As they navigate the twists and turns of the path toward college, high school students often combine the expectations of their parents, advice from school counselors and their own research.
But along the way, this year’s crop of 1,400 Twin City high school seniors will encounter some unwelcome surprises: some may not get their first-choice school, may not qualify for scholarships or loans, or may have to decide whether their career goal is worth the time and money.
- Bloomington High School senior Katie Salch has good grades, a good class rank and has taken nursing assistant classes, but it wasn’t enough to be accepted in the nursing program at Illinois State University. But Bradley University in Peoria gave her a thumb’s up — and offered a scholarship.
- Normal Community High School freshman Radiance Campbell knew scholarships were available for athletes, but didn’t know they were offered for academics. She’s now focused on making sure she qualifies so she can get though college without accumulating a lot of debt.
- Normal Community West senior Chris Smiciklas has applied to both in- and out-of-state schools, an option that can become pricey. It was a surprise to his parents, who always thought he’d attend an in-state school: as the son of an Illinois State University professor, Smiciklas qualifies for half-price tuition at state universities.
“Finances may be the biggest factor of how they make a decision,” said Bloomington High School counselor Stacie Gardner, explaining that information is important because students don’t know what to expect and “it’s so different” than what their parents encountered.
As a typical eighth-grader, Campbell visited a career expo, filled out a career-interest inventory and made a four-year plan for high school despite the difficulty of imagining classes as a senior.
She is taking courses with a goal of working in digital media or social services, and also has a plan to pay for college.
“I think you are more invested when you pay your own,” she said.
Her mom, McLean County public defender Kim Campbell, agrees: She paid her own way at ISU and continues to pay off loans after earning a law degree at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
She and her husband, Michael, a Realtor and State Farm employee, will pay one-third of Radiance’s education. Their daughter hopes to earn another third in scholarships and pay the rest by working and saving.
Timing, if not everything, is a close second.
“I talk about deadlines until I’m crazy,” said Lee Harper of Downs, a Tri-Valley High School guidance counselor. A student’s senior year has four seasons: applications, with a deadline of Halloween; financial aid, with January filing; choosing a school (which can’t be done until the first two are complete); and waiting to hear from colleges on their final decisions.
And college isn’t one-size-fits all: Community colleges or vocational programs can be a solid option for many students. Harper also encourages students to have a backup plan, or “safe college,” if they can’t attend their first-choice school.
That’s what happened with Salch, who wants to become a pediatric nurse. She was turned down by ISU after she waited too long to apply, although she could have entered the university as a general student.
But Bradley offered a four-year scholarship, so she’s headed to Peoria.
“Start early,” urged her mother, Donna. “Stay positive.”
BHS senior Chanel Newsome, 17, wanted to become a lawyer, but changed her mind after a field trip to a courtroom. Her counselors at Bloomington Area Career Center made some other recommendations, and Newsome realized it would be better to study forensic science at a school near a large city.
She chose, and was accepted at, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. She is now applying for about six scholarships.
“It takes a lot of time to plan essays and start a draft,” she said.
Smiciklas agrees. He’s been filling out college applications and writing scholarship essays between time spent as a member of the McLean County Unit 5 superintendent’s advisory council, president of the National Honor Society, vice president of the social studies club and an intern for the Economic Development Council of the Bloomington-Normal Area.
“It’s not all about grades,” said Smiciklas, also an Eagle Scout.
His college choices include his parents’ alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ($15,338 in annual tuition and fees), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge ($42,050 in annual tuition and fees). It caused a little “friction” at home, he said, but his father, Ken, said he respects his son’s choice. “We’ll find a way to make it work,” he said.
Still, that half-price discount for an employee’s child in Illinois “is a little more affordable.”
“Chris has always been his own person. “He applied on his own, paid the application fees … I’m just here for advice if he wants it.
“He wants to spread his wings a little bit.”