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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Episode 153: Outstanding New Documentary on HBCUs

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It is officially March, and I feel that we have done all we can for the Class of 2022.  Before we head into advice for the Class of 2023, we are going to do a few episodes on things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally.  As we have always said, we learn something every time we do an episode, even though this is our business and we have been doing it a very long time.

Today’s episode focuses on a favorite topic of ours here at USACollegeChat–that is, our nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  We have spotlighted HBCUs in several of our episodes over the years (Episodes 32, 90, 100, and 117), and we mentioned them on many of our episodes that took you on our virtual nationwide tour of colleges quite some time ago.  And while we will give you some background and some statistics in this episode, for those of you who are not familiar with HBCUs, the real purpose of the episode today is to praise the new documentary on HBCUs that recently aired on PBS’s Independent Lens series.  The documentary, entitled Tell Them We Are Rising, is the work of filmmakers Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams.  And it is fantastic!

As our regular listeners know, there are just over 100 HBCUs in the U.S.  About half are public, and half are private.  HBCUs are large and small (many are very small), faith-based and not, two-year and four-year colleges and universities; some also have graduate and professional schools, including the well-known Howard University School of Law, which is the focus of one segment of the new documentary.

HBCUs were originally founded to serve black students who had been excluded from other higher education institutions because of their race.  The three earliest HBCUs were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio before the Civil War, but many were founded in the South shortly after the Civil War.  Those Southern HBCUs share a proud tradition of becoming the first colleges to provide higher education to the family members of freed slaves.  Over the years, HBCUs have produced extraordinary leaders in every field of endeavor and thousands and thousands of well-educated American citizens.  A list of their famous graduates would be too long to read to you.

1.  Why Watch?

So, why should your kids (and you) watch this documentary?  (If you can’t still find it on the air on PBS or streaming on the PBS website, buy it or tell your high school to buy it and show it to all of the students.)  There are a lot of reasons to watch.  First, it is a great piece of documentary filmmaking.  It includes take-your-breath-away and heartbreaking archival photographs and film of black American life during segregation and during the end of segregation.  It includes archival photographs and film of HBCU students on campus going back a hundred years, including the horrifying 1972 shooting of two students in an otherwise peaceful protest on the campus of Southern University (in Baton Rouge, Louisiana); more about that later.  It includes insightful interviews with former HBCU students now in their 70s and 80s, with HBCU presidents, with historians, and more.  It includes evocative and relevant music.

Second, the film gives an impressively organized overview of 150 years of African-American history, focusing on higher education in the form of HBCUs, but including everything from the beginning of elementary education for black children to the debate about the education philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois to the role of the remarkable Thurgood Marshall (who graduated from both Lincoln University and Howard University School of Law, two HBCUs) in ending school segregation to the lunch counter sit-in protests staged by HBCU college students during the struggle for civil rights.  If your kid does not know this history (and many don’t), here is a powerful way to help him or her learn it.

Third, if your kid does not know what an HBCU is, it is time your kid learned.  That is especially true if your family is African American–or Hispanic, because Hispanic enrollment at HBCUs has been increasing (as we have said in earlier episodes).  And while white students can and do also enroll at HBCUs, white students should also have an understanding of these historic institutions and their continuing important role in our nation’s social and cultural fabric.  We have heard too many anecdotes (including in this documentary) of black high school students who want to go to an HBCU only to have their friends ask them why in the world they would want to do that.  Early in the film, HBCUs are described as an “unapologetic black space.”  Late in the film, they are described as the place where “you’ll find something you won’t find anywhere else.”  That’s why.  No one could have said it better.

2.  Some Background

If you all thought that you were going to get away without hearing one more time about my favorite HBCU, Fisk University, you were wrong.  Oddly enough, in a PBS interview by Craig Phillips with the filmmakers, Mr. Williams said that they had written a segment, which they did not end up using, about the Fisk University Jubilee Singers.  The Jubilee Singers, organized in 1871, saved the University from closing in its early days by raising money on their concert tours, and they continue to tour today.  I love their story.  And, of course, there is Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance, who served as Fisk’s first black president, and the Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, like Arna Bontemps, James Weldon Johnson, and Aaron Douglas, whom he brought to Fisk to work with him.  Well, Mr. Williams, I would love to have seen your segment on the Jubilee Singers, though I was interested in the segment you do have on Fisk.  And you all should be, too.

As we just said, today HBCUs enroll students who are not black–just as historically white colleges and universities (referred to as predominantly white institutions, or PWIs) now enroll students who are not white.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015, students who were not black made up 22 percent of the enrollment at HBCUs.  That was up from 15 percent back in 1976.  And while the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent in those years?which was good for them?total college enrollment rose by 81 percent in those same years.

Some observers say that it has become harder for HBCUs to recruit African-American students now that they have been welcome at both selective and nonselective colleges across the U.S.  That is undoubedly true to some degree.

Nonetheless, there is still a strong sense of community among the alumni/alumnae of HBCUs and a strong sense of tradition on HBCU campuses.  You can see that in the new documentary, for sure.  And there have been very recent and impressive spikes in HBCU applications, as we said back in Episode 100.  For some African-American students, the sense of community at HBCUs could be a good fit for what they are looking for in a college, and a shared culture could go a long way toward helping them feel comfortable on a college campus, especially if it is far from home.  Some observers say that Hispanic students often feel more comfortable in the family-like environment of many HBCUs, which could account, in part, for the increase in Hispanic enrollment.

And, parents, in case you are interested, lower-than-average tuition rates at both public and private HBCUs (sometimes literally half of the going rate at PWIs) are one more attractive feature.  Just go check out a few.  I think you will be surprised.

So, if you and your kid are tempted to investigate further after watching Tell Them We Are Rising, here are some HBCUs to consider (some you will probably know, and some you might not know):

And there are plenty more.

3.  What We Didn’t Know

So, let me return for a moment to the shooting at Southern University, which I am embarrassed to say I knew nothing about.  I would like to think that is because I myself was just a college student in those days, but that is really no excuse.  Here is an excellent synopsis of what happened, as told last month by reporter Mike Scott, of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, on the occasion of the documentary’s airing on PBS:

Forty-five years after two Southern University students were shot dead by police who had been sent in [to] quash weeks of demonstrations on the school’s Baton Rouge campus–which included occupation of the university president’s office–the 1972 incident is once more getting attention.

The documentary Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities will make its broadcast premiere Monday night (Feb. 19) on PBS–and online a day later?.  In addition to starting with a drum cadence by the Southern University drum corps, the 85-minute film features a 10-minute segment on the Southern [University] shootings, which are brought to life through interviews, photos and video–and which vividly, and poignantly, illustrate the on-campus tumult at HBCUs in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“They were exercising their constitutional rights. And they get killed for it. They die,” former student Michael Cato says in the film of the slain students. “Nobody sent their child to school to die. It shouldn’t have happened.”

The Southern shootings took place Nov. 16, 1972, after weeks of demonstrations by students protesting inadequate services. When the students marched on University President Leon Netterville’s office, Gov. Edwin Edwards sent 300 police officers in to break up the demonstrations.

It was during the subsequent confrontation that a still-unidentified officer fired a shotgun at students in violation of orders. When the smoke cleared, two 20-year-old students–Leonard Brown and Denver Smith–were dead.

No one was ever charged in their deaths. Edwards, who is interviewed in Tell Them We Are Rising, blamed the students, saying their actions were a “trigger” for the police response.

In 2017, the Southern University System board’s academic affairs committee voted to award Brown and Smith posthumous degrees.  (quoted from the article)

The documentary shows the actual shots being fired and the bodies of the two students being taken away.  It includes a touching interview with the sister of one of those students.  It tells a story that all of us should know.

4.  Final Thoughts

In an interview for PBS with the filmmakers, writer Craig Phillips asked why they had wanted to make a film about HBCUs.  Here are their answers:

Stanley Nelson: In fundamental ways, historically Black colleges and universities form the core of the African American community. They are the engine that has driven the ascent from enslavement to the highest positions in business, government, education, science, technology and entertainment. The sacrifices made to create these institutions are significant, and are what compelled me to capture this essential chapter of American History.

Marco Williams: HBCUs are the engines of American democracy. These institutions, in the education of African Americans activate what it means to be American. I was invested in telling this story because I am committed to highlighting the fact that African American history is American history.

People often ask about is there a need for HBCUs? I always answer: why don’t we ask is there a need for PWIs (predominantly white institutions)? This answer, coupled with the viewing of the film, provides the most salient understanding of the significance and the value of these essential institutions to the creation of America.  (quoted from the article)

Mr. Nelson goes on to say this:

My goal is to highlight the indisputable importance of these institutions within Black communities and invite Americans to consider how different our country might look without the existence of these institutions. I also hope this film prompts viewers to not only celebrate the legacy of HBCUs, but also reinvest in them.  (quoted from the article)

I think that the film will absolutely do that.  I think it is hard to watch it and not want to go to an HBCU.  Remember, parents, that HBCUs come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are well known, and others are not.  But their history as a group and as individual institutions is remarkable, as Tell Them We Are Rising teaches all of us.

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Episode 152: Choosing a College Because of a Major

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I come to our topic today with mixed feelings.  We have talked about it on numerous occasions and written about it in our books.  It’s a topic that lends itself to some data-based analysis, but I have to say that it also causes me to think about my own philosophy about academics and what is important and what isn’t.  So, this is a big topic, and it is college majors.

As I have been working with students during this round of college applications, I listen to them talk about choosing colleges to apply to because those colleges have good departments in this or that–whatever they think they want to major in, at this point in their young lives.  Often these kids want to become doctors–doesn’t everyone?–and I listen to them talk about the biology departments and the research opportunities that the colleges on their lists have.  And I wonder how many of them will still be pre-med by the time they are sophomores.  At the other extreme are the kids who believe they have a wide variety of academic interests and want to find colleges where they can pursue all of them.  One recent experience I had was with a student who talked with equal enthusiasm about chemistry, music, business, and one or two others I can’t even remember.  One of my most interesting students this year talked about majoring in Czech as a tribute to her grandfather’s heritage (by the way, she was already taking Czech courses outside of school at the local consulate); that is one of my favorite stories ever.

Rarely do I think their college major choices will stick (though I am secretly pulling for the Czech major).

Two articles I have read recently caused me to think about this topic from a couple of other perspectives, so let’s explore them.

1. Where Students Get Their Advice

Let me open with a premise from an article I read way back last September, an article which I have been saving for the perfect episode.  Writing in U.S. News & World Report, education reporter Lauren Camera opened with this:

When it comes to choosing college majors ? a crucial decision that lays the groundwork for future employment and earnings ? students often rely on the least reliable sources for advice: family and friends.

Work colleagues and employers are among the best sources of information for students seeking advice about choosing a major. But according to a new survey by Gallup and Strada Education Network, . . . they are the least utilized.

“This causes us to rethink the entire college advice mechanism,” Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, says. “There is a lot of pretty bad advice out there.”

When choosing a major field of study, the survey shows, students most commonly sought advice from “informal social networks.” In fact, more than half of adults, or 55 percent, with an associate degree, some college or a bachelor’s degree depended on their social network for advice about choosing a major, most frequently from friends and family.

The next most commonly consulted source of advice, which 44 percent of people reported considering, was college and high school counselors, as well as media-based information. The least consulted group, which 20 percent reported consulting, were work-based networks, including former employers and work colleagues. (quoted from the article)

None of this is surprising.  I think the data would be about the same if you asked people how they chose the colleges they applied to; most would say they relied on family and friends for advice–who, by the way, are equally unreliable as a source of appropriate colleges.

And, of course, how can high school seniors really consult with employers and work colleagues about the choice of a major when lots of them are not working at all and the rest are working part time, mostly in places they hope to get out of by going to college.  So, what does the report recommend?  Ms. Camera’s article says this:

The report recommends relying less on high school and college counselors, who are overworked and often responsible for an unrealistic number of students, and more on potential employers and faculty members.

“Taken together, the challenges facing the formal channels of student guidance suggest that retooling the traditional model of advising to fit the changing needs of students could bolster its effectiveness,” the report reads. (quoted from the article)

All of that is interesting, but I think it is more likely to work for students already in college than for high schoolers thinking about a future college major choice.  And, of course, the liberal arts enthusiast in me, which our regular listeners know from previous episodes, still wonders whether college does have to be all about getting a future career–though I have to admit that even I said to my student, “What would you ever do with that Czech major?”

Carol D’Amico, executive vice president of mission advancement and philanthropy at Strada Education Network, was quoted in the article as saying this:

 “We know your choice of major is not necessarily the choice of career, but it puts you on a pathway and commits you to a pathway. . . .  Most everyone who goes to higher education these days say they are going to launch a career. That’s a fact. So how do we become much more intentional about getting them to their desired career?” (quoted from the article)

I wish it weren’t so, but perhaps it.  I am certainly willing to put students on a pathway, but I am far less willing to commit students to a pathway.  I believe that most liberal arts majors give students a choice of many different pathways and that the student’s choice can change over time precisely because of that liberal arts background.  But that’s a different episode.

2. Changing College Majors

So, let’s move on to something that everyone always says to kids, but that I never saw any actual data about until recently?that is, how many kids change their majors once they are in college.  Last December, Doug Lederman wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed, which asked and answered the question posed in his headline:  “Who Changes Majors? (Not Who You Think).”  Here is the whole answer:

[A] brief report from the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, drawn from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, finds that 33 percent of bachelor’s degree pursuers who entered college in 2011-12 and 28 percent of students in associate degree programs had changed their major at least once by 2014.

About one in 10 had changed majors twice. (quoted from the article)

Well, there you have it:  About one-third of college students change their majors, and that’s enough so that your kid shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about doing the same thing in the next year or two.  I am all for that, speaking as someone who changed her major in the first month of college (that shows you how well prepared I was, and I am quite sure that I never got any advice from anyone when choosing either my original major or my final major, perhaps more’s the pity).

For all the kids who think they want to be science majors, here are a few more statistics from Mr. Lederman’s article:

Students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs were likelier than those in non-STEM fields (35 versus 29 percent) to change majors.

And students who started out studying math were likeliest of all: 52 percent of those who initially declared as math majors ended up majoring in something else, followed by 40 percent of those in the natural sciences, 37 percent in education, 36 percent in humanities disciplines and 32 percent in engineering and general studies. . . .  (quoted from the article)

Truly, I am not sure that there is much practical significant difference  between 35 percent in STEM fields and 29 percent in non-STEM fields changing majors–or among 40 percent in natural sciences, 37 percent in education, 36 percent in humanities disciplines, and even 32 percent in engineering and general studies.  However, apart from relative comparisons of one major to another, it does seem like changes in majors by 52 percent of mathematics majors and 40 percent of natural science majors might be worth noting.  Mr. Lederman’s article gives a number of plausible explanations for the abandonment of mathematics, which you are welcome to go read.

3. Choosing a College Because of a Major

So, what’s the point?  It is simply that I want your kid to be very careful this spring when choosing a college to attend.  Where did your kid get his or her idea about what to major in?  Was it a well-informed choice?  Does the major have a future, either in a specific career field or in something that can serve as the underpinning for many career fields? Given the statistics, basing the choice of a college on a potential major (assuming your kid is lucky enough to have some good options available once the acceptances come in) might not be the best thinking.  In other words, choosing to attend one college over another largely because of a great biology department, when you think you are going to be pre-med, might not be the best decision.

I know we all have struggled with the college application questions that ask for a kid’s major–and sometimes even for a back-up major!  I know we have struggled with the college application essays about why that major is particularly interesting to the kid.  I have certainly helped lots of kids write lots of those essays.  Here is what I always said to them:  This essay is an exercise in presenting yourself in an appealing and persuasive way to this college.  You should not think of it as an irrevocable promise that you are going to pursue this major that you are writing about.

And so, help your kid understand that he or she might want to change that major, perhaps more than once, and that making such a change is okay with you and even okay with the college.

What are the exceptions, and there are always some?  Obviously, there are kids who have applied to a specialized school, like a music school in a larger university, or kids who have auditioned for and applied to a specific arts-related school or program, like dance or studio art.  These are kids who have devoted a lot of their young lives to their talent and, if they are accepted, are very likely going to choose a college because of that particular program.  That is perfectly reasonable.  But, as it turns out, even those kids can change their minds; and, if they do, being in a specialized school within a larger university might be useful if it comes time to reconsider their choices.

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Episode 151: What About a College’s Grading Practices?

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Today we are going to talk about a topic that I bet you and your high school senior have not given any thought to.  And yet, it’s a topic that you and your high school senior have done nothing but think about for the past year or so, just from a different perspective.  That topic is grades.  Or more precisely, today’s topic is grading practices, which is not exactly the same as your kid’s grades.

Probably the most you have thought about your kid’s high school’s grading practices is whether the school uses a weighted system for figuring a grade point average (GPA)–that all-important GPA that might get your kid into a great college or keep him or her out of one.  There has been a lot of debate about that in the past few years, with no real resolution pro or con.  And, certainly, there has been talk among your kid’s friends (and perhaps your friends, too) about which teachers are easy graders and which teachers are hard graders and whether your kid should select high school electives accordingly.

Well, high school is essentially over, and your kid is going off to college.  How much thought have you both given to the grading practices at the colleges on his or her list?  Yes, those colleges your kid just applied to.  It’s not too late to start thinking now?before your kid makes a final choice in the spring.

1. Some Background

When Marie and I wrote our fantastic book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students (available at Amazon and a perfect gift for any younger kids you still have at home), we said that kids and their parents need a lot of information about colleges before deciding whether to put a specific college on the kid’s list of college options.  We also said that most of you never get most of the information you need–which is a shame, because it’s hard to make a life-changing decision without having all of the information that is available to you.  The book explains the 52 questions that your kid really should get answers to before deciding whether to apply to a college–much less actually enroll there.  Those questions cover a wide range of categories of information about the college:

  • History and Mission
  • Location
  • Enrollment
  • Class Size
  • Academics
  • Schedule
  • Housing
  • Security Measures
  • Activities and Sports
  • Admission Practices
  • Cost

In the section on Academics, we ask this, among other questions:

Does the college have a traditional numerical or letter grading system for assignments, exams, and final course grades?  If no, jot down the way that students are graded (e.g., with written narrative evaluations where professors comment on strengths and weaknesses).

Here is what we said in the book to explain this question:

We bet that grading practices are not something most students consider before choosing a college?perhaps because they assume that colleges are quite traditional when it comes to awarding final course grades.  Most colleges do, in fact, use some kind of numerical scale (typically, with a 4.0 as an A) or letter scale (typically, from A through F).  These traditional grading practices might seem just fine to you.

However, there are some colleges that are anything but traditional when it comes to evaluating student progress.  For example, take Hampshire College (an excellent and innovative private college in Amherst, Massachusetts), where students receive written narrative evaluations from professors on their assignments and as their final course grades.  No numbers and no letters!  Or, take Bennington College (a great private college in Bennington, Vermont), where students receive narrative evaluations at the end of each course, but may request letter grades; students interested in graduate school are encouraged to request letter grades for at least two years so that a GPA can be calculated for their graduate school applications.

Colleges that use narrative evaluations instead of traditional grades praise their value in teaching their students more about their own strengths and weaknesses, in getting their students to focus on their learning instead of on their grades, and in building better and more stimulating relationships between their students and their professors.  That’s probably something you never thought about before.

Well, Marie, if we had written the book today, we could have added some additional innovative grading practices that a relatively small number of colleges are using, ones that might seem quite attractive to 2017-2018 current crop of applicants.

The question here is not necessarily whether your kid would have applied or would not have applied to a college because of its innovative grading practices, but rather whether he or she (and you) should weigh those grading practices in the scale when you all are ready to make a final choice of a college this spring.  Grades will continue to be a big part of college life for your kid–just as they were in high school.  This is especially true, as Bennington College knows, if your kid intends to go on to graduate school, medical school, or law school.  And, by the way, that’s true whether graduate school comes right after the undergraduate years or, in fact, many years later.  Those undergraduate grades will matter.  So, let’s look at a couple of new grading practices, and you think about what they might mean for your kid.

2. No More F’s

Let’s start at the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI).  Given that UMPI is in northern Maine near the Canadian border and that it enrolls only about 1,200 students, my guess is that your kid has not applied there and that many of you have never heard of it, though it was founded over 100 years ago and is one of the seven campuses in the public University of Maine System.  UMPI was in a situation not unlike a number of other public universities:  a remarkably low 11 percent graduation rate in the traditional four years and only a 30 percent graduation rate in six years and a location in a county that was losing population just when its region needed more college graduates to fill jobs that required a college degree.

An article in The Hechinger Report, written in January by Robbie Feinberg, education reporter for Maine Public Radio, has a catchy headline:  “In rural Maine, a university eliminates most Fs in an effort to increase graduation rates.”  Mr. Feinberg writes:

One of the biggest changes has been the near-elimination of the failing grade. In most classes, if students fail a test or project, they can redo it until they’ve proven they know the material.

If students are still failing at the end of the semester, many won’t receive an F, but instead a grade of “not proficient” or NP. Under the system, students then sign a contract with their professor outlining the work they need to do over the next 45 days to boost that grade to a passing mark. University officials said the system doesn’t work for everyone; some students still end up with F’s. But they hope the added flexibility will help students pass classes the first time so they don’t have to spend extra time and money to retake them. . . .  [UMPI] President Raymond Rice said he’s most encouraged that about 60 percent of students who received a “not proficient” grade eventually converted it to a passing mark. (quoted from the article)

Not having to spend time and money to retake courses has to be a game-changer for a lot of students–certainly for that 60 percent.  And, clearly, keeping F’s out of figuring into a cumulative GPA for one’s undergraduate years has got to be a game-changer for any student who cares about his or her GPA (especially anyone interested in graduate school).  We actually did something similar at the high school that Marie and I co-founded in Brooklyn, where we gave a grade of NC (no credit) to kids who would otherwise have failed; so, they didn’t get credit for the course, but they didn’t have the deadly weight of an F pulling down their GPA forever, either.  I think it “saved a lot of lives,” and I imagine it could be having a similar effect at UMPI.

While the implementation of the new system is not going perfectly at UMPI (you can read Mr. Feinberg’s full article for the details), the policy about giving F’s only as a last resort is one that I find very persuasive.  And, if I had a child getting ready to go to college (not that I would expect that child to get an F–ever), this is a policy that would still make me happy, as a parent.

3. How To Earn an A

Appearing in The Hechinger Report in January (as well as in U.S. News & World Report) was a column by Jill Barshay about a new grading practice at the University of Michigan, that state’s truly excellent public flagship university.  Ms. Barshay writes:

At the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, about 8,000 students have earned their ordinary course grades in an unusual way. They start out the semester with a zero, but each has the opportunity to earn an A by racking up points. The professor determines how many points each assignment or test is worth, and there are various ways to get to an A. If students botch an assignment, they can try something else. Each student can track his or her point tally online and see options for earning more points.

Since developing this system, named “GradeCraft,” five years ago with two colleagues, education professor Barry Fishman gleefully admits he’s awarding many more A’s. He estimates that he’s doling out A’s to 80 percent of his students now, compared with 50 percent or 60 percent beforehand. But, he claims, his students are working a lot harder.

“Colleagues say I’m not rigorous enough,” said Fishman. “I think rigor should be about how challenging the material is, not how hard it is to achieve a certain outcome.”

In surveys conducted by GradeCraft’s inventors, students reported that they worked harder and felt more in control of their class performance.

. . . Fishman argues that conventional grading systems can undermine learning. That’s because if you fail the midterm, and it’s worth 30 percent of the final grade, you might realize that you’ll never be able to claw your way back up to an A, and stop trying. “You moderate your behavior and try less hard to maintain a B average. You see it all the time,” said Fishman.

The opportunity to earn an A, even late in the semester, keeps students engaged, Fishman argues. And it encourages students to take risks, knowing that they can repair the damage later if they fail at first.

In one undergraduate class, Fishman offers a menu of 1.4 million points. Students need to reach 900,000 to get an A. “You could never earn a good grade just by doing dumb stuff,” he said.

In another graduate seminar, Fishman assigns only one paper. But students can revise and resubmit it over and over again to earn an A. (quoted from the article)

For the gaming-like history of GradeCraft’s development and for some perspectives by professors who don’t like it, read Ms. Barshay’s full column.  Nonetheless, I have to say that this grading practice seems pretty appealing to me:  the harder you work, the better grade you are going to get.  Perseverance is rewarded.  Clearly, learning takes place.  Is this system appealing to your kid?  If your kid applied to the University of Michigan, he or she should know that about 100 professors in 28 programs and departments there have tried GradeCraft and have used it more than once.  Would that make the University of Michigan a more attractive option than another great public flagship university?  It might.

4. The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story today is that grading practices can be very different–way more different than you and your high school senior probably thought.  And it’s not too late to find out whether the colleges your kid applied to have done anything innovative on this topic–before you all make a final decision later this spring about where to enroll.  What have you got to lose?

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