Episode 101: College Application Fees–Oh, My!

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Welcome back after our Thanksgiving break. We hope your holiday was not ruined by college application hysteria. With about a month to go until many application deadlines hit, we would like to take up a practical topic that might affect how many applications your teenager is thinking about submitting in a few weeks. That topic is application fees.

college-application-fees-oh-my-on-usacollegechat-podcast1. The Cost

For some of you, the cost of submitting an application–which is likely to be somewhere between $35 and $75 per application–is not a big deal. Even if your teenager applies to 10 or 15 schools with fees on the higher side, that cost of perhaps $1,000 is not critical in your financial picture.

However, for many families, coming up with even $500 is a significant issue. A lot is written in the education press about the notion that application fees, even reasonable ones, do actually keep some kids from applying to college–especially lower-income kids and first-generation college-goers. All of us interested in improving the educational lives of our nation’s kids should view that as a problem.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, headed by USACollegeChat‘s good friend Harold O. Levy, published an Issue Brief last June, entitled “Opening College Doors To Equal Educational Opportunity: Removing Barriers That Keep Most High-Achieving Students From Low-Income Families Out of Top Colleges and Universities.” (You can listen to our interview with Harold here.) Among the thoughtful recommendations in the Foundation’s excellent examination of college-going is this one: “Automatically waive application fees for students who appear to be from low-income families. Our previous research suggests that not all low-income applicants eligible for fee waivers request them.”

2. The Process

We wholeheartedly agree with the Foundation. Clearly, some families are intimidated by the prospect of figuring out how to get a waiver for those application fees, even though this is one thing that most high school guidance counselors are well equipped to handle. And there are several routes to those waivers.

The Common App makes it relatively easy. In completing the Common App, your teenager will be asked to declare whether and why he or she is eligible for a fee waiver. The question offers all of the choices for confirming eligibility: receiving an ACT/SAT testing fee waiver, getting free or reduced-price lunch at school, meeting family income eligibility guidelines, being enrolled in a government program that aids students from low-income families, receiving public assistance, being homeless or living in a foster home, being a ward of the state or an orphan, or being able to supply a statement from a local school or community official.

If your teenager has already received a fee waiver for taking the SAT or a Subject Test, the College Board will automatically provide four FREE college application fee waivers. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) also has a form that can be used to request fee waivers. NACAC suggests using its fee waivers for up to four colleges.

In most cases, at some point, your teenager’s guidance counselor will be asked to verify eligibility for the waiver. So, it is important to stay in contact with the guidance counselor to make sure that the guidance counselor knows that your teenager has applied for the waivers and that process is working. I think it is fair to say that, just as technology has made it easier to apply to colleges, it has also made it easier to get and use application fee waivers. But that doesn’t mean that some families won’t still be intimidated and/or confused by the process, especially if parents are not native English speakers.

3. Interesting Cases

Let’s look at a few cases of colleges that have recently dropped the application fee. Starting this year, Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME), an excellent small liberal arts college, will automatically waive the $65 application fee “for students applying for financial aid and first-generation-to-college students (neither parent graduated from a four-year college or university),” according to its website. Trinity College (Hartford, CT), another great small liberal arts college, has eliminated its $65 application fee for first-generation college students.

While it is undoubtedly helpful that colleges are making accommodations for families who need them, it was surprising to me to learn just how many colleges–including top-ranked colleges–do not have any application fees at all. For example, Reed College (Portland, OR) eliminated its $50 fee. Its website explains the decision this way:

‘It’s a small but meaningful step,’ said Crystal Williams, Dean for Institutional Diversity. ‘We want Reed to be a more inclusive community and cutting the admission fee levels the playing field at the earliest stage of the game and allows prospective students a chance to explore all their opportunities.’ (quoted from the website)

Here is a short list of great colleges with no fee, in addition to our excellent military academies (you can find them all just by Googling “colleges without application fees,” just as I did):

There are many, many more. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t have been more surprised. We should note, by the way, that some colleges charge a fee for a paper application, even when they do not charge a fee for an online application, like the Common App.

While a lot of colleges we just named are private liberal arts colleges, let’s take a final look at a very different case–and that is The City University of New York (CUNY), with its 11 four-year colleges and seven community colleges. Elizabeth Harris at The New York Times reported on CUNY’s recent application fee changes for this application season:

New York City public school students from low-income families will no longer have to pay a fee to apply to the City University of New York, . . . part of an effort to encourage more young people to go to college.

Under the initiative, all high school students who meet one of a handful of criteria will be able to apply to CUNY free. The city estimated that the change will affect 37,500 students, up from about 6,500 students in recent years. More than half of the city’s public school students who enroll in college attend CUNY schools.

The application fee is $65 per student, but Mayor Bill de Blasio said that while the amount can seem trivial to some, for many families it is not. And for students who are not sure about applying to college, it is one more hurdle standing in the way of their continued education. . . .

In the past, CUNY granted fee waivers to students with the greatest need, according to the city’s Education Department. Now, any student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, who is homeless or in foster care, or whose family lives in federally subsidized public housing or receives public assistance will automatically be given a waiver. Undocumented students in those categories will also be eligible.

The city’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said students would not need to apply to skip the fee, so this requires no extra step. (quoted from the article)

I think this is a great move by CUNY, but let me go one step more. Why should any student have to pay an application fee to a public university in his or her own home state? It seems to me that no application fee should be one of the perks of public higher education–if not for all students, then at least for students in that state. If an application fee is an obstacle to students–as many have said it is–then shouldn’t that obstacle be removed in public higher education? Maybe then we would have more students from low-income families and even middle-income families applying to the great public flagship university in their own state or to the public universities in states that are lucky enough to have more than one.

4. A Final Thought

While application fee waivers can help solve the problem of getting more lower-income students to apply to college and even to apply to more colleges so that they can have a wider selection of colleges to choose from next spring, what about kids from middle-income families and even upper-income families who do not qualify for the waivers? I think we have said this before, but it bears repeating right now: Limiting the number of colleges your teenager can apply to because of the cost of making the applications could be penny wise and pound foolish.

We continue to believe that it is important for kids to have as many options as possible once those acceptance letters come in. If a couple of hundred dollars now means that your teenager is looking at more options next April, then we think it is worth it. We don’t say that lightly, but we know that giving teenagers their best chance to choose a college from among a handful of acceptances can be priceless and can be a sound investment for many years to come. So, it’s still not too late to add a few colleges to the list–especially if you have not maxed out your Common App slots!

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Episode 48: Colleges in the Mid-Atlantic Region–Part IV

In our episodes for the past three weeks, we have focused our virtual tour of colleges on the public and private higher education institutions in the Mid-Atlantic region: Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. As we explained earlier, we are going to put off a discussion of New York (also part of the Mid-Atlantic region) for a couple of weeks; we know that it is the home state of many of our listeners, and we know that they will be especially interested in it (though, as we have said repeatedly, we wish you New Yorkers would look outside your own state).

Virtual tour of colleges in the Mid-Atlantic Region—Part IV on the NYCollegeChat podcastLast week, we looked at some of the many private colleges and universities in the rest of the Mid-Atlantic region. We examined a handful of nationally known higher education institutions as well as several that are perhaps a bit better known on the East Coast. We also talked about a handful of institutions with a special academic focus on the arts and on technology.

Today, we will move on to a dazzling selection of liberal arts colleges, faith-based institutions, and a couple of institutions focused on special populations of students.

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

Again, I want to apologize for spending so much time on the Mid-Atlantic region, even though it is full of well-known colleges and universities. Perhaps it is because I grew up in Pennsylvania and have been around these colleges and universities literally my whole life. Even so, I learned things about them when I wrote these episodes. As we often say, information about colleges changes all the time. It is hard to keep up, even when it is your job to do it.

And, as we say every time, no college has asked us or paid us anything to include it. These are our own choices.

1. Liberal Arts Colleges

Let’s start by looking at three nationally known, top-tier liberal arts colleges, which all happen to be in suburban Philadelphia, where I grew up: Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Swarthmore College (all in suburbs of the same names). All three have great academic reputations, long histories, and lovely campuses, and all three draw students from across the globe and are extremely selective. Together, they make up the Tri-College Consortium, which allows for cross-registration of courses at the three colleges (plus some courses at the University of Pennsylvania downtown) and which offers Bryn Mawr and Haverford students a residential exchange program at the other’s college.

All three colleges were founded by Quakers (not surprising, given their location near Philadelphia): Haverford in 1833, Swarthmore in 1864, and Bryn Mawr later in 1885. While Haverford was founded as a men’s college (and remained so until 1980) and Bryn Mawr was founded as a women’s college (and still admits only women to its undergraduate programs), Swarthmore was founded as a school for Quaker children and for the education of teachers, specifically for equal numbers of men and women. Swarthmore was originally owned by 6,000 stockholders (who paid $25 each), after a special act was passed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to allow women to own property.

Today, Haverford enrolls about 1,200 undergraduate men and women (about 35 percent are students of color). Bryn Mawr enrolls about 1,300 undergraduate women (about 25 percent are international students) and another approximately 400 graduate men and women; Bryn Mawr was the first women’s college to offer graduate study leading to the Ph.D. Swarthmore enrolls about 1,500 undergraduate men and women. So, these are all very small colleges, which are proud of the close attention they give their students and are proud of their student-to-faculty ratios of 8 or 9:1. As well known as I believe these three colleges are, about 35 to 45 percent of their students are from the Mid-Atlantic states.

Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore are truly liberal arts colleges (though Swarthmore also offers a degree in engineering). Haverford writes about its “intentionally diverse curricular requirements” across three academic divisions on its website. Haverford’s Honor Code, which dates from 1897, is a way of life at the College, and it also lays out the College’s policy of exams without proctors. Students at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore choose from about 40 liberal arts majors. At Swarthmore, one-third of the students are enrolled in the Honors Program, with small seminar classes, extensive student–teacher dialogue, independent projects, and an examination by outside scholars after two years. Two-thirds of Swarthmore students complete College-funded research projects or independent creative projects.

Given the size of the colleges, it is perhaps surprising that Haverford fields 23 varsity teams, Swarthmore 22, and Bryn Mawr 12 (only women’s teams, of course). Interestingly and perhaps impressively, Haverford’s faculty is about 25 percent people of color, and about 60 percent of its faculty members live on campus.

As I said earlier, these colleges are well known for their high academic standards, with average SAT subtest scores for incoming freshmen (fall, 2014) running in the high 600s for Bryn Mawr, low 700s for Haverford, and just a bit higher than that for Swarthmore. Starting with the 2014–2015 year, Bryn Mawr became a “test-optional” college, meaning that students are no longer required to submit SAT or ACT scores with their applications (you can read about the research Bryn Mawr did on this topic on its website). Bryn Mawr is one of the academically prestigious Seven Sisters colleges, an association of seven women’s colleges in the Northeast; we have already discussed four of them in New England and will talk about the final two when we turn to New York in the coming weeks.

Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford are all quite pricey, with tuition and fees running from about $45,000 to $49,000 per year. However, your child would first have to have outstanding high school grades (about 95 percent of Haverford freshmen were in the top tenth of their high school classes) and college admission test scores (in the case of Swarthmore and Haverford) before you worry about paying tuition.

There are many more liberal arts colleges in this region, any of which could be discussed—Lafayette College, Dickinson College, Gettysburg College, and Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania or Hood College in Maryland. But, instead, let’s turn to a group of college we have talked about throughout our series.

2. Colleges That Change Lives

As we have said before, Colleges That Change Lives is a nonprofit organization that was founded after the publication of the book Colleges That Change Lives, by Loren Pope, a retired New York Times education editor. There are now 44 colleges and universities profiled in the book and on the organization’s website. Those that are included are not necessarily famous institutions. Most are smaller colleges and universities that have proved to be successful at developing students both personally and academically so that they can succeed in life after their undergraduate college years.

Six of the 44 institutions profiled are located in the Mid-Atlantic region. You should read about them in the book or on the website to learn more about them. They are Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania; Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania; Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania; Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland; McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland; and St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Let’s look at St. John’s—which sounds faith based, but isn’t—very briefly because we already spent some time on it when we profiled Colleges That Change Lives in the Southwest states (in Episode 38). Why did we do that, you ask?   In case you don’t remember, it is because it is one college with two campuses: St. John’s Annapolis in Maryland and St. John’s Santa Fe in New Mexico. St. John’s was founded in Annapolis in 1696 as King William’s School and was chartered in 1784 as St. John’s College. The Santa Fe campus was established almost two centuries later in 1964. While it is not unusual, of course, for a college to have two campuses, it is unusual for a college to have two campuses almost across the entire country from each other and to have two campuses that allow students to transfer back and forth between the two. Many students spend a year at the campus they did not start at.

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:

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 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). This is an impressive liberal arts curriculum.

Each campus enrolls just about 450 to 475 undergraduate students (there are also a couple of graduate programs), drawn from all 50 states and about 20 foreign countries. The student-to-faculty ratio is an enviably low 8:1—about like the three liberal arts colleges we have already discussed in this episode.

Located in Maryland’s lovely and historic state capital on the Chesapeake Bay, the campus provides students with easy access to water and offers varsity sports teams in fencing, crew, croquet, and sailing—a bit of an unusual mix.

Students interested in St. John’s are expected to have taken a rigorous course of study in high school and must complete a “short set of reflective essays” (quoted from the website) as part of the application procedure. SAT and ACT scores are optional, though students are encouraged to provide them (the 55 percent of freshmen in the fall of 2014 who provided scores posted average SAT critical reading and mathematics scores in the mid- to high 600s).

Undergraduate tuition and fees are, not surprisingly, quite high at about $49,000 per year. But you can see why. I believe that St. John’s is probably worth it, which is not true of some colleges charging that much.

According to the website, St. John’s “is in the top 2 percent of all colleges in the nation for alumni earning PhDs in the humanities, and in the top 4 percent for earning them in science or engineering” (quoted from the website), which seems remarkable for a tiny liberal arts college, albeit with two campuses. I would like to say again what I said in Episode 38: You can see why this college changes lives.

Let’s look at one more of this group—Goucher College on 287 wooded acres in the suburb of Towson, Maryland, just north of downtown Baltimore. Founded in 1885 by the Rev. John Franklin Goucher as the Woman’s College of Baltimore (it was later renamed for its founder), the College became coeducational in 1986. Serving almost 1,500 undergraduates and about 650 graduate students today, Goucher was the first U.S. college to require its undergraduates to study abroad (and they do so in more than 30 countries in three-week intensives, semester programs, or full-year programs). Students study in 33 liberal arts majors and enjoy a good student-to-faculty ratio of about 9:1.

All Goucher students take at least one course in environmental sustainability; 20 local farms provide food for the College, where about half the food served is vegetarian or vegan. About 80 percent of Goucher students complete an internship in more than 200 organizations worldwide.

And here is an interesting statement on the admissions page of the website:

At Goucher, we understand that the traditional admissions process—while great for many students—does not showcase everyone’s true talents and abilities. We believe access to higher education should be about potential, not just previous achievement. We still accept the Common Application. But we created the Goucher Video App to provide another opportunity for students to show us what makes them unique, why they would flourish at Goucher, and how they will fit into our community of learners. (quoted from the website)

So, that’s actually a student-produced video application! While Goucher is a test-optional college and does not require applicants to submit college admission test scores as part of the admission process, the College does require students who are admitted and enroll to “furnish test scores for research and advising purposes” (quoted from the website). Incoming freshmen posted average SAT subtest scores in the high 500s and a 3.2 high school GPA.

Because these Colleges That Change Lives institutions are relatively small and thus are not particularly well known outside of their geographic region, it is my feeling that out-of-state students with a good high school record and good college admission test scores might have a good chance of being accepted.

3. Faith-Based Institutions

The Mid-Atlantic region has many institutions that were originally founded by religious groups; we just heard about several in Pennsylvania founded by the Quakers, though these institutions consider themselves nondenominational now. But there are others as well, including five of the 28 Catholic Jesuit universities in the U.S. The best-known and the most selective of these five is Georgetown University, located in Washington, D.C.

Founded in 1789, Georgetown is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the U.S. It became coeducational in 1969. Today, Georgetown’s eight undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges serve about 7,000 undergraduates and about 10,000 graduate and professional students. Undergraduates 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.

As we have said about Jesuit universities in earlier episodes, they are well respected for their intellectual rigor and their social justice mission:

Students are challenged to engage in the world and become men and women in the service of others, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community. These values are at the core of Georgetown’s identity, binding members of the community across diverse backgrounds, faiths, cultures and traditions. (quoted from the website)

Jesuit institutions are concerned with educating the whole person—including each student’s spiritual growth—but notice Georgetown’s reference to “diverse backgrounds, faiths, cultures, and traditions.” Students who are not Catholic are typically very comfortable at Jesuit institutions. Georgetown offers 50 religious services each week for Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Protestants. Volunteer service opportunities, 23 varsity sports teams, and over 200 student organizations round out university life for Georgetown students.

Georgetown makes this enlightening statement about admissions, which I believe holds true in general for lots of colleges in the U.S.:

Since the mid-1970’s, the applicant pool for Georgetown’s first-year class has changed dramatically. In 1975, 50% of the applicants were offered admission; in 2015 only 17% of the applicants were admitted. Over this period of time, there has been an increase in not only the number of students applying but also, and more importantly, in the abilities and achievements of the students in the applicant pool. The combination of these factors has resulted in an increase in the competition for admission. (quoted from the website)

About one-third of freshmen starting this fall are fluent in more than one language, and about 25 percent have lived outside the U.S. at some time. Only about 30 percent live in the Mid-Atlantic region. Freshmen enrolling at Georgetown College, on the average, were in the top 5 percent of their high school classes and posted SAT subtest scores in the mid-700s. By the way, Georgetown does one of the best presentations of freshmen student characteristics in its Profile for Schools and Candidates of all of the colleges we have looked at so far.

Undergraduate tuition and fees run about $49,000 per year, which is no longer surprising, unfortunately.

If you are interested in a Jesuit education in the Mid-Atlantic region (though we will talk about New York faith-based universities in the coming weeks), you can also check out Loyola University Maryland, St. Joseph’s University, St. Peter’s University, or the University of Scranton—all of which are better known regionally than nationally. But let’s look at another Catholic university—this time, an Augustinian university—which is also better known in the region than outside it. That is Villanova University, located in Villanova, Pennsylvania, which is on the lovely suburban Main Line outside Philadelphia and which is literally just down the road five minutes from Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College.

Founded in 1842, Villanova offers “a comprehensive education rooted in the liberal arts; a shared commitment to the Augustinian ideals of truth, unity and love; and a community dedicated to service to others” (quoted from the website). Today, it enrolls more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students—about 6,500 of them undergraduates. Undergraduates study in about 50 bachelor’s degree majors in the colleges/schools of the liberal arts and sciences, business, engineering, and nursing (by the way, Villanova also has a law school).

Undergraduates in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences take a set of core curriculum courses that includes an impressive two-semester humanities seminar based on Augustinian inquiry and readings from great books, two theology courses, two diversity courses, an ethics course, a philosophy course, and a mix of the traditional mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, foreign languages, arts, history, and literature and writing. This broad liberal arts program, with a religion-related center, is not unlike what we have seen at other Catholic universities.

I think that one statement from the description of the humanities seminar—which, by the way, is a requirement of all Villanova freshmen, regardless of their school/college—should put non-Catholic students interested in Villanova at ease:

Like Augustine, we seek to come to terms with the biblical, Greek, and Roman traditions; also like him, we engage with the best of what has been written and thought, whether it belongs to our tradition or not and whether we agree with it or not, in order to respond creatively to the needs of the present. (quoted from the website)

Like most universities of this size, Villanova offers over 265 student organizations and activities and 24 varsity sports teams. And I can tell you that many of Villanova’s Olympic athletes have come from its world-class men’s track and field team (hats off to you, Erv Hall and Larry James, from the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, my personal favorites).

Freshmen who enrolled this fall posted an average SAT composite critical reading and mathematics score of about 1365, with an average high school GPA of about a 4.0 (on a weighted scale). Undergraduate tuition and fees will set you back about $46,000.

4. Other Institutions with a Special Focus

Students with Special Needs. In an early episode of NYCollegeChat, we spotlighted some colleges and universities that are dedicated to serving special needs students. One was in Washington, D.C., and one was in Rochester, New York (although we are turning to New York in a couple of weeks, we are going to do this very special institution here).

Gallaudet University in our nation’s capital was established as a college by an Act of Congress in 1864 to serve deaf and hard-of-hearing students. It was then and still is the world’s only such institution. The President of the United States signed the first diplomas of graduates in 1869 (that was Ulysses S. Grant), and that is a tradition that continues to this day. Interestingly, up to 5 percent of the seats in each incoming undergraduate class are open to hearing students. Those seats are likely sought after by students who have a career interest in working with deaf children and adults in many different ways. Gallaudet’s more than 1,700 students are pursuing both undergraduate and graduate degrees in what Gallaudet itself describes on its website as a “bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution”—with “bilingual” defined as American Sign Language and English. As an added bonus, Gallaudet’s tuition is remarkably reasonable at about $14,000 a year because it is actually a public college (in this unusual case, funded by the federal government).

In upstate New York at the Rochester Institute of Technology, students can find the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, one of nine colleges of RIT. Established by an Act of Congress in 1965, NTID is the world’s first and largest technology-focused college for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. NTID offers career-oriented associate’s degrees in technical fields and associate’s degrees that lead directly into bachelor’s degree study at RIT’s other colleges. NTID also offers the support services that deaf and hard-of-hearing students would need to study in the other RIT colleges. Because it is a public college, even though it is within a private university, the tuition is quite reasonable.

If you have a child with hearing difficulties or a child interested in working in that field, please go to the websites of these institutions for more information.

HBCUs. We talked about HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) in our look at public institutions in the Mid-Atlantic region a couple of weeks ago in Episode 46. We said that there were eight public HBCUs located in this Mid-Atlantic region—the University of the District of Columbia; The Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and Cheyney University of Pennsylvania; Delaware State University; Morgan State University in Baltimore; and three campuses of the University System of Maryland, namely Coppin State University, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. In this episode, we are going to look at one of our best-known and most highly respected HBCUs—that is, Howard University in Washington, D.C.

This is how Howard describes itself on its website:

Since 1867, Howard has awarded more than 100,000 degrees in the professions, arts, sciences and humanities. Howard ranks among the highest producers of the nation’s Black professionals in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering, nursing, architecture, religion, law, music, social work and education.

The University has long held a commitment to the study of disadvantaged persons in American society and throughout the world. The goal is the elimination of inequities related to race, color, social, economic and political circumstances. As the only truly comprehensive predominantly Black university, Howard is one of the major engineers of change in our society. Through its traditional and cutting-edge academic programs, the University seeks to improve the circumstances of all people in the search for peace and justice on earth. (quoted from the website)

Chartered by an Act of Congress and named for General Oliver O. Howard, a Civil War hero and the University’s founder, Howard now serves about 10,500 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students—about half from the Mid-Atlantic region—in 13 colleges/schools. Howard’s almost 7,000 undergraduates study in 64 majors in the arts and sciences; business; communications; education; nursing and allied health sciences; and engineering, architecture, and computer science.

Howard fields 17 varsity sports teams and offers its students over 200 student organizations—plus, of course, the many cultural resources of Washington, D.C., which we have talked about in recent episodes.

Incoming freshmen last year came with an average high school GPA of about a 3.4 (on an unweighted scale) and average SAT subtest scores in critical reading and mathematics of about 550. Tuition and fees are just over $24,000—which is actually a bargain price, given the tuition figures we have been seeing in this part of the country for private institutions. In some cases, it is just half as expensive as other private institutions.

So, all that we have left on our virtual college tour is our last stop in our home state of New York. Stay with us.

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Episode 13: Focus on Students with Academic Issues

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

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

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

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

1. Students with Mediocre Or Low SAT/ACT Scores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Students with Mediocre Or Low High School Grades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

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

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