There is a LOT of information about higher education to sort through. And internet searching can only get you so many answers.
If you’re looking for more direction in making your decisions, the easiest thing to do is start with people you know. Think of who in your life could be a trusted mentor to listen to you or at least share their experiences: immediate and extended family, friends, current or former teachers, coworkers, neighbors, or even acquaintances. Have a cousin who went to college a few years ago? Ask them what the experience was like. Met a neighbor who seems like they really enjoy their career? See if they’ll chat with you to give you more details.
But if you don’t have a knowledgeable mentor, family member, or counselor within reach, there are many others out there who can help you sort out your choices.
Some people you can reach out to
If you’re not yet sure whether you even want to go to school or what you want to study, seek out someone who’s achieved the kind of job or goal you want and ask them about how they got there, whether higher education helped, what they might have done differently, and what their day-to-day looks like now. A few ways to find people:
- Visit career centers
- Find people from social networking sites like LinkedIn or professional associations (organizations for people in specific careers, like the California Lawyers Association or National Electrical Contractors Association, for example)
- Attend webinars to find additional ways to get in contact with people doing those jobs
Reach out and request an informational interview about what they like about their careers, what their day-to-day looks like, and what their path looked like to get to that job.
You can also look up faculty members at schools who can tell you more about what studying a particular field is like, what kinds of skills are involved, and what career pathways might be possible from that area of study.
If you’re unemployed, local job centers — especially ones that are co-located on a college campus (you can find them at East Los Angeles College and L.A. Trade Tech, for example) — can talk you through job seeking resources and community college programs that might be relevant to you. They also have specialized resources for non-English speakers, people who are housing or food insecure, veterans, youth, and more. Find a center near you via America’s Job Centers of California.
Your local public library is a great resource for job and career help, getting your high school credentials, English as a Second Language classes, and workshops on the college application and financial aid process. Many branches also have veterans' resource centers that can talk to you about specific education benefits. Here’s the L.A. Public Library’s hub for job and career resources, and one for college prep workshops, but you can also speak directly with a librarian to get help.
Current students and alumni can tell you about their experiences with a certain school or program and talk to you about whether it helped them reach their goals. Many school admissions offices and outreach departments can actually connect you with current and former students if you ask them. Specific departments and campus resource programs can also put you in touch with somebody in a similar circumstance as you.
Community college Welcome Centers can point you to any department contact or resource at a school, whether you need to find help with financial aid, applying, child care, job placement statistics, counseling, or general information — even if you’re not a current student. If a community college you’re interested in doesn’t have a Welcome Center, you can try an outreach office or general counseling department instead.
Community college general counseling and career centers are sometimes open to those who are not current students (this is the case, for example, at all nine L.A. Community College District campuses). You can ask questions about specific majors, job prospects after graduation, educational goals, the transfer process, and any number of things that might help you clarify your plans before you enroll. If you need a student ID number for career services, you can submit an application for free and get one without registering for classes. Transfer Center counselors can also advise on what it would take to transfer to a four-year school from a community college. They can look at your transcripts, talk you through different transfer options, and help you devise a plan.
Admissions officers at four-year colleges can talk to you not just about admissions-specific questions, but also different majors and departments at the school, resources like child care and housing, financial aid, the transfer process, and more. They can also connect you with current students or alumni so you can ask about their direct experiences. If you’re transferring from another school, ask to speak with a transfer admissions officer who can tell you more specifics about transfer requirements to get in.
Many campus programs geared toward people in specific circumstances are open to talking to prospective students about what kind of support systems and resources are available at that school. Some can also provide help with applying and sorting out your financial aid. You can read more about specific situations in this section, but here’s a short run-down of some school resources that will do this:
- UndocuLiaisons and Dreamers Success Centers for undocumented students
- Project Rebound, Rising Scholars, or Underground Scholars for formerly incarcerated students
- Peer Navigators and Basic Needs departments for students facing housing or food insecurity
- Veterans Resource Centers for military veterans
- Disability Resource Centers for students with disabilities
Online forums like College Confidential and Reddit (popular schools may have their own subreddit pages) can also be helpful for admissions information and connecting with other students at certain schools to talk about their experiences.
School financial aid and scholarship offices can answer specific questions about financial aid offers, as well as scholarships and grants that the school gives out. They’ll be your best point of contact for handling problems that arise with financial aid, too.
Financial aid workshops and hotlines are also available for community members to learn about the ins and outs of paying for school. Here are a few to start:
- L.A. Cash for College hosts free sessions on financial aid, career prep, and application workshops, open to anyone throughout L.A. County.
- The California Student Aid Commission has a toll-free hotline to assist with financial aid questions: (888) CA GRANT or (888) 224-7268. This is for the state financial aid office, so they can also answer specific questions about Cal Grants or the California Dream Act application.
- The federal Student Aid Commission has a hotline and live chat service for students who have questions about filling out the FAFSA for federal aid: (800) 433-3243.
- The L.A. Public Library (and many other libraries) hosts workshops on applying to college and navigating the financial aid process. See the LAPL’s list of upcoming workshops here.
Many nonprofit organizations provide college counseling and college prep for free, though many of these programs are exclusively for high school students. Common App offers free virtual college advising, including the possibility of speaking with a trained advisor from College Advising Corp. College Advising Corp. also offers free eAdvisors and mentors to qualifying students. You'll have to fill out a short form on their website to see if you qualify. Similarly, high school students who will graduate in 2022 can fill out a form through College Board to potentially get matched with a free adviser.
If you want more personalized information, but aren't sure you want to talk to someone, you can sign up to get one-on-one guidance via text through Let's Go To College CA and partner Get Schooled (text #LetsGo to 33-55-77). Let's Go To College CA also offers up-to-date tips, advice, and deadline reminders via text, Instagram and other social media platforms.
If you run into problems
It happens: You have a counseling session that’s...less than helpful. A school administrator doesn’t return your (multiple) emails. The humans who are supposed to help you end up creating more headaches.
It’s maddening and frustrating, and as much as we’d like to prevent any snafus from happening to you, the most we can do is offer some tips for other things to try should you run into this situation:
Meet with multiple counselors. If you have an appointment with a counselor that doesn’t seem to really listen to you or have time to understand your situation, they’re not the only option. Book another appointment and try again. Sometimes it can take multiple tries to find someone who really works for you, but finding the right counselor can make a world of difference.
Be annoyingly persistent if you have to. For large and busy schools, a prompt email response from an academic affairs or financial aid office may not happen often. Try other avenues instead: Call the office on the phone, stay in virtual student waiting rooms for a live chat, or visit the office in person. If you need to, escalate your question or problem to a supervisor.
Get a faculty member to help. They may be able to help you navigate some of the school’s inner workings or troubleshoot issues you’re having.
Ask other students. Student groups on campus can be a helpful resource for sharing your experiences and seeing how others navigated the same problem. If you’re not in any student groups on campus, you can see if your school has any forums or groups on social media.