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Will I get in? Can I afford it?

  • May 10, 2011

Checking Facebook around the time that college acceptance letters go out can be tough, Daniel Kline says. The onslaught of positive status updates declaring who got in where, and, in some cases, how much has been awarded in financial aid, grants and scholarships can deal quite a blow to the ego of those viewing them.

Kline, an 18-year-old senior at Mountain View High School, said he had a contact who did just that -- repeatedly reminding Kline of how hard of a time he was having figuring out how he would pay for his own college tuition.

"It makes me kind of mad," says Ashley Pankonen, 18, and a senior at Mountain View High School. "They don't have to worry about the same things that you have to worry about."

Pankonen says that she doesn't mean to come off as bitter. She knows that there is no use worrying about such matters. All the same, though, "it hurts," she says.

Social media adds a new twist to the already tumultuous and emotional road to college, according to Marti McGuirk, an academic counselor at Mountain View High School.

"It's different, because it's so immediate," McGuirk says. When she was graduating from high school she may have taken a look in the school newspaper to see who was going where, but that would likely leave time for each student had the chance to digest their own situation. Today, "the second kids find out, they share. They put it out there immediately and they don't always think of the ramifications."

High school kids are acutely aware of, and concerned with, their image and how they are perceived by their friends and other students, McGuirk says. Being admitted to a venerable institution, like Berkeley, Stanford or Harvard provides "instant notoriety among your peers." Adding the immediacy of Facebook to the college application process increases the amount of pressure students feel to succeed.

But social media is merely one component of many amplifying the pressure felt by students these days, according to McGuirk.

The ailing economy has dried up college funds and put parents out of work.

"Circumstances change," McGuirk says. "The college future that was once secure, isn't anymore" -- a fact that can be hard for an adolescent to wrap his or her mind around.

Kline reported feeling guilty for being accepted to a prestigious and expensive school, because "money is tight" in his household right now. And even though he knows his parents could afford his SAT and SAT II tutoring, he seemed to wince when recounting how much it cost.

If the job market is rough on the parents of high school students, it can prove even more daunting to the students themselves -- especially those who are planning to pay their way through college.

Pankonen, who is working part time right now, worries about how she will make enough money to support herself in the coming years, and Justin Sarmiento, a 17-year-old Mountain View senior who plans to major in nursing at Cal State East Bay, isn't sure if he will be able to afford to live near campus or if he will have to commute.

McGuirk does her best to help students like Pankonen and Sarmiento, coaching them on where to find scholarships and grants, and advising them to make financially prudent decisions.

For example, Pankonen and McGuirk worked together to determine that it would be in her best interest to get the first two years of general education done locally at Foothill College before she applies to transfer to the University of California Santa Cruz, where she hopes to study to be an X-ray technician.

While some students feel the financial strain of college weighing upon them, others, for whom money isn't as much of an issue -- either because they come from a wealthy family or have managed to secure financial aid -- may feel an entirely different pressure, according to McGuirk.

"I think there is some expectation from parents that their kids will go to a good school and they want their kids to do as well, if not better, than they did," she says. "But if your mom or dad went to Cal or Stanford, you don't have much room to grow."

For students who come to her office with all of their academic eggs in an Ivy League basket, McGuirk says she does her best to show them that they might find the education and experience they desire at any number of other schools.

"I don't think people have to stress as much as they do, given the fact that there are so many choices of colleges out there," McGuirk says. "You are going to make you successful. The college you choose isn't going to make you successful."

McGuirk counts herself, as well as the students she counsels, lucky, thanks to the healthy ratio of counselors to students in the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District.

While the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to every 250 students, the reality is that the national average is 457-1. In California, a state that is suffering from a massive budget deficit, the ratio is close to double the national average at 814-1.

However, in the Mountain View-Los Altos district the ratio is 358-1. It is a manageable number, according to McGuirk, who says that the most important aspect of an academic counselor's job is understanding the students' hopes and goals.

"I think it's huge," she says. "I think that's what my entire job is. If I don't know them personally, it's really hard to do my job well."

Despite all the stress that comes along with the college application process, all of the Mountain View High School students interviewed for this story are looking forward to the next big step.

"It was definitely a stressful situation," says Marisa Leone, a 17-year-old senior on her way to U.C. Santa Cruz. Writing essays and waiting for acceptance letters were the two most trying aspects of the process, she recalls. But now that she knows she has been accepted and her path is set, Leone says she is "really, really, really excited for college."

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