Podcast

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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Episode 150: College Acceptance for the Spring Semester?

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Today’s topic is something I have never thought much about at all.  And that’s true even though my oldest child was in this situation, and no one seemed to think much about it when he was accepted to Berklee College of Music a dozen years ago.  When Jimmy applied to Berklee (the college we like to say that offers the best contemporary music education in the world), he was admitted for the following spring semester rather than for the fall.  I looked at that as a great opportunity for him to study abroad for a semester.  I found a great fall semester program sponsored by the American Institute for Foreign Study (everybody should check out AIFS’s huge variety of excellent programs).  I knew he would still graduate on time since he had college credits from courses he had taken while in high school, and I figured that he would have even more from studying abroad.  It sounded great to me!

Of course, I now realize that is not how many students–who just applied to college under Early Action or Early Decision plans and were admitted for next spring instead of next fall–likely feel.  Some of them–perhaps many of them–and their parents are clearly disappointed with their recent news.

So, let’s take a look at spring admissions and how families should feel about that decision, regardless of how you feel about it now.

1. Tulane University’s Spring Scholars

A couple of weeks ago, we quoted from a blog written by Jeff Schiffman, the Director of Admission at Tulane University, a great school in the even greater city of New Orleans.  At the time, he was giving some advice to students who had applied early and been deferred till the regular decision round.  When I was reading Mr. Schiffman’s blog, I noticed another post from December 18, and I’d like to read some excerpts from it now.  This is about spring admissions at Tulane to a program Tulane calls Spring Scholars (feel free to go to his blog and read the whole piece):

The most common question I get from Spring Scholars is, “Why was I admitted for the spring?” The answer has to do with how we review applications and the increase in popularity Tulane has seen over the past few years. Our admission office is very big on the holistic review process. That means we spend a great deal of time creating a class of students based on everything you present to us in your application. Spring Scholars have excellent applications in nearly all regards. There are amazing alumni interviews, great “Why Tulane?” statements, and outstanding letters of recommendation in every application. When reading your application, we knew immediately that you want to come to Tulane and that you would be a great fit here. That said, Tulane has become an increasingly popular university and that has made it more and more competitive to gain admission here.

I suspect that our overall admit rate this year will be lower than last year’s which was around 21%. Unfortunately, that means that over 80% of the students who apply to Tulane this year will not be admitted for either the fall or spring. By the numbers, we also saw our strongest Early Action pool in history, with a middle 50% range on the ACT between 31-34 and SAT between 1440-1540. These are by no means cutoffs, but it does give you a sense of just how competitive Tulane is this year. We can’t take every academically qualified student who applies, but for a small group who we believe will be fantastic fits, we admit them as a part of our Spring Scholars program.

With those facts in mind, I have some suggestions for next steps to take if you have been admitted as a Spring Scholar. First, take some time to think about it. I know your preference would be to start class in the fall, but the Spring Scholars option is a final decision?it’s non-binding and you have until May 1st to decide. There will be no Spring Scholars switched to the fall semester at any point. Before you reach out with questions, take some time to read the FAQx for the program; there’s some great info in there about housing (we guarantee it!) and Greek life (you can still go through the recruitment process!) (quoted from the blog)

Okay, so let’s look at the numbers.  These are some pretty impressive numbers for Tulane (and they help explain why some students I know did not get in under Early Action, even though they were great students with all the necessary qualifications).  And, these numbers underline again what we said two weeks ago:  Expect a bumpy road for the next couple of months if you are waiting for admission decisions from very good and great colleges.  The numbers are not very student friendly.

And then, Mr. Schiffman makes some good points to the Spring Scholars:  You have absolutely been admitted, you will absolutely have campus housing even though you will be arriving in the middle of the year, and you will absolutely be able to go through fraternity and sorority rush (which you actually cannot at some colleges with this spring admissions plan, and it is very important to some students and is more important at some colleges than others).

What Mr. Schiffman does next in his blog is downright fascinating:  He prints a full-color photo of The American University of Paris, with a caption that reads, “Your other fall campus option!”  What?  Here’s my view:  One of the only cities in the world that is lovelier than New Orleans is Paris!  How clever is that!  Here is what Mr. Schiffman wrote:

Next, consider your options for the fall. We’re so excited about the fall abroad programming we offer Spring Scholars in both Rome and Paris. You’ll have the option to spend your fall term with a cohort of Tulane students at one of two incredible universities abroad: The John Cabot University in Rome or The American University of Paris (AUP). Schools like Northeastern, Cornell, Miami, Delaware, and the University of Southern California also have freshmen at these campuses during the fall. . . .  If you’d prefer to stay stateside, you can take classes as a non-degree-seeking student at a school of your choice, participate in a gap semester program, take a semester to work, or maybe participate in service. It’s really up to you! (quoted from the blog)

Here is what Mr. Schiffman wrote next:

Next, plan a visit to campus during one of our two dedicated Spring Scholar Destination Tulane dates. The dates you should plan on coming are either February 17th or April 21st. This event is tailor-made for Spring Scholars. You’ll be able to meet other students admitted into the Spring Scholars program this year, hear from current Spring Scholars, and attend presentations from both John Cabot and AUP. . . .

If Tulane truly is where you see yourself, we’d love to have you join us in January 2019. Currently, we have 75 Spring Scholars excited to start at Tulane in just a few weeks!

Oh, and expect a visit from me in Paris or Rome in the fall. I’m not joking! (quoted from the blog)

It sounds to me like Mr. Schiffman has made the best possible overture to the new Spring Scholars and has offered them a super-attractive plan for what to do next fall, which might sound even better to some students than starting at Tulane in the fall.  Smart move!

2. Where Else?

Well, of course, it’s not just Tulane.  As it happens, my own alma mater, Cornell University, posted this on its website about its First-Year Spring Admission program for its College of Arts and Sciences and its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences:

Over the past decade, Cornell University has experienced a more than 100% increase in first-year admissions applications. For this year’s class, Cornell reviewed close to 47,000 applications for a class of 3,275 new first-year students. In order to allow more students to benefit from a Cornell education, the university has developed an exciting option. In January 2018, Cornell University will welcome approximately 60 freshmen to begin their Cornell experience starting in the spring semester. . . .

Students selected for spring semester enrollment are exceptional candidates whom we are unable to admit for fall because of on-campus space constraints. Students with a record of academic achievement and who exhibit the important qualities of leadership and initiative have been selected for this special program. . . .

Students offered the opportunity to enroll in January will be asked to submit an enrollment deposit to confirm their place. During the summer, we will contact you to confirm your plans for the fall semester (e.g. taking classes, traveling abroad, participating in public service, working, etc.). Cornell will then contact you in September to confirm that you are indeed planning to enroll in January. Once confirmed, we will work with you to pre-register for courses for the spring semester and have you start other processes (such as applying for housing and dining options). You will participate in an orientation program when you arrive in January (a few days before classes begin) to ensure that you are ready for success. (quoted from the website)

Okay, Big Red, I have to say that doesn’t sound quite as exciting as Tulane’s Spring Scholars, and it certainly doesn’t have Mr. Schiffman’s hype (which I don’t say pejoratively).  Plus–and this is also true of the Tulane program–just how big a deal is this program when it is admitting 60 kids when the freshman class was over 3,000.  I have to say that I have not quite figured that out yet.  It should, on the other hand, make the spring students feel genuinely good about themselves and their qualifications because they are really part of a relatively tiny select group.  Would I advise a student to wait to attend Cornell until the spring if that’s the best admissions deal the student could get?  Frankly, I would . . . in a heartbeat.

And then there’s Middlebury College, an excellent liberal arts college in Vermont, perhaps best known for its outstanding language programs.  For about 30 years, Middlebury has been enrolling about 100 students for its spring semester, which begins in February.  Clearly, 100 students is a bigger proportion of the total of about 700 freshmen admitted at Middlebury at about 15 percent (compared to not quite 2 percent at Cornell and perhaps about double that percentage at Tulane).  Here is some background on Middlebury’s idea:

February admission is a program developed by former Dean of Admissions Fred Neuberger in a creative effort to fill dorm space that was empty during spring semester because so many Middlebury students study abroad. Rather than admit a large class of transfer students, the College decided to admit another class of first-year students, or “Febs.” (quoted from the website)

Okay, so that’s interesting.  February admission solved a problem for the college rather than a problem for the students.  Of course, that really isn’t suprising, but it doesn’t make it a bad idea.  The website continues:

February students are chosen from the same applicant pool as September students and all students are notified of their admission at the same time in late March or early April. Students may indicate on the application their preference for a starting date (September only, February only, or either), but this is ultimately an Admissions Office decision. Some students who indicate an interest in September may be offered a place in our February class. Many applicants now tell us they’d prefer to be “Febs,” and some even outline their plans for the fall in their applications. (quoted from the website)

Well, that’s not surprising, either, given the increasing interest by high school students in taking a gap year (feel free to go back and listen to our Episode 115 from last spring).  I guess if a program is well established at a college, the way Middlebury’s appears to be, that gives students one more reasonable option to consider during the whole application process.  The website continues:

Being admitted as a Feb is a full admission to the College community. We choose our Febs because we see in them students who will use wisely the time between high school graduation and their studies at Middlebury. “Febs” tend to be highly energetic leaders in their school communities, or students who have already sought unconventional and creative opportunities in their high school careers. Febs typically come to Middlebury ready to “hit the ground running.”

Before arriving on campus, Febs have several months that are entirely their own. The College does not seek to direct or recommend certain pursuits. . . . Some Febs work to save money and then travel. Other Febs pursue service opportunities or internships.

As February first-years, students enter in February and leave four years later in February–in their caps and gowns, but also on skis, snowshoes, or sleds at Middlebury’s own ski area, the Snow Bowl! The February celebration has become a hallmark of a Middlebury winter. February seniors and their families enjoy a full weekend of festivities on campus and at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl. February admission does not imply that students will graduate in three and a half years. Any student (September or Feb) may choose to use AP credits, or other transferable credit, to accelerate his course of study, but that’s not the intention of the Feb admission program.  (quoted from the website)

Middlebury has clearly made “Febs” an integral part of the College.

3. The Trends

So, what are the trends in spring admissions programs?  Here are a few.  Colleges are not trying to push spring starters out in three and a half years; spring starters are expected to be there for four full years, but are certainly welcome to get out in three and a half by taking some courses elsewhere or using college credits earned during high school.  Spring starters are going to live on campus, often with students of their own age.  Spring starters will participate fully in all of the extracurricular activities that colleges offer (including fraternity and sorority life, but perhaps on a slightly delayed schedule for that).  Spring starters who play on varsity sports teams will have four full seasons of athletic eligibility available to them.  And spring starters will probably get some kind of special orientation designed for them so that they can immediately feel at home in the college community.

So, what’s the downside of spring admissions?  Maybe not much at all?especially if it gets a student into a great school that he or she has at the top of the list.

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Episode 149: Colleges with Late Application Deadlines!

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Last year about this time, we did an episode on colleges with late application deadlines.  We would like to do that again today, realizing that some colleges have changed their deadlines, of course, since our episode last January.  It is amazing to me–still–that so many colleges have deadlines well past early January, even as we seem to focus our high school seniors every year on meeting a January 1 deadline for their college applications.  Apart from those colleges that have mid-January or late January deadlines, there are many colleges still accepting applications for next fall’s freshman class.  So, let’s take a look.

1. Watch Out!

As I recently watched kids getting rejections or deferments from Early Decision and Early Action applications gone awry, I wondered whether they might want to take a second look at their college list and see how happy they were with it now, given their new information.  For kids who had pinned their hopes to an Early Decision choice or to a couple of Early Action choices, even if those Early Action choices were just safety schools, a chance to take one last look at the college landscape might be just what they need.  It doesn’t mean that they will choose to apply to another college or two or three, but it might be that this last look serves as a pressure-release valve while they begin the long wait till March or April.

Let us say that there are still a lot of good colleges accepting applications.  Many of those deadlines are this month in February, but some are in March, April, May, and even beyond that.  I used The College Board’s website, Big Future, to look at a full list.  However, I found mistakes or, at least, miscommunications.  So, please double check the deadlines of any colleges that appear on any such list–The College Board’s list or any other compiled list–by going to the college’s own website, as The College Board itself advises.

Here are a few things worth noting, though I’m afraid that these points are going to be much more useful for parents with younger high school students still at home.  Let me start with the opposite of today’s topic of colleges with late application deadlines, and that is colleges with super-early application deadlines.  As I was doing the research for today’s episode, I stumbled across a number of good colleges with regular decision application deadlines well before January 1, such as December 1 for the Colorado School of Mines (see our virtual nationwide tour some episodes back for information about this excellent school known for its engineering and sciences).  So, pay attention, parents of younger high school students, before the fall of your kid’s senior year.

And, speaking of super-early application deadlines, sometimes the date given for the application deadline is actually a whole year before the year you want to enroll.  The Big Future website, under “Colleges with Later Application Deadlines,” lists the application deadline for Iowa State University, an excellent public university, as July 1.  But here is what Iowa State actually says this on its website (emphasis added):

Iowa State University operates on a rolling admissions basis. Admission of applicants for fall semester begins in July of the preceding year. Admission for other terms begins approximately 12 months prior to the beginning of the term. Admission offers are issued for a specific term and are valid only for the term specified. (quoted from the website)

Here is something else to pay attention to when looking at compiled lists of colleges with later application dates:  Sometimes the date given for the application deadline is actually for transfer students.  Or for graduate students.  For example, The Big Future website, under “Colleges with Later Application Deadlines,” lists the application deadline for Alfred University (a good private university in upstate New York, with publicly sponsored engineering and art and design programs) as August 1.  Actually, Alfred’s regular decision deadline is February 1 for new freshmen, July 1 for transfer students, and August 1 for graduate students.

And here is something even more distressing.  What comes up first on a Google search for Rollins College application deadlines is this:

Deadlines. Fall Semester Admission The application deadline for fall semester applicants is March 1 for Priority Consideration and April 15 for Regular Decision.

Application Instructions | Full-Time Undergraduate … – Rollins College

www.rollins.edu/admission/requirements-deadlines/index.html

But, that information is taken from the transfer student portion of the admissions information?not that a reader can tell that.  The deadline for first-year applicants was February 1, so you would have missed it!  And sometimes that information that comes up first is from U.S. News &World Report, and it is sometimes wrong as well.

Here is another thing to remember:  Sometimes different programs or schools within a university can have different application deadlines.  Or one school or program can have two application deadlines, such as a performing arts school within a university that has one deadline for the regular application and a second deadline for the audition.

And one last note of caution:  Sometimes the deadline for scholarship consideration is earlier than the actual application deadline. For example, at Kent State University, January 15 is the deadline to be considered for freshman scholarships, though March 1 is the deadline to submit applications for the following fall.  So, if financing is an issue for you–as it very often is–then apply as early as you can (this is especially important information for those of you with younger high school students at home).

Just to underline that, here is some important information from the website for the University of Arkansas (emphasis added):

Students interested in applying to the University of Arkansas for the fall semester are urged to apply before the early admission deadline of November 1.  By applying early, students can take advantage of priority scholarship, housing, and orientation privileges. However, applications for the fall semester will be accepted until August 1. (quoted from the website)

So, the moral of the story is, pay attention and trust no list or outside organization.  Go to the college’s own website only, and read the information on that website carefully.  Let me add, that–oddly enough and for whatever reason–it is not always a snap to find the application deadline information on a college website, though I can’t imagine why. Finally, we are going to say again, apply as early as you can–regardless of where you are applying–especially because of the number of colleges that say they have rolling admissions.

2. Colleges with Late Deadlines

We want to say again this year that there is no perfect way to generalize about the colleges with later deadlines, though I have noticed–again–that quite a few of them are the branch campuses of large public universities (e.g., University of Massachusetts Lowell, University of North Carolina at Asheville, University of Texas at El Paso, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, University of Tennessee: Chattanooga, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Massachusetts Boston).

Other than those, you can find great public flagship universities, small liberal arts colleges, larger liberal arts universities, faith-based colleges, HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), single-sex colleges, specialized colleges (e.g., fine arts, maritime) –really, just about anything.  They are large and small.  They are urban, suburban, small town, and rural.  They include some selective colleges and, perhaps not surprisingly, many not-so-selective colleges.  They include colleges in the North, South, East, and West (including in our 49th and 50th states).  The truth is that your kid could find a reasonable college choice from this list of late-deadline colleges if you all started the college search today.

As we did last year, let me read you a tiny sample of colleges with late application deadlines to peak your interest.  Here are just some of the colleges your kid could apply to by February 15 (and really that should be plenty of time to pull off some of these applications, if you all are interested):

And what about March 1?  You really have no excuse not to apply to one of these, if you are interested:

And I really can’t resist telling you a few of the colleges with an April 1 deadline (which seems truly far away):

And even May 1 deadlines (yes, really):

Okay, you get the point.  And some colleges have even later application deadlines than that.  In fact, one of our favorite colleges here at USACollegeChat has a July 1 deadline:  Richmond, The American International University in London.  If your kid is not captivated with what’s ended up on his or her list or where he or she finally gets in, think again and consider how much happier he or she might be in London at a truly one-of-a-kind university!

So, parents of high school seniors, if either you or your high school senior is truly questioning the choices you all have now, it’s not too late.  Again, the options that we have just read are a small sample of colleges still accepting applications (though I think I have probably read you a lot of the academically better options). If you and your high school senior are intrigued, take an hour or two now and have a last look at your kid’s list.  It might not make any difference in the final analysis, but you will both know that you left no stone unturned.

As always, call us, if you could use some free advice!

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