Q&A With College Board’s April Bell On BigFuture And Helping Students Stay On Track With The College Process

It’s an important time for most high school juniors and seniors who are immersed in the college admissions process and are busily planning their futures. But luckily, they have more help than ever to stay organized throughout the college preparation and application process thanks to BigFuture. The College Board’s free planning resource, which launched earlier this year, seeks to simplify the college process and guide students, families, and educators. We chatted with April Bell, director of counseling at the College Board, about the site’s immense offerings, how college preparation is changing for Millennials today, and more.

BigFutureYpulse: Can you tell us about BigFuture and what prompted College Board to create this service?

April Bell: BigFuture is a revision of a service that we already had online. At CollegeBoard.org originally, we had information and materials in regards to college planning and career planning, but we knew it was time to give ourselves a revamp and provide a service to students and their families that was more engaging and interactive. We brought in educators, students, and parents to help with the creation of it to ensure that it would be appealing to those we're serving.

YP: When are you finding that students begin the college process and has this changed at all in recent years?

AB: Students are searching earlier than before. For example, we find that middle school students are more engaged in the process. They’re interested in careers and figuring out what they should do in middle and high school to prepare. We’re also finding that because of individual learning plans or more customized curriculums that different districts are making available across the country, a lot of educators are utilizing our tools in regards to making plans and helping students prepare for the future.

YP: What are students most interested in learning about in regards to college planning?

AB: The first thing that students are interested in is hearing from other students — students that look like them, sound like them, and experienced some of the things that they are going through or that they thought they may go through. This was the major point we found when talking to students in regards to the development of the site.

Secondly, they’ve expressed a desire to hear from experts. In regards to the whole college and career planning process, many students feel that the information and steps are so important, that in addition to hearing from students, they want to hear from experts in different areas. For example, for information about financial aid, they want to hear from a financial aid expert or if it’s about college admissions, they want to hear from a college admissions officer. We’re finding that they want the information directly from the experts to ensure that it’s credible.

In regards to the admission process and what students want the most guidance with, the items that came up first in our research were the actual application process and then the financial aid application process.

YP: What are some features on the BigFuture site that are most useful to students?

AB: One of the best features on the site is the Get Started section. No matter where a student is in the process, whether they’re in middle school, in high school, a recent high school graduate, or whether it’s a parent or other family member, they can go to this section and enter in at the point they feel most comfortable by answering a few questions. It asks things like their grade level, what their interests are, what they plan on majoring in, and other things of that nature, and it provides options to enter different areas of the site. Users really get to navigate through the site by starting out there and going through different paths that they’re interested in based on a few quick responses.

Another area that we find really valuable for students and families is the College Search section (which is under Find Colleges.) It’s totally up to students how they want to search for colleges on the website. So many students pick a college based on a major, but there are so many other different avenues that students can utilize to find the right fit. For example, the location is an important way to search, so we bring up a map and have users choose areas they are interested in and they can look at colleges and universities that way.

Sports and activities are another way to search because sports and extracurricular activities are so important for students while in middle or high school. They can look at schools based on their offerings. And if they’re interested in the admissions process, they can look at schools this way. For example, they can navigate by application deadlines, what the requirements are, who wants the college entrance exams, and what type of GPA schools are looking for. Then there’s a section where students can search based on cost and look at schools that are in a price range that students and families feel they can afford.

YP: Student loans are obviously a huge issue today. How is College Board addressing this topic and helping prospective students with this worry?

AB: We do know that it’s one of students’ biggest stresses, but what we first try to do is help students and families understand that it doesn’t have to be a stressor if they learn about the financial aid process early and build their financial literacy as early as elementary or middle school. That way it’s not a huge surprise when students learn about college costs and the different areas of payment that must take place during one’s college career.

We have an area called Financial Aid 101 and it simply defines what financial aid is. It outlines the different forms of aid that are provided from the federal government, state agencies, universities and colleges, as well as from donors, foundations, and funders.

We also have the College Board Net Price Calculator and as you probably know, net price calculating is now mandated by the federal government. Colleges and universities have to share the net price to attend the school and not just the sticker price which is what’s normally shared. Within our website, a student can look up a school, and get the net price as well as the sticker price. Additionally, the calculator on our site lets students learn the net price and compare it among schools. It also lets students compare schools based on loan amounts, scholarship offerings, and expected family contributions based on different areas. So to help students reduce or avoid loan debt, we want to help them make sound financial decisions early on and often.

Additionally, we have one of the largest pools of scholarships and grants online. If students put in general information about themselves, not only will they get a list of the scholarships and grants that they’re eligible to apply for, but if they incorporate that with their plans, we’ll connect them to the different scholarships and websites directly and provide alerts of when applications are due. Our goal is to help students stay on track and help them follow through with the process

YP: Beyond college, how is College Board helping students prepare for their future in the long term?

AB: We have a search mechanism on the website where students can explore different careers based on a title or based on a college major. We also have other areas on the site that are exercises students can engage in, such as talking about their likes and dislikes, and it provides them with ideas for majors that may be of interest to them based on their responses.

We ask really basic questions such as ‘What are you into?” They can choose from options such as helping others, problem solving, nature and outdoors, working with kids, and after they select items, what comes up is all the different college majors and careers that are connected to those short little statements. So it’s not a long process or a checklist that’s boring; rather, it’s really quick and provides them with relevant information.

YP: Lastly, how long was the process of creating BigFuture and what does College Board seek to do going forward?

AB: The process hasn’t even ended. It began quite some time ago and it’s a continual process. We know the mind of young people is ever-changing and although the college admission process stays the same, we know that to attract students, and to invite them into this college admissions application process, we have to be on target to what is appealing to them.

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