Episode 151: What About a College’s Grading Practices?

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Today we are going to talk about a topic that I bet you and your high school senior have not given any thought to.  And yet, it’s a topic that you and your high school senior have done nothing but think about for the past year or so, just from a different perspective.  That topic is grades.  Or more precisely, today’s topic is grading practices, which is not exactly the same as your kid’s grades.

Probably the most you have thought about your kid’s high school’s grading practices is whether the school uses a weighted system for figuring a grade point average (GPA)–that all-important GPA that might get your kid into a great college or keep him or her out of one.  There has been a lot of debate about that in the past few years, with no real resolution pro or con.  And, certainly, there has been talk among your kid’s friends (and perhaps your friends, too) about which teachers are easy graders and which teachers are hard graders and whether your kid should select high school electives accordingly.

Well, high school is essentially over, and your kid is going off to college.  How much thought have you both given to the grading practices at the colleges on his or her list?  Yes, those colleges your kid just applied to.  It’s not too late to start thinking now?before your kid makes a final choice in the spring.

1. Some Background

When Marie and I wrote our fantastic book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students (available at Amazon and a perfect gift for any younger kids you still have at home), we said that kids and their parents need a lot of information about colleges before deciding whether to put a specific college on the kid’s list of college options.  We also said that most of you never get most of the information you need–which is a shame, because it’s hard to make a life-changing decision without having all of the information that is available to you.  The book explains the 52 questions that your kid really should get answers to before deciding whether to apply to a college–much less actually enroll there.  Those questions cover a wide range of categories of information about the college:

  • History and Mission
  • Location
  • Enrollment
  • Class Size
  • Academics
  • Schedule
  • Housing
  • Security Measures
  • Activities and Sports
  • Admission Practices
  • Cost

In the section on Academics, we ask this, among other questions:

Does the college have a traditional numerical or letter grading system for assignments, exams, and final course grades?  If no, jot down the way that students are graded (e.g., with written narrative evaluations where professors comment on strengths and weaknesses).

Here is what we said in the book to explain this question:

We bet that grading practices are not something most students consider before choosing a college?perhaps because they assume that colleges are quite traditional when it comes to awarding final course grades.  Most colleges do, in fact, use some kind of numerical scale (typically, with a 4.0 as an A) or letter scale (typically, from A through F).  These traditional grading practices might seem just fine to you.

However, there are some colleges that are anything but traditional when it comes to evaluating student progress.  For example, take Hampshire College (an excellent and innovative private college in Amherst, Massachusetts), where students receive written narrative evaluations from professors on their assignments and as their final course grades.  No numbers and no letters!  Or, take Bennington College (a great private college in Bennington, Vermont), where students receive narrative evaluations at the end of each course, but may request letter grades; students interested in graduate school are encouraged to request letter grades for at least two years so that a GPA can be calculated for their graduate school applications.

Colleges that use narrative evaluations instead of traditional grades praise their value in teaching their students more about their own strengths and weaknesses, in getting their students to focus on their learning instead of on their grades, and in building better and more stimulating relationships between their students and their professors.  That’s probably something you never thought about before.

Well, Marie, if we had written the book today, we could have added some additional innovative grading practices that a relatively small number of colleges are using, ones that might seem quite attractive to 2017-2018 current crop of applicants.

The question here is not necessarily whether your kid would have applied or would not have applied to a college because of its innovative grading practices, but rather whether he or she (and you) should weigh those grading practices in the scale when you all are ready to make a final choice of a college this spring.  Grades will continue to be a big part of college life for your kid–just as they were in high school.  This is especially true, as Bennington College knows, if your kid intends to go on to graduate school, medical school, or law school.  And, by the way, that’s true whether graduate school comes right after the undergraduate years or, in fact, many years later.  Those undergraduate grades will matter.  So, let’s look at a couple of new grading practices, and you think about what they might mean for your kid.

2. No More F’s

Let’s start at the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI).  Given that UMPI is in northern Maine near the Canadian border and that it enrolls only about 1,200 students, my guess is that your kid has not applied there and that many of you have never heard of it, though it was founded over 100 years ago and is one of the seven campuses in the public University of Maine System.  UMPI was in a situation not unlike a number of other public universities:  a remarkably low 11 percent graduation rate in the traditional four years and only a 30 percent graduation rate in six years and a location in a county that was losing population just when its region needed more college graduates to fill jobs that required a college degree.

An article in The Hechinger Report, written in January by Robbie Feinberg, education reporter for Maine Public Radio, has a catchy headline:  “In rural Maine, a university eliminates most Fs in an effort to increase graduation rates.”  Mr. Feinberg writes:

One of the biggest changes has been the near-elimination of the failing grade. In most classes, if students fail a test or project, they can redo it until they’ve proven they know the material.

If students are still failing at the end of the semester, many won’t receive an F, but instead a grade of “not proficient” or NP. Under the system, students then sign a contract with their professor outlining the work they need to do over the next 45 days to boost that grade to a passing mark. University officials said the system doesn’t work for everyone; some students still end up with F’s. But they hope the added flexibility will help students pass classes the first time so they don’t have to spend extra time and money to retake them. . . .  [UMPI] President Raymond Rice said he’s most encouraged that about 60 percent of students who received a “not proficient” grade eventually converted it to a passing mark. (quoted from the article)

Not having to spend time and money to retake courses has to be a game-changer for a lot of students–certainly for that 60 percent.  And, clearly, keeping F’s out of figuring into a cumulative GPA for one’s undergraduate years has got to be a game-changer for any student who cares about his or her GPA (especially anyone interested in graduate school).  We actually did something similar at the high school that Marie and I co-founded in Brooklyn, where we gave a grade of NC (no credit) to kids who would otherwise have failed; so, they didn’t get credit for the course, but they didn’t have the deadly weight of an F pulling down their GPA forever, either.  I think it “saved a lot of lives,” and I imagine it could be having a similar effect at UMPI.

While the implementation of the new system is not going perfectly at UMPI (you can read Mr. Feinberg’s full article for the details), the policy about giving F’s only as a last resort is one that I find very persuasive.  And, if I had a child getting ready to go to college (not that I would expect that child to get an F–ever), this is a policy that would still make me happy, as a parent.

3. How To Earn an A

Appearing in The Hechinger Report in January (as well as in U.S. News & World Report) was a column by Jill Barshay about a new grading practice at the University of Michigan, that state’s truly excellent public flagship university.  Ms. Barshay writes:

At the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, about 8,000 students have earned their ordinary course grades in an unusual way. They start out the semester with a zero, but each has the opportunity to earn an A by racking up points. The professor determines how many points each assignment or test is worth, and there are various ways to get to an A. If students botch an assignment, they can try something else. Each student can track his or her point tally online and see options for earning more points.

Since developing this system, named “GradeCraft,” five years ago with two colleagues, education professor Barry Fishman gleefully admits he’s awarding many more A’s. He estimates that he’s doling out A’s to 80 percent of his students now, compared with 50 percent or 60 percent beforehand. But, he claims, his students are working a lot harder.

“Colleagues say I’m not rigorous enough,” said Fishman. “I think rigor should be about how challenging the material is, not how hard it is to achieve a certain outcome.”

In surveys conducted by GradeCraft’s inventors, students reported that they worked harder and felt more in control of their class performance.

. . . Fishman argues that conventional grading systems can undermine learning. That’s because if you fail the midterm, and it’s worth 30 percent of the final grade, you might realize that you’ll never be able to claw your way back up to an A, and stop trying. “You moderate your behavior and try less hard to maintain a B average. You see it all the time,” said Fishman.

The opportunity to earn an A, even late in the semester, keeps students engaged, Fishman argues. And it encourages students to take risks, knowing that they can repair the damage later if they fail at first.

In one undergraduate class, Fishman offers a menu of 1.4 million points. Students need to reach 900,000 to get an A. “You could never earn a good grade just by doing dumb stuff,” he said.

In another graduate seminar, Fishman assigns only one paper. But students can revise and resubmit it over and over again to earn an A. (quoted from the article)

For the gaming-like history of GradeCraft’s development and for some perspectives by professors who don’t like it, read Ms. Barshay’s full column.  Nonetheless, I have to say that this grading practice seems pretty appealing to me:  the harder you work, the better grade you are going to get.  Perseverance is rewarded.  Clearly, learning takes place.  Is this system appealing to your kid?  If your kid applied to the University of Michigan, he or she should know that about 100 professors in 28 programs and departments there have tried GradeCraft and have used it more than once.  Would that make the University of Michigan a more attractive option than another great public flagship university?  It might.

4. The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story today is that grading practices can be very different–way more different than you and your high school senior probably thought.  And it’s not too late to find out whether the colleges your kid applied to have done anything innovative on this topic–before you all make a final decision later this spring about where to enroll.  What have you got to lose?

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Episode 120: Lots of College Options in Our New Workbook

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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.

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Episode 101: College Application Fees–Oh, My!

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Process

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

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

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

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

3. Interesting Cases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. A Final Thought

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

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

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! 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.

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Episode 94: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 2

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In our last episode, we started narrowing down your teenager’s long summer list of college options.  It made me sad to do it, but I had to admit that fall was here and it was time.  But we hope that you have plenty of colleges left on that list–at least 15 for now.  And we know that many of them would be a great choice for your teenager, because, as we said last week, there is not just one perfect choice for him or her.

First, let us remind you that you can now complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known to all as the FAFSA.  Fill it out and file it now.  Fill it out by yourself, get help from your teenager’s high school or a local library, or buy help from a service.  But, however you want to do it, get the form filed, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting to qualify for a lot of financial aid.  There is no reason not to fill it out and file it.

Second, let us remind you, as we have been doing for the past couple of weeks, that those Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are approaching–mostly around November 1.  While Early Decision is a serious and binding agreement, Early Action is not.  I cannot see any good reason not to apply for Early Action if colleges your teenager is interested in have it?unless perhaps you are waiting and hoping for improved SAT or ACT scores from November or December test administrations.  However, as we have said before, even students applying to colleges under Early Decision or Early Action plans will need some colleges on their lists in case those early acceptances don’t come in.

In Episode 93, we took Step 1 in narrowing down your teenager’s list.  We looked at college selectivity, as many counselors do, and offered the following advice:  Be brutal in considering colleges that are too academically demanding for your teenager (based on the GPAs, admission test scores, and sometimes class ranks of admitted or enrolled freshmen and based on required and recommended high school courses) and be equally brutal in considering colleges that are not academically demanding enough for your teenager.  You need only two or three super-demanding ones on your teenager’s list, and you need only two not-very-demanding ones, at least one of which should be a public four-year college in your home state that you feel okay about sending your teenager to.  That leaves a lot of spots open for colleges that seem to you are just about right–perhaps 10 or so.

1.  Step 2:  College Academics Filter

Step 2 in narrowing down the list–if it is indeed needs to be narrowed down any more–is to look at college academics from several perspectives.

First, does each college left on the list offer the field of study that your teenager is most interested in at the moment?  You can look back at summer Assignment #1 (in Episode 81) and double check the academic departments and the majors that each college has and the majors your teenager recorded as being most appealing to him or her.

Now, we have to say that this step worries us a bit.  We have seen many, many students change their major, their academic department, and even their school within a university after a semester or a year or even two years of college.  It is not unusual, as anyone with any experience in higher education will tell you.  We worry most when an option on your teenager’s list is a specialized college or a specialized school within a larger university and does not offer a liberal arts alternative in addition to the specialty.  Fortunately, I think that more and more specialized institutions–including well-known fine arts colleges and well-respected technical colleges, such as engineering schools–are requiring that students take some core liberal arts courses, which can be used as the basis for transferring to another academic field when the first one doesn’t work out quite as the student expected.

But to take the other side for a moment, if your teenager is dead set on majoring in civil engineering or genetics or French or art history or sports management or anything else, make sure that the colleges on the list have that major–and, preferably, have a well-respected program in that field.  You will know if it does because the college will happily claim that on its website.

Second, does the college have a core curriculum/general education curriculum/distribution requirements plan and is that a positive or a negative for your teenager?  Look back at Assignment #7 (in Episode 87) to see what your teenager recorded for each college on the list.  You will recall that we talked about many kinds of core curricula.  Some seemed easy to manage, some seemed far more demanding; some required many courses across many fields, some required far fewer fields to be covered.  You and your teenager might not agree on whether a core curriculum is a plus or a minus.  Just remember that your teenager is the one taking the courses.  If a college has core curriculum requirements that are super-objectionable to your teenager, now would be a good time to take that college off the list.

Next, let’s look at the college schedule, recorded back on Assignment #9 (in Episode 89).  Sometimes the academic term schedule can make the existence of various curriculum requirements more or less attractive or manageable.  For example, if you can take just one course at a time, maybe a math requirement would not be as scary to some students.  Or, if you can take courses on 7-week or 10-week schedules rather than 15-week schedules, maybe a student would be more willing to take courses outside his or her comfort zone.  And maybe now that your teenager sees the variety of innovative schedules out there, the idea of traditional 15-week terms is just plain boring.  So, take a careful look at the schedules of the colleges left on the list.

Finally, let’s look at a part of college academics that we did not zero in on when we did the summer assignments, and we should have.  (Don’t worry; it will be in the new book when it comes out.)  This particular piece of information might have shown up way back in Assignment #1 (in Episode 81) when we asked you to note on the worksheet “other appealing and/or unusual things about this college.”  That piece of information is the college’s grading practices.

Now, I am going to say that, in most cases, the college’s grading practices are pretty traditional.  And that might be fine with you and your teenager.  However, there are some colleges that are anything but traditional when it comes to evaluating student progress.  I was reminded of that when I read recently an exceptional statement by Jonathan Lash, the president of Hampshire College in Massachusetts.  You might recall that we spotlighted Hampshire in our virtual nationwide tour of colleges, back in Episode 43, where we said this:

Hampshire is the fifth member of the Five College Consortium, centered in Amherst.  It is by far the newest of the five colleges, having been founded in 1970 after a long planning process, and it is the least traditional of them as well.  Its students are bright, creative, and motivated.  While very selective in admitting freshmen to a student body of just 1,400 students, Hampshire does not consider college admission test scores “in any way” for admission or for financial aid awards.  Its students study in five interdisciplinary schools and create their own individualized majors?called “the concentration” at Hampshire.  The concentration includes courses and required volunteer work at Hampshire or in the community and required work from various cultural viewpoints as well as fieldwork and internships, if they make sense for the self-designed program.  As seniors, Hampshire students complete a self-designed rigorous final independent project, which includes original work, similar to a graduate thesis.  The campus is lovely and idyllic.  The price tag is predictable at about $47,000 in tuition per year.  My visit to Hampshire with my son about five years ago made me want to go back to school and go there myself.

And so, I read with interest what President Lash had to say in an opinion piece in The Hechinger Report, (September 15, 2016) entitled “Why do schools use grades that teach nothing?”  While I would happily read you the entire piece, you can go do that yourselves.  By the way, his piece also includes an eloquent defense of Hampshire’s decision to ignore college admissions test scores.  But here are quite a few paragraphs that cast an insightful light on the issue of grading and whether grading should perhaps make a difference in the college your teenager chooses:

A few years ago I was speaking to a group of parents whose children had just started Hampshire College. A father asked a question that was on many minds: “How can your college be rigorous without grading student work?” Before I could respond, another parent stood up and asked, “May I answer that?” I nodded with interest.

“I run a company,” he said, “and I have a few thousand employees in multiple locations. They’d be mystified if our managers started to give them grades. We manage by setting goals, evaluating progress, and mentoring employees on how to improve their performance. What would a letter grade tell them?”

At the college where I serve as president, we do evaluate student work; we just use a higher-quality method. Our students receive written evaluations not only on every assignment, but also for every course and learning activity. These evaluations are designed to be formative teaching tools?.

When we reduce students to numbers and grades, they and we focus on test-taking skills and grade requirements rather than on learning.

At Hampshire, instead of grades, our professors weigh performance against course goals using criteria such as a student’s demonstration of analytic thinking and writing skills, research abilities, use of primary and secondary literature/substantiation of claims, ability to use data, integration of theory and practice?.

After almost five decades of our professors’ assessing students using written evaluations, we’ve seen and documented their benefits as an alternative to grades. Grades tell students the absolute minimum about their abilities; they tell them only whether they have earned enough points under a teacher’s rubric to get a good mark.

Too many students use grades to figure out how to do only what’s required, asking their teachers questions like “What do I have to do to get an A?” At the same time, they’re trying to determine the minimum they can “know” to pass. “How can I game the system?” “What are the fluff courses that will get me an easy A?”

Grading systems also risk pitting students and teachers against each other through arguments about a grade and create counterproductive competition as students vie to outperform one another.

At many elite institutions, grades are absurdly inflated by professors with the result that students across the board receive more A’s than C’s. This has reduced the A-F grading system to little more than one of pass/fail.

In narrative-evaluation systems, students never have to worry about accumulating a GPA. Instead, they focus on the quality of their work, with guidance from teachers who are often learning with them. Evaluations create closer relationships between teacher and student and enhance the teacher’s role as mentor.

Evaluations enable teachers to diagnose weaknesses, reflect on growth, and present constructive ideas for improvement and intellectual development — and discuss it all with their students.

Using evaluations, students can concentrate on learning. Progress toward graduation is measured by the development of intellectual skills rather than the accumulation of credit hours?.

Narrative evaluations suggest ways to keep building on student effort and success. Any student can improve. Intelligence isn’t fixed; it’s malleable. And education is about growth and improvement?.

How do our students compare with the alumni of traditional, GPA-reliant programs? According to federal data compiled and reported by the National Science Foundation, Hampshire College ranks in the top 1.4 percent of U.S. colleges by alumni who advance to earn a doctorate. By this measure, we rank #30 in a nation of 4,000 colleges, side by side with the most distinguished institutions of higher learning.

And that’s without ever giving any student even one grade.  (quoted from the article)

Enough said, President Lash.  So, maybe grading practices should be something your teenager and you look at closely.

2.  Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

What I would do if I were you is check first to see whether my teenager’s likely major is available at every college still on the list. I would probably take any college that doesn’t have that major off the list–unless it has something else fabulous to recommend it.  I would also make sure that many of the remaining colleges offered a liberal arts program, just in case my teenager changed her mind even before next April.

With that done, I would make sure that my teenager felt comfortable with any core curriculum requirements or felt equally comfortable not having any.  Personally, I like some distribution requirements, but not a ridiculous number.  But that’s my view.  What’s my teenager’s view?  After figuring that out, I might narrow down the list, if necessary.

Finally, I would talk with my teenager about college schedules and grading practices.  Some sound so intriguing–much more intriguing than any options I remember from 1970.  I wouldn’t see myself taking any schedule options or grading options off the table, but my teenager might.  Act accordingly.

So, Step 2 is done.  I hope you didn’t lose too many options from your teenager’s list.  Maybe you didn’t lose any.  I’m okay if you still have 15 or more colleges on the list as we move forward to Step 3 next week.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! 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
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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…