Episode 136: Too Few Male Students at College?

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Today’s episode in our series Researching College Options focuses on a trend in college enrollment that you might have missed entirely. But if you have a son at home, it might be of particular interest to you–especially if your son is in the early days of high school (or even younger!).

1. A Quick Historical Look at Men in College

Let’s look back for a moment at the history of male students in U.S. colleges. We wrote about this back in our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, when we discussed the very real college option for your teenager of attending a single-sex institution vs. a coeducational institution. Here is what we said then:

Colleges and universities that were started in America’s earliest days were all institutions for men. They were all single-sex institutions then.

Seven of the eight well-known Ivy League institutions served only male students when they were founded in the 1600s and 1700s: the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. Among the Ivies, only Cornell, the youngest of the Ivies, was founded as a co-educational university, which took as its mission from its first day to enroll both men and women.

As time went on, many Ivies created a “sister” school for women: the University of Pennsylvania had its College for Women, Columbia had Barnard, Brown had Pembroke, and Harvard had Radcliffe. Of these, only Barnard remains.

The tradition of single-sex colleges is particularly strong in the Northeast, perhaps because that is where so many of our country’s oldest higher education institutions are located. In addition to Barnard, women’s colleges in the Northeast include Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Simmons College, Smith College, and Wellesley College. But there are well-known women’s colleges located in other regions of the U.S. as well–like Mills College and Scripps College in California, Stephens College in Missouri, Hollins University and Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, Saint Mary’s College (the sister school of the University of Notre Dame) in Indiana, and Agnes Scott College and Spelman College in Georgia. Spelman has the distinction of also being an excellent HBCU. Interestingly and for whatever reason (probably rooted in financial issues), some of these women’s colleges now allow men to enroll in their graduate programs only, thus maintaining the traditional women’s college atmosphere for their undergraduate residential students. Today, there are just over 40 women’s colleges in the U.S.

Oddly, only a handful of men’s colleges remain, perhaps partly because now there are actually more women than men going to college. The men’s college you have most likely heard of is Morehouse College, which is an academically rigorous HBCU located in Georgia and which is the men’s counterpart to Spelman. Morehouse has a roster of famous alumni, ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee. Here are two more appealing men’s colleges: Hampden-Sydney College, which was founded in 1775 in Virginia and has a long and fascinating history (Patrick Henry and James Madison were among its first Trustees); and Wabash College, which is located in Indiana and was cited in the book Colleges That Change Lives as an institution that is successful in creating engaged students, who become leaders in their chosen fields.

While most single-sex institutions have opened their doors to the opposite sex over the years and especially in the past 50 years, those that remain carry on a tradition that their graduates wholeheartedly support. Some of their graduates–and indeed their families–believe that students can focus better on their studies when they are not being distracted by social interactions with the opposite sex in the classroom. Some of their graduates believe that students will develop a stronger sense of community and camaraderie with their classmates in single-sex institutions. Some of their graduates appreciate the histories and philosophies of these institutions–especially perhaps graduates of women’s colleges who feel that they are better supported as young women and are encouraged to set and pursue whatever education and career goals they can imagine for themselves.

Clearly, there are great reasons for your teenager to choose to apply to and attend a single-sex institution, as we have said before, but there are also great reasons for your teenager to choose a coeducational institution. What is happening now, however, is that some coeducational institutions–institutions that some students chose to attend precisely because they were coeducational–are losing their balance between male and female students in a way that no one would have predicted 40 years ago. Let’s look at why.

2. Male College Enrollment Today

In a very interesting August article, which you should read in its entirety in The Hechinger Report (which also appeared in The Atlantic), reporter Jon Marcus gave us these facts and figures:

Where men once went to college in proportions far higher than women–58 percent to 42 percent as recently as the 1970s–the ratio has now almost exactly reversed.

This fall, women will comprise more than 56 percent of students on campuses nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some 2.2 million fewer men than women will be enrolled in college this year. And the trend shows no sign of abating. By 2026, the department estimates, 57 percent of college students will be women. . . .

Reeling from a years-long decline in overall enrollment, colleges and universities nationwide are vying for all the students they can get, and suddenly paying new attention to bolstering the number of men who apply. (quoted from the article)

At this point, I think we might say either “You’ve come a long way, baby” to any young women in the audience or “Where will it end?” Of course, for many years, we lived in a world where more males than females went to college, so is it a problem if those figures are now reversed? Maybe not, unless you have a son at home, and you are wondering if this trend will affect him–either positively or negatively–as he looks toward college and his future.

3. Is College Too Late To Fix This?

The Hechinger Report article goes on to explain some likely causes for the state of male college enrollment. Marcus reports:

Though advocates complain that few in higher education are doing enough to keep those men who do get there from leaving, there’s consensus that men’s reluctance to enroll in the first place isn’t necessarily the colleges’ fault. The problem has its origins as early as primary school, only to be fueled later on by economic forces that discourage men from believing a degree is worth the time and money.

“It’s funny that it’s the colleges that are finally seeing this issue and trying to resolve it,” said Patrick Maloney, president of the Nativity School, a Jesuit Catholic middle school in the central Massachusetts city of Worcester that tries to aim low-income boys toward college. That’s because, by the time students reach college age, Maloney said, “It’s way too late. You’ve already lost them. Maybe [admissions officers] should be going into middle schools and [should] start talking to fifth-graders about the benefits of college education.”

Or even earlier than that. The “anti-school, anti-education sentiment” in boys has roots in kindergarten, when they’re slower to learn to read than girls, said Jim Shelley, manager of the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College in Ohio. Girls at the primary and secondary level worldwide far outperform boys in reading, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

That disparity continues until, “by eighth or ninth grade, boys have lost interest,” Shelley said. (quoted from the article)

All this is likely true, but none of it accounts for the decline in male college enrollment. Why? Because I believe all of this was true 40 years ago when there were more male than female students in colleges. With that said, we will, nonetheless, underline the importance of not waiting till high school to engage actively about college-going with any younger children you have at home. For many students in high schools my nonprofit organization has evaluated, it is clear that they gave up on the goal of pursuing a college education much earlier, just as the article says. I believe that this is especially–and unfortunately–true for low-income students in urban school districts.

And here are some additional issues that are concerning if you have a son at home, according to this article:

Men who do enroll in college, at whatever age, are more likely than women to drop out, and they graduate at lower rates, the Education Department reports. That’s one thing universities and colleges can address directly, but generally don’t, Shelley, [manager of the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College], said.

Through 21 years running one of the few campus support centers exclusively for men, he said, “I’ve thought it can only get better. But it just has gone nowhere. Not only are there not programs like ours that are supportive of male students, but at most college campuses the attitude is that men are the problem versus men have problems, too. . . .”

Meanwhile, boys in many American communities don’t see male role models who have been to college and succeeded, said Keith Bullock at Kentucky’s Berea College (56 percent female). Bullock is coordinator of programs to support male students, many of them from Appalachia. “They don’t have those examples of doctors and lawyers and professionals.”

. . . The male students under his care are black, white and Hispanic, Bullock said, and they all face similar pressures. He escorts them to the counseling and advising offices and texts them every day to make sure they get to class on time and know when tests are scheduled. “My guys,” he calls them. He also works with them on study habits and time management. “It’s very challenging. It’s very emotional. Sometimes I’m hugging them up and there’s times when I feel I have to curse them out.” (quoted from the article)

4. What Does This Mean for You?

So, if you have a son at home, perhaps The Hechinger Report article has given you some new perspectives and some new facts to think with. But there is also some information here for those of you with a daughter at home. As we said in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, the gender breakdown on a college campus is one thing prospective applicants might want to consider. And now that we know that male students are sometimes in shorter supply than you might have expected, I am glad that we included a question about gender breakdown on the College Profile Worksheet. We give the Worksheet to students to complete for colleges they are interested in applying to (it is found at the end of our book). Here is some of what we wrote in the new book:

If you look at the enrollment statistics for many colleges, you will notice that some are split pretty evenly between male and female students (say, 46 percent vs. 54 percent), while others are way out of balance (say, 30 percent vs. 70 percent). Sometimes colleges that are out of balance can be explained by their history (for example, they were once women’s colleges) or by the types of majors they are best known for (given that some majors, unfortunately, continue to attract more students of one gender). If you want a college to reflect the general undergraduate college student population, it is interesting to note that enrollment figures overall in the fall of 2014 showed that 56 percent of undergraduate students were female. So, if a college is better balanced than that (in other words, closer to 50/50), it might well be working hard to achieve that balance.

Let’s look at a few examples. Carleton College (a great private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota) is 53 percent female and 47 percent male. Carleton is working at it, we would say. Oddly enough, the gigantic University of Minnesota (the excellent public flagship university in the Twin Cities) gets even closer–at 51 percent female and 49 percent male. Not too far away, the Milwaukee School of Engineering (a Wisconsin college that specializes in engineering and technical subjects, though not exclusively) posts a 24 percent female and 76 percent male enrollment–for perhaps obvious reasons.

So, if gender balance at a college is important to your teenager, you all should check it out for each college on your teenager’s list. If you have never thought about it, you should think about it now. By the way, as we said in our new book, “we have not yet seen data reported and presented across colleges on enrollment of students with gender identities other than male and female. However, if you are looking for a college that is particularly accepting of more diverse gender identities, that is a topic that can and should be pursued by looking further on the college’s website and by calling the Admission Office and asking about relevant data and policies.”

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Episode 123: A New Look at Colleges North of the Border

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Last week in our Colleges in the Spotlight series, we took you to the U.K. to consider what it might be like to attend college full time outside the U.S. We looked specifically at Richmond, the American International University in London, a unique university dually accredited in the U.S. and the U.K. We hoped that taking a close look at Richmond–and, more generally, at the value of full-time study at universities abroad–might persuade some of you to leave your geographic comfort zone.

But, in case a trip across the Atlantic (or the Pacific) seems too big a geographic leap for you, today’s episode lets you stay a little closer to home. We are going to look at colleges in Canada, our close ally and important trading partner to the north. Let me say that I have known about colleges in Canada for decades, first because of a childhood Canadian friend and later because McGill University in Montreal has been an increasingly popular college choice for students in the Northeast for many years now. Then, six years ago, my nephew, who was raised in Seattle, decided to attend the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and had a great four years there. So, it has been with some interest that I have read a variety of articles in the news in the past six months about the new appeal of Canadian colleges for U.S. students.

And, let us remind you, that you should go to amazon.com and get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. The workbook will help your teenager know what questions to ask about colleges of interest to him or her and will help your teenager research the answers. Let me say, by the way, that one of our favorite sources of college information, the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator, does not provide data about colleges outside the U.S. So, if your teenager likes our notion of studying full time outside the U.S., he or she will have to dig a little harder to answer all of the questions we pose in our book.

1. The New Statistics

So, what’s all this about Canada? Well, in an article about two months ago in The Washington Post, Susan Svrluga wrote about the increased interest of U.S. students in Canadian universities and the possible reasons for it. Here are some of the statistics she provides in the article: 

  • Applications to Canadian universities from students outside of Canada are on the upswing, and the number of international students studying at Canadian universities has doubled in the past 10 years.
  • Twice as many students as usual have been looking for information on the Universities Canada website since last November. The website “offers profiles of Canadian universities, a large study programs database and helps you plan your university education. The information on [the] site is provided by Universities Canada and its 97 member universities.” (quoted from the website)
  • Some of the best Canadian universities have seen dramatic increases in U.S. applications: a 25 percent increase at McGill; a 35 percent increase at McMaster University, a public research university in Hamilton, Ontario; and an 80 percent increase at the University of Toronto.
  • And the price is attractive, too. According to The Washington Post article, “At the current exchange rate, tuition and fees are about $13,000 less for an international student’s first year at the University of Toronto than they would be at Harvard, and $11,000 less than out-of-state rates at the University of Virginia.” So, as we said about Richmond last week, the cost of attending some excellent universities outside the U.S. is surprisingly reasonable, though not necessarily cheap.

The Universities Canada website offers eight reasons for attending college in Canada. All of them are good, but I can see how the following four might resonate with some U.S. students and with other foreign students who are looking for a safe college environment and secure future:

Affordability: While Canada’s quality of education and standard of living are among the highest in the world, the cost of living and tuition fees are generally lower than in other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

Support services: International students benefit from services to help them transition to living and studying in Canada: orientation activities, student advisors, language support, academic associations, social clubs and other programs at their educational institutions.

Cultural diversity: Canada ranks among the most multicultural nations in the world. Regardless of ethnic origin, international students feel at home in our diverse and welcoming communities and campuses.

Opportunity to stay in Canada after graduation: International students have the opportunity to work during their studies and after they graduate. University graduates may also be eligible to transition to permanent residence in Canada. Visit the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website for more information. (quoted from the Universities Canada website)

The Washington Post article quoted Ted Sargent, a vice president at the University of Toronto, which recruits outside Canada, including in the U.S. Sargent said, “Canada is having a moment. It is a time of opportunity. . . . A lot of people know that half of the people in Toronto were not born in Canada. Canada is a place that is focused on attracting talent from around the world. . . . That messaging about diversity and inclusivity is very resonant today.” One can see how Canada’s open arms are appealing to the students and their families who are concerned about the ramifications of the Brexit vote in the U.K. and who are concerned about some of the new proposed immigration policies in the U.S. The Washington Post article offers several insightful anecdotes about individual students, including a long story about one Syrian graduate student’s difficulties in getting back into the U.S. after a trip to check on the humanitarian medical work he had been doing in Turkey.

Interestingly, Universities Canada published a statement after our president’s first executive order about immigration. Here it is:

“Universities Canada does not typically comment on executive action being taken by another country, but we do so today because of the real impediment this new executive order poses to the free flow of people and ideas and to the values of diversity, inclusion and openness that are hallmarks of a strong and healthy society.” (quoted from the article)

2. Check Out Universities Canada!

I think it is worth it for you and your teenager to check out the Universities Canada website and read some of the profiles of the universities that you will find there. As Americans unfortunately are with many things about Canada (including its history and government), I think we are quite ignorant of its higher education system. That seems ridiculous when many top Canadian universities are a lot closer to where some of us live than universities in a distant part of our own country. We likely know more about Canada’s ice hockey and baseball teams, its actors and singers who have big careers in our country, and our television industry’s use of Vancouver to film some of our favorite shows than we know about its universities. I think once you see some of its universities’ reasonable tuition rates, you will be sorry you didn’t think of Canada sooner (this is also true for graduate programs, by the way).

So, what are the best universities in Canada? I thought a decent source might be the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2016?2017, which lists the top 980 universities in the world. If you don’t know it, Times Higher Education is a weekly publication based in London. Its website explains its rankings this way:

[Ours] is the only global university performance table to judge world class universities across all of their core missions–teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. The top universities rankings use 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators to provide the most comprehensive and balanced comparisons available, which are trusted by students, academics, university leaders, industry and governments.

For the [World University Rankings], [our] in-house data team now ranks 2,150 institutions worldwide, with 1 million data points analysed across 2,600 institutions in 93 countries. In 2016, the global media reach of the rankings was almost 700 million. (quoted from the website)

That’s a lot of institutions and a lot of data. Just so you know, the five top-ranked institutions worldwide, according to this list, are the University of Oxford, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Here are the top six Canadian universities, along with their world ranking, according to this list. So, if you have a smart teenager, you might want to start with the profiles of these, available on the Times Higher Education website:

  • University of Toronto–22
  • University of British Columbia (with a student body that is 25 percent international)–36
  • McGill University–42
  • University of Montreal (the only French-speaking one in the top five)–103
  • University of Alberta (in Edmonton)–107
  • McMaster University–113

Of course, just as there are in the U.S., there are many other great universities in Canada. Your teenager doesn’t have to go to one of the top six anymore than he or she has to go to one of the top six in the U.S. or one of the top six in the world. The Universities Canada website can give you all the information you need about many universities to start your search.

3. A Personal Reflection

Maybe if we had written our new book this week instead of a couple of months ago, we would have added another requirement for building your teenager’s long list of college options (or LLCO, as we called it). If you don’t already have the book, we ask that your teenager put together an LLCO that includes two four-year colleges in each of the nine geographic regions of the U.S., at least two public flagship universities, and one college outside of the U.S. All of this is, of course, designed to get you all outside your geographic comfort zone–where, undoubtedly, some of the best higher education is happening.

So, if we had written the book today, we might have said that your teenager’s LLCO should also include one Canadian university. Given everything we have just read, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

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Episode 121: No Harvard for You!

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Today in our current series, Colleges in the Spotlight, we want to look at a great article published in The New York Times by an award-winning journalist writing a very personal piece. Although the title of our episode is “No Harvard for You,” it is really about many colleges a lot like Harvard–highly selective, prestigious, private colleges, which have disappointed a lot of kids this March and April. This is an unusual perspective and a memorable one. Special thanks to my friend, Regina Rule, school board member in Manhasset, New York, who posted this article on Facebook. I probably never would have seen it without her.

1. Michael Winerip’s Article

Let me quote first from The New York Times blurb about the article’s author, Michael Winerip, so you can see just how impressive he is:

Mike Winerip hasn’t held every job at The Times, just most of them. Over nearly 30 years, he has written five different columns–Our Towns, On Sunday, On Education (three times), Parenting and Generation B.

He has been a staff writer for the magazine, investigative reporter, national political correspondent, Metro reporter and a deputy Metro editor. . . .

In 2000, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his exposé in the Times magazine of a mentally ill New York City man pushing a woman to her death on the subway. . . . In 2001, he played a leading role on the team of reporters that won a Pulitzer for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.” (quoted from the article)

And there is plenty more. There is no doubt that Mike is a smart, perceptive, and accomplished guy. Clearly, he is someone worth listening to. You should go read his entire piece, entitled “Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard,” published in The Times on April 29, 2007. Yes, 2007. It might as well have been yesterday. Perhaps his words are even more true now.

Let’s listen to the beginning of his piece:

On a Sunday morning a few months back, I interviewed my final Harvard applicant of the year. After saying goodbye to the girl and watching her and her mother drive off, I headed to the beach at the end of our street for a run. 

It was a spectacular winter day, bright, sunny and cold; the tide was out, the waves were high, and I had the beach to myself. As I ran, I thought the same thing I do after all these interviews: Another amazing kid who won’t get into Harvard.

That used to upset me. But I’ve changed. 

Over the last decade, I’ve done perhaps 40 of these interviews, which are conducted by alumni across the country. They’re my only remaining link to my alma mater; I’ve never been back to a reunion or a football game, and my total donations since graduating in the 1970s do not add up to four figures. 

No matter how glowing my recommendations, in all this time only one kid, a girl, got in, many years back. I do not tell this to the eager, well-groomed seniors who settle onto the couch in our den. They’re under too much pressure already. Better than anyone, they know the odds, particularly for a kid from a New York suburb.

By the time I meet them, they’re pros at working the system. Some have Googled me because they think knowing about me will improve their odds. After the interview, many send handwritten thank-you notes saying how much they enjoyed meeting me.

Maybe it’s true. 

I used to be upset by these attempts to ingratiate. Since I’ve watched my own children go through similar torture, I find these gestures touching. Everyone’s trying so hard. (quoted from the article)

Let me stop right there for a minute. Parents, how many of you had your seniors do one or more of these alumni interviews? Parents of juniors, many of you have these on your horizon. I used to do them years ago for Cornell, so I know a bit about the way Mike feels. A young friend of mine went through alumni interviews for her applications to Georgetown and Yale and Cornell just a few months ago.

To tell you the truth, I am not sure how I feel about alumni interviews and, for those of you who know me, you know that it is rare that I don’t have a strong opinion about something. I see why a college would use its alumni in this role, and I see why alumni would be willing to take on this task. I did myself, after all. But I am not sure how much alumni interviews really contribute to the admissions process or how valid those contributions are.

In the old days, it seems to me that many more applicants were interviewed at the colleges by admissions officers. Maybe they weren’t any smarter or savvier than alumni, but they were trained in what they were doing. They likely knew what to look for, how to get the best from a nervous kid, and how to represent the college–and its admission process–accurately and fairly. I am not entirely sure that alumni interviewers–or, at least, not all alumni interviewers–can do all of those things. So why continue doing it, colleges?

Here is what Mike says about why he continued to interview for his alma mater:

It’s very moving meeting all these bright young people who won’t get into Harvard. Recent news articles make it sound unbearably tragic. Several Ivies, including Harvard, rejected a record number of applicants this year.

Actually, meeting the soon-to-be rejected makes me hopeful about young people. They are far more accomplished than I was at their age and without a doubt will do superbly wherever they go.

Knowing me and seeing them is like witnessing some major evolutionary change take place in just 35 years, from the Neanderthal Harvard applicant of 1970 to today’s fully evolved Homo sapiens applicant. 

There was the girl who, during summer vacation, left her house before 7 each morning to make a two-hour train ride to a major university, where she worked all day doing cutting-edge research for NASA on weightlessness in mice.

When I was in high school, my 10th-grade science project was on plant tropism–a shoebox with soil and bean sprouts bending toward the light.

These kids who don’t get into Harvard spend summers on schooners in Chesapeake Bay studying marine biology, building homes for the poor in Central America, touring Europe with all-star orchestras.

Summers, I dug trenches for my local sewer department during the day, and sold hot dogs at Fenway Park at night. (quoted from the article)

Mike is right. The escalation in what kids now present as their credentials on college applications has continued in the decade since this piece was written. College applications have almost become parodies of themselves. What more could high school kids do? Is any kid just a kid anymore? Well, if so, that kid isn’t getting into Harvard–or any other very selective college–where even stellar kids aren’t being admitted. Mike continues this way: 

What kind of kid doesn’t get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake. 

At his age, when I got hungry, I made myself peanut butter and jam on white bread and got into Harvard. 

Some take 10 AP courses and get top scores of 5 on all of them. 

I took one AP course and scored 3. (quoted from the article)

I wonder if this makes any kid who didn’t get into some Ivy or Stanford or MIT or the like this April feel any better. It probably doesn’t. But it does underscore just how crazy admissions at top schools can be. I keep saying to prospective applicants that these schools could fill their seats with kids with perfect SATs and perfect high school GPAs and incredible extracurricular activities. And I guess it’s true. Of course, these schools would be quick to say that they look for plenty of other things, too. And I hope that’s true, though I would like to see some evidence of it.

One of Mike’s final comments is this: 

I see these kids–and watch my own applying to college–and as evolved as they are, I wouldn’t change places with them for anything. They’re under such pressure. (quoted from the article)

They are indeed, Mike. Parents, don’t forget that. Your kids are “under such pressure.”

I have watched a number of kids go through this recently. Let me take one example of a smart and talented kid who did not get into her top Ivy-like choices, but did get into a fine private university and a fine public flagship university. She chose the private university and immediately applied to its honors program (she had already automatically been accepted into the honors program at the public flagship when they sent her the acceptance). But this private university required a separate honors program application–well, actually there were four different honors programs, each one more impressive than the last.

She asked me to look over the FOUR essays she had to write for the honors application. Honestly, I would have had trouble writing the fourth one myself. I felt a bit like Mike as I sat there, with my two Ivy League degrees, staring at the essay and wondering what in the world I would have said.

I did what I could to help her, but she did not get into the honors program she applied for (likely a result of her SAT scores, according to the honors program descriptions). Now, I think that is okay. She will do well at the university. She will probably have a great time there (which is actually an important part of the college experience, too, I think). I am fine that she didn’t get into the honors program, but I doubt she is, and I know her parents are disappointed. So, I will say one more time to you, parents: “They’re under such pressure.” At some point, you have to let that go. Once the acceptances are in and the college-going decision is made, it is time to be happy. No more disappointment. Look forward to the fall and a new adventure for your kid. I don’t want to have to remind you again!

2. Next Week

We are going to take a break next week in honor of college graduations and Memorial Day. I am actually traveling to the U.K. to attend my daughter’s master’s degree graduation ceremony at Richmond, The American International University in London. Many of you are making or just made the same kind of trip if you have older kids graduating from college somewhere this month. It is a time for celebration, and we hope you have a great one!

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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 115: What About a Gap Year Before College?

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While today’s topic might not be an issue in higher education generally, it could well be an issue in your own teenager’s higher education–and it’s an issue that you might want to think about quickly right now if you have a high school senior. It is the notion of having your teenager take a gap year between finishing high school this spring and starting college this fall. For those of you who have high school juniors at home, it’s not too early for you to be thinking about this option, too.

For those of you wrestling with which college your teenager should attend when he or she has some options, let us remind you that, last year in April, we did a series of three episodes on how to think about that college decision–one for above-average students, one for average students, and one for below-average students–because we felt that their options and their reasons for choosing one college over another might be very different. You should go back and re-read the show notes or re-listen to Episodes 69, 70, and 71–or, at least, the one that best describes the academic standing of your own teenager. As we said last week when we highlighted some key points from those three episodes, we just can’t do any better now than we did then in pointing out the serious questions you should consider in making this all-important choice with your teenager.

With all that said, we are guessing that there are some families that are not thrilled with the college options they have at the moment, and today’s episode might give those families something else to consider. Like everything, the notion of a gap year has pros and cons, though I have to say that there are a lot of fervent supporters–far more than I thought before I did this episode. Let’s get some background.

1. The Background

Let me start by saying that I happened on an article from The Conversation from way back last May. The Conversation is, in its own words, “an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community.” The Conversation explains that its “team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public. Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.” (quoted from the website) The Conversation, which was founded in Australia and now operates in the U.K. and U.S. as well, is a free resource, which addresses issues in arts, business, politics, the environment, health, technology, education, and more–so check it out.

The discussion today comes from an article by Joe O’Shea, the Director of Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement at Florida State University, and Nina Hoe, the Study Director at the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University. In the interest of full disclosure, Mr. O’Shea is the president of the board of the American Gap Association, and Ms. Hoe is the Association’s Director of Research. My guess is that they might not be the most impartial chroniclers of the benefits of a gap year; nonetheless, they offer a lot of information on the topic in their article.

Although gap years have been discussed–and taken–in the U.S. for many years, the notion of a gap year landed squarely on our collective radar when Malia Obama decided to take 2016?2017 as a gap year before attending Harvard this coming fall. Now, that probably had to do with the fact that her father was finishing up his presidency more than anything else, but perhaps she put gap years on the map for a lot of families that had never thought about them.

The data show that about 11 percent of Australian students more than 10 years ago were taking gap years compared to no more than 3 percent of U.S. students today. What is a common topic of discussion and real alternative for educated families in the U.K. is rarely discussed here in the U.S., especially among middle-income and lower-income families.

And yet, Mr. O’Shea and Ms. Hoe assert, in their article, that gap years are getting more popular in the U.S. So, let’s look at what the research shows.

2. The Research

The authors present evidence that an alarmingly sizable percentage of students on college campuses are stressed severely enough–including to the point of being medically diagnosed with anxiety or depression–to cause them to seek counseling from on-campus health services. The authors also note that “faculty and staff are reporting that today’s students lack coping skills such as resilience and the ability to succeed independently despite adversity” (quoted from the article). It is a picture of too many college students who are burned out from intense high school years, over-anxious, and unable to handle the many demands of college academic and social life.

Well, if that’s the problem, what does research say about the solution? Here is what the authors say:

Research shows that a gap year . . . can provide students the opportunity to gain personal skills such as independence, resilience, confidence and focus. A combination of activities during this year that involve volunteering, interning or working, either domestically or internationally, can provide meaningful experiences that challenge students outside their comfort zones. These experience[s] can help students reevaluate how they understand themselves and the world.

Several peer-reviewed studies focusing on students in the U.K. and Australia have shown that students who took a gap year experienced a host of personal benefits, such as higher levels of motivation and higher academic performance in college.

A 2015 survey of over 700 former gap year participants found overwhelming personal, academic, career and civic engagement benefits associated with taking a gap year.

Over 90 percent of all respondents indicated that their gap year provided important time for personal reflection, aided in personal development, increased maturity and self-confidence, and fostered the development of interpersonal communication skills.

Specifically related to college, 73 percent of respondents reported that their gap year helped them increase their readiness for college, 59 percent said it increased their interest in attending college and 57 percent said it helped them figure out what they wanted to study in college. (quoted from the article)

As loyal listeners of USACollegeChat know, we are all about getting kids outside their comfort zone, so that is an appealing aspect of a gap year. And I do think that what the research finds is entirely believable. I imagine that most adults would agree that a one-year dose of the real world?whether that is in a volunteer or paid setting, whether that is at home or far away, whether that is working with people like you or people not at all like you?is likely to help teenagers grow up and give them more life-coping skills than they had when they started.

But what about their future academic life? What if they like the path they are on in their gap year so much that they decide not to go to college at all? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? And what happens when they do go to college after a gap year?

Here is some research cited, with obvious approval, on the American Gap Association website:

From Joe O’Shea’s book, Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs: “. . . In Australia and the United Kingdom, economic researchers found that high school students who deferred their admission to college to take a Gap Year went to college (after their Gap Year) at the same rate as those who accepted an offer and intended to go straight there (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012). They also found that taking a Gap Year had a significant positive impact on students’ academic performance in college, with the strongest impact for students who had applied to college with grades on the lower end of the distribution (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012).” In fact, in the United Kingdom and in the United States, students who had taken a Gap Year were more likely to graduate with higher grade point averages than observationally identical individuals who went straight to college, and this effect was seen even for Gap Year students with lower academic achievement in high school (Crawford and Cribb 2012, Clagett 2013). (quoted from the website)

Well, now I am really interested–because I feared that kids who took a gap year might end up opting out of college (which would obviously not be my preference for them). It is also persuasive that gap-year kids with lower grades in high school graduated with higher college grades than similar students who went straight to college. Whether that finding is the result of academic knowledge actually gained during the gap year or of enhanced personal traits (like motivation and self-confidence) doesn’t really matter, I guess. So, there does not seem to be a personal or academic downside to a gap year–at least according to this research, these authors, and the American Gap Association.

3. The Design (and Expense) of a Worthwhile Gap Year

How then do Mr. O’Shea and Ms. Hoe characterize an appropriate gap year experience? This is what they say:

Gap years need to be properly designed so they can challenge students with new roles and perspectives that accelerate their growth as thinkers and citizens. Experiences that push students out of their comfort zones and allow them to explore new cultures and people from different backgrounds can create an impactful experience. They provide students an opportunity to reflect on a number of challenges and also allow for critical self-reflection that can root part of their identity in contributions to others.

In an ideal gap year experience, students get to develop actual relationships with people who are different from them. And when that happens, students can begin to see the world from different perspectives and learn about the complexity of social challenges. (quoted from the article)

Of course, that all sounds great. And if that can be done in the context of an internship near home or a volunteer slot in a nearby community, then I can get past one fear I have, which is that that gap years are just one more thing that benefit rich kids who can afford to fly off to some exotic locale or who can get a fascinating internship because of their parents’ connections.   Do you know, by the way, that there are companies that plan gap years for kids, including booking all of the travel? That can’t be cheap. Just like college admissions coaching, the notion of gap year experiences has spawned a whole industry. And that does worry me a bit.

Perhaps the title of a New York Times article last May by Mike McPhate says it all: “Malia Obama’s ‘Gap Year’ Is Part of a Growing (and Expensive) Trend.” His article notes that the price tag on an international gap year program could run as high as $35,000.

But here are a couple of other ways to do it:

[U]niversity administrators . . . note that gap-year plans come in a variety of forms, some of them at no cost. AmeriCorpsCity Year, for example, pays students stipends to teach. Another popular program, Global Citizen Year, provides financial support–more than $6 million since 2010–for students to pursue experiential learning.

But those programs can be highly competitive. City Year, for example, says it selects only about one in four applicants. (quoted from the article)

So, although these programs sound promising, it’s like trying to get into college all over again. I am not sure how that helps kids cope with burnout and stress. And, as we might have expected, colleges themselves are getting into the game, according to Mr. McPhate’s article:

More universities have begun formal gap-year programs that take varying approaches to enrollment and the providing of aid, including Princeton, Tufts, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Elon University.

At Princeton and North Carolina, for example, freshman-year enrollment is deferred and at least some financial help is provided, while Elon considers participants enrolled and charges its regular tuition. Another program offered by the New School in New York City also treats students as enrolled and offers up to a full year of academic credit.

Florida State University is among the latest campuses to start offering scholarships to gap-year students. Late last year, the public institution said applicants could get up to $5,000, and sent an email to the entire incoming [freshman] class urging them to consider deferring their freshman year. (quoted from the article)

Clearly, I am not understanding how a gap year turns into a year where tuition is charged and a full year of academic credit is given. That really makes it sound more like a study abroad program. And, in fact, there are already colleges (NYU is one) where freshmen can take their freshman year in another country–a real study abroad experience before you ever study at home.

4. So What?

So, what is the purpose of a gap year and who should think about taking one? Well, I think that the vocal proponents of gap years think everyone should take one, given the positive results that the research seems to show. I am probably a bit more restrained in my enthusiasm, but I am willing to be persuaded. Parents, I am afraid that you are going to have to do some research of your own if you think your senior would benefit from a year of experiences–paid or unpaid, nearby or far away–before starting into his or her college career.

Here are a few quotations from another New York Times article, written last year by Abigail Falik, who is the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year (which we mentioned earlier) and who is, I am assuming, a bit partial to the notion of gap years.

 

What if college freshmen arrived on campus not burnt out from having been “excellent sheep” in high school, but instead refreshed, focused and prepared to take full advantage of the rich resources and opportunities colleges have to offer?

The “gap year,” a common practice across Europe and Australia, has yet to take root in the United States. A primary barrier is the stigma we associate with the term–it conveys privilege and frivolity and is often viewed either as a luxury for a select few, or remediation for kids who didn’t get into the college of their choice.

And yet, the research shows undeniable, positive impacts in terms of increased maturity, confidence and achievement. A recent Middlebury study showed that students who take a year off before arriving outperform their peers in their academic and extracurricular engagement on campus. . . .

Given its known benefits, it’s time to rebrand the “gap year” as anything but a “gap.” When used intentionally, the year before college can be a bridge, a launch pad and a new rite of passage. It’s the students who find the courage to step off the treadmill–replacing textbooks with experience and achievement with exploration–who are best prepared for life after high school. And a growing number of colleges are taking notice.

Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s undergraduate admissions dean, wrote a manifesto about the need for students to take time off before college. Rick Shaw, Stanford’s undergraduate admissions dean, now speaks about the value of non-linear paths and the learning and growth that come from risk taking and failure, as opposed to perfect records. (quoted from the article)

Well, if I had not been sure that the notion of a gap year was an issue in higher education when I started this episode, I am pretty sure now. Parents, start your research!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
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