March Madness: Surviving the Emotional Roller Coaster of College Decision Season
Jeffrey C. Makris is the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology's first Director of College Counseling. He served as the Director of College Counseling at the High School of Economics and Finance since 2004 after beginning his school counseling career there in 1999 as a guidance counselor. Jeffrey has been active in the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling, and the College Access Consortium of New York, Inc. In June of 2009 he completed a three -year term on the Executive Board of NYSACAC as Co-Chair of the School - College Relations Committee, and in June of 2011 he was awarded the NYSACAC Distinguished Service Award. In July of 2012 he completed his term as Chair of CACNY, Inc.'s Board of Directors after serving on the Board for four years. For five years Jeffrey taught Counseling the College Bound Student, a graduate level course introducing students to the college counseling profession, for the University of California, Los Angeles through the UCLA Extension program. He earned his BS in Psychology from Binghamton University, S.U.N.Y. and his MSEd in School Counseling from Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.
The thrill of victory
I am out at a trendy bar on Saturday night with some old friends from my college days. The wall behind the bar is plastered with at least a half dozen huge HDTVs, each tuned to a different game in the NCAA March Madness Tournament. I shout out in triumph and slam my palm on the bar. Onlookers assume I am cheering about something that happened in one of the games…but in truth, I really don’t care much for college sports.
No, I was actually looking at my phone. I had finally decided that I could wait no longer to check for the email that I had hoped would arrive. It had. My senior class Valedictorian, “Shivonne”, had just informed me that she was accepted to two of her top private colleges. One of which, Occidental College in southern California, offered her a staggering amount of grants and scholarships. This was the big win I had been hoping for all night.
The top seeds
Shivonne’s news came to me just over 24 hours after another of my most accomplished seniors had a similar success. “Hakeem” called me after school that Friday as I was meeting with our school social worker. “Makris, I got it…I won Torch”! I literally jumped from my seat and shouted “Yes! Yes! Yes!”. He was referring to the amazing Torch Scholars program at Northeastern University in Boston. Just a few weeks ago he and I had spent a 22 hour day together traveling to and back home from Boston for his interview process. He can now attend Northeastern, for five years, essentially for free.
These are two of several amazing young people in my senior class, and across New York City, who now have truly incredible, life changing opportunities in front of them. But, as we all know too well, these are the exceptions. They are the underdogs who took down the top seeds. Their stories are not the norm.
A heartbreaker of a game
“Alicia” has come to my office, angry and dejected, often these past few weeks. She seems to be getting her denials first, and doesn’t yet grasp that her original list of colleges was not realistic. Now, reality has come in the form of disappointing emails and thin envelopes. “I am not even going to college. I’m serious!”
Another of my highest achieving students, “Derek”, has plenty of acceptances, but is in an awkward financial position. He has been admitted to several schools that he really likes, that suit his love for technology and longing to leave New York City and be independent. But he falls in that deadly middle income bracket and is not qualifying for serious merit money. He has his heart set on an institution that I have no doubt will serve him well…but will require him and his family to borrow over $20,000 per year. His parents already took on PLUS loan debt for his older sister, and are pained to tell him that they can’t do so again.
The Big Picture
“We just can’t borrow any more” a senior parent almost pleads to me on the phone, hoping I can help to make her daughter understand her desperation. Her voice cracks with emotion. “We already deferred my own student loans, we just can’t. She needs to be realistic.” These conversations are far more common than my shouting with glee and pounding the bar in triumph.
The four year colleges in the City University of New York are grown far more selective over the past decade, something many families have yet to realize. Financially disadvantaged students who wish to attend a residential college in the State University of New York system must be willing to take on close to $40, 000 in debt over their four years, in some cases even more. And few but the most selective private colleges have the resources to both admit needy students and fund them in a manner that won’t lead them to serious student debt.
These harsh realities can dampen one’s enthusiasm for the decision families must make each spring. I can’t get excited about any offer of admission until I see the money, and it is my job to convince my students to look at things with this critical lens as well…even if it makes the season less fun. Sandy Jimenez offers easy to use tools in her blog post of financial aid package stories that help when comparing critically.
What it really means to win
Looking at the college admissions process with realism is critical, but it is also not always a bad thing. So what if you have to forgo your plans to go away to college because the aid didn’t work out? Are you forever doomed to a life of poverty and despair? Will you never find employment, study abroad, or make new friends? Of course not. I say it again and again, and I mean it every time… a committed student can have great success at almost any college.
Alicia came back to see me last week. She had finally gotten an acceptance, to LaGuardia Community College, and this alone soothed some of her angst. I had talked to her about the ASAP program and how so many students transfer each year; at first I had thought she was tuning me out. But now, I can see that she hadn’t. She is looking ahead, not just at next fall, but where she will be years later once her full plan comes to fruition.
A number of my other students have begun to commit to Guttman Community College, and while they scoffed at the notion of a community college as juniors, they are now excited to begin their post-secondary adventure at this small, supportive place. Others will soon face their own ups and downs, and make their big decisions. As a group, they are realizing that no matter where they are starting, they are all further along than most thought they’d ever be. In a very real way, they are all winners.
How do you help students cope with the anxiety and disappointment they might face as decisions and aid packages roll in? How do you promote healthy decision making in the face of what can be a very emotional process?