Episode 108: Early Decision and Early Action Anxiety in College Admissions–Part I

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Welcome back to Series 10, Issues in Higher Education. This is the second in our series of episodes discussing a variety of issues in higher education, and it’s a two-parter. Today’s and next week’s issue is one that, to put it bluntly, I find infuriating. This infuriation has likely been felt by anyone who has tried to navigate the world of Early Decision and Early Action admission to colleges in these past five or six months. So, let’s get started sorting it all out.

We will talk about Early Decision today; next week, we will look at Early Action and then talk about some colleges that offer both Early Decision and Early Action–and indeed some that offer more than one round of one and/or the other. It’s close to insane.

More than a decade and a half ago in September of 2001, The Atlantic published a long and fascinating article by James Fallows, entitled “The Early-Decision Racket.” We believe that title really says it all–now more than ever. For those of you interested in how we got here, read the article and get a brief history.

1. Early Decision Cons

In the olden days, it used to be that a student could apply to one college and one college only under an Early Decision plan–meaning that the student would apply early, get an answer early, and agree to attend that college if accepted. For students, it was–and still is–a binding decision. Furthermore, Early Decision was also the only “early” game in town.

Perhaps the most important reason that lots of folks 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, for sure–having to choose a college without being able to compare financial aid packages put those students and their families under undue financial pressure.

Many critics of Early Decision today express a legitimate concern that Early Decision favors the children of the wealthy, who do not need to worry about paying for college and comparing financial aid packages. Frank Bruni, a New York Times writer whose work we have read from twice before at USACollegeChat, wrote a column entitled “The Plague of ‘Early Decision’” last December. Talking about his view of the biggest problem with Early Decision at selective colleges, Mr. Bruni wrote this:

[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)

Mr. Bruni went on to quote one of our favorite experts here at USACollegeChat: Harold O. Levy, the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. (You can listen to our interview with Harold here.) According to Mr. Bruni, Harold said, “That’s just unfair in a profound way.” We know from our own earlier interview with Harold and from the Foundation’s excellent work that they are all about trying to ensure that our nation’s selective colleges open their doors to more low-income bright kids, who are often under-recruited and overlooked by these colleges.

Mr. Bruni goes on to register his own concern about a still different aspect of the Early Decision landscape:

[W]hat worries me . . . is how the early-application process intensifies much of what’s perverse about college admissions today: the anxiety-fueling, disappointment-seeding sense that one school above all others glimmers in the distance as the perfect prize; the assessment of the most exclusive environments as . . . the superior ones.

To follow up on Mr. Bruni’s notion, let me point to a story reported last December in The New York Times by Anemona Hartocollis and Richard Pérez-Peña. The title says it all: “Agony as Tulane Applicants Learn Acceptance Emails Are in Error.”

In a nutshell, 130 kids who had applied under an Early Decision option to Tulane University, a very good private university in New Orleans, received acceptance emails as a result of a glitch in new computer software even though they had not been accepted (in fact, some had been accepted for the following spring term, while others had been deferred to the regular decision pool of applicants). Admittedly, this is an awful and embarrassing situation for Tulane. But here is the “anxiety-fueling, disappointment-seeding” part that Mr. Bruni spoke of: The student being interviewed for The New York Times article “asked not to be fully identified because she was humiliated and did not want to be associated with what she called a scandal.” Humiliated? Really? Because she was not accepted Early Decision to Tulane (even though she was, in fact, accepted for the following spring term)? Maybe things have just gone too far.

The article about Tulane continues this way:

Students and parents, already full of anxiety over the high-stakes admissions process, expressed their disbelief and agony online.

“These kids are already so anxious, and the whole process has become so crazy, so this is really a horrible, horrible thing to put them through,” said Phillip Trout, a college counselor at Minnetonka High School in Minnetonka, Minn., and past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. (quoted from the article)

Yes, Mr. Trout. The process looks pretty crazy to many of us watching it, too.

So, Mr. Bruni offers us yet another perspective on the Early Decision issue, and it is this:

Early decision moves the admissions process forward on the calendar, so that high school students start obsessing sooner. They press themselves to single out a college at the start of senior year, when they may not understand themselves as well as they will toward the end of it. (quoted from the article)

Well, yes, high school seniors mature a bit and can think through complex problems better as the year goes on. I am not sure that there is much difference between applying to a college on November 1 under an Early Decision option and on January 1 under a regular deadline. However, there might indeed be a difference between a student’s making a final decision about a college to attend on November 1 (because the student’s decision would be binding if he or she were accepted in December) and making that final decision the following April from among, hopefully, several choices. So, I’ll give Mr. Bruni that point.

And here’s one last note from Mr. Bruni’s article:

Marla Schay, the head of guidance at Weston High School, in an affluent suburb outside Boston, told me that while 60 percent of the seniors there submitted early applications seven years ago, it’s above 86 percent now. (quoted from the article)

Wow, 86 percent of those likely well-off suburban kids applying early. Times have changed, and the race is clearly escalating. Any high school seniors who have to overcome any kind of barrier when making their college applications–whether that is financial worries or English as a second language or lack of college counseling or parents who cannot help?are going to be just that much further behind.

2. Early Decision Pros

On the other hand, if you can put those very substantial negatives aside, it seems to us that Early Decision is still a great option for some kids. I guess the problem is that Early Decision could be a great option for your own teenager, even if it might be a bad option for teenagers in general. With my education leader’s hat on, I have to say that Early Decision worries me increasingly; but with my advocate-for-one-particular-kid’s hat on, I still might recommend it for that one kid.

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. Many colleges have the option, but not all colleges have it.

Why might Early Decision be a good move for your teenager? There are two primary reasons. First, your family could get this whole college admissions process over with as efficiently as possible at some point in December. As we have already mentioned, the application is usually due around November 1, with a decision usually coming in December. And that would occasion a huge sigh of relief from everyone concerned! In fact, it also would save all of the stress of completing numerous applications. Even with the Common Application’s cutting 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.

The second reason might be even more important, and it is why we are hard-pressed not to recommend Early Decision for kids who are ready. It is that your child might actually have a better chance–even a much better chance–of being accepted if he or she applies Early Decision. There has been a lot of press about that recently, but I am going to go back to an excellent article by Nick Anderson in The Washington Post from last March, which offered some really rather astonishing statistics on 2015 numbers from 64 “prominent colleges and universities” (my guess is that this year’s numbers won’t be very different and, if anything, could well be more favorable toward Early Decision applicants). His article was aptly entitled “A college-admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision.” Unfortunately, it’s just what critics fear. 

Here are the acceptance rates for Early Decision applicants (listed first) compared to the overall acceptance rates (that includes both early and regular admissions) for all applicants (listed second) from a selection of great colleges:

  • University of Pennsylvania: 24% vs. 10%
  • Tufts University: 39% vs. 16%
  • Kenyon College: 58% vs. 24%
  • Barnard College: 43% vs. 20%
  • Northwestern University: 38% vs. 13%
  • Duke University: 27% vs. 12%
  • Williams College: 41% vs. 18%
  • Haverford College: 46% vs. 25%
  • Johns Hopkins University: 29% vs. 13%
  • Smith College: 57% vs. 38%
  • Oberlin College: 54% vs. 29%

By the way, inasmuch as the overall acceptance rate includes both early and regular acceptance rates, the regular acceptance rate by itself would actually be even lower than the second numbers we just read.

Those percentages have got to make you think twice before you as a family dismiss the notion of applying on an Early Decision schedule. But if those numbers weren’t convincing enough, here is another eye-opening statistic from a sample of great colleges–the estimated percentage of the freshman class that is made up of Early Decision acceptances:

  • University of Pennsylvania:       54%
  • Middlebury College:       53%
  • Emory University: 53%
  • Vanderbilt University:       51%
  • Kenyon College: 51%
  • Barnard College: 51%
  • Northwestern University:       50%
  • Hamilton College: 50%
  • Swarthmore College:       50%
  • Bowdoin College: 49%
  • Duke University: 47%
  • Colorado College: 45%
  • Dartmouth College: 43%

Do you get the picture? Just 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. In fact, The Washington Post article declared that, of the top-60 national liberal arts universities and colleges, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, 48 filled one-third or more of their seats with Early Decision applicants (including two more Ivy League schools, Brown University and Cornell University, with 38 percent shares each) and 16 filled one-half or more of their seats with Early Decision applicants.

You really have to stop and think about these statistics. No kidding. What are your teenager’s odds of getting into a place when one-third or 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 tried to test that and, therefore, don’t know how sticky a college would make that withdrawal.

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. It doesn’t want to be worried about the incoming class in April, either.

But somehow, my concern is still on the side of the students. And the number of Early Decision applications is going up, as more and more families hear the numbers you have just heard. Where will it all end?

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Episode 90: Assignment #10: It’s Never Too Late To Add One More College

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This is an episode we like to call “It’s Never Too Late To Add One More College.” Now, if your teenager and you have done your nine assignments this summer to expand and then investigate seriously the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options, you are probably wondering what we mean by “adding one more.” But, first, let’s review the nine assignments you have already done?and it’s an impressive group:

We are truly impressed if you got all that done. Even if you didn’t do it for 50 colleges–one from each state, which was our original challenge–we are impressed. Even if you did it for just half that many colleges we are impressed. But, let’s say that we hope you did it for at least 20.

1. Your Assignment #10

Download the Assignment #10 Worksheet

And so, we come to the last assignment in building and investigating your teenager’s list. This assignment is not like the others. It is designed to give your teenager and you one last chance to consider a college you might have missed in your search, and it does that by looking at several categories of colleges you might have overlooked or you might have thought were not right for your teenager. At the end of this episode, you might be able to rule out each category we are suggesting; if so, your list is done. On the other hand, you might want to look further at one category or another and consider adding a few colleges to that long summer list of college options.

2. What About Faith-Based Colleges?

As we explained at some length in our book How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (on sale at Amazon until we declare the summer officially over), “faith-based”–that is, religious–colleges and universities are a broader category than you might think. This category includes hundreds of small Bible colleges, which are indeed dedicated to religious life and the study of religion, but it also includes very large universities that offer all fields of study, though with an underlying religious or moral or service-to-others orientation.

Some faith-based institutions require more religious study than others. Some require students to take just a couple of courses in theology or perhaps philosophy instead, while others infuse much of their curriculum with their religious beliefs. Some require students to attend chapel services, but many do not.

In our experience, faith-based institutions are usually quite up front about what they are all about. They are not trying to trick your teenager into going there, because that wouldn’t be good for you or for them. Sometimes a college application will give you a clue by asking for your religion and the name and address of your church. Some ask for a recommendation from a minister. Many have a statement of their religious beliefs on their website or in their student handbook; you can read it and see whether your family supports it.

As a matter of fact, more U.S. colleges and universities than you might think have been founded by religious denominations–especially a lot of our earliest and most prestigious colleges, as you learned if you listened to our virtual nationwide tour of colleges (Episodes 27 through 54). Some of them retain their religious affiliation today, and many do not. Some faith-based institutions are Jewish, some are Catholic, and some are Protestant. One very interesting choice is Soka University of America (SUA), located in Orange County, California: “Proudly founded upon the Buddhist principles of peace, human rights and the sanctity of life, SUA offers a non-sectarian curriculum” and welcomes students of all beliefs (quoted from the website).

Understanding the world of some 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. is particularly complicated because they have been founded by various orders (including the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, and more) and by other groups within the Catholic community. And, in case you didn’t listen to our virtual nationwide tour of colleges, many respected Catholic institutions, including some of the best-known ones, actually attract many students who are not Catholic.

As I have said in previous episodes, I sent my daughter Polly to the Alvin Ailey/Fordham University joint dance B.F.A. program. Fordham is a Jesuit university, something I am always embarrassed to admit that I knew very little about before I sent Polly there to dance. For those of you who don’t know, the Jesuits–that is, the Society of Jesus–which was founded in Paris in the 1500s, traces its commitment to education to St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the first Jesuit college in Messina, Sicily, in 1548. Jesuit institutions today place a strong emphasis on intellectual rigor and a liberal arts foundation, social justice issues worldwide, and a life of service. It is my belief that students of all faiths, including my daughter who is not Catholic, are welcome and comfortable at Jesuit institutions. When I heard Father Joseph McShane, Fordham’s president, speak at orientation, I knew that we had, accidentally, made a great decision in sending Polly to Fordham. Father McShane said that Fordham students were taught to wrestle with important moral and ethical issues, to care for others, to despair over injustice, and to give back to their communities.

So, if your teenager is interested in social justice, if your teenager has done extensive community service projects in high school and has valued those experiences, or if you would like this sort of underpinning for your teenager’s collegiate education, I am going to suggest that you put a Jesuit college or university on your teenager’s long summer list of college options now so that you can think about it over the next few months. There are 28 to choose from (actually 189 worldwide), and they include small and large institutions all over the U.S. Some that you have likely heard of, in addition to Fordham in New York City, are Boston College, the College of the Holy Cross (in Worcester, Massachusetts), Georgetown University (in Washington, D.C.), Marquette University (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), Saint Louis University (which has a great campus in Madrid, too), Santa Clara University (in California), and the University of San Francisco.

3. What About Historically Black Colleges and Universities?

Commonly referred to as HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities were established with the mission of educating African-American students solely or at least primarily. Today, just over 100 HBCUs can be found in many states and in both rural and urban settings. They are public and private, large and small (even very small), faith-based and not, two-year and four-year colleges; some have graduate schools.

HBCUs were founded to serve students who had been excluded from many other higher education institutions because of their race. The three earliest HBCUs were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio before the Civil War, but many were founded in the South shortly after the Civil War. Those Southern HBCUs share a proud tradition of becoming the first collegiate homes of family members of freed slaves.

Some HBCUs have produced great black leaders–like Booker T. Washington, who attended Hampton University, and like Thurgood Marshall, who attended both Lincoln University and Howard University School of Law. Some have put great black leaders from many walks of life on their payrolls as professors and administrators–like Fisk University, where Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance, served as Fisk’s first black president and where Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, like Arna Bontemps, James Weldon Johnson, and Aaron Douglas all worked. If you have listened to many episodes of USACollegeChat, you probably know that Fisk is my favorite HBCU, precisely because of its history (and if you don’t know about the Fisk Jubilee Singers, organized in 1871, you should).

Today, HBCUs enroll students who are not black–just as historically white colleges and universities now enroll students who are not white. Some observers say that it has become harder for HBCUs to recruit African-American students now that they are welcome at both selective and nonselective colleges across the U.S. That is probably true to some degree. Nonetheless, there is still a strong sense of community among the alumni/alumnae of HBCUs and a strong sense of tradition on HBCU campuses. For some African-American students especially, that could be a good fit for what they are looking for in a college, and a shared culture could go a long way toward helping them feel comfortable on a college campus, especially if it is far from home.

So, if your teenager is interested in living and studying in the shared culture that characterizes HBCUs or if you would like this sort of cultural and historical underpinning for your teenager’s collegiate education, I am going to suggest that you put an HBCU on your teenager’s long summer list of college options now so that you can think about it over the next few months. There are plenty to choose from, including some small and very accommodating ones that might be a perfect choice if your teenager has not gotten the high school grades or test scores that you might have wished for.

4. What About Hispanic-Serving Institutions?

There are over 250 colleges and universities that have been designated during the past 50 years as Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), meaning that they have a student enrollment that is at least 25 percent Hispanic. For example, The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, a federally designated HSI, was one of the first minority-majority universities, with an approximately 45 percent Hispanic student body and an Anglo student population of just about 35 percent.

HSIs are located in states across the U.S. from California to Massachusetts and from Washington to Florida. Some HSIs are large public universities, some are large public community colleges, and some are small private liberal arts colleges. Many HSIs receive federal funds to support programs and scholarships that are designed to help low-income Hispanic students succeed in college.

Although HSIs do not have the same kind of historical traditions that HBCUs have–perhaps because they were not founded originally with a mission to serve Hispanic students–they do offer an environment where Hispanic students might more easily find classmates with a similar cultural background. First-generation Hispanic college students–that is, students whose parents did not attend college–might find it easier to fit into this supportive college environment, thus improving their chances of long-term success.

So, if your teenager is interested in living and studying with a substantial number of students from a similar cultural background or if you would like this sort of cultural underpinning for your teenager’s collegiate education, I am going to suggest that you put an HSI on your teenager’s long summer list of college options now so that you can think about it over the next few months. Remember that many HSIs are two-year colleges, so look over the options carefully.

5. What About Single-Sex Colleges and Universities?

Let’s start by remembering that 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 Ivy League institutions served only male students when they were founded in the 1600s and 1700s. Only my alma mater, Cornell University, the youngest of the Ivies, was founded as a co-educational university, which is, frankly, one reason I went there.

As time went on, many of the 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 Marie’s alma mater, 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. 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 or in their special programs for returning adult students, 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.

If you have a daughter interested in a women’s college, check out the Women’s College Coalition website and the available downloadable guide Why a Women’s College? Or, you can just have her listen to Marie talk for the next few minutes.

Okay, what about the men? Interestingly, only a handful of men’s colleges remain. There 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–and that is quite a range. Hampden-Sydney College was founded in 1775 in Virginia and has a fascinating history (Patrick Henry and James Madison were among its first Trustees). And there is Wabash College, which is located in Indiana and is my father-on-law’s alma mater. Wabash is 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. If I had a teenage boy at home who needed to focus on his studies so that he could become all that he could be, I would strongly consider Wabash.

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.

So, if your teenager is interested in living and studying in a supportive environment typically with high expectations or if you would like this sort of social and intellectual underpinning for your teenager’s collegiate education, I am going to suggest that you put a single-sex institution on your teenager’s long summer list of college options now so that you can think about it over the next few months.

And let me make one point here: Even though I don’t prefer single-sex institutions now, I had two on my own list of colleges that I applied to. It was only after I had been accepted to them that I figured out they weren’t for me. But I was glad that I had the options and could consider them calmly over some months. And Marie, even though you chose to attend Barnard, you also applied to co-educational colleges. So, having both types of institutions on your teenager’s long summer list of college options might be just the thing to do.

So, have your teenager take the Assignment #10 worksheet and take one last look at whether to add another college to his or her long summer list of college options. And, since Monday is Labor Day, we are going to take a week off while you all enjoy your last three-day weekend of the summer season. Fortunately, this next week will give you and your teenager some time to let that long summer list of college options sink in–right before we start helping you narrow it down and begin the serious application process. We will see you back with us on September 15!

Download the Assignment #10 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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Episode 87: Assignment #7–Looking at Core Curricula

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

Well, this is Assignment #7, which means that your teenager and perhaps you have done a lot of work so far. Take a look back and look at all you have accomplished this summer:

This episode’s assignment takes us back inside the college and right into the middle of the college curriculum, especially as it plays out for freshmen and sophomores.

Episode 87 Looking at College Core Curricula on USACollegeChat podcast

1. Your Assignment #7

Download the Assignment #7 Worksheet

For Assignment #7, your teenager and you are going to look at whether the college has a “core curriculum”–or what might be called “general education” credits or requirements or what we called “distribution requirements” in the old days.

2. What Is a Core Curriculum?

For the purpose of this episode, we will refer to this likely centuries-old curriculum concept as a “core curriculum.” What it means is that all students in a college, or in a specific college or school within a larger university, have to take typically one or two courses in each of a broad range of academic disciplines, such as mathematics, or in each of a broad range of groups of disciplines, such as natural sciences, languages and literature, social sciences, and so on. Each college seems to have its own unique way of defining these groups of disciplines, with some more understandable than others.

Some colleges have quite strict requirements, meaning usually that there are many different requirements that have to be met and that might amount to a double handful of courses before it’s all over. Some colleges have a core curriculum, but have far fewer requirements for the courses or number of courses that have to be taken. And some colleges have no core curriculum at all. Would the presence of core curriculum requirements make a difference to your teenager in choosing a college?

3. What Is the Purpose of a Core Curriculum?

So, what is the purpose of a core curriculum? The concept comes from the liberal arts tradition, where students are supposed to be well rounded in their studies and in their understanding of the intellectual content and issues of many fields. People in favor of this tradition would say that students do not know exactly where their careers and lives will take them and that the ability to solve problems and think critically across a range of content could make the difference in how well they succeed in their careers (likely in their multiple careers) and indeed in their lives. It is no surprise that liberal arts colleges and that the arts and sciences college or school within large universities would support and require a core curriculum for its students.

However, some non-liberal-arts colleges and schools within large universities also have instituted a core curriculum. My favorite example of this (and we have talked and written about it before) is the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, which has this impressive and perhaps surprising statement on its website:

Engineering has been called the newest liberal art. At Columbia Engineering, students not only study science and mathematics and gain technical skills but also study literature, philosophy, art history, music theory, and major civilizations through the Core Curriculum in the humanities.

Students are encouraged to consider the wide range of possibilities open to them, both academically and professionally. To this end, the first and second years of the four-year undergraduate program comprise approximately 66 semester points of credit that expose students to a cross-fertilization of ideas from different disciplines within the University. The sequence of study proceeds from an engagement with engineering and scientific fundamentals, along with humanities and social sciences, toward an increasingly focused training in the third and fourth years designed to give students mastery of certain principles and arts central to engineering and applied science. (quoted from the website)

So, at Fu, students are required to take some liberal arts courses early on in their engineering program in order to provide some humanities balance to the heavy load of mathematics and sciences that all engineering students take. The brilliance of this position comes in the notion that students who find that engineering is not what they had expected–for whatever reason–are well equipped to transfer to another field of study and move many of these core credits with them. For some engineering students, these liberal arts courses could be a drag; for other engineering students, they could turn out to save the day.

One important advantage of a core curriculum is that it causes students to look into whole academic fields that are rarely taught in high schools?like anthropology or sociology or art history or linguistics. Without requirements in a variety of academic fields or groups of fields, many students would never take a look at some of them and would never know what they had missed.

As it turns out, some colleges go one step further and require certain courses of all students?the actual courses, not just the academic fields. So, instead of saying to students that they must take two courses in the languages and literature, for example, the college will specify that all students must take Writing 101 and Public Speaking 101. In those cases, the college has decided to require those specific courses that its professors feel are most fundamental to developing the foundation for more advanced college study and to developing a broad understanding of and ability to engage in the modern world. Because all students have taken these same required core courses, professors can use that shared knowledge to help students make connections across subject fields every year from then on.

4. Examples of a Core Curriculum

When we did our nationwide virtual tour of colleges back in Episodes 27 through 54, we often talked about the core curriculum requirements of a college. We did that for two reasons. First, we were super-impressed with some of them, even though we could tell that they would be quite demanding of students. Second, we knew that some students would love the idea of a core curriculum, while other students would hate the idea of a core curriculum. There are two groups of students who are likely to hate the idea the most. One group is students who do not feel confident in a range of academic fields (this often comes in the form of “I’d like to go to a college where I don’t have to take advanced science or math”). The other group is students who are anxious to get on with what exactly they already know they want to study and don’t want to waste time with other things (this often comes in the form of “I want to be a computer scientist, and I don’t see a need for these humanities requirements”).

Nonetheless, here are a handful of examples of some of the core curricula we talked about during our nationwide virtual tour of colleges:

Let’s start with a tiny Catholic college with a student enrollment of fewer than 200 undergraduates: Wyoming Catholic College, located in Lander and the only four-year private college in the state of Wyoming. According to its website, this faith-based college offers a classical liberal arts curriculum, which includes a study of the Great Books of Western culture and a serious set of distribution requirements, which includes 24 credits of theology, 13 credits of leadership, 10 credits of philosophy, and 16 credits of Latin. Interestingly, students graduate with a B.A. in Liberal Arts?not in a specific subject field.

Grinnell College in the “rolling farmland” of central Iowa offers a unique Individually Advised Curriculum, described this way on the website:

Every first-year student at Grinnell enrolls in the First-Year Tutorial, a small group of students [limited to 12] working with a faculty member to study a subject of interest to both students and tutor. The tutor also is the academic adviser for each student in the group, so that teaching and learning are closely linked with the planning of programs of study. In teaching, the tutor discovers the aptitudes and interests of the students, who in turn receive academic advice, not from an infrequently consulted stranger, but from a teacher who sees them several times each week. In planning a program of study, the student and the tutor balance the cultivation of existing interests with the discovery of new ones. An entering student should regard the first year as a time for gaining breadth in the arts and sciences, confidence in exploring a variety of disciplines, and a more mature understanding of the place of each of these in liberal education as a whole. (quoted from the website)

Grinnell does expect students to become proficient in written English by taking at least one appropriate course, to develop knowledge of mathematics and/or a foreign language, and to take courses in these three areas: humanities, science, and social studies. So, there are some distribution requirements, but extreme freedom in what exactly to take. When a student finally chooses a major, his or her academic advisor will be assigned from that subject field.

Let’s turn to St. John’s College, which has two campuses, with students often transferring for a year between the two: St. John’s Annapolis in Maryland and St. John’s Santa Fe in New Mexico. But the real unique idea at St. John’s is its liberal arts curriculum, based on collaborative inquiry in small class discussions, with the professor acting as a tutor and mentor?all based on the original texts of great authors in almost every subject field. The Seminar, as St. John’s calls it, is the foundation for the curriculum, and it is described this way on the website:

Students participate in far-reaching and free but disciplined conversations about major works of literature, philosophy, political theory, theology, history, economics, and psychology from Homer and the Greek historians, playwrights, and philosophers in the freshman year, through the Renaissance in the sophomore year and the Enlightenment in the junior year, to the contemporary world in the senior year. (quoted from the website)

Students at St. John’s are also required to take four years of mathematics, three years of laboratory science, two years of music (including singing in the Freshman Chorus together), and four years of a second language (two years of Ancient Greek and two years of modern French). Clearly, this is one serious set of core curriculum requirements.

Let’s move on to Middlebury College in Vermont, perhaps best known for its excellent language programs for a hundred years. In the classic liberal arts tradition, Middlebury students must fulfill two sets of distribution requirements: (1) one course in seven of eight academic fields (including foreign language); and (2) one course in each of four cultures and civilizations areas:

a. Courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean

  1. Courses that focus on the process of comparison between and among cultures and civilizations, or courses that focus on the identity and experience of separable groups within cultures and civilizations

  2. Courses that focus on some aspect of European cultures and civilizations

  3. Courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of northern America (United States and Canada) (quoted from the website)

Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the U.S., offers its undergraduates the opportunity to study in the schools of foreign service, business, or nursing and health studies or in Georgetown College, the liberal arts college that first established the institution. Before pursuing one of more than 40 majors, students in the College must complete core requirements in a wide range of humanities and science fields, including two courses in theology, starting with either The Problem of God or Introduction to Biblical Literature as freshmen.

Colgate University, a small liberal arts university in upstate New York, has undergraduates studying in 54 majors, which come from a strong and broad liberal arts Core Curriculum. Students are required to take four courses in their first two years: Legacies of the Ancient World, Challenges of Modernity, Communities and Identities, and Scientific Perspectives on the World. Students are also required to take one course with a Global Engagements designation and six more courses from three liberal arts and sciences areas.

Undergraduate students at Morehouse College, the all-men HBCU in Atlanta, are required to complete a core curriculum, which includes four courses in the humanities?one in religion, one in philosophy, one in art history, and one in music history. That is about as liberal arts as it gets.

But it’s not just small private colleges that have a core curriculum. The huge flagship University of Texas at Austin puts all of its freshmen into the School of Undergraduate Studies, where they explore their interests through a liberal-arts-and-sciences core curriculum of 42 credits. In their freshman year, students take UT’s Signature Course, which is actually an array of 150 course offerings for students to choose from, all of which provide college-level experiences in thinking and writing and speaking and research. Students are encouraged to go outside their comfort zone when choosing from the Signature Courses, which are often interdisciplinary, like Astronomy and the Humanities. UT students leave the School of Undergraduate Studies by the end of their second year to pursue their major course of study.

At Penn State, typical undergraduates take almost one-third of their courses in the College of Liberal Arts. All students are required to take 45 credits of General Education courses, including three credits of writing-intensive coursework, a course in U.S. cultures, a course in international cultures, and coursework that covers social and behavioral sciences, humanities, natural sciences, quantitative skills, the arts, and health and physical activity.

It is hard to do this episode without a nod to our own two undergraduate alma maters, so let’s look at them. Here are the “distribution requirements” and the “breadth requirements” in Cornell University‘s College of Arts and Sciences curriculum (and these are in addition to two first-year writing seminars, a serious intermediate-level foreign language requirement–which many high-ranked colleges have, two physical education courses plus a swimming test):

  • 2 courses in physical and biological sciences
  • 1 course in mathematics and quantitative reasoning
  • 1 course that is in either sciences or mathematics
  • Five arts and sciences courses from at least 4 of the following social sciences, humanities, and arts categories:
  • Cultural analysis
  • Historical analysis
  • Knowledge, cognition, and moral reasoning
  • Literature and the arts
  • Social and behavioral analysis
  • Geographic breadth requirement: 1 course that focuses on an area or a people other than those of the United States, Canada, or Europe
  • Historic breadth requirement: 1 course that focuses on an historic period before the 20th century

While I would applaud these requirements for my own children and for the children of all of my friends, I can tell you that the requirements were not quite so demanding in the early 1970s. And, for that, I believe I am grateful.

So, let’s take a look at Barnard College‘s brand new curriculum, called Foundations, which I know you didn’t have, Marie, because it applies for the first time to students entering this fall. Barnard has what it calls “distributional requirements” and “modes of thinking” (in addition to a first-year writing course, first-year seminar, and one physical education course):

  • 2 courses in the languages
  • 2 courses in the arts/humanities
  • 2 courses in the social sciences
  • 2 courses in the sciences (1 with a lab)
  • 1 course in thinking locally–New York City
  • 1 course in thinking through global inquiry
  • 1 course in thinking about social difference
  • 1 course in thinking with historical perspective
  • 1 course in thinking quantitatively and empirically
  • 1 course in thinking technologically and digitally

I would have to say that those requirements are also quite demanding, especially for a student who, right or wrong, is not interested in broadening her horizons.

So, if all this is just too much, take a look at just a few colleges that do not have a standard core curriculum of courses:

Let’s start with The Evergreen State College, a public liberal arts college in Washington’s capital city of Olympia. Students at Evergreen take one interdisciplinary course, called a program, at a time, which might last one, two, or even three quarters. Built around a theme, a program integrates several subjects and is taught by a team of two to four professors from different subject fields. Students participate in a mixture of lectures, seminars, tutorials, field trips, labs, and the like during each program. There are no required programs and no distribution requirements and no major requirements (because there are no majors) for earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. A Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts and Science does have some math, science, or computer science requirements.

At Hamilton College in upstate New York, students pursue studies in 51 fields, based on a broad liberal arts and sciences curriculum that each student works out with his or her advisor. There are a few requirements?such as at least three writing-intensive courses?but there seems to be quite a bit of freedom in operationalizing the spirit of a liberal arts education.

Pitzer College, one of the five undergraduate colleges in The Claremont Colleges consortium in California, offers its 1,000 students about 40 fields of study in an “interdisciplinary liberal arts education emphasizing social justice, intercultural understanding and environmental sensitivity” (quoted from the website). Students are expected to engage in community service and are given the freedom to create their own academic programs; there are no traditional core course requirements.

So, have your teenager take the Assignment #7 worksheet and complete one for each college on his or her long summer list of college options, and I hope it is still long. First, note whether there is a core curriculum, or general education course, or distribution requirements, or breadth requirements, or whatever that college might call the list of academic fields or groups of fields or even specific courses all students must take. Remember, if it is a university, make sure that your teenager checks the college or school of interest to him or her; requirements may well not be the same for all of the colleges and schools in the university. Second, write down exactly what the requirements are. When the time comes to decide which colleges stay on the list, the number and rigor and breadth of the requirements might be something you all will want to consider.

Download the Assignment #7 Worksheet

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Episode 68: Tips from Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita, Spelman College

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Today’s episode is a bit of a departure from what Marie and I usually do, and it comes as a result of the Early College high school conference we just attended, where we were pleased to be presenting a session on making schools an open book for parents—that is, ways that schools should invite parents to engage with them in a serious and productive manner.  That doesn’t mean just showing up at parent-teacher conferences, by the way, but that is a topic for a different episode.

Episode 68: Tips from Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita, Spelman College on USACollegeChat podcastWhile we were in Atlanta at what turned out to be an excellent conference, sponsored by EDWorks, which is an Ohio-based nonprofit leader in the Early College high school movement (that’s a shout-out to you, Andrea Mulkey, and the great work you do), we were privileged to hear a question-and-answer session with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.  Dr. Tatum served as president of Spelman College for 13 years before retiring last summer (though she has certainly not retired from the world of education and how to improve it for students and especially for students of color).  Dr. Tatum is also the author of a number of books, at least one of which I intend to buy and read, and that is Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: And Other Conversations About Race, which is getting ready for its 20th anniversary edition.

In the Q and A session, Dr. Tatum was forthcoming and candid, and Marie and I got the feeling that she was telling the audience exactly what she thought—which is a rare trait among college presidents I have heard speak.  So what we would like to do in this episode is simply highlight just a few of the many points that Dr. Tatum made—as accurately as my notetaking during the session and our memories allow—and add a few comments of our own.

1.  College Readiness

When asked about her definition of “college readiness” for incoming college freshmen, Dr. Tatum spoke about three different ideas.  However, the first words out of her mouth were that students had to “read critically and write well”—and, by “writing,” she clarified that she meant “academic writing.”  Listeners, I am going to take that to mean that kids have to be able to write both to explain or inform and to persuade and that they have to do it clearly and objectively in a coherent and well-organized essay, using and footnoting sources when needed.

As you know from our earlier episodes, we spent some time last fall with students in high school English classes in an elite New York City public high school, and we were deeply saddened at the quality of their writing.  Even those students who had interesting things to say, lacked a command—or even an awareness—of the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and choice of words.  From Dr. Tatum’s point of view, I believe they had a long way to go before being “college ready.”

After a sentence or two more about reading and writing, Dr. Tatum quickly added “quantitative, too”—meaning that, of course, students also needed good mathematics skills.  But I feel as though her emphasis in that answer was on reading and writing—and maybe especially on writing.

Second, Dr. Tatum talked about social and emotional readiness for college.  She talked about some students who had been too sheltered by their parents and, thus, were not ready to be on their own.  This is exactly one reason that we here at USACollegeChat so often talk about the merits of sending kids away to college—that is, to give kids a chance to get out on their own, but in a mostly safe and protected environment, and see what the world is like, without the constant oversight and monitoring of their parents.  Parents, we know that it is hard for some of you to let go, but letting go is inevitable, so why not do it when your kid can get the support of a college community?

Then, Dr. Tatum went on to talk about the social and emotional readiness of students to come together across differences and succeed in a diverse community.  Students who come from segregated school experiences—whether their high schools were segregated by race, by income, by religion, or by gender—might have a harder time fitting into a community where everyone is not the same.  Parents, if your kid has gone to such a high school, you need to do what you can to help him or her make the leap into a diverse college community.

I, for one, advocate those diverse college communities, as you listeners know, and that is one reason I love my own alma mater, Cornell University.  Cornell was founded as an institution “where any person can find instruction in any study,” in the words of Ezra Cornell.  Of course, on the other side, there are plenty of great colleges that are designed to serve one population exclusively or primarily—from women’s and men’s colleges to faith-based colleges to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—and we have talked about all of them in earlier episodes.

Third, Dr. Tatum talked about financial readiness, noting that a lack of understanding about finances and how to seek out financial resources to cover college costs is one reason that some students do not actually finish their degrees.  In other words, students get only so far on initial scholarship money or loans or family support and then can’t continue when those funds run out.  So, being financially savvy and resourceful is an important aspect of college preparedness for more and more students as college costs keep rising and rising.  Parents, that is something that you can work directly on with your own kids during senior year of high school and, likely, well before.

In answer to the specific question about whether everyone needs to go to college, Dr. Tatum said, “maybe not,” but she went on to say that some form of postsecondary education would be necessary.  She commented that it would be better to prepare for college and decide later whether to go or instead to pursue some kind of postsecondary training, such as career-specific training in a wide variety of fields that do not require a college degree.  Parents, helping your kids become college ready academically, socially, emotionally, and financially just cannot be a mistake

2.  College Admissions

Let’s look at college admissions and at Dr. Tatum’s experience at Spelman, which we know to be a top-rated, highly selective HBCU (as we learned in our virtual nationwide tour of colleges in every state).  When asked what Spelman looks at in students’ applications during the admission process, Dr. Tatum replied that Spelman does look at ACT and SAT scores because they “give you some information, but not everything.”  She noted that Spelman staff members know that those test scores are correlated with family income, rather than with success in the first year of college—and yet those scores are still part of the admission decision process at Spelman, just as they are at most top colleges.

Dr. Tatum said that it was, in fact, better to look at applicants’ high school grades and at the rigor of the courses they had taken in high school—in other words, “did you choose the rigor and how did you do.”  This is something that we hear all the time, but I am glad to have it confirmed by a live college president in person.  Colleges understand, of course, that if a high school does not offer Early College courses or dual-credit college courses or Advanced Placement courses or International Baccalaureate courses, for example, then an applicant cannot take them.  But were there honors-level courses available, and did the applicant take those?

A few weeks ago in Episodes 61 and 62, we spoke about the new report just out from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s project called Making Caring Common.  The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.  It was endorsed by about 60 of our nation’s top colleges and universities, including all of the Ivy League schools.  One of the things the report recommended was this:

Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas. While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions process.  At the same time, it’s vital to increase access to advanced courses for large numbers of students in schools without access to adequately challenging courses. (quoted from the report)

Well, okay.  Which is it?  Should kids take as many rigorous courses as possible or should they concentrate on a couple of disciplines where they are most interested or perhaps most capable?  I said in that episode that I felt as though the endorsers of the report were a bit disingenuous.  In other words, the endorsers’ colleges could change their admissions standards at any time, without needing to get anybody’s permission.  So, why hadn’t they stopped looking for as many AP courses as possible from applicants?  Last week, our special guest Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which awards millions of dollars in college scholarships, agreed with me on that point.  As I said in Episode 62, what high school is going to be the first one to tell its students that it’s okay not to take as many AP courses as possible and what parents are going to be the first to go along with that advice?  So far, I haven’t seen it.  Until further notice, I have to believe that Dr. Tatum is going to continue to be right—rigor matters, and a lot of rigor is even better.  Parents, make sure that your kids are taking the most demanding courses they are qualified to take.  By the way, that also means tough high school math and science courses, right up through Physics, for example.

Spelman has a particularly insightful and unobtrusive way of judging the quality of the high schools that its applicants come from—apart from the rigor of the courses they offer.  Dr. Tatum said that applicants are asked to submit a graded essay from one of their high school courses.  Interestingly, this graded essay might tell more about the school than it does about the applicant.  Looking at an A on a poorly written essay tells Spelman something about the standards and rigor at that school, Dr. Tatum explained—and, of course, about the validity of the grades on that student’s high school transcript.  Well, that is one way to stop high school grade inflation—and maybe a very good one, at that.

3.  College-Going Culture in Elementary School

When does college-going culture begin?  Dr. Tatum explained that starting early is important.  She said that she knew as an elementary school student that she was going to college (she noted that her parents were educators).  She suggested that elementary schools partner with colleges and arrange to bring college students into elementary school classes to work with and mentor young students.  Spelman, in fact, has a community service hours requirement (as some other colleges have), so that certainly paves the way for such partnerships.  Dr. Tatum explained that, when those college students look like the elementary school kids (that is, when they come from the same kinds of communities and when are the same racial or ethnic background), it is motivational for little kids to see their “near peers”—older students like themselves—succeeding in college.

I have to say that I love that idea.  Parents, if you have a little one at home, suggest this to your child’s elementary school principal.  And if you have a bigger one going off to college in the fall, tell that child to see whether there is a program like this that they can get involved in on the college campus.

In an interview I did after our book came out, the interviewer asked me when parents should start talking to kids about college.  I remarked that I started doing that when they were old enough to understand words and could sit at the dinner table in their high chairs.  And I meant it.  But, I can live with waiting till elementary school.  Spelman has a great idea.

4.  Diverse Students Working Together

Dr. Tatum told us that she has been visiting college campuses while getting ready to update her book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”:  And Other Conversations About Race 20 years later.  She said that many campuses—though not all—have gotten more diverse, but that colleges haven’t figured out how to help students from different backgrounds engage with each other.

Dr. Tatum said that she thought that the best chance to do that sort of engagement was in the college classroom.  It might be okay, she offered, if students stayed with classmates in their own population groups socially; however, faculty must think intentionally about how to get diverse students to engage with each other in the classroom.  Dr. Tatum explained that sometimes the content of the course might make that easy—for example, a sociology course, in which groups of people interacting with one another is a likely topic of study.  But sometimes it has to be done by pairing students of different backgrounds as lab partners or by making groups of students of different backgrounds work together on projects.  Dr. Tatum noted that high school students who go to de facto segregated high schools don’t have opportunities for these kinds of interactions, so they don’t come with those interpersonal and social skills.

Of course, high schools that do have diverse student bodies should pay attention to Dr. Tatum’s ideas.  And, parents, if you have a high schooler at home, you might start talking now about the importance of learning to work with diverse students of all races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and genders—before it is time for him or her to go off to college.  The sooner someone learns those skills of getting along and working together, the better—because those are the skills all students will need after graduation when they enter the work force.

How do we get K–12 teachers and college professors to pay attention to this issue?  According to Dr. Tatum, many teachers and professors do not have much experience with getting diverse students to work together, so they will need workshops and training over a period of time—meaning at least as long as a semester, if not a full year.  It will require helping teachers and professors talk about race and socioeconomic class, including reflecting on our history.  That is a tall, but important, order for the high schools and colleges your kids are attending, parents.

5.  Grading Standards

Let me end this episode by returning to grading standards for a moment.  Dr. Tatum told a story that was quite similar to a story that a friend of mine told me recently about the college where she teaches.  Dr. Tatum’s story went something like this.  When she was a professor, she gave a student a grade of C on a paper, but she also gave the student the opportunity to revise it and improve the grade.  The student was not happy with the grade or the opportunity and told Dr. Tatum that she had a string of A’s in other courses.  Dr. Tatum spoke to one of the student’s other professors, who said that the student worked very hard and thus had been given an A in that professor’s course.  Dr. Tatum explained that the student wanted to go on to graduate school and that giving her A’s for C work would not be helpful to her in the long run.

While that story is certainly a message to college professors and high school teachers alike about the downside of grading based on effort rather than based on the quality of the work, it is also a message to students and parents.  The message to students is this:  It can’t always be about getting a perfect grade the first time around; sometimes it’s about learning to improve your writing (which, by the way, can almost always be improved) and learning what tough, but fair, teachers and professors can teach you.  Parents, that’s the message that you should be giving to your kids.

Learn more about these organizations and people mentioned in this episode…

Learn more in previous episodes…

  • Episode 19: Senior-Year Courses
  • Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EDWorks, a Subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks
  • Episode 24: Having the Money Talk
  • Episode 61: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part One
  • Episode 62: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part Two
  • Episode 67: A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Episode 51: Colleges in New York State—Part II

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Last week, we brought our virtual tour home—here to New York State, with a look at public four-year colleges in New York. We focused on our two systems of public higher education, two of the very biggest in the nation: The State University of New York, with its 64 two-year and four-year colleges and universities, and The City University of New York, with its 24 two-year and four-year colleges located in the five boroughs of New York City.

Virtual tour of private universities in New York State on NYCollegeChat podcast Episode 51This week, we are going to start our examination of private options in New York State. While the institutions we will be discussing will be only a sample of the more than 100 private colleges and universities in New York, we do want to say that there are many, many great private options in the state for our own high school students, but—just as important and maybe more important—for high school students from other states to consider. This is your chance, non-New Yorkers, to move outside your geographic comfort zone and come see New York. So, let’s start with a double handful of nationally known higher education universities—some in New York City and some in upstate New York.

And once again, no college—not even our own alma maters, which will be discussed in this episode—has asked us or paid us anything to include it. These are our own choices.

1. Ivy League Institutions

Let’s start with New York’s two Ivy League institutions: Cornell University in the upstate town of Ithaca and Columbia University in upper Manhattan in New York City. While we are talking about Columbia, we will take a look at Barnard College, which is one of the Seven Sisters women’s colleges we have mentioned in a couple of previous episodes and which is affiliated with Columbia—the only women’s college affiliated with an Ivy League institution that has kept its own separate identity (others have become part of their universities at Penn, Harvard, and Brown).

Now, I hesitate to start with Cornell and Columbia and Barnard because Marie and I went to them and, therefore, we could talk about them for hours. My undergraduate days were at Cornell, and my graduate days were at Columbia (as were my husband’s). Marie’s undergraduate days were at Barnard, and her first graduate school days were at Columbia.   We have said relatively little about the Ivy League schools in our episodes so far, reasoning that lots of people are already aware of them, that they are even harder to get into now than when we went there some years ago, and that they are ridiculously expensive—though many other colleges are also ridiculously expensive, as we have learned on our virtual tour. Nonetheless, if you have a child with excellent grades and excellent test scores, we alumnae can’t resist saying a few things to you.

So, here are five reasons you should send your child to Cornell:

  1. Because, while perhaps not an ideal location for anything else, Cornell’s campus in Ithaca is an idyllic spot to go to undergraduate school. It is a bit remote, so students don’t leave on the weekends. There is a lot of natural beauty in the Finger Lakes region. There is cold and snow and rain—but they never put a damper on anything. The campus is large, but accessible.  The old buildings are lovely and very collegiate, and the new buildings are—well, new. And parts of the campus look like a picture postcard that should be entitled “The Great American University.”
  2. Because as founder Ezra Cornell said, Cornell is “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” The “any person” meant women as well as men and meant students of all racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. In 1865, Cornell was the last Ivy League school founded and the first founded with that mission. It is why my father—a die-hard University of Pennsylvania fan and alumnus—sent me to Cornell. Because it was the only Ivy League school where women and men had been treated equally from the first day. Today, “any person” means 14,000 undergraduates and another 7,000 graduate and professional students. The undergraduate students are almost evenly split between men and women (just as Ezra Cornell would have wanted it), and almost 40 percent of the U.S. students are African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, or Native American.
  3. Because as founder Ezra Cornell said, Cornell is “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” We talked last week about the three Cornell schools that serve undergraduate and graduate students and are partnered with the State University of New York and are essentially public:       the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the College of Human Ecology. But we also have four private schools that serve undergraduate and graduate students: the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning; the College of Engineering; the School of Hotel Administration (with its own hotel on campus); and the very best, the College of Arts and Sciences (where I majored in English, but also studied Latin, French, psychology, U.S. and world history, biology, art history, and more). While the broad range of subject fields offered by the seven undergraduate schools is impressive academically, the fact that, as a student, you live with and play with undergraduate students who are pursuing their studies in all of those fields makes your life on campus and even after you graduate truly stimulating. (Let me also note, in passing, that Cornell has some excellent graduate schools, too: a very fine SUNY-partnered College of Veterinary Medicine, a law school, and a management school in Ithaca as well as a medical school and the new Cornell Tech graduate campus in New York City.)
  4. Because there are a million productive and enjoyable ways to spend whatever extra time you have when you aren’t studying—from writing for The Cornell Daily Sun, which used to be “Ithaca’s Only Morning Newspaper”; to joining one of 36 fraternities or 13 sororities; to participating in more than 1,000 student organizations; to playing on one of 36 varsity sports teams (yes, we all remember the year that football star Ed Marinaro didn’t win the Heisman Trophy).
  5. Because there are brilliant professors, some of whom you will remember forever. Every student had his or her favorites—from the super-popular genius lecturer and sleep research expert James Maas, who taught me Psychology 101 in my freshman year, along with 1,800 other students in a huge concert hall; to Stephen Parrish, a quiet Wordsworth scholar, who was editing a 20-volume series of Wordsworth’s poems from their earliest drafts to final publication while I took his class; to the inimitable Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Kammen, who wrote and lectured about American history like nobody else and who, from his lofty perch, somehow managed to know that I covered sports for The Cornell Daily Sun.

I have to say that I loved my four years at Cornell—both while I was there and in retrospect—but I never really thought about why until I wrote those five reasons.

Let’s move south to New York City and talk about Columbia University, where Marie and I both got master’s degrees. Columbia was founded in 1754 by royal charter from King George II and thus was named King’s College. Today more than 250 years later, Columbia enrolls about 8,500 undergraduates and about 19,000 graduate and professional students. Columbia undergraduates study at Columbia College (which is a college of arts and sciences) or The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. In addition, Barnard College enrolls about 2,400 undergraduate women.

Columbia is well known for its Core Curriculum, which is described this way:

The Core Curriculum is the set of common courses required of all undergraduates and considered the necessary general education for students, irrespective of their choice in major. The communal learning—with all students encountering the same texts and issues at the same time—and the critical dialogue experienced in small seminars are the distinctive features of the Core…. Not only academically rigorous but also personally transformative for students, the Core seminar thrives on oral debate of the most difficult questions about human experience. (quoted from the website)

The Core courses include literature, writing, art, music, civilization, science, and more. You can see the common texts that students will be reading and discussing by checking out the website; it’s a greatest-hits-of anything-ever-written list. And here is a remarkable statement from the website of The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science:

Engineering has been called the newest liberal art. At Columbia Engineering, students not only study science and mathematics and gain technical skills but also study literature, philosophy, art history, music theory, and major civilizations through the Core Curriculum in the humanities. (quoted from the website)

But we did not come here today to talk about Columbia College or Fu, no matter how impressive they both are; we came to talk about Barnard. Here are Marie’s top five reasons for sending your daughter to Barnard (you will see that her theme is that Barnard is “the best of both worlds”):

  1. Because it is a single-sex college (which is great for developing smart, strong women), but with many coeducational opportunities conveniently located across the street at Columbia (including many chances for Barnard students to take courses at Columbia and vice versa).
  2. Because it is a small college with all of those inherent advantages, but located within a large research university with all of the resources that such an institution can make available to its students.
  3. Because it has flexible pathways through the curriculum, but also some structure for guidance, such as certain distribution requirements.
  4. Because it houses 90 percent of students on campus and offers all of the activities that would make campus living exciting, but does not require students to live on campus if they prefer to live at home or in an off-campus apartment.
  5. Because it is 125 years old and has an impressive history, but is not stodgy and creates innovative programs to keep the curriculum up to date.

Though we have not spent much time on our virtual tour talking about graduate schools, we have mentioned them, and we need to mention ours. Columbia has an amazing set of graduate schools in architecture, planning and preservation; the arts; arts and sciences; business; medicine; dental medicine; nursing; engineering; international and public affairs; journalism; law; theology; and social work. In addition to those, Marie attended the Mailman School of Public Health, and I attended Teachers College. Both were outstanding. No one asked me, but I have to believe that Columbia University is one of the best graduate institutions in the U.S., if not in the world—for its rigor and its diverse students and its professors and its enormous range of graduate and professional schools and programs. And it is in a world-class city, with all that offers.

I will say that I enjoyed my undergraduate days in the protected atmosphere of Ithaca on Cornell’s ivy-covered campus, putting off the high-energy craziness that can be New York City until my graduate days when I could better handle it. It was the best of both worlds—and, for me, done in the right order. Of course, I never left New York City once I had seen Broadway, to paraphrase the old song. So, for those of you who are imagining that your child will get both an undergraduate degree and a graduate or professional degree, give some serious thought to lining up colleges and locations in the best order for your child. That kind of planning could be a lot more important than you think.

2. Other Nationally Known Institutions in New York City

Let’s turn now to the largest private university in the U.S., with a name that sounds as though it should be public: New York University (commonly known as NYU), located in New York City in Manhattan’s famed Greenwich Village. Marie got her second graduate degree, an M.B.A., at NYU from the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, and she worked in student affairs there as well.

NYU offers its approximately 25,000 undergraduates a choice of studies in colleges and schools in the arts and sciences; dentistry; nursing, business; social work; engineering; and culture, education, and human development. It also has the Tisch School for the Arts, which is well known in the New York City performing arts community, and the interesting Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where students create their own programs (named for Albert Gallatin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, who founded NYU in 1831).

NYU’s approximately 24,000 graduate and professional students have additional choices, including highly respected law and medical schools and the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. NYU also has a variety of intriguing undergraduate and graduate study abroad programs, including Liberal Studies freshman programs (in which students spend their first year at NYU in Paris, Florence, London, or Washington, D.C.) and campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. About 25 percent of NYU’s students are international students. At home in Greenwich Village, NYU is a truly urban university; but, unlike Columbia, NYU does not have Columbia’s retreat-like fenced and walled and gated campus.

Like the Ivies, NYU is hard to get into. Its recent incoming freshmen posted SAT subtest scores in the high 600s and an average unweighted high school GPA of about 3.5. And, like the Ivies, I don’t think you choose to go to NYU for its athletics—though it fields 21 varsity teams. And, like the Ivies, NYU is expensive—about $48,000 in tuition and fees per year, and that’s not counting trying to live in New York City (campus housing runs, on the average, about $12,000 per year).

Heading uptown from the Village, let’s take a look at Fordham University, with two New York City campuses: the main Rose Hill campus in the Bronx—a lovely green oasis, filled with beautiful collegiate buildings—and the newer Lincoln Center campus, which operates out of a cluster of attractive high-rise buildings within spitting distance of impressive Lincoln Center, the home of dance, music, and theater arts in Manhattan. We have mentioned Fordham in earlier episodes of NYCollegeChat when we talked about faith-based institutions and institutions with a special focus on the arts.

Founded in 1841, Fordham is a Catholic university in the Jesuit tradition. I have often told the story of sending my daughter to Fordham for its prestigious joint B.F.A. program with The Ailey School of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She graduated last May with her degree in dance, having worked with some of the finest dance teachers in the U.S., like Milton Myers and the late Dudley Williams. But she also graduated with a view of life and her responsibility for others that she got from Fordham’s Jesuit values and rigorous core curriculum—something I had not counted on, but am very grateful for. From the day of my daughter’s student orientation, when I heard Fordham’s president Father McShane speak, I knew the Jesuits were onto something. He once explained it this way:

We believe that students have to be invited to wrestle with the great ethical issues of their time. We want them to be bothered by the realization that they don’t know everything and [to be] bothered by injustice. (quoted from the website)

Fordham has almost 9,000 undergraduates and about 6,500 graduate and professional students (split about equally between its two New York City campuses), with undergraduates enrolling in Fordham College at Rose Hill and Fordham College at Lincoln Center, with their liberal arts and sciences curricula, and in the Gabelli School of Business. Undergraduate students are almost 30 percent underrepresented populations. Graduate students enroll in Gabelli as well as in graduate schools of arts and sciences, religion and religious education, education, social service, and law.

Fordham has 23 varsity sports teams and about 150 student organizations, including ones designed to put into practice the Jesuit commitment to serving others—“living a life beyond self, helping to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, heal the sick”(quoted from the website)—and logging more than one million community service hours in a year. Global Outreach (GO!) is one great service program in which “students learn about various issues of social, economic, political and environmental injustice while living a simple lifestyle that fosters communal and spiritual growth. [Fordham sends] teams consisting of approximately 10 students, one student leader, and one chaperone to live, work, and learn with partnering organizations in approximately 30 locations throughout the United States and countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe” (quoted from the website). Programs are run during school breaks and last from one to several weeks.

Fordham is one of 23 Catholic colleges and universities in New York State and one of 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the U.S. As we have said in looking at some of the other Jesuit institutions on our virtual tour, students who are not Catholic (like my daughter) feel comfortable and included in campus life—both socially and academically—which is not the case at all faith-based institutions.

Freshmen entering last year posted an average SAT critical reading and mathematics score of 1260 and an average high school GPA of 3.6. Fordham received almost 41,000 applications and accepted about half of those applicants, which means to me that a student with good SAT scores and a good high school average has a good chance of being accepted. Though Fordham draws students from 43 states and many foreign countries, it gets many of its students from New York State, which means to me that a good student from outside of New York State might be particularly attractive to the admissions officers. The joint B.F.A. in Dance program with The Ailey School requires an audition, of course, and is a highly selective program. As with most private universities we have been examining, Fordham’s undergraduate tuition and fees run about $47,000 per year, with housing in New York City again at a premium. But, as a parent who paid almost all of that myself (with some help from Direct Parent PLUS loans), I can tell you that it was worth every penny.

3. Other Nationally Known Institutions in Upstate New York

Moving upstate now, let’s go to Rochester, where the University of Rochester is located just two miles from downtown. Founded in 1850, the University prides itself on being a research university with a smaller college feel. Home to about 6,000 full-time undergraduates, the University draws its undergrads from all across the U.S., though about 30 percent of its freshmen last year came from New York State and about 25 percent from foreign countries.

Undergraduates study in the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering or the Eastman School of Music (and some do a bachelor’s degree completion program in the School of Nursing). Arts, Sciences and Engineering, which offers about 75 majors and enrolls most University undergrads, allows students to choose their own courses, with close attention from their advisors. Although there are no required courses, students must take a “cluster” of three related courses in whichever two areas they don’t major in: arts and humanities; social sciences; and natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering (engineering students take courses in only one cluster rather than two). I would call that freedom, within some serious boundaries.

The well-known Eastman School of Music was established in 1921 by George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company. Its undergraduates (about 500 currently) earn Bachelor of Music degrees in five different majors. Eastman does not require college admission test scores, except for homeschooled students. The multi-step application process is rigorous, requiring a pre-audition recording so that admissions officers can choose which applicants they will invite to audition.

The University of Rochester also serves another approximately 3,500 full-time graduate and professional students, who also attend the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering, Eastman, and the School of Nursing as well as graduate schools of medicine and dentistry, education, and business.

More than 90 percent of University students live in campus housing, making it easy for them to participate in some 250 student-run clubs and 21 varsity sports.

The University has an interesting test-flexible policy, described on the website this way:

Rochester [application] readers have grown more confident recommending for admission applicants with strong subject testing scores [like AP, IB, and SAT subject exams], even when the SAT or ACT scores were not in our typical 90th-100th percentile ranges. Since 2004, that confidence has proven well founded, as retention and graduation rates have risen rapidly. Students who entered up to 8 years ago with “modest” SAT and ACT scores have started businesses, persisted to medical and law school, and excelled in creative careers.

Now that confidence supports our new practice. For the Rochester Class of 2017 and beyond, applicants can submit any national or international test result along with their secondary school records of courses and grades. While SAT reasoning and ACT exams are among the scores we will accept, applicants are no longer required to submit either, if their A-level, IB, AP, . . . etc. results show their testing abilities well. (quoted from the website)

According to the admissions website, the typical University student has done the following:

  • Ranked in the top 10% of his or her high school class
  • Taken 2 to 7 Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses
  • Earned an average academic unweighted GPA of 3.8
  • Gotten an SAT score between 1900 and 2200 [on the average, a set of three subtest scores in the high 600s] or an ACT score between 29 and 33

So, the students are quite capable. Like the other universities we have been discussing, the University of Rochester’s tuition and fees run about $48,000 per year.

Heading east from Rochester, we come to Syracuse University in central New York State. Let me remind you that it gets really cold and snowy in Syracuse, but that could be great for students who love winter sports and activities. There is a good virtual tour on the University’s website—recorded in good weather, for obvious reasons—which shows off its very attractive campus on a hill overlooking the city of Syracuse. Founded in 1870, today Syracuse enrolls about 15,000 undergraduates and about 7,000 graduate and professional students. About 25 percent are minority students.

Syracuse undergraduate and graduate students study in the College of Arts and Sciences (the founding college of the University), the School of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, the School of Information Studies, The Martin J. Whitman School of Management, the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and the College of Visual and Performing Arts—that is quite an array of subject fields being covered. Additionally, there are graduate schools of law and of citizenship and public affairs.

Syracuse fields 18 varsity sports teams, known as The Orange and easily recognizable by the bright orange in their uniforms. Syracuse has won 11 national men’s lacrosse championships since 1983, and, in 1961, football star Ernie Davis was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy and then the first African American to be picked first overall in the NFL draft. At Syracuse, football, basketball, and lacrosse teams play in the Carrier Dome, the largest campus domed stadium in the U.S. My guess is that having a domed stadium solves a lot of weather problems that football and lacrosse teams would otherwise face. There are also more than 300 student organizations as well as fraternities and sororities to keep students engaged.

Last year’s incoming freshman class earned an average high school GPA of a 3.7 and had an average SAT critical reading and mathematics score of 1180. Though selective, Syracuse admits about half of its applicants. Undergraduate tuition and fees are about $43,000 per year.

Next week, we will look at some smaller liberal arts colleges, which New York has an abundance of.

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