How Randi Heathman Guides High School Equestrians on Their College Journeys
BY Randi Heathman
If you ask independent educational consultant Randi Heathman what she does, she’ll do her best impersonation of Liam Neeson and tell you that she has “a very particular set of skills.” What Heathman means is that she is uniquely positioned to guide high school students and their parents through the college search and application process —more specifically, high school equestrians.
Under the umbrella of The Equestrian College Advisor, the educational consulting practice she founded in 2011, Heathman employs ten years of experience in college admissions and another decade inside the daily operations of a varsity equestrian program to help families understand both the academic and athletic side of the college search with the goal to find the right fit for each individual student.
Supporting parents is also a substantial part of the equation.
“There’s an option on my inquiry form that says ‘I’m the non-equestrian parent of a horse-crazy child—help!’” Heathman says with a laugh. “I think eighty percent of parents select that one when they reach out for the first consultation.”
Growing up on a small horse farm in Michigan, Heathman didn’t have the issue of non-equestrian parents (hers actually met in a barn), but she did face a familiar college challenge: striking the delicate balance between her academic and career goals while still finding ways to advance her skills in the saddle.
“For me, riding while I was in college was non-negotiable,” she tells The Plaid Horse. “For my parents, a college degree was non-negotiable, so my search ultimately was for colleges within a close enough radius to home that I could get back on weekends to ride, but focus on school during the week.”
Heathman’s search culminated at Albion College, a private liberal arts school just 16 miles from home. She majored in English and, after graduation, earned her Masters degree in organizational communication online while working full-time in Albion’s admission office—a career that fell into her lap as a result of the honors thesis she’d written senior year.
That thesis—Enhancing Education Through Equitation: A Promotional Plan for an Equestrian Facility at Albion College—had sparked donor interest at her alma mater and the Nancy G. Held Equestrian Center was built in 2004. (One donor, a longtime family friend, even contributed to name the indoor arena in Heathman’s honor.)
Over the next several years, Heathman immersed herself in learning about admissions, financial aid, enrollment management, and the specific recruitment factors that influence equestrian students and their families. Then in 2011, a mentor suggested she look into the growing field of educational consulting to help students better understand all of their school and riding options and, by 2012 she joined one hundred other new educational consultants at the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) summer training institute in Swarthmore, PA.
“It was life-changing,” she says of the experience. “My favorite part of working in admissions was getting to know the students and helping them plan their path to college. They’re always nervous about the unknown and I enjoyed being in a position to reduce that stress for them and for their parents.”
“Joining IECA meant becoming part of a community of like-minded educators who want to help students reach their potential, so learning that I could put all of my experiences on the college side of the desk to use in that way was the moment I knew I’d found the right career.”
A key component of IECA membership is ongoing education; professional members like Heathman have to visit hundreds of college campuses to gain firsthand knowledge of their cultures and offerings, as well as attend workshops, training sessions, and conferences to stay up-to-date on current trends and regulations. IECA members often refer to themselves as “students of colleges.” Heathman goes the extra mile to cultivate deep knowledge about the inner workings of college equestrian programs, riding teams and clubs nationwide.
Tailoring the college search to a student’s particular parameters—the riding discipline, academic interests, location, a family’s budget, social needs, etc.—isn’t always something a school counselor has the time or resources to undertake, but it’s where The Equestrian College Advisor excels.
Specific considerations include: “Are we looking for an NCEA program or is the student a better fit for the IHSA? Is the student dyslexic and in need of some specialized academic support? Where does the campus culture feel right to them? Were there interruptions to their school progression during COVID? Is the student a better fit for a test optional school than one where they’ll have to submit an ACT or SAT?”
Of course, the end of the process always comes when students receive decisions from colleges, which is always emotional no matter the result. From happy tears to frustrated conversations about having to switch to a student’s Plan B, Heathman has experienced it all.
“I got the call from my student the night she got into Stanford and her whole family was celebrating in the background,” she says. “I definitely cried happy tears with them. I’ve also had calls from students who didn’t get the first result they wanted and we mourned together before we moved to their second option. I’ve found over the last ten years that the most important thing I can do is be there and listen. Families don’t want to dive into this alone.”
Randi’s top 3 College Search Tips
1. Start early! You don’t have to go on campus visits in the ninth grade, but visit the websites of schools that interest you and see what they’re all about. Read up on majors and follow their riding teams on social media.
2. Don’t stick to brand names. College costs continue to increase but families aren’t always getting the best value for their educational dollar. Famous names and campus amenities are nice, but it’s what happens inside the classroom that matters most and some lesser known colleges are offering a better experience at a lower price point.
3. Academics come first. Most parents don’t plan to support their student’s riding career after college so they’ll need a great job to be able to continue in the sport. Make sure your college can set you up for career success as well as offer a great riding experience.
Riding Recruitment 101
Don’t worry about acronyms, worry about experience. “Varsity” means a school supports a team; club means the students (or student government) do. Both NCEA and IHSA offer robust competition opportunities for students—the bigger questions are: What experience is the student looking for? How often do you hope to ride each week? Are you okay sitting the bench or do you want in on the action from the start? What events and opportunities have your current show experiences set you up for?
Students must lead the way. Parents are always welcome to ask questions during the search and recruitment process, but the students need to form relationships with coaches and program personnel. They need to start the conversations, ask the questions, and do the follow up. (And they need to be proactive – coaches don’t always know particular students are out there!)
Academics must come first. It’s no good to have great riding opportunities at a college if they don’t have the right majors to help you reach your career goals—not as many nurses come out of art schools as they do out of universities with dedicated nursing programs, after all. Dedicated riders will always find ways to get in the saddle but the right school fit is the key to continuing to afford the sport after graduation.