Episode 165: Your Kid’s Long List of College Options

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Today we are going to talk about the first step of your kid’s summer homework. As we said last week, we know that summer vacation is still a couple of weeks away for some of you, but I have to believe that no real work is still being done in most high schools, especially not for seniors. So, let’s get busy! If you haven’t gotten our workbook for your son or daughter, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, there is still time.

1. What You Are About To Do Wrong

Your kid’s first summer homework assignment is what we call Step 1 (from our workbook): Expand Your College List. We opened the chapter by speaking very unpleasantly to your about-to-be senior:

This chapter focuses on something that you are just about to do totally wrong. Really, totally wrong. In fact, our advice in this chapter is probably the opposite of what many school counselors and college consultants are telling you as you start a serious consideration of where to apply . . . . We bet they are telling you to start by narrowing your list of colleges, but we would like you to start by expanding your list of colleges.

There is plenty of time later to narrow down your options . . . . While expanding your list might seem unnecessary, time consuming, or even wasteful, we believe that expanding your options now could mean the difference between an okay college choice and a great college choice for you later.

Parents: We know that some of you probably feel right now that you have done enough searching and that it is time to narrow down the list. That’s possible, but not likely. So keep listening. If you can truly say that you and your son or daughter have done all the things we are about to suggest, then our hats are off to you. But, if not, then you still have some summer homework to do.

2. So, What Is Step 1?

So, what is your most likely mistake? It’s this, as we explain to your kid in the workbook:

The great majority of high school graduates who go to college choose a college in their home state–perhaps as many as 70 percent of them. Undoubtedly, you have one or more colleges in your home state on your list of college options right now. That’s okay with us. However, what’s NOT okay is to have nothing BUT colleges in your home state on your list.

Here’s why: It’s a big world out there. There are so many intriguing colleges in it that we hate for you to limit yourself to those nearby. We hate for you to limit yourself to those that are likely to have a majority of students a lot like you from the same part of the country as you. Your first step in making a list of college options should NOT be to narrow down the choices and to close off opportunities. You should NOT be settling either for colleges that are nearby or for colleges that you and your parents and your school counselor already know a lot about.

We know that there are some good reasons for kids to stay close to home for college. We understand that some families want to keep their kids close to home for cultural reasons, perhaps in order to participate in family events or religious activities. We understand that some families need to have their kids stay at home in order to help with family responsibilities. Those reasons are hard to argue against.

We know that staying close to home might make going to college more affordable for some families, especially if living at home saves on housing expenses. But we also know that it is hard to know in advance how generous a financial aid package might be from an out-of-state college. Did you know that some states offer an attractive discount at their public colleges to students who come from nearby states? We bet you didn’t. Check out, for example, the Midwest Student Exchange Program or the Western Undergraduate Exchange or the New England Regional Student Program, if you live in those regions of the country.

We also know that you can sometimes get into a better college when it is far from home. Why? Because almost every college likes the idea of geographic diversity in its student body. Colleges like to claim that they draw students “from all 50 states and from 100 foreign countries.” You will see this kind of statement on many college websites. Pay attention, because you might be far more attractive to a college halfway across the country than to one in your own back yard. That’s because you will give that faraway college bragging rights. This is especially true for private colleges that do not have the same mission to serve students in their own state as public colleges do.

We also know that some parents just can’t imagine sending their kids away from home for the first time. In fact, you might not be able to imagine leaving home for the first time. But, we encourage you and your parents to think hard about that. Isn’t college the perfect time to make that break–a time when you can live somewhere else under the supervision of college staff in relatively secure surroundings, a time when you can learn to function as an adult in a safe environment (that is, learn to manage your money, do your work, plan your time, and make new friends)?

We urge you (and your parents) to get outside your family’s geographic comfort zone. You have nothing to lose at this stage in the process. Researching colleges outside your hometown, outside your state, and outside your region doesn’t mean you have to attend one of them–or even apply to one of them. But it does mean that you will have the information that you need to make a better decision when the time comes.

Parents: We say this so often that we feel like broken records (of course, that’s an analogy that most of your kids won’t even understand these days). But here’s how to do it, as we explain to your kid in the workbook:

Conveniently, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has divided the U.S. into eight regions:

  • Far West?California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawai?i, Alaska
  • Rocky Mountains?Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah
  • Southwest?Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas
  • Plains?Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota
  • Southeast?Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia
  • Great Lakes?Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio
  • Mideast?Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia
  • New England?Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine

However, we thought that the Bureau stuffed too many states into the Southeast; so, we divided the Southeast into two regions (southern and northern), and you should, too. That will give you nine regions to investigate.

We used these nine regions when we did our virtual college tour on our podcast. You should listen to the tour in Episodes 27 through 53 of our podcast or simply read the show notes. . . .

Parents: When we wrote the workbook, we had to think hard about how your son or daughter and you should create your kid’s Long List of College Options–that’s LLCO, for short. Here’s our advice (this is the shortened version of our advice; get the workbook if you want the well-reasoned background on why we are suggesting each piece of advice, or just trust us):

  • Make sure that you have at least two four-year colleges in each of the nine geographic regions of the U.S. on your LLCO.

By the way, don’t start looking at two-year colleges, or community colleges, yet. Two-year colleges can easily be added to your LLCO closer to application time, partly because their applications are typically less demanding to complete. We are also assuming that you are most likely to attend a two-year college in or near your hometown and, therefore, you will not need to do much investigating before applying.

  • Make sure that you have at least one college that is not in the U.S. on your LLCO.

  • Make sure that you have at least two public flagship universities on your LLCO–probably one from your home state plus one more.

3. Isn’t Step 1 Lots of Work?

Well, that could be about 20 to 25 colleges on your kid’s LLCO, by our count. Sure, that will be a lot of work when your kid actually starts exploring the colleges and getting the information we will be telling you about in the next episodes. But, parents, many of you are about to spend a great deal of money on college tuition and expenses. Many of you and your kids are going to end up borrowing a great deal of money in the process. So, isn’t it worth it to do some research up front? What could be more important than that this summer?

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Episode 164: The Most Important Step in College Admissions

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Before we start today’s episode about the most important step in the college application and admissions process, we want to let you know that we are headed into our final season of USACollegeChat.  Well, I wouldn’t rule out coming back on Netflix or something by popular demand from our listening audience, but we are at least going to need to go on hiatus for a while.  Maybe we will be like Game of Thrones (which I have never seen) where there can be a year between seasons.  I am headed out to Phoenix and leaving my beloved New York City for a work-related commitment for a year or so, and Marie and I will have to figure out when it makes sense to bring back USACollegeChat, given our other commitments.  But don’t be sad.  We have a blockbuster set of summer episodes coming up for you, starting with today’s episode.

This episode is going to describe your upcoming summer homework.  We know it is summer vacation for only some of you, with others of you (like our fellow New Yorkers) still having to wait almost a month.  But those of you who live where school is already closed, you can get a head start.  Now, this homework is really for your upcoming high school senior, but our guess is that you parents will get dragged into it quite a bit.  And our further guess is that most of you will want to be dragged into it.

As we were planning out what to talk with you about this summer, we thought first of all the thought-provoking articles we have been reading about this and that and the other in higher education.  Then, we realized that those are intellectually interesting to those of us who spend our lives thinking about higher education, but that they are likely far less urgent to those of you who have a kid headed to college, you hope, in a year.  And so, we switched our plans and decided to do a series of summer assignments to help you take what we believe is the most important step in the college application and admissions process.

I am sure that people might argue about what that step is.  There are many other podcasts and Facebook groups and private consultants that focus on many different parts of the process–like how to write a great essay or how to finance a college education or how to get into an Ivy League school.  Some of them even charge a lot of money to do what they do, and we are sure that some of them do a good job.  But our focus for you this summer is more important than any of theirs.  Let us explain why.

1. The Most Important Step in College Admissions

You might think this is obvious; but, if it is, there are a lot of families out there not doing the obvious.  The most important step in the college application and admissions process is getting enough colleges on your list of options in the first place.  That’s it.  Just get enough colleges on your list so that you have enough options to consider.  Most students do not do this–even students who have college-educated parents and even students who attend great high schools that send most of their students to college.

A corollary to that, by the way, is to get enough of the right colleges on your list.  But that can’t happen if the first step doesn’t happen.  So, for now, we are back to just get enough colleges on your list so that you have enough options to consider.  Let’s tell you how to do that.

Several years ago, we wrote a book for parents:  How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students.  It was a discussion guide for you to use to talk with your kids about whatever deal breakers each of you had when thinking about colleges to put on the list.  The book was a map of the college world, which is like a foreign land for many parents.  We thought that it would be especially helpful for those parents who did not attend college themselves or who attended college in their home countries outside the U.S.  But, it turned out to be helpful to all kinds of parents.  The book is still useful and still available at Amazon, so take a look, if you think it would be useful for you.

Then, we wrote a book last year for high school students themselves.  It is titled How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  It is a workbook–as in homeWORK all summer for high school students getting ready to fill out college applications next fall.  The workbook is designed to help students (and you parents) figure out the best colleges for your kid to apply to–because figuring out where to apply is the most important step of this whole process, as we have said before.  I can’t emphasize enough how strongly we believe that.  If your kid chooses colleges to apply to wisely and with enthusiasm and if those colleges meet with your approval as well, then the choice of where to attend later on is a lot easier and more satisfying.  But you have to get enough colleges on the list to begin with?and we have discovered that most of you and your kids don’t know how to do that.

2. What’s in the Workbook?

Although the workbook could be used by younger high school students trying to get a jump on the college search process, here is what we said to your soon-to-be-senior in our workbook’s introduction:

Since 2014, we have been talking to your parents in our weekly podcast, USACollegeChat.  The truth is that we have given them more information about colleges than anyone could probably use.

We took them on a virtual tour of colleges nationwide and profiled many public and private colleges in every region of the country to try to get them?and, of course, you?to look outside your family’s geographic comfort zone when considering where you should apply.

When we put together that virtual college tour, we realized something very important:  There are a lot of colleges out there, and it is impossible to keep up with what is going on at most of them.

We also realized what your biggest problem is (well, yours and theirs, actually):  You don’t know anything about most colleges.  We have been doing this for a couple of decades, and there was a lot of stuff we didn’t know either, as it turned out.  So, how do you solve that problem?

The simple answer is just to ask a guidance counselor at your high school.  You would think that guidance counselors would know quite a bit about lots of colleges and that they could pass that information on to you.  Here’s why that usually doesn’t work.

Let’s start with public high schools.  As you probably already know, most public high schools don’t have guidance counselors who are dedicated to working only on college counseling.  That means that your guidance counselors, with caseloads in the hundreds, have to help students with college applications while dealing simultaneously with students who might be in serious personal or academic trouble.  That’s an overwhelming job, and that is exactly why most high school guidance counselors cannot help you enough when it comes to exploring many college options, narrowing them down, and finally choosing the perfect colleges to put on your list.

Some public high schools?and even more private schools?have designated one of the school’s guidance counselors as a college counselor, specializing in college placement and perhaps financial aid and devoting all of his or her time to helping students undertake and complete their college searches.  If your school has a college counselor like that, you are lucky indeed.  Of course, searching through hundreds of colleges to find the right ones for you and then working through those college applications (including all of the essays) is the work of a lot of hours?at least 20 hours and really closer to 40 hours, we would say.  Does your counselor have that much time to spend with you?  Unfortunately, probably not, even if you attend a private school.

What if you are homeschooled?  Without the help of a school guidance counselor or college counselor?even for a very limited amount of time?you might feel more at a loss than your friends who attend public or private schools.  Should you expect your parents to know everything you need to know about a wide array of college choices?  No, you shouldn’t.  Respecting your parents’ opinions about colleges is certainly important, even crucial.  But it is not likely that they are experts on the many, many colleges here in the U.S. (and abroad).

All high school students need to get help from somewhere or someone.  We believe that this workbook is a good way to get some.  That’s why we are talking to you now.  We want you to have a way to find out the information you need about many colleges so that you will be in the best possible position to compare those colleges and then to make the right decision about where to apply and, eventually, about where to attend.  While you will undoubtedly want and need some adult advice in thinking through the many options, what you need first is information?and a lot of it.

If you already have a list of colleges you are interested in, you will need information about each one of those.  But, just as important, you will need information about colleges that are not yet on your list?including colleges that you have never considered because you didn’t know they existed.  That’s not your fault now, but it will be if you don’t take steps to correct it.  So, let’s get started.

We are not kidding.  Most kids and most parents just don’t know enough to choose colleges.  The only solution to that is to get information.  And the only way I know to get information is to do some work–that is, the homework we designed for your kids in our workbook.

3. Before You Start Gathering Information?

But, before your kid actually starts gathering detailed information about colleges, it is important to expand that list of options, as we have just said.  We call this the LLCO in the book–that is, your kid’s “long list of college options.”

In our workbook, you might say that homework assignment #1 is to expand the LLCO.  Until your kid’s LLCO is created, the real homework cannot begin!  So, go to Amazon and grab a copy of How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  It’s the best $9.95 you will ever spend.  Tell your kid to get ready to work.  We start next week by telling him or her how to put together that LLCO.

So, can you do the work with us each week without buying the workbook?  You can indeed.  But it will be easier to hold your kid accountable with the workbook.   And accountable he or she will need to be in order for both of you to get through the next six months!  Remember, the work starts next week.

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Episode 163: What High Schools Do Colleges Visit?

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Welcome back to our new series entitled Looking to Next Year.  Today, we want to look at a well-known college recruitment practice and its ramifications.  That practice is the visiting of high schools by college admissions staff.  Maybe our discussion today won’t come as a surprise to you; but, whether it does or doesn’t, it’s a sad commentary on the U.S. in 2018.

1. A New Study

Just a few episodes ago, we quoted from an article in Inside Higher Ed by Scott Jaschik, and today we find ourselves doing that again.  This article is forebodingly titled “Where Colleges Recruit . . . and Where They Don’t.”

Here is the story:

[F]or many colleges, reaching out to students in person at high school events is a key part of the recruitment process. And even for the [elite colleges], this is an important part of outreach and regularly results in applications from those who might not have otherwise applied. But where do the [colleges] go to recruit?

A new study being presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association suggests that these visits favor those who attend high schools where family income is high. And these high schools are likely to be whiter than the population as a whole.

Two of the researchers–Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Karina Salazar, a doctoral candidate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona–published a summary of their findings in The New York Times. (quoted from the article)

So, let’s look at that opinion piece in The Times by Mr. Jaquette and Ms. Salazar.  They wrote about their findings, based on data from college visits–not any other kinds of student recruitment–made in 2017 by 150 colleges.  Here are some of those findings in their own words:

The clearest finding from our study is that public high schools in more affluent neighborhoods receive more visits than those in less affluent areas.

Only about a third of households across the country earn more than $100,000 annually, but nearly half of high schools receiving visits by private colleges and universities were in neighborhoods where average incomes were higher. Connecticut College visited neighborhoods with an average median household income of $121,578. Private colleges also disproportionately visited private high schools over public high schools.

Andy Strickler, dean of admissions at Connecticut College, said the school targets high schools that have historically provided students, or other schools that have a similar profile.

He said there was a good reason Connecticut College doesn’t always visit other areas: “There’s a trend for these students to stay closer to home for college.” (quoted from the opinion piece)

I get that colleges understandably visit high schools that have sent students in the past or schools with demographic characteristics like those high schools.  I get that colleges need to recruit as cost-effectively as possible.  I get that kids in high schools in less affluent neighborhoods probably do “stay closer to home for college,” for better or worse.  But I still am a bit disappointed by all of it.

Nonetheless, let’s not single out Connecticut College.  There is a chart in the opinion piece that shows that plenty of other colleges do exactly the same thing–that is, visit high schools in neighborhoods with higher median incomes than high schools they don’t visit.  And, what’s worse, lots of those colleges are public universities.  Let’s look back at what Mr. Jaquette and Ms. Salazar write about that:

While public research universities visited rich and poor neighborhoods nearly equally when recruiting in their home states, they visited the same affluent high schools targeted by private colleges when recruiting elsewhere. Most public colleges also visited far more high schools out of state than in-state. The median income of areas where the University of Pittsburgh recruited out of state, for example, was $114,000, compared with $63,000 for areas that were not visited. . . .

The attention public universities lavish on wealthy out-of-state schools is a response to state policy. Over the past decade, many states have cut funding for higher education, forcing public universities to become more dependent on tuition revenue. Research shows that public universities responded by enrolling more out-of-state students, who often pay two to three times more than state residents. And of course, only well-off students can afford that. . . .

In their out-of-state visits, our data also suggest, public universities were more likely to visit predominantly white public high schools than nonwhite schools with similar levels of academic achievement. For example, [in the Boston metropolitan area], the University of Colorado Boulder visited Dover-Sherborn Regional High School, which is 88 percent white and has about 154 students with proficient math scores, according to the federal Department of Education. But it did not visit Brockton High School, where just 21 percent of students are white but about 622 students have proficient math scores.

“In order to be good stewards of our funding, we consistently recruit at schools that have historically given us applications,” said Colleen Newman, admissions director at Boulder. “Given our limited funding, we are unable to expand our traditional recruitment efforts to all regions and all high schools that have academically talented students.” (quoted from the opinion piece)

Well, as loyal listeners know, I love recommending Boulder.  I think it is friendly to students from the East Coast and a great all-around university.  But I have to admit that I am not crazy about this recruitment strategy, though I understand the reasoning, of course.

Here are some more things I did not know, however.  I guess that I might have figured this out if I had thought about it, but I just never did.  I am wondering how much you have thought about this, parents.  Listen up:

Colleges don’t treat recruitment lightly. It’s big business for colleges and the firms they hire. Most colleges identify prospects by purchasing lists of students and their backgrounds from the testing agencies College Board and ACT. They can also hire enrollment management consulting firms, which integrate data from the university with data on schools and communities. This helps them decide which schools should be visited and which should be targeted with emails and brochures. One consulting firm we spoke with even knows information about individual students such as their family income and net worth, and the value of their home.

If colleges have all this data, why aren’t they better at targeting talented poor students and students of color?

The most common explanation is that there aren’t enough of them applying (the so-called achievement gap). Another explanation we hear is that talented students don’t apply because they don’t have the right guidance (called “under-matching”). . . .   Our data [suggest] universities are determined to court wealthier students over others, and they expend substantial resources identifying and reaching them.

There are many students from poor communities who get excellent grades but end up going to a community college because no one bothers looking for them. If colleges are serious about increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity, they should look for merit everywhere, not just in wealthy, white communities. (quoted from the opinion piece)

It’s hard to disagree with that conclusion.  It’s especially hard to disagree with that conclusion for public universities, which have a mission to serve the taxpayers in their own states.  It’s concerning that public universities might be pricing themselves out of the market for the students who need them most in their home states–or even for the students who need them most from other states.

In putting together his article, Mr. Jaschik corresponded with Mr. Jaquette about his study.  Here is part of that correspondence:

Jaquette, via email, said there is a contradiction between colleges’ statements that they are doing everything possible to recruit low-income, disadvantaged students and the findings of the new study.

“Scholarship on organizational behavior–on all types of organizations–finds that organizations publicly adopt goals demanded by the external environment,” he said. “But these public statements are poor indicators of actual organizational priorities. How they spend real resources is a better indicator.” (quoted in the article)

In other words, colleges might say that they are looking hard to bring in more low-income students because it is the politically correct, or even morally correct, thing to say.  However, their actions (in this case, their spending habits) speak louder than words.

2. What Does This Mean for You

So, what does this mean for you?  Possibly nothing, if you live in a relatively affluent neighborhood and your kid attends a high school with relatively affluent classmates.  The chances are good that college recruiters are going to come calling both now and in the fall.

But if you don’t live in a relatively affluent neighborhood and your kid does not attend a high school with relatively affluent classmates, the chances are good that you are going to have to look harder to investigate colleges and make your kid known to them.  It might mean that you will need to visit colleges in order to get colleges to notice your kid (although I wish you didn’t have to until after your kid is accepted and you all are trying to make a final decision).  Oh, unless you live in one of the places identified in a 2012 study by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery and cited by Mr. Jaschik in his article:

[The study] found a tendency by colleges to recruit only at high schools where they will find a critical mass of talented low-income students and not the many others where academic achievement may be more rare. The high schools having success at placing students in competitive colleges are in large metropolitan areas (generally from 15 cities) and their students are “far from representative” of the academic talent among low-income students, the authors write.

So it’s not that colleges don’t recruit at low-income high schools, but they favor the magnet over the typical high school–even though there are many students with ability who do not attend magnet high schools. (quoted from the article)

Indeed there are, and your kid might be one of them.

3. Happy Memorial Day

Well, it’s hard to believe that Memorial Day is just around the corner.  We are going to celebrate next week, but we will be back with you on May 31with the best episode we have ever done.  Stay tuned!

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Episode 162: The High School Courses That Colleges Require

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We are starting a new series today because we think that the college ship has sailed for almost all of our listening families with seniors.  Of course, some of you are still looking at a few options; some of you have even put down deposits at more than one college, or so we hear; and, some of you might be frantically searching for a new choice that offers rolling admissions or very late deadlines in the next couple of months.  As always, if any of you are in the still-undecided group, give me a call if you want some personalized advice.  I am happy to help, and the advice is free, of course.

We are going to assume that the rest of you out there have juniors (or even sophomores) and that you are relatively early in the college admissions process.  It is amazing to me, as I look at posts in a number of online groups for parents of prospective college applicants, how many of you with younger kids are already well into the college search.  So, this series, entitled Looking to Next Year, is going to offer a few reminders for parents of high school juniors as you start down a long–but hopefully exciting and not too painful–road.

1. Oh, No!  Not the Right High School Courses!  Part I

Let me start by saying that I love to complain about how far too many–I would say, even most–high school students do not take enough foreign language courses.  They don’t take enough courses either for their own good in life or for their optimal chances of getting into a great college.  We discussed this as recently as Episode 155, which was scarcely the first time we have brought it up.

But today’s episode expands way beyond my foreign language criticism about high school students’ own course decisions to a criticism that is almost unthinkable:  Many states’ high school graduation requirements will not meet all of the admissions requirements of their own public state universities.  Let me repeat this fantastical and sobering claim in the words of Catherine Gewertz in Education Week where she reported on a study released on April 2 by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and authored by Laura Jimenez and Scott Sargrad, both employed by CAP:

The think tank found that in most states, in at least one subject area, students must exceed their state’s high school graduation requirements in order to cross the threshold of the public four-year institutions in their state.

The CAP study describes two big problems. Most state diploma requirements:

  • Don’t meet admissions criteria for the state’s public universities. Noted by other researchers as well, this “preparation gap” can form a barrier to college when students find that the diploma requirements they completed fall short of the ones their state colleges and universities expect for admission.

  • Leave too much up to the student. In many states, students can decide which core courses to take in order to fulfill graduation requirements. That means they could finish high school with a relatively weak lineup of classes, or courses that don’t match well with their postsecondary goals. (quoted from the article)

Frankly, it’s hard to believe.  But the data don’t lie.  Listen to the number of states whose high school graduation requirements do not meet their own public four-year university’s entrance requirements:

  • 23 states miss the mark in foreign languages. (I now feel totally vindicated about the number of times I bring up this problem.)
  • 8 states miss the mark in mathematics. (That does not surprise me, unfortunately.)
  • 4 states miss the mark in science.
  • 4 states miss the mark in social studies.
  • 2 states miss the mark in fine arts.
  • 2 states miss the mark in the number of elective courses.
  • 1 state misses the mark in English.

If I were a taxpayer in any of those states, I would be marching on the state capital.  If I were the governor in any of those states, some state education department employees would be losing their jobs, and some state board members would be having serious discussions with me.

Interestingly and for whatever reason, physical education (including health) is the only subject field in which all states’ high school graduation requirements meet college entrance requirements and, in fact, 39 states’ high school graduation requirements exceed college entrance requirements.  Comparatively speaking, only two states’ high school graduation requirements exceed college entrance requirements in foreign languages.

Perhaps not surprisingly, English is the subject field where high school graduation requirements are most in line with college entrance requirements:  44 states have high school graduation requirements that meet English college entrance requirements and three states exceed them.  In other words, almost all states require four years of high school English in order to graduate, and almost all state universities require four years of English to get in.

So, let’s take a glance at a few states of particular interest, using the data in the CAP study:

  • These are the 19 states that do meet or exceed college expectations in every subject field, regardless of how rigorous those expectations are (obviously, it is easier to meet college expectations if the state university’s expectations are not all that high to begin with):  Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.
  • What about our two most populous states?  California, with its massive public higher education system, misses the mark in four subject fields.  Texas, with its very large public higher education system, misses the mark in two subject fields.  I can only speculate that students in those states who are anxious to get into their super-popular public universities exceed the state high school graduation requirements on their own.  Our home state, the very populous State of New York, misses only on foreign languages (you would think that people in my own state would have been listening to me by now).
  • Interestingly, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are the only two entities that technically exceed expectations in all subject fields; but, that’s because their public university systems set no specific coursework requirements.
  • These states were not included in the analysis, so I can’t tell you whether to panic if you live in one of these:  Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

2. Oh, No!  Not the Right High School Courses!  Part II

So, where does the CAP study come down on this issue?  Let’s look at a few paragraphs from the Conclusion:

[T]his analysis finds significant misalignment between the high school and college systems. What is required to receive a high school diploma is often not aligned with what students must study to be eligible for college admissions. This can be a matter of equity when more rigorous coursework such as advanced math, laboratory science, and foreign language courses are not offered on the high school campus, thus requiring college-bound students to seek this coursework elsewhere. . . .

Certainly, state high school graduation requirements are only a start to ensuring students are ready for college, career, and life. Many states allow or even require school districts to set additional requirements. However, not setting a minimum floor that at the very least meets state college admissions requirements puts students in districts with less rigorous requirements at a disadvantage, setting up inequities within states in access to college preparatory and career-readiness experiences. (quoted from the study)

It is a matter of equity. Why?  Because poor kids in less affluent school districts with minimum graduation requirements will not go the extra yard that is required to get into their state public university. Why?  Because they won’t get sufficient help from their high school counselors and because they likely can’t get sufficient help from their parents.  And so, they are at the mercy of inadequate state high school graduation requirements that won’t prepare them for admission to their state’s public higher education system, which might well be all they can afford.

But the CAP study says a lot more than this–much of which is very interesting.  For example, the CAP study takes this further step:

Depending on course availability and the boundaries drawn by graduation requirements, students have discretion in the types of courses they take to fulfill high school graduation requirements. States may require all of the specific courses and sequences to be taken, for example, Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II–or their equivalents–where three years of math are required. Where four years are required, states may require only some of the specific courses, for example, Algebra I and Geometry, and allow students to choose among the options to fulfill two additional math course requirements. Or, states may simply require a number of years of study and make no course type specifications. Each of these scenarios [is] also true for college admissions. (quoted from the report)

And the CAP study continues:

In almost every state for at least one subject, there is a preparation gap that necessitates students seeking admission to the state public four-year university system to take additional coursework that is not required for a standard high school diploma. What’s more, this additional coursework may or may not be offered on the high school campus. . . .  Students in high-income schools and districts with sufficient college counseling and resources to seek this additional coursework may have an easier time addressing these disparities than students in low-income areas, reflecting inequity in the availability of educational resources. (quoted from the study)

Indeed.  Let’s just say it again, because it is still incredible to me:  When states do not require high enough high school graduation standards to ensure that all of its high school graduates are eligible for their own public higher education–regardless of whether all graduates want to go on to college–those states are ensuring that their poorer kids in their poorer school districts are disproportionately negatively affected.  Why again?  Because in addition to the injustices of subpar graduation standards, subpar school facilities, subpar counseling, and subpar everything else, fewer of these poorer kids have college-educated parents who can make up the difference.

3. What To Do

I believe that there is no substitute for examining the entrance requirements of any college your kid is thinking about applying to in terms of credits and perhaps specific courses that the college expects or requires to be taken in high school.  We talk about this topic extensively in our second book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  Let me read some excerpts from a section of that book for students:

Let’s look at one last admission standard–one that is less often considered and more often taken for granted–and that is the courses that applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits (or Carnegie units) in each subject area, but also sometimes including specific courses, especially in math and science. . . . 

On a college’s website, this information can virtually always be found by starting with the Admission home page.  You will find that the high school course or credit expectations of colleges do, in fact, differ, usually according to how selective the college is.  But there are always a few surprises (like colleges that require students to have earned career and technical education credits in high school, for example).

After you write down the required and the recommended courses or credits, you can compare them from college to college, and you can see how well they match up with what you have taken so far and with what you will be taking as you finish up high school.  Particularly if you are just a freshman or sophomore, this information can be invaluable as you plan your remaining semesters in high school. . . .

The courses that you take in high school matter, including the courses that you take in your senior year.  Colleges will tell you that slacking off in the senior year is never a good move.  So, for example, a fourth year of math and a fourth year of science would be the best scenario for most applicants–and might be a mandatory scenario for entrance to top colleges and to some college programs, like engineering.  If you don’t have a rigorous senior year planned, think again.

And that’s exactly why we are telling you, parents, this information right now–when many high schools across the country are scheduling juniors for the classes they will be taking next fall as seniors.  It is not too late to look carefully at college requirements and to make an adjustment or two in next fall’s schedule.  You might have to insist with high school counselors or administrators, but it will be worth it.  Adding a course in science or math or foreign languages or something else that is missing is possible now, but it will be a lot harder to do next fall.  Good luck!

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Episode 161: College Wait Lists

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

As we said last week, most of you have made a decision about what college your kid is going to by now.  You all have compared and contrasted the colleges that accepted your son or daughter and made the best decision you thought you could.  However, there might be one or two of you still holding out some hope for coming off the wait list of your kid’s favorite college choice.  I know that some of you have even put a deposit down on a sure thing while not entirely giving up hope on the long shot that is the wait list.  This episode is not so much about giving you advice, but rather about making you feel not so bad.

While we are not experts in the practice of wait listing, I can tell you anecdotally that I have seen kids this year and last year not get into colleges from the wait list when those kids were absolutely qualified to attend those colleges.  I imagine we all have stories like that.

1. Are Wait Lists a Waste of Time?

Let me read you some excerpts from a short piece that was heard recently on National Public Radio (NPR) on All Things Considered, as presented by Clare Lombardo and Elissa Nadworny.  Here we go:

[High school seniors have] opened their mail–or, more likely, an online portal–to finally hear decisions from colleges. But many didn’t get one. The number of students placed on college waiting lists has climbed in recent years, leaving students hoping for the best–even when they might not have any reason to hope at all.

“Many students … think they’re very close to getting in, and that there’s considerable hope for them to be admitted to the college,” says Cristiana Quinn, a private college admissions counselor in Rhode Island.

That’s not the case. In the spring of 2017, Dartmouth College, a small Ivy League school in New Hampshire, offered 2,021 waitlist spots to applicants. Of the 1,345 who chose to stay on the waitlist, not a single person got in. The University of Michigan offered 11,127 potential freshmen a place on their waitlist that spring–4,124 students accepted spots on the list, and 470 eventually got in.

The odds aren’t as slim elsewhere: At the University of Wisconsin?Eau Claire, 100 of the 450 students on the waitlist were accepted in 2017. And some schools, like North Carolina A&T State University and the University of Alabama, don’t use a waitlist at all. According to 2017 numbers from the National Association of College Admission Counseling, about 40 percent of colleges use waitlists. (quoted from the NPR piece)

Well, those numbers are arresting.  According to these statistics, top-tier colleges with long wait lists admit very few of those candidates–maybe 10 percent, at best.  Less-selective colleges might offer better odds, but my guess is that kids are not holding out hope for those spots the same way they are holding out hope for spots at great colleges or near-great colleges.  You don’t want to advise kids not to stay on the wait list if they really have their hearts set on someplace, but I think you also have to help kids understand just how uphill that climb is going to be.

And lest we forget, there’s this:  Colleges are not really ever doing anything to help the applicants; whatever they are doing with wait lists, they are doing for themselves.  It’s like Early Decision and Early Action and various phases of both.  While some of those plans help applicants, there is no doubt that colleges are getting a lot out of them, too.  Otherwise, colleges wouldn’t be offering them.

The NPR piece notes this:

The schools that do make applicants wait for a final decision do so to keep their options open, says Quinn, who works with students and families during the college application process.

“They want to have a very large pool to choose from–so that, for instance, if they don’t have a student from South Dakota, they can pull one from South Dakota. If they don’t have a student who plays the oboe, they can pick an oboe player, and on and on,” she says. When schools keep their admission rates low, it impacts school rankings and reputation–plus, intentional or not, the more students who almost get in are now thinking, talking and tweeting about them. (quoted from the NPR piece)

Well, that’s particularly annoying, I think.  Putting kids on the wait list as a way to get free PR?  Really?  I so hope that is not true, but I fear it might be.  Back to the NPR piece:

Quinn recently penned an open letter to college admissions officers on a private email list of admissions professionals.

“I beg you to stop the insanity,” she wrote. “Stop what you are doing to kids and parents and move to a modicum of reality next year when you create your waiting lists.” She says all of her students awaiting spring decisions were wait-listed at at least one school–and many of them were wait-listed at many. That hasn’t happened in the past.

“[Students] are not fully exploring the colleges where they have been accepted,” she says. Instead, they hold out hope for the colleges where they’ve been wait-listed. For low-income students, who depend on aid for tuition assistance, holding out for an offer becomes unrealistic because colleges often have little if any financial aid left over by the time they turn to the waiting list. (quoted from the NPR piece)

It’s hard to disagree with that advice to colleges.  Maybe colleges could just adopt some rule of thumb, like we will put three times as many kids on the wait list as we took in from the wait list in the previous year.  Then, kids on the wait list would have an idea of how good their chances were, and many kids would not be put on the wait list to begin with and could go on and make the best choice from their actual acceptances.  I won’t hold my breath that colleges are going to do this, but I honestly don’t see how it would hurt them–at least the top tier colleges, which are going to fill their freshman classes with qualified kids, no matter what.

2. What To Do If You Are on One

First of all, I think it should be clear that an applicant should not stay on the wait list of a college that the applicant is not truly interested in.  Why?  Obviously, it makes it harder for the kids who really do want to be on that list, and it distracts the student from paying attention to the options that he or she is more interested in pursuing.

Not surprisingly, many counselors advise students on wait lists to write letters to the admissions officer at the college to declare their ongoing interest in the college.  I don’t see how that can hurt, but clearly it doesn’t often help too much either, especially at top-tier colleges.  Such a letter would probably sound a lot like one we described back in Episode 148, when we discussed an appeal letter following a deferred decision in an Early Decision or Early Action situation.  Let’s recap what might go into such a letter (while this advice is likely too late for anyone still on a wait list right now, it might help all of you parents of juniors as you get ready for this time next year).  Here are some reasonable points to make in a one-page typed letter, which can be sent by email, but should also be sent in print by regular mail.

First, the applicant has to say that the college is his or her first choice and that he or she will attend, if admitted.  Ideally, of course, that would be true.  I am sure that many students say this, even when it is not true.  You will have to make your own moral judgment here.

Second, the applicant should show a solid understanding of the academics of the college and of how he or she will fit into the academic world there.  Naming a specific department, specific major, specific courses, and/or specific research opportunities are a good idea.  Make sure your kid knows exactly what the name of the department and major are inasmuch as they are different at every college, for some reason. Emphasize the notion of “fit” between the student and the college.

Third, the applicant should restate (since this information is likely in the original application or application essay) how he or she might fit in with specific extracurricular activities, including volunteer or service opportunities, performing music and drama groups, and sports at the college.  This part of the letter should be focused–just in case the college needs an oboe player.

Fourth, the applicant should mention any major accomplishments since the original application was submitted, especially new SAT or AP test scores or academic honors.

Fifth, the applicant should mention any close family connection to the college–including parents or grandparents who went there and/or siblings who went there or are there right now.  This mention should ideally explain what the student has learned from those personal connections and why that makes the college so much more attractive to him or her.  I believe that including this information in an understated way helps the college believe that this student is really more likely to enroll, if admitted.

3. What Else To Do If You Are on One

But the main thing to do if your kid ends up on one or more wait lists is to think hard about any acceptances he or she did get.

Visit those colleges, if you haven’t done so yet, perhaps at an accepted students day.  A great college visit at one of those colleges could make up for a lot of wait listed options.  If your kid falls in love with a college he or she has already been admitted to, game over–in a good way.

If you and your kid can’t visit, investigate your options as best you can.  For example, ask your high school counselor if any alums have gone to those colleges so that your kid can talk to someone who has experience there.  Do what you need to do to make those colleges come alive for your kid.  Because waiting around for wait listed options isn’t likely to work.

And, finally, here is my very best suggestion if your kid is not happy with his or her acceptances and is not likely to get in from a wait list, consider Richmond, The American International University in London.  Loyal listeners will know that one of my sons did his undergraduate work there and that my daughter did her master’s degree work there.  It is a fantastic university.  Really.  The good news for you now is that Richmond accepts applications until July 1 for a fall start.  Both my kids loved Richmond, and all of my experiences there–from sitting in on classes to meeting with professors to talking with administrators to chatting with students–have been excellent.  And, believe me, I am not easy to impress.  So, if your child is unhappy and you think London might be the answer, consider Richmond.  Costwise, it is far more affordable than many private universities in the U.S.  And, did I say it was in London?  Seriously, if you take a look at Richmond, you will not regret it.

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