I Know a Pro: Kathleen Griffin, Private College Counselor

If you were to invent the person who would walk your family through the process of preparing for and earning a spot in the ideal college environment to help your kid thrive, what qualities would you select?

Serving as a central advisor, CWM collaborates with other experts who play an important role in our clients’ lives. When asked for recommendations, we’re are happy to respond, “Yes, I know a guy…” In that spirit, welcome to our “I Know a Gal / I Know a Guy” series, highlighting some of the terrific professionals in our network. If you’re looking for a super star across an array of fields, don’t hesitate to ask. Chances are, we know one.

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If you were to invent the person who would walk your family through the process of preparing for and earning a spot in the ideal college environment to help your kid thrive, what qualities would you select?

The hard-won experience of a longtime high school counselor? Check. Your favorite professor’s academic chops topped with the polish of a strong lecturer? Definitely. How about a mother’s ability to envelope you in warmth and sniff out nonsense all at the same time? You bet. Don’t forget charm and the ability to create an easy sense of familiarity – essentials, considering they’ll be a constant during critical decisions and very personal moments.

If this is your list, then Kathleen Griffin of American College Strategies is your gal. At a recent CWM Thirdly series, her wry sense of humor made subjects like federal financial aid compelling, and when we caught up afterward, our brief follow-up quickly turned a delightfully long afternoon chat.

Her direct, funny style – and constant hand gesturing – enable Kathleen to deliver equally loving accounts of the first-generation college students she’s helped to navigate a life-changing step forward, and bold truisms that 18-year-olds who don’t develop the skills of autonomy, “…can be crushed by college” once they live on their own. “My goal is to get them out in four years, not just get them in,” she says.

Read on for an in-depth look at the world of private college counseling, the opportunities it can open for students and families, and how recent scandalous headlines share little resemblance to the professional industry Kathleen represents.

For many folks, working with a private college counselor is a whole new experience. Can you please give us an overview of what you do?

Our goal is to partner with families from start through freshman year of college, to de-stress and help alleviate anxiety about the college admissions process on the student and the parent’s part.

Ethically, our goal is to focus on student fit – finding the right university environment for the student. We really guide and challenge the student while looking for the right fit. This means we assess strengths and challenges that the student may have, help them create a resume and a college list, conduct a financial review and brainstorm personal essay topics. Nothing is sent to the college until I review it.

To address the headlines right away, we’ve all seen a lot of recent attention to the celebrity-fueled college admissions scandal. How can families ensure they are working with a credible professional?

First of all, I want to make it clear that the college admissions scandal was perpetrated by an alleged con man. The guy at the center was not a college counselor or member of any of our professional organizations. He was not in the industry – he had no credentials at all.

I sign a code of ethics every year and am guided by national and regional organizations’ ethical standards, which reinforce that our focus should be on student fit. We can’t guarantee admissions, we don’t write essays or interfere with tests. If anyone promises that they can do that, a family should run far away very fast.

The predominant professional organizations are the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

I’m active in the regional extensions of these national groups, and attend their conferences on a regular basis. In fact, there are about 100 of us from around greater Seattle and Oregon that meet quarterly to share data around financial aid and other trends. If we have a student who needs specialized insight outside my expertise, I partner with others to approach the problem – I really have an army behind me. The college counseling network is very collaborative, especially here in the Northwest. The bottom line for us is helping students.

How do you approach the concept of student fit? And what happens when the student’s idea of a good fit doesn’t align with their parents’ expectations?

First and foremost, I’m working for the student, so I try to empower their decisions. The parents are usually willing to listen, but they have their own opinions, too. If the student has a reason for their choice and they can explain it themselves, families can usually come to an agreement, so I help students find and use their voice. It’s important to remember that all teens feel powerless. Everyone tells them what to do and when to do it. They’re going to need the power to make decisions on their own in college. That’s what I want to help them do.

Are most of your students looking at Ivy League schools?

I do have some students looking at Ivy League schools, but many of my students are C+ or B students who are anxious they won’t fit in anywhere. Often, their parents will come to me with the rankings of top 100 universities and tell me they want to be in that range. I help them see that they may miss some hidden gems.

First, let’s address the lists themselves. National rankings can be manipulated. And a national list may not be the individual student’s top 100.

Second, we need to look at the student’s own goals, personality and the environment that will be best for them. I may have an A student who may be anxious or insecure; they may not thrive in the Ivy League. Is a student going to need a more collaborative environment, not competitive?

Third, we look at a whole host of universities that people don’t think about. For example, Clark University in Massachusetts offers a 5th-year master’s degree on full or partial scholarship for undergrad students who qualify. Clark students declare in year three and complete their bachelor’s and master’s in five years, with the scholarship funding their graduate school tuition.

Lewis and Clark College in Oregon requires all of its students to participate in a study abroad or off-campus experience, to bring that perspective back to share with the school community. The great thing is that 100 percent of the students participate, so if you want to do study abroad, you don’t feel as if you’ve missed something by leaving for a semester.

Nobody thinks of University of California Riverside. However, they have their own medical school and save a certain number of spots for their own undergrads. I ask a lot of my clients who are headed for medical school to consider Riverside – you don’t have to go to UCLA.

Finally, Carroll College in Montana is a small school but their support system for kids who want to go to veterinary or medical school is huge. The provide hands-on support starting their senior year of high school, getting students on track for medical school before they’ve even started college.

Many of these institutions are featured in Colleges that Change Lives, a seminal book by Loren Pope, a former education editor at the New York Times who has since passed away. Following the publication of that book, the schools formed a coalition – they hold admissions events together all over the country, including coming to our area every August. Colorado College, Willamette, Whitman, Evergreen – they are all part of the consortium.

What are the top three steps that families can take to really put their child on the road to a successful college experience?

1) Step one: start in middle school. That may sound weird to people, but it should be fun. Don’t say, “Are you going to college?” Always ask, “Where do you think you’d like to go to college?”

If you’re on vacation and there’s a college nearby, take them to the Christmas symphony, the choral, a play, go to a game or walk through campus. My granddaughter grew up near the University of Washington and treated the quad like it was her personal playground. She watched freshman dance contests, played frisbee with students – it was ideal for her exposure to university life.

I talk to kids all the time and they really do not know what’s going to happen when they’re in college. It’s so funny, I worked with one young man who’s at Duke now, and when he was in high school told me he expected to have all sorts of deep conversations with people, they would be up to one in the morning talking about philosophy, very idealistic.

And I said, “What are you going to do Sunday morning or Saturday night?” He said, “Oh, we’re going to have these deep conversations.” And I said, “Oh, you don’t think anybody’s going to be drinking a beer or everybody’s not talking about their last date?” And he looked at me like I had three heads. I was just trying to temper him to say, there are things you don’t experience now, but you’re going to have to learn how to deal with them.

2) Early on, find a service component that the student or the entire family can engage in.

I’m not talking about taking a volunteer tourism trip to Ecuador for $7,000. This should be some type of service in your local community. When kids participate regularly over a long period of time, it really opens their eyes that they can do something local with a big impact.

For example, in Renton, there’s a group called Birthday Dreams started by a mom who realized that homeless children don’t have birthday parties. She created a nonprofit that supplies entire birthday kits – a cake, box with hats, décor – so that a homeless child can have a birthday party in a shelter or wherever they may be staying.

Helping to assemble those kits is something that a middle schooler can do. Then by the time they are seniors in high school, they are better equipped to see gaps at their school or in their community and start an organization to fill that need. That’s really powerful on a resume.

3) Helping or allowing your child to be more independent. By high school, they should be getting up on their own in the morning, using their own calendar, doing their own laundry. If they don’t, what happens is, they get to college and they can’t wake up by themselves because they’re so used to someone waking them up. I asked these twin boys who wakes them up in the morning. They said, “My mom or my brother.” Well guess what… they won’t be at college with you.

At the end of every meeting with a student, I ask them to schedule our next appointment. A lot of kids say, “I’ll need to check with my mom. She knows when I’m busy.” I look at them and I’m like, “You’re 17 years old and you don’t know when you’re busy?” It’s amazing – 95 percent of my kids don’t have their own calendars; their mom makes their appointments. So I have them sit down and map out their calendar on their phones, so they can also share it with their parents but begin managing it themselves.

It's not just basic life skills, but academic curiosity too. Help them identify a passion and dig deep into a subject on their own. If they love math, how can they develop that on their own, beyond just the assignments?

One of the great things about working with a college counselor, is that if I tell the students something, they will listen to me. I’m kind of helping the parents a little bit. The kids are no dummies, they go, “Did my mom tell you to say that?” And I say, “No, I was a mom so I get it if your mom told you this also, but I’m telling you, you’re just going to be crushed in college if you don’t do this on your own.” And I love the look on their faces when I tell them.

What is the FAFSA, and what do parents need to know about the financial aid process?

The financial aid component can be so scary for parents, but we really try to break things down into manageable pieces.

There are two forms to decide who gets need-based financial aid for college.

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and it enables the government to say, yes, based on your income you’re eligible for work study, grants or student loans. The max that a student can borrow from the federal government is $28,000 annually, and this cap goes up every year. Federal aid through the FAFSA is really meant to support fairly low-income households.

The College Board’s CSS Profile is used by about 400 colleges around the country, private schools only. They require the FAFSA too and use both tools together to calculate what a family can afford. The CSS also takes into account the equity in your home, but they are really looking at your yearly income.

You’ll complete the FAFSA every year, starting with October 1 of the student’s senior year in high school. The initial FAFSA takes data from tax returns covering January 1 of 10th grade to December 31 of 11th grade. So, if you have an opportunity to record a significant bonus or cash-in stock, do it before December 31 of the 10th grade year to help manage the taxable income you’ll show.

Many families won’t qualify for federal student aid, but we encourage them to fill out the FAFSA every year regardless. If your circumstances suddenly change, it gives you a track record to point to as the child goes through college.

It’s also important to remember that the vast majority of schools give merit aid regardless of your income level. Over the last five years, every one of my clients has received merit aid. The year before last, the average was $24,000 per student and this year was $22,000. That’s not counting need-based aid.

How do you collaborate with the CWM team? How much do families need to save and what other strategies are you looking at?

A significant aspect of our partnership is education for parents and families, which we’re able to do through Thirdly seminars and other outreach with CWM’s clients. It’s important to reach out to clients that don’t really know the industry exists to help them. You know, if you’re sick and you don’t know there’s such a thing as a doctor, you take care of what you can yourself. In the case of college planning, we want to help them understand the considerations that should be on their radar and have visibility into what questions to ask.

One of the things we talk about is saving, and strategically structuring families’ finances so they are in the right position to fund college. Although saving really should start at birth, we also work with CWM to help clients with school-age kids know that there are a lot of other steps that begin in the 8th-grade year.

You’ve mentioned that first-generation college-bound students occupy a special place in your heart. Can you tell us more about your strong connection?

An important part of my story is that I was a first-generation college student. There are five kids in my family, but I’m the only one who went to college. My husband is an immigrant. He is one of five kids, but the only one who went to college. Our lives are different than others in our family. Not better, but different. An education is powerful.

The thing is, if you have no one in your family to help you through the transition to college, you don’t know what you don’t know – so I can help bridge that gap.

How did you get started in this line of work? Talk to us about your certifications and their importance to ensure credibility across the industry.

Well I’ll tell you, I’m a professional, but I also really came into this as a mom and a person with a lot of life and career experience. I’ve had lots of different careers, which is what most kids and people are going to do in their lives, too. I can help kids look the bigger picture. I also came to my job as a high school counselor, a college counselor and a business owner looking at what a company wants from the student. I’ve also taught at the college level in a master’s program, so I know that the college is going to expect from the student. All of these experiences are what set me apart.

Around 1996, I was working for school district superintendent in the Los Angeles area. When my eldest daughter was applying for college, I knew from my own experience that she would need some expert guidance – but she was at such a large school, and I just felt that she wasn’t getting the attention she needed.

I found out that UCLA had a program where you could get college counseling training, so I enrolled in classes for an entire summer. Then someone suggested I could be a high school counselor but would need to get my master’s degree.

I started taking master’s-level classes at Loyola Marymount, and the superintendent let me have a flexible schedule – she really supported me. I remember in my classes, professors talked a lot about theory, but I was able to bring a more realistic perspective, to say, “That’s not really how high school and middle school work.”

After earning my graduate degree, I began my career as a high school counselor – but then during the economic downtown, hundreds of counselors were laid off, including me.

That’s when I started my company, American College Solutions. But it all started because I didn’t feel like my high schooler was getting what she needed.

What do your partnerships with high school counselors look like?

I love high school counselors. God bless them. They work really, really hard. They are dedicated and love their kids. But if you have one counselor serving 400 kids at the high school, which is a real challenge. School counselors don’t have the time or resources to tour universities like an independent advisor can. They simply can’t do the amount of training and seminars that we do.

I’m always working hard to develop close relationships with counselors and administrators at my clients’ schools. Still people ask, “Why should people hire an independent counselor when school offers the same thing.” Well, counselors and teachers want to give personal attention and many do so – but it’s impossible to sustain that. And some students simply need more help. That’s why families hire tutors and college counselors.

What do you like to do for fun?

I’m an avid gardener – in fact, next January, I start my role as the vice-president of Edmonds in Bloom. Community is so important to me. When we moved to Edmonds six years ago, I joined Newcomers Club of Greater Seattle, which involves women creating new friendships. We do all sorts of great things, from lunches and coffees to hiking and boating. We even have five book groups. This will be my second year as president of that group.

I also love to dance – you’ll see my dancing in my car or my office all the time. My husband was in a rock band in Los Angeles. I met him when he was in the band, and rock and roll gets my vote every time. Of course, when he wasn’t playing gigs, my husband was an executive with British Airways.

For 24 years, we traveled all over the world – we lived in London and Singapore and all over. My kids were born New York, Ann Arbor, and Louisiana. I think that’s also the experience I bring to my work. When I’m working with my international kids, I’ve been different places, and we can connect on those shared experiences.

What’s the last good book you’ve read?

One book I do love is Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be by Frank Brunei of the New York Times. I actually gave a summary of it to all my families because it helps them re-think things like the top-100 college lists. The takeaway is that you can still be an executive and not have gone to Yale or Harvard.

I always tell families and students that allowing me to work with them is a gift that I cherish. As our work together unfolds, it’s a joy to watch each student grow in confidence, take ownership of the decision-making process, reach for their dreams and head to college with the tools for success.

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Article written by Annie Alley, partner at Firmani + Associates.

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