Officials offer advice for Mid-Columbia students applying for college

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 5, 2014 

The frantic calls and emails to Whitman College admissions officials will start soon after midnight Jan. 16.

The Walla Walla private school's deadline to apply for the fall term is Jan. 15. The students who miss it often say they had a computer problem the night of the deadline or got behind on their application, said Tony Cabasco, Whitman's dean of admissions and financial aid.

"I just want to tell students to not put themselves in that situation," he said. "The deadline is not the first day to apply, it's the last day."

Be it public or private, a four-year university or a community college, in-state and out-of-state, more than half of this spring's Mid-Columbia high school graduates will be pursuing higher education this fall, according to recent state data.

And with application deadlines looming, it's crucial high schoolers considering college get their paperwork in order and take other steps to prepare for life on campus, officials said.

Here's some advice they say college-bound students should consider:

-- Don't be afraid to apply for financial aid.

Two factors usually lead students to not seek financial aid to pay for school: they forget and they don't think they will qualify, said Ben Beus, director of financial aid at Columbia Basin College in Pasco.

But there is a lot of money out there for the taking. About 80 percent of students enrolled at Central Washington University in Ellensburg receive $40 million to $50 million in financial aid annually, from grants to loans, said CWU spokeswoman Linda Schactler.

Students at Washington State University Tri-Cities missed out on about $800,000 in financial aid last academic year, said Jana Kay Lunstad, who works in the school's Office of Enrollment Management. And that's largely because they neglected to file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, she said.

Many factors beyond a student's parents' income determine how much aid a student can receive, Beus said. Even if students don't qualify for need-based help, a lot of other scholarships and similar programs rely on FAFSA to determine who gets help with tuition.

"Some students are surprised they get money they don't have to pay back. It can't hurt (to apply)," he said.

-- Don't be afraid to apply for the college you want, but consider what you want out of a school.

Many students are afraid of being rejected by a school and so don't apply to any but the one or two they know they can get into, Lunstad said.

Rather, they shouldn't be afraid of setting their sights high.

"You have to apply to find out if you're going to be accepted," she said.

Other college and admissions officials also said college-bound students should have a list of schools they want to apply to, with some being "safe" and others being a bit more selective.

But attention also should be paid to the educational experience at a school, said CBC spokesman Frank Murray. A big research university has a lot to offer, but it also can be overwhelming and isolating to be in a class with 400 other students.

"Our largest lecture room fits 120 and only a few classes fill it," he said, adding that professors, not graduate students, teach courses at the Pasco community college.

But academics shouldn't be the only consideration, Schactler said. Students and their parents need to think about what students will do when not in class, from community service to sports to socializing, and how homesick a student may end up feeling, she said.

"The truth is, a student will get a good education at any (Washington) institution," Schactler said.

-- Don't wait until the last minute to apply.

Admissions officials at Whitman may be forgiving of some students who are a few hours late on the application deadline, but that isn't the case at all schools or with all the other deadlines students must meet, college officials said.

CBC and WSU Tri-Cities have a rolling admissions deadline, but Lunstad emphasized that students who apply first at WSU's Richland campus get priority consideration. The same goes for many other colleges and universities.

Getting FAFSA filed on www.fafsa.ed.gov as soon as possible is especially critical. The federal government doesn't require it be filed until the summer, but many schools want it sooner so they can award financial aid.

"Some families are late and get wait-listed (for aid) even if they are eligible," said Cabasco.

-- Don't forget about all the other details.

A completed application and FAFSA aren't the only documents colleges and universities need from incoming students.

They need transcripts, including those from the fall and spring courses taken during a student's senior year, and the scores on one of the two main college admissions tests, the SAT or ACT. The sooner an institution has this information, the better, college officials said.

Many schools also ask prospective students to follow up with financial aid departments to make sure everything is squared away. Students planning to attend CBC take the Compass test to determine what level of courses they'll be allowed to take.

"A lot of students choose to leave that for the last minute," said Pat Campbell, CBC's interim vice president for student services.

w Don't be afraid to ask for help.

CBC opened Hawk Central, a student help center, a year ago in college's HUB building on the Pasco campus, said Kelsey Myers, the center's director. The reason? College officials know how confusing and complicated it can be when applying to a school, seeking financial aid and getting documents in order.

"If there's one thing we want to get across, if you don't have the answer, come to us," Myers said.

Students should call their school's admissions office if they run into problems with an application or if there are other concerns, college officials said. It is, after all, what they're there for, they said. Many also offer workshops to help students with their application or financial aid.

w Don't slack off.

There are only a few more months left in the school year. Some high school students already have been accepted to their future college or university, done well on their SAT or ACT and have good grades. The temptation to "take it easy" before graduation can be overwhelming, college officials said.

But seniors do so at their own risk.

"We reserve the right to change our mind," Cabasco said. "I understand senioritis but don't give up."

If higher education officials see grades slip, that could jeopardize any aid that's been awarded or even a student's admission status.

Similarly, seniors shouldn't stop challenging themselves academically just because they're about to graduate high school, officials said.

Incoming freshmen at some institutions have been increasingly ill-prepared for some college-level courses, especially in math and language arts. That means they have to take remedial courses, costing them money for classes that don't count toward a degree.

"The more remedial classes they have to take, the less likely they are to graduate (from college)," Lunstad said.

Application deadlines

Here's a rundown of application deadlines for fall 2014 admission at a few Mid-Columbia and Washington higher education institutions:

-- University of Washington (system-wide): Dec. 1 (already passed)

-- Whitman College: Jan. 15

-- Washington State University (system-wide): Jan. 31

-- Western Washington University: Jan. 31

-- Gonzaga University: Feb. 1

-- Eastern Washington University: Feb. 15

-- Central Washington University: March 1

-- Columbia Basin College: Not yet determined. Students can apply for fall term now and applications will begin being processed March 1.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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