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 174: Why the College’s Security Measures Matter

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Today is Step 11 out of the 14 steps we want your son or daughter to take this summer to make his or her search for colleges more effective. As you know by now, these steps are based on our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students (get one at Amazon ASAP).

Step 11 brings us to the safety of students on campus and the security measures that a college takes to keep its students safe. Parents: Getting information about security measures on campus is one way to help alleviate your concerns about letting your son or daughter go away to college and live on campus. Information can be found on each college’s website and from College Navigator for answering Questions 32, 33, and 34 on our College Profile Worksheet. You will also notice and definitely hear about security measures if you visit a college and take a campus tour.

Before we go on, let’s say a word to those of you who plan to have your son or daughter commute to campus from home. Safety is an issue for your family, too. You will still need to pay attention to all of the security measures on campus, but you will also have to worry about the convenience and safety of the commute.

As we said last week in our episode on campus housing, what about commuters’ late-night trips home after a meeting on campus or a late class or studying in the library? What about the safety of getting to a remote parking lot to get in the car or the safety of waiting for 20 minutes or more on a subway platform or on an empty street for a public bus? What about commuting in bad weather, especially in snowstorms, when a college campus might close down unexpectedly and public transportation is snarled? Safety issues might be even more important for commuters than for residential students, and the college cannot be responsible for the safety of your kid’s commute once he or she leaves the campus.

1. Security Measures

Question 32 asks students to check off the types of security measures offered on campus by each college on their LLCO (that, is, their Long List of College Options). Here’s what we said about security measures in the workbook for students:

If you are going to live on campus and you have a chance to visit a campus housing facility, notice whether there is an adult uniformed security guard with a sign-in and sign-out book at the entrance of that residential facility. Ask whether the security guard is there 24 hours a day. We know that many college students find these security guards to be a bit annoying, and we know that this amount of supervision is one reason some students prefer to move into off-campus housing after the freshman year. But, we can also tell you that parents love seeing those security guards at the entrances to residential facilities, and we don’t blame them.

Obviously, uniformed guards provide a higher level of security than a reception desk staffed by students who are working part-time jobs or work-study jobs. Some colleges, in fact, do not have anyone at all on duty to monitor the flow of people in and out of residential facilities; students just go in and out with their own keys or cards.

Whether you are on a campus tour or reading about a college on a website, look for daytime and nighttime security measures like these:

Shuttle buses or vans to take students from one part of campus to another, especially when the campus is big

Blue-light call boxes on recognizable stand-alone towers with a blue light on top, which are placed along walkways, in parking lots, or in distant parts of the campus and which let a student in trouble call for help instantly (some are also outfitted with cameras, sirens, and broadcast systems to alert students nearby or to provide more information for the police or security guards)

Students who serve as walking escorts from building to building or from buildings to the parking lots after dark.

Here are some more questions to research or to observe on a campus visit:

  • Are there security guards at the entrances to all of the classroom buildings, libraries, auditoriums, and sports facilities?
  • Are student IDs needed to get in and out of campus buildings?
  • How do guests and visitors get in and out of campus buildings?
  • Is the campus gated or fenced in or walled in or otherwise closed off? Are there guards at the campus entrances?

2. Crime Statistics

Now, instruct your son or daughter to go to College Navigator and look under Campus Security for each college on his or her LLCO. There he or she will find crime statistics for three years, including the number of criminal offenses and reasons for arrests on the campus and, specifically, in the residence halls. Question 33 asks students to jot down any crime statistics that seem noteworthy.

3. News Stories About Safety Issues

And, finally, Question 34 asks students to jot down details from any reliable news stories about student safety incidents at the college. As you probably know, there have been plenty of stories in the news recently about safety issues on college campuses. Some of these stories have brought to light incidents of female students being sexually assaulted or harassed by other students. Sometimes it is not clear what degree of responsibility the colleges in these stories have taken or should have taken for the incidents that have been reported. While it is not fair to blame a college for the actions of an individual student, it is fair to look at whether a college has a culture or habit of being unresponsive to students’ claims and complaints, particularly about sexual misconduct.

Well, this is not such a pleasant episode, but it is an issue that many parents are already thinking about. Better safe than sorry, as they say. Take the time to look at safety and security seriously and then move forward in the college search. And remember, parents, commuting does not make kids safer. Really.

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Episode 170: Why the College’s Class Size Matters

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Well, we are up to Step 7 of your kid’s summer homework, and we are officially halfway there. All 14 steps (7 down, 7 more to go) are explained in our episodes this summer and also at greater length with more examples and details in our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Remember to order a workbook from Amazon for your son or daughter if you want more explanation and the actual worksheets.

Step 7 asks your son or daughter to consider class size as one indication of what his or her academic experience would be like at each college on the LLCO. In other words, we want students to think about how undergraduate enrollment is distributed into the actual classrooms and seminar rooms and labs that they will be sitting in on campus and how that might affect their relationships with their professors. The College Profile Worksheet has just two questions in this section. You will need to use both College Navigator and each college’s website to find the answers to Questions 17 and 18 on class size.

1. Student-to-Faculty Ratio

First, let’s talk about student-to-faculty ratio, as we explained to students in the workbook:

You should look to College Navigator to find the student-to-faculty ratio for each collegein other words, how many students are there for each faculty member. This is a statistic that we mentioned frequently during our virtual college tour [in Episodes 27 through 53, way back in the early days of USACollegeChat], and we know that it is one that many colleges themselves are very proud of. That’s why it is often included in advertising claims about a college.

While you can usually find this statistic on a college’s own website–typically on the Quick Facts or At a Glance or similar page–you can also spend lots of time looking for this statistic and NOT finding it on the website. Trust us on that! So, it’s quicker to use College Navigator, which presents a college’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio on the last line of the opening section of each college’s profile.

Question 17 asks your son or daughter to jot down the student-to-faculty ratio of each college on his or her LLCO. But why? Because . . .

Most people believe that a student’s education is improved if he or she has more access to faculty members–in smaller classes, during less crowded office hours, and through a variety of activities, such as mentorships, special lectures, and so on. Most people believe that faculty members can and will give each student enough time and attention if they are not spread too thin over too many students. Hence, a student-to-faculty ratio should be as low as possible, ideally in single digits or low double digits–like 10-to-1, or 10 students to each faculty member.

We actually don’t have any evidence that this is true, though it certainly seems to be logical. We also don’t know how valuable a low student-to-faculty ratio is for students who are not particularly looking for this kind of personal relationship with faculty members. Many students attend large universities, have relatively little one-to-one contact with their professors, and still get an excellent education. As a matter of fact, some students actually prefer that.

Nonetheless, if you think that you would benefit from a closer, perhaps more nurturing connection to your professors, then checking out the student-to-faculty ratio makes sense. Or, if your parents would feel better knowing that there is a greater chance that a faculty member knows you and is looking out for you, then searching out that low student-to-faculty ratio is important.

Generally speaking, student-to-faculty ratios are lower at small private colleges than at large public universities, which is not surprising. Small private colleges advertise the college culture that comes with a low ratio as one of the reasons to choose a small private college instead of a large public university. . . .

When you see a very selective private university with a student-to-faculty ratio that makes it look more like a small private college, you have to be impressed. . . .

The bottom line is this: Don’t think much about the difference between a student-to-faculty ratio of, say, 9-to-1 and 10-to-1 or even 11-to-1. Instead, consider that there might be a difference in faculty accessibility between a college with a student-to-faculty ratio of 9-to-1 and one with a ratio of 18-to-1.

2. Class Size

Next, Question 18 asks your son or daughter to jot down any information and advertising claims made about class size for each college on his or her LLCO. Here is what we said to students in the workbook:

Class size is exactly what you think it ishow many students are in the classroom with you when you are trying to learn calculus or French literature or whatever you are taking. Some colleges are very proud of their small class sizes. Other colleges that think they don’t have very much to be proud of regarding class size do the best they can to make a good case for their own class sizes. You can find this information on many, many college websites, though you might have to look around a bit. Happy hunting!

Or you can search for the common data set on college websites and check out a display of class section sizes under I. Instructional Faculty and Class Size (by the way, you will also find student-to-faculty ratios here). . . .

But, class size is a matter of personal choice–at least it is once you get into college and take a variety of courses so you know what you are talking about. Some students prefer large classes, like a huge lecture by a brilliant professor. Other students prefer small seminars where students get to express their own opinions and talk back and forth with each other and with the professor. Our honest opinion is that you can’t possibly know right now which of these you would prefer. Why? Because you, like most high school students, have never experienced huge lectures by brilliant professors. Are we right?

Well, that’s Questions 17 and 18 taken care of. It was an easy week. But there are 34 questions left and next week’s topic is one of the biggest. So, rest up!

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Episode 169: Why the College’s Enrollment Matters

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Today we are going to talk about Step 6 of your kid’s summer homework, as explained in our episodes throughout the summer and also more elaborately in our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  So, order a workbook from Amazon for your son or daughter if you want the longer version and the actual worksheets.

We are up to Questions 8 through 16 on the College Profile Worksheet this week as your kid answers nine questions about student enrollment at each college on his or her Long List of College Options (or LLCO, for short).  The questions are about how many students are enrolled and what their personal characteristics are.

By the way, it occurs to me that your kid could be following along with us and doing the “questions of the week” for each college on the LLCO, but that means that he or she is going back to each college website or College Navigator profile every week as new questions are posed.  That seems a bit inefficient.  On the other hand, when your son or daughter gets accustomed to finding information on a college website or on College Navigator about a certain topic, it might turn out to be efficient to find that information in a similar place on each website or in each College Navigator profile–thus, making the whole process not really so inefficient as it seems.  Of course, you could advise your kid to do some of each:  Go along with us each week for a handful of colleges to make sure it is clear what to do and then, at the end of the summer, go back and finish up the other colleges by doing all of the questions for one college at a time with only one trip to the website and College Navigator profile.  That’s your family’s call.

With that said, although today’s Questions 8 through 16 on the College Profile Worksheet can be answered from a college’s website (especially by looking at the common data set), we think that it is actually easier to get most of the answers by using a college’s profile at College Navigator.  You might think that enrollment is just a matter of a number or two, but you are going to see that there’s a lot more to think about here.

1. Number of Undergraduate Students

Let’s start with the obvious:  number of undergraduate students.  This is what we explained to kids (though the workbook provides additional detail about exactly where to find the right numbers):

Here is one very important thing to remember when you are jotting down undergraduate enrollment for each of the colleges on your LLCO:  Be consistent about what statistic you use.  For example, some colleges include part-time and full-time students in their enrollment count; others separate them.  Sometimes, it is hard to know what students are included.  Ideally, you should use numbers that mean the same thing from college to college so that you can compare the sizes of the undergraduate student body as accurately as possible.

Our vote for where to find that undergraduate enrollment number is College Navigator.  After you search for your college, you will see many categories of data that are available.  Click on Enrollment.  You will refer to this category a lot as you fill out this section of the College Profile Worksheet.

Under Enrollment, you will notice that the figures are probably for the fall of the preceding school year.  Those figures are fine to use, because most colleges do not have huge enrollment changes from year to year.

Question 8 asks students to jot down the undergraduate enrollment of the college.  That’s the easy part.  Here is what we said about my personal pet peeve in judging the size of that undergraduate enrollment:

Eventually, you will have to consider whether the size of the undergraduate student body matters to you.  We think that this issue is given too much weight by many high school students and their parents.  We often hear kids say things like this:  “I think I would like to go to a small school.  The University of (fill in the blank) seems too big to me.”  Of course, a big university might seem overwhelming to a high school senior.  But perhaps that is because most high school seniors have spent no time at all in a large university setting.  We believe that most high school seniors have no rational basis for making a valid judgment about student body size.

And, although it is tempting, we don’t think you can judge the size of a college based on the size of your high school.  If you are coming from a small public high school or a small private school, we understand that you might feel that you would get lost in the shuffle of a large university.  We understand that, for you right now, a large academic setting might be outside your 17-year-old comfort zone.  But that is no reason to assume that you would not do well in that larger academic setting, given half a chance a year from now.

Not a year goes by that I don’t hear remarks like that from students I am counseling individually; and, most of the time, they admit their short-sightedness after I talk them through the argument in the workbook.  So, parents, do the same for your kid.  By the way, parents, sometimes you are the biggest offenders here by imposing your own prejudices about size on your kids.

2. Breakdown by Enrollment Status and Demographics

Often, however, you will find that the types of students at a college are more important the number of them.  Let’s look at a few categories of student enrollment.  These figures are provided in various ways in the College Navigator college profiles in the Enrollment category, including in very-easy-to-understand color-coded pie graphs/pie charts/circle graphs (the workbook tells your kid exactly how to identify which figures to use and offers examples of colleges with various patterns of enrollment).

Here are the breakdowns we suggest that your son or daughter and you consider:

Question 9:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by full-time vs. part-time attendance

Some colleges–especially prestigious private four-year colleges–have relatively few part-time students compared to, say, large public universities with many schools and many diverse programs. . . .

Part-time students are not worse students; however, part-time students do likely lead fuller, more complicated, more off-campus lives than traditional freshmen enrolling right out of high school, especially if those freshmen are living on campus.  As a result, colleges with high part-time enrollment might have a bit of a different feel on campus compared to colleges where almost all of the students are there full time (and, especially, where many of them are living on campus in residential housing).  It’s something to consider.

Question 10:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by gender and any other gender identity information or policies found on the college website or in discussion with the Admission Office

Unless you have been talking about going to a single-sex college, this statistic might not even be on your radar screen.  Nonetheless, it might be something worth thinking about.

If you look at the enrollment statistics for many colleges, you will notice that some are split pretty evenly between male and female students (say, 46 percent vs. 54 percent), while others are way out of balance (say, 30 percent vs. 70 percent).  Sometimes colleges that are out of balance can be explained by their history (for example, they were once women’s colleges) or by the types of majors they are best known for (given that some majors, unfortunately, continue to attract more students of one gender). . .

We should note here that we have not yet seen data reported and presented across colleges on enrollment of students with gender identities other than male and female.  However, if you are looking for a college that is particularly accepting of more diverse gender identities, that is a topic that can and should be pursued by looking further on the college’s website and by calling the Admission Office and asking about relevant data and policies.

Question 11:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by race/ethnicity

Unless you have been talking about going to an HBCU or about seeking out an HSI, you might not have been thinking hard about the racial or ethnic background of students at the colleges on your LLCO.  But it might be something worth considering, depending on your comfort level with members of other racial and ethnic groups in an education setting.  For example, if you attend a racially and ethnically mixed high school, you would likely feel comfortable in a similar sort of college population.  However, if you attend a high school that is not racially and ethnically diverse, it might be even more important to find a college that is–in order to prepare yourself better for the world of work and for life.

We have talked about the racial and ethnic diversity of colleges in our podcast episodes, and we noted that some colleges are not nearly as diverse as we would have guessed they were.  For example, we looked at a geographically diverse sample of nine large and small public flagships, some highly selective and others less selective.  The percentage of black students ranged from just 2 percent to 15 percent.  The Hispanic/Latino numbers ranged from just 3 percent to 10 percent.

On the other hand, we know quite a few very selective private colleges and universities where the percentages of black and Hispanic/Latino students exceed these public university numbers.  That is worth thinking about–whether you are black or Hispanic/Latino yourself or whether you simply want to attend a college with a diverse student population.

Question 12:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by student residence and any other interesting facts on the college website about where its students come from

It is useful, we think, to see just how many undergraduate students at a college are from the state where that college is located.  Generally, we believe it is better to go to a college where you will meet students from all over–all over the U.S., but also from all over the world.  Living and working with students of many national backgrounds in a relatively safe and protected environment, like a college, is one way for you to gain the interpersonal skills you will need for a lifetime.

As we have said before, almost all colleges like the idea of having students from all over the country and, indeed, from all over the world.  Many, many colleges proudly say on their websites how many states and how many foreign countries their students come from.  While public universities have a duty to serve the students of their own state, even they like to draw students from other states and other countries.  And remember that you might get into a college far away from home that your grades and test scores and activities could not get you into close to home–because, for that faraway college, you bring desirable geographic diversity.  Think about that.

In case you are wondering, a college’s own website will often break down enrollment even further than College Navigator to give you additional facts, like the five states sending the most undergraduate students or the most new freshmen or the percent of students who come from neighboring states or who come from the region the college is located in.  All of that might be food for thought as you review colleges on your LLCO.

Question 13:  Any interesting information about support services targeted for particular groups of students, especially if you are a member of that group

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

If you identify with students of color, first-generation-to-college students, LGBTQ students, students with learning disabilities, or another group, you should take a look at whether each college on your LLCO has support services targeted for you. . . . Why?  Because successful support services can make all the difference between dropping out and graduating.

Question 14:  The retention rate for full-time students who returned to the college for a second year

Retention rate tells you what percent of freshmen come back to the college the next year as sophomores.  In other words, it tells you how well the college keeps its students coming back for more.

There are many reasons that kids leave college between their first and second years, and some of those reasons are certainly beyond a college’s control.  Nonetheless, you probably want to be looking for colleges with a high retention rate–at least 80 percent or better.  Many top-ranked colleges will post a retention rate above 90 percent.

Question 15:  The 4-year and 6-year graduation rates for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees

Graduation rate is exactly what you think–the percent of students who actually graduated from the college.  But there is a lot more detail available in College Navigator than you will ever need to know.

Obviously, we all hope that you will get out of college four years after you start, even though many students don’t do that anymore.  We hope that, and you probably hope that.  But your parents really hope that.  Not getting out in four years will run up your college costs even higher than they are already going to be.  You need to stay focused and get out of college in four years.

The higher the 4-year graduation rates are, the better.  Rates over 80 percent are good, though they might be lower in big universities, especially public ones.  So, judge accordingly.

Question 16:  The graduate enrollment of the college

Whether a college (or, more often, a university) has graduate students at all is an important aspect of choosing a college for some students.  Some students and parents like the idea of advanced scholarship being available on campus and of professional schools (like law and medicine and journalism) being right there–either to add prestige generally or to serve as motivation or even the next stop for a successful undergrad.  On the other hand, some parents and even some college professors think that graduate students distract a college from paying adequate attention to the needs and education of the undergraduates; they also feel that too many graduate students (rather than college professors) end up teaching the freshman-level courses in too many disciplines.

Well, Questions 8 through 16 are a lot to think about.  It was a big week.  If you haven’t done that much thinking for each college on your LLCO, you aren’t ready to decide where to apply.  But don’t worry.  There are 36 questions still to go!  Plenty of time to think?

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Episode 166: Getting and Organizing College Information

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Today we are going to talk about Steps 2 and 3 of your kid’s summer homework. If you haven’t gotten our workbook for your son or daughter, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, then you haven’t done your summer homework. So, get one from Amazon, or listen very carefully to this episode and the next 11 like it.

In the last episode, you and your kid hopefully completed Step 1 of your summer homework by creating the all-important Long List of College Options (or LLCO, as we like to call it). And it should be long–perhaps 20 to 25 colleges, all of which your kid will start researching seriously very soon. You might think you already know a lot about some of the colleges on the list. In fact, you might have visited some of the colleges on the list. But I bet neither you nor your soon-to-be senior can answer all of the questions we have in mind.

1. Step 2: Reviewing the College Profile Worksheet

So, here’s the work in Step 2. It is really quite easy. We simply want your kid to preview the research he or she will start conducting soon in order to be mentally set for the task ahead. We created what we are calling the College Profile Worksheet in order to help your kid gather the information you both need in order to move forward in the college search process. This is what we said in the workbook about our 11-page–yes, 11-page–College Profile Worksheet: 

The worksheet is going to look long to you. But this is an important decision you are about to make. In fact, we would argue that deciding where to APPLY is just as important as deciding where to ENROLL–maybe more important. After all, if you don’t apply to a college, you can’t possibly enroll there. This is the decision that sets all of the others in motion. 

The College Profile Worksheet calls for you to make a lot of notes about colleges you are interested in. Why write all of this information down, you might be asking? Because you can’t remember it. Believe us, after you research about four colleges, you will not be able to remember which college had the great bike paths and which college had the required math courses. You need a convenient way to recall each college–without having to go back to the website and look up the information again. 

We learned this the hard way. When we were profiling colleges for our virtual college tour, we went back and forth to the same college website far too many times before realizing that we should have just jotted everything down the first time. We actually made a crude version of the worksheet for ourselves, and we have now improved it and put it into this workbook for you. The College Profile Worksheet will save you lots of time in the long run. 

Here are the categories of information you will be researching about each college on your LLCO:

History and Mission

Location

Enrollment

Class Size

Academics

Schedule

Housing

Security Measures

Activities and Sports

Admission Practices

Cost

You will see that the College Profile Worksheet asks you several questions in each category. Answering those questions will give you a good understanding of many important features of each college on your LLCO. As a result, you should be able to decide more efficiently and more accurately whether each college is a good match for you.

This might sound like a lot of work to you, and we know that it is going to sound like a lot of work to your son or daughter. But we insist that he or she should not be making a decision about attending a college–or even applying to a college–if you all know any less about it. We guarantee that the 52 questions on our College Profile Worksheet and the 52 answers your kid will discover while doing the research will give both of you a better picture of colleges in the U.S. than most educated adults have. How can that be a bad thing?

2. Step 3: Reviewing College Websites and Other Sources

And now, here’s the work in Step 3: figuring out where your son or daughter is going to get the information to answer our 52 questions. It is not as hard as you might think, but sometimes it is a lot harder than it should be (are you listening, colleges, because that it your fault). Let’s talk first about college websites. This is what we wrote to students in the workbook:

There is really no substitute for studying the website of each college on your LLCO. There is probably not a better way–and certainly not a cheaper way–to get more information than you could ever need about a college. Even visiting a college will not give you the range of detailed information that studying its website will.

With that said, let us point out that college websites are not created equal. Some are easy to use; some are difficult to figure out. All college websites are not set up the same way, and they do not use the same vocabulary. That is really too bad for the millions of high school students trying to use them. However, the more you study college websites, the better you will get at finding the information you need. The best thing to do is just get started.

Virtually every college website has a section called something like About (the name of the college). You might want to start there. That section usually contains something like Fast Facts or At a Glance or Facts and Figures. This section gives you a quick overview of the college, and we always find it helpful and informative. This page will absolutely help you fill in the College Profile Worksheet for each college on your LLCO.

Most college websites include these useful sections, among others:

  • Admission?You will spend a lot of time studying this section, obviously.
  • Academics?If the point of college is an education, then this section is critically important, with its explanations of divisions (like undergraduate and graduate or, if it is a university, like colleges and schools), departments, majors, and minors, plus a course catalog.
  • Campus Life, or Student Life?This section includes all of the things that will make up much of the rest of your life at college, including housing, dining, extracurricular activities and clubs, fraternities and sororities, and support services.
  • Athletics?If you are looking for information on intercollegiate athletics, don’t be surprised if you are automatically taken to an entirely separate website dedicated to sports (thanks to the big business that athletics is on many campuses and the boosters/fans who support the teams financially).
  • Research?Colleges are justifiably proud of their research projects and opportunities, partly because a research university has prestige among higher education institutions. However, we find that this section is likely to be of less interest to many high school students applying for undergraduate study.

Some information you will need can be found in something called the “common data set, which you can usually find by searching a college website for it (literally, type “common data set” into the college website’s search box). On many college websites, you will actually find the common data set for the most recent year as well as for previous years. On a few college websites, on the other hand, we have yet to find the common data set! (For information about the origins of the common data set, see its own website, www.commondataset.org.)

One more thing to mention about many college websites: Take the virtual campus tour. . . .

In our opinion, a good virtual tour gives you a lot of what a real-life campus tour does, and it is a lot cheaper and easier to take before deciding whether to apply to that college. We have noticed that high school students often notice the wrong things on live tours anyway, like whether they liked the tour guide and how comfortable they felt with the other students on the tour (who are not, please remember, students at the college). . . .

So, what’s the assignment? Have your son or daughter look through at least five college websites. Help your kid choose different types of colleges–large and small, public and private–to see the similarities and differences among websites. Encourage him or her to get familiar with the vocabulary and organization of college websites now so that completing the College Profile Worksheets later will be a lot easier. Here’s what we said in the workbook: Figure out how to get more efficient and effective at finding the information you want. By the way, that’s what any good student would do.

Now, let’s bring College Navigator into focus. If you don’t know what that is, it’s time to learn. Here’s our explanation from the workbook:

The National Center for Education Statistics collects data from almost 7,000 colleges in the U.S. and makes those data available to you free of charge through its online tool, College Navigator.

College Navigator is super easy to use. Just go to its website, type in the name of the college you are researching, and click “Show Results.” College Navigator will give you a wealth of information quickly–more than you can actually use now or, really, ever. The thumbnail description at the top of the entry for each college includes the following:

  • Address, telephone number, and college website address
  • Type of institution and awards (degrees) offered
  • Campus setting
  • Campus housing availability
  • Student population (enrollment)
  • Student-to-faculty ratio

Then, there are 13 categories of information listed. The ones we think you will find most useful are these (we will talk more about each of these later):

  • Tuition, Fees, and Estimated Student Expenses

  • Enrollment

  • Admissions

  • Retention and Graduation Rates

  • Campus Security

So, what’s the next assignment? Have your son or daughter go to College Navigator and enter the name of one of the colleges that he or she is interested in. Have your kid look through all of the information provided in order to get an idea of the information that College Navigator provides. Take a look yourself. You don’t know right now how useful this website can be, but you will before the year is over.

By the way, you can also use College Navigator as a means of searching for additional colleges in case you are still looking. Check out the filters it provides for such a search. You might be surprised at what you will find!

For more information, read up on this topic in How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Get ready to work next week!

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