Tuesday, February 26, 2013

College Common Sense {Schoolhouse Crew Review}

Even though one of my students has already graduated high school and completed a trade school, I have to admit I know very little about the process of getting into college, and especially getting scholarships and grants to ease the cost of college.  With the price of a college education being so high, finding those scholarships is important, but how do we do that?  I wouldn't know where to start, but fortunately Denise Ames does know, and she is willing to share her valuable knowledge through College Common Sense.
College Common Sense offers a resource called Going to College and Paying for It Online Video and Workbook as a one-year online access to the videos and workbook materials.  We received this online access for our review.  The same resource can also be purchased as a DVD/workbook combo. We also signed up for the free monthly newsletter via email and free monthly lesson plans.

The videos and accompanying workbook pages are full of practical information and advice about choosing a college, financial aid, and how to look for scholarships and other financial aid.  The workbook pages are rather like outline notes highlighting what Ms Ames talks about in the videos, and for each there are assignments to do.  The assignments are coded for elementary, middle school, and high school students.

For elementary and middle school students, the assignments focus on having them start to think through their ideas about what they might like to do for a career and what their college choices might look like.  They will brainstorm ideas about what they are interested in, what they like to do, what their natural talents are, and what skills they are already developing.  Kids are encouraged to write or even draw to record these ideas in their "All About Me" spiral notebook, which is not meant to be graded or evaluated, but to be their place to dream and plan for their future.

As students go through high school, their "All About Me" spiral notebook, and the action file they will create becomes more focused, and the assignments will be more specific to researching colleges and hunting down scholarships. Following the instructions, they will make a binder to organize and prioritize all their college and related financial information and to-do list.

The videos and worksheets will explain:
  • The Big Picture - the basic steps of choosing a college and lining up financial aid; and understanding what types of financial aid are available.
  • How Financial Aid Works - understanding the FAFSA, and each of the different types of financial aid; figuring out the actual cost of attending a particular school.
  • All About the Free Money - the different types of scholarships, how to find the ones you qualify for, and how to apply.
  • The System That Works - this is the management system that will help the student keep all their college and scholarship information organized and on schedule, and it's a practical system to help the student be efficient and focused in following up on all their scholarship leads and meeting all their deadlines.
  • You in the Process/Pull it All Together - focusing the student on making wise decisions as they prepare for college and their future careers.

How did we use it?  Since my oldest student is a graduating senior but not headed to college (right now, anyway), and my younger two students are only in middle school (Grades 8 and 6, respectively), I was the main user and learner.  I watched the videos; I read the worksheets: I explored links; and I took LOTS of notes!  I found out plenty of useful information on how to find scholarships.  Ms Ames presents a practical, common-sense method for keeping track of all the financial aid opportunities, offers, applications, etc. and managing it all in one place.  I found myself wishing we'd known a lot of these things when our oldest was in high school (or even before that), because it would have saved us so much confusion and stress in planning ahead for him to go to college.  I already feel much better prepared for the next few years as my youngest two start thinking more seriously about colleges. Knowing what to expect and what we should each be doing to plan ahead will surely save me some worries, and hopefully avoid any panic attacks!

I now have a place that we've started to collect information about schools and about possible scholarship opportunities, and I now feel ready to help my kids set up their own system and follow up on anything promising in a timely and efficient manner. One thing I've never been good at is managing time, so getting started early and learning how to go through a scholarship application process thoughtfully and not in panic mode is likely to prove very helpful!

Although I didn't have the kids do a lot of the exercises suggested in the workbook and newsletter lessons, we picked out some and it serves to get them thinking about the things they MIGHT want to do, even if it is a little too soon for them to pick a major and send a college application.

What we liked best:
  • All the material is presented very clearly - the videos are easy to hear and understand, and without any background noise or activity to distract.  The presentation is simple and straightforward, a combination of Ms Ames speaking and powerpoint type graphics.
  • Instructions on how (and why!) to fill out the FAFSA, and how and where to look for scholarships and apply for them.  
  • The process of finding suitable scholarships and applying for them is demystified, and having it broken down into smaller steps that you can start doing well in advance is very encouraging.

What we weren't crazy about:
  • I had some trouble with the videos freezing up right at the very end.  This problem is, of course, on my end, related to our internet connection.  I didn't worry too much about it because it was only the last two minutes or so of each of the video segments that I was missing. But as a result, I would recommend purchasing the DVD rather than online access for anyone that has less than fantastic high-speed internet.  
  • the whole program seemed pretty overwhelming at first.  But just like the college application process and the scholarship process, I had to break it down and go step-by-step.  There is a lot of information in these videos and on the website, and knowing where to start and what I should be doing with middle schoolers who aren't yet thinking about college at all was daunting.  It made more sense as we got going.
  • I'm still not convinced that this is necessary for students younger than about Grade Eight, unless they are already pretty sure where they are headed for their careers.  That said, it's good information for parents to have. 
Our bottom line:
I went to school and to college in Canada, so almost everything about preparing for college in the United States was a mystery to me up until my oldest son was in high school.  And frankly, it remained a mystery after that, because he managed to choose and get into a school that didn't even require him to have written an SAT! I had no clue what I was doing that year when I filled out the FAFSA - none. My son got the scholarship he qualified for through his school, but we quickly gave up on trying to find any other financial aid he might have been able to get.  I so wish we'd had this kind of information then!

If your kids are not in high school yet, you might think you have plenty of time and it's not something you need to worry about yet, and I tend to agree. But planning ahead sure doesn't hurt, so this could be a valuable resource for any family that is serious about college for their kids.  Education is getting more expensive all the time, and huge student loans can be a burden for years after graduation.  Why not think ahead and see if your child can start lining up free money for college now? After all, as parents we are always commenting on how quickly our children grow up!

Would College Common Sense make sense for your family? Here's what you need to know:

Visit the College Common Sense website at: http://collegecommonsense.com

Going to College and Paying for it Online Video and Workbook - The DVD/workbook combo is available for $50 plus $5 shipping and handling.  The worksheets are in .pdf format on the disc, to be printed out by the user.  There are about 30 pages to print in total.
Online access to the materials for one year is available for $25.

A free monthly newsletter and lesson plans are also available through the website.  The website also offers many helpful links and resources.

You can also find College Common Sense on Facebook.

Recommended ages:  Elementary through High School students and their parents.

Visit the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog for more information and to read other Crew member reviews.


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