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

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

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

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

1. Early Decision Cons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article about Tulane continues this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Early Decision Pros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 68: Tips from Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita, Spelman College

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Today’s episode is a bit of a departure from what Marie and I usually do, and it comes as a result of the Early College high school conference we just attended, where we were pleased to be presenting a session on making schools an open book for parents—that is, ways that schools should invite parents to engage with them in a serious and productive manner.  That doesn’t mean just showing up at parent-teacher conferences, by the way, but that is a topic for a different episode.

Episode 68: Tips from Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita, Spelman College on USACollegeChat podcastWhile we were in Atlanta at what turned out to be an excellent conference, sponsored by EDWorks, which is an Ohio-based nonprofit leader in the Early College high school movement (that’s a shout-out to you, Andrea Mulkey, and the great work you do), we were privileged to hear a question-and-answer session with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.  Dr. Tatum served as president of Spelman College for 13 years before retiring last summer (though she has certainly not retired from the world of education and how to improve it for students and especially for students of color).  Dr. Tatum is also the author of a number of books, at least one of which I intend to buy and read, and that is Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: And Other Conversations About Race, which is getting ready for its 20th anniversary edition.

In the Q and A session, Dr. Tatum was forthcoming and candid, and Marie and I got the feeling that she was telling the audience exactly what she thought—which is a rare trait among college presidents I have heard speak.  So what we would like to do in this episode is simply highlight just a few of the many points that Dr. Tatum made—as accurately as my notetaking during the session and our memories allow—and add a few comments of our own.

1.  College Readiness

When asked about her definition of “college readiness” for incoming college freshmen, Dr. Tatum spoke about three different ideas.  However, the first words out of her mouth were that students had to “read critically and write well”—and, by “writing,” she clarified that she meant “academic writing.”  Listeners, I am going to take that to mean that kids have to be able to write both to explain or inform and to persuade and that they have to do it clearly and objectively in a coherent and well-organized essay, using and footnoting sources when needed.

As you know from our earlier episodes, we spent some time last fall with students in high school English classes in an elite New York City public high school, and we were deeply saddened at the quality of their writing.  Even those students who had interesting things to say, lacked a command—or even an awareness—of the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and choice of words.  From Dr. Tatum’s point of view, I believe they had a long way to go before being “college ready.”

After a sentence or two more about reading and writing, Dr. Tatum quickly added “quantitative, too”—meaning that, of course, students also needed good mathematics skills.  But I feel as though her emphasis in that answer was on reading and writing—and maybe especially on writing.

Second, Dr. Tatum talked about social and emotional readiness for college.  She talked about some students who had been too sheltered by their parents and, thus, were not ready to be on their own.  This is exactly one reason that we here at USACollegeChat so often talk about the merits of sending kids away to college—that is, to give kids a chance to get out on their own, but in a mostly safe and protected environment, and see what the world is like, without the constant oversight and monitoring of their parents.  Parents, we know that it is hard for some of you to let go, but letting go is inevitable, so why not do it when your kid can get the support of a college community?

Then, Dr. Tatum went on to talk about the social and emotional readiness of students to come together across differences and succeed in a diverse community.  Students who come from segregated school experiences—whether their high schools were segregated by race, by income, by religion, or by gender—might have a harder time fitting into a community where everyone is not the same.  Parents, if your kid has gone to such a high school, you need to do what you can to help him or her make the leap into a diverse college community.

I, for one, advocate those diverse college communities, as you listeners know, and that is one reason I love my own alma mater, Cornell University.  Cornell was founded as an institution “where any person can find instruction in any study,” in the words of Ezra Cornell.  Of course, on the other side, there are plenty of great colleges that are designed to serve one population exclusively or primarily—from women’s and men’s colleges to faith-based colleges to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—and we have talked about all of them in earlier episodes.

Third, Dr. Tatum talked about financial readiness, noting that a lack of understanding about finances and how to seek out financial resources to cover college costs is one reason that some students do not actually finish their degrees.  In other words, students get only so far on initial scholarship money or loans or family support and then can’t continue when those funds run out.  So, being financially savvy and resourceful is an important aspect of college preparedness for more and more students as college costs keep rising and rising.  Parents, that is something that you can work directly on with your own kids during senior year of high school and, likely, well before.

In answer to the specific question about whether everyone needs to go to college, Dr. Tatum said, “maybe not,” but she went on to say that some form of postsecondary education would be necessary.  She commented that it would be better to prepare for college and decide later whether to go or instead to pursue some kind of postsecondary training, such as career-specific training in a wide variety of fields that do not require a college degree.  Parents, helping your kids become college ready academically, socially, emotionally, and financially just cannot be a mistake

2.  College Admissions

Let’s look at college admissions and at Dr. Tatum’s experience at Spelman, which we know to be a top-rated, highly selective HBCU (as we learned in our virtual nationwide tour of colleges in every state).  When asked what Spelman looks at in students’ applications during the admission process, Dr. Tatum replied that Spelman does look at ACT and SAT scores because they “give you some information, but not everything.”  She noted that Spelman staff members know that those test scores are correlated with family income, rather than with success in the first year of college—and yet those scores are still part of the admission decision process at Spelman, just as they are at most top colleges.

Dr. Tatum said that it was, in fact, better to look at applicants’ high school grades and at the rigor of the courses they had taken in high school—in other words, “did you choose the rigor and how did you do.”  This is something that we hear all the time, but I am glad to have it confirmed by a live college president in person.  Colleges understand, of course, that if a high school does not offer Early College courses or dual-credit college courses or Advanced Placement courses or International Baccalaureate courses, for example, then an applicant cannot take them.  But were there honors-level courses available, and did the applicant take those?

A few weeks ago in Episodes 61 and 62, we spoke about the new report just out from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s project called Making Caring Common.  The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.  It was endorsed by about 60 of our nation’s top colleges and universities, including all of the Ivy League schools.  One of the things the report recommended was this:

Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas. While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions process.  At the same time, it’s vital to increase access to advanced courses for large numbers of students in schools without access to adequately challenging courses. (quoted from the report)

Well, okay.  Which is it?  Should kids take as many rigorous courses as possible or should they concentrate on a couple of disciplines where they are most interested or perhaps most capable?  I said in that episode that I felt as though the endorsers of the report were a bit disingenuous.  In other words, the endorsers’ colleges could change their admissions standards at any time, without needing to get anybody’s permission.  So, why hadn’t they stopped looking for as many AP courses as possible from applicants?  Last week, our special guest Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which awards millions of dollars in college scholarships, agreed with me on that point.  As I said in Episode 62, what high school is going to be the first one to tell its students that it’s okay not to take as many AP courses as possible and what parents are going to be the first to go along with that advice?  So far, I haven’t seen it.  Until further notice, I have to believe that Dr. Tatum is going to continue to be right—rigor matters, and a lot of rigor is even better.  Parents, make sure that your kids are taking the most demanding courses they are qualified to take.  By the way, that also means tough high school math and science courses, right up through Physics, for example.

Spelman has a particularly insightful and unobtrusive way of judging the quality of the high schools that its applicants come from—apart from the rigor of the courses they offer.  Dr. Tatum said that applicants are asked to submit a graded essay from one of their high school courses.  Interestingly, this graded essay might tell more about the school than it does about the applicant.  Looking at an A on a poorly written essay tells Spelman something about the standards and rigor at that school, Dr. Tatum explained—and, of course, about the validity of the grades on that student’s high school transcript.  Well, that is one way to stop high school grade inflation—and maybe a very good one, at that.

3.  College-Going Culture in Elementary School

When does college-going culture begin?  Dr. Tatum explained that starting early is important.  She said that she knew as an elementary school student that she was going to college (she noted that her parents were educators).  She suggested that elementary schools partner with colleges and arrange to bring college students into elementary school classes to work with and mentor young students.  Spelman, in fact, has a community service hours requirement (as some other colleges have), so that certainly paves the way for such partnerships.  Dr. Tatum explained that, when those college students look like the elementary school kids (that is, when they come from the same kinds of communities and when are the same racial or ethnic background), it is motivational for little kids to see their “near peers”—older students like themselves—succeeding in college.

I have to say that I love that idea.  Parents, if you have a little one at home, suggest this to your child’s elementary school principal.  And if you have a bigger one going off to college in the fall, tell that child to see whether there is a program like this that they can get involved in on the college campus.

In an interview I did after our book came out, the interviewer asked me when parents should start talking to kids about college.  I remarked that I started doing that when they were old enough to understand words and could sit at the dinner table in their high chairs.  And I meant it.  But, I can live with waiting till elementary school.  Spelman has a great idea.

4.  Diverse Students Working Together

Dr. Tatum told us that she has been visiting college campuses while getting ready to update her book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”:  And Other Conversations About Race 20 years later.  She said that many campuses—though not all—have gotten more diverse, but that colleges haven’t figured out how to help students from different backgrounds engage with each other.

Dr. Tatum said that she thought that the best chance to do that sort of engagement was in the college classroom.  It might be okay, she offered, if students stayed with classmates in their own population groups socially; however, faculty must think intentionally about how to get diverse students to engage with each other in the classroom.  Dr. Tatum explained that sometimes the content of the course might make that easy—for example, a sociology course, in which groups of people interacting with one another is a likely topic of study.  But sometimes it has to be done by pairing students of different backgrounds as lab partners or by making groups of students of different backgrounds work together on projects.  Dr. Tatum noted that high school students who go to de facto segregated high schools don’t have opportunities for these kinds of interactions, so they don’t come with those interpersonal and social skills.

Of course, high schools that do have diverse student bodies should pay attention to Dr. Tatum’s ideas.  And, parents, if you have a high schooler at home, you might start talking now about the importance of learning to work with diverse students of all races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and genders—before it is time for him or her to go off to college.  The sooner someone learns those skills of getting along and working together, the better—because those are the skills all students will need after graduation when they enter the work force.

How do we get K–12 teachers and college professors to pay attention to this issue?  According to Dr. Tatum, many teachers and professors do not have much experience with getting diverse students to work together, so they will need workshops and training over a period of time—meaning at least as long as a semester, if not a full year.  It will require helping teachers and professors talk about race and socioeconomic class, including reflecting on our history.  That is a tall, but important, order for the high schools and colleges your kids are attending, parents.

5.  Grading Standards

Let me end this episode by returning to grading standards for a moment.  Dr. Tatum told a story that was quite similar to a story that a friend of mine told me recently about the college where she teaches.  Dr. Tatum’s story went something like this.  When she was a professor, she gave a student a grade of C on a paper, but she also gave the student the opportunity to revise it and improve the grade.  The student was not happy with the grade or the opportunity and told Dr. Tatum that she had a string of A’s in other courses.  Dr. Tatum spoke to one of the student’s other professors, who said that the student worked very hard and thus had been given an A in that professor’s course.  Dr. Tatum explained that the student wanted to go on to graduate school and that giving her A’s for C work would not be helpful to her in the long run.

While that story is certainly a message to college professors and high school teachers alike about the downside of grading based on effort rather than based on the quality of the work, it is also a message to students and parents.  The message to students is this:  It can’t always be about getting a perfect grade the first time around; sometimes it’s about learning to improve your writing (which, by the way, can almost always be improved) and learning what tough, but fair, teachers and professors can teach you.  Parents, that’s the message that you should be giving to your kids.

Learn more about these organizations and people mentioned in this episode…

Learn more in previous episodes…

  • Episode 19: Senior-Year Courses
  • Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EDWorks, a Subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks
  • Episode 24: Having the Money Talk
  • Episode 61: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part One
  • Episode 62: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part Two
  • Episode 67: A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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

Connect with us through…

Episode 67: A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships!

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

Our show notes are usually a close rendition of what Marie and I talk about in our episodes. These show notes are different. They are a heartfelt request for you to listen to this episode from start to finish. You won’t hear another one like it.

A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships on USACollegeChat podcastToday, we are pleased to have Harold Levy, straight-talking executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, as our special guest. The Foundation recently co-authored, with The Century Foundation, a thought-provoking report entitled True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities.

Marie and I talked about the report some weeks ago in Episode 59, and some of the statistics that the report presented and that we discussed in that episode are, frankly, hard to forget. Here are a few:

  • At the most competitive colleges, only 3 percent of students come from families with incomes in the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution, but 72 percent of students come from families with incomes in the top 25 percent of the income distribution.
  • Only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to a selective school, but 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students do so.
  • High-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as high-achieving students from the poorest families (24 percent compared to 8 percent).
  • 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from the same 12 selective colleges and universities.

In today’s episode, Harold weighs in on what these statistics and others like them mean for our nation as low-income, smart kids fail to apply and enroll in to the kinds of selective colleges they are intellectually equipped to attend.

Harold also gives us an insider’s look at what was one of the scariest parts of the report for me—the section on the college admissions process. The report’s authors were brutally frank about that, and Harold is as well as he takes us inside the admissions game. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.

Please join us to hear about all this and more:

  • The inadequacy of current college counseling in high schools and what the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and others are doing about it
  • The generous scholarships offered by the Foundation to high-achieving, low-income students: to eighth graders, for study and enrichment during high school; to high school graduates, for their undergraduate college years; and to community college transfers, for their final years at four-year colleges
  • A critical review of a new report just out from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions (Marie and I recently tackled this report in Episodes 61 and 62.)
  • Thoughts about what is happening to average-achieving, low-income high school students in the college race

You won’t hear a foundation president or a big city school chancellor talk to you like this again any time soon. Really. You should listen.

Learn more about these organizations mentioned in this episode…

  • Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need
    • The Young Scholars Program for students entering eighth grade in the fall is currently accepting applications through April 14, 2016.
  • Big Future, a college planning site brought to you by The College Board
  • College Advising Corps, placing well-trained, recent college graduates as full-time college advisors in high schools
  • College Greenlight, connecting first generation and underrepresented students to caring colleges, generous scholarships, and life-changing counselors and mentors
  • CollegePoint, one-on-one college advising support for low- and moderate-income families
  • College Results Online, an interactive, user-friendly web tool providing information about college graduation rates
  • Pell Abacus, a short cut to financial aid for students receiving free or reduced lunch
  • ScholarCHIPS, for children of incarcerated parents

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

Connect with us through…

Episode 59: What’s Happening to Low-Income Smart Kids?

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

What's Happening to Low-Income Smart Kids? on NYCollegeChat podcast

For a few weeks now, we have been talking about news stories about higher education—some that might immediately influence your teenager’s decision about where to apply or later about where to attend and others that might take longer to impact your family.

In this episode, we are going to take a look at a new report just out this month that could impact thousands and thousands of families every year. It has a message that needs to be heard.

I want to thank Sarah D. Sparks, who wrote about this new report at Inside School Research, one of the blogs sponsored by Education Week. Her article—entitled “Three Myths Keeping Bright Kids in Poverty from Going to Top Colleges” (January 11, 2016)—was so good that I immediately went to look for the full report. You would, too, after reading her lead:

If you are at the top of your class in a high-poverty school, you have a significantly better chance of dying in a car crash than attending an Ivy League school. (quoted from the article)

Hard to believe. She later quotes Harold Levy, former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools and currently executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which co-authored the report with The Century Foundation. Levy said:

‘College admissions for kids in poverty is profoundly unfair. . . . I thought if you were really poor and really smart you wrote your own ticket, and that turns out to be just wrong.’ (quoted from the article)

1. The Report

The 50-page report is entitled True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities. Although I can’t read the whole thing to you in this episode, I would like to present some hard-to-swallow statistics and some conclusions offered—all of which should make you interested enough to take a look at the whole report:

  • At the most competitive colleges, only 3 percent of students come from families with incomes in the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution, but 72 percent of students come from families with incomes in the top 25 percent. At highly competitive and very competitive colleges (the next two categories), only 7 percent of students in each group of colleges come from families in the bottom 25 percent. The report comments that there are “thousands of students from economically disadvantaged households who, despite attending less-resourced schools and growing up with less intellectual stimulation and advantages, do extremely well in school, love learning, are extraordinarily bright and capable, and would do very well at selective institutions if offered admissions. They are just being ignored.”
  • The report goes on to explain that the “underrepresentation of high-achieving, low-income students at the nation’s selective institutions stems from two factors: low-income students are less likely to apply to selective schools, and low-income students who do apply receive inadequate consideration in the admissions and financial aid process.” That is quite an indictment of the system.
  • Looking further into that explanation, the report notes that its authors’ “research shows that only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to a selective school, compared with 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students. . . . Termed ‘under-matching’ by researchers, many high-achieving, low-income students choose not to apply to schools whose student bodies have high levels of academic ability on par with their own, and instead apply to schools where the average student’s academic capacity is lower than their own.”
  • The report’s authors found that “high-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as those from the poorest families (24 versus 8 percent). Other researchers have demonstrated that this trend holds true even among the most talented low-income students who score in the top ten percent nationwide on the SAT or ACT.”
  • So, how important is it, in the long run, to attend a highly selective college? The report speaks quite clearly to this question:       “. . .       our analysis is unequivocal: high-achieving students who attend more selective schools graduate at higher rates, earn higher incomes, and are more likely to pursue a graduate degree. . . . This remains true even after controlling for [students’] academic ability. In other words, where you go to school matters.”
  • And here is one big example of why that statement is so true. In the report’s own words, “Top employers typically recruit from selective colleges and universities. And, selective institutions cultivate our nation’s leadership: 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from only 12 selective colleges and universities. If we want a nation where at least some of our leaders know first-hand what it is like to grow up poor, then the doors of selective institutions must be open to students from all communities. Low-income students depend on higher education as a route to social mobility, but college will never be the great equalizer if the brightest of the poor cannot even get in the door.”
  • Turning to the topic of financial aid, the report says this: “Our analysis of applications submitted through the Common Application organization (“Common App”) finds that 84 percent of high-achieving students with family incomes below $20,000 fail to obtain the Common App fee waiver for their college applications, despite clearly being eligible for one. This finding suggests that it is often a lack of knowledge about how college financial aid works that stands in the way of students applying, not students’ actual desires or financial circumstances.”
  • But here is the good news that the report offers its readers: “Research is clear that changing high-achieving, low-income students’ understanding of how college financial aid works can dramatically increase the number of applications they submit to selective schools. By sending students an inexpensive mailing costing $6, researchers were able to increase the percent of high-achieving, low-income students who applied and were admitted to a match institution by 31 percent. Other studies have found that simply sending semi-customized text messages to students’ cell phones can increase their completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a necessary precursor to obtaining a federal Pell grant. This is a critical first step as our research suggests that only 71 percent of high-achieving, low-income students complete the FAFSA.”
  • And here is something that the report said and that we have said many times at NYCollegeChat: “While the cost of higher education has been rising for decades, the stated tuition and fees at elite colleges (especially private institutions) have skyrocketed, even after adjusting for inflation. Low-income families, seeing these ‘sticker prices,’ often fail to understand that with financial aid, attending a selective school might actually cost them less than their local public university.”

One of the scariest parts of the report for me was the section on the college admissions process—not the applications process, which is scary enough, but rather the admissions process, which is how colleges choose which students to admit from those who have applied. This section of the report does a good job of shining a spotlight on what happens behind the scenes as college admissions officers are pulled in this direction and that direction by various interest groups at the college and are faced with tens of thousands of applications to review and rank. The authors seem brutally frank in this section of the report. I have no reason to believe that it is not a true picture of what goes on, though I have no independent confirmation of it. Here is one of the conclusions that the authors draw:

The underrepresentation of high-achieving, low-income students is in large part the result of admissions practices utilized by selective colleges and universities that—presumably inadvertently—advantage privileged, wealthy students. Specifically, college and university admissions preferences provide advantages to athletes, children of alumni, and mediocre but full-paying students. Institutions compound the problem by giving advantages to students who visit the campus (which few low-income applicants can afford), apply early (which low-income students who must weigh aid packages in making college selection decisions cannot do), take the SAT or ACT multiple times and submit only their best scores (which is unavailable to low-income students who will be afforded a single fee waiver), and who do so after having been thoroughly coached (which few low-income students can afford). Additionally, low-income students tend not to have been exposed to college-level work or take AP/IB courses, which because of “weighting” by the high schools artificially inflates their GPA. Finally, the increasing reliance [on] standardized test scores in compiling an Academic Index to screen applications—so as not to overwhelm admissions officers with otherwise having to read thousands of applications—may unfairly eliminate disproportionate numbers of low-income students on the basis of small score differences, which we know are not predictive of college performance or indicative of any differences in ability. (quoted from the article)

2. What Can Be Done

Well, let’s start by saying that we probably cannot change the way that college admissions officers at highly selective colleges review applications against criteria set by those colleges. But here are some things that low-income parents of high-achieving kids can and should do:

  • Seriously consider whether your teenager should apply to a college under an Early Decision plan. If not, have your teenager apply under one or more Early Action plans, whenever possible. Either of these routes might well increase your teenager’s chance of acceptance.
  • Arrange for your teenager to take the SAT and/or ACT more than once, even if you have to pay for it. This act gives your teenager a chance to improve his or her scores, and we know that these scores are still important in most selective colleges.
  • Even better, figure out a way to get your teenager into a prep course for these college admission exams. Perhaps your school district or a nearby community center is offering one. The commercially available courses are expensive, to be sure—though even that might be worth it if your teenager’s scores need some major improvement.
  • If Advanced Placement (AP) courses are available at your high school, encourage your teenager to take one or more, if your teenager is academically ready to do so. Great alternatives to AP courses are dual-enrollment courses or Early College courses (if your high school is part of an Early College program); in both of these, students take actual college courses and earn actual college credits during high school, with the college credits typically free to the student. All of these options improve your teenager’s high school record, from the colleges’ point of view, by showing colleges that your teenager can handle college-level academic work.
  • Make sure your teenager applies for college application fee waivers, if your family is eligible. This means that your teenager can apply to a greater number and wider range of colleges since there is no cost to you.
  • Investigate highly selective colleges if your teenager has the grades and test scores to apply. Then, have your teenager apply! If you can’t get any help from the high school counselor in seeking out highly selective colleges, get help from somewhere else—a community leader, a teacher, or previous episodes of NYCollegeChat. We already know that high school counselors are overworked and underprepared to deal with many college issues.
  • Fill out the FAFSA as soon as it is available. Don’t miss the chance to apply for financial aid.
  • Once your teenager receives acceptances, encourage your teenager to go to the most selective college that accepted him or her. Hopefully, the financial aid offer from that college will make that possible.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • More resources and forms of financial assistance available at colleges
  • More ways to improve the rigor of the senior year
  • More information on Early Decision and Early Action plans

Check out these websites we mention…

Learn more about these topics in previous episodes…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

Connect with us through…

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