Episode 120: Lots of College Options in Our New Workbook

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

Today, we have figured out a way to talk both about our new book–How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–and to make good on the title of our current series, Colleges in the Spotlight. As we were writing the book, we realized that we could use a lot of college examples, drawn from our earlier podcast episodes, to illuminate the points we were trying to make. I thought it would be interesting to see just how many colleges were mentioned in the book–and by “mentioned,” I mean that they were used to illustrate the answers to some of the 52 questions that teenagers are asked to find the answers to for each college on their Long List of College Options (LLCO). In a way, these colleges are in our spotlight for things that they are doing right or for characteristics they have that are noteworthy. To find out why we mentioned each college, you are going to have to get the book!

1. Colleges in the Spotlight

So, here we go. Here are the colleges that we thought were worth mentioning–for some reason or other (they are listed roughly in the order in which they are mentioned in the book, and I might have missed a few):

That’s more than 60 colleges, which is actually quite a few. Of course, you can always refer back to the virtual college tour we did in Episodes 27 through 53 for a discussion of even more colleges, organized by geographic region of the U.S.

But the new book doesn’t stop with those 60-plus. We also name some great college towns–“great,” according to one of the lists of great college towns that publications love to compile. Do you know what colleges are located in these towns?

  • College Station, TX
  • Charlottesville, VA
  • Saratoga Springs, NY
  • Asheville, NC
  • Flagstaff, AZ
  • Boulder, CO
  • Santa Cruz, CA
  • St. Augustine, FL
  • Burlington, VT
  • Annapolis, MD
  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Athens, GA
  • Oxford, MS
  • Iowa City, IA

2. Now, It’s Up to You

Now, it’s up to you. At least, that is what we say at the end of the book. We wrote this to each student, assuming that he or she had done the assignments as they were presented: 

You have done a lot of work to gather information about the colleges on your LLCO. You have completed a College Profile Worksheet on quite a few colleges by now. You have learned more than many high school students know about a variety of specific colleges and about higher education generally. 

So, it’s time to start comparing and contrasting the colleges you have researched. That will be a long process, which will require analysis and evaluation by you and your parents and perhaps other important family members. And it’s okay that it is a long process because this is a big decision for all of you. 

Remember that choosing which colleges to apply to can be every bit as important as choosing which college to attend. In an ideal world, you should be happy with every college you apply to because that will take the pressure off as you wait for acceptances to come in. 

Of course, you might be more excited about some choices than others, but don’t apply to any college that you would not want to attend. That is a waste of your time and money. We are confident that there is a college that you can be admitted to that will make you happy. Even safety schools don’t have to be disappointing choices. If they are for you now, you just haven’t looked hard enough yet! Get busy.

We mean that last point really sincerely: If your teenager’s safety schools are disappointing choices for him or her, you all just haven’t looked hard enough yet. There are great colleges–especially some public flagship universities and some large private universities–that are very likely to admit good students, especially those who come from other states. Having a safety school that your teenager does not want to go to is really not having any safety school at all.

We mean it when we say, “Look harder.” We hope that our new book will help your teenager look harder, think harder, and work harder to expand his or her LLCO, to get exciting colleges onto that LLCO, to learn as much as possible about each one of them (by completing a College Profile Worksheet for each one), and to feel satisfied when all of the applications are submitted–that is, satisfied that all of the colleges he or she applied to are good choices, just for different reasons. And a satisfied teenager is likely to produce a satisfied parent. Or at least it should.

Find our books on Amazon!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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

Connect with us through…

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

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

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

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

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

1. Early Decision Cons

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

Perhaps the most important reason that lots of folks grew to dislike the Early Decision option was–and likely still is–that a student accepted under this plan had to agree to attend the college before he or she had any other acceptances and before he or she had any idea what scholarships and other financial aid might be offered by any other colleges. For students who depended on financial aid to pay for college–and that’s more and more students these days, for sure–having to choose a college without being able to compare financial aid packages put those students and their families under undue financial pressure.

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

[Early decision] significantly disadvantages students from low-income and middle-income families, who are already underrepresented at such schools. There’s plenty of evidence that applying early improves odds of admission and that the students who do so–largely to gain a competitive edge–come disproportionately from privileged backgrounds with parents and counselors who know how to game the system and can assemble the necessary test scores and references by the November deadline.

These students also aren’t concerned about weighing disparate financial-aid offers from different schools and can commit themselves to one through early decision. Less privileged students need to shop around, so early decision doesn’t really work for them. (quoted from the article)

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

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

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

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

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

The article about Tulane continues this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Early Decision Pros

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

If your own teenager is absolutely clear about what his or her first-choice college is, then Early Decision is the way to go if that college has an Early Decision option. Many colleges have the option, but not all colleges have it.

Why might Early Decision be a good move for your teenager? There are two primary reasons. First, your family could get this whole college admissions process over with as efficiently as possible at some point in December. As we have already mentioned, the application is usually due around November 1, with a decision usually coming in December. And that would occasion a huge sigh of relief from everyone concerned! In fact, it also would save all of the stress of completing numerous applications. Even with the Common Application’s cutting down on some of that stress, it means that no more supplemental essays would have to be written and no more application fees would have to be paid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you get the picture? Just about half of the seats in the freshman classes of these selective, academically first-rate colleges are filled before the applications of high school seniors applying on the regular schedule are even looked at. In fact, The Washington Post article declared that, of the top-60 national liberal arts universities and colleges, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, 48 filled one-third or more of their seats with Early Decision applicants (including two more Ivy League schools, Brown University and Cornell University, with 38 percent shares each) and 16 filled one-half or more of their seats with Early Decision applicants.

You really have to stop and think about these statistics. No kidding. What are your teenager’s odds of getting into a place when one-third or one-half of the seats are already taken?

Some colleges are publicizing now that students who are accepted on an Early Decision schedule are getting nearly as much financial aid as those accepted on a regular decision schedule, so that’s a good thing for low-income kids who want to better their acceptance chances at a favorite college. And there is usually a disclaimer in college website information that a student may be released from a binding Early Decision acceptance if the financial aid package offered does not make it possible for that student to attend the college–though I have never tried to test that and, therefore, don’t know how sticky a college would make that withdrawal.

By the way, is it obvious why a college would want so many Early Decision students? It should be. A college wants good students who really want to be at that college. It doesn’t want to play the admissions game any more than the applicants do. It doesn’t want to be worried about the incoming class in April, either.

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

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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

Connect with us through…

Episode 89: Assignment #9–Looking at College Schedules

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

Assignment #9 is going to give your teenager and you a chance to see some of the most innovative ideas some colleges have, in my opinion. And it’s such a simple topic: that is, how is the academic year scheduled into terms–semesters, trimester, quarters, or whatever. But, first, let’s review what you have already done (and that’s a lot with eight assignments completed, we hope):

That list is getting so long that it’s hard to review it each week. Good for you, listeners, if you are keeping up with all of the assignments.

Episode 89: Assignment #9--Looking at College Schedules on USACollegeChat podcast

1. Your Assignment #9

Download the Assignment #9 Worksheet

So, for Assignment #9, your teenager and you are going to examine the way each college divides up its academic year into terms. This information is readily available on the college’s website. For many colleges, this question will produce a rather traditional response something like this: a fall semester and a spring semester, each running about 15 weeks, give or take a week. Yes, there will also be a summer term or two, and there might even be a super-short winter term between the two semesters. But there are other ways to skin that cat.

2. Why Does Scheduling Matter?

Various schedules can be differently appealing to various students. Some students prefer working on several subjects and projects at the same time because that keeps them from getting bored and the ones they like a lot help make up for others that they have to do, for example, to meet distribution requirements. Other students prefer concentrating on one subject or project because that allows them to pay close attention to that one thing and do the very best job they can with it.

Some students like to study something over many weeks because that allows them time for calm reflection and for breaks every once in a while. Other students like to study something over a shorter time period because that keeps them better engaged and focused and allows less time for forgetting.

Some students can do very well when asked to concentrate on subjects or projects in short bursts, but have trouble sustaining interest and attention over longer time frames. Other students are just the opposite.

Colleges can take all of these factors into account in putting together a schedule that does not have to conform to the traditional semester schedule.

3. Examples of Innovative Scheduling

Here are some innovative scheduling options we mentioned when we did our virtual nationwide tour of colleges (Episodes 27 through 54).   Maybe your teenager would be intrigued by schedules like these:

  • Carleton College (in Northfield, Minnesota) operates on a trimester schedule of three 10-week terms, with students taking just three courses at a time, rather than the typical four or five. This schedule allows for the in-depth thinking Carleton prides itself on having students do in their courses.
  • At Bennington College (in Bennington, Vermont), some courses run three weeks, some seven weeks, and some the full 14 weeks each term, with credits assigned accordingly. So, that is something for everyone and allows for lots of changes during the semester as courses come and go.
  • Sterling College (in Craftsbury Common, Vermont) is a federally recognized Work College?one of seven in the U.S.?which means that all residential students earn money toward their tuition by working in a job that supports the operation of the College or nearby community. Interestingly, Sterling operates three full semesters per year?fall, spring, and summer?and students may attend all three (and finish college sooner) or the traditional two per year. Student applications are reviewed on a rolling basis, and students may enter at any one of the three semesters.
  • Perhaps the most interesting thing about Colorado College (in Colorado Springs) is its unique Block Plan, where students take all of their courses on a one-at-a-time schedule, studying in each course for three and a half weeks, typically from 9:00 a.m. to noon each weekday?followed by a four-day break to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of Colorado’s mountains and forests and canyons. Each block is the equivalent of one college course; students take four blocks per semester, or eight blocks per year, or 32 blocks during their time at the College. Personally, I find this schedule totally persuasive and wildly appealing.

4. Examples of Cooperative Education Schedules

Let’s take a look at two colleges that do something even more dramatic in their scheduling, which is to make room for significant cooperative work experiences:

  • A hallmark of Drexel University (in Philadelphia) is its cooperative education program, described this way on Drexel’s website:

Drexel Co-op is based on paid employment in practical, major-related positions consistent with the interests and abilities of participating students. The benefits are obvious?during their time at Drexel, students experience up to three different co-ops.?

Through the co-op program:

Students choose from more than 1,600 employers in 33 states and 48 international locations, or conduct an independent search.

The average paid six-month co-op salary is more than $16,000.

Co-op students are entrusted with projects vital to the day-to-day functioning of the workplace. (quoted from the website)

Drexel operates on 10-week quarters (rather than two longer semesters), which helps when it comes time to schedule co-op programs.

The integration of study and professional experience enables students to put ideas into action through work, research, international study, and service in 93 countries around the world. . . .

Co-op is different from internships ? our students alternate classroom studies with full-time work in career related jobs for six months.  This allows employers to get real work done while evaluating talent before making any long-term commitments. Our employer relations team is dedicated to collaborating with employers to develop innovative and meaningful programs to engage our talented students. (quoted from the website)

About 90 percent of students at Northeastern do at least one co-op program (with one of the 3,000 co-op employers worldwide); many students do two. In fact, many students actually stay for a fifth year in order to complete a third co-op program.

So, have your teenager take the Assignment #9 worksheet about college scheduling and complete one for each college on his or her long summer list of college options.

Download the Assignment #9 Worksheet

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

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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

Connect with us through…

Episode 88: Assignment #8–Looking at College Housing and Safety

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

Assignment #8 should be another of the more enjoyable and less academic assignments. Its premise is that, if a student is not living at home during college, then the kinds of residence halls or other campus housing available at a college makes a difference in the life of that student–at least for the freshman year and often for much longer. We feel as though you all are getting a well-rounded view of the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options so far. Here’s what you have already done:

So, now let’s turn to campus housing (plus a few words for students who plan to commute).

Episode 88: Assignment #8--Looking at College Housing and Safety on USACollegeChat podcast1. Your Assignment #8

 Download the Assignment #8 Worksheet

For Assignment #8, your teenager and you are going to examine the types of on-campus housing available. You already found out (back in Assignment #1) whether freshmen are required to live on campus–as many are. But there are some colleges–including some really interesting colleges–where students live in campus housing well past the freshman year, such as Hamilton College (in upstate New York), where all students live on campus in 27 residence halls or St. Michael’s College (in Colchester, Vermont) where all full-time undergrads live on campus all four years unless they are living at home with family or Colorado College (in Colorado Springs) where there is a three-year on-campus housing requirement (with a few exceptions) or the University of Rochester (NY) where more than 90 percent of students live in campus housing. What are all those colleges–and their students–thinking?

And then there is the issue of safety. That’s a topic that, unfortunately, seems to be in the news more and more often lately. What can you find out about safety on campus before your teenager enrolls or even applies? And what about the safety of students who are commuting to campus day and night by public transportation or by car?

2. Why On-Campus Housing?

Let me start by saying that your teenager should live on campus if that is at all possible, given whatever financial constraints your family has, and we have already said that many colleges require it. I am sure colleges have good and bad reasons for requiring it. A really good reason is that living together in campus housing (whether that means traditional dorms or residential “houses” or something else) does promote a kind of camaraderie among students that is hard to develop any other way. Living in close proximity to others in your same situation often provides a system of support and friendship that many kids at college want and need–whether that comes from studying late into the evening/morning together or eating together or walking back and forth to classes together or meeting each other’s friends and just hanging out together. I bet lots of us still have friends from that freshman dorm experience; I know I do, and that was 46 years ago. Perhaps a bad reason, though an understandable one from the colleges’ point of view, is that colleges need to fill those dorm rooms and bring in the revenue that comes from filling those dorm rooms.

I feel about the importance of living on campus the same way I feel about the importance of going away to college. Both provide students with a way to spread their wings in a relatively safe and protected environment before they are ready to be on their own completely. Living in campus housing requires a student to figure out how to eat, study, do laundry, clean up, sleep enough, and manage money–without having to deal with the safety and transportation and utilities issues that come with off-campus housing and without the perhaps comparative ease of living at home.

So, even if your teenager is going to a college close to home within commuting distance, opt for letting him or her live on campus, especially if you can afford it, but even if you need scholarship funds or loans to cover it. Why? Because it is an integral part of the college experience and one that your teenager needs, especially if he or she is going to a college close to home.

3. On-Campus Housing Options

So, now that your teenager is going to live on campus, hopefully, remember that not all residential facilities are created equal when it comes to comfort, convenience, supervision, and security. And, when choosing colleges to apply to, remember to think about what residential life will be like not only when your teenager is a freshman, but also when he or she is an upperclassman with perhaps different housing options, including perhaps fraternity and sorority houses and apartments off campus.

Assignment #8 asks you to check out the residential facilities that a college provides. These facilities are usually well described?even bragged about?on the college’s website, can be seen on virtual tours on the website, or can certainly be seen firsthand on a college visit if you are visiting colleges with your teenager. College tours love to take visiting kids and parents to look at dorms, even when they are of the most ordinary kind. While I don’t think you should choose a college because of its housing facilities, I do think you might consider housing as a possible tiebreaker between two colleges that seem otherwise equal or as a way to take a college off your teenager’s list if the housing options seem nonexistent or terrible.

Here are some options you are going to find:

  • Many colleges have traditional college dorms, with long halls of double and single rooms and a huge bathroom shared by everyone on the hall. There are usually upperclassmen serving as residential advisors–maybe one on each floor–who provide at least some level of supervision and care for students.
  • Many colleges have apartment-style suites, with several bedrooms and a bathroom–and sometimes with a living area and a kitchen–for four to six students. Students in these suites often develop strong friendships–meaning that they take care of each other and watch out for each other. And there is still usually a residential advisor nearby.
  • Some colleges have really interesting residential “houses,” which sponsor both social and academic activities for residents, have one or two faculty families living with the students, have their own eating facilities where everyone dines together, and have their own sense of community pride. And the idea of some live-in adult supervision can be pretty appealing to parents. Here are two examples of residential housing plans:

Undergraduates at Rice University in Houston, Texas, are randomly assigned to one of 11 residential colleges?each with its own dining hall, public rooms, dorm rooms, and competitive website. In fact, about 75 percent of undergraduates continue to live in their residential college throughout their time at Rice. Each residential college has a faculty master, who lives in an adjacent house and encourages a rich intellectual and cultural life and a plan for self-governance at the residential college.

At Vassar College, about 98 percent of students live on campus, and about 70 percent of faculty members also live on or near the campus, with one or two faculty families living in each residence hall. Residential life at Vassar is described this way on the website:

Vassar has eight coeducational houses, one house for women only, and one cooperative (where students do their own shopping, cooking, and cleaning).  The great majority of students live in one of these houses through their junior year. Most seniors (and some juniors) choose to live in one of the college’s partially furnished apartment complexes.  Within easy walking distance of the main campus, these apartments house four to five students, each with his/her own bedroom.

The houses are self-governing and self-directing, led by a House Team that includes faculty residents (House Fellows), residential life professionals (House Advisors), residential life student staffers (Student Fellows and House Interns), and house officers elected by the residents of the house.  The house president also sits on the Vassar Student Association Council, representing the house in the student government.  Together, the House Team strives to create an environment that complements the academic life of the college by providing social, cultural, and educational programming in the houses. (quoted from the website)

Many colleges have a mix of housing facilities, too, including off-campus apartment buildings owned and operated by the college.

And then there are some colleges that do not offer housing at all–and not just two-year community colleges, many (but not all) of which expect students to commute to the campus. Take the University of Massachusetts campus in Boston, known as UMass Boston. The second campus in the UMass system, established about 100 years after UMass Amherst. UMass Boston couldn’t be in a more different setting from the flagship campus in Amherst?with Amherst’s small-town-in-the-middle-of-nowhere vibe and Boston’s big-city-filled-with-colleges-and-businesses-and-culture-and-sports vibe. Interestingly, UMass Boston, the only public four-year college in Boston, does not have dormitories for its students. Its Office of Student Housing does assist students with finding roommates and looking for apartment housing nearby (which seems available) and dealing with landlords. However, a concerned parent or student might have some qualms about a freshman living off campus in a big city without any college-provided supervision or safeguards.

4. The Safety Issue

And that brings us to the safety issue?at least the safety issue of being safe in campus housing and on the campus, especially at night. This is, of course, not the whole safety issue on college campuses today, but it is the part we are talking about in this episode. By the way, for real help and insights about all kinds of safety issues, you should listen to The Security Brief with Paul Viollis, coming to a TV station near you this fall and currently a podcast on CBS radio. Paul is truly the expert on this topic. (You can listen to Regina’s interview with Paul about college campus safety on his podcast here.)

So, if you visit a campus housing facility with your teenager, notice whether there is an adult uniformed security guard with sign-in and sign-out books at the entrance of that residential facility. Ask whether the security guard is there 24 hours a day. I know that many college students find these security guards to be a drag, and I know that this amount of supervision is one reason some students prefer to move into off-campus housing after the freshman year. But, I can tell you as a parent that I loved seeing that security guard at the entrance to my daughter’s super-attractive high-rise of apartment-like suites in the middle of Manhattan at Fordham University‘s Lincoln Center campus?even if I did have to get out my driver’s license and sign in and sign out every time I stopped by.

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. And some colleges, as a matter of fact, do not have anyone on duty monitoring the flow of traffic in and out of residential buildings; students just go in and out with their own keys or cards, as I did years ago at Cornell.

If you are on a campus tour, notice and ask about what the daytime and nighttime transportation options are:

  • Many colleges use shuttle buses or vans to take students from one part of campus to another, especially when the campus is big. They are not only safer than having a student walk a long way alone, but also warmer or cooler and drier, if the weather is not cooperating.
  • Many colleges have blue-light phones–on those stand-along towers with the blue light on top that are placed along walkways, in parking lots, or in distant parts of the campus. They 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 get more information for the police or security guards. Some colleges believe these blue-light phones deter criminal activity; others believe they are mainly a good thing to be able to advertise to prospective students and their parents.
  • Some colleges provide students who serve as walking escorts from building to building or from buildings to the parking lots after dark?because you just can’t always have a buddy with you.

And some colleges have all of the above and more. As any parent would likely say, “The more, the better.”

Again, if you are on a campus tour, notice and ask about these questions:

  • Are there security guards at the entrances to all of the classroom buildings, libraries, auditoriums, sports facilities, and so on?
  • Are student IDs needed to get in and out of the buildings?
  • How do guests and visitors get in and out of the buildings?
  • Is the campus gated or fenced in or walled in or otherwise closed off? Are there guards at the campus entrances? Of course, many urban campuses do not have any enclosed campus to speak of; they are more like a collection of buildings in a group of city blocks without any sense of a campus. It’s harder to provide a sense of security in those cases. But access to the campus is not just an urban issue. On suburban and rural campuses, is it possible for those outside of the college community to wander on and off the campus at will? That can be just as dangerous as any urban setting.

But, before you even visit a campus, ask your teenager to find out what each college’s website says about the ways security is provided in the residential facilities and on the campus generally.

And then ask your teenager to go to our best friend, College Navigator, the great online search service provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, and look under “Campus Security” for each college on that long summer list of college options. There you will find crime statistics for three years, including the number of and reasons for criminal offenses and arrests on campus and, specifically, in the residence halls. I do believe that the fair interpretation of these statistics is not necessarily easy for just any layperson to do.

Let’s say a word to those of you who plan for your teenager to live at home and commute to campus. Safety is an issue for you, too. Your teenager still needs to pay attention to all of the security measures on campus, just as a residential student does. But you and your teenager also have to worry about the convenience and safety of the commute. Sometimes doing the commute by public transportation seems as though it would be the easy choice. But what about 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 your car or 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?   And none of those safety issues take into account simply the time commitment of what might be two or even three hours of commuting each day.

So, have your teenager take the Assignment #8 worksheet and complete one for each college on his or her long summer list of college options. First, jot down the types of campus housing available and anything particularly interesting about those options. Second, note any safety measures discussed on the website and any concerns raised by the Campus Security section of College Navigator. Finally, is you are thinking to have your teenager commute, jot down what that really might mean.

Download the Assignment #8 Worksheet

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

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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

Connect with us through…

Episode 81: Assignment #1–Expanding, Not Narrowing, the College Search

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

This series is entitled The Search Begins and, as we have said, it is aimed directly at those of you who are parents of juniors, and it is designed to help you all navigate summer tasks related to college applications in the fall. (Of course, it never hurts parents of freshmen and sophomores to get a head start on the college admissions game. So, stick with us during these summer episodes.)

Today’s topic focuses on something that you are just about to do totally wrong. Furthermore, our advice on this topic probably runs counter to what many “experts” are telling you to do right now, which is to start narrowing your list of colleges so that your teenager can get ready to apply in the fall.

In this episode, we are going to take the position that you should do the exact opposite, which is to start expanding your teenager’s list of colleges immediately so that you all are truly ready to narrow it in the fall. While that might seem unnecessary–even wasteful, given the thousand things you are trying to do this summer–we would contend that expanding the options now could make the difference between an okay college choice for your teenager and a great college choice for your teenager when it is time to accept a college’s offer next spring. Here’s why.

Episode 81: Assignment 1--Expanding, Not Narrowing, The College Search on USA CollegeChat podcast, with free printable

1. One More Research Study

Nicholas W. Hillman, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (a great public flagship university, which we discussed in Episode 27) has written a recent paper, published in the American Educational Research Journal and entitled “Geography of College Opportunity: The Case of Education Deserts.” Catherine Gewertz reported on Hillman’s paper recently in the High School & Beyond blog in Education Week (“Why College Access Depends on Your ZIP Code,” June 24, 2016).

You loyal listeners might remember that we first met Professor Hillman back in Episode 66 when we talked about his earlier report entitled Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century (co-authored with Taylor Weichman). One statistic that the authors quoted in that report is this: About 57 percent of incoming freshmen at public four-year colleges attend a college within 50 miles of home. Now, think about that from a freshman’s point of view. If you are a freshman standing on your four-year public college campus, more than half of your classmates live within 50 miles of where you are standing. Clearly, those students did not get outside of their “geographic comfort zone,” which is one of our most talked about and least favorite concepts here at USACollegeChat. (Remember that about 70 percent of high school graduates attend college in their home state. That’s just too many kids staying within their geographic comfort zone, in our opinion.)

This time around, Hillman maps both public and private two-year and four-year colleges and universities in 709 “commuting zones” across the U.S.–that is, in 709 bunches of mostly contiguous counties where people live and work. And, when I say “maps,” I mean that he locates the colleges and universities on a map of the U.S. and colors in the commuting zones where they are located so that anyone can see at a glance which commuting zones have a lot of colleges (five or more is the top of his scale) and which don’t have even one.

We are going to skip over private two-year colleges, inasmuch as they are the rarest of college types, and look first at public two-year colleges. Looking at Hillman’s map, we notice that there are relatively fewer public two-year colleges west of the Mississippi River until you get to the Far West and Southwest border states. Turning to public four-year colleges, we notice that there are even fewer public four-year colleges than public two-year colleges in the Plains and Rocky Mountain states. And finally, coming to private four-year colleges, we notice that the coverage is especially good east of the Mississippi–particularly in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states–and again in parts of the Far West.

So, where is the “education desert”? The maps would say, generally speaking, that it is in the Rocky Mountain and Plains states. What that means is that college students who live there are likely to have fewer nearby options than students in other commuting zones–say, those in the Northeast. Of course, even in the Northeast, you might live in a particular commuting zone that just doesn’t have many colleges. And that matters because so many kids stay close to home for college–perhaps too close.

But that’s not the worst of it. Gewertz explains:

Hillman found that zones of opportunity put specific groups at a disadvantage. Latino and African-American communities tend to have the fewest colleges, and less-selective colleges, nearby, while white and Asian communities tend to have more colleges, and more selective institutions, nearby to choose from. . . .   Hillman argues that most policy that seeks to improve college access focuses on the process of opportunity–with initiatives that aim to get more information into students’ hands, so they can make good college choices–instead of the geography of opportunity. (quoted from the article)

Well, now we have a societal problem as well as an individual student problem. As Hillman noted in his first report, the college decisions of students from working-class homes and the college decisions of students of color are most negatively affected by home-to-college distance. So, when it turns out that there are relatively fewer college options and relatively fewer selective college options in Latino and African-American communities and when we know that lots of those kids do not travel very far to attend college, for whatever reason, those students end up not having the range of college choices that they deserve.

2. Your Assignment #1

Download the Assignment #1 printable worksheet

Why are we telling you this? Because all of you should expand the college options for your teenager before you narrow them, and this is especially true if you live in an area that has few nearby colleges or few good nearby colleges. Whether you are Latino, African American, Asian, or white, those of you living in an education desert must look outside your geographic area in order to find a choice of good options for your teenager. Why should you be content with the only option in town no matter how good it is? For many of you, the chances are that it is not good enough.

But, to repeat, this advice is not just for those of you living in education deserts. This advice is for all of you who are busy making up a short list of colleges for your child to visit this summer and apply to in the fall. It simply is not time yet to be making up that short list, to be narrowing down the choices, to be closing off opportunities, and to be settling either for colleges that are nearby or for colleges that you already know about. It is unnecessarily soon–even for those of you who want to look at an Early Decision or Early Action option.

So, since it is July 1 and your teenager might have a bit of free time, we are ready to give him or her–and you–an assignment every week until September. The more you can get your teenager to do the work, the easier it will be for you; however, you will need to provide some life experience and adult judgment throughout the assignments. We do guarantee that you both will be better equipped by September 1 to start the actual college application process.

We thought hard about what your first summer assignment should be and settled on this: With your teenager, listen to our virtual nationwide college tour (Episodes 27 through 53) again?or for the first time?or skim the show notes if you prefer. By the way, these episodes do a good job of differentiating between the public and private colleges, which could well be one of the first decisions you will make when it is time to shorten your teenager’s list in September.

Together, choose at least one college in every state to put on your teenager’s list. Put those 50 on what we will call “your teenager’s long summer list of college options.” Just add them to any colleges you already have on the list.

Okay, if that’s too outlandish, try this: Choose at least one college in each of 25 states of your choice to put on your teenager’s list. Heck, that’s only half the states. You are getting off easy. Put those on your teenager’s long summer list of college options.

Still too tough? How about this: Choose at least two colleges in every geographic region of the U.S. to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. Remember that the Bureau of Economic Analysis (an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce) has divided the U.S. into eight regions, with each region’s covering four to 12 states. So, that would give you 16 colleges–plus, let’s say, add two extra colleges in your home state for good measure.

But wait: Put five public flagship universities on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. Any five. You choose. This will ensure that your teenager has some great public options to consider, too. As we have said before, public flagship universities might be the hidden jewels in the college landscape.

And those of you who are longtime listeners know that this piece of advice is coming: Choose at least one college not in the U.S. to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. The global future is here. Join it.

Now that you have the long summer list of 20 or 30 or 40 or, better yet, 50 colleges, have your teenager read about each one on the college’s website before talking with you and recommending whether it should be kept on the list. Believe me, you can learn a lot from reading a college website. Furthermore, you can learn not only about that one college, but also about colleges in general and what to look for on the next website. It’s an education in itself.

Our virtual tour gave you a lot of the information you should consider already, but let your teenager confirm it and look further into particular things that interest him or her about the college. Make sure your teenager checks out at least these topics:

  • Enrollment, broken down by undergraduate and graduate (if any) students
  • Retention and graduation rates (search the site for “common data set” or go to College Navigator, sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics)
  • The history of the college (always my favorite topic)
  • Academic divisions in the institution (that is, colleges or schools within a university)
  • Academic departments and majors offered
  • Study abroad options
  • Extracurricular activities (including fraternities and sororities)
  • Intercollegiate and intramural sports
  • Tuition and housing costs (of course)

Finally, make sure that your teenager writes down (or makes a spreadsheet of) the information they find on each college. Believe me, after about four colleges, it’s impossible to remember which college has which attractive and unattractive features.

Personally, I wouldn’t have your teenager start poring over admission standards just yet. I would rather he or she look at the range of great opportunities out there and perhaps get a bit motivated by what those websites offer. Your teenager needs an education about higher education first. Some of those websites are so good, in fact, that they make me want to go back to college.

And, by the way, I wouldn’t have your teenager start looking at two-year colleges yet, either. Those of you who listen to us know that we have some reservations about two-year colleges, especially for students who have just graduated from high school and are moving directly into college full time. We know that they are a great choice for saving money and for helping kids who need a bit more maturity or a bit more academic preparation, but we worry because the transfer rates to four-year colleges are scandalously low, and we worry about what opportunities that fact closes off for too many kids. Two-year colleges can easily be added to the list in September, because we are assuming that the choice of a two-year college is largely affected by geography and that students are most likely to attend the one closest to them.

So, what is the point of today’s episode? It is simply that expanding your options now–before narrowing them in the fall–is a way to let both you and your teenager consider colleges you have never thought about. That’s because there are some really interesting ones out there, including perhaps the one that is best for your teenager.

Depending where you live, here are a few public and private choices you probably aren’t thinking about (some that are very selective, and others that are not):

By the way, I really do not want to hear one more of my friends here in New York say, “Oh, she can just go to Binghamton. It’s a good school.” With apologies to Binghamton, which is a fine state university in upstate New York, I would like my friends to look around first. I would like many more colleges on their teenager’s long list. I would like many colleges on that list to be outside New York State. I would like some of them to be outside the Northeast. I would like some of them to be public and some of them to be private. Binghamton isn’t going anywhere. It will still be there in the fall.

Download the Assignment #1 printable worksheet

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

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment on the show notes for this episode at http://usacollegechat.org/episode81
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…