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Planning For University: A Q&A With A Higher Education Expert

planning for university graduation
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Cost, citizenship, experience and more – what you need to consider when planning for your child’s university years

When your kids are still young or in their early teens, university seems like a long way away. But when they hit their teen years, considering what comes after school can be overwhelming for both students and their parents. From deciding where to study to understanding the necessary costs, to the finding the right subject, there’s certainly plenty to consider. No matter your kid’s age, hopefully this Q&A will offer some helpful food for thought and insight from our expert, Martin Campion. Before starting his own consultancy, Martin was Head of Careers and Higher Education at South Island School, and for the last 20 years, he has advised hundreds of students and their families transitioning from school to university. Plus, as a parent himself, Martin has well and truly “been there”, having guided his own children through the university application process.

At what age should we start looking into university options for our kids?

Though you may prepare for the costs of higher education when your kids are still quite young, they need to be at a certain level of maturity to have an initial conversation about the place and value of a university education. It will ultimately be their responsibility to research their own options, as they need to have a sense of ownership in the process. Parents, the school and perhaps an independent counsellor like myself, are there to support and encourage that research; not do it for them.

Before the age of 14 or 15, college seems a long, long way off and kids find it difficult to see the “place” of higher education. Their academic interests and strengths are still developing and this is a time to look at the broader world of work and their evolving talents and preferences.

It’s easier to say when it’s too late and, while most parents would recognise that the final year of high school, the application year, is too late; it is a year or two earlier when senior curriculum choices are made for IB, A level, HKDSE etc. that is the crucial watershed. Those choices may, and often do, involve prerequisite subjects that will influence what university courses are accessible for the student. Though this is less critical for the USA, that is a destination for which preparation may need to start earlier because of its sheer size and complexity, not to mention standardised testing such as the SAT or ACT.

How important are campus visits and when should we organise to attend them?

These are invaluable, even with the development of virtual online tours, but they can often be difficult and expensive to organise. Therefore, parents need to think carefully about when and why. Earlier visits (i.e. under the age of 16) may be considered just to introduce the student to what a university or college is like (consider a Hong Kong campus for that purpose) and to whet the appetite for the college experience. I find that my students have often accompanied an older sibling on their visits already.

When a serious shortlist is already developing, parents and students should ensure:

  • They plan well in advance; preparing the itinerary, appointments and questions.
  • The universities they visit are realistic in relation to the student’s academic profile.
  • They make notes during or immediately after each visit.
  • They allow for miserable weather and how that might influence their perceptions.
  • They also consider spring or autumn visits when there are more students around.

University student

What resources should parents and students look into when researching all the options out there? 

My advice in this regard, is always “make the most of your school”, including any parent evenings, university visitors or college fairs that may be organised. Research should always involve a combination of printed, online and human resources, and students will need some guidance in terms of where to find the best resources and how to use them critically. I find that many Hong Kong families tend to overestimate the importance of the “admission” stage, to the detriment of the good research that makes all the effort and care put into an application worthwhile.

What will a university education cost?

This can vary significantly according to country, state or province, institution, course of study, availability of financial aid or scholarships, years of study and even exchange rates. Your passport or residence status may make a big difference in terms of tuition fees (e.g. in Australia) but does not always guarantee “home” fee status (e.g. in the UK). Living costs are usually the same for both domestic and international students, if we ignore overseas airfares. At the extremes, full tuition fees for a student with a HKID would vary from HK$ 1,612,000 at Yale to HK$ 168,000 at HKU (both four years of study).

Should we be entirely put off by the initial price of university? What if this is my child’s dream school – what other options are open to us? 

Few students at Yale, for example, pay the full “sticker price”, and even international students there are considered for need-based financial aid. Tuition fees elsewhere in the USA and some other countries can be reduced through Merit Scholarships for particularly good exam grades in IB, A levels etc., as this helps to attract strong students and raise the academic profile of the incoming class (good for rankings!). Sometimes, your country of origin is a better source of scholarships and these can be government or commercially sponsored.

Otherwise, if you have a good idea of your child’s likely higher education country and perhaps their “dream school”, you can begin to plan ahead and, to give yourself a margin of error, assume the full sticker price for the moment.

What options are there for universities in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is certainly an option, even for “expat” children and an economical one at HK$42,000 p.a. in tuition and some of the cheapest student accommodation in the world (despite HK property prices). All universities are English medium and a number have risen high in the world university rankings in recent years. The advice I have to give most frequently to those looking at Hong Kong is to “take off the blinkers”; that is, look beyond the “big three” (The University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) and recognise the depth of quality at places like Hong Kong Poly U and City U, where some departments are world class. Those intending to practise medicine in Hong Kong are well-advised to study in Hong Kong from the point of view of progression, as well as cost. To some extent this is true of law, but not quite to the same degree.

Students and parents need to understand, however, that it is a very different undergraduate experience from a social point of view and that some of the less tangible benefits of an overseas undergraduate experience cannot be replicated here.

students on university campus

Can citizenship affect the price of university? 

The answer is a strong yes but only in terms of the cost of tuition; living costs (except for airfares) tend to be the same for domestic and international students.

In Australia and Canada, it makes a big difference, as it does in Hong Kong where having a HKID card is sufficient. In the UK, citizenship on its own is not sufficient and one has to convince the university that the student is “ordinarily resident”; a rather complex process and a decision that is ultimately at the discretion of each institution. In the USA, fees are the same for all (except for in-state fees at public universities) but US citizenship does make a student eligible for Federal Financial Aid, which is need-based.

When we talk to our kids about university, how can we help them to understand the true value of university that they may not have considered yet?

A good question. A few years ago, I would have said that getting away from your parents and spending three to four years of enhanced freedom amongst other young people was incentive enough for most 18 year olds; but today, I’m not so sure.  There is, of course, much debate over the value of higher education, especially in the face of an increasingly unpredictable career landscape.

As you can’t give any iron-clad guarantees in that respect, I would decouple it from the job market and present it as a unique opportunity that they will not be able to recreate at any other stage of their life. Their transition to adulthood will be in a setting where, with equally smart peers of their own age, they will have the time and the room to develop academic and soft skills, to think about ideas and consider the broader issues of life. They will “learn to learn”, giving them the tools to adapt to different challenges in the world of work and adult life as a whole. They will probably make connections for life (alumni networks) that will prove a great professional and personal support in future decades. In the end, it will be what they make of it, through hard work as well as fun; but it is a unique experience and, indeed, a privilege.

Read more: Applying To University: How A Hong Kong Kid Decided Between The US And UK System

Featured image courtesy of Getty. Image 1 by Scott Webb on Unsplash, image 2 by Alexis Brown on Unsplash,

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