Episode 157: Thinking Through College Acceptances

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This is the first episode in our new series, fondly entitled Decision Time Again.  It’s “again” for us because we always do some episodes about college decision making at this time of year, and it seems that the decisions just keep get harder and harder each year for all of you parents and your kids.  Of course, we know that it might be your first decision time, and we are wishing you the best of luck!

1. A Case from the Real World

So, here is something that happened last week:  It is a case from the real world.  I had a great conversation on the phone with a loyal listener to our podcast and reader of our books, who wanted some advice about her son’s big decision.  Let’s call her Betty (the names have been changed to protect the innocent, though I would really love to give her credit for how well she is thinking through this decision).  First of all, I want to thank her for being so complimentary of our work.  She explained that she did not go to university in the U.S., so she found our explanation of higher education here to be especially helpful.  I also want to note that Betty lives in California, which justifies the name of our podcast, USACollegeChat.  We have tried hard to reach parents from coast to coast, and we are truly happy that it seems to be working.

Let me start by saying that Betty has done everything right.  As she wrote about her son in an email to me, “He had a lower GPA, but a good SAT score, and has been very fortunate to get into almost all of the schools he applied to, partly thanks to your advice about putting together a realistic list of schools, including a few stretches and some safety schools.”  And as a result, her son now has a choice of a variety of colleges that he has been admitted to:  public and private, large and small, North and South and East and Midwest, selective and less selective, liberal arts colleges and true universities.  Here are his choices:  the University of New Hampshire, the University of Pittsburgh, Miami University (of Ohio), Indiana University, St. Olaf College, Elon University, George Mason University, and American University.

Betty’s question was, quite simply, where should he go.  Betty told me that her son is interested in international relations, with a focus on Europe (where Betty is from originally) and would like to spend some time studying abroad and some time in Washington, D.C.  This week, they are going on a second round of college visits to see the colleges he has been accepted by that he hasn’t seen yet (as we recommend, whenever possible, visit after the acceptances so you can save a bit of money by not visiting colleges your child does not get admitted to).

I proceeded to talk through the list of acceptances with her and came down in favor of American University, which was the last college her son had heard from.  I told Betty that, if he had not been admitted to American, I would have advised him to choose Indiana University–because, as she knew from listening to our episodes, we love public flagship universities; because it has a fine reputation; because it has many study abroad opportunities; and because it has a School of Global and International Studies, where her son was accepted into its version of an honors program.  However, given her son’s interest in studying in D.C., American seemed like the better choice.  Its reputation is excellent, it has nationwide visibility, and its location in D.C.–with all of the opportunities there might be for international-related activities, internships, and part-time jobs–seemed to me to outweigh the pluses of a flagship university campus in exurban Bloomington, Indiana.

Betty then asked me a string of questions, which were important and relevant to her son’s decision.  It was a little bit like a “greatest hits” of issues we have dealt with in past episodes, and she did a good job of recounting them and questioning me about them.  For example, she noted that American does not guarantee housing after freshman year, and she worried about what housing might be like in D.C. if her son had to get his own.  I agreed that the lack of a housing guarantee in D.C. especially might not be ideal, but that it would not keep me from sending a child to American, given its other advantages.  I assured her that kids move off campus all the time and that he might be able to stay on campus anyway.

Next, Betty noted that American’s graduation rate was not as high as other colleges on his list.  A good point, I said, but I would be okay with that if I were relatively sure my son would stay on track and graduate on time.  Besides, I said, American is a great school, regardless of its graduation rate.  Betty commented that her son had always done better when challenged, and I agreed that is often the case and that her son would definitely be challenged at American both by the university and by his classmates to do his best.  I did add that I would give him a firm lecture about that before he left!

Next, Betty asked my opinion about a gap year, which her son had brought up, but not recently.  She remembered our episode about it and, coming from Europe where gap years are more common, was not totally against it.  I repeated that all the research said gap years were great choices, and yet I would still tell Betty to send her son directly to college.  He already seems to know what he wants to do, and he does not seem to need to spend a year figuring that out.  I suggested that he might take his “gap year” after his undergraduate education and before his intended graduate work, when he might really be able to do something significant abroad.

Finally, Betty wondered if her son would be better off in a slightly less challenging college, where he could potentially get better grades in preparation for getting into a top-tier graduate school, where he hoped to pursue international affairs or business.  This was my favorite question of those she asked.  And I gave the answer we have always given here at USACollegeChat:  Send him to the best school he got into.  In my opinion, that is American.  I commented that plans change, things happen, and graduate school might not be his choice four years from now.  Why suboptimize his undergraduate education because you are hoping for the best possible graduate education?  What if that graduate education never comes, and you just wasted a great undergraduate opportunity–for nothing?

I feel so strongly about his advice, and I seem to give it a lot.  (I am not talking about Betty now, by the way.  Betty and her son are going to be fine.)  But I do see parents thinking that a mediocre public education is fine at the undergraduate level because it is a way to save money for a top-quality private graduate school or medical school or law school.  Well, as many people have said and claimed credit for, tomorrow is promised to no one.  Please, parents, let your kid to take the opportunity to get an outstanding undergraduate education if it’s offered, even if it costs a little more.  No one can predict where your kid will be in four years, what he or she will want to do then, and whether he or she will have the grades and test scores to get into a phenomenal graduate school.  As the Romans said, carpe diem–seize the day.

2. What You Should Do Right Now

So, in this episode, I wanted to give you a firsthand look at how we think through things once those acceptances come in.  If you have a question like Betty’s about your kid, please drop me an email.  All the advice is free, and you don’t have to take it.  But let’s chat.  Why do you think we call it USACollegeChat?

By the way, if you want more general advice, feel free to go back and listen to the advice we gave last year and the year before.  It’s still quite relevant.  Try Episode 114 from last year and Episode 69, Episode 70, and Episode 71 from the year before.  They never get old!

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Episode 154: Instant College Admission Decisions

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

This is the second in our new series of things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally.  I think this is a case of the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.  Even though we have worked with colleges for a living for decades, we have learned a lot doing our 150-plus episodes, and we hope you have, too.

Today’s episode focuses on something that I did not know existed:  instant college admission decisions, which sound like a great stress-reliever to me.  Because who wants to apply to a college on January 1 and wait three months to get an answer!  So, while many students solve that waiting problem by applying under Early Action or Early Decision plans, thus shortening their wait time to perhaps six weeks or so in November and December, other students are taking advantage of instant decisions.  Here’s the story, thanks to Kelly Mae Ross and her article last December for U.S. News & World Report.

1.  What Are These Things?

So, what are instant decision days?  They are exactly what they sound like.  They are events held at high schools or colleges for prospective freshmen, staffed by a college’s admission officer, who interviews prospective students for a short period of time (as little as 15 minutes) and provides an admission decision on the spot.

The interview allows a prospective student to explain little glitches in his or her academic record as well as to elaborate on personal and academic accomplishments.  It also gives a prospective student a chance to ask questions about the college.  Because the interview is so short, students need not be too nervous.  And because the interview is quick and somewhat informal, students need not go overboard dressing up.  According to Ms. Ross’s article, Kasey Urquidez, vice president of enrollment management and student affairs advancement and dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Arizona, commented, “I can say for our team, [student dress is] not something we’re looking at whatsoever.  So dress as a student–it’s what we expect.” (quoted from the article)

(Of course, I am going to add here that students should not dress like slobs, either.  I can live with “business casual” attire–just short of a tie and jacket for young men, for example.  Furthermore, students should remember that a speedy, seemingly informal event still requires that standard formal slang-free English be spoken.)

While financial aid packages might not be provided on the spot at the time of the instant decision, a newly accepted student can at least get advice on what to do next to secure financial assistance.

And here’s a plus:  Some colleges will waive the application fee for instant decision applicants.  So, that could save you a few bucks, which never hurts.

And here’s another plus:  When these instant decision events are held on the college campus rather than at your kid’s high school, some colleges offer students a campus tour and the chance to meet current students–all accomplished in one jam-packed day.

And here’s perhaps the biggest plus:  Instant admission decisions are not binding.  That means, of course, that a student can continue to apply to other colleges or continue to wait to hear from other colleges before making an enrollment decision.

Not surprisingly, some colleges require that a prospective student complete the application in advance (which seems reasonable).  Some colleges have minimum academic standards that prospective students must meet in order to participate in an instant decision event (which seems reasonable, too).  And some colleges permit instant decisions for just some, but not all, of their degree programs (which also seems okay to me).

But the bottom line is this:  There is just no downside to taking part in one of these instant decision days if a college your kid is interested in makes one available.

2.  What Colleges Have Them?

So, what colleges have them?  It’s not surprising that highly selective colleges do not offer instant decision events.  But Ms. Ross’s article spotlights one that does:  Millersville University of Pennsylvania.  With 7,000 undergraduate students, Millersville is a public university located in rural Lancaster County, in the heart of Amish country, though not too far a drive from Philadelphia.  Founded as a teacher’s college in 1855, Millersville now offers more than 100 undergraduate programs of study.  Out-of-state tuition is about $22,000 per year?rather reasonable, when compared to private colleges. Admissions standards are also quite reasonable, given its public mission as part of the 14-campus system of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (which is a separate state system from the more selective Pennsylvania State University (of football fame) system).  The Millersville freshman class profile shows an average SAT of 1050, an average ACT composite of 22, and a high school GPA average of 3.4. And, according to its own Fast Facts on its website, 95 percent of graduates are employed within six months.

While the freshman class profile statistics indicate that Millersville is not a highly selective institution, having a positive instant admission decision in a student’s pocket from a solid public university is not a bad way to relieve the stress of the college application process. And, in her article, Ms. Ross quotes Brian Hazlett, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at Millersville, as saying that students who do not get an acceptance on instant decision day can get advice on how to make their application better.  It’s like personal counseling for free!

Ms. Ross’s article continues:

“It’s a very, very personal way of going through the admissions process,” says John Iacovelli, dean of enrollment management at Stockton University in New Jersey, which holds about three dozen instant decision events at high schools each year.  (quoted from the article)

Stockton University, by the way, is a public university in southern New Jersey, opened in 1971, which enrolls over 9,000 undergraduate and graduate students, about 1,500 of whom are first-time freshmen.  After six months, 88 percent of its graduates are employed or enrolled in graduate school.  Both this 88 percent and Millersville’s 95 percent strike me as very good statistics for any university, but perhaps especially so for a public university.

3.  What About Transfer Students?

In case you have a kid already in college and looking to transfer, it might be worth noting that some colleges have these instant decision days for transfer students, too.  Ms. Ross offers this information in her article:

Some university admissions officers travel to community colleges to offer this opportunity to prospective transfer students.

The University of Arizona offers about a dozen such events each year, says Kasey Urquidez, vice president enrollment management and student affairs advancement, and dean of undergraduate admissions at the university.

Virginia Tech…hosts instant decision days at four nearby community colleges, says Jane Todd, the school’s associate director for transfer initiatives…

Prospective transfer students should register in advance, submit their application and obtain a copy of their transcript before meeting with the admissions officer, both Todd and Urquidez say. Students who have attended multiple colleges will need a transcript from each, says Urquidez, and collecting all of these documents can take time.  (quoted from the article)

Well, the University of Arizona and Virginia Tech!  These are gigantic public universities that are well respected in their states (and nationally, too) and very likely by the nearby community college students who could take advantage of these instant decision days.  Given our nation’s scandalously low rates of community college students transferring to four-year institutions to continue their educations, these instant decision days have to be a step–or a giant leap–in the right direction.

4.  So What?

So, what should you do with this information?  Well, if I were you, I would start looking for colleges that offer the instant decision events, either on their campus or at your kid’s high school.  Ask the guidance counselor about any such events at the high school.  If there aren’t any scheduled, suggest that the guidance counselor look into this option, perhaps especially from nearby public two-year and four-year colleges.

In my search for information, I ran across a posting on the website for Saratoga Springs High School, located in the beautiful upstate town of Saratoga Springs, New York.  The notice explained that eight colleges would be conducting “instant decision” and “instant admit” sessions at the high school between October 30 and December 15.  The colleges were both public and private, both two-year and four-year, and both large and small, including one major campus of the State University of New York system.  That’s not a bad deal for those seniors, especially those who did not have their hearts set on highly selective colleges or those who needed or wanted to attend a nearby public institution.

What’s the bottom line?  It is that it never hurts to have a little stress relieved by these instant decision days.  There are few things in education that have no downside, as we have said in the past.  One of those things we have talked about often is student internships during high school.  Another of those things is Early College high schools and other college-credit-in-high-school programs.  Another of those things is Early Action admission plans.  There is just no downside to any one of these things. And now we will add instant decision days.  Just no downside.  So, do a little research in your own community and happy hunting!

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