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

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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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Episode 160: The Best Advice About Choosing a College

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Well, most of you have made a decision about what college your kid is going to by now.  You all have sifted through the acceptances (hopefully, there was more than one), weighing all manner of things while making the decision.  However, I know there are still a few of you out there who have not quite decided yet.  I know because I talked to a mother just a few days ago who was in the throes of helping her daughter make her decision.  Our meeting was quite accidental; she was the physician’s assistant in the surgeon’s office where my daughter and I were contemplating my daughter’s emergency knee surgery.  As soon as the physician’s assistant found out what I did, after I had volunteered some unsolicited advice, she engaged me in a longer discussion of her daughter’s options.  I was happy for the distraction.

1. Here We Go Again

Her daughter had an array of options:  several okay acceptances, but not from truly selective colleges; an acceptance from Fordham University; and wait list spots at Wake Forest University and Colgate University.  The mother, I’ll call her Leeann, had planned to keep one of the okay colleges on the list, as her daughter pursued the wait list possibilities.  Leeann said that she and her daughter had not visited Fordham (although they live right here) because her daughter had hoped to go away to college and try something different from New York City.  Guess what I said?

It’s the advice we always give (and this is the third episode this month that we have given it in, so maybe we think it is really important):  Send your kid to the best college he or she got admitted to.  Period.  Wherever that college is and whatever it costs (to the degree that it is humanly possible).  That’s the college to choose.

The okay college that Leeann was keeping on her daughter’s list is not nearly as good as Fordham.  Yes, it is a college that, for some reason I cannot quite explain, has become popular here in the East, though it is in the South.  It is out of town, which was her daughter’s preference, and Leeann was worried that her daughter would come home every weekend if she stayed in New York City for college.  My daughter, who, as you loyal listeners know, went to Fordham for the joint dance program with The Ailey School of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, assured Leeann that her daughter would not be coming home every weekend because there was plenty of fun and engaging stuff to do on campus.  My daughter assured Leeann that she had had plenty of friends in Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business (where Leeann’s daughter would be heading) and that they had not gone home on the weekends.

We continued to chat about the two wait list options–both very good options and both very unlike Fordham in location and size.  And both head and shoulders above that other only-okay option that Leeann had been keeping on the table.  When we left the surgeon’s office, Leeann had taken the only-okay college off the list and was headed home to talk to her daughter about taking a look at Fordham’s campus (which is quite lovely and self-contained, by the way, even if it is in the middle of the Bronx).  I can’t wait to hear the results.

It continues to puzzle me that so many parents do not seem to put the academic caliber of the college as the number one criterion for choosing among several colleges in the final analysis.  Perhaps it is because parents do not know how to judge the academic caliber of a college or how to compare colleges on that all-important criterion.   So, parents, do whatever it takes to figure out which of the colleges your kid got into is the “best” college.  And, by “best,” I mean best academically, according to its national reputation or, as a second choice, its regional reputation.

2. Some Support for Our Position

While I don’t feel any real need for support for our position (other than the decades of life experience in the world of higher education we already have), I am always glad to get some.  The support I want to share with you now is from a study by Noli Brazil and Matthew Andersson, published in March in the Youth & Society journal.  The study was then reported on by Sarah Sparks in the Education Week blog Inside School Research.  This is absolutely not what I expected and, therefore, it is particularly interesting.  Here are Ms. Sparks’s opening paragraphs in her article:

Even a high school valedictorian can feel anxious becoming just one out of hundreds of top performers at an academically competitive university. But a new study suggests that students who have lower-achieving classmates in college than they had in high school show more symptoms of depression.

The study, published in the journal Youth and Society, finds [that,] . . . contrary to common wisdom, students with lower-achieving classmates in college had a rough freshman year.

“When you think of it, a college transition is made of three parts: where you’re coming from, where you end up, and the difference between those things,” said study co-author Matthew Andersson, an assistant sociology professor at Baylor University, in a statement. He suggested increased depression may come because “the downward transition might trigger a sense of being a misfit. That might trigger having fewer friends or less of a sense of attachment to the college or university that one is attending.”

Researchers from Baylor University and the University of California, Davis, tracked data from more than 1,400 high school students who later attended four-year colleges in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which provides information about students’ mental health as well as their school-level achievement data. They controlled for students’ demographic, academic, and mental health backgrounds, but also school factors, such as whether students attended public or private schools, the concentration of students in poverty, and parent education levels in the schools. (quoted from the article)

So, here are the statistics, in the words of the researchers themselves:

We find that depressive symptoms increase by 27% for students experiencing lowered peer ability across their college transition, relative to no substantial change in peer ability. Meanwhile, heightened peer ability in college links to neither diminished nor enhanced student well-being across the transition. (quoted from the researchers’ Abstract)

In other words, sending a bright kid who is accustomed to bright classmates in high school to a college that is filled with kids who are not as bright increases the odds that the bright kid will end up showing some signs of depression, for whatever reason.  Now, will it make that bright kid seriously and chronically depressed?  Not necessarily, but it can increase the chances that the bright kid will show some symptoms of depression.  Is that a chance you want to take, parents?

This question is directed to the parents we talk to who are considering sending their son or daughter to an easier college in order to get good undergraduate grades in preparation for medical school or law school or some other graduate degree.  According to these researchers, that strategy–which we don’t agree with in the first place–could be especially harmful if that son or daughter is coming from an excellent high school with lots of smart kids or if that son or daughter is literally part of a group of smart kids in whatever high school he or she attends.  And it always seems that the parents who suggest this strategy are the ones who have been pushing their kids the hardest in high school to excel–which puts their kids in the worst spot for experiencing the kind of depression that the researchers are talking about.

And here’s one more wrinkle, as Ms. Sparks reports:

“[U]ndermatching,” in which high-achieving high school graduates choose a college less rigorous than their academic qualifications would predict, is often a particular problem for students from low-income or traditionally underrepresented groups or first-generation college-goers. Prior studies have found that students who are undermatched in college are significantly less likely to complete a degree. (quoted from the article)

So, here’s one more reason that low-income, traditionally underrepresented, first-generation-to-college kids are having a tough time making the leap into the collegiate education that they deserve.  It’s bad enough that they might exhibit signs of depression more often than they otherwise would have; but, you have to wonder whether that alone could make it less likely for them to complete a degree.

This study, like all studies, had some limitations.  For example, all of the students included in the study attended four-year colleges, so these findings do not necessarily apply to students attending two-year colleges.  That could be an interesting future inquiry since I believe that lots of good students attending two-year colleges are undermatched in an effort by families to save money during those first two years of college.  This new study should make you think about that.

Ms. Sparks ends on a note to high schools, commenting that “. . . the study suggests schools could help their students think more optimistically about how well they would fit at academically competitive schools” (quoted from the article).  That advice could be to counselors and teachers as students make up the list of colleges they plan to apply to or that advice could be to counselors and teachers who might be in a position to influence a student’s choice of a college after the acceptances come in.  Certainly, in the second case, we would hope that counselors and teachers do exactly what we do here at USACollegeChat–which is to encourage kids to see themselves at the best college they got into, to surround themselves with students who are as smart as possible, and to adopt the study habits and work ethic of successful college students.

By the way, parents, this does not mean that only the best 40 or 50 colleges in the U.S. are suitable for providing high-achieving peers for your son or daughter.  There are plenty of great public flagship universities, small liberal arts colleges, and private universities in addition to the highest-ranked institutions.  There are plenty of great colleges where the other students will have a positive effect on your son and daughter.  That is what academically rigorous colleges are like.  That is what the “best” colleges are like.

So, I promise that this is our last episode on this topic for this year–as long as you agree to send your kid to the best college he or she got into.  That’s why you all have worked so hard for so long.  If you are trying to make a decision right now and need some advice, give me a call.  As we always say, it’s free, so you don’t have to take it.  Let’s chat.

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Episode 159: Going to College in California?

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This is the third episode in our series, Decision Time Again, because, of course, it is actually decision time for lots of parents and kids out there.

Although USACollegeChat is headquartered on the East Coast, we have some loyal listeners in California, and California colleges, including its public universities, are increasingly popular among students back here in the East.  So, with that in mind, we have today’s episode.  It is designed to make some of you feel better if your senior applied to a California college or two and did not get in.  It is also designed to help those of you just starting on the application process with your juniors in case you want to consider California public universities–or not.

1. The California System

Although we have described California’s elaborate system of public higher education in many previous episodes and in our books, let me do it quickly one more time now.  California’s public higher education system has three tiers:  the University of California (abbreviated as UC), the California State University (abbreviated as CSU), and the California Community Colleges.

The most prestigious tier is the UC system, which has nine campuses (plus UC San Francisco, which offers only graduate and professional programs):  UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz.  We have spoken many times about UC Berkeley, clearly one of our nation’s finest colleges, public or private, with its long history of excellence.  We have also spoken many times about UCLA, which has risen in prestige in the past 50 years, is increasingly popular nationwide, and, some say, is now as difficult to get into as UC Berkeley.  The other seven campuses are less famous outside of California, but that does not mean that they aren’t excellent schools in their own right.

The middle tier is the CSU system, which has 23 campuses, spread from Humboldt in the north to San Diego in the south.  Many of these colleges are not well known to those of us who are not from California, but that does not mean that they aren’t good schools.

The third tier is the California Community Colleges system, which comprises 114 colleges, with over 2 million students.  Understandably, these two-year institutions are attended mostly by California residents who live near the campus they are attending.

Now, a note to California:  It is especially confusing to those of us who do not live in your state to wrap our heads around the fact that, for example, there is a UC San Diego; a CSU at San Diego, known as San Diego State University; and a University of San Diego, which is a private Catholic university.  So, those of you non-Californians interested in a California university, pay attention to what you are looking at.

2. College Acceptances in California

That was a long introduction to the point of this episode, which is the runaway application numbers and crazy difficulty of getting into schools in the UC system, the top-tier system and the one that most out-of-staters are most interested in.  I came across an article recently in Inside Higher Ed, written by Scott Jaschik, with this sad headline:  “Wait-Listed, Rejected and Frustrated in California.”  Here is the opening to Mr. Jaschik’s article, which, though anecdotal, is quite revealing, even for those of us who are not Californians:

[A] counselor said that he is seeing students either wait-listed or rejected from UC Davis or UC Santa Barbara–students with “straight A’s and maybe one or two B’s” and SAT scores above 1400 or near-perfect ACT scores. He has seen even stronger students–among the top of his school’s graduating class–getting rejected from UC San Diego.

“Our San Diego decisions look like Berkeley and UCLA decisions from years past,” he said. “Students we told that ‘this was a likely school’ aren’t getting in.”

Parents–many of whom rely on out-of-date senses of colleges’ competitiveness–are particularly shocked. “We are constantly working with parents who assume a B-plus student can go to Davis or Santa Barbara, and they can’t,” said the counselor.

UCLA and Berkeley have for years been long shots for all applicants. They reject many students with perfect SAT scores and grade point averages. So while many applicants are crushed by rejections at those two campuses, their counselors aren’t surprised. The difference this year, counselors say, is that other UC campuses and some California State campuses have gone up significantly in competitiveness. . . .

A school counselor in Northern California said it is the “middle group” within the University of California where he is seeing change. He has a senior with straight A’s who was wait-listed at Santa Barbara. At Davis and San Diego, “students we assumed would be strong candidates are being wait-listed.”

He said that, next year, he will be discouraging students from using any UC as a safety.  (quoted from the article)

Well, there is a lot to unpack there.  First, there is the notion that kids in California are increasingly unable to use their own public higher education system as their fallback position, or safety schools.  We have often said, here at USACollegeChat, that the state public university campuses are great safety school choices for bright kids with good grades and good admission test scores.  And while we were always sure that no one could use UC Berkeley or UCLA as a safety, we would have thought that some of the UC campuses in that “middle group” would have been fine to use.  I guess we are going to need to rethink this strategy–at least for kids in California, which gives those kids just one more source of anxiety in the college search process.

Second, there is the very real concern of high school counselors, who have somehow led a lot of kids astray while following norms they had trusted.  They will all have to recalibrate before next season’s application process so that there will be fewer unpleasant surprises.

Third, there is the very real misconception of parents, “many of whom rely on out-of-date senses of colleges’ competitiveness.”  I just want to say to parents that I totally get this, because it happens to me all the time.  And, as we are fond of saying here at USACollegeChat, we do this for a living.  I am constantly amazed at admissions stories from colleges that I know were really nothing to write home about 40 years ago, colleges that were politely referred to as “party schools,” colleges that now no one can seem to get into.  I don’t want to name a bunch of those colleges here, but I can tell you that there are quite a few on my list.  This all just speaks to the growing competitiveness of college admissions.  Sometimes my college friends from Cornell and I sit around and wonder whether any of us could have gotten in to Cornell today.  So, parents and grandparents, this is not your college world any longer; it is a new college world, with higher expectations across the board.

And fourth, I would like to say to all my young friends here in New York, who have just told me recently that they wanted to go to UC Berkeley, think again–because your chances are not good, no matter how smart you are.  Berkeley just turned down hundreds–really thousands–like you.  Does that mean you shouldn’t apply?  No, because you might get lucky.  But it does mean you shouldn’t expect to get in, you should have plenty of other college choices that you like a lot, and you should be happily surprised if it all works out in your favor.

And how might California’s situation affect those of you who have kids recently wait listed at top colleges elsewhere?  Here is what Mr. Jaschik explains:

. . . [Y]ields could be hard to predict for out-of-state colleges that recruit top students in California. Many Californians have in the past turned down top out-of-state institutions for UC campuses that charge a fraction of the cost of private institutions. Such students may not have the option going ahead.  (quoted from the article)

In other words, California kids who might have turned down Cornell for Berkeley might need to pick up that acceptance to Cornell now, with Berkeley out of the running.  That means it is less likely that other kids on the wait list at top colleges will actually get in.  It might also mean that some of those colleges will find themselves overenrolled because most of the California kids they accepted might actually end up coming.

3. College Applications in California

But, let’s back up the clock a minute to look at applications to these California universities, not just acceptances.  This is a story we have mentioned before, but never with quite this much data to support it.  Here are the facts, according to Mr. Jaschik’s article:

. . . [The] numbers are available for total applications for the coming fall. And while UC campuses are edging up in total size, the application increases are much larger. Total (unduplicated) applications for undergraduate admission to the University of California were up 5.7 percent, but the largest increases were not at Berkeley, which was up only 4.6 percent. UC Riverside saw the largest percentage increase–12.2 percent.

Five UC campuses–Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara–received more than 100,000 applications each. San Diego’s total is up 9.7 percent. Davis is not far behind at 95,000 applications, up 8.6 percent. (By way of comparison, Harvard University received just under 40,000 applications last year.)

Application totals like those guarantee shrinking admit rates of the sort many applicants are experiencing this year.  (quoted from the article)

Wow.  That’s a lot of applications, and I doubt they are going to start dropping off any time soon.  What does it all mean?  Well, for families in California, it means that you need to get out of your geographic comfort zone (and perhaps your financial comfort zone as well).  This is the advice we give most often to everyone looking at colleges, and it might be one reason that counselors in California are finding that kids are getting into prestigious schools in the East–more prestigious than some of the public universities they did not get into in California–precisely because they broadened their geographic scope and found some colleges that were anxious to diversify their own freshman classes with exotic creatures from California.  Can it get any worse?  Stay tuned for what will happen next year at this time.

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Episode 158: Does the College Matter?

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

1. Isn’t This Counterintuitive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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