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

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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

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Episode 66: Geography Determines College-Going Behavior–Again

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

This is our eleventh episode focusing on news stories about higher education, and yet it returns to a theme of many USACollegeChat episodes. That theme is the geography of college-going behavior by graduating high school students. I think we are starting to sound like a broken record on this topic, and yet it is so important for parents to recognize and deal with.

Today’s story revisits this theme that we addressed seriously and at length in our nationwide virtual tour of public and private colleges and universities in every state in the U.S.

Geography Determines College-Going Behavior—Again 1. The Geography Statistics You Should Know

You all might recall that the reason we took you on that tour was one simple statistic: About 70 percent of high school students go to college in their home states. We speculated about reasons for that remarkably high number: familiarity on the part of kids and families, concern within families about sending kids too far from home, financial concerns, and familiarity on the part of high school counselors, just to name some. We were sorry (and still are) that kids were missing out on all kinds of opportunities—public and private, expensive and not, traditional and wildly innovative, liberal arts and technical—because they were not leaving home. We thought that giving kids and families more information could help.

A new report just out might call that strategy into question.

Published by the American Council on Education and written by Nicholas Hillman (Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison) and Taylor Weichman (a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison), the report is entitled Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century. The report makes lots of interesting points, but the bottom line, from our point of view, is this: Geography matters. (We would add, “And that’s too bad.”)

One statistic that the authors quote from other research is something that we will now add to our own arsenal of statistics about college choice. That new statistic is this: About 57 percent of incoming freshmen at public four-year colleges attend a college within 50 miles of home. Now, let’s be clear. The statistic is not that 57 percent of high school graduates go to four-year public colleges within 50 miles of home. But rather, 57 percent of freshmen at four-year public colleges have come from no more than 50 miles away. Think about it from a freshman’s point of view. If you are a freshman standing on a four-year public college campus, more than half of your classmates live within 50 miles of where you are standing.

We often say that colleges seem to want geographic diversity in their student bodies and that they seek freshmen from other states (and, indeed, from other countries), proudly advertising on their own websites their enrollment figures about how many states and how many foreign countries their students come from. Well, now you see why.

For those freshmen standing on those four-year public college campuses, it’s almost like being in high school or in a local community college—especially when a fair number of your high school classmates enrolled at your four-year public college, too.

2. Is Knowledge the Solution?

In their new report, the authors make an interesting point about some federal initiatives designed to improve students’ access to colleges, like the new College Scorecard (which we have not talked about yet) and College Navigator, which we have talked a great deal about. You might recall that College Navigator is an online service of the National Center for Education Statistics and that it provides all kinds of useful data about any college you enter into its search function—data like enrollments, graduation rates, profiles of newly admitted students, typically broken down by gender and by race/ethnicity. In fact, we have done whole episodes about those kinds of data and about how helpful we think they are. We have said that College Navigator is one more source of information to help high school seniors figure out where to apply and perhaps one more source of information for high school seniors to look at in making a decision about where to enroll. But maybe giving students and their families more information—even highly relevant and valuable information—is not nearly enough.

So here is the question that the authors investigate: Is college choice a result of having information and knowledge about colleges or a result of the location of a college—with location meaning one close or even closest to home—and what happens when there aren’t any colleges close to home? Here are a few findings from other research, presented by the authors (you can follow up on the details by looking at the full report):

  • The farther a kid lives from a college, the less likely the kid is to enroll.
  • The college decisions of kids from wealthier homes are less affected by home-to-college distance.
  • The college decisions of kids from working-class homes and the college decisions of kids of color are most affected by home-to-college distance.
  • Family duties and cultural traditions keep some kids closer to home for college—especially black, Latino, and Native American kids.
  • Kids in rural communities, who often have strong community ties, tend to stay closer to home for college.
  • Having a college close to home is associated with a high level of college enrollment (I would say, because it’s right there, and what could be easier).

None of these statistics is surprising, given both what we have talked about in earlier episodes and, indeed, given your own common sense. Not surprising, but maybe still concerning.

3. What Are “Education Deserts”?

The authors go on to talk about “education deserts,” which they define as communities with no colleges or universities located nearby or communities with only one nearby community college to provide a place for students who need a public institution with reasonable admission standards (with “reasonable admission standards” defined as admitting more than 75 percent of applicants). Just as there are “food deserts,” they say, where access to healthy, fresh food is unavailable in some low-income neighborhoods and perhaps especially in low-income neighborhoods of color, so there are education deserts, where families do not have easy enough access to public higher education.

I get the point, parents, and I believe you do, too. No one wants unnecessarily limited choice for students who need to keep costs down or need to stay close to home for other reasons—at least at the beginning of their college careers. But I wish that the solution could be to help students make the physical and perhaps social-emotional-psychological trip to a college farther away—and maybe even out of state.

4. What Should You Do?

Like the National Center for Education Statistics and its College Navigator or like the Obama administration’s College Scorecard, I would like to think that providing important information about colleges would be enough to help students make that trip. I would like to think that the information provided in our nationwide virtual tour of colleges would be enough to help students make that trip. But, evidently, it isn’t. Furthermore, the report offers the insight that even financial support, which so many kids need desperately, sometimes does not outweigh the power of geography.

So, what is the solution? Is it to build more colleges—ideally public colleges with reasonable admission standards—in areas where none exist? Is it to build more campuses of state public higher education systems (though maybe not the flagship system, with its higher admission standards) to pick up the abundance of students looking for a nearby college to call home? Is it to encourage colleges that already exist—at least public colleges—to consider the geographic region they are in and work harder to serve more of the students in it or close to it?

A lot of that sounds expensive to me, and a lot of that sounds as though it could take a long time to happen. Colleges can’t be built overnight, and college policies and practices can’t be changed overnight, either.

So, for now, Marie and I are here at USACollegeChat, and we are going to keep giving you information about colleges far and wide. We are going to keep encouraging you and your high schooler to think about the information. We are going to keep asking you and your high schooler to keep an open mind about leaving your state for the right opportunity. We are going to keep advising that geography does not need to be the first deal breaker on your list of things that would keep you from sending your high schooler to a college that is a perfect fit.

A college in another state might be the best chance your high schooler gets to go somewhere reasonably safe and reasonably well protected to live and learn with peers that are all not exactly like he or she is. Personally, I would like to take the child out of the desert rather than improve the desert. I don’t think it is a popular opinion, but it is mine. Call me if you want to chat about it.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment on the show notes for this episode at http://usacollegechat.org/episode66
  • 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
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

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