Episode 120: Lots of College Options in Our New Workbook

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Today, we have figured out a way to talk both about our new book–How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–and to make good on the title of our current series, Colleges in the Spotlight. As we were writing the book, we realized that we could use a lot of college examples, drawn from our earlier podcast episodes, to illuminate the points we were trying to make. I thought it would be interesting to see just how many colleges were mentioned in the book–and by “mentioned,” I mean that they were used to illustrate the answers to some of the 52 questions that teenagers are asked to find the answers to for each college on their Long List of College Options (LLCO). In a way, these colleges are in our spotlight for things that they are doing right or for characteristics they have that are noteworthy. To find out why we mentioned each college, you are going to have to get the book!

1. Colleges in the Spotlight

So, here we go. Here are the colleges that we thought were worth mentioning–for some reason or other (they are listed roughly in the order in which they are mentioned in the book, and I might have missed a few):

That’s more than 60 colleges, which is actually quite a few. Of course, you can always refer back to the virtual college tour we did in Episodes 27 through 53 for a discussion of even more colleges, organized by geographic region of the U.S.

But the new book doesn’t stop with those 60-plus. We also name some great college towns–“great,” according to one of the lists of great college towns that publications love to compile. Do you know what colleges are located in these towns?

  • College Station, TX
  • Charlottesville, VA
  • Saratoga Springs, NY
  • Asheville, NC
  • Flagstaff, AZ
  • Boulder, CO
  • Santa Cruz, CA
  • St. Augustine, FL
  • Burlington, VT
  • Annapolis, MD
  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Athens, GA
  • Oxford, MS
  • Iowa City, IA

2. Now, It’s Up to You

Now, it’s up to you. At least, that is what we say at the end of the book. We wrote this to each student, assuming that he or she had done the assignments as they were presented: 

You have done a lot of work to gather information about the colleges on your LLCO. You have completed a College Profile Worksheet on quite a few colleges by now. You have learned more than many high school students know about a variety of specific colleges and about higher education generally. 

So, it’s time to start comparing and contrasting the colleges you have researched. That will be a long process, which will require analysis and evaluation by you and your parents and perhaps other important family members. And it’s okay that it is a long process because this is a big decision for all of you. 

Remember that choosing which colleges to apply to can be every bit as important as choosing which college to attend. In an ideal world, you should be happy with every college you apply to because that will take the pressure off as you wait for acceptances to come in. 

Of course, you might be more excited about some choices than others, but don’t apply to any college that you would not want to attend. That is a waste of your time and money. We are confident that there is a college that you can be admitted to that will make you happy. Even safety schools don’t have to be disappointing choices. If they are for you now, you just haven’t looked hard enough yet! Get busy.

We mean that last point really sincerely: If your teenager’s safety schools are disappointing choices for him or her, you all just haven’t looked hard enough yet. There are great colleges–especially some public flagship universities and some large private universities–that are very likely to admit good students, especially those who come from other states. Having a safety school that your teenager does not want to go to is really not having any safety school at all.

We mean it when we say, “Look harder.” We hope that our new book will help your teenager look harder, think harder, and work harder to expand his or her LLCO, to get exciting colleges onto that LLCO, to learn as much as possible about each one of them (by completing a College Profile Worksheet for each one), and to feel satisfied when all of the applications are submitted–that is, satisfied that all of the colleges he or she applied to are good choices, just for different reasons. And a satisfied teenager is likely to produce a satisfied parent. Or at least it should.

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Episode 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 91: Think Harder About Community Service

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Hopefully, you have finished your 10 summer assignments designed to expand and then investigate seriously the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. So, let’s review what those 10 assignments were:

You will recall that our original challenge when the summer started was to do these assignments for 50 colleges–one from each state. But even if you did it for just half that many colleges, congratulations. And, as we said right before the Labor Day break, we hope you did it for at least 20.

Now the time has come to start narrowing down that list–finally! As the first deadlines approach for Early Decision and Early Action admissions–mostly around November 1?you and your teenager will want to skinny that list down to a manageable number of colleges, perhaps 15 or so. It seems likely to us, however, that if your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already skinnied your list down substantially. That doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t need a few colleges still on the list to apply to if the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices are unsuccessful.

So, we are going to help you with that narrowing process starting next week. This week, we want to make a few comments on a subject that we believe in strongly and that we have talked about in two of our summertime Facebook Live chats–and that is community service. Today’s episode, however, addresses community service through the lens of the college application essay, which we hope all of you are starting or maybe even already editing this month.

Watch our Facebook Live chats on community service at the end of this post.

1. Community Service: The Background

Let’s start with some background. Some months ago, back in Episodes 61 and 62, we took a look at a new report that grew out of a meeting hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common. The meeting brought together college admissions deans, high school folks, and others to discuss the state of college admissions. The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. We have referenced this report from time to time in subsequent episodes as well.

The list of “endorsers” of the report included every Ivy League institution plus an impressive list of about 50 more higher education institutions, including some of our nation’s best small liberal arts colleges, best public flagship universities, and best private universities.

The question we have asked about the report and its endorsers is this: How much do they mean it? The jury is still out on that and might be for some time to come. But without getting into the politics of all that, which we believe are quite significant, one thing that is addressed strongly in the report is the value of community service. Four of the 11 recommendations in the report revolve around community service done by high school students, and personally I think that these might be the most sincere recommendations in the report. Let’s listen again to just the first of these recommendations:

Meaningful, Sustained Community Service: We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen?that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests?that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults. We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement . . . . This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income. Just as important, it’s vital that the admissions process squarely challenges misconceptions about what types of service are valued in admissions. Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. The admissions process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience. (quoted from the report)

Here’s what that probably means: that the service should be something that your teenager is actually interested in and invested in; that the service should be something your teenager thinks about, talks about with other kids and with adults, and learns from; that the service should last at least a year; and that the service may be something that your teenager does in order to support or help your own family, such as working at a paid job if financial help is needed or taking care of a younger sibling or an elderly relative if that kind of family support is needed. As we have said before, Marie and I saw kids at the high school we co-founded in New York City with substantial family responsibilities, which made it very difficult for them to engage in the other kinds of service that students without such responsibilities had the free time to undertake.

I think that the report’s notion that the service last at least a year is also significant. The report is talking about sustained interactions over time that would speak to the genuine concern that a student had for whatever the community service project was. In other words, the college might not look so favorably on “high-profile” and “exotic” one-week community service projects in “faraway places”–unless perhaps a student did those projects summer after summer in some structured way and perhaps during other school vacations as well and/or had some other kind of follow-through during the rest of the year.

2. Frank Bruni’s Op-Ed Piece

Enter Frank Bruni’s excellent and though-provoking op-ed piece in The New York Times on August 13, 2016, provocatively titled “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?

I would like to read you the entire piece, but The New York Times might be slightly annoyed by that. So, let me offer a few quotations that are likely to send you off to read the full piece yourself, and you should absolutely do that. Here is how Mr. Bruni begins the piece:

 

This summer, as last, Dylan Hernandez, 17, noticed a theme on the social media accounts of fellow students at his private Catholic high school in Flint, Mich.

‘An awfully large percentage of my friends–skewing towards the affluent–are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa,’ he wrote to me in a recent email. He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them ‘with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,’ he explained. The captions tend to say something along the lines of, ‘This cutie made it so hard to leave.’

But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.

‘It rubs me the wrong way,’ Hernandez told me, explaining that while many of his friends are well intentioned, some seem not to notice poverty until an exotic trip comes with it. He himself has done extensive, sustained volunteer work at the Flint Y.M.C.A., where, he said, the children he tutors and plays with would love it ‘if these same peers came around and merely talked to them.’

‘No passport or customs line required,’ he added.

Hernandez reached out to me because he was familiar with writing I had done about the college admissions process. What he described is something that has long bothered me and other critics of that process: the persistent vogue among secondary-school students for so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.

It turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.

And it reflects a broader gaming of the admissions process that concerns me just as much, because of its potential to create strange habits and values in the students who go through it, telling them that success is a matter of superficial packaging and checking off the right boxes at the right time. That’s true only in some cases, and hardly the recipe for a life well lived. (quoted from the article)

 

Well, Mr. Bruni and Mr. Hernandez, it bothers us here at USACollegeChat as well. And I suspect it bothered the endorsers of the college admissions report, too. We know that it is tempting to pursue some community service option that looks spectacular on your college application, but it seems that those spectacular options are meeting with more and more skepticism by the college admissions officers. That problem is compounded when a student writes the all-important college application essay on such a community service experience. Here is what Mr. Bruni said about that:

 

‘The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,’ Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.

Jennifer Delahunty, a longtime admissions official at Kenyon College, said that mission-trip application essays are their own bloated genre. (quoted from the article)

 

“Their own bloated genre”–that’s quite an indictment, I think. What that means is that kids have to be careful when they undertake to write their primary application essay about a mission trip or about other community service work. While Mr. Bruni says that he and Pérez and Delahunty don’t doubt that many students doing this kind of community service “have heartfelt motivations, make a real (if fleeting) contribution and are genuinely enlightened by it,” he also tells a number of rather surprising anecdotes in the piece about upper-income parents who can and do buy short charitable experiences for their kids just so their kids have something to write about. Those are the essays that college admissions officers are on the lookout for–essays that don’t appear to come from some genuine and long-term interest on the part of the kid.

Looking at the other side of the issue for a moment, we can sympathize with kids who are faced with community service requirements from their high schools or who believe they are faced with community service as a necessary aspect of their college applications–even it that is not their essay topic. We know that kids have lots of demands on their time, including after-school clubs and sports and SAT prep and music lessons and dance lessons and the very real family responsibilities that many kids have. We know that community service can become just one more thing to do?not for its own sake, but for the sake of the college application. And, as Mr. Bruni writes, “Getting it done in one big Central American swoop becomes irresistible, and if that dilutes the intended meaning of the activity, who’s to blame: the students or the adults who set it up this way?”

So, who’s to stop that cycle? My vote would be you, parents. It is your responsibility to ensure that any community service activity that is undertaken by your own teenager is done for the right reasons and is carried out with genuine interest on his or her part and with respect for those being served. That is not the high school’s or the colleges’ responsibility. And your responsibility for this doesn’t start when your teenager is a senior. It starts much earlier, perhaps even in middle school, if we are to take into consideration what the new report says–that is, that colleges should start looking for “at least a year of sustained service or community engagement.”

Mr. Bruni has a great ending to his piece, thanks in part to the words of Mr. Hernandez. Here it is:

 

There are excellent mission trips, which some students do through churches that they already belong to, and less excellent ones. There are also plenty of other summer projects and jobs that can help students develop a deeper, humbler understanding of the world.

Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone ‘who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are. He wrote about how people looked right through him at the counter.’

Helicopter parents, stand down! Pérez’s assessment doesn’t mean that you should hustle your teenagers to the nearest Starbucks. It means that whatever they do, they should be able to engage in it fully and reflect on it meaningfully. And if that’s service work, why not address all the need in your own backyard?

Many college-bound teenagers do, but not nearly enough, as Hernandez can attest. He feels awfully lonely at the Flint Y.M.C.A. and, in the context of that, wonders, ‘Why is it fashionable to spend $1,000-plus, 20 hours traveling, and 120 hours volunteering in Guatemala for a week?’

He wonders something else, too. ‘Aren’t the children there sad, getting abandoned by a fresh crop of affluent American teens every few days?’ (quoted from the article)

 

That’s a stunning question from a 17-year-old. It makes me doubly proud of the work that some of our local teenagers do at Adventures in Learning, the nonprofit after-school program for low-income kids that we talked about in one of our Facebook Live chats. Maybe it isn’t as glamorous as going to Costa Rica to save the rain forest, but it’s something real that high school students can do, and they can see the results of their work in the lives of those kids every day.

One last word: Mr. Bruni writes, “A more recent phenomenon is teenagers trying to demonstrate their leadership skills in addition to their compassion by starting their own fledgling nonprofit groups rather than contributing to ones that already exist–and that might be more practiced and efficient at what they do.” Agreed, Mr. Bruni. It’s hard to create a nonprofit organization, especially one that has significant impact. So, teenagers, think about finding one near you and lending your support to it. And do that over time, not for a week. And look for ways to be a leader in that context?recruit other teenagers, make presentations at local community events, spearhead a fundraising campaign. We mentioned in one of our Facebook Live chats that Heifer International is a wonderful organization to volunteer with and that it offers suggestions on its website for volunteers leading their own activities.

Kids, there’s plenty of work to be done. Do some of it and then consider how to write about it thoughtfully in your college application essay. Be reflective. Be specific. Be persuasive. And be thankful that you had the opportunity to serve.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment 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

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Watch our Facebook Live videos about community service below!

 

Episode 81: Assignment #1–Expanding, Not Narrowing, the College Search

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

This series is entitled The Search Begins and, as we have said, it is aimed directly at those of you who are parents of juniors, and it is designed to help you all navigate summer tasks related to college applications in the fall. (Of course, it never hurts parents of freshmen and sophomores to get a head start on the college admissions game. So, stick with us during these summer episodes.)

Today’s topic focuses on something that you are just about to do totally wrong. Furthermore, our advice on this topic probably runs counter to what many “experts” are telling you to do right now, which is to start narrowing your list of colleges so that your teenager can get ready to apply in the fall.

In this episode, we are going to take the position that you should do the exact opposite, which is to start expanding your teenager’s list of colleges immediately so that you all are truly ready to narrow it in the fall. While that might seem unnecessary–even wasteful, given the thousand things you are trying to do this summer–we would contend that expanding the options now could make the difference between an okay college choice for your teenager and a great college choice for your teenager when it is time to accept a college’s offer next spring. Here’s why.

Episode 81: Assignment 1--Expanding, Not Narrowing, The College Search on USA CollegeChat podcast, with free printable

1. One More Research Study

Nicholas W. Hillman, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (a great public flagship university, which we discussed in Episode 27) has written a recent paper, published in the American Educational Research Journal and entitled “Geography of College Opportunity: The Case of Education Deserts.” Catherine Gewertz reported on Hillman’s paper recently in the High School & Beyond blog in Education Week (“Why College Access Depends on Your ZIP Code,” June 24, 2016).

You loyal listeners might remember that we first met Professor Hillman back in Episode 66 when we talked about his earlier report entitled Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century (co-authored with Taylor Weichman). One statistic that the authors quoted in that report is this: About 57 percent of incoming freshmen at public four-year colleges attend a college within 50 miles of home. Now, think about that from a freshman’s point of view. If you are a freshman standing on your four-year public college campus, more than half of your classmates live within 50 miles of where you are standing. Clearly, those students did not get outside of their “geographic comfort zone,” which is one of our most talked about and least favorite concepts here at USACollegeChat. (Remember that about 70 percent of high school graduates attend college in their home state. That’s just too many kids staying within their geographic comfort zone, in our opinion.)

This time around, Hillman maps both public and private two-year and four-year colleges and universities in 709 “commuting zones” across the U.S.–that is, in 709 bunches of mostly contiguous counties where people live and work. And, when I say “maps,” I mean that he locates the colleges and universities on a map of the U.S. and colors in the commuting zones where they are located so that anyone can see at a glance which commuting zones have a lot of colleges (five or more is the top of his scale) and which don’t have even one.

We are going to skip over private two-year colleges, inasmuch as they are the rarest of college types, and look first at public two-year colleges. Looking at Hillman’s map, we notice that there are relatively fewer public two-year colleges west of the Mississippi River until you get to the Far West and Southwest border states. Turning to public four-year colleges, we notice that there are even fewer public four-year colleges than public two-year colleges in the Plains and Rocky Mountain states. And finally, coming to private four-year colleges, we notice that the coverage is especially good east of the Mississippi–particularly in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states–and again in parts of the Far West.

So, where is the “education desert”? The maps would say, generally speaking, that it is in the Rocky Mountain and Plains states. What that means is that college students who live there are likely to have fewer nearby options than students in other commuting zones–say, those in the Northeast. Of course, even in the Northeast, you might live in a particular commuting zone that just doesn’t have many colleges. And that matters because so many kids stay close to home for college–perhaps too close.

But that’s not the worst of it. Gewertz explains:

Hillman found that zones of opportunity put specific groups at a disadvantage. Latino and African-American communities tend to have the fewest colleges, and less-selective colleges, nearby, while white and Asian communities tend to have more colleges, and more selective institutions, nearby to choose from. . . .   Hillman argues that most policy that seeks to improve college access focuses on the process of opportunity–with initiatives that aim to get more information into students’ hands, so they can make good college choices–instead of the geography of opportunity. (quoted from the article)

Well, now we have a societal problem as well as an individual student problem. As Hillman noted in his first report, the college decisions of students from working-class homes and the college decisions of students of color are most negatively affected by home-to-college distance. So, when it turns out that there are relatively fewer college options and relatively fewer selective college options in Latino and African-American communities and when we know that lots of those kids do not travel very far to attend college, for whatever reason, those students end up not having the range of college choices that they deserve.

2. Your Assignment #1

Download the Assignment #1 printable worksheet

Why are we telling you this? Because all of you should expand the college options for your teenager before you narrow them, and this is especially true if you live in an area that has few nearby colleges or few good nearby colleges. Whether you are Latino, African American, Asian, or white, those of you living in an education desert must look outside your geographic area in order to find a choice of good options for your teenager. Why should you be content with the only option in town no matter how good it is? For many of you, the chances are that it is not good enough.

But, to repeat, this advice is not just for those of you living in education deserts. This advice is for all of you who are busy making up a short list of colleges for your child to visit this summer and apply to in the fall. It simply is not time yet to be making up that short list, to be narrowing down the choices, to be closing off opportunities, and to be settling either for colleges that are nearby or for colleges that you already know about. It is unnecessarily soon–even for those of you who want to look at an Early Decision or Early Action option.

So, since it is July 1 and your teenager might have a bit of free time, we are ready to give him or her–and you–an assignment every week until September. The more you can get your teenager to do the work, the easier it will be for you; however, you will need to provide some life experience and adult judgment throughout the assignments. We do guarantee that you both will be better equipped by September 1 to start the actual college application process.

We thought hard about what your first summer assignment should be and settled on this: With your teenager, listen to our virtual nationwide college tour (Episodes 27 through 53) again?or for the first time?or skim the show notes if you prefer. By the way, these episodes do a good job of differentiating between the public and private colleges, which could well be one of the first decisions you will make when it is time to shorten your teenager’s list in September.

Together, choose at least one college in every state to put on your teenager’s list. Put those 50 on what we will call “your teenager’s long summer list of college options.” Just add them to any colleges you already have on the list.

Okay, if that’s too outlandish, try this: Choose at least one college in each of 25 states of your choice to put on your teenager’s list. Heck, that’s only half the states. You are getting off easy. Put those on your teenager’s long summer list of college options.

Still too tough? How about this: Choose at least two colleges in every geographic region of the U.S. to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. Remember that the Bureau of Economic Analysis (an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce) has divided the U.S. into eight regions, with each region’s covering four to 12 states. So, that would give you 16 colleges–plus, let’s say, add two extra colleges in your home state for good measure.

But wait: Put five public flagship universities on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. Any five. You choose. This will ensure that your teenager has some great public options to consider, too. As we have said before, public flagship universities might be the hidden jewels in the college landscape.

And those of you who are longtime listeners know that this piece of advice is coming: Choose at least one college not in the U.S. to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. The global future is here. Join it.

Now that you have the long summer list of 20 or 30 or 40 or, better yet, 50 colleges, have your teenager read about each one on the college’s website before talking with you and recommending whether it should be kept on the list. Believe me, you can learn a lot from reading a college website. Furthermore, you can learn not only about that one college, but also about colleges in general and what to look for on the next website. It’s an education in itself.

Our virtual tour gave you a lot of the information you should consider already, but let your teenager confirm it and look further into particular things that interest him or her about the college. Make sure your teenager checks out at least these topics:

  • Enrollment, broken down by undergraduate and graduate (if any) students
  • Retention and graduation rates (search the site for “common data set” or go to College Navigator, sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics)
  • The history of the college (always my favorite topic)
  • Academic divisions in the institution (that is, colleges or schools within a university)
  • Academic departments and majors offered
  • Study abroad options
  • Extracurricular activities (including fraternities and sororities)
  • Intercollegiate and intramural sports
  • Tuition and housing costs (of course)

Finally, make sure that your teenager writes down (or makes a spreadsheet of) the information they find on each college. Believe me, after about four colleges, it’s impossible to remember which college has which attractive and unattractive features.

Personally, I wouldn’t have your teenager start poring over admission standards just yet. I would rather he or she look at the range of great opportunities out there and perhaps get a bit motivated by what those websites offer. Your teenager needs an education about higher education first. Some of those websites are so good, in fact, that they make me want to go back to college.

And, by the way, I wouldn’t have your teenager start looking at two-year colleges yet, either. Those of you who listen to us know that we have some reservations about two-year colleges, especially for students who have just graduated from high school and are moving directly into college full time. We know that they are a great choice for saving money and for helping kids who need a bit more maturity or a bit more academic preparation, but we worry because the transfer rates to four-year colleges are scandalously low, and we worry about what opportunities that fact closes off for too many kids. Two-year colleges can easily be added to the list in September, because we are assuming that the choice of a two-year college is largely affected by geography and that students are most likely to attend the one closest to them.

So, what is the point of today’s episode? It is simply that expanding your options now–before narrowing them in the fall–is a way to let both you and your teenager consider colleges you have never thought about. That’s because there are some really interesting ones out there, including perhaps the one that is best for your teenager.

Depending where you live, here are a few public and private choices you probably aren’t thinking about (some that are very selective, and others that are not):

By the way, I really do not want to hear one more of my friends here in New York say, “Oh, she can just go to Binghamton. It’s a good school.” With apologies to Binghamton, which is a fine state university in upstate New York, I would like my friends to look around first. I would like many more colleges on their teenager’s long list. I would like many colleges on that list to be outside New York State. I would like some of them to be outside the Northeast. I would like some of them to be public and some of them to be private. Binghamton isn’t going anywhere. It will still be there in the fall.

Download the Assignment #1 printable worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment on the show notes for this episode at http://usacollegechat.org/episode81
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

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