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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Episode 113: The Community College Challenge

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Today’s episode focuses on a higher education issue that we have talked about before at USACollegeChat, though not recently–that is, the pros and cons of attending a community college, which is a marvelous institution in theory, but a somewhat more disappointing institution in reality. At least, that has been our position in the past.

When I read a recent article about where community colleges find themselves these days, I thought we might look at them one more time. If you are the parent of a senior, we will offer some recent facts that might affect your decision to send your own teenager to a community college next fall. If you are the parent of a junior, these same facts might affect your wanting to use a community college as your teenager’s safety school option or as your teenager’s only option during the application process next year.

1. The Funding Picture

The article I read was written by Jeffrey R. Young and disseminated online by EdSurge. EdSurge is an organization that, in its own words, “report[s] on [the] latest news and trends in the edtech industry to help . . . entrepreneurs who build new products and businesses; educators who use these tools; [and] investors and others who support companies and schools” (quoted from the EdSurge website). So, here is some background for our discussion, thanks to Mr. Young and EdSurge:

Nationwide, enrollments in community colleges have been declining for several years, in part because the job market as a whole has been improving, so fewer people have felt the need to . . . [head] back to school. And even as some states and cities propose efforts to make two-year colleges free to students, the broader trend is that many state governments have scaled back public support for community colleges in recent years. In Arizona, for instance, the state funding for two major community college districts [Maricopa Community College District and Pima Community College District] is down to zero.

“Like all public higher education support, the funding is going down,” says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “It’s worse in some ways at community colleges,” she adds, because the total amount that community colleges spend per student has been decreasing, according to The College Board’s Trends in College Pricing. “They just don’t have the money to serve students the way they did,” she adds. “That’s a reason to be very concerned.” (quoted from the article)

Yes, that is a reason to be concerned–for sure, if you live in the Phoenix-Tempe-Tucson area, where funding is “down to zero,” and presumably if you live in other community college districts in similar financial trouble. We have read plenty in the news over the past year about public four-year universities that are living in a world of declining state funding and, often, that are raising tuition to make up for that loss, much to the anger of the state residents.

But, if you thought that public community colleges could be your fallback position, perhaps it is time for you to think again. Because what happens when state and local governments cut back on their funding of their community colleges? Clearly, the community colleges are going to have to raise their tuition–which, to be fair, is typically very low–or they are going to have to reduce educational and support services to their students. Unfortunately, there’s no free lunch, even at community colleges. For some students, whose only viable option is their local community college, either choice that a community college is forced to make will be a serious blow.

2. The Pros of Community Colleges: A Review

Let’s review quickly some of the pros and cons about community colleges, also referred to as two-year colleges. Here’s a list of reasons to put two-year colleges on your teenager’s list of colleges to apply to (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, especially in technical fields where workers in the labor force are in short supply. Students pursuing those bachelor’s degrees would need to stay at the two-year college longer, of course.)
  • 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, such students can get into a better four-year college than they could have gotten into right out of high school.
  • Two-year colleges can be a good choice if a student is undecided about an academic field of study in college and/or about a future career. Trying out different academic majors and different programs leading to different career paths is cheaper and likely easier to do at a two-year college than at a four-year college.
  • 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. Putting two-year colleges on your teenager’s list of college options is a reasonable decision if paying for college?either right away for a two-year degree or eventually for a four-year degree?is a critical concern for your family.

Let’s underline that last point, which, I think, is the primary point for the kids who head to a community college right out of high school. The fact that it is so much cheaper than any four-year option 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.

Let’s also acknowledge that we understand that there might be family reasons to keep a child close to home and within commuting distance and that a community college might fit those circumstances very nicely. Sometimes it is hard to argue against family reasons like that.

3. 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 being made by adults returning to college or starting college for the first time. But, we are focused here on students coming right out of high school, just like your own teenager. Here is what Mr. Young’s article says about one very important college statistic:

? [T]he truth is that community colleges don’t always pay off for students. Completion rates are notoriously low–only about 38 percent of students who started at a community college in 2009 completed a two- or four-year degree within six years. And students who take out even small loans to attend can end up with crippling debt if they end up with no degree to show for their efforts. As [Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Urban Institute] puts it: “You really can’t pay back anything if you’re working at the minimum wage.” (quoted from the article)

That is a sobering 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 need 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 quoted evidence many episodes back that said that students are more likely to graduate if they go to a more selective college, for many reasons. You have to put that in the scale as you weigh college options for your teenager.

In addition to that 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 back in Episode 64, based on an article in The Hechinger Report. Here is that 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)

So, as parents, you need to think hard about whether your teenager is different from the typical community college student–smarter, harder working, more motivated, more goal oriented, or something. Because, otherwise, 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 more expensive four-year college you say you are saving up your money for. We all think our own kids are different and, maybe, better. But how much are you willing to gamble on that?

4. What Is the Answer?

Mr. Young’s article also noted that community colleges are trying out a few ideas in the hope of improving those statistics, and that’s a good thing. Let’s look at two of them. The first idea is something that community colleges are calling “guided pathways,” and the idea really couldn’t be simpler. Here it is:

The metaphor for the traditional community college is a “cafeteria” of course offerings, says Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “We’ve since realized that too much choice is actually overwhelming,” she adds, “and too many students are unable to put together a program of study that gets them where they want to go.”

John Hamman, a dean at Montgomery College, agrees. “What we need to do is help and talk to students about, what do you want to do?” Many community college students who struggle with subjects like mathematics, for instance, might prefer a different track that requires less math–but may not know the option exists. . . . And we don’t do a good enough job helping students [take] those smart pathways.” (quoted from the article)

Well, this problem exists at all levels of schooling and can be solved, at least partly, by intelligent and experienced advisors. Certainly, we had to serve in that capacity at the high school we co-founded in NYC. It was clear that we had to be vigilant to make sure that students were taking what they needed to take in order to graduate–and, in our case, to graduate early in three years. But, it is also true that four-year college advisors need to pay attention to course selection and graduation counseling–especially, as we just said in our last episode (Episode 112), if students are trying to do four years of college in three years.

In this case of community colleges, given their low graduation rate, they absolutely need “guided pathways” to make sure that students get onto a track as soon as possible and stay on track to finish the courses needed to earn a degree. If you are looking at a community college for your teenager, it would be wise to check out whether it has these pathways spelled out and this kind of academic advising available.

The second idea aimed at improving community college statistics is making online coursework more available. Here is what the article said:

Community colleges are . . . starting to do more to offer online courses, says Rufus Glasper, president of the League for Innovation in the Community College. But they are more likely to offer blended programs and require at least some in-person attendance, rather than set up all-online programs, he adds.

“Community colleges need to do more with online so that we can have lower price-point options for our students as well,” he says. That can be especially tough for two-year colleges, though, since they often don’t have the resources to invest in new online infrastructure that it takes to start fully online programs. (quoted from the article)

On the other hand, I am wondering whether the fact that community colleges often offer blended courses instead of fully online courses is actually a plus. Quite recently, in Episode 107, we discussed the pros and cons of online courses for various groups of students. We remained concerned at the end of that episode about the ability of most freshmen to take important introductory or foundational courses online (like Calculus I or Composition 101 or Introduction to Sociology or Spanish I or Biology 101) and get everything out of them that they would get if they were in a classroom with a professor two or three times a week. Offering courses fully online to save the student money may backfire if the student cannot complete the course with a satisfactory grade or with a satisfactory amount of knowledge. We are going to remain concerned that fully online courses might not, in the long run, improve a community college’s graduation rate or successful transfer rate.

5. Where Does That Leave Us?

Toward the end of Mr. Young’s article, he again quotes Ms. Karp, of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College:

“This is their moment because [community colleges] are the access and equity engines of higher education,” argues Karp. . . . “In this age when we’re talking about how do we open up access to higher education but also make sure our labor force is prepared for . . . jobs of the future, they’re in an ideal position.” (quoted from the article)

Community colleges might indeed be in an ideal position in theory, but they are going to have to improve their results in practice. Those results are what continue to worry us as seniors choose their first step into higher education. Let me simply repeat what I said a few minutes ago: Unless you think your teenager is smarter, harder working, more motivated, and more goal oriented than the typical community college student, your teenager is likely to have some difficulty graduating from a community college and/or transferring to a four-year college. So, talk with your teenager and think hard about your choice.

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Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EDWorks, a Subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college with an interview with Andrea Mulkey.

NYCollegeChat podcast, Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EdWorks, a subsidiery of KnowledgeWorks

Listen to Andrea Mulkey talk about the great guidance and support that her organization, EDWorks, gives to innovative high school and college partnerships across the U.S. An early advocate and designer of the Early College high schools initiative, Andrea has done a lot in the past decade to spread this win-win idea from state to state—including a long assignment right here in New York State.

In the interview, Andrea chats with Marie and Regina about the impressive numbers of high schoolers taking college courses for credit and the kinds of successes these students have had. Students enrolling in college courses for credit—whether through an Early College high school program or in a traditional high school with a college partner—is truly one of a handful of education innovations with no downside. Every high school parent should know about it.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • The impact of college study on struggling high school students
  • Saving on college tuition by taking college courses during high school
  • What community colleges might have to do with it

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Episode 13: Focus on Students with Academic Issues

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about student with academic challenges.

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Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

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Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how options for students with academic issues.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

Focus on Students with Academic Issues on  NYCollegeChat podcast

Every student’s high school record is not as perfect as his or her parents might wish. The two most common problems are that the GPA (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) is not as high as it could be or should be or that the SAT or ACT scores (that is, the scores on the standardized college entrance examinations) are not as high as they could be or should be. Either of these problems makes choosing colleges to apply to a tense discussion.

Who is in the more difficult situation? Is it a student whose high school GPA is lower than ideal for whatever reason—sports teams, time-consuming hobbies or other outside activities, interest in the opposite sex, laziness, mediocre teachers, or family issues? Or is it a student whose SAT or ACT scores are lower than ideal for whatever reason—unfamiliarity with the test, refusal to study for the test or take practice tests, unavailability or unaffordability of a prep course to get ready for the test, test anxiety, or just a lackadaisical attitude toward standardized tests or college preparation generally? Let’s look at these two scenarios.

1. Students with Mediocre Or Low SAT/ACT Scores

What do we mean by mediocre or low scores? Let’s take the SATs as the example. If a student scores below 600 on any of the SAT subtests (reading, writing, and mathematics), that is a mediocre or low score. Scores in the low 600s are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too.

Having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades. While students’ SAT or ACT scores are important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges—including some really good colleges—that do not put so high a priority, or indeed any priority, on these test scores.

If you read the admissions blurbs on college websites, you will quickly see quite a few colleges that declare that SAT or ACT scores are not as important as high school grades and that the real picture of a student comes from the long and hard work the student has—or has not—done in classes over the course of the high school years. Those colleges will state that high school grades will tell them more about a student—about the student’s determination and perseverance and motivation, for example—than his or her performance on one test given on one Saturday morning. Indeed, they will cite research that says that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores—for all of the reasons that common sense would tell you.

For years, a relatively small number of colleges had said that SAT and/or ACT scores were not required in their admissions process. More recently, more colleges have been added to this list—so many, in fact, that this group of colleges now has a name: “test-optional” colleges. One very recent addition to that list is Bryn Mawr College. Professor Marc Schulz, a member of the Bryn Mawr admissions committee was quoted on the Bryn Mawr College website in July, 2014, as saying this: “We looked not just at the national data, but also took a very hard look at our own data over the last several years. It was clear that the standardized tests added very little predictive information after accounting for the strength of applicants’ academic work in high school and the admissions staff’s review of the whole application.”

Here are a few more of the “good” colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores for admissions (although a student may usually submit the scores if he or she feels they will help the application and “accurately reflect his or her academic ability and potential”): American University, Bard College, Bates College, Bennington College, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Sarah Lawrence College, Smith College, Wake Forest University, and Wesleyan University.

Now, there is also something called “test-flexible” colleges. These are colleges that give students a choice of which standardized test scores to submit during the application process. Some of these policies are more “flexible” than others. Here are a few of the “good” colleges that have some flexibility in choosing test scores to submit: Colby College, Colorado College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, and New York University.

By the way, you can search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online. But, because admissions policies change from time to time, you really need to check on a college’s website to tell just exactly how the college does or does not require or use SAT or ACT scores. For example, some colleges require standardized test scores for some applicants, like home-schooled students and international students, and not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S.

We will talk more about SATs and ACTs in an upcoming episode in a future series—how to prep for them, when to take them, how many times to take them, what the SAT IIs are, and more.

2. Students with Mediocre Or Low High School Grades

What do we mean by mediocre or low high school grades? If a student has a GPA below 3.0, that is a mediocre or low GPA. GPAs of 3.0 to 3.3 are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too. If the high school GPA is on a 100-point scale, a GPA in the low 80s or lower is a mediocre or low GPA.

Unfortunately, there are no “high school grades optional” colleges that we know about. Certainly, most colleges will claim to look at the whole picture—a complete profile—of a student during the admissions process; but, that whole picture always includes high school grades. While there can be reasons that high school grades are lower than the student is capable of earning—such as difficult family situations or personal problems or trauma—those reasons would have to be explained compellingly in an essay or an additional letter of some sort to the college. In short, it is very difficult to explain away mediocre or low high school grades.

When a student has mediocre or low high school grades, it is ideal if that student happens to have high SAT or ACT scores. Then, the college can imagine that the student is bright, but perhaps had some reason for not performing as expected in high school classes. None of those reasons would be a great excuse, but some colleges will make an exception for such a student.

However, most students who have mediocre or low high school grades do not have high SAT or ACT scores. For those students, the choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year—or maybe public four-year—college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too.

Instead, look at two-year community college, which gives a student a chance to erase a poor high school record with a better community college record. As we said in our first series, Understanding the World of College, a student who completes an associate’s degree at a two-year college can transfer that entire degree—that is, all the credits that were earned in completing that degree—to a four-year college and be well on the way to earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. When a student has earned that two-year associate’s degree, the spotty high school record is really a thing of the past for most, if not all, four-year colleges.

To be sure, there are four-year public and private colleges that take students with mediocre or low high school grades. The question for parents is whether those colleges have as good a reputation as the kind of four-year public or private college a student might be admitted to after a successful experience at a two-year community college. It might also be a matter of money. Doing the two years at a community college could save money that could then be put into a better four-year college for the final two years.

Of course, for parents of younger students, remind them that there is no easy route to a good college if high school grades are poor.

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  • Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
  • Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
  • Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

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Episode 9: What Are Some of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?

This week, we’re launching our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by examining some of the decisive factors, or deal breakers, in adding colleges to your list
Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Why up-front honesty with your teenager is the best policy
Why starting college close to home and then going away can be a good compromise
Why your teenager’s personality might dictate large vs. small colleges
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This week, we’re launching our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by examining some of the decisive factors, or deal breakers, in adding colleges to your list.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat Episode 9: What Are Some of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?

For some parents and their teenagers, there is one decisive factor in choosing colleges to apply to and eventually to attend. Once that decision is in place, they are willing to consider a variety of options that preserve that fundamental decision. For other parents and their teenagers, there are two—or more—decisive factors. And, because some factors are more important to some families than to other families, there is no way to rank the factors in one universal order to importance.

Nonetheless, you need to understand which factors are the decisive ones for you—the deal breakers, if you will. It is a useful first step in narrowing down your choices among the more than 4,500 two-year and four-year degree-granting institutions in the U.S. (plus all of those outside the U.S.).

Let us also say that this is the time for you to be honest with your teenager about what, if anything, is a deal breaker for you. For example, if you really cannot imagine letting your teenager go away to college, then that becomes one of your decisive factors. With that decision made, you can narrow your teenager’s choices down to colleges close to home. Or if you really cannot imagine how you could pay for a private college (because no one can count on a big scholarship and you do not want to borrow tens of thousands of dollars from the federal government through a Direct PLUS loan for parents), then that becomes one of your decisive factors. With that decision made, you can narrow your teenager’s choices down to public colleges. Ignoring your deal breakers now is likely to cause some disappointment later on. So have the conversation first.

Similarly, this is the time for your teenager to be honest with you about his or her own deal breakers. For example, if your teenager is going to refuse to study hard in a science major (your idea) because her heart is set on studying music (her idea), then that becomes one of her decisive factors. So, as we said, have the conversation.

Of course, there might not be any decisive factors—no deal breakers—for either you or your teenager, leaving your family the full range of colleges to consider. That would make life easier. But, just in case, here are four deal breakers to consider.

1. Colleges Away from Home or at Home?

For many students in the U.S. over a couple of centuries now, going away to college has been a rite of passage. Trunks are packed, car trips are taken, and teary good-byes are said in a dorm room on a campus of ivy-covered buildings. Hundreds of movies and televisions shows picture college kids doing crazy things on those campuses in those dorms or in fraternity and sorority houses. In some ways, the idea of kids going away to college has been part of the American dream.

That is not just a notion from the past. Today, there are still a lot of reasons why many students want to go away to college and why many students should go away to college. Let’s look at four of them:

  • It is a chance to grow up. Clearly, many 17- and 18-year-olds like the idea of living away from the daily oversight of their families. Who can blame them? This is their first step in making their own unsupervised decisions about academic issues and about social interactions—about what courses to take, when to schedule their classes, what to do on weekends and with whom, how to manage their time and their money, and more. Going away to college is their first step at separating from their families and becoming the adults they are soon to be. Everyone has to do it. Is there a better way to learn how to live on your own or a better time to learn it?
  • It is a chance to live in a different geographical location. If a student grew up in the city, it is a chance to live in the country or in the suburbs. If a student grew up in the Northeast, it is a chance to see the South or the West or the Midwest. If a student grew up in the U.S., it is a chance to experience life in Europe or in Asia or in South America. You get the idea. There is a lot to be said for going to college outside of your hometown or home state or home region or home country. Is there a better way to learn what other places are like or a better time to learn it?
  • It is a chance to live in a different social setting with people who are not like you. If a student did not grow up and attend school in a multiethnic, multicultural, and racially diverse setting, going away to college is a way to broaden that student’s personal experience with people of different backgrounds. Learning how to work with people of all backgrounds is a life skill most students will need in their futures. Is there a better way to learn what other people are like or a better time to learn it?
  • It is a chance to attend a college with a special focus or to major in a particular field a student cannot get close to home. If a student wants to attend a single-sex college or a faith-based college or an HBCU, for example, that student might have to leave home to find it. If a student has an interest in a college that focuses on one academic field (for example, the fine arts or business), that student might have to leave home to find it. If a student has a strong interest in a certain academic field (for example, computer science or journalism or linguistics or theater or mathematics), that student might have to leave home to find a college that has a well-regarded major in that field. Of course, students might change their minds once they get there, but these are still reasons to look at colleges away from home.

There are at least as many reasons for students to stay at home to attend college—sometimes living at home and sometimes living on campus or in a nearby apartment. Let’s look at a few reasons to stay at home:

  • It is a way to save money. This is a complicated reason, because it is possible that a student will get an amazing scholarship, which also covers living costs, at a college far from home. In that case, it is possible that going away actually saves the family more money. However, it is fair to say that most students do not get full scholarships, including living expenses; so, for most students, going to college in their hometown saves money. Staying at home for college saves even more money if the college is a public college, where tuition will be far lower for residents than tuition would be at a private college anywhere. And staying at home for college saves still more money if the student actually lives at home and attends a public college. But, remember that it is complicated. For example, going away to a public college in your state, but not in your hometown, might be cheaper than staying at home and attending a private college.
  • It is a way to keep a student involved in the family culture. For some families, cultural traditions in the family or in the community are very important, like attending the family’s church and participating in church activities or being part of social groups that represent the family’s ethnic or cultural background. For these families, sending a child away to college breaks the social and family bonds that are very much a part of that family’s lifestyle. Whether the family can adjust to that sort of break would need to be the topic of a serious discussion.
  • It is a way to give a student a little more time to get ready to be on his or her own. Some 17- and 18-year-olds are not quite ready to live on their own too far from home. That is especially true of young people who have not traveled much with their families, who have not attended camps or summer study programs away from home, who have not participated in many outside-of-school activities, or who are younger than the typical high school graduate (including bright students who graduate early).
  • It is a way for a student to attend a great college that happens to be in that student’s hometown. As a matter of fact, sometimes a great college—or even the perfect college—for a student happens to be located in the student’s hometown. For example, it has the right academic program or the right special focus. When that is the case, going away to college just to go away does not really make sense.

By the way, sometimes it is the parent who thinks the teenager should go away and the teenager who wants to stay home, though you might think it would usually be the reverse. Either way, is it a decisive factor in putting colleges on your list—that is, will you put only colleges near home on your list or only colleges away from home on your list? In other words, is going away or staying at home a deal breaker for you?

2. Two-Year or Four-Year Colleges?

In our last series, Understanding the World of College, in Episode 2, we talked a lot about two-year colleges vs. four-year colleges and universities and the pros and cons of each. The question now is whether your family wants to consider both two-year colleges and four-year colleges or universities for your teenager’s first step into higher education.

As we said, two-year colleges, which are largely public community colleges, offer 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 reasonable price. They also offer two-year associate’s degrees, which can be enough for some careers or can be transferred to four-year colleges and applied toward credits needed for a four-year bachelor’s degree. Two-year colleges also offer students who have struggled in high school a chance to improve their academic record and gain the fundamental skills they will need in higher-level college study.

Public community colleges can be a good choice—and possibly decisive factor—if your teenager is undecided about an academic field of study in college and/or about a future career, has a spotty high school academic record, does not yet have good enough study skills for advanced college work, and/or believes that a two-year associate’s degree is sufficient college study for the immediate future. Putting only two-year colleges on your list is also a reasonable decision if paying for college is a critical concern for your family.

Turning to four-year colleges, which come in all shapes and sizes, we know that there is probably one that would be a good fit for almost any student. If you and your teenager believe that a bachelor’s degree is eventually what your teenager will want to earn and if he or she is ready to tackle the academic work at a four-year college, then that might be a decisive factor for you. The range of four-year colleges is so broad in what they offer, where they are located, how much they cost, and how selective they are that choosing to put only four-year colleges on your list still leaves a lot of options open to you.

3. Public or Private Colleges?

In our last series, Understanding the World of College, in Episode 1, we talked a lot about public colleges vs. private colleges vs. proprietary institutions and the pros and cons of each. The question now is whether your family wants to consider both public colleges and private colleges (by the way, all proprietary schools are private) for your teenager’s first step into higher education.

The main factor here is cost. Public colleges are less expensive than private colleges when it comes to tuition. But considering the cost of college can be complicated, as we said. A private college that offers your teenager a substantial scholarship could turn out to cost your family less than a public university that does not offer you any scholarship money. Of course, you cannot count on a scholarship. So, where does that leave you?

If money is a critical factor in where to send your child to college, then think hard about looking only at public colleges. And have that serious discussion with your teenager. Talk about whether applying to private colleges is a good idea, knowing that a scholarship would be required. Or does that simply set your teenager up for a disappointment down the road if no scholarship is forthcoming? Talk about whether summer and part-time jobs could make up the difference in what you can provide financially and what would be needed. But help your teenager understand that working while in college—though many, many students do it—is actually very demanding.

With all that being said, if the best choice for your teenager could be a public college or could be a private college—because of majors being offered or location or size or special focus or even family sentiment—then public vs. private college is not a deal breaker for you.

4. Large or Small Colleges?

You might believe that a small college provides the best academic and social environment for your teenager. If so, you probably believe that a small college is more nurturing; that your teenager is less likely to “get lost” in it; that classes are smaller, affording students more attention from professors (and not from teaching assistants); that it is easier to join extracurricular clubs and sports teams; and that it is better to be a big fish in a little pond. Many people would agree with that.

On the other hand, you might believe that a large college provides the best academic and social environment for your teenager. If so, you probably believe that a large college offers more courses and a greater variety of majors to choose from; that a large college has more laboratories and libraries and theaters and other academic facilities; that there are more and better social activities available, including fraternities and sororities; that sports teams are of a higher caliber; and that there are more alumni to help connect your teenager to the outside world after graduation. Many people would agree with that.

Of course, you could split the difference and prefer medium-sized colleges. Remember, the question now is whether the size of the college is a decisive factor either for you or for your teenager. For example, do you want to put only small colleges, or only small and medium-sized colleges (but no large colleges), or only large colleges on your list? If you can accept the advantages and disadvantages of each, then size is not a deal breaker for you.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why up-front honesty with your teenager is the best policy
  • Why starting college close to home and then going away can be a good compromise
  • Why your teenager’s personality might dictate large vs. small colleges

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

In New York State

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…