Are you advising relatives about college applications?

College application season is under way. Though the topic seems ill suited for a blog titled Retired in Chicago, you may have children or grandchildren you’re advising about college. 

Having worked at universities for 30 years, and having recently observed my two nieces’ experiences, I have opinions about applying to colleges. (Apologies to my nieces for using them as examples should they see this, which is unlikely.)

• The usual advice is to apply to reach (longshot), match (good fit), and safety (sure bet to get in) schools. But why waste the time and application fee on a reach school unless you would go there if accepted? Each of my nieces applied to a reach school just to see whether she’d get in. It’s better to focus on match schools.

 Don’t apply to any school you would not attend. With the average number of applications per student rising, I wonder how much kids prune their lists before applying. Niece #1 applied to a university she put down as “preppy.” Niece #2 said afterward that a school on her application list was “too small and too close to home.” By keeping your number of applications in check, you’ll be able to give adequate time and attention to assessing each school.

 Unless you’re really not suited to a public university environment, consider putting an in-state public on your application list. Maybe another school will offer enough money to level the playing field, but until then, an in-state public is likely the most affordable choice. Plus, public universities offer more than affordability. US News & World Report ranks the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign among the top 100 national universities, among the top 10 for engineering and accounting, and among the top 20 for undergraduate business overall. Both the Urbana-Champaign and Chicago campuses boast dozens of top-50 programs. Northern Illinois University offers good public affairs and business programs. Southern Illinois’s highly ranked fields include criminology, rehabilitation therapy, and zoology. Illinois State is known for teacher education and fine and performing arts. 

 Cross-examine your initial preferences. Niece #1 applied to two universities in the Carolinas thinking that staying nearby would be unadventurous. Ultimately realizing she’s a homebody at heart, she chose in-state Indiana University, 1 hours away and ranked in the top 10 in her major. Niece #2, interested in the same major, looked at IU and Purdue (top 50) but objected to the hugeness of a Big Ten campus. She opted for Miami (top 50 in the field), an Ohio public half the size. She loves Miami but also commented two months into freshman year that IU is the only other university where could imagine herself. “A big school seems smaller after you get to know it,” she explained. Penny-pinching me wonders where she would have gone had she changed her mind about campus size earlier. Her out-of-state cost is twice her sister’s in-state cost after their merit scholarships are subtracted. 

 Don’t assume that you should say yes to the highest-ranked school that accepts you, especially if it would mean breaking the bank. If you’ve chosen well, your match schools are likely of similar quality. But don’t assume that you can’t afford a place until you get its financial aid offer, which may not come until spring. 

 Try not to fall in love with one place early on. Make the decision broader than which school tugs at your heartstrings the most. This isn’t a one-and-only-one choice. Niece #1 said that she chose IU for quality and affordability but wasn’t excited about it until a few weeks into freshman year. Attend admitted student events, keep collecting information, wait for financial aid offers, and keep an open mind. 

 (For relatives) Recognize that it is ultimately the student’s decision. In my nieces’ cases, my sister and brother-in-law asked only that in-state powerhouses IU and/or Purdue be on the application list. The girls each applied to four or five more universities of their choice. As I’ve hinted, I didn’t agree with all their application choices, but it wasn’t my business. I do think both made justifiable final choices, even though Niece #2’s 529 college savings plan may not cover her last semester. 

 Finally, these findings from research studies may help calm families during a stressful time: What matters is whether you go to college, not where, especially in STEM fields and areas that require certification, such as teaching and various health technologies. 



PBS’s The Great American Read ended last week with the announcement that To Kill a Mockingbird is Americans’ favorite novel. Was anyone surprised? Since it’s my favorite novel, I would have been disappointed had it not been at the top.

The Great American Read was a PBS series presenting 100 English-language novels Americans supposedly love the most, not necessarily written by Americans. From the time the series debuted in May, people had the chance to vote multiple times for their favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird took the lead nationwide immediately and ended up the favorite not only in the whole country but also in every state except North Carolina and Wyoming.

See the final ranking at



This time, four quotes from Trump.

“No nation can succeed that tolerates violence or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion or control.”

"Any guy that can do a body slam — he's my kind of guy.” 

"You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher. . . . I'd like to punch him in the face.”

“I've actually instructed my people to look into [paying the legal expenses of a man who sucker-punched a protester].”


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