Episode 158: Does the College Matter?

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This is the second episode in our new series, Decision Time Again.  It’s “again” for us because, as we said last week, we always do some episodes about college decision making in April, for obvious reasons.

1. Isn’t This Counterintuitive?

Every year at this time, pundits and educators write articles and op-ed pieces about how it doesn’t matter if your kid didn’t get into an Ivy League school, how admissions at top schools is an insane process that turns down thousands of perfectly qualified students, and how, in the end, he or she will still turn out fine.  Of course, that is basically true, and everyone knows it.  For a great take on this issue, go back and listen to Episode 121 from last year, which quotes extensively from an article by writer Michael Winerip, entitled “Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard,” published in The New York Times on April 29, 2007!  It could have been written yesterday and is probably more true today than it was when it was written 11 years ago.

But does the choice of which college to send your kid to really matter as little as some people say?  Because although your kid might not have a choice of one of the top 20 colleges in the U.S., that leaves a lot of other ones–thousands, to be exact.  Are they virtually interchangeable?  Is one just as good as another so why spend more?

The advice we always give–and the advice we gave again to one parent last week in Episode 157?is simply this:  Send your kid to the best college he or she got admitted to, even if it costs a little more or is farther away than you had wanted or is not what you had imagined for your kid.  But that advice is clearly not everyone’s view, so let’s look at the other side.

2. It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go to College?

“TIME Ideas hosts the world’s leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture,” according to its own website.  Well, one of those leading voices is evidently William Stixrud, co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, with Ned Johnson.  The title of his piece in TIME Ideas is “It’s Time To Tell Your Kids It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go To College.”  Well, that is a bold statement–bolder than most.  Let’s take a look at what he wrote early in that article:

. . . [W]hy don’t we tell our kids the truth about success? We could start with the fact that only a third of adults hold degrees from four-year colleges. Or that you’ll do equally well in terms of income, job satisfaction and life satisfaction whether you go to an elite private college or a less-selective state university. Or that there are many occupations through which Americans make a living, many of which do not require a college degree.

I am not against being a good student, and there are clear advantages to doing well in school. But you don’t need to be a top student or go to a highly selective college to have a successful and fulfilling life. The path to success is not nearly so narrow as we think. We’ve all heard the stories of the college dropout who went on to found a wildly successful company. (quoted from the article)

Well, all of this is true.  Yes, there are many roads to success.  Yes, many different colleges can get you there, if you need college at all.  And yet, does that really mean most parents can or will take the position that it doesn’t matter where their kids go to college?  I don’t think so, and I don’t think they should.  Because while there are many roads to success and while many colleges or no college at all can get you there, most people also believe that a great college–or a great college match–for a kid can only be a plus as that kid heads into his or her future.  I don’t know many parents–if any at all?who would try to convince their own kids to turn down college and suggest that their kids try to make it on their own instead, even if Mr. Gates and Mr. Zuckerberg managed to do it.

So, let’s see what else Mr. Stixrud has to say:

I’ve asked various school administrators why they don’t just tell kids the truth about college–that where you go makes very little difference later in life.

They’ll shrug and say, “Even if we did, no one would believe it.” One confided to me, “We would get angry calls and letters from parents who believe that, if their children understood the truth, they would not work hard in school and would have second-class lives.”

Many adults worry that if their kids knew that grades in school aren’t highly predictive of success in life, they’d lose their motivation to apply themselves and aim high. In fact, the opposite is true. In my 32 years of working with kids as a psychologist, I’ve seen that simply telling kids the truth–giving them an accurate model of reality, including the advantages of being a good student–increases their flexibility and drive. It motivates kids with high aspirations to shift their emphasis from achieving for its own sake to educating themselves so that they can make an important contribution. An accurate model of reality also encourages less-motivated students to think more broadly about their options and energizes them to pursue education and self-development even if they aren’t top achievers.  (quoted from the article)

Well, I am all for telling kids the truth.  I do want kids to understand their options, to broaden those options, and to encourage kids to pursue those options, regardless of their levels of motivation or their GPAs.  I do want kids to have a realistic view of the world and of their place in it.

Nonetheless, I am struck by data on the other side of this argument.  Almost two years ago, way back in Episode 67, we interviewed our colleague (and my fellow Cornell alum) Harold Levy, the smart and savvy executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.  At that time, the Foundation had co-authored, with The Century Foundation, an insightful report entitled True Merit:  Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities.  We had talked about the report even earlier, back in Episode 59, and I still remember some of the statistics that the report presented.  For example:

  • Only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to a selective school, but 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students do so.
  • High-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as high-achieving students from the poorest families (24 percent compared to 8 percent).
  • 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from the same 12 selective colleges and universities.

So, it does seem to matter to wealthy families that their high-achieving kids go to selective colleges, and I wish that high-achieving kids from low-income families had the same support to help them get to those same selective colleges.  And I wish that those selective colleges would try harder to provide that support and outreach.  Because as most of us realize in this real world, it does matter where you go to college.  Just ask the 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders who went to the same 12 selective colleges.

Of course, we are not advocating that parents or high school staff  put an unreasonable or dangerous amount of pressure on kids.  No one wants to make kids overanxious, fearful, and downright sad in their last years of high school.

Maybe our message today is really more for parents than for kids, and it is the exact same message we gave in our last episode:  Send your kid to the best college he or she got into?whether that’s an Ivy League university, a public flagship university, a small liberal arts college, or a private university.  It’s a good short-term decision and, very likely, the best long-term decision.  If you don’t agree, give me a call and let’s chat.

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Episode 157: Thinking Through College Acceptances

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This is the first episode in our new series, fondly entitled Decision Time Again.  It’s “again” for us because we always do some episodes about college decision making at this time of year, and it seems that the decisions just keep get harder and harder each year for all of you parents and your kids.  Of course, we know that it might be your first decision time, and we are wishing you the best of luck!

1. A Case from the Real World

So, here is something that happened last week:  It is a case from the real world.  I had a great conversation on the phone with a loyal listener to our podcast and reader of our books, who wanted some advice about her son’s big decision.  Let’s call her Betty (the names have been changed to protect the innocent, though I would really love to give her credit for how well she is thinking through this decision).  First of all, I want to thank her for being so complimentary of our work.  She explained that she did not go to university in the U.S., so she found our explanation of higher education here to be especially helpful.  I also want to note that Betty lives in California, which justifies the name of our podcast, USACollegeChat.  We have tried hard to reach parents from coast to coast, and we are truly happy that it seems to be working.

Let me start by saying that Betty has done everything right.  As she wrote about her son in an email to me, “He had a lower GPA, but a good SAT score, and has been very fortunate to get into almost all of the schools he applied to, partly thanks to your advice about putting together a realistic list of schools, including a few stretches and some safety schools.”  And as a result, her son now has a choice of a variety of colleges that he has been admitted to:  public and private, large and small, North and South and East and Midwest, selective and less selective, liberal arts colleges and true universities.  Here are his choices:  the University of New Hampshire, the University of Pittsburgh, Miami University (of Ohio), Indiana University, St. Olaf College, Elon University, George Mason University, and American University.

Betty’s question was, quite simply, where should he go.  Betty told me that her son is interested in international relations, with a focus on Europe (where Betty is from originally) and would like to spend some time studying abroad and some time in Washington, D.C.  This week, they are going on a second round of college visits to see the colleges he has been accepted by that he hasn’t seen yet (as we recommend, whenever possible, visit after the acceptances so you can save a bit of money by not visiting colleges your child does not get admitted to).

I proceeded to talk through the list of acceptances with her and came down in favor of American University, which was the last college her son had heard from.  I told Betty that, if he had not been admitted to American, I would have advised him to choose Indiana University–because, as she knew from listening to our episodes, we love public flagship universities; because it has a fine reputation; because it has many study abroad opportunities; and because it has a School of Global and International Studies, where her son was accepted into its version of an honors program.  However, given her son’s interest in studying in D.C., American seemed like the better choice.  Its reputation is excellent, it has nationwide visibility, and its location in D.C.–with all of the opportunities there might be for international-related activities, internships, and part-time jobs–seemed to me to outweigh the pluses of a flagship university campus in exurban Bloomington, Indiana.

Betty then asked me a string of questions, which were important and relevant to her son’s decision.  It was a little bit like a “greatest hits” of issues we have dealt with in past episodes, and she did a good job of recounting them and questioning me about them.  For example, she noted that American does not guarantee housing after freshman year, and she worried about what housing might be like in D.C. if her son had to get his own.  I agreed that the lack of a housing guarantee in D.C. especially might not be ideal, but that it would not keep me from sending a child to American, given its other advantages.  I assured her that kids move off campus all the time and that he might be able to stay on campus anyway.

Next, Betty noted that American’s graduation rate was not as high as other colleges on his list.  A good point, I said, but I would be okay with that if I were relatively sure my son would stay on track and graduate on time.  Besides, I said, American is a great school, regardless of its graduation rate.  Betty commented that her son had always done better when challenged, and I agreed that is often the case and that her son would definitely be challenged at American both by the university and by his classmates to do his best.  I did add that I would give him a firm lecture about that before he left!

Next, Betty asked my opinion about a gap year, which her son had brought up, but not recently.  She remembered our episode about it and, coming from Europe where gap years are more common, was not totally against it.  I repeated that all the research said gap years were great choices, and yet I would still tell Betty to send her son directly to college.  He already seems to know what he wants to do, and he does not seem to need to spend a year figuring that out.  I suggested that he might take his “gap year” after his undergraduate education and before his intended graduate work, when he might really be able to do something significant abroad.

Finally, Betty wondered if her son would be better off in a slightly less challenging college, where he could potentially get better grades in preparation for getting into a top-tier graduate school, where he hoped to pursue international affairs or business.  This was my favorite question of those she asked.  And I gave the answer we have always given here at USACollegeChat:  Send him to the best school he got into.  In my opinion, that is American.  I commented that plans change, things happen, and graduate school might not be his choice four years from now.  Why suboptimize his undergraduate education because you are hoping for the best possible graduate education?  What if that graduate education never comes, and you just wasted a great undergraduate opportunity–for nothing?

I feel so strongly about his advice, and I seem to give it a lot.  (I am not talking about Betty now, by the way.  Betty and her son are going to be fine.)  But I do see parents thinking that a mediocre public education is fine at the undergraduate level because it is a way to save money for a top-quality private graduate school or medical school or law school.  Well, as many people have said and claimed credit for, tomorrow is promised to no one.  Please, parents, let your kid to take the opportunity to get an outstanding undergraduate education if it’s offered, even if it costs a little more.  No one can predict where your kid will be in four years, what he or she will want to do then, and whether he or she will have the grades and test scores to get into a phenomenal graduate school.  As the Romans said, carpe diem–seize the day.

2. What You Should Do Right Now

So, in this episode, I wanted to give you a firsthand look at how we think through things once those acceptances come in.  If you have a question like Betty’s about your kid, please drop me an email.  All the advice is free, and you don’t have to take it.  But let’s chat.  Why do you think we call it USACollegeChat?

By the way, if you want more general advice, feel free to go back and listen to the advice we gave last year and the year before.  It’s still quite relevant.  Try Episode 114 from last year and Episode 69, Episode 70, and Episode 71 from the year before.  They never get old!

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Episode 156: They Teach Happiness at Yale

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This is the fourth episode in our new series of things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally. Today, we are taking a look inside the ivy-covered walls of Yale University, but I think you will be very surprised about why we are taking that look. I know that many of you parents listening today have kids who have their hearts set on attending Yale or one of the other Ivy League universities or one of the other highly selective universities next fall. And I know that many of them won’t get to do that–not because they weren’t qualified to do it, but because too many other equally qualified kids also wanted to do it. But the perceived greatness of Yale’s academic program is not what we are going to look at today. Instead, we are going to look at just one Yale course, which happens to be Yale’s single most popular course ever offered?that is, the most popular course in Yale’s 316 years, and it’s being offered right now.

1. Happiness Is a Course?

In a provocative New York Times article in late January, David Schimer tells the story of PSYC 157 Psychology and the Good Life, a course that currently enrolls about 1,200 students, or almost one-quarter of Yale undergraduates. And this is not a required freshman seminar, as so many colleges have. Here is what Mr. Schimer says:

The course, taught by Prof. Laurie Santos, 42, a psychology professor and the head of one of Yale’s residential colleges, tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures.

“Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus,” Dr. Santos said in an interview.

“With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.” (quoted from the article)

What? A kinder, gentler Yale? A course about how to be happy? It sounds crazy, at first, but maybe she is onto something. The article continues:

Dr. Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.” A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time at the school. (quoted from the article)

Wow. That is concerning to all of us, but especially to parents of Yale hopefuls or parents of kids who want to go to another 25 universities that are just as selective and just as challenging. And with the news we hear every day on our televisions, the mental health of students of all ages is increasingly a worry for all of us.

So, what is in this course (for which parents are paying a hefty Yale tuition price tag)? What is in this course that some students see as “a relaxed lecture with few requirements” (quoted from the article)? Here is what Mr. Schimer reports:

The course focuses both on positive psychology–the characteristics that allow humans to flourish, according to Dr. Santos–and behavioral change, or how to live by those lessons in real life. Students must take quizzes, complete a midterm exam, and, as their final assessment, conduct what Dr. Santos calls a “Hack Yo’Self Project,” a personal self-improvement project?.

But while others might see easy credits, Dr. Santos refers to her course as the “hardest class at Yale”: To see real change in their life habits, students have to hold themselves accountable each day, she said.

She hopes that the social pressures associated with taking a lecture with friends will push students to work hard without provoking anxiety about grades. Dr. Santos has encouraged all students to enroll in the course on a pass-fail basis, tying into her argument that the things Yale undergraduates often connect with life satisfaction–a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job–don’t increase happiness at all.

“Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago, that our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade–are totally wrong,” Dr. Santos said?.

“We have this moment where we can make a difference in Yale’s culture, where students feel like they are part of a movement and fighting the good fight,” she said. (quoted from the article)

Well, that is an interesting take on happiness, and I have to wonder what the parents of those students are thinking. While no one wants to see kids overstressed to the point of mental health crises and while I know for a fact that many of those kids had way-too-intense high school years as they tried to get themselves prepared for Ivy League college applications, I am wondering why high grades and great internships and well-paying jobs can’t actually increase happiness. Certainly, not by themselves; but not at all?

Of course, taking off some of the pressure for high grades at Yale (or any other college) is fine by me. You will recall that we have talked about alternative grading practices at colleges as recently as five episodes ago in Episode 151. All of those alternative grading practices–some of which are used by very selective colleges–seem like a reasonable accommodation to kids who have worked too hard for too long and perhaps have lost sight of the value of learning apart from the value of getting a high grade. For some kids, the constant anxiety about getting high grades can thankfully end in college; but, for those who plan on graduate school or medical school or law school, I am afraid that they will be under the gun for another four years. Can Dr. Santos’s course help them with that? I would hope so.

2. Yale’s Response

While admitting how incredibly popular PSYC 157 has turned out to be, the Yale administration has had an interesting reaction. Here is what will happen next year at Yale, as Mr. Schimer writes:

Offering such a large class has come with challenges, from assembling lecture halls to hiring the 24 teaching fellows required. Because the psychology department lacked the resources to staff it fully, the fellows had to be drawn from places like Yale’s School of Public Health and law school. And with so many undergraduates enrolled in a single lecture, Yale’s hundreds of other classes–particularly those that conflict with Dr. Santos’s–may have seen decreased enrollment?.

Dr. Santos said she does not plan to offer the course again. Dr. [Woo-Kyoung] Ahn [director of undergraduate studies in psychology]?said, “Large courses can be amazing every once in a while, but it wouldn’t be fair to other courses and departments to take all of their students away.”

She added, “It causes conflict, and we can’t afford to offer this every year in terms of teaching fellows and resources.” (quoted from the article)

So, it was great while it lasted–or at least while other professors didn’t get too annoyed about the decrease in enrollment in their less-popular courses or administrators didn’t have to figure out the logistics of offering it. So, just how important is the mental health of the students or didn’t the professors and administrators think that the course was meeting that goal? I am sure that we will never know the answer to that question.

3. Your Response

In case you want to take a closer look at Dr. Santos’s idea or in case you want your kid to do so, “a multipart seminar-style series on the course material–filmed last year in her home and titled “The Science of Well-Being”–will soon be available for free on Coursera, an online education platform” (quoted from the article).

But, more to the point, please do keep in mind the mental health of your kid–both now in that last critical year or two of high school and then when he or she heads off for college, as so many of your kids will do this fall. Take a glance back at Episode 137, which focused on the importance of college support services for kids (like more than half of undergraduates at Yale) who need and seek mental health counseling while in college.

As we said in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, information about support services on a college campus is one thing prospective applicants and their parents might want to consider–especially if your kid identifies with students of color, first-generation-to-college students, LGBTQ students, or students with learning disabilities. And now, I would add, especially if your kid is going to a highly selective university, filled with bright, hardworking, overstressed, and likely anxious students.

As Randy Newman’s theme song for the great television show Monk says, “It’s a jungle out there.”

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Episode 155: Foreign Languages and College Admissions

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This is the third episode in our new series of things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally. But today, we are actually going to talk about some new data out about high schools because those data have implications for college-going, I believe. To be fair, I already knew a lot about today’s topic, but I did not know the data we are going to share with you now–and I think the situation is really very troubling.

1. A Look Back at Foreign Languages

Last August, we took a look at this topic, but I would like to reprise it today. The topic is the study of foreign languages in U.S. high schools. Those of you who are regular listeners know how important I think this topic is, probably stemming from my work a couple of decades ago with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages on a nationwide study of foreign language teaching in elementary and secondary schools and on the writing of a book of exemplary foreign language programs.

Let me repeat here a few alarming statistics from an Education Week article last June by Corey Mitchell:

  • The American Councils for International Education estimates that 10.6 million K-12 U.S. students study a world language or American Sign Language. That sounds like a lot of students, but it is actually just 20 percent of American students.
  • Fewer than 10 percent of students in at least two states study a language other than English.
  • Arabic is the fastest-growing second language among U.S. residents, but only 0.25 percent of American students who study a foreign language study Arabic in school.
  • Less than 1 percent of American students who study a foreign language are studying either Russian or Japanese, two languages that seem relatively important these days politically and/or economically.
  • Only 11 states require credits in foreign languages in order to graduate from high school.

Some of those numbers actually make me want to weep.

2. The Story in Oklahoma

So, imagine my dismay when I read a recent article in the Education Week Curriculum Matters blog by Stephen Sawchuk, who opened with this sad news:

In just a decade, a fourth of Oklahoma’s high schools eliminated their world language courses, the investigative reporting site Oklahoma Watch reports in a fascinating new story. Overall, a third of [Oklahoma] high schools lack a course in even one foreign language.

It’s a compelling piece of education data made bleaker by the fact that the decline in foreign language in Oklahoma probably has parallels in other states?.

What’s more, reporter Jennifer Palmer found, the declines are both in the “level II” instruction (usually given in sophomore year), and even more catastrophically in year III or advanced classes, such as AP courses. Having such a class can be a deciding factor in application decisions at elite colleges.

Not all schools are equally affected, she notes: Rural schools bore the brunt of the cuts, likely because they weren’t able to get teachers to fill the spots. (quoted from the article)

Well, there is a lot to talk about there, thanks to Mr. Sawchuk. First, let’s consider the fact that, in the past 10 years, one-quarter of all Oklahoma high schools stopped offering foreign languages, and now one-third of all Oklahoma high schools do not offer any. Frankly, I cannot imagine a high school that offers no foreign language courses–not just because foreign languages can be important for college admissions, but because they are even more important for living in a global society, for understanding cultures other than our own, and perhaps eventually for working in another country or for working with people in another country doing business with American businesses. Kids who are going to college will have another chance to study a language; kids who don’t go to college won’t. High school is their last chance.

Second, the decline worsens as the courses get more advanced. No surprise there, and that’s undoubtedly always been true. Clearly, fewer and fewer kids take foreign languages as the courses get more advanced, and that goes for all languages and all states and all school districts. Many schools no longer offer a fourth year of a language, and too many also don’t offer the third year of a language. And yes, elite colleges do still look at the depth of a student’s foreign language study, hoping for at least three years of study in one language.

But again, three or four years of language study is not important just for college admissions. They are important because two years of language study is not nearly enough to make students even marginally proficient in a language, as I learned when working with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The truth is that kids struggle mightily after even three and four years of high school study, but two years just is not enough. Even knowing that, colleges will sometimes look kindly enough on two years of each of two different languages instead of three years of one (especially if your high school does not offer three years of one). But offering two languages must seem like an idea from outer space to high schools in Oklahoma and elsewhere that can’t offer even one year of one language.

And third, of course, rural schools in Oklahoma were most often affected–not only because of the difficulty of recruiting foreign language teachers, but also because of the difficulty of filling courses often considered as elective courses in high schools with small enrollments. I don’t have some snappy solution for that. Online instruction is the solution that is probably used most often. I have seen it, and I am not overly impressed. Is it better than no foreign language instruction? Yes, it is–at least for meeting state high school graduation requirements and college admission requirements.

3. What You Must Do

I am working with a rural school district right now, and we are getting ready to look at the high school curriculum offerings. I am anxious to see how we will solve the problem of offering good foreign language instruction, but I believe that it is a problem worth solving. And I believe that, if parents allow their voices to be heard in that school district, we will have to try harder to solve it. Fortunately, I will be there to speak on behalf of those parents, but I can’t be everywhere.

So, parents, you are going to have to speak up for yourselves and your own kids. That is especially true if your kid attends a rural school–though, by the way, not all urban and suburban schools do a good job of offering foreign languages, either.

And I am not just picking on Oklahoma. I love Oklahoma and have actually done a lot of work in Oklahoma. In fact, it is home to one of my favorite museums and museum gift shops in the U.S. Here is a plug for that truly beautiful facility, quoted from its own website:

The Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, commonly known as Gilcrease Museum, located in Tulsa, Okla., is one of the country’s best facilities for the preservation and study of American art and history. The museum houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of art and artifacts of the American West, including an unparalleled collection of Native American art and material.

As the early statistics we quoted said, 39 states do not require foreign language study for high school graduation and (probably as a sad consequence) only 20 percent of U.S. students study a foreign language or American Sign Language. This is not an Oklahoma problem.

But this is not just a state problem, either. In many schools that do offer foreign languages, kids are not taking them. And they certainly aren’t taking three or four years of one language. So, parents, that is where you come in, and I am hoping it will be easier for you to influence your own kid than to try to influence an entire school district.

Convince your kid to take four years of a foreign language in high school (assuming that your high school makes four years available and, if not, encourage your kid to take three years or, as a last resort, to take two years of one language and two years of another language). We have said in many other episodes how important it is to show a college that a student has taken a rigorous set of high school courses–indeed, the most rigorous set of courses that the high school makes available. Usually, that is translated into taking four years of math and four years of science, especially when those four years can include calculus and physics. But, for some students–and your kid might be one of them–four years of a foreign language might be a lot more attainable than calculus.

I understand that the recent push for STEM instruction nationwide is one more thing that might drive out foreign language instruction in high schools. As a matter of fact, the STEM high school that we co-founded almost 10 years ago faced that problem of how to offer foreign language courses and how to get them into the students’ already jam-packed Early College schedule that focused on engineering and architecture. But at least we had a New York State requirement for foreign language study for high school graduation, so we had to solve the problem.

In the final analysis, parents, not convincing your kid to take three or four years of a foreign language is what causes schools to stop offering them and teachers to stop training to teach them. It is a vicious cycle. So, keep your kid in foreign language courses not just to get your kid into college; do it for a lot of other great reasons, too. As I said in our episode last August, I?with my four years of high school Latin and my three years of high school French–will now get off my soapbox. (And, yes, I took both languages in college, too.)

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Episode 154: Instant College Admission Decisions

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This is the second in our new series of things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally.  I think this is a case of the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.  Even though we have worked with colleges for a living for decades, we have learned a lot doing our 150-plus episodes, and we hope you have, too.

Today’s episode focuses on something that I did not know existed:  instant college admission decisions, which sound like a great stress-reliever to me.  Because who wants to apply to a college on January 1 and wait three months to get an answer!  So, while many students solve that waiting problem by applying under Early Action or Early Decision plans, thus shortening their wait time to perhaps six weeks or so in November and December, other students are taking advantage of instant decisions.  Here’s the story, thanks to Kelly Mae Ross and her article last December for U.S. News & World Report.

1.  What Are These Things?

So, what are instant decision days?  They are exactly what they sound like.  They are events held at high schools or colleges for prospective freshmen, staffed by a college’s admission officer, who interviews prospective students for a short period of time (as little as 15 minutes) and provides an admission decision on the spot.

The interview allows a prospective student to explain little glitches in his or her academic record as well as to elaborate on personal and academic accomplishments.  It also gives a prospective student a chance to ask questions about the college.  Because the interview is so short, students need not be too nervous.  And because the interview is quick and somewhat informal, students need not go overboard dressing up.  According to Ms. Ross’s article, Kasey Urquidez, vice president of enrollment management and student affairs advancement and dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Arizona, commented, “I can say for our team, [student dress is] not something we’re looking at whatsoever.  So dress as a student–it’s what we expect.” (quoted from the article)

(Of course, I am going to add here that students should not dress like slobs, either.  I can live with “business casual” attire–just short of a tie and jacket for young men, for example.  Furthermore, students should remember that a speedy, seemingly informal event still requires that standard formal slang-free English be spoken.)

While financial aid packages might not be provided on the spot at the time of the instant decision, a newly accepted student can at least get advice on what to do next to secure financial assistance.

And here’s a plus:  Some colleges will waive the application fee for instant decision applicants.  So, that could save you a few bucks, which never hurts.

And here’s another plus:  When these instant decision events are held on the college campus rather than at your kid’s high school, some colleges offer students a campus tour and the chance to meet current students–all accomplished in one jam-packed day.

And here’s perhaps the biggest plus:  Instant admission decisions are not binding.  That means, of course, that a student can continue to apply to other colleges or continue to wait to hear from other colleges before making an enrollment decision.

Not surprisingly, some colleges require that a prospective student complete the application in advance (which seems reasonable).  Some colleges have minimum academic standards that prospective students must meet in order to participate in an instant decision event (which seems reasonable, too).  And some colleges permit instant decisions for just some, but not all, of their degree programs (which also seems okay to me).

But the bottom line is this:  There is just no downside to taking part in one of these instant decision days if a college your kid is interested in makes one available.

2.  What Colleges Have Them?

So, what colleges have them?  It’s not surprising that highly selective colleges do not offer instant decision events.  But Ms. Ross’s article spotlights one that does:  Millersville University of Pennsylvania.  With 7,000 undergraduate students, Millersville is a public university located in rural Lancaster County, in the heart of Amish country, though not too far a drive from Philadelphia.  Founded as a teacher’s college in 1855, Millersville now offers more than 100 undergraduate programs of study.  Out-of-state tuition is about $22,000 per year?rather reasonable, when compared to private colleges. Admissions standards are also quite reasonable, given its public mission as part of the 14-campus system of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (which is a separate state system from the more selective Pennsylvania State University (of football fame) system).  The Millersville freshman class profile shows an average SAT of 1050, an average ACT composite of 22, and a high school GPA average of 3.4. And, according to its own Fast Facts on its website, 95 percent of graduates are employed within six months.

While the freshman class profile statistics indicate that Millersville is not a highly selective institution, having a positive instant admission decision in a student’s pocket from a solid public university is not a bad way to relieve the stress of the college application process. And, in her article, Ms. Ross quotes Brian Hazlett, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at Millersville, as saying that students who do not get an acceptance on instant decision day can get advice on how to make their application better.  It’s like personal counseling for free!

Ms. Ross’s article continues:

“It’s a very, very personal way of going through the admissions process,” says John Iacovelli, dean of enrollment management at Stockton University in New Jersey, which holds about three dozen instant decision events at high schools each year.  (quoted from the article)

Stockton University, by the way, is a public university in southern New Jersey, opened in 1971, which enrolls over 9,000 undergraduate and graduate students, about 1,500 of whom are first-time freshmen.  After six months, 88 percent of its graduates are employed or enrolled in graduate school.  Both this 88 percent and Millersville’s 95 percent strike me as very good statistics for any university, but perhaps especially so for a public university.

3.  What About Transfer Students?

In case you have a kid already in college and looking to transfer, it might be worth noting that some colleges have these instant decision days for transfer students, too.  Ms. Ross offers this information in her article:

Some university admissions officers travel to community colleges to offer this opportunity to prospective transfer students.

The University of Arizona offers about a dozen such events each year, says Kasey Urquidez, vice president enrollment management and student affairs advancement, and dean of undergraduate admissions at the university.

Virginia Tech…hosts instant decision days at four nearby community colleges, says Jane Todd, the school’s associate director for transfer initiatives…

Prospective transfer students should register in advance, submit their application and obtain a copy of their transcript before meeting with the admissions officer, both Todd and Urquidez say. Students who have attended multiple colleges will need a transcript from each, says Urquidez, and collecting all of these documents can take time.  (quoted from the article)

Well, the University of Arizona and Virginia Tech!  These are gigantic public universities that are well respected in their states (and nationally, too) and very likely by the nearby community college students who could take advantage of these instant decision days.  Given our nation’s scandalously low rates of community college students transferring to four-year institutions to continue their educations, these instant decision days have to be a step–or a giant leap–in the right direction.

4.  So What?

So, what should you do with this information?  Well, if I were you, I would start looking for colleges that offer the instant decision events, either on their campus or at your kid’s high school.  Ask the guidance counselor about any such events at the high school.  If there aren’t any scheduled, suggest that the guidance counselor look into this option, perhaps especially from nearby public two-year and four-year colleges.

In my search for information, I ran across a posting on the website for Saratoga Springs High School, located in the beautiful upstate town of Saratoga Springs, New York.  The notice explained that eight colleges would be conducting “instant decision” and “instant admit” sessions at the high school between October 30 and December 15.  The colleges were both public and private, both two-year and four-year, and both large and small, including one major campus of the State University of New York system.  That’s not a bad deal for those seniors, especially those who did not have their hearts set on highly selective colleges or those who needed or wanted to attend a nearby public institution.

What’s the bottom line?  It is that it never hurts to have a little stress relieved by these instant decision days.  There are few things in education that have no downside, as we have said in the past.  One of those things we have talked about often is student internships during high school.  Another of those things is Early College high schools and other college-credit-in-high-school programs.  Another of those things is Early Action admission plans.  There is just no downside to any one of these things. And now we will add instant decision days.  Just no downside.  So, do a little research in your own community and happy hunting!

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