaby Magana applied to 11 schools, 10 of them out-of-state, but ended up at the University of Colorado, Boulder with the help of three scholarships from the Thrift Shop, the Elks and the Buddy Program. Along the way, she learned a lot about the costs of a college education, and the importance of family.

“I saw myself on the East Coast, but realistically I love Colorado,” said Magana, AHS’s 2015 head girl. “I’ve grown up here so I wanted to stay four hours away.”

Magana’s classmate Caroline DeRosa, on the other hand, comes from a diehard Georgetown University family. For years she dreamed of going to Georgetown, located in the nation’s capital. In the fall, she applied to just three schools and guess which one she eventually chose: Georgetown.

DeRosa started and finished with one institution, but Klug and her staff insisted all along that DeRosa test her assumptions and explore other options.

“They wanted me to have other schools,” DeRosa said, “just in case.”

Aspen High School College Counselor Kathy Klug jokes with graduating seniors Julia Budsey (center) and Gaby Magana (right). Budsey is headed for Skidmore College in upstate New York and Magana will attend the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Aspen High School College Counselor Kathy Klug jokes with graduating seniors Julia Budsey (center) and Gaby Magana (right). Budsey is headed for Skidmore College in upstate New York and Magana will attend the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Klug, who leads the college counseling office at Aspen High, is proud of both girls, who made conscious, informed choices about their post-secondary lives. The girls worked with their college counselors and their parents to find the best possible fit.

This was no accident, but the product of a college-counseling program that’s been 12 years in the making.

“Kids need to arrive at a pretty self-actualized state before they make a decision on where they’re going to spend the next four years of their lives becoming who they want to become,” Klug says. “They’re not just going to college and letting college happen to them, but taking an active decision-making role.”

As the Class of 2015 prepares to move on to the next step — for some it’s a four-year college, for others it’s a so-called “gap year” or perhaps the military — the Aspen Times Weekly decided to take a look at the world of college and career counseling. In this age, when a college education is seen as a necessity to thrive in a competitive global economy, college counseling has evolved to reflect the tough competition for admission, the high cost of a good education and the enormous variety of post-secondary options. Here’s a glimpse into this changing field, and how local students are benefiting.

Elizabeth Penzel, left, college counselor at Basalt High School, says the school's ethnic and demographic diversity has made her more versatile in the way she works with students and families.

Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Elizabeth Penzel, left, college counselor at Basalt High School, says the school's ethnic and demographic diversity has made her more versatile in the way she works with students and families.

Dedicating a counselor to college and career

Basalt High School has always had college counseling, but before the last three years it was much less individualized, much less specialized. In Basalt, as in most Colorado high schools, the school counselor traditionally provided three important services: social-emotional advice, high-school academic guidance, and college/career counseling.

In a high school of several hundred students, a counselor who provides all three services doesn’t have time to develop relationships with individual students, let alone guide seniors in a thoughtful, post-secondary “match-making” process.

At Aspen High, it required grants from the Aspen Education Foundation and the Aspen Community Foundation to gradually build a college-counseling office that now has three full-time employees: Klug, counselor Melissa Lustig and administrative assistant Terry Rigney.

“In a public high school, you will always need to have the community buy-in or a foundation to support this level of service,” Klug said, noting Colorado’s chronically tight public-school funding.

To date, funding for Elizabeth Penzel, Basalt High’s college counselor, has been granted by the Community Foundation, which aims to place a dedicated college advisor in each public high school from Aspen to Parachute. The Foundation provides seed money with the expectation that, over five years, the districts will gradually shoulder the funding burden. The driving rationale is to create a “college-going culture” at every high school; each school will have its own site-specific approach.

Basalt’s Penzel believes wholeheartedly in the “college-going” mission, but prefers the title “college and career counselor,” which better reflects Basalt’s diverse, majority-Latino student body. While 55 percent of BHS 2015 graduates will attend four-year colleges, nearly a third (30 percent) plan to attend two-year institutions and 12 percent are going straight into the workforce.

Penzel doesn’t expect every BHS graduate to attend college, but she aims to expose every student to the array of options so that, whatever their choice, they make a conscious decision on their own post-secondary plan.

“For me, any kind of post-secondary education is worthy,” Penzel said. “College might be an immediate thing or it might be three or four years in your future. It’s all the same — how long are you going to take to get to your goal? I’ll help map that out for you.”

And Penzel’s seniors are well-informed consumers.

Basalt High School senior Joel Suarez is headed for University of Northern Colorado in Greeley to double-major in music education and earth sciences. Suarez chose an in-state public university, but College Counselor Elizabeth Penzel pushed him to apply to small, East-Coast schools as well, just so he knew all of his options.

Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

Basalt High School senior Joel Suarez is headed for University of Northern Colorado in Greeley to double-major in music education and earth sciences. Suarez chose an in-state public university, but College Counselor Elizabeth Penzel pushed him to apply to small, East-Coast schools as well, just so he knew all of his options.

BHS senior Joel Suarez will be the first in his family to attend college. He got into the University of Colorado, Colorado State and Colorado School of Mines, among others, and was wait-listed at Duke University. In the end, however, he chose the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and plans to double-major in music education and earth science.

Suarez’s decision came down to two things: the financial package offered by UNC, and his passion for teaching.

“The scholarships I got pretty much paid for my first year. It’s cheaper, and not too far from home,” said Suarez, the only son of a single mom. “A lot of people pushed me to do engineering or (to be a) doctor, those big, high-paying jobs, but I decided to be a teacher instead.”

Oswaldo Sosa, another BHS senior, applied to a whopping 14 schools — far more than Penzel recommends — and got into 13 of them. His decision came down to three schools: Harvey Mudd College in California, neighboring Claremont McKenna College and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

“The deciding factor for me was going to be which one of the schools gave me the most money,” Sosa recalled. “But when I got my financial aid packages from all three, it was a similar amount of money. So it came down to actually visiting and seeing what I thought of the campuses.”

He chose Harvey Mudd, a small college of roughly 800 students, because of its engineering specialty, but also because the small size offered him a close-knit community. He especially liked the fact that, reportedly, a lot of Harvey Mudd students ride unicycles.

In College & Career Discovery, a semester-long class for AHS juniors, College Counselor Melissa Lustig leads students through a multi-faceted preparation for the college application process, from resumes to interview skills and taking the ACT test. Basalt High will add a Discovery class in 2015-16.

Jeremy Wallace / The Aspen Times

In College & Career Discovery, a semester-long class for AHS juniors, College Counselor Melissa Lustig leads students through a multi-faceted preparation for the college application process, from resumes to interview skills and taking the ACT test. Basalt High will add a Discovery class in 2015-16.


Getting ready for senior year

A college counselor doesn’t create these kinds of informed consumers in 12th grade alone. Though both Suarez and Sosa from BHS are first-generation college kids, as is Aspen’s Gaby Magana, they all received coaching prior to senior year that helped put them on a college-bound path.

In Aspen, for example, Kathy Klug and her staff are included in the freshman seminar classes to introduce first-year students to the process that awaits them. Every year, the College Counseling Office also holds two “Freshman/Sophomore & Parent Evening Meetings” to get students and their families thinking ahead to the college application process.

There’s also the Western Slope College Fair, started by Klug’s office and held every October in Aspen, where more than 200 colleges and universities send representatives to meet students from Western Colorado. In the Roaring Fork School District, the Pre-Collegiate Program provides academic support and enrichment to students who are the first in their family to attend college.

In their junior year, all AHS students take College & Career Discovery, a class that prepares students for the college and career process. Discovery has many elements, but highlights include preparation for the ACT test, creating a working resume, writing college essays and actually researching schools.

Magana described the benefits of Discovery this way: “This fall came around and we were ready.”

Beginning next year, Basalt High will offer a Discovery class for the first time. Penzel agrees that a Discovery-type class is the best way to put all students on a college- and career-oriented path. Regardless of where each kid eventually decides to go — four-year university, junior college, military or the workforce — Discovery gets them thinking beyond high school, forces them to catalog their academic and extracurricular experiences, and helps them develop their “story” for future talks with admissions officers or employers.

In the end, choosing a college is really a journey in self-discovery, as well as many kids’ first plunge into the adult world. Better to think of it as a process, and not just a decision.

“My philosophy is I want an academic fit, I want a social-emotional fit and I want a financial fit,” Penzel said. “Balancing those three things is a lot of the art of it. “

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on education coverage. This story was published in the Aspen Times Weekly on May 28, 2015.

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