Episode 139: Narrowing Your Teenager’s List of College Options

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Last year, we spent the month of September suggesting some steps to take in order to narrow down your teenager’s long list of college options (or LLCO, as we call it in our new book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students). We talked about a number of filters you might use to narrow down that list, which we hope was really quite long at the beginning. Why do we hope that? Because a long list shows that you and your teenager thought about a wide variety of colleges that might be appealing, perhaps for various reasons. As we have said too many times, there are thousands of colleges out there (most of which you never heard of and don’t know nearly enough about), so don’t be too quick to come up with what we will call “the short list.”

You can go back and listen to Episodes 92 through 96 for a recap of reasonable filters you might apply now to narrow down your teenager’s LLCO. Or you and your teenager can force yourselves to think a bit harder and look at the 52-item questionnaire in our new book. That questionnaire is carefully designed to help you and your teenager judge all of the relevant pieces of information about a college before your teenager, with your help, decides whether to apply. To review, the 52 questions cover these important aspects of a college:

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

Our opinion is that you really shouldn’t have put colleges on the LLCO anymore than you should take them off now without knowing these basic facts and figures about them. Fortunately, it’s not too late to find out, but it will be soon! Even for those of you who are facing Early Decision and Early Action deadlines of November 1 or November 15 (or thereabouts), you still have enough time to find out what you need to know and to decide wisely. As we have said in many USACollegeChat episodes, deciding where to apply is the first domino in this long process and, for obvious reasons, it is at least as important as deciding where to enroll. These application decisions will limit your teenager’s future universe, so be careful.

And, let us remind you of something we hope you already know: Don’t forget to fill out and file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as soon as possible. There is absolutely no reason not to!

1. The Short List

So, let us be the first to say that we are okay if your teenager’s short list of colleges is still relatively long. Interestingly, the Common Application online system will allow a student to keep up to 20 colleges on the student’s list. Of course, you have a bit of leeway because some colleges do not take the Common Application, so those colleges wouldn’t need to be counted as part of the 20. We know that many “experts” will complain about a long list, including high school guidance counselors or college counselors, who understandably see long lists from seniors as a lot of extra work. But we don’t want your teenager to lose out on a good option next spring because of some extra work for the professionals–or for you and your teenager–this fall.

When push comes to shove, doing 20 applications will be a lot of work, mostly because of the supplementary essays that many colleges, especially selective colleges, require. But it’s doable. I just spent some time with a smart senior going through her LLCO, which had about 25 colleges on it when we started. I think we are down to a more reasonable 15, and I don’t see a reason to try to make her list any shorter. So, what’s the right number for the short list? There’s no right answer, but 15 is probably a sensible average, plus or minus 5. I believe that number is slightly up from the 8 to 12 we recommended in our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. Well, live and learn!

It probably makes sense to look at your teenager’s short list now as a group of college options, rather than just as individual colleges. In other words, we believe that your teenager should have a number of bases covered. We looked at several bases to cover last year, but we would like to narrow that down to just three, in order of least important to most important.

First, we would like to see some variety in the size of the colleges on the short list–that is, size in terms of undergraduate student enrollment. As we said last year, we did not believe then and do not believe now that high school seniors are well equipped to know whether they would prefer a small or large college–or even whether size makes any difference at all to them. We can show you lots of seniors’ short lists that have huge public universities and small private colleges on them, and we are not sure that some of them even realize it. We would like kids to have some size options to consider next spring–after acceptances come in–when they can think more calmly about whether size really makes a difference to them.

Second, it is no surprise to our regular USACollegeChat listeners that I think there should be variety of college locations on the list. Obviously, that means some out-of-state options and some in-state options. But it also means some options in your region of the U.S. and some options outside your region. And, it even means at least one option outside the U.S.

We have talked about studying full time outside the U.S. many times here at USACollegeChat, so go back and listen to a few of our episodes on that very intriguing topic (see, for example, Episode 123 about colleges in Canada or Episode 122 about Richmond, the American International University in London). Because colleges outside the U.S. offer an exciting alternative to studying in our own country, you might not be surprised to learn that these colleges are often popular choices among students at private schools and students from wealthy homes. You should know, however, that studying outside the U.S. does not have to be any more expensive than studying in the U.S., so don’t rule it out without doing your homework.

Third and most obviously (this is the one we won’t have to convince you about), there should be some variety in the selectivity of the colleges on your teenager’s short list. Every so-called expert has some formula for how to make up the list: how many “reach” schools, how many “target” schools, and how many “safety” schools–or whatever your favorite vocabulary is for these three types of college options. We think that this is a matter of common sense and that you don’t have to be an expert to figure it out. Your teenager’s short list should have perhaps two or three selective colleges that might be a reach (they might be highly selective or somewhat-less-selective, depending on how good a candidate your kid is); perhaps two or three not-so-selective colleges that could serve as safety schools (including, ideally, a reasonable and as good as possible public four-year school in your home state or maybe in another state), and maybe 10 or so colleges that seem just about right academically.

2. A Closer Look at Safety Schools

Let’s take a moment to look more closely at the notion of safety schools because we think that they are often chosen poorly.

When I work with a kid to put together his or her short list, I get these two types of colleges on the list as safeties: (1) a public university where I am sure the kid will be accepted; and (2) a private college where I am sure the kid will be accepted.

Now, true, some of this is a matter of experience. But, looking at the data on admitted or enrolled students that you can find on a college’s website or on the College Navigator website will give you one indication of the likelihood of a kid’s acceptance. (By the way, see Step 13 in our new workbook for further detail on this.) And, of course, some of this is a matter of how good a candidate your kid is. A college that serves as a safety school for some kids is a reach school for other kids, obviously.

But, the biggest mistake I see in kids’ short lists is the inclusion of a bunch of expensive less-selective private schools as safety schools when the kid really doesn’t want to go to them. Once you have one decent public university option and one decent less-selective private option on the short list, every other college on the list should be weighed against them.

For example, a young woman I was working with recently here in New York City is blessed with great high school grades and very good SAT and ACT scores. Her safety schools are a good public university in the West and a good private university abroad. I am confident that, given her high school record, she will be admitted to both. Other adults have suggested a variety of additional private colleges that might serve as safety schools for her. For each one, I simply asked her, “Would you rather go to this one than the two you already have, which you are going to be admitted to?” In every case, she said, “No.” Then why have them on the list and why spend time and money applying to them?

You don’t need a lot of safety schools. You need only one or two or maybe three that your kid is happy about and would look forward to going to. A young woman I worked with last year ended up at one of her two safety schools this fall. We chose them carefully to make sure she liked them, and she was, in fact, accepted to both. She ended up at the private one, and she loves it. I knew she would, and that’s why we chose it.

3. Other Colleges on the Short List

By the way, a similar question should be asked of all of the colleges on the short list. Once you can establish that a college (whether it is selective or not selective) is not a place your kid would rather go than the safety school you are sure he or she will be admitted to, take that college off the list.

To be clear, as your teenager and you look over the short list, ask him or her one final question about each college: “Would you really want to go to this college if you got in?” If you and your teenager were diligent in putting together a LLCO this summer and then in narrowing it down, we know that you two know quite a bit about each college still on the short list. We would say that it is likely that you know more about each college still on the list than the majority of students applying to it. But knowing all about a college doesn’t make your teenager want to go there.

I can usually hear it in the kid’s voice when I ask, “Why College X?” The kid is silent for a minute or says something vague. Can your teenager tell you several pros for each college on the short list–that is, several reasons why he or she personally would be happy going there? If not, it might be time to take it off the short list. “My mother suggested it” or “I’ve heard some good things about it” is not a reason to keep a college on the short list.

Now, of course, there are some colleges on the list that your teenager prefers. Maybe there is a first choice; maybe there are several top choices. But no college left on the list should make your teenager feel apathetic or disappointed. Take those colleges off and, if you need more colleges on the short list, then look at some new ones to add. There are plenty out there.

Next week, we are going to talk about a serious problem with transferring colleges in case you are thinking about that as a long-term strategy for your kid as you two are making up the short list. Let me just say, “Buyer beware!”

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Episode 138: It’s Early Decision/Early Action Time Again

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Let’s open today with an acknowledgment of a reasonably impressive milestone. We have just passed the third anniversary of our podcast. That’s three whole years of trying to put the college applications and college admissions process into perspective and within the grasp of the all-too-many parents and teenagers who have been left out of the conversation. When we started the podcast, we thought that it would be most helpful to parents who had not been to college themselves and to their first-generation-to-college kids. But we have found that parents of all educational backgrounds have learned from the episodes, and we are, of course, happy about that. As Marie and I say almost every week, “Here’s something we didn’t know ourselves, and we do this for a living.” As with all things, there is always more to learn.

Speaking of learning, as we come to this episode in our series Researching College Options, I must admit that I would like to re-edit our new book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Marie hates it when I say this; but, like all authors or maybe just all English majors, I know that I could make that book better (even though I have to admit that it is already pretty useful).

Today’s episode is about something we left out of the book, but should have put in. So, if you have the book (and, if you don’t have it, go get it right now at amazon.com!), you all should add one more question at the end of our 52-item questionnaire about things your teenager needs to find out about a college before applying.

Here is the question we missed and the topic of today’s episode: “Does the college offer an Early Decision and/or Early Action application round–or, perhaps, even more than one such round?” And we should have added: “Jot down all of the particulars of these early admissions plans, including how restrictive they are when it comes to whether you are allowed to apply to other colleges at the same time.” I am constantly surprised about how little parents know about Early Decision and Early Action plans, and they could make all the difference for a kid.

1. Why We Are Infuriated

So, for those of you who were listening to USACollegeChat about seven months ago, you will recall that we tackled this Early Decision/Early Action issue then. However, it is even more timely now here at the beginning of October, and we think that it is worth recapping for all of you who have kids just starting their senior year. As many of you know, November 1 or November 15 (or thereabouts) is the Early Decision and/or Early Action deadline for most colleges, if a college has either of those early admissions plans in place. So, that is just a few short weeks away, and decisions about whether to make those early applications need to be made ASAP.

As we said back in Episode 108 and Episode 109, I find this Early Decision/Early Action game infuriating. I continue to be infuriated on behalf of teenagers and their families who are in the midst of figuring out how to research and apply to a whole bunch of colleges, which is hard enough without having to calculate the advantages and disadvantages of Early Decision and Early Action options at some of those or all of those colleges and how those options interact, often poorly, with each other. I believe that lots of parents find this to be a daunting task. So, let us help.

2. Early Decision Cons

Let’s look first at Early Decision, the older of the two options and the one that started us all down this now-confusing and controversial path. Many years ago, it used to be that a student could apply to one college under an Early Decision plan (the only type of early application available)–meaning that the student would apply early, get an answer early, and agree to attend that college if accepted. For students, Early Decision was?and, in fact, still is–a binding decision. In other words, if you get in, you go.

Perhaps the most important reason that some educators and many parents grew to dislike the Early Decision option was–and likely still is–that a student accepted under this plan had to agree to attend the college before he or she had any other acceptances and before he or she had any idea what scholarships and other financial aid might be offered by any other colleges. For students who depended on financial aid to pay for college–and that’s more and more students these days–having to choose a college without being able to compare financial aid packages put those students and their families under unnecessary and, some would say, unfair financial pressure.

When we talked about this issue months ago, we quoted from Frank Bruni’s excellent New York Times column entitled “The Plague of ‘Early Decision.'” You should go back and read his piece again. Mr. Bruni wrote this about his view of the biggest problem with Early Decision at selective colleges:

[Early decision] significantly disadvantages students from low-income and middle-income families, who are already underrepresented at such schools. There’s plenty of evidence that applying early improves odds of admission and that the students who do so–largely to gain a competitive edge–come disproportionately from privileged backgrounds with parents and counselors who know how to game the system and can assemble the necessary test scores and references by the November deadline.

These students also aren’t concerned about weighing disparate financial-aid offers from different schools and can commit themselves to one through early decision. Less privileged students need to shop around, so early decision doesn’t really work for them. (quoted from the article)

Did we really need one more thing about college admissions that disadvantages low-income kids or kids from racial and ethnic minorities who are underrepresented in colleges? Clearly, as a nation, we did not. Regular listeners will recall that, recently in Episode 132, we spoke about a study of grade inflation in high schools that shows that the grade inflation trend disproportionately favors students from whiter, wealthier high schools. Is Early Decision just one more strike against kids who need a fairer shake?

Mr. Bruni also gave us one memorable statistic from a well-to-do Boston suburban high school, noting that “while 60 percent of the seniors there submitted early applications seven years ago, it’s above 86 percent now.” (quoted from the article) And that was last year, so who knows how much higher that number can go this year? The point is that lots of kids are applying to college early, and that is going to make it just that much harder for your kid this year.

Although we have talked recently about a steady decline in college enrollment in the U.S. in Episode 128 and a steady decline especially in male college enrollment in the U.S. in Episode 136, the nation’s very good and great colleges are still doing fine. They continue to have many, many more applicants than they need–both the private ones and the public ones. So, if any of our very selective private or public colleges are on your kid’s long list of college options (or shorter, refined list of college options), your kid is in for some stiff competition from a lot of kids who are ready to commit in November. Any kids who have to overcome any kind of barrier when making their college applications–whether that is financial constraints or English as a second language or lack of college counseling or parents who cannot help?are, sadly, going to be just that much further behind.

3. Early Decision Pros

On the other hand, if your kid is one of the lucky ones or if you can get whatever help you need to get your kid past whatever barriers exist for your family, it seems to us that Early Decision is a great option for you. The larger problem is, of course, that Early Decision could be a great option for your own kid, even if there are too many kids who cannot take advantage of it for one reason or another. With my nonprofit president’s hat on, I have to say that Early Decision worries me increasingly; but with my advocate-for-your-one-kid’s hat on, I am very likely to recommend it to you.

If your own teenager is absolutely clear about what his or her first-choice college is, then Early Decision is the way to go if that college has an Early Decision option. (We are going to talk about Early Action in a minute. Making one Early Decision application does not necessarily preclude also making one or more Early Action applications.)

Why might Early Decision be a good move for your kid? First, your family could get the entire college admissions process over with as efficiently as possible by December. As we have already mentioned, the application is usually due November 1 or November 15, with a decision usually coming in December. If your kid is accepted, you are done. No more worries about not getting into a college your kid loves and no more stress of completing numerous applications! Even though the Common Application cuts down on some of that stress, it means that no more supplemental essays would have to be written and no more application fees would have to be paid.

Second–and this is why we feel almost obligated to recommend Early Decision for kids who are ready to make a serious choice–your kid might actually have a much better chance of being accepted if he or she applies Early Decision. There continues to be a lot of press about this fact. Back in Episode 108, we quoted shocking statistics from an excellent article by Nick Anderson in The Washington Post, which offered acceptance statistics from 2015 from 64 “prominent colleges and universities.” His article was aptly entitled “A college-admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision.” Go back and take a look at those many, many numbers. And here are a few more: same story, different verse.

These are some facts and figures from an article by Kaitlin Mulhere in Money magazine. Her article makes this important point:

Most selective colleges–specifically, the 100 or so four-year schools that admit a third or less of their applicants–publicize one overall acceptance rate. On its face, that makes sense, and it’s simple for families to grasp. The problem is that many students pin their hopes on that rate, even though it may conceal dramatic differences in the odds for different applicant pools.

Take, for example, Vanderbilt University, where the overall rate was 12% for the fall 2015 freshman class. Yet students either apply in an early pool or the regular pool, which have 24% and 8% acceptance rates, respectively. Nobody has a 12% chance, says Steve Frappier, director of college counseling at the Westminster Schools, a prep school in Atlanta. (quoted from the article)

There are two critical things to notice here. First, there is the simple fact that one averaged acceptance rate–the one that is published widely–actually might mean nothing. Second, there is the simple fact that your chances of getting into a college could be three times as good–or more–if you apply under an early application plan. While this is not true for every college in the U.S., it is true for many selective colleges in the U.S. Here are two more examples of great small private liberal arts colleges from the Money magazine article:

  • Swarthmore College: 35% early decision acceptance rate vs. 10.7% regular decision acceptance rate
  • Colorado College: 31% and 17% in two early rounds vs. 6% in the regular round

The article makes the point that savvy consumers pay attention to the differences among the figures that colleges post on their websites: early acceptance rates, regular decision acceptance rates, and overall acceptance rates. The relationships among these figures change from college to college, so buyer beware!

Those figures have got to make you think twice before you as a family dismiss the notion of applying early. Here is another perhaps surprising statistic from The Washington Post article for a sample of great colleges–the estimated percentage of the freshman class that is made up of Early Decision acceptances:

To sum it up, about half of the seats in the freshman classes of these selective, academically first-rate colleges are filled before the applications of high school seniors applying on the regular schedule are even looked at. You really have to stop and think about these statistics. No kidding. What are your kid’s odds of getting into a place when one-half of the seats are already taken?

Some colleges are publicizing now that students who are accepted on an Early Decision schedule are getting nearly as much financial aid as those accepted on a regular decision schedule, so that’s a good thing for low-income kids who want to better their acceptance chances at a favorite college. And there is usually a disclaimer in college website information that a student may be released from a binding Early Decision acceptance if the financial aid package offered does not make it possible for that student to attend the college–though I have never personally tried to test that.

By the way, is it obvious why a college would want so many Early Decision students? It should be. A college wants good students who really want to be at that college. It doesn’t want to play the admissions game any more than the applicants do.

To sum it up, here is a brief quotation from the website of Boston University, a very good private university, about the reasons that students should consider Early Decision:

  • Competition is keen. Think about this–would you rather be considered for admission as 1 of more than 60,000 applicants or 1 of just over 4,000 applicants?

  • Applying Early Decision is the ultimate way to demonstrate your interest in BU, which is an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from the rest of the crowd.

  • Early Decision applicants receive the same consideration for financial aid as regular decision applicants.Last year, BU awarded $55 million in aid to incoming freshmen.

  • If you’re offered admission, your search process will be completed early. You could be one of the first among your classmates to wear your BU sweatshirt and show your Terrier Pride!

4. Early Action

Now, let’s look at the Early Action option, under which high school seniors still apply early–around November 1 or November 15–but they are not ethically committed to enroll at the college if accepted. That is, the decision to apply Early Action is not a binding decision by a high school senior to attend that college. Early Action enables kids to apply to more than one college that offers an Early Action option and to hold onto any acceptances until April–before having to make a final decision among all of the acceptances that come in on both the early and the regular schedules. This plan, understandably, came into being as a result of concerns that the Early Decision option put too much pressure on kids to make final decisions too soon.

In counseling kids myself, I encourage them to apply under the Early Action option to as many of the colleges on their final short list as they can. I just don’t see a downside. Furthermore, I believe kids should apply Early Action to every one of their safety schools if those schools have an Early Action option. It can certainly take the pressure off a student to know in December that he or she has a guaranteed acceptance from a college or two or three well before April comes.

Here is one thing you have to keep in mind, however, for both Early Action and Early Decision. Students have to take the SAT and/or ACT no later than an October testing date to have the scores by early November, and a student has to believe that the scores he or she has by then are about as good as they are ever going to be.

Or here is an option: Apply Early Action to one or more of your safety schools, using your available test scores–that is, schools you can probably get into without improving your scores. If there are more selective colleges that you are holding out hope for, but for which you need better scores, re-take the SAT or ACT in November or December and don’t apply to those colleges until the regular deadline of January 1 or later.

5. Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action

Let’s look at a mixed approach that has now been taken by some colleges, including some prestigious ones, and that is an option called Single-Choice Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action. This option means that applicants cannot apply to any other college under an Early Action or Early Decision option, but may apply later on a regular decision timeline. If an applicant is admitted under this single-choice or restrictive option, that student may have until about May 1 to make a decision.

So, Single-Choice Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action, is like Early Decision in that the student is permitted to apply to only one college early, but it’s like Early Action in that the student is permitted to wait until regular decision acceptances come in before making a final decision about enrolling. You can see how that is pretty good for the student and pretty good for the college, though not ideal for either one. This option, we believe, is not nearly as widespread among colleges as either Early Decision or regular Early Action.

6. Other College Admissions Options

Parents: Don’t feel bad when you have to read a college’s website information more than once to figure out what all the application options mean. I have to do that, too. I cannot imagine how a high school kid by himself or herself ever completes and submits a college application anymore, especially if that kid has parents who do not speak English or cannot help for whatever reason.

And here’s another option you might run into: two rounds of Early Decision, or Early Decision I and Early Decision II; and two rounds of Early Action, or Early Action I and II.

So, why Early Decision I and II, with Early Decision II having a later deadline? One reason is that some kids want the college to have access to later college admission test scores or to first semester senior grades, in case either of those is better than earlier scores or grades. Another reason is that a student who gets rejected from his or her first-choice Early Decision college in December can then apply to his or her second-choice college in a second round of Early Decision. Both of these options are possibly great for the student, though complicated, to be sure.

Another reason for having two rounds of Early Decision is that it’s a way for a college to improve its own statistics–in this case, the “yield rate,” or the percentage of students who are admitted and then attend. This statistic might affect a college’s ranking on some list or other. So, that might be reason enough for how we got to this place.

Go back and listen to Episode 109 if you want to hear even more complicated plans, which mix every conceivable Early Action and Early Decision variation. But those are only examples. The only plans that matter are the ones your kid faces at the colleges on his or her list. And they might be crazy enough!

7. The Bottom Line

One last word, parents: Remember that your kid can be deferred when applying early, in which case the application will go into the pile to be considered with the applications submitted on the regular decision timeline. Or, your kid can be rejected, in which case he or she cannot re-apply, in some cases, on the regular decision timeline. So that’s one more piece of the puzzle that you will need to consider.

I know that’s a lot to take in. What’s the bottom line? Apply Early Decision if your kid has a clear first-choice college that you can live with. Simultaneously, apply Early Action to all of the colleges on his or her list (including all of the safety schools) that have Early Action plans. There’s just no downside.

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Episode 137: College Support Services: More Important Than You Think

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This is an unusual episode in our series Researching College Options and for USACollegeChat as well. It looks at a critical issue today–one that can have terribly serious consequences for students and their families. The issue was raised in an insightful late August article by Alina Tugend in The Hechinger Report (the article also appeared in U.S. News & World Report). The issue is mental health support services on college campuses and the students–especially nonwhite students–who evidently all too often do not use them when they need to. This is going to be a relatively short episode for us, but I think you will see that it packs a big punch.

1. The Problem

Here are some facts you might not know, as reported in the article:

Nonwhite [college] students are often more stressed than their white classmates, but less likely to seek psychological help.

This further complicates efforts to increase the proportion of black and Hispanic students who succeed in earning college and university degrees, and who graduate at rates lower than whites.

As much as nonwhite students resist taking advantage of mental health services, there’s evidence they’re more in need of them. More than half of black students report feeling overwhelmed most or all of the time, compared with 40 percent of whites, a survey conducted by the Harris Poll, [The Jed] Foundation and other groups found. About half of black and Hispanic students, compared with 41 percent of whites, say it seems everyone has college figured out but them. (quoted from the article)

That’s a lot of college students who could use some support when feeling overwhelmed–not only the half or more of black and Hispanic students, according to these studies, but also the 40 percent of white students. I have to say that I had no idea about the size of this problem.

Let’s look a bit further into the particular stresses faced by black and Hispanic students, according to experts quoted in the article:

. . . “[I]n addition to the stressors most students face at college–being away from home, time management–there are race-related stressors or minority-status stressors,” said Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

These stressors include assumptions by some white students and faculty that a minority student wouldn’t be in the classroom but for affirmative action, said David Rivera, an associate professor of counselor education at Queens College of the City University of New York. That perception can make itself felt in seemingly innocuous comments such as, ” ‘I’m surprised you did well on that paper,’ ” Rivera said. “If you confront it, you’re dismissed but if you ignore it, you’re left holding on to that experience,” he added. (quoted from the article)

And this is not an issue only for black and Hispanic students. Asian college students face their own stresses, according to the article:

Asian students often feel burdened by a stereotype that casts them as the “model minority,” always quietly diligent and academically successful, said Doris Chang, director of clinical training and associate professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research. But she said Asian students often fear that speaking to outsiders about the burden of this stereotype will bring shame on them and their families. “By the time they come in [for counseling], they are so impaired, they are already asking for a medical leave of absence.” (quoted from the article)

Wow. Stress on college students clearly knows no racial or ethnic boundaries, and students of all backgrounds should know what to do when that stress becomes just too much for them to handle. But here is what happens too often, according to the article:

Seeking psychological help is “culturally unacceptable in the African-American and Latino communities,” said Terri Wright, executive director of [The] Steve Fund, a nonprofit established by the family of a black graduate student named [Steve] Rose who committed suicide. The organization advocates for mental and emotional well-being for black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian college students.

Within these groups, “the words ‘therapist’ or ‘counselor’ are loaded,” Wright said. “If you have problems, you don’t go outside your family, or maybe you talk to your faith leader.” (quoted from the article)

I think there is no better way to demonstrate the enormous price that students and their families pay when support isn’t found in time than to read to you most of a remarkable letter from Steve’s family (that is, his parents and two brothers), which appears on the website of The Steve Fund:

In 2014, we began a journey, one which no family should ever have to take. It began with the loss of Steve, our beloved son, family member and friend. After graduating from Harvard College and completing a Masters degree at City University, mental illness took Steve from us. We have established the Steve Fund with the aim of preventing other families having to take a journey like ours.

Our nation is not meeting the mental health needs of young people of color. While research shows that the differences in ethnic backgrounds of students necessitate culturally sensitive approaches to supporting their mental health, their needs are still significantly understudied, and insufficiently understood. With minorities forming the majority of Americans by 2044, and the majority of children by 2020, the future success of our nation will depend on the mental health and emotional well-being of these young people.

It is our firm belief that colleges and universities should play a vital role in meeting these needs by providing the best support possible for an increasingly diverse student population. Since we established the Fund, we have focused on developing knowledge and thought leadership, launched effective programs, such as the buildout of a text-based crisis hotline with our partner Crisis Text Line, and have built partnerships with renowned organizations in the field to leverage resources and to direct more effort towards our cause.

The Steve Fund is mobilized to learn about, implement with excellence, and measure the kind of best practices that will protect the mental health and emotional well-being of our nation’s college age students of color. (quoted from the website)

Kudos, of course, to Steve’s family and the work that the Fund is doing.

The article goes on to do a good job of explaining the difficulties that students of color have when faced with college support personnel who are white. According to a survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, only 10 percent of college psychologists and therapists are black, only 8 percent are Asian, and only 7 percent are Hispanic. While some colleges are working to change staff make-up, most probably have a long way to go in order to serve the mental health needs of students of color on their campuses. And perhaps that is something to keep in mind, parents of students of color, when you are looking at colleges for your kids.

2. Get the Information

As we said in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, information about support services on a college campus is one thing prospective applicants and their parents might want to consider. And now that we understand the scope of the mental health problem, I am glad that we included a question about support services on the College Profile Worksheet. We give the Worksheet to students to complete for colleges they are interested in applying to (it is found at the end of our book). Here is some of what we wrote in the new book:

While support services–like academic advising, personal counseling, and employment assistance–can be useful to any undergraduate student, these support services are often particularly important to groups of students who might find it more difficult to adjust to college life, either socially or academically, especially when they find themselves in the minority of students on a college campus.

If you identify with students of color, first-generation-to-college students, LGBTQ students, students with learning disabilities, or another group, you should take a look at whether each college on your long list of college options has support services targeted for you. For example, Georgia State University has an impressive Office of Black Student Achievement, which provides a wide variety of academic, support, leadership, and outreach activities, programs, and services. That says something about its commitment to serving its black student population.

When you are looking for support services like that on a college’s website, see whether you can find any evidence that the services provided are actually successful. Why? Because successful support services can make all the difference between dropping out and graduating.

And now that I have read The Hechinger Report article, I would add, “Because successful support services can make all the difference between life and death–literally.” And remember, you might want to look at the racial and ethnic make-up of the counseling staff that will be available to your kid, if it turns out he or she needs that help. Because, really, what could be more important than that.

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Episode 136: Too Few Male Students at College?

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Today’s episode in our series Researching College Options focuses on a trend in college enrollment that you might have missed entirely. But if you have a son at home, it might be of particular interest to you–especially if your son is in the early days of high school (or even younger!).

1. A Quick Historical Look at Men in College

Let’s look back for a moment at the history of male students in U.S. colleges. We wrote about this back in our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, when we discussed the very real college option for your teenager of attending a single-sex institution vs. a coeducational institution. Here is what we said then:

Colleges and universities that were started in America’s earliest days were all institutions for men. They were all single-sex institutions then.

Seven of the eight well-known Ivy League institutions served only male students when they were founded in the 1600s and 1700s: the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. Among the Ivies, only Cornell, the youngest of the Ivies, was founded as a co-educational university, which took as its mission from its first day to enroll both men and women.

As time went on, many Ivies created a “sister” school for women: the University of Pennsylvania had its College for Women, Columbia had Barnard, Brown had Pembroke, and Harvard had Radcliffe. Of these, only Barnard remains.

The tradition of single-sex colleges is particularly strong in the Northeast, perhaps because that is where so many of our country’s oldest higher education institutions are located. In addition to Barnard, women’s colleges in the Northeast include Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Simmons College, Smith College, and Wellesley College. But there are well-known women’s colleges located in other regions of the U.S. as well–like Mills College and Scripps College in California, Stephens College in Missouri, Hollins University and Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, Saint Mary’s College (the sister school of the University of Notre Dame) in Indiana, and Agnes Scott College and Spelman College in Georgia. Spelman has the distinction of also being an excellent HBCU. Interestingly and for whatever reason (probably rooted in financial issues), some of these women’s colleges now allow men to enroll in their graduate programs only, thus maintaining the traditional women’s college atmosphere for their undergraduate residential students. Today, there are just over 40 women’s colleges in the U.S.

Oddly, only a handful of men’s colleges remain, perhaps partly because now there are actually more women than men going to college. The men’s college you have most likely heard of is Morehouse College, which is an academically rigorous HBCU located in Georgia and which is the men’s counterpart to Spelman. Morehouse has a roster of famous alumni, ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee. Here are two more appealing men’s colleges: Hampden-Sydney College, which was founded in 1775 in Virginia and has a long and fascinating history (Patrick Henry and James Madison were among its first Trustees); and Wabash College, which is located in Indiana and was cited in the book Colleges That Change Lives as an institution that is successful in creating engaged students, who become leaders in their chosen fields.

While most single-sex institutions have opened their doors to the opposite sex over the years and especially in the past 50 years, those that remain carry on a tradition that their graduates wholeheartedly support. Some of their graduates–and indeed their families–believe that students can focus better on their studies when they are not being distracted by social interactions with the opposite sex in the classroom. Some of their graduates believe that students will develop a stronger sense of community and camaraderie with their classmates in single-sex institutions. Some of their graduates appreciate the histories and philosophies of these institutions–especially perhaps graduates of women’s colleges who feel that they are better supported as young women and are encouraged to set and pursue whatever education and career goals they can imagine for themselves.

Clearly, there are great reasons for your teenager to choose to apply to and attend a single-sex institution, as we have said before, but there are also great reasons for your teenager to choose a coeducational institution. What is happening now, however, is that some coeducational institutions–institutions that some students chose to attend precisely because they were coeducational–are losing their balance between male and female students in a way that no one would have predicted 40 years ago. Let’s look at why.

2. Male College Enrollment Today

In a very interesting August article, which you should read in its entirety in The Hechinger Report (which also appeared in The Atlantic), reporter Jon Marcus gave us these facts and figures:

Where men once went to college in proportions far higher than women–58 percent to 42 percent as recently as the 1970s–the ratio has now almost exactly reversed.

This fall, women will comprise more than 56 percent of students on campuses nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some 2.2 million fewer men than women will be enrolled in college this year. And the trend shows no sign of abating. By 2026, the department estimates, 57 percent of college students will be women. . . .

Reeling from a years-long decline in overall enrollment, colleges and universities nationwide are vying for all the students they can get, and suddenly paying new attention to bolstering the number of men who apply. (quoted from the article)

At this point, I think we might say either “You’ve come a long way, baby” to any young women in the audience or “Where will it end?” Of course, for many years, we lived in a world where more males than females went to college, so is it a problem if those figures are now reversed? Maybe not, unless you have a son at home, and you are wondering if this trend will affect him–either positively or negatively–as he looks toward college and his future.

3. Is College Too Late To Fix This?

The Hechinger Report article goes on to explain some likely causes for the state of male college enrollment. Marcus reports:

Though advocates complain that few in higher education are doing enough to keep those men who do get there from leaving, there’s consensus that men’s reluctance to enroll in the first place isn’t necessarily the colleges’ fault. The problem has its origins as early as primary school, only to be fueled later on by economic forces that discourage men from believing a degree is worth the time and money.

“It’s funny that it’s the colleges that are finally seeing this issue and trying to resolve it,” said Patrick Maloney, president of the Nativity School, a Jesuit Catholic middle school in the central Massachusetts city of Worcester that tries to aim low-income boys toward college. That’s because, by the time students reach college age, Maloney said, “It’s way too late. You’ve already lost them. Maybe [admissions officers] should be going into middle schools and [should] start talking to fifth-graders about the benefits of college education.”

Or even earlier than that. The “anti-school, anti-education sentiment” in boys has roots in kindergarten, when they’re slower to learn to read than girls, said Jim Shelley, manager of the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College in Ohio. Girls at the primary and secondary level worldwide far outperform boys in reading, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

That disparity continues until, “by eighth or ninth grade, boys have lost interest,” Shelley said. (quoted from the article)

All this is likely true, but none of it accounts for the decline in male college enrollment. Why? Because I believe all of this was true 40 years ago when there were more male than female students in colleges. With that said, we will, nonetheless, underline the importance of not waiting till high school to engage actively about college-going with any younger children you have at home. For many students in high schools my nonprofit organization has evaluated, it is clear that they gave up on the goal of pursuing a college education much earlier, just as the article says. I believe that this is especially–and unfortunately–true for low-income students in urban school districts.

And here are some additional issues that are concerning if you have a son at home, according to this article:

Men who do enroll in college, at whatever age, are more likely than women to drop out, and they graduate at lower rates, the Education Department reports. That’s one thing universities and colleges can address directly, but generally don’t, Shelley, [manager of the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College], said.

Through 21 years running one of the few campus support centers exclusively for men, he said, “I’ve thought it can only get better. But it just has gone nowhere. Not only are there not programs like ours that are supportive of male students, but at most college campuses the attitude is that men are the problem versus men have problems, too. . . .”

Meanwhile, boys in many American communities don’t see male role models who have been to college and succeeded, said Keith Bullock at Kentucky’s Berea College (56 percent female). Bullock is coordinator of programs to support male students, many of them from Appalachia. “They don’t have those examples of doctors and lawyers and professionals.”

. . . The male students under his care are black, white and Hispanic, Bullock said, and they all face similar pressures. He escorts them to the counseling and advising offices and texts them every day to make sure they get to class on time and know when tests are scheduled. “My guys,” he calls them. He also works with them on study habits and time management. “It’s very challenging. It’s very emotional. Sometimes I’m hugging them up and there’s times when I feel I have to curse them out.” (quoted from the article)

4. What Does This Mean for You?

So, if you have a son at home, perhaps The Hechinger Report article has given you some new perspectives and some new facts to think with. But there is also some information here for those of you with a daughter at home. As we said in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, the gender breakdown on a college campus is one thing prospective applicants might want to consider. And now that we know that male students are sometimes in shorter supply than you might have expected, I am glad that we included a question about gender breakdown on the College Profile Worksheet. We give the Worksheet to students to complete for colleges they are interested in applying to (it is found at the end of our book). Here is some of what we wrote in the new book:

If you look at the enrollment statistics for many colleges, you will notice that some are split pretty evenly between male and female students (say, 46 percent vs. 54 percent), while others are way out of balance (say, 30 percent vs. 70 percent). Sometimes colleges that are out of balance can be explained by their history (for example, they were once women’s colleges) or by the types of majors they are best known for (given that some majors, unfortunately, continue to attract more students of one gender). If you want a college to reflect the general undergraduate college student population, it is interesting to note that enrollment figures overall in the fall of 2014 showed that 56 percent of undergraduate students were female. So, if a college is better balanced than that (in other words, closer to 50/50), it might well be working hard to achieve that balance.

Let’s look at a few examples. Carleton College (a great private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota) is 53 percent female and 47 percent male. Carleton is working at it, we would say. Oddly enough, the gigantic University of Minnesota (the excellent public flagship university in the Twin Cities) gets even closer–at 51 percent female and 49 percent male. Not too far away, the Milwaukee School of Engineering (a Wisconsin college that specializes in engineering and technical subjects, though not exclusively) posts a 24 percent female and 76 percent male enrollment–for perhaps obvious reasons.

So, if gender balance at a college is important to your teenager, you all should check it out for each college on your teenager’s list. If you have never thought about it, you should think about it now. By the way, as we said in our new book, “we have not yet seen data reported and presented across colleges on enrollment of students with gender identities other than male and female. However, if you are looking for a college that is particularly accepting of more diverse gender identities, that is a topic that can and should be pursued by looking further on the college’s website and by calling the Admission Office and asking about relevant data and policies.”

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Episode 135: Another Look at Community Colleges

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Today’s episode in our series Researching College Options looks at a big option–an option that we have talked about in quite a few USACollegeChat episodes and in our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. Most recently, we took a careful look at this option about five months ago in Episode 113. However, I have to admit that I am considering it again, based on a new opinion piece by LaGuardia Community College President Gail O. Mellow in late August in The New York Times. The option is community college. As we said in Episode 113, the community college is a marvelous institution in theory, but a somewhat more disappointing institution in reality–or, at least, that has usually been our position.

If you are the parent of a high school senior, we know that some of you–perhaps many of you–are thinking about sending your kid to a community college next fall. Maybe that’s for financial reasons, maybe for academic reasons, maybe for maturity reasons, maybe for location reasons, maybe for some other reasons. Whatever your reasons, President Mellow has made us think again; so, let’s take another look.

1. The Pros of Community Colleges: A Review

Let’s quickly review some of the pros and cons about community colleges, also referred to as two-year colleges. Here’s an abbreviated list of pros we offered back in Episode 113 (these reasons are conveniently taken from our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students):

  • Two-year colleges offer associate’s degrees, which can be enough for some careers, including high-paying technical careers. Later, if the student wants to do so, the credits earned for an associate’s degree can be transferred to four-year colleges and applied toward credits needed for a four-year bachelor’s degree.   (In fact, some two-year colleges in some states are now authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees over four years, especially in technical fields where workers in the labor force are in short supply.)
  • Two-year colleges offer students who have struggled in high school a chance to improve their academic record and gain the fundamental skills and study habits they will need to succeed in more advanced college study. After doing well at a two-year college, these students can likely get into a better four-year college than they could have gotten into right out of high school.
  • Two-year colleges offer their students core liberal arts courses (which can often be transferred to four-year colleges later) and/or technical training in many different fields at a very low price. That’s critically important if paying for college is a major concern for your family.

That last point about very low cost is perhaps the main reason that kids head to a community college right out of high school. The fact that community college is so much cheaper than any four-year option–and the fact that kids can live at home and save even more money–is sometimes irresistible. We know that students can get financial aid of all kinds from four-year colleges, which could make their time there essentially free, but none of those deals is a sure thing. Paying the very low tuition at a community college, especially with whatever financial aid is available, is a sure thing.

2. The Cons of Community Colleges: A Review

So, what’s the downside of going to a community college? As we have said before at USACollegeChat, the choice of a community college for students coming right out of high school is quite different from that same choice when it is being made by adults returning to college or starting college for the first time. My own nonprofit organization has done market studies for quite a few community colleges interested in increasing their adult enrollment (that is, students over the age of 25) and in serving those adult students better. And, to be fair, community colleges are a great institution for getting adults into college study or back into college study. But, we are focused today on your kid, who is going to college right out of high school, and some of the statistics about community college completion rates and transfer-to-four-year-college rates are just plain scary.

You have to deal with this statistic: Not even half of community college students complete any college degree in six years–not even a two-year associate’s degree. Admittedly, that statistic includes all kinds of students who attend community colleges–from bright kids right out of high school who just needed to save money to returning adults who have been out of school for a decade to kids who struggled in high school and couldn’t get into a more selective college. Nonetheless, we have quoted evidence in previous USACollegeChat episodes that shows that students are more likely to graduate if they go to a more selective college, for many reasons. That is clearly a reason against having your kid choose a community college for next year.

In addition to a seriously low completion rate, the transfer rate of students from community colleges to four-year colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees is also shockingly low, as we reported way back in Episode 64, based on an article in The Hechinger Report. Here is a statistic, which was taken from a report from Teachers College, Columbia University:

. . . 80 percent of entering community college students say they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about a quarter actually make the transfer and 17 percent eventually get the degree. (quoted from the article)

Parents, we said in Episode 113 that we thought you should think hard about whether your kid is different from the typical community college student–smarter, harder working, more motivated, more goal oriented. Just being younger might not help enough. The statistics are telling you that he or she is likely not to graduate with even an associate’s degree and is likely not to transfer to that great four-year college you say you are saving up your money for.

3. President Mellow’s Point of View

And now we come to President Mellow’s point of view. I have to admit that some of my attitude toward community colleges comes from my belief that kids who can get into a satisfactory four-year college and who can figure out how to pay for it (including through loans and other unpleasant devices) should go directly to that four-year college. I worry that kids who could go to a four-year college, but don’t, will get sidetracked into community college and never get out. But perhaps I have not given sufficient thought to kids who cannot go to a four-year college, especially for financial reasons.

Let’s look at some excerpts from President Mellow’s recent opinion piece:

You might think the typical college student lives in a state of bliss, spending each day moving among classes, parties and extracurricular activities. But the reality is that an increasingly small population of undergraduates enjoys that kind of life.

Of the country’s nearly 18 million undergraduates, more than 40 percent go to community college, and of those, only 62 percent can afford to go to college full time. By contrast, a mere 0.4 percent of students in the United States attend one of the Ivies.

The typical student is not the one burnishing a fancy résumé with numerous unpaid internships. It’s just the opposite: Over half of all undergraduates live at home to make their degrees more affordable, and a shocking 40 percent of students work at least 30 hours a week. About 25 percent work full time and go to school full time. (quoted from the article)

Of course, some of these students who work full time and go to school full time are adult students over the age of 25–but, not all of them. For example, a lot of students who graduate from urban high schools, like the one we co-founded in Brooklyn, head off to college with both the intention and the necessity of working while they are enrolled. Marie and I worried that our students wouldn’t be able to do both successfully. We worried that they were going to have a hard enough time in college without spending 10 or 15 or 20 hours a week–or more–at a job. But, given their family circumstances, many of them had no choice, just as President Mellow writes.

She continues:

As open-access institutions, community colleges educate the majority of our country’s low-income, first-generation students. But public funding for community colleges is significantly less than for four-year colleges, sometimes because of explicit state policies. This means the amount that community colleges can spend on each student–to pay for faculty, support services, tutoring and facilities–is far less as well.

Tuition for low-income students can be covered by federal financial aid programs, but these students often have significant other costs–including housing, transportation, food and child care–that regularly pose obstacles to their education.

A recent Urban Institute study found that from 2011 to 2015, one in five students attending a two-year college lived in a food-insecure household. A study from the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that in 2016, 14 percent of community college students had been homeless at some point. At LaGuardia Community College in New York, where I am president, 77 percent of students live in households making less than $25,000 per year.

With financial pressures like these, studying full time is not an option. It is not uncommon for a student to take between three and six years to graduate from a two-year associate degree program. (quoted from the article)

And we can see why. Those statistics are sobering, and they do put community colleges’ lousy completion rates into perspective. Of course, you would still want your kid to come out of a community college on time so that he or she could move forward and transfer to a four-year college or enter the workforce and get a decent job. This is especially true if you, as a parent, can manage to pay the cost of attending a community college and keep distractions for your kid–like working a significant number of hours a week–down to a minimum.

Not surprisingly, President Mellow argues for a better financial deal for community colleges and their students, both in government funding and, interestingly, in philanthropy. She writes:

Community colleges need increased funding, and students need access to more flexible federal and state financial aid, enhanced paid internships and college work-study programs. Improved access to public supports, like food stamps and reduced public transportation fares, would also make a world of difference.

It’s not just that policy must change. Last year, more than $41 billion was given in charity to higher education, but about a quarter of that went to just 20 institutions. Community colleges, with almost half of all undergraduate students, received just a small fraction of this philanthropy. It is imperative that individuals, corporations and foundations spread their wealth and diversify where they donate their dollars. (quoted from the article)

I have to tell you that I was so embarrassed that my two alma maters might be on that list of 20 institutions that I didn’t even look at it–because obviously that is just the very definition of unfair advantage and privilege.

4. What’s Herb Alpert Got To Do with It?

Some months ago, I wrote a piece for my own blog, ParentChat with Regina, about the importance of music in a child’s education. But the really arresting part of the piece was about Herb Alpert, trumpeter extraordinaire and co-founder of A&M Records. (If you are too young to remember Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, go listen to Alpert’s signature style on YouTube. Start with “Tijuana Taxi” and “This Guy’s In Love With You”–and stay for all the rest.)

As it turns out, Alpert has done what President Mellow wishes more people would do. His foundation–co-founded with his wife, singer Lani Hall–has made a $10.1 million gift to Los Angeles City College (LACC), a two-year public community college. The money will create an endowment, which will be used to raise the number of music majors enrolled from 175 to 250 and to provide ALL of them with FREE tuition.

As reported by Carolina A. Miranda in the Los Angeles Times, Alpert said this about his gift:

LACC is a gem of an institution. . . . [My] biggest motivation was helping kids who don’t have the financial energy to go to a major college. At LACC, they’ve nurtured thousands of dedicated students every year. My brother went there. My ex-partner [record producer] Lou Adler went there. I’ve visited the school. It’s alive. It’s kickin’. (quoted from the article)

Alpert noted that he was especially interested in supporting a public institution where students of all socioeconomic backgrounds could get a college education. It’s as if he were simply channeling President Mellow.

5. So, What About Community Colleges?

So, where does all that leave us–or rather, you? Well, we are probably going to continue to worry when seniors choose a community college as their first step into higher education. We are going to continue to worry that some of them are going to have difficulty graduating from a community college in anything close to two years and/or transferring to a four-year college ever.

But we are also going to admit that financial constraints can cause families to choose a path that might not be as perfect as we would like for their own kids. If that is your situation, talk with your kid and think hard about the community college option. Think about how to keep working hours to a minimum so that study hours can be at a maximum. Talk about how important it is to stay on track and make progress toward graduation every semester. Help make the statistics better.

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