Embracing the Dream 

Effectively navigating the college planning, search and application process.

GUEST COLUMN | by Justin Shiffman

credit-nexttier-education-imageSince the introduction of the GI Bill in 1944, college has been an important part of the American dream, in large part because it is viewed as the best pathway to career development and economic security. Today’s high school students continue to embrace that dream, as multiple studies show that more than 90 percent of them aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree or beyond. In reality, however, there are significant problems with postsecondary access for today’s students – to the extent that only 40 percent of students who intend to go to college will ultimately enroll and less than 50 percent of those who enroll will graduate within six years.

I have always believed that school counselors should be able to create detailed action plans for each student.

Much of that unfortunate reality can be attributed to two major challenges: school counselor workloads and the complexities students and their families face when tackling the college planning, search and application process.

Unrealistic expectations for our school counselors

School counselors are charged with guiding all of their students through the planning, search and application process – matching the academic, social and financial needs of each student with thousands of possible colleges and universities. According the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the majority of high school counselors view this as their primary goal.

In truth, however, those same counselors are severely hampered by extreme student-to-counselor ratios – up to 500 to 1 – meaning they often can spend no more than 38 minutes with each student in a school year. And much of their time is consumed with things like helping students research financial aid and organizing college fairs. The NACAC reports that as few as 18 percent of ninth graders even get to speak with their counselors about college.

Given these conditions, it is simply unrealistic to expect that school counselors can successfully address the unique needs and backgrounds of every student to the degree that they can make a meaningful contribution to each student’s postsecondary success.

This means that the vast weight of the college planning, search and application process falls squarely on the shoulders of high school students and their parents.

The planning, search and application process is tough to tackle

There are currently more than 4,700+ colleges operating in the United States, each with unique offerings in terms of academic emphasis, environment, and approach to academic development. Each one has its own pricing structure and options for scholarships, grants and other forms of financial support. And every college in America has its own standards for student enrollment and processes by which students must apply to be accepted. That’s 42,000+ different sets of application task and 42,000+ deadlines for each of those steps in the application process.

In what reality can counselors, students and their families not become bogged down with to-do lists, deadlines and unique information needed to find the “right fit” school and navigate multiple processes for application, financial support and more?

The process mandates collaboration

In a perfect world, counselors, students and their parents would all have access to comprehensive information on U.S. colleges and the numerous requirements for acceptance. Students would be able to identify and research schools that meet their interests, and receive recommendations for similar colleges that also might be the right fit.

I have always believed that school counselors should be able to create detailed action plans for each student – every step in the application process and the deadline for each task – while monitoring each student’s progress and providing hands-on guidance along the way.

This is the only way that counselors can effectively address the postsecondary needs of their sizable student populations and the only way students and their families can avoid becoming bogged down by an unfamiliar, highly complicated process.

Enabling collaboration and automating the process

The only way that all involved parties can manage their extreme workloads and wade through multiple colleges’ unique, complex enrollment requirements is to utilize today’s most advanced technologies to facilitate collaboration and automate the process. On a broad scale, it must be web- and mobile-friendly, as that is most efficient for group implementation and what appeals most to today’s students. It must include detailed information on every school in America, all of their requirements and all of their financial assistance offerings. And it must walk the students through the entire process while allowing counselors and parents to monitor each student’s progress to keep them on point.

We have spent the past three years creating such a platform and carefully validating it through a network of seasoned school counselors and other expert advisors to redefine how school counselors, students and their parents navigate the entire college planning, search and application process.

We built a web- and mobile-based postsecondary readiness platform that delivers critical information on every two- and four-year college in the U.S. in ways that help match students with “right fit” colleges. The platform aggregates this data to provide each student with a comprehensive college application plan, including a detailed list of every school’s required tasks, step-by-step guidance and deadlines for completing each task in the process.

At the end of the day, we have to make it easier for school counselors to carry out their jobs under extremely challenging circumstances so that we can make it easier for more students to successfully find the right academic fit and secure a higher education. The solution is the application of cloud-based, highly analytical technology that vastly simplifies counselor-student-parent collaboration and automates the complex planning, search, and application process.

Justin Shiffman is Founder and CEO of NextTier Education, Inc. He holds a bachelor of administration in Political Science from Indiana University, a masters of business administration from the University of Illinois Chicago, and a juris doctorate from The John Marshall Law School Chicago.


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