Episode 176: Why the College’s Admissions Practices Matter–Obviously

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Well, this is where it gets serious. Researching Step 13 will give you and your son or daughter an idea about how likely it is that he or she will be accepted by a college. Of course, no one can say for sure whether your kid’s grades or admission test scores or extracurricular and community service activities or letters of recommendation will be appealing enough to get him or her admitted to a particular college. But several academic hurdles might turn out to be what stands between your kid and one or more colleges on his or her LLCO (that famous Long List of College Options). Your kid will need to use both each college’s website and College Navigator to research this crucial topic and to answer Questions 40 through 49 on admission practices.   Just to remind you, these steps are based on our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students (for further information, get one at Amazon).

While we could talk for days about admissions practices and while many consultants and their websites do only that, we will keep it brief for now. Let’s start with one complication in researching this topic, as we explained to students in the workbook:

You need to figure out whether the data you are examining are for “admitted” students or for “enrolled freshmen.” These two groups are obviously not the same because many students who are admitted to a college do not actually enroll. Since you are trying to figure out whether you will be admitted, using “admitted” student data, when available, is probably the better choice; however, either set of data will give you an idea of the caliber of the applicants a college accepts.

Start by looking up the colleges on your LLCO on College Navigator and going to the Admissions section of the college profile. These data will be for “enrolled first-time students.” Helpful data are presented clearly in this section.

Then check each college’s website. Some colleges do a great job of presenting data on admitted students or enrolled freshmen, and others simply do not. Some colleges make it easy by providing a page of facts and figures about the new freshman class–sometimes called a Class Profile (of students who enrolled) or an Admitted Student Profile (of students who were admitted, but did not necessarily enroll). However, it is not always easy to locate this page (though it is often in the Admission section of the website). If you can find the common data set on the website, you will want to look under the third part: C. First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission.

Question 40 asks students to check off whether the data they will be using are for admitted students or for enrolled freshmen. In a few cases, it might be both. Remember to try to use comparable data when comparing colleges. For a more detailed discussion about where to find each piece of data we are going to discuss now, check out the workbook.

1. Acceptance Rate

Let’s start with a college’s acceptance rate. Here is what we said in the workbook:

One way to judge the selectivity of a college is by looking at the number of students it accepts compared to the number of students who applied. Let’s call this “acceptance rate.” You should understand that, generally speaking, colleges like to boast that they have a low acceptance rate; that makes them feel more exclusive. There are many ways for a college to manipulate its acceptance rate, such as by encouraging applicants who are really not qualified and who will be rejected when they apply–a practice that is just as mean-spirited as it sounds. There have even been some news stories, opinion columns, and general criticism lately of colleges that seem overly impressed with their own super-low acceptance rates–say, below 10 percent.

Without looking too closely at small differences in acceptance rates (like the difference in selectivity of a college with a 15 percent acceptance rate and a college with an 18 percent acceptance rate), you should know that the higher that acceptance rate is, the better chance you probably have of being admitted. While some well-known top-ranked private colleges have acceptance rates below 20 percent, some well-respected high-ranked private colleges and great public flagship universities have acceptance rates closer to 30 percent. And other excellent public flagship universities have acceptance rates closer to 50 percent. . . . Keep in mind that you will want to have some colleges on your LLCO with acceptance rates around 40 percent or better–just to be safe.

Question 41 asks students simply to jot down the percent of applicants admitted to the college.

2. High School Grade Point Average (GPA)

And this next topic, high school GPA, comes as no surprise. We wrote:

For many, but not all, colleges, you will be able to find the full distribution of high school GPAs and the average high school GPA of the students enrolled in the freshman class by looking [at] the common data set on the college’s website. You also might find it on a Class Profile sheet on the website. . . .

This average high school GPA will be on a 4-point scale. For example, a great college might show an average high school GPA of 3.8, meaning that its enrolled freshmen did extremely well in their high school courses.

As Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses have become increasingly popular and as more high schools have started to “weight” students’ grades in those courses (and sometimes in their own honors courses as well), there has been a rise in high school GPAs. . . .

One effect of all of this weighting of high school course grades appears to be that average high school GPAs of incoming freshmen are on the rise. We can tell this anecdotally by the fact that many colleges we profiled in our virtual college tour, including some not super-selective ones, post surprisingly high average GPAs well over a 3.5 for the incoming freshman class.

Question 42 asks students to jot down the average high school GPA of enrolled freshmen.

3. High School Class Rank

Question 43 asks students to jot down whatever information they can find on the distribution of students by class rank. As you may know, class rank is an issue in today’s high schools. Here is an explanation, written for students:

For many, but not all, colleges, you will be able to find the full distribution of high school class ranks of the students enrolled in the freshman class by looking [at] the common data set on a college’s website; there you will also find the percent of students who actually submitted a class rank. . . .

You also might find class rank information on a Class Profile sheet on the website, where one college we profiled actually publicized the number of enrolled students who were named valedictorian (a #1 class rank) of their graduating class. . . .

There have been a number of stories in the education media lately about school districts that do not want to name valedictorians any longer. Why? Because they have found that the competition for that spot sometimes comes down to a thousandth of a point in that GPA we just discussed. Furthermore, they have found that students are so focused on getting that extra-high GPA that they will actually NOT take high school courses they would otherwise have taken in order to broaden their studies–or should take in order to prepare for college–for fear of hurting their GPAs. That is a crying shame.

Of course, for many years, some high schools have simply not provided class ranks for a variety of reasons, and it is not a requirement from any government office or governing body that high schools must provide class ranks. Similarly, some colleges will simply say that class ranks are not available for admitted or enrolled freshmen.

So, if your kid’s high school provides class ranks, we hope your kid has a high one. But if it does not, maybe that’s just as well these days.

4. Test-Optional or Test-Flexible Colleges

Every so often, it seems that we end up talking about test-optional and test-flexible colleges in an episode. There is always something to say because the list of such colleges keeps growing and because increasingly prestigious colleges are being added to it each year. As you probably know by now, a test-optional college means that students do not have to submit SAT or ACT test scores; a test-flexible college means that students are given a choice among various types of test scores to submit.

However, we have noticed that many colleges that do not require the submission of SAT or ACT scores receive them, nonetheless, from many applicants. Because those scores are usually quite good, according to the data provided by the college, it is evident that students with good scores do, in fact, supply them even to test-optional colleges. How those scores figure into admissions decisions is anybody’s guess. Here is our advice: If your kid has good SAT or ACT scores, he or she should probably submit them to test-optional colleges, even though they are not required.

There are perhaps only a handful of colleges that say that they absolutely do NOT want any test scores sent to them and that they will NOT use them at all for any reason, including well-regarded Hampshire College, which makes a crystal clear statement on its website about this subject.

So, Question 44 asks students to check off whether the college is a test-optional or test-flexible college. This information can turn out to be very important for students who do not have good SAT or ACT scores, but it likely won’t matter at all for students who have good ones.

5. SAT and ACT Scores

And speaking of those SAT and ACT scores, Question 45 asks students to jot down SAT and ACT scores, by subtest, as provided by a college in a variety of ways. For example, the common data set on college websites provides the following test data:

  • The percent of students who submitted SAT and ACT scores
  • The SAT and ACT scores, by subtest, at the 25th percentile of students and at the 75th percentile of students (in other words, 25 percent of students scored at or below the score at the 25th percentile, and 25 percent of students scored at or above the score at the 75th percentile)
  • The full distribution of SAT and ACT scores, by subtest

If your kid’s scores fall above the 75th percentile of scores for a college’s students, that is good. If your kid’s scores fall right in the middle between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile, that would be just about average for that college’s students. But if your kid’s scores fall close to or below the 25th percentile, that would not be nearly so promising in terms of his or her chances of being admitted.

Until further notice, let us assert that SAT and ACT scores do matter. Sometimes all of us wish they didn’t. And while it’s true that, for some colleges, the scores don’t matter nearly so much, it’s also true that having good test scores is always a plus when applying to most colleges. That’s just the way it is.

And for some, mostly elite colleges, SAT Subject Tests are still required or are, at least, recommended for admission–sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes three, and sometimes certain ones. I imagine that a tough policy on requiring SAT Subject Test scores could mean that a student would not apply to a particular college. On the other hand, if your kid is applying to top-tier colleges, double checking on SAT Subject Test requirements EARLY is critical. Question 47 asks students whether any SAT Subject Tests are either required or recommended for admission and, if so, the specifics about those tests.

6. High School Courses

Finally, let’s look at one last admission standard–one that is less often considered and more often taken for granted–and that is the courses that applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits (or Carnegie units) in each subject area, but also sometimes including specific courses, especially in math and science.

On a college’s website, this information can virtually always be found by starting with the Admission home page. Students will find that the high school course or credit expectations of colleges do, in fact, differ, usually according to how selective the college is. This is a favorite topic of ours here at USACollegeChat, so I am going to refer you to Episode 162 on this topic, which we did quite recently. It says it all! But just to remind you: The courses that your kid takes in high school matter, including the courses that he or she takes as a senior.

Questions 48 and 49 ask students to jot down the number of high school credits/courses that are required by a college and, separately, that are recommended by a college in each subject and, then, to jot down any specific courses that are required or recommended.

Well, that’s 10 questions on college admission practices. I think that’s enough. Stay tuned for next week’s finale.

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Episode 150: College Acceptance for the Spring Semester?

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

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

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

1. Tulane University’s Spring Scholars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what Mr. Schiffman wrote next:

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

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

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

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

2. Where Else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Trends

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

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

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Episode 132: High School Grade Inflation and College Admissions

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We are in the fourth week of our new series, Researching College Options, and we spent time in our last episode talking about the SAT and ACT and their almost-unavoidable continuing role in college applications and admissions. Yes, we said that there are plenty of test-optional and test-flexible colleges, but the SAT and ACT are not dead and buried yet and won’t be any time soon, if ever. That topic was just about as inevitable as college applications season gets into full swing as this week’s topic, which is the super-important high school grade point average (GPA).

Unfortunately, if your kid is about to be a senior, that high school GPA is pretty well locked in place at this point. A great fall semester might help a bit, but it won’t do much to change a GPA that is already based on six semesters of high school work and it won’t help at all if your kid is applying to a college under an Early Decision option and/or if your kid is applying to one or more colleges under an Early Action option by around November 1. Your kid’s current cumulative GPA is what it is, and now we have to help you and your kid think about how to deal with it.

So, here are a few paragraphs of background from our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students:

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; nonetheless, 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 really 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 who have both mediocre or low high school grades and mediocre or low college admission test scores, the college choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year college–or maybe a public four-year college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as good private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too. If you look at the average high school GPAs of entering freshmen at many public state flagship universities, they are extraordinarily high–a 3.7 or 3.8 is not unheard of. Why again? Because many, many of the brightest students in a state want to attend–and do attend–the public state flagship university, for all the reasons we [have discussed before at USACollegeChat].

Understanding how important high school grades are in the college admission game is the first step, but it is one you should have taken with your senior several years ago. Parents of younger high school students, heed this early warning: Help your kid understand that there is really no way to make up for crummy–or even lackluster–high school grades when it comes time to apply to colleges. There just isn’t.

So, let’s look again this week at what we call Step 13 in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–that is, Step 13 of getting the information that your kid needs to make good choices about where to apply. Finding out all of the information we call for in Step 13 will give you an idea about how likely it is that your kid will be accepted by a college if he or she decides to apply. Of course, no one can say for sure whether your kid’s grades or admission test scores or extracurricular and community service activities or letters of recommendation will be appealing enough to get him or her admitted to a particular college. But several academic hurdles stand between your kid and one or more colleges on his or her Long List of College Options (LLCO), and high school GPA is one of those hurdles.

1. High School GPAs of College Candidates

So, we believe that your kid should find out the average high school GPA of admitted or enrolled freshmen in order to get a somewhat better grasp on whether he or she is likely to be admitted to that college. Here is what we wrote in our new book for kids like yours:

For many, but not all, colleges, you will be able to find the full distribution of high school GPAs and the average high school GPA of the students enrolled in the freshman class by looking under C11 and C12 of the common data set on the college’s website. [You will probably need to search for “common data set” on the college’s website, and you might find that the data sets are available for several years.] You also might find [high school grades] on a Class Profile sheet on the website, but you will not find this information on College Navigator [the online resource provided by the National Center for Education Statistics].

[The] average high school GPA will be on a 4-point scale. For example, a great college might show an average high school GPA of 3.8, meaning that its enrolled freshmen did extremely well in their high school courses.

As Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses have become increasingly popular and as more high schools have started to “weight” students’ grades in those courses (and sometimes in their own honors courses as well), there has been a rise in high school GPAs. In other words, when a student in a high school with weighted grades gets an A in a regular course, that A is worth a 4.0, or 4 points. But if a student in a high school with weighted grades gets an A in an Advanced Placement course, that A is worth a 5.0, or 5 points?that is, the grade has more “weight.”

Whether your high school does or does not weight course grades is something that should be part of the high school narrative profile that your school’s counselor will send off to colleges with your high school transcript. That profile is helpful to colleges in judging your GPA.

Nonetheless, one effect of all of this weighting of high school course grades appears to be that average high school GPAs of incoming freshmen are on the rise. We can tell this anecdotally by the fact that many colleges we profiled in our virtual college tour [back in Episodes 27 through 53 of USACollegeChat], including some not super-selective ones, post surprisingly high average GPAs well over a 3.5 for the incoming freshman class.

So, look carefully at the average high school GPAs that colleges are putting out there and see how yours compares. And, remember, some colleges will not provide one.

Well, that is a rather straightforward explanation of the high school GPA as one determinant in college admissions. As parents, it shouldn’t surprise you at all. But now let’s look at a newer explanation of that high school grade inflation, which we referred to, and its consequences.

2. The New Research on High School Grade Inflation

This explanation comes to you from a July article in Inside Higher Ed, which is, in its own words, “the leading digital media company serving the higher education space. Born digital in the 21st Century at the height of the Internet revolution, our publication has become the trusted, go-to source of online news, thought leadership, and opinion over the last decade.” This article, by Scott Jaschik, is appropriately titled “High School Grades: Higher and Higher.” Here is what Jaschik said about a new study, which was just released:

The study . . . will be a chapter in Measuring Success: Testing, Grades and the Future of College Admissions, to be published next year by Johns Hopkins University Press. The two authors of the study are Michael Hurwitz, senior director at the College Board, and Jason Lee, a doctoral student at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. . . .

The research is on students who take the SAT, and the study argues that these are representative of high school students who enroll in four-year colleges. The data come both from the Education Department and from surveys the College Board conducts of students who take the SAT.

A key finding is that, looking at cohorts of high school graduates who finished from 1998 to 2016, the average high school GPA went up from 3.27 to 3.38.

Notably, the gains were unequal among high schools, and the differences appear to favor students from wealthier (and whiter) high schools than average.

The study groups high schools by the magnitude of grade inflation. In the top decile of growth in average GPAs [meaning that the GPAs rose the most], black and Latino students made up only 22 percent of students on average, and only 32 percent of students were eligible for free lunch. But in the bottom decile of GPA growth [meaning that the GPAs rose the least], black and Latino enrollments were an average of 61 percent, and more than half of students were eligible for free lunch. The study finds that the average GPA at the high schools with the most grade inflation (top decile) has hit 3.56, while the average at places that haven’t seen much grade inflation (bottom decile, largely minority) is 3.14.

. . . [T]he study finds similar grade inflation in . . . weighted and unweighted grades. . . . (quoted from the article, emphasis added)

Well, that is quite a lot to process. It’s bad enough that grade inflation is taking place and skewing the way that everyone has to think about high school achievement. But it’s much worse to know that whiter and richer kids are disproportionately benefiting from what is already a lousy trend. You can draw your own conclusions about why that is happening. And here is one further surprising finding from the study:

. . . [T]he authors find that the proportion of students with A averages (including A-minus and A-plus) increased from 38.9 percent of the graduating class of 1998 to 47 percent of the graduating class of 2016. . . . (quoted from the article)

What? I was surprised–more like flabbergasted–to learn that almost 40 percent of students in the graduating class of 1998 had A averages (even considering that this was perhaps a somewhat select sample of that graduating class, like kids who took the SAT). Nonetheless, almost 40 percent seems high to me–or, more precisely, inflated already. The fact that the figure is now 47 percent is more arresting still. Do we really believe that almost half of the 2016 high school graduates–even half of the graduates who took the SAT–deserved A averages? That seems like a lot of kids to me.

But hold on a minute. Here is something that you might be thinking, something that would make these fantastic grades happy news, according to the article:

. . . [T]he authors acknowledge in their study [that] there could be a reason for the grade inflation that would make educators celebrate. What if students are smarter or are being better educated, and so are earning their better grades? The authors reject these possibilities, and cite SAT scores to do so. If students were learning more, their SATs should be going up, or at the very least remaining stable. But during the period studied, SAT averages (math and verbal, 1,600-point scale) fell from 1,026 to 1,002. . . . (quoted from the article)

Oh, so it’s just grade inflation after all. Here is the wrap-up and bottom line from the article:

While the authors said they didn’t think many educators would be surprised that grade inflation is present in high schools, they said it was important to look at the variation among high schools, a circumstance that has received less attention.

High schools “most prone to grade inflation are the resourced schools,” Lee said, “the ones with the highest level of affluence.” For those at high schools without resources, generally with lower GPAs, grade inflation elsewhere “puts them at a disadvantage in the college admissions process.” (quoted from the article)

So, this is one more instance of students from poorer communities–who are, as a matter of fact, disproportionately students of color–facing a tougher path to college. And this is one more instance of students from wealthier communities–who are, as a matter of fact, disproportionately white students–getting an undeserved break.

3. What Does It Mean for You

What does all this mean for your kid, regardless of how well-to-do or not-well-to-do your high school community is? It means that the race for good grades has gotten harder to win. Average high school GPAs of admitted freshmen are impressive–sometimes literally unbelievably impressive–even at colleges that are not in the top tier. If you have a senior at home and it is too late to improve his or her GPA, then you need to be sensible in looking at how your kid stacks up against the students who are being admitted to colleges on your kid’s Long List of College Options. If you have a younger kid at home, remind him or her every day just how important high school grades are–no matter what four-year college he or she is aiming for.

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Episode 128: College Enrollment in Decline?

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Today’s episode is going to be the final one of our Colleges in the Spotlight series because next week we are really getting down to the serious work of getting our rising high school seniors ready to apply to colleges. So, as we leave Colleges in the Spotlight, we want to take a look at a news story that might just be bringing good news to some of you. The story, which ran in The Hechinger Report and in The Washington Post at the end of June, was entitled “Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment.” Really, I said to myself. That could be great news for kids applying to colleges this fall.

Today’s episode will look at the national facts and figures of this new trend. Plus we will look at Ohio Wesleyan University–in today’s spotlight–a good small liberal arts college in Delaware, Ohio. Ohio Wesleyan enrolls about 1,700 undergraduate students and boasts an attractive 10-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. In the interest of full disclosure, my sister-in-law graduated from Ohio Wesleyan “some years ago” (that means more than 40 years ago) and, by all accounts, thoroughly enjoyed her time there.

And one final reminder: Don’t forget to get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–available at amazon.com. Quick and cheap! Your teenager is going to need it this summer when he or she might have some time to kill. We will tell you more when we get serious next week, so stay tuned.

1. The Facts and Figures on Enrollment Decline

Here are some of the facts and figures presented by Jon Marcus in The Hechinger Report article:

  • According to the National Student Clearinghouse, college enrollment has declined for five years in a row.
  • This year, there are 81,000 fewer U.S. high school graduates going off to college, which is a direct result of a decline in birth rate (particularly in the Northeast and Midwest).
  • Just over 18 million students were enrolled in colleges nationwide last spring–2.4 million fewer students than were enrolled in the fall of 2011, which was the most recent high point for college enrollment. I am going to say that over 2 million students is a lot of students to lose.
  • According to a survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, 58 percent of chief business officers said their institutions had seen a drop in undergraduate enrollment since 2013. (Although 58 percent is certainly the majority of colleges, it doesn’t mean that the statement is true for the most selective colleges–where it is likely not true, just to keep things in perspective.)
  • According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, over 400 colleges still had fall semester spots for freshmen and transfer students as of May 1. (Again, that doesn’t mean those 400 included the most selective colleges, but 400 is still a lot of colleges and every U.S. high school graduate does not, of course, attend a most selective college.)

What does the future hold? When will it all change? Not until 2023, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). Here is what The Hechinger Report article says about what will then be a “slow recovery”:

When it comes, [the recovery] will be [composed] largely of low-income, first-generation-in-college racial and ethnic minorities. These are the kinds of students institutions have generally proven poor at enrolling, and who will arrive with a far greater need for financial aid and expensive support. (quoted from the website)

So, colleges might not have an easy time of it as they work to stem the decline and turn enrollment around–not that many high school seniors and their families are going to be overly sympathetic about that.

Can this information work in favor of kids applying to colleges in the next few years? Before we consider what it all means, let’s look at the Ohio Wesleyan case study, presented in The Hechinger Report article.

2. The Story of Ohio Wesleyan

Hit with a decline in Ohio high school graduates, a prime recruiting ground for Ohio Wesleyan, the University took and is taking a number of steps to boost its enrollment, based on data that it looked at both from admitted students who decided to enroll and admitted students who decided not to enroll. Here are some of those steps:

  • Because the drop in male students was greater than the drop in female students, Ohio Wesleyan is adding two sports (and a marching band) to try to attract more male students.
  • Because students said they wanted more internship and more study abroad opportunities, both internships and short-term study abroad programs are being expanded.
  • Because new sources of students needed to be found, Ohio Wesleyan admissions staff members have been recruiting locally (in Cleveland), regionally (in Chicago), and much farther afield (in China, India, and Pakistan). In addition, the transfer process has been simplified so that students wanting to transfer into Ohio Wesleyan can do so more easily.
  • Because some undergraduates are concerned about where they will be going next for graduate study (Ohio Wesleyan enrolls undergrads only), articulation agreements with Carnegie-Mellon University and with a medical school have just been drawn up to make the transition from undergraduate to graduate study more straightforward–in at least those cases.
  • Because money is always an issue for students and their families, Ohio Wesleyan has budgeted more money for financial aid. In addition, “the University is considering freezing, lowering or slowing the rate of increase of its tuition and fees, which are now $44,690” (quoted from the article).
  • Because students are concerned about their futures, Ohio Wesleyan has been studying labor data and creating new majors in fields of high demand, including majors in data analytics and computational neuroscience. Ohio Wesleyan president Rock Jones was quoted in The Hechinger Report article as saying this: “We live in a really consumer-driven society, and to be honest a college is an investment. Families are much more discerning, and they approach it as consumers. That’s a cultural shift to which the campus has to respond.”

One of my favorite anecdotes from The Hechinger Report article is this one (and I think this will be particularly enjoyable for anyone who has friends who teach in colleges and who hear about the politics of higher education from those friends):

One of the greatest challenges, as at other places, has been to get buy-in from the faculty, who have to approve new academic offerings. Ohio Wesleyan invited faculty on the curriculum committee to meet with the financial-aid committee, giving them a sense of how serious the problems were and asking them for help in coming up with majors that might attract more students.

This doesn’t always work. One faculty member suggested a new major in sacred music, for example. “Some faculty have a very clear understanding of the issues,” [President] Jones said wryly. “Others, less so.” (quoted from the article)

3. More About Money

For those of you particularly concerned about financing a college education for your teenager (and who isn’t), consider this new statistic:

Small private, nonprofit colleges and universities this year gave back, in the form of financial aid, an average of 51 cents of every dollar they collected from tuition. That’s up from an average of 38 cents a decade ago. . . . (quoted from the article)

I guess that is good news for students and their families, but perhaps bad news for colleges that continue to try to make ends meet. Of course, there also has to be a point here when most colleges cannot give back almost everything they take in and still remain viable.

And while we could tell you stories of small private colleges cutting their tuition and, as a result, gaining additional students, here is one public flagship university story that could also prove valuable to some of you:

The University of Maine, in a state whose number of high school grads has fallen 9 percent since 2011, offered admission to students from elsewhere at the same in-state price they would have paid to attend their home flagships; that has attracted more than 1,000 new students for the semester that begins this fall, from all of the other New England states plus California, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. (quoted from the article)

We have talked about these kinds of arrangements with public universities in previous USACollegeChat episodes and in our most recent book, where we mention that some public universities provide generous discounts to students from contiguous states or to students in the region. The University of Maine seems to have found a way to expand that idea nationwide and win more students as a result.

4. What’s It All Mean for You?

So, what does all this mean for you and your own teenager? Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that your kid’s chances of getting into an Ivy League school or any other top-tier college are any better now than they were before you listened to this episode. Whatever happens to the number of high school students in the U.S. and no matter what the decline is in the number of high school graduates statewide in your state or nationwide, our nation’s most selective colleges are not going to feel the pinch. That is just our opinion, but it is probably right.

It is also likely true that the top public flagship universities are not going to feel the pinch, either–like the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California, Berkeley, and another five or 10 more. Why? Because those top flagships attract students from across the nation, and there will always be enough students with good enough grades to fill the best public universities.

But here is the good news. Your teenager might have a better chance now of getting into a good small private college–and there are plenty of those. If you have a super-smart kid, such a college could serve as a great safety school. If you have a kid with good, but not outstanding, grades and test scores, such a college could become a likely match rather than a reach school.

We have said for some time at USACollegeChat that our public flagship universities are the hidden jewels of our higher education system. And we are not taking that back. But now maybe we should add that good small private colleges might be the hidden jewels of our higher education system precisely because they will give you a better bang for your buck than you originally thought. Let’s keep that in mind next week as we move to the serious search for colleges for your teenager.

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Episode 109: Early Decision and Early Action Anxiety in College Admissions–Part II

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This is the third in our series of episodes discussing issues in higher education, and it’s the second part of a two-parter that looks at the Early Decision and Early Action options for high school students who will be applying to colleges next fall. I mentioned last week that I was infuriated by this issue. I meant that I was infuriated on behalf of the kids and families who are trying to figure out how to play this college admissions game, which is hard enough without having to calculate the advantages and disadvantages of various Early Decision and Early Action options at various colleges and how those options interact with each other.

Last week, we discussed the pros and cons of Early Decision. I won’t repeat all of the reasoning here, but I will repeat my conclusion, which is this: Early Decision is better for an individual applicant than it is for the pool of applicants. In other words, Early Decision might be great for your own teenager, even though it could well be concerning for the futures of all of our teenagers collectively. Of course, you have the luxury of thinking only about your own teenager. You aren’t setting policy for colleges or high schools across the country, and you don’t have to be fair to all high school seniors. You are likely to do what is best for your own teenager.

In that world, I believe that many of you will end up considering an Early Decision option very seriously, given everything we said last week. However, if your teenager just isn’t ready to make such a big decision around November 1–a decision that will be a binding decision–then let’s look at an alternative option for you. That alternative option is Early Action, the option that some would call the kinder, gentler option in the early admissions game.

1. Early Action

Under the Early Action option, high school seniors can still apply early–around November 1–but they are not ethically committed to enroll at the college if accepted. That is, the decision to apply Early Action is not a binding decision by a high school senior to attend that college and only that college. Early Action enables kids to apply to more than one college that offers an Early Action option and hold onto any acceptances until April–before having to make a final decision among all of the acceptances that come in on both the early and the regular schedules.

In counseling students myself, I encourage them to apply under the Early Action option to as many of the colleges on their final list as they can. I just don’t see a downside. And it can certainly take the pressure off a student to know in December that he or she has a guaranteed acceptance from a college or two or three well before April comes.

Here is one thing you have to keep in mind, however. Students have to take the SAT or ACT early enough to have the scores before November 1, and a student has to believe that the scores he or she has by November 1 is about as good as he or she can get. Because most students are going to take the SAT and/or the ACT more than once, that means taking the exam in the late spring of the junior year and again in the early fall of the senior year. Or, perhaps, it means taking the exam in late summer and again in the fall. There are, of course, pros and cons to these choices.

For example, we often advise good students who have had a rigorous high school program to take the test in the late spring of the junior year, to study and prep over the summer, and to take it again in the early fall of the senior year. Students who might not be as strong and who are not well prepared by the spring of their junior year might be better off studying and prepping over the summer and taking the test for the first time in September of the senior year. Here is one thing we do know: Taking the test just a couple of months apart and doing nothing to prepare in between the two testing dates is a waste of time and money; not much is going to be gained in regular school learning or in maturation in a couple of months.

Here is another option we have recommended. Apply Early Action to one or more colleges using your available test scores if you think you are likely to be accepted. In this case, the Early Action colleges would likely be your safety schools–that is, schools you can probably get into without improving your scores. If there are more selective colleges that you are holding out hope for, but for which you need better scores, re-take the SAT or ACT in November or December and don’t apply to those colleges until the regular deadline of January 1 or later.

2. Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action

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

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

3. The Craziness of Some College Admissions Options

I must confess that I myself have had to read and re-read some colleges’ website information on admissions many times to figure out what all the options meant. I cannot imagine how a high school kid by himself or herself ever completes and submits a college application anymore, especially if that kid has parents who do not speak English or cannot help for whatever reason. That’s probably the subject for an episode of its own!

Before we look at a few examples of colleges with crazy admissions options, let’s put one more option on the table: two rounds of Early Decision, or Early Decision I and Early Decision II. (By the way, colleges may also have Early Action I and II, though Early Decision I and II appear to be more common.)

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

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

Now, let’s look at a few real examples of colleges, all of which shall remain nameless:

  • Take this private Southern university, which has both Early Action and Single-Choice Early Action options, but no Early Decision option.
  • Or this public Southern university, which has three options: Early Decision I (with notification in late December), Early Decision II (for those who need a little more time to apply, with notification in mid-February), and Early Action (with notification in late January).
  • Or this Midwestern college with only about 1,000 undergraduates, which offers Early Action I and Early Decision I as well as Early Action II and Early Decision II options (with all decisions no later than February 15)–plus a regular decision option, of course. That’s five options!
  • Take this private Northeastern college, which offers the following information, quoted from the website:

Students who apply by the November 15 deadline for [Early Decision] Round I will be notified of the decision on their application in mid-December. Those who apply by the January 15 [Early Decision] Round II deadline will hear by February 15, as will those who convert Regular Decision applications to Early Decision by February 1. While Early Decision candidates may initiate applications to other colleges, if they are accepted under one of the Early Decision plans they must immediately withdraw all other applications and enroll at [this college].

  • Or this Ivy League university, which offers the following information, quoted from the website:

If you are a Single-Choice Early Action applicant to [this university], you may apply to another institution’s early admission program as follows:

  • You may apply to any college’s non-binding rolling admission program.

  • You may apply to any public institution at any time provided that admission is non-binding.

  • You may apply to another college’s Early Decision II program, but only if the notification of admission occurs after January 1. If you are admitted through another college’s Early Decision II binding program, you must withdraw your application from [this university].

  • You may apply to another college’s Early Action II program.

  • You may apply to any institution outside of the United States at any time.

My view is this, not that the university asked: If a student can follow that, he or she deserves to be admitted right now!

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

4. A Personal Anecdote

Permit me a final personal anecdote. It may give you an idea of what awaits you next fall. This is a real story about a high school senior we worked with last fall. Let’s call her Kate. Kate had great grades (straight A’s, including in AP courses and honors courses), great activities (including excellent community service activities, a variety of school activities, and championship school and community sports teams), and satisfactory (but not great) SAT scores.

We helped Kate apply under Early Action plans to three universities, where we thought she would be accepted, based on her record. In fact, Kate got three Early Action acceptances in December: from Binghamton University (one of New York State’s best public universities), from the University of Colorado Boulder (a great public flagship university in one of the most beautiful settings in the U.S.), and from Baylor University (a very good private Southern university, which gave birth to one of the great medical schools in the U.S.). Kate got good scholarships from both the University of Colorado Boulder and Baylor. By the way, listeners, this is what it means to get outside your geographic comfort zone; be the New Yorker applying to colleges in Colorado and Texas. So, three Early Action acceptances are making life in Kate’s household a lot easier these days–while she waits on answers from eight more highly selective private universities, including two Ivies, in April.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that I lobbied hard for Kate to apply to Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences under its Early Decision plan. Kate wants to go to medical school eventually, and the Ag School (as we Cornellians call it) is a good stepping stone to that. I believed that she might barely get into the Ag School on the Early Decision plan, given her academic record and the high proportion of Early Decision applicants who are accepted into the Ag School’s freshman class. Furthermore, she is a New York State resident, and the Ag School is one of the State-supported colleges within Cornell (which is a unique private-public partnership that we have spoken about several times at USACollegeChat). Finally, I did not believe that Kate would get into Cornell on a regular decision timeline, largely because of her less-than-stupendous SAT scores.

Here was the problem: Kate had her heart set on Yale or Georgetown. I was pretty sure she would not get into Yale, and I doubted that she would get into Georgetown. I thought Early Decision at the Ag School would be her best chance to get into a highly selective university, but that meant giving up any hope of Yale or Georgetown. In the end, I was not persuasive, so I settled for getting her to do those three Early Action applications. Now we are all waiting for April. Since I believe she will be happy at either Boulder or Baylor, I am less concerned than I might otherwise have been. She is less concerned, too–thankfully–and that is the beauty of Early Action.

So, what’s our advice? Well, it’s nothing straightforward. You are going to have to lay out the Early Action and Early Decision options and rules for each college your teenager is going to apply to next fall and figure out the best path. We are afraid that each case is unique. We are convinced, however, that making some use of some early options is likely to be in your teenager’s favor. Good luck, and call us when you get stuck.

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