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

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

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?

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below 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 99: College Application Essays–One More Time (Part II)

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

As I said last week, I am still mired in the swamp of college application essays, which I am reviewing and editing for 50-plus kids. As you might recall, my comments last week and this week are based on the essays of kids who attend top-ranked public high schools. Let me just say that all of the kids are smart and that all of them take honors and Advanced Placement courses.

Last week, we talked about the content of their application essays, and this week we are going to talk about the mechanics of those essays–that is, the grammar, the punctuation, the word choice, etc. Having great content is not enough–not for selective colleges anyway. Those essays should also be well written, following standard grammatical, punctuation, and other mechanics rules.

As I said to a class of students at an elite high school a week ago, “You write like third graders.” What I meant was that they were making mechanics mistakes that they should have learned to correct in third grade. Well, I might have exaggerated a bit for effect. But, seriously, they were making some mechanics mistakes that they should have learned to correct before they went to middle school.

1. The Mistakes

After reading the essays from two classes of seniors at a well-known, highly respected New York City high school (the kind you have to take a special admissions test to get into), I made these points (among others) to the classes. You should make them now with your own teenager:

  • Pay attention to your grammar–Tell your teenager to watch out for basic grammar errors, including split infinitives, the correct placement of “only” in a sentence, the difference between “everyday” as an adjective and “every day” as an adverb, no use of the subjunctive, poorly placed participial phrases, and incorrect or inconsistent verb tenses (like inexplicable shifts from present to past tense or vice versa and the total misuse of the past perfect tense).
  • Check your punctuation–Tell your teenager to watch out for basic punctuation mistakes, and by “basic” I mean the punctuation mistakes that kids should have stopped making years earlier. Kids must remember to put a comma before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence, to put periods and commas inside quotation marks always, to use semicolons and dashes correctly, and to hyphenate compound adjectives before nouns. Of course, there are more. As I said to the seniors I was talking to last week, “Punctuation rules are not nearly as hard to learn as the physics and calculus most of you are taking right now. Just learn them.”
  • Be careful about your word choice–Tell your teenager not to use a sophisticated or “big” word that he or she would never use naturally in everyday “formal” speech (as when talking in class or to a teacher). I have found that kids typically use big words just slightly incorrectly and in a way that no educated adult would ever do. The result is that the essay just doesn’t read well; the reader is interrupted by an odd choice of a word that stops the reader in his or her tracks.
  • Avoid wordiness–Tell your teenager not to wander around in his or her sentences. I have often read a sentence of 20 words when 10 words would have said it better. Evidently, someone along the way taught the seniors in the two classes I have been visiting that short sentences are a no-no. That is ridiculous. Sometimes a short sentence makes the point best. It is arresting and causes the reader to stop short with a bit of surprise. A short sentence can be especially effective when it is found among longer sentences. That is great writing.

2. The Big Problem

So, here is the big problem: You can’t really fix a kid’s writing in the middle of trying to get his or her college application essays created, reviewed, and submitted on time. The situation is too pressured, and there is too little time. Those of you who have seniors at home are going to need to do the best you can in a hurry. But, those of you who have a freshman or sophomore or junior at home can do a bit better. You can start working to improve your teenager’s writing in a serious way right now so that next fall’s application season will be a lot easier for both of you.

Of all the essays I have read and edited in the past two weeks, I found one essay that was surprisingly well written, especially from a mechanics point of view. I called the young man aside and said, “How did you learn to write like this when none of your classmates seems able to do it?” His answer was immediate and seemed exactly right to me.

He said that he had worked regularly with a writing tutor since he had been in ninth grade. She went over his written work and showed him how to improve it. She worked shoulder to shoulder with him in many, many sessions. I got the feeling that she was relentless and demanding. He said that he did not enjoy writing. But he sure could do it.

In my experience, both with students and with my own three children, this is what it takes to improve someone’s writing. It is not lessons taught from the front of a classroom. It is painstaking discussion and editing of the student’s own work, with the student watching and learning and absorbing and understanding the reason for every change that is being made. It sounds slow and laborious, and it is. But it works, and I am not sure that anything else does.

Here is the rest of the problem. Today’s high school English teachers cannot do that for their students. Imagine trying to correct the written work of 150 students on a line by line basis–or even of 100 students or even of 50 students–day after day and week after week while talking through those corrections with each student one by one. And that’s not all English teachers have to do.

So, parents, I believe this is on you. If you can help your own teenager learn to write well, then do so, by all means. If you cannot, for whatever reason, then consider getting the kind of over-the-shoulder tutoring help that is much more likely to ensure your teenager’s success than hoping for the best from school. Ideally, of course, you would have started this a lot earlier–back in elementary school or perhaps middle school. But better late than never.

3. Help from Johns Hopkins University

You all probably know of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. We spoke about it in Episode 47 of our virtual nationwide college tour. It’s an excellent, highly selective university–really as good as any university we have in the U.S. Of particular interest to all of you in the throes of application essay writing, however, is two helpful pieces on the JHU website. First, you can find nine great tips in a section called Tackling the College Essay. You will not be sorry you checked it out.

Second, you can find Essays That Worked, a section that is exactly what it sounds like. There are essays, nominated by JHU admissions officers, from the past four classes of admitted JHU students. The website explains the winning essays this way:

These entries are distinct and unique to the individual writer; however, each of them assisted the admissions reader in learning more about the student beyond the transcripts and lists of activities provided in their applications. We hope these essays inspire you as you prepare to compose your own personal statements. The most important thing to remember is to be original and creative as you share your own story, thoughts, and ideas with us. (quoted from the website)

While JHU is not the only college that puts winning essays on its website, we will say that it does an especially good job of it. So, hats off to you, JHU.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • 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 52: So, How Many Colleges Did You Say?

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

Episode 52: So, How Many Colleges Did You Say? on NYCollegeChat podcast: How many colleges should your high school student apply to on NYCollegeChat podcastToday’s episode is an official stop on our blog tour to get the word out about our new book—How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. We appreciate the hosts of the other blogs we have visited on our tour—both through written guest posts we have done and recorded interviews where we have had the chance to chat with great hosts. We have enjoyed all of it. Here are the links to our virtual tour so far:

November 2: ParentChat with Regina

November 4: The College Money Maze

November 5: Parents’ Guide to the College Puzzle

November 6: Mission: Authors Talk About It

November 11: Together with Family

November 12: NYCollegeChat

November 13: The Staten Island Family

November 16: Road2College

November 18: Viva Fifty

November 19: Paying For College 101 Facebook group

November 20: Underground Crafter

November 24: High School Survival Guide

How To Find the Right College is now available for sale as a Kindle ebook or as a paperback workbook on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

The great thing about the tour was that the hosts of the blogs we visited told us what they wanted us to talk about, so all we had to do was talk. On this stop, we had to decide what to talk about. As we thought through what is likely to be going through the minds of our listeners who have high school seniors right now, we decided to talk about a question that will keep coming up over the next two months: How many colleges should my child be applying to?

You would think that this question would have gotten asked and answered at the beginning of the college search, but we believe that it gets asked and answered over and over again as the time to finish up college applications gets closer and closer.

In the interest of full disclosure, it happened to me. When my daughter was applying to colleges five years ago, we developed our list carefully—partly because she was looking for a dance major and that limited our choices significantly. We got almost to the end of the application season before we realized that she didn’t really have a safety school on the list—that is, a school that we were confident she would be admitted to. At the last minute, I remember saying something like, “Oh, no. We had better get a safety school on this list. Let’s choose a great campus of The City University of New York.” And we did, and that put our minds at ease—even though she didn’t end up needing that acceptance after all.

So, let’s talk about safety schools and about how many schools should be on your list. For more information on both of these topics, check out our book as well as our recent episodes of NYCollegeChat, which have taken our listeners on a virtual tour of public and private colleges in every region of the U.S.

As we said a few weeks ago when we did an episode about putting the final touches on that all-important college application essay, we had an opportunity recently to talk with about 100 high school seniors from one of New York City’s best public high schools—the kind of high school where students have to take an admissions test to get in. In addition to looking at their college essay topics (go back and listen to Episode 49 for that discussion), we asked them to make a list of colleges that they intended to apply to and a list of colleges that they would like to apply to, but weren’t for whatever reason (e.g., it was too expensive, it was too far from home, it was too hard to get into). After looking over their lists, here is what we noticed:

  1. Too many students do not spell the names of colleges correctly. Okay, I know this seems like a low hurdle, but you would be surprised at the mistakes we saw. For example, one of the premier campuses of the public State University of New York is Stony Brook University, which we talked about in Episode 50.  That’s S-T-O-N-Y, not S-T-O-N-E-Y. Another of the premier campuses of the public State University of New York is Binghamton University. That’s B-I-N-G-H-A-M-T-O-N, not B-I-N-G-H-A-M-P-T-O-N. And here’s one that adults sometimes get wrong, and it’s not really a spelling mistake: It’s Johns Hopkins University, not John Hopkins University—named for its benefactor, 19th-century philanthropist Johns Hopkins, an entrepreneur and abolitionist.
  2. For most students, there appeared to be little difference between the two lists of colleges—they were equally hard to get into, equally near and far away, equally expensive, and so on. In other words, I couldn’t figure out why the students weren’t applying to colleges on both lists. This observation led me to believe that they had not done a very good job of sorting through college options and applying their own criteria (that is, their own deal breakers, as we call them in our book) to the full set of college options in order to create their own list.
  3. As good students in a highly respected New York City high school, these kids had two great options for safety schools—the campuses of the public State University of New York (SUNY) and the campuses of the public City University of New York (CUNY). And yet, there were a lot of second-tier and third-tier private colleges on their lists—colleges that I imagine were meant to be safety schools for these kids students from a well-known high school. These second-tier and third-tier private colleges were not as good or as respected as many of the public SUNY and CUNY campuses. So, why were they on the lists? As we have said repeatedly in our NYCollegeChat episodes, there is no prestige in going to a private college—just because it is private—when it is worse than a good public university.
  4. Very few students had any public flagship universities outside of New York State on their lists. As we have said repeatedly in our NYCollegeChat episodes, we believe that public flagship universities are the hidden jewels of the higher education system. Here’s what we said in our book:

For many students, the public flagship state university is the place to be. Just remember, the best and the brightest high school students who live in the state really want to go to their flagship state university. Why? Because these universities are relatively inexpensive, academically respectable, well regarded across the state and across the country, often very competitive in sports arenas, chocked full of student clubs and activities, within driving distance of home, and a social hub for lots of their high school classmates. What could be better?

Some of my favorite colleges to talk to kids about are these great flagship universities, which many families, especially here in New York, never even consider. Many of the best flagship universities are as hard to get into as any top-tier private college—for example, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, UC Berkeley, and more. But some are less selective than those, making them super-appealing choices from many perspectives, including cost, caliber of the students, caliber of the faculty, and campus life. High on my list of great universities you didn’t consider: the University of Colorado Boulder. High on my list of intriguing universities you never dreamt of: the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. High on my list of interesting choices that a good, if not quite great, student from the Northeast can likely be admitted to: the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford and Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. For a good out-of-state student from a different part of the country, Ole Miss and LSU could serve as interesting safety schools.

So, looking at your child’s college list one more time, how many colleges is enough? Here is what we said in our book:

Of course, there is no right answer to that question. Through some common sense thinking and discussion, we could probably agree that applying to just two or three colleges sounds like too few and that applying to, say, 15 colleges sounds like too many. The right answer for your teenager probably lies somewhere in between, depending on how much variety there is in the kinds of colleges you are considering and depending on how many deal breakers you and your teenager have [when it comes to the types of colleges to put on the list].

For example, you can see right away that deciding to keep a student close to home for college—maybe even within commuting distance—would limit the number of options available to that student (unless, of course, home is a major metropolitan area, like New York City). Such a student might feel that five or six applications would be a reasonable sample of the variety of opportunities available close to home. On the other hand, deciding to send a student away to college would open up an almost limitless number of options. Such a student might feel that even a dozen applications would not be an adequate sample of all the opportunities out there.

As you and your teenager add more deal breakers—that is, more restrictions on the colleges you want to consider—you probably will feel better that fewer applications can cover the remaining college options. For example, let’s say you and your teenager have decided to limit your applications to small, private, four-year colleges in upstate New York that have French majors. With all of those restrictions, four or five applications might feel like plenty (though you might need a safety school, in that case, and perhaps a public one).

One more point: Your teenager should apply only to colleges that he or she actually knows something about and wants to attend. That might sound obvious to you, but it is not nearly so obvious to high school students as you might think. We find that students sometimes cannot explain why they are considering a certain college and sometimes cannot even find it on a map—even on a map of their home state. We have often used this minimum standard: If a student cannot find a college on a map, then he or she probably shouldn’t apply to it. Such students need more help in applying their deal breakers to a list of possible colleges, in finding out about a good many of them, and then in narrowing down the possibilities to a reasonable number—probably about eight to 12.

So, we notice that a couple of sources, like The College Board, are suggesting that the right number is probably from five or six to eight colleges. I think five or six is low, and here’s why. I want every kid to have some options—after any acceptances come in—for two reasons. First, a kid who has some choices likely feels better about his or her decision about which college to attend; a student who has only one acceptance—unless it was based on an Early Decision application and it is the kid’s dream choice—might feel a bit less excited about attending that college. Second, a kid who has some choice likely feels better about himself or herself when chatting with classmates in school and outside of school as all the kids compare their college acceptances. Now, I admit that maybe this is the mother in me speaking and that this is what I wanted for my own children. But I would like kids to feel satisfied with—even proud of—their college choice so that they will do the very best they can when they get there.

So, College Board or not, I am sticking with eight to 12 applications. By the way, as you are looking over the application requirements for each college on your list, we think you are going to find that some applications require little to no more effort than the work you have already done to complete others, especially if those colleges accept the Common Application and have no required additional essays. Other than perhaps paying an additional application fee, you really lose nothing by going ahead and applying.

Even though it is the second week of November, if you have a senior at home, we believe that you still would find our book to be helpful in these next two crucial months. And if you have a younger teenager at home, you will definitely find our book to be helpful as you and your child discuss your deal breakers and make that perhaps life-changing college list.

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why you should check out the percentage of applicants a college accepts when choosing a safety school
  • Why your child should apply to more than one SUNY or CUNY campus at a time
  • Why eight is not enough

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.

Episode 47: Colleges in the Mid-Atlantic Region—Part III

NYCollegeChat Episode 47: Colleges in the Mid-Atlantic Region—Part III: A virtual tour of private collegesListen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

In our episodes for the past two weeks, we have focused our virtual tour of colleges on the public higher education institutions in the Mid-Atlantic region: Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. As we explained then, we are going to put off a discussion of New York (also part of the Mid-Atlantic region) for another week because it is the home state of many of our listeners and we know that they will be especially interested in it (though, as we have said repeatedly, we wish you all would look outside your home state).

This week and next week, we will take a look at some of the many private colleges and universities in the rest of the Mid-Atlantic region. We are going to talk about a group of nationally known higher education institutions, which draw students internationally; a selection of institutions with one or another kind of special focus; and a host of smaller liberal arts colleges.

There are enough well-known colleges and universities in the Mid-Atlantic region to fill two episodes and then some—or perhaps I just think there are so many because I grew up in one of these states and have lived in another one of them for the past 40 years. So, I have been around these colleges and universities literally my whole life. Nonetheless, I learned some new things about them when I wrote this episode. As we often say, information about colleges changes all the time. We know that it is hard to keep up, even when it is your job to do so.

And, as we say every time, no college has asked us or paid us anything to include it. These are our own choices.

1. Nationally Known Higher Education Institutions

Let’s start by saying that two of the eight Ivy League schools are located in the part of the Mid-Atlantic region we are looking at this week: the University of Pennsylvania (commonly referred to as Penn) in Philadelphia and Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.

According to my father, Penn’s most loyal alumnus ever, Penn is the greatest university in the world. Certainly, its history is remarkable:

[I]n 1749, Benjamin Franklin—printer, inventor and future founding father of the United States—published his famous essay, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth, circulated it among Philadelphia’s leading citizens, and organized 24 trustees to form an institution of higher education based on his proposals. The group purchased [a building, and] in 1751, opened its doors to children of the gentry and working class alike as the Academy and Charitable School in the Province of Pennsylvania. Franklin served as president of the institution until 1755 and continued to serve as a trustee until his death in 1790.

Franklin’s educational aims, to train young people for leadership in business, government and public service, were innovative for the time. In the 1750s, the other Colonial American colleges educated young men for the Christian ministry, but Franklin’s proposed program of study was much more like the modern liberal arts curriculum. His fellow trustees were unwilling to implement most of his then-radical ideas though, and Penn’s first provost, William Smith, turned the curriculum back to traditional channels soon after taking the helm from Franklin.

In the years that followed, Penn went on to obtain a collegiate charter (1755), graduate its first class (1757), establish the first medical school in the American colonies (1765) and become the first American institution of higher education to be named a university (1779). (quoted and excerpted from the website)

Today, more than two centuries later, Penn enrolls almost 11,000 undergraduates and just as many graduate and professional students, for a total of almost 22,000 students on its Center City campus in Philadelphia.

Princeton, which was chartered as the College of New Jersey in 1746, is just a bit older than Penn, though its Graduate School is quite a bit younger (it was established in 1900). It is also quite a bit smaller than Penn, serving a total of about 8,000 students, with just over 5,000 being undergraduates. It has a lovely campus in small-town Princeton—also quite different from downtown Philadelphia.

Both universities have famous schools: Penn has its undergraduate and graduate Wharton School, highly respected among business schools, its Annenberg School for Communication, and well-known professional schools, including medicine, law, dental medicine, veterinary medicine, and nursing; Princeton has its graduate Woodrow Wilson School for students pursuing public and international affairs.

As we said a few weeks ago, Ivy League schools are well known for their high academic standards, excellent undergraduate and graduate majors, longtime traditions, famous professors, ivy-covered campuses, and the extreme selectivity of their admissions process (the average SAT subtest scores of Penn freshmen are in the mid-700s). They have sky-high tuition, though they also have quite a bit of financial aid available for students whose family resources are very limited. However, your child would first have to have extraordinary high school grades and college admission test scores to be accepted. If your child is that bright, then my father would say to consider Penn.

As I said a few weeks ago, one thing that the Ivies do not do as well as many large public universities is varsity sports. You might recall that my father was the Sports Information Director at Penn when he helped to establish the Ivy League athletic conference in the 1950s. I have been attending Ivy League sports contests since I was in elementary school (did you know that Penn had the first college double-decker football stadium?). I later covered sports for my own Ivy League school’s newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun. So, I know what I am talking about. I am not saying that we don’t have, on occasion, some good teams and truly talented individual athletes—in soccer and ice hockey and even, occasionally, football. Nonetheless, as we have said previously, most students don’t come to an Ivy League school for sports.

An equally prestigious and equally selective institution is Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Maryland. Founded more than a century later than Penn and Princeton in 1876, JHU got its start as a research university from the first day:

The university takes its name from . . . philanthropist Johns Hopkins, an entrepreneur and abolitionist with Quaker roots who believed in improving public health and education in Baltimore and beyond. . . .

In his will, he set aside $7 million to establish a hospital and affiliated training colleges, an orphanage, and a university. At the time, it was the largest philanthropic bequest in U.S. history.

Johns Hopkins University opened in 1876 with the inauguration of . . . president Daniel Coit Gilman. He guided the opening of the university and other institutions, including the university press, the hospital, and the schools of nursing and medicine. . . .

In [his inaugural address], he defined the model of the American research university, now emulated around the globe. The mission he described then remains the university’s mission today:

To educate its students and cultivate their capacity for lifelong learning, to foster independent and original research, and to bring the benefits of discovery to the world. (quoted and excerpted from the website)

JHU now serves a total of about 21,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, making it about the size of Penn. It has nine schools (including the Peabody Institute for music) and, according to the website, “more than 240 programs in the arts and music, the humanities, the social and natural sciences, engineering, international studies, education, business, and the health professions”—though it might be best known nationally for its outstanding School of Medicine. And its men’s lacrosse team has won 44 national championships (I told you two weeks ago that these Mid-Atlantic colleges are proud of their lacrosse programs).

But, like the Ivies, JHU will be quite expensive, and your child will need the same extraordinary high school grades and college admission test scores to get in. Here is one tiny bit of help: You can read Essays That Worked and get tips on writing good college essays in the undergraduate admissions section of the JHU website.

Now let’s look briefly at two nationally known universities, indeed “national” universities, chartered by an Act of Congress, in the nation’s capital—both well respected, but slightly less selective. (Incidentally, that does not mean that they are easy to get into; they are not. Your child will still need very good high school grades. But, except for about 25 colleges, almost every other college in the U.S. is less selective than Penn, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins.) The two “national” universities we are going to discuss now are George Washington University (commonly referred to as GW) and American University (AU).

GW was established in 1821, “fulfilling George Washington’s vision of an institution in the nation’s capital dedicated to educating and preparing future leaders” (quoted from the website). Today, GW serves about 9,500 undergraduates in 70 degree programs in the arts and humanities, sciences and mathematics, social sciences, business, engineering, nursing, public health, international affairs, and communications on its two D.C. campuses. About 25 percent of GW undergraduates are “multicultural,” and about 25 percent speak more than one language fluently. GW also serves another approximately 14,000 graduate and professional students at locations in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland.

About 90 percent of GW undergraduates participate in an internship or career-related opportunity, and many have more than one. In addition to its own study abroad programs at GW Latin America, GW England, GW Madrid, and GW Paris, GW students can also attend another 240 affiliated programs worldwide. Rounding out college life, GW also offers more than 450 student organizations and 23 varsity sports teams.

With some exceptions (such as students applying to accelerated degree programs and homeschooled students), GW is a “test-optional” college as of August, 2015. Students may submit college admission test scores if they wish to do so, but students who choose not to submit them “will not be viewed negatively” (quoted from the website). Like other first-rate universities, undergraduate tuition and fees are super-high at about $51,000 per year. However, GW’s Fixed-Tuition Program guarantees that tuition is fixed for a total of 10 semesters as long as a student remains enrolled full time.

Turning to American University, its campus in northwest D.C. serves just about half as many students as GW—that is, about 7,000 undergraduates and about 5,000 graduate and professional students, drawn nationally and internationally from about 140 countries, like GW. AU offers 69 bachelor’s degree programs in five colleges and schools: arts and sciences, business, public affairs, international service, and communications. Interestingly, about 75 percent of incoming freshmen said that “keeping up to date with political affairs” was important—which befits a university with a school of public affairs located in the nation’s capital.

Similar to GW, about 90 percent of AU’s undergraduates complete an internship. AU students also participate in over 200 student organizations and play on 14 varsity sports teams.

Like GW, AU was also chartered by Congress, but some years later—in 1893. It was founded by Methodist Bishop John Fletcher Hurst as an institution for training public servants. When the Methodist-affiliated university opened in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson spoke at the ceremony.

Students admitted to last fall’s (2014) freshman class posted an average SAT critical reading score of 645 and an average math score of 624. Their average high school GPA was about a 3.8. Tuition and fees at AU are a bit lower than GW’s—but certainly not low—at about $43,000 per year.

And just a word about Washington itself. It is a really appealing place for students to live and to study. It has museums and the arts and historical sites and sports and good public transportation and some of the most beautiful buildings and monuments in the U.S.

Another well-respected university in the Mid-Atlantic region is found in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (you will remember that we have already talked about the University of Pittsburgh as a great public university), and that is Carnegie Mellon University. Founded as Carnegie Technical Schools by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1900, Carnegie Mellon has gone through a number of stages and mergers to get to the research university it is today, boasting colleges/schools of engineering, fine arts, humanities and social sciences, business, science, and computer science—and, for graduate students, information systems and management and public policy and management.

Carnegie Mellon serves just over 6,000 undergraduates and about 7,000 graduate and professional students. It has a good student-to-faculty ratio of 10:1—especially good for a university as large as it is—and virtually all undergraduate classes are taught by faculty members (not by teaching assistants).

It is intriguing that a university with its innovative technical history and the world’s first university robotics department (in 1979) would also be the first U.S. university to award a degree in drama (way back in 1914) and would count 114 Emmy Award winners, 41 Tony Award winners, and 7 Academy Award winners among its alumni/alumnae and professors. Its alumni/alumnae are famous in a wide variety of fields—from genius mathematician John Nash, Jr., (whose life was chronicled in A Beautiful Mind) to pop artist Andy Warhol to television icons like Steven Bochco and Ted Danson to actress Holly Hunter.

Carnegie Mellon also offers more than 275 student organizations, fraternities and sororities, and 16 varsity sports teams, known as the Tartans (thanks to Andrew Carnegie’s Scottish roots).

Carnegie Mellon requires college admission tests, including the writing component and including SAT Subject Tests for many majors; these are more testing requirements than a lot of colleges have these days. Freshmen last fall posted SAT critical reading and writing average scores in the high 600s to low 700s and an average mathematics score in the mid-700s, perhaps as befits a university known for its technical programs (about 80 percent of students scored 700 or better in math). About 80 percent were in the top one-tenth of their high school graduating class, and the average high school GPA for these new freshmen was a 3.7. So, I would say that is pretty selective.

By the way, tuition and fees are going to run you almost $51,000 per year—putting Carnegie Mellon in a league with GW. Interestingly, Carnegie Mellon offers financial aid only to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Heading east from Pittsburgh across Pennsylvania, we come to three universities that are perhaps a bit better known on the East Coast than the West Coast: Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, and Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Let’s start with Bucknell, founded in 1846 and renamed 40 years later for benefactor William Bucknell. Today, the University is proud of its 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio and the fact that all of its classes for its 3,600 undergraduate students are taught by faculty, not graduate assistants. About 85 percent of its undergraduates graduate in four years, with a major in one of 50 degree programs (about 25 percent of students have a double major) in one of these schools/colleges: arts and sciences, management, and/or engineering (with eight types of engineering offered). Bucknell also has a small graduate program of about 60 students.

Bucknell offers 27 varsity sports teams and about 200 student-run organizations plus fraternities and sororities. About 85 percent of seniors do volunteer or community service work.

Incoming freshmen last year posted average SAT subtest scores in the mid-600s, with math just a shade higher than critical reading and writing. About 70 percent of students were in the top one-tenth of their high school graduating class, and their average high school GPA was a 3.6. Tuition and fees at Bucknell will set you back about $50,000 per year—another high price tag among private universities in the Mid-Atlantic region. Interestingly, Bucknell offers arts merit scholarships from $2,500 to $20,000 per year for students who are extremely talented in art, art history, creative writing, dance, film and media, literature, music, and theater. Personally, I think of Bucknell as a quintessential small-town college.

Moving farther east, we come to Lehigh University, founded in 1865 by Asa Packer, president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and now home to about 5,000 undergraduate and 2,000 graduate and professional students, who study in four colleges: arts and sciences, engineering and applied science, business and economics, and education. According to the website, Lehigh got its start at a railroad junction, which was in walking distance for managers of the railroad:

Packer and his associates designed the school to chiefly focus on mathematics and science education, but provide pupils with a sufficient knowledge of classics. He knew, as did many others, that a strong national economy depended on more than technical skills. It needed people broadly educated in the liberal arts and sciences — people who could combine practical skills with informed judgments and strong moral self-discipline. (quoted from the website)

Undergraduates (who are about 55 percent male and 45 percent female) can study in 90 majors or choose from 20 multidisciplinary programs. They enjoy a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio. About 97 percent “of recent graduates found career-related opportunities in six months” (quoted from the website).

Lehigh fields 25 varsity sports teams. The Lehigh–Lafayette football rivalry is legend, with the first game played in 1884 and then annually since 1897. Lafayette College is located not 20 miles away in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Incoming freshmen this year posted average SAT subtest scores in the mid-600s, in critical reading and in the low 700s in mathematics. Tuition and fees at Lehigh are about $46,000 per year.

Finally, let’s look at Drexel University, located in downtown Philadelphia—quite a different setting from Bucknell and Lehigh. Founded in 1891 by financier and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel, the University began as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry and granted its first bachelor’s degrees in 1914. It became Drexel Institute of Technology in 1936 and Drexel University in 1970. Today it serves about 26,000 total students in 15 colleges and schools—with about 17,000 undergraduates in the colleges/schools/centers of arts and sciences; biomedical engineering, science and health systems; business; computing and informatics; education; engineering; entrepreneurship; hospitality and sport management; media arts and design; nursing and health professions; and public health.

A hallmark of Drexel’s education is its cooperative education program:

Founded in 1919, Drexel’s cooperative education program was one of the first of its kind, and it continues to be among the largest and most renowned.

Drexel Co-op is based on paid employment in practical, major-related positions consistent with the interests and abilities of participating students. The benefits are obvious—during their time at Drexel, students experience up to three different co-ops. Because of this, Drexel students graduate having already built a professional network, and they typically receive higher starting salaries than their counterparts from other schools.

Through the co-op program:

Students choose from more than 1,600 employers in 33 states and 48 international locations, or conduct an independent search.

The average paid six-month co-op salary is more than $16,000.

Co-op students are entrusted with projects vital to the day-to-day functioning of the workplace. (quoted from the website)

Drexel operates on 10-week quarters (rather than two longer semesters), which helps when it comes time to schedule co-op programs. Drexel also offers its students traditional college activities, including more than 300 student organizations, fraternities and sororities, and 18 varsity sports teams.

Last fall, Drexel had over 47,000 applications for its freshman class of just under 3,000 students. Incoming freshmen posted an average high school GPA of about a 3.5. Average SAT subtest scores in critical reading and writing were in the high 500s and in the low 600s for mathematics. Tuition and fees run about $49,000 per year, though these differ by college/school and by the number of co-op placements. The bottom line is that Drexel is about as expensive as the other pricy private universities in the Mid-Atlantic region (except, of course, that students are earning a decent salary during the co-op placements).

2. Institutions with a Special Academic Focus

In an early episode of NYCollegeChat, we first introduced the idea that some institutions are devoted, more or less, to the study of certain disciplines. The Mid-Atlantic region has several institutions worth talking about in two categories: the arts and technology.

The Arts. Philadelphia has three higher education institutions that fall into this category:

  • The Curtis Institute of Music—Curtis offers diplomas, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and professional certificates to extraordinarily talented musicians, all of whom attend on full-tuition scholarships. Both music and liberal arts courses are part of the curriculum. Everything about Curtis sounds amazing. Founded in 1924, Curtis now enrolls 166 students. Only musical geniuses need apply.
  • Moore College of Art and Design—Founded in 1848 as the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, Moore enrolls just over 400 undergraduate women, who choose a Bachelor of Fine Arts major from one of 10 fields—from art education to art history to fine arts to fashion design to graphic design and more. It is the only visual arts women’s college in the U.S. (its website has an impressive list of reasons from the Women’s College Coalition about why to attend a women’s college). It also has a very small graduate program, which is coeducational. About 55 percent of students are from Pennsylvania, and another 25 percent are from neighboring states. Its tuition and fees run about $37,000 per year, and it also offers a paid internship program. College admission test scores are optional, though a portfolio of artwork is required.
  • The University of the Arts (UArts)—Founded in 1876 as the Philadelphia College of Art (originally part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and in 1870 as the Philadelphia Musical Academy, several mergers and renamings during the course of a century produced UArts in 1987. Now enrolling about 1,700 undergraduate and just over 100 graduate students, UArts offers 25 bachelor’s degree programs in design, fine arts, media arts, crafts, creative writing, music, dance, and theater (including a new B.F.A. in Game Art) through its College of Art, Media & Design, its College of Performing Arts, and its Division of Liberal Arts (liberal arts are part of each degree program). UArts has a 37 percent minority student enrollment. With an impressive 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio, UArts boasts professors who not only are academically credentialed in their fields, but also are practicing artists. Freshman applicants must present a portfolio of artwork or written work, or pass an audition, or have an interview. College admission test scores are also required, unless the student has passed a college-level English Composition course with a grade of C or better. Its tuition and fees run about $38,000 per year.

Technology. Just one state away in New Jersey, we find Stevens Institute of Technology, located in Hoboken on the Hudson River, on a lovely campus with what can be described only as one of the best views of New York City ever. Marie and I took a group of high school students to Stevens for a tour several years ago, and we both came away super impressed.

Known as The Innovation University®, Stevens was founded in 1870 and now comprises a College of Arts and Letters and schools of Engineering and Science, Business, and Systems and Enterprises. It serves almost 3,000 undergraduates in 32 undergraduate majors and another approximately 3,500 graduate students, with a very good 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Perhaps not surprisingly, about 70 percent of its undergraduate and graduate students are men. About 75 percent of undergraduates do research or complete an internship or cooperative education placement. This is how Stevens describes its “entrepreneurial spirit”:

Stevens is driven by core values that include a solid commitment to immersing students in the comprehensive process of innovation. This means students are continuously exposed to advancing their ideas through Research and Development (R&D) to the commercialization stage, the point at which their vision and knowledge have the greatest impact. One way Stevens achieves this is by integrating the startup experience into the curriculum. Two major programs, specifically, provide students with experiential instruction in real-world startup companies: an 18-month curriculum that brings both business and engineering students together to develop university technology into an engineered solution under the guidance of an experienced CEO, and the capstone experiences provided for students in all majors, many of which are sponsored by government and industry and go on to be actualized and patented.  (quoted from the website)

But Stevens students also major in art, music, literature and communications, philosophy, history, and the social sciences and “benefit from pursuing these disciplines charged by the latest advances in technology, science, and innovation and the fundamental idea that science and technology can be used as intellectual tools of inquiry” (quoted from the website).

There are plenty of other intriguing things to say about Stevens, including its engineering “Design Spine”—a set of eight courses “that are the major vehicle for developing a set of competencies to meet educational goals in areas such as creative thinking, problem solving, teamwork, economics of engineering, project management, communication skills, ethics, and environmental awareness” (quoted from the website). But, if your child is interested in technology or engineering, you should really visit the website—or, better yet, the Stevens campus—yourselves.

Though a technological university, Stevens has enough of the traditional student organizations (almost 100) and varsity sports (12 men’s and 12 women’s) that any college student would want. New freshmen at Stevens posted an average high school GPA of 3.8 and an average SAT critical reading and mathematics score of about 1300 (so mid-600s per subtest). About 60 percent were in the top one-tenth of their high school graduating class. Steven’s tuition and fees are about $47,000 per year, which seems to be in line with the other private universities we have been spotlighting.

Next week, we will be back to look at more private higher education institutions with a special focus as well as quite a group of small liberal arts colleges.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Appealing Washington, D.C.
  • Appealing cooperative education and internship programs
  • Appealing high school programs at Stevens Institute of Technology

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

Outside of New York State

Learn more about these topics in previous episodes…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • 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.