MANATEE -- Finding the right college can be a daunting task for high school graduates.
There is the debate of whether to experience another part of the country or stay in state, with school costs a heavily weighted deciding factor.
This is the time of year when high school students are either sending off their college applications or scheduling campus tours. While it is the beginning of a new chapter, it can also be a stressful and confusing process.
College admissions experts Robin Groelle and Maria Furtado will provide some clarity at a seminar: "College: Getting in and Paying For It" Saturday at the Manatee County Central Library. The seminar is one in a series led by Groelle as seniors complete their college applications for acceptance next year.
"When I was a counselor, many students came in with the expectation of 'Where am I going?' It is one of the first big decisions they will make in life," Groelle said. "Their schedule and routine changes abruptly, and there can be a great sense of loss looming."
Groelle said others see college as a chance for freedom. Either way, Groelle said, the seminar is designed to give students and parents
different views on college, including practical advice, a college planning calendar, advice for making the most of campus visits and getting financial aid. Students can benefit by taking a deeper look at the college search process, starting with their feelings toward the high school classroom.
"One question every student should ask is: 'How do I learn best now?' and find a college with those values," Groelle said.
Furtado said an initial start to finding the right college fit is putting aside name branding.
"It is not as stressful if you are open-minded, true to who you are, and not chasing after a name," she said.
For many families, that can be a struggle.
"Recognizable names are often seen as safer choices," Furtado said. "They don't always take a step back before making a decision."
She recommends looking at small liberal arts colleges locally, keeping in mind academic and personal experience.
After reading about or visiting a string of schools, they can all start to look alike, Groelle said, so students should step back from the marketing materials when that happens to talk about what they want in a school.
Parents can participate in the college admissions process through tours.
"Even if the criteria is set for what a student wants academically, is the campus culture one they will feel comfortable in?" Groelle said.
Families often look at extremes, such as conservative versus liberal, but forget the middle ground of comfort.
"Some students have come to me saying they have looked at five to six schools with no 'aha' moment," Furtado said. "That it is hard, but I can't really say 'Visit 38 more schools, that'll work.' The best thing to do is to tour until it clicks and feels like the right place."
The seminar will also direct students toward finding a match culturally and intellectually. Groelle said students should determine if they will thrive more in a competitive environment in which they must rise to the occasion to maintain their desired grade point average, or a less competitive school.
"The vast majority of scholarships are merit-based aid," Furtado said.
Groelle said the cost of higher education is "the big elephant in the room." The average cost of college -- $20,000 a year -- is beyond the means of many Americans.
"Families hear about student debt, but it is not a new concept," Groelle said. "College is the largest investment you will make in yourself."
Another sensitive topic is testing, Groelle said.
"It narrows the funnel of those qualifying for Bright Futures Scholarships," Groelle said. "A growing number of colleges are questioning the accuracy and predictability of testing."
Fairtest.org provides a list of test-optional colleges, including the American University in Washington, D.C. and the Berklee College of Music. In-state colleges include Beacon College, Chiploa College, Daytona State College and Full Sail University.
Groelle said these schools look at other credentials, such as an additional essay.
Even top test-takers may choose to go to these schools, but students still need to think seriously about preparing for the ACT and SAT.
"The tests can make a difference if a student chooses to stay in-state," Groelle said.
Groelle said opting only for in-state eliminates different types of schools, such as all-girls schools, highly selective institutions and Ivy League schools.
Going out of state might not be a financial option, but students may want to consider the population of in-state students at their choice colleges.
"When going to school with mostly in-state students, you only get one perspective," Furtado said. "It can skew the social and academic experience."
Groelle recommends the "where does your freshman class come from?" link on the Chronicle of Higher Education website. According to the website, 95.5 percent of freshmen at the University of Florida came from Florida in 2010. At Eckerd College, only 18.1 percent of the 2010 freshman class came from in-state.
Furtado and Groelle said the seminars will touch on a variety of factors to consider when applying for school, including some that several students may not have thought about.
"The message is that you can do this," Furtado said.
The "College: How to Get in and Pay for It" seminar will be held from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Manatee County Central Library.
For more information, visit Groelle's website www.collegecounselling.com
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.