Episode 138: It’s Early Decision/Early Action Time Again

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Let’s open today with an acknowledgment of a reasonably impressive milestone. We have just passed the third anniversary of our podcast. That’s three whole years of trying to put the college applications and college admissions process into perspective and within the grasp of the all-too-many parents and teenagers who have been left out of the conversation. When we started the podcast, we thought that it would be most helpful to parents who had not been to college themselves and to their first-generation-to-college kids. But we have found that parents of all educational backgrounds have learned from the episodes, and we are, of course, happy about that. As Marie and I say almost every week, “Here’s something we didn’t know ourselves, and we do this for a living.” As with all things, there is always more to learn.

Speaking of learning, as we come to this episode in our series Researching College Options, I must admit that I would like to re-edit our new book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Marie hates it when I say this; but, like all authors or maybe just all English majors, I know that I could make that book better (even though I have to admit that it is already pretty useful).

Today’s episode is about something we left out of the book, but should have put in. So, if you have the book (and, if you don’t have it, go get it right now at amazon.com!), you all should add one more question at the end of our 52-item questionnaire about things your teenager needs to find out about a college before applying.

Here is the question we missed and the topic of today’s episode: “Does the college offer an Early Decision and/or Early Action application round–or, perhaps, even more than one such round?” And we should have added: “Jot down all of the particulars of these early admissions plans, including how restrictive they are when it comes to whether you are allowed to apply to other colleges at the same time.” I am constantly surprised about how little parents know about Early Decision and Early Action plans, and they could make all the difference for a kid.

1. Why We Are Infuriated

So, for those of you who were listening to USACollegeChat about seven months ago, you will recall that we tackled this Early Decision/Early Action issue then. However, it is even more timely now here at the beginning of October, and we think that it is worth recapping for all of you who have kids just starting their senior year. As many of you know, November 1 or November 15 (or thereabouts) is the Early Decision and/or Early Action deadline for most colleges, if a college has either of those early admissions plans in place. So, that is just a few short weeks away, and decisions about whether to make those early applications need to be made ASAP.

As we said back in Episode 108 and Episode 109, I find this Early Decision/Early Action game infuriating. I continue to be infuriated on behalf of teenagers and their families who are in the midst of figuring out how to research and apply to a whole bunch of colleges, which is hard enough without having to calculate the advantages and disadvantages of Early Decision and Early Action options at some of those or all of those colleges and how those options interact, often poorly, with each other. I believe that lots of parents find this to be a daunting task. So, let us help.

2. Early Decision Cons

Let’s look first at Early Decision, the older of the two options and the one that started us all down this now-confusing and controversial path. Many years ago, it used to be that a student could apply to one college under an Early Decision plan (the only type of early application available)–meaning that the student would apply early, get an answer early, and agree to attend that college if accepted. For students, Early Decision was?and, in fact, still is–a binding decision. In other words, if you get in, you go.

Perhaps the most important reason that some educators and many parents 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–having to choose a college without being able to compare financial aid packages put those students and their families under unnecessary and, some would say, unfair financial pressure.

When we talked about this issue months ago, we quoted from Frank Bruni’s excellent New York Times column entitled “The Plague of ‘Early Decision.'” You should go back and read his piece again. Mr. Bruni wrote this about his view of the biggest problem with Early Decision at selective colleges:

[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)

Did we really need one more thing about college admissions that disadvantages low-income kids or kids from racial and ethnic minorities who are underrepresented in colleges? Clearly, as a nation, we did not. Regular listeners will recall that, recently in Episode 132, we spoke about a study of grade inflation in high schools that shows that the grade inflation trend disproportionately favors students from whiter, wealthier high schools. Is Early Decision just one more strike against kids who need a fairer shake?

Mr. Bruni also gave us one memorable statistic from a well-to-do Boston suburban high school, noting that “while 60 percent of the seniors there submitted early applications seven years ago, it’s above 86 percent now.” (quoted from the article) And that was last year, so who knows how much higher that number can go this year? The point is that lots of kids are applying to college early, and that is going to make it just that much harder for your kid this year.

Although we have talked recently about a steady decline in college enrollment in the U.S. in Episode 128 and a steady decline especially in male college enrollment in the U.S. in Episode 136, the nation’s very good and great colleges are still doing fine. They continue to have many, many more applicants than they need–both the private ones and the public ones. So, if any of our very selective private or public colleges are on your kid’s long list of college options (or shorter, refined list of college options), your kid is in for some stiff competition from a lot of kids who are ready to commit in November. Any kids who have to overcome any kind of barrier when making their college applications–whether that is financial constraints or English as a second language or lack of college counseling or parents who cannot help?are, sadly, going to be just that much further behind.

3. Early Decision Pros

On the other hand, if your kid is one of the lucky ones or if you can get whatever help you need to get your kid past whatever barriers exist for your family, it seems to us that Early Decision is a great option for you. The larger problem is, of course, that Early Decision could be a great option for your own kid, even if there are too many kids who cannot take advantage of it for one reason or another. With my nonprofit president’s hat on, I have to say that Early Decision worries me increasingly; but with my advocate-for-your-one-kid’s hat on, I am very likely to recommend it to you.

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. (We are going to talk about Early Action in a minute. Making one Early Decision application does not necessarily preclude also making one or more Early Action applications.)

Why might Early Decision be a good move for your kid? First, your family could get the entire college admissions process over with as efficiently as possible by December. As we have already mentioned, the application is usually due November 1 or November 15, with a decision usually coming in December. If your kid is accepted, you are done. No more worries about not getting into a college your kid loves and no more stress of completing numerous applications! Even though the Common Application cuts 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.

Second–and this is why we feel almost obligated to recommend Early Decision for kids who are ready to make a serious choice–your kid might actually have a much better chance of being accepted if he or she applies Early Decision. There continues to be a lot of press about this fact. Back in Episode 108, we quoted shocking statistics from an excellent article by Nick Anderson in The Washington Post, which offered acceptance statistics from 2015 from 64 “prominent colleges and universities.” His article was aptly entitled “A college-admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision.” Go back and take a look at those many, many numbers. And here are a few more: same story, different verse.

These are some facts and figures from an article by Kaitlin Mulhere in Money magazine. Her article makes this important point:

Most selective colleges–specifically, the 100 or so four-year schools that admit a third or less of their applicants–publicize one overall acceptance rate. On its face, that makes sense, and it’s simple for families to grasp. The problem is that many students pin their hopes on that rate, even though it may conceal dramatic differences in the odds for different applicant pools.

Take, for example, Vanderbilt University, where the overall rate was 12% for the fall 2015 freshman class. Yet students either apply in an early pool or the regular pool, which have 24% and 8% acceptance rates, respectively. Nobody has a 12% chance, says Steve Frappier, director of college counseling at the Westminster Schools, a prep school in Atlanta. (quoted from the article)

There are two critical things to notice here. First, there is the simple fact that one averaged acceptance rate–the one that is published widely–actually might mean nothing. Second, there is the simple fact that your chances of getting into a college could be three times as good–or more–if you apply under an early application plan. While this is not true for every college in the U.S., it is true for many selective colleges in the U.S. Here are two more examples of great small private liberal arts colleges from the Money magazine article:

  • Swarthmore College: 35% early decision acceptance rate vs. 10.7% regular decision acceptance rate
  • Colorado College: 31% and 17% in two early rounds vs. 6% in the regular round

The article makes the point that savvy consumers pay attention to the differences among the figures that colleges post on their websites: early acceptance rates, regular decision acceptance rates, and overall acceptance rates. The relationships among these figures change from college to college, so buyer beware!

Those figures have got to make you think twice before you as a family dismiss the notion of applying early. Here is another perhaps surprising statistic from The Washington Post article for a sample of great colleges–the estimated percentage of the freshman class that is made up of Early Decision acceptances:

To sum it up, 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. You really have to stop and think about these statistics. No kidding. What are your kid’s odds of getting into a place when 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 personally tried to test that.

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.

To sum it up, here is a brief quotation from the website of Boston University, a very good private university, about the reasons that students should consider Early Decision:

  • Competition is keen. Think about this–would you rather be considered for admission as 1 of more than 60,000 applicants or 1 of just over 4,000 applicants?

  • Applying Early Decision is the ultimate way to demonstrate your interest in BU, which is an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from the rest of the crowd.

  • Early Decision applicants receive the same consideration for financial aid as regular decision applicants.Last year, BU awarded $55 million in aid to incoming freshmen.

  • If you’re offered admission, your search process will be completed early. You could be one of the first among your classmates to wear your BU sweatshirt and show your Terrier Pride!

4. Early Action

Now, let’s look at the Early Action option, under which high school seniors still apply early–around November 1 or November 15–but they are not ethically committed to enroll at the college if accepted. That is, the decision to apply Early Action is not a binding decision by a high school senior to attend that college. Early Action enables kids to apply to more than one college that offers an Early Action option and to hold onto any acceptances until April–before having to make a final decision among all of the acceptances that come in on both the early and the regular schedules. This plan, understandably, came into being as a result of concerns that the Early Decision option put too much pressure on kids to make final decisions too soon.

In counseling kids myself, I encourage them to apply under the Early Action option to as many of the colleges on their final short list as they can. I just don’t see a downside. Furthermore, I believe kids should apply Early Action to every one of their safety schools if those schools have an Early Action option. It can certainly take the pressure off a student to know in December that he or she has a guaranteed acceptance from a college or two or three well before April comes.

Here is one thing you have to keep in mind, however, for both Early Action and Early Decision. Students have to take the SAT and/or ACT no later than an October testing date to have the scores by early November, and a student has to believe that the scores he or she has by then are about as good as they are ever going to be.

Or here is an option: Apply Early Action to one or more of your safety schools, using your available test scores–that is, schools you can probably get into without improving your scores. If there are more selective colleges that you are holding out hope for, but for which you need better scores, re-take the SAT or ACT in November or December and don’t apply to those colleges until the regular deadline of January 1 or later.

5. Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action

Let’s look at a mixed approach that has now been taken by some colleges, including some prestigious ones, and that is an option called Single-Choice Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action. This option means that applicants cannot apply to any other college under an Early Action or Early Decision option, but may apply later on a regular decision timeline. If an applicant is admitted under this single-choice or restrictive option, that student may have until about May 1 to make a decision.

So, Single-Choice Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action, is like Early Decision in that the student is permitted to apply to only one college early, but it’s like Early Action in that the student is permitted to wait until regular decision acceptances come in before making a final decision about enrolling. You can see how that is pretty good for the student and pretty good for the college, though not ideal for either one. This option, we believe, is not nearly as widespread among colleges as either Early Decision or regular Early Action.

6. Other College Admissions Options

Parents: Don’t feel bad when you have to read a college’s website information more than once to figure out what all the application options mean. I have to do that, too. I cannot imagine how a high school kid by himself or herself ever completes and submits a college application anymore, especially if that kid has parents who do not speak English or cannot help for whatever reason.

And here’s another option you might run into: two rounds of Early Decision, or Early Decision I and Early Decision II; and two rounds of Early Action, or Early Action I and II.

So, why Early Decision I and II, with Early Decision II having a later deadline? One reason is that some kids want the college to have access to later college admission test scores or to first semester senior grades, in case either of those is better than earlier scores or grades. Another reason is that a student who gets rejected from his or her first-choice Early Decision college in December can then apply to his or her second-choice college in a second round of Early Decision. Both of these options are possibly great for the student, though complicated, to be sure.

Another reason for having two rounds of Early Decision is that it’s a way for a college to improve its own statistics–in this case, the “yield rate,” or the percentage of students who are admitted and then attend. This statistic might affect a college’s ranking on some list or other. So, that might be reason enough for how we got to this place.

Go back and listen to Episode 109 if you want to hear even more complicated plans, which mix every conceivable Early Action and Early Decision variation. But those are only examples. The only plans that matter are the ones your kid faces at the colleges on his or her list. And they might be crazy enough!

7. The Bottom Line

One last word, parents: Remember that your kid can be deferred when applying early, in which case the application will go into the pile to be considered with the applications submitted on the regular decision timeline. Or, your kid can be rejected, in which case he or she cannot re-apply, in some cases, on the regular decision timeline. So that’s one more piece of the puzzle that you will need to consider.

I know that’s a lot to take in. What’s the bottom line? Apply Early Decision if your kid has a clear first-choice college that you can live with. Simultaneously, apply Early Action to all of the colleges on his or her list (including all of the safety schools) that have Early Action plans. There’s just no downside.

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Episode 120: Lots of College Options in Our New Workbook

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

1. Colleges in the Spotlight

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

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

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

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

2. Now, It’s Up to You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 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…

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Watch our Facebook Live videos about community service below!