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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Early Decision Cons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article about Tulane continues this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Early Decision Pros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 87: Assignment #7–Looking at Core Curricula

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

Well, this is Assignment #7, which means that your teenager and perhaps you have done a lot of work so far. Take a look back and look at all you have accomplished this summer:

This episode’s assignment takes us back inside the college and right into the middle of the college curriculum, especially as it plays out for freshmen and sophomores.

Episode 87 Looking at College Core Curricula on USACollegeChat podcast

1. Your Assignment #7

Download the Assignment #7 Worksheet

For Assignment #7, your teenager and you are going to look at whether the college has a “core curriculum”–or what might be called “general education” credits or requirements or what we called “distribution requirements” in the old days.

2. What Is a Core Curriculum?

For the purpose of this episode, we will refer to this likely centuries-old curriculum concept as a “core curriculum.” What it means is that all students in a college, or in a specific college or school within a larger university, have to take typically one or two courses in each of a broad range of academic disciplines, such as mathematics, or in each of a broad range of groups of disciplines, such as natural sciences, languages and literature, social sciences, and so on. Each college seems to have its own unique way of defining these groups of disciplines, with some more understandable than others.

Some colleges have quite strict requirements, meaning usually that there are many different requirements that have to be met and that might amount to a double handful of courses before it’s all over. Some colleges have a core curriculum, but have far fewer requirements for the courses or number of courses that have to be taken. And some colleges have no core curriculum at all. Would the presence of core curriculum requirements make a difference to your teenager in choosing a college?

3. What Is the Purpose of a Core Curriculum?

So, what is the purpose of a core curriculum? The concept comes from the liberal arts tradition, where students are supposed to be well rounded in their studies and in their understanding of the intellectual content and issues of many fields. People in favor of this tradition would say that students do not know exactly where their careers and lives will take them and that the ability to solve problems and think critically across a range of content could make the difference in how well they succeed in their careers (likely in their multiple careers) and indeed in their lives. It is no surprise that liberal arts colleges and that the arts and sciences college or school within large universities would support and require a core curriculum for its students.

However, some non-liberal-arts colleges and schools within large universities also have instituted a core curriculum. My favorite example of this (and we have talked and written about it before) is the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, which has this impressive and perhaps surprising statement on its website:

Engineering has been called the newest liberal art. At Columbia Engineering, students not only study science and mathematics and gain technical skills but also study literature, philosophy, art history, music theory, and major civilizations through the Core Curriculum in the humanities.

Students are encouraged to consider the wide range of possibilities open to them, both academically and professionally. To this end, the first and second years of the four-year undergraduate program comprise approximately 66 semester points of credit that expose students to a cross-fertilization of ideas from different disciplines within the University. The sequence of study proceeds from an engagement with engineering and scientific fundamentals, along with humanities and social sciences, toward an increasingly focused training in the third and fourth years designed to give students mastery of certain principles and arts central to engineering and applied science. (quoted from the website)

So, at Fu, students are required to take some liberal arts courses early on in their engineering program in order to provide some humanities balance to the heavy load of mathematics and sciences that all engineering students take. The brilliance of this position comes in the notion that students who find that engineering is not what they had expected–for whatever reason–are well equipped to transfer to another field of study and move many of these core credits with them. For some engineering students, these liberal arts courses could be a drag; for other engineering students, they could turn out to save the day.

One important advantage of a core curriculum is that it causes students to look into whole academic fields that are rarely taught in high schools?like anthropology or sociology or art history or linguistics. Without requirements in a variety of academic fields or groups of fields, many students would never take a look at some of them and would never know what they had missed.

As it turns out, some colleges go one step further and require certain courses of all students?the actual courses, not just the academic fields. So, instead of saying to students that they must take two courses in the languages and literature, for example, the college will specify that all students must take Writing 101 and Public Speaking 101. In those cases, the college has decided to require those specific courses that its professors feel are most fundamental to developing the foundation for more advanced college study and to developing a broad understanding of and ability to engage in the modern world. Because all students have taken these same required core courses, professors can use that shared knowledge to help students make connections across subject fields every year from then on.

4. Examples of a Core Curriculum

When we did our nationwide virtual tour of colleges back in Episodes 27 through 54, we often talked about the core curriculum requirements of a college. We did that for two reasons. First, we were super-impressed with some of them, even though we could tell that they would be quite demanding of students. Second, we knew that some students would love the idea of a core curriculum, while other students would hate the idea of a core curriculum. There are two groups of students who are likely to hate the idea the most. One group is students who do not feel confident in a range of academic fields (this often comes in the form of “I’d like to go to a college where I don’t have to take advanced science or math”). The other group is students who are anxious to get on with what exactly they already know they want to study and don’t want to waste time with other things (this often comes in the form of “I want to be a computer scientist, and I don’t see a need for these humanities requirements”).

Nonetheless, here are a handful of examples of some of the core curricula we talked about during our nationwide virtual tour of colleges:

Let’s start with a tiny Catholic college with a student enrollment of fewer than 200 undergraduates: Wyoming Catholic College, located in Lander and the only four-year private college in the state of Wyoming. According to its website, this faith-based college offers a classical liberal arts curriculum, which includes a study of the Great Books of Western culture and a serious set of distribution requirements, which includes 24 credits of theology, 13 credits of leadership, 10 credits of philosophy, and 16 credits of Latin. Interestingly, students graduate with a B.A. in Liberal Arts?not in a specific subject field.

Grinnell College in the “rolling farmland” of central Iowa offers a unique Individually Advised Curriculum, described this way on the website:

Every first-year student at Grinnell enrolls in the First-Year Tutorial, a small group of students [limited to 12] working with a faculty member to study a subject of interest to both students and tutor. The tutor also is the academic adviser for each student in the group, so that teaching and learning are closely linked with the planning of programs of study. In teaching, the tutor discovers the aptitudes and interests of the students, who in turn receive academic advice, not from an infrequently consulted stranger, but from a teacher who sees them several times each week. In planning a program of study, the student and the tutor balance the cultivation of existing interests with the discovery of new ones. An entering student should regard the first year as a time for gaining breadth in the arts and sciences, confidence in exploring a variety of disciplines, and a more mature understanding of the place of each of these in liberal education as a whole. (quoted from the website)

Grinnell does expect students to become proficient in written English by taking at least one appropriate course, to develop knowledge of mathematics and/or a foreign language, and to take courses in these three areas: humanities, science, and social studies. So, there are some distribution requirements, but extreme freedom in what exactly to take. When a student finally chooses a major, his or her academic advisor will be assigned from that subject field.

Let’s turn to St. John’s College, which has two campuses, with students often transferring for a year between the two: St. John’s Annapolis in Maryland and St. John’s Santa Fe in New Mexico. But the real unique idea at St. John’s is its liberal arts curriculum, based on collaborative inquiry in small class discussions, with the professor acting as a tutor and mentor?all based on the original texts of great authors in almost every subject field. The Seminar, as St. John’s calls it, is the foundation for the curriculum, and it is described this way on the website:

Students participate in far-reaching and free but disciplined conversations about major works of literature, philosophy, political theory, theology, history, economics, and psychology from Homer and the Greek historians, playwrights, and philosophers in the freshman year, through the Renaissance in the sophomore year and the Enlightenment in the junior year, to the contemporary world in the senior year. (quoted from the website)

Students at St. John’s are also required to take four years of mathematics, three years of laboratory science, two years of music (including singing in the Freshman Chorus together), and four years of a second language (two years of Ancient Greek and two years of modern French). Clearly, this is one serious set of core curriculum requirements.

Let’s move on to Middlebury College in Vermont, perhaps best known for its excellent language programs for a hundred years. In the classic liberal arts tradition, Middlebury students must fulfill two sets of distribution requirements: (1) one course in seven of eight academic fields (including foreign language); and (2) one course in each of four cultures and civilizations areas:

a. Courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean

  1. Courses that focus on the process of comparison between and among cultures and civilizations, or courses that focus on the identity and experience of separable groups within cultures and civilizations

  2. Courses that focus on some aspect of European cultures and civilizations

  3. Courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of northern America (United States and Canada) (quoted from the website)

Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the U.S., offers its undergraduates the opportunity to study in the schools of foreign service, business, or nursing and health studies or in Georgetown College, the liberal arts college that first established the institution. Before pursuing one of more than 40 majors, students in the College must complete core requirements in a wide range of humanities and science fields, including two courses in theology, starting with either The Problem of God or Introduction to Biblical Literature as freshmen.

Colgate University, a small liberal arts university in upstate New York, has undergraduates studying in 54 majors, which come from a strong and broad liberal arts Core Curriculum. Students are required to take four courses in their first two years: Legacies of the Ancient World, Challenges of Modernity, Communities and Identities, and Scientific Perspectives on the World. Students are also required to take one course with a Global Engagements designation and six more courses from three liberal arts and sciences areas.

Undergraduate students at Morehouse College, the all-men HBCU in Atlanta, are required to complete a core curriculum, which includes four courses in the humanities?one in religion, one in philosophy, one in art history, and one in music history. That is about as liberal arts as it gets.

But it’s not just small private colleges that have a core curriculum. The huge flagship University of Texas at Austin puts all of its freshmen into the School of Undergraduate Studies, where they explore their interests through a liberal-arts-and-sciences core curriculum of 42 credits. In their freshman year, students take UT’s Signature Course, which is actually an array of 150 course offerings for students to choose from, all of which provide college-level experiences in thinking and writing and speaking and research. Students are encouraged to go outside their comfort zone when choosing from the Signature Courses, which are often interdisciplinary, like Astronomy and the Humanities. UT students leave the School of Undergraduate Studies by the end of their second year to pursue their major course of study.

At Penn State, typical undergraduates take almost one-third of their courses in the College of Liberal Arts. All students are required to take 45 credits of General Education courses, including three credits of writing-intensive coursework, a course in U.S. cultures, a course in international cultures, and coursework that covers social and behavioral sciences, humanities, natural sciences, quantitative skills, the arts, and health and physical activity.

It is hard to do this episode without a nod to our own two undergraduate alma maters, so let’s look at them. Here are the “distribution requirements” and the “breadth requirements” in Cornell University‘s College of Arts and Sciences curriculum (and these are in addition to two first-year writing seminars, a serious intermediate-level foreign language requirement–which many high-ranked colleges have, two physical education courses plus a swimming test):

  • 2 courses in physical and biological sciences
  • 1 course in mathematics and quantitative reasoning
  • 1 course that is in either sciences or mathematics
  • Five arts and sciences courses from at least 4 of the following social sciences, humanities, and arts categories:
  • Cultural analysis
  • Historical analysis
  • Knowledge, cognition, and moral reasoning
  • Literature and the arts
  • Social and behavioral analysis
  • Geographic breadth requirement: 1 course that focuses on an area or a people other than those of the United States, Canada, or Europe
  • Historic breadth requirement: 1 course that focuses on an historic period before the 20th century

While I would applaud these requirements for my own children and for the children of all of my friends, I can tell you that the requirements were not quite so demanding in the early 1970s. And, for that, I believe I am grateful.

So, let’s take a look at Barnard College‘s brand new curriculum, called Foundations, which I know you didn’t have, Marie, because it applies for the first time to students entering this fall. Barnard has what it calls “distributional requirements” and “modes of thinking” (in addition to a first-year writing course, first-year seminar, and one physical education course):

  • 2 courses in the languages
  • 2 courses in the arts/humanities
  • 2 courses in the social sciences
  • 2 courses in the sciences (1 with a lab)
  • 1 course in thinking locally–New York City
  • 1 course in thinking through global inquiry
  • 1 course in thinking about social difference
  • 1 course in thinking with historical perspective
  • 1 course in thinking quantitatively and empirically
  • 1 course in thinking technologically and digitally

I would have to say that those requirements are also quite demanding, especially for a student who, right or wrong, is not interested in broadening her horizons.

So, if all this is just too much, take a look at just a few colleges that do not have a standard core curriculum of courses:

Let’s start with The Evergreen State College, a public liberal arts college in Washington’s capital city of Olympia. Students at Evergreen take one interdisciplinary course, called a program, at a time, which might last one, two, or even three quarters. Built around a theme, a program integrates several subjects and is taught by a team of two to four professors from different subject fields. Students participate in a mixture of lectures, seminars, tutorials, field trips, labs, and the like during each program. There are no required programs and no distribution requirements and no major requirements (because there are no majors) for earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. A Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts and Science does have some math, science, or computer science requirements.

At Hamilton College in upstate New York, students pursue studies in 51 fields, based on a broad liberal arts and sciences curriculum that each student works out with his or her advisor. There are a few requirements?such as at least three writing-intensive courses?but there seems to be quite a bit of freedom in operationalizing the spirit of a liberal arts education.

Pitzer College, one of the five undergraduate colleges in The Claremont Colleges consortium in California, offers its 1,000 students about 40 fields of study in an “interdisciplinary liberal arts education emphasizing social justice, intercultural understanding and environmental sensitivity” (quoted from the website). Students are expected to engage in community service and are given the freedom to create their own academic programs; there are no traditional core course requirements.

So, have your teenager take the Assignment #7 worksheet and complete one for each college on his or her long summer list of college options, and I hope it is still long. First, note whether there is a core curriculum, or general education course, or distribution requirements, or breadth requirements, or whatever that college might call the list of academic fields or groups of fields or even specific courses all students must take. Remember, if it is a university, make sure that your teenager checks the college or school of interest to him or her; requirements may well not be the same for all of the colleges and schools in the university. Second, write down exactly what the requirements are. When the time comes to decide which colleges stay on the list, the number and rigor and breadth of the requirements might be something you all will want to consider.

Download the Assignment #7 Worksheet

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Episode 43: Colleges in the New England Region—Part III

Last week, we continued our virtual tour of colleges with the private colleges in the six states of the New England region: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. As we said then, there are a lot of well-known and not-so-well-known institutions in these New England states, even though the states themselves are quite small, and a lot of those institutions are in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Virtual tour of small liberal arts colleges in the New England region on NYCollegeChat podcast. Show notes with links to all the colleges mentioned are available at nycollegechat.org/43 #college #NewEngland #collegeaccesLast week, we discussed nationally known higher education institutions, which draw students internationally, as well as a selection of institutions with one or another kind of special focus (that is, faith-based institutions, single-sex colleges, institutions with a particular academic focus, and one college for students with special learning needs). This week, we are going to talk about a host of small liberal arts colleges and a few institutions that are probably better known in the New England region than in other regions of the country.

A special heads up to our New York State listeners and other listeners in the Mid-Atlantic states who are worried about sending their kids away to college: New England is not really very far away. Maybe this is as outside your comfort zone as I am going to get you. But there are so many options in New England that it might be enough.

And, as we always say, no college has asked us or paid us anything to include it. These are our very own selections.

1. Liberal Arts Colleges

Let’s start by saying that some of our most prestigious and some of our oldest small liberal arts colleges are located in New England, including several consistently ranked in the top 10 by anyone’s standards and a bunch more that would be in anyone’s top 20.

Turning first to a trio of colleges in Maine, we have Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Colby College in Waterville, and Bates College in Lewiston—all small liberal arts colleges, with a couple thousand students, attractive student-to-faculty ratios of 9:1 or 10:1, and just over 30 varsity sports teams. Though SAT scores are optional at both Bowdoin and Bates, about two-thirds of their applicants submit them. Average SAT subtest scores are about 670 at Colby, 680 at Bates, and 730 at Bowdoin.

Bowdoin, one of the highest ranked liberal arts colleges nationally, was chartered in 1794 by the General Court of Massachusetts, when Maine was still part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Governor James Bowdoin II and his son were both substantial benefactors for the college that today carries the family name (Anglicized from French grandfather and great-grandfather Pierre Baudouin, a Huguenot immigrant who arrived here in 1686). With an undergraduate-only enrollment of about 1,800 students (about 30 percent students of color and coeducational since 1971), Bowdoin offers 40-plus majors, grounded by traditional distribution requirements in five liberal arts and sciences areas.

Bowdoin makes an effective and official endorsement of the liberal arts in two ways—first, the Statement on a Liberal Education, adopted by the faculty in 2004; and second, what is known as “The Offer of the College,” written a hundred years earlier in 1906 by Bowdoin’s president, William DeWitt Hyde:

To be at home in all lands and all ages;
to count Nature a familiar acquaintance,
and Art an intimate friend;
to carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket,
and feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake;
to make hosts of friends…who are to be leaders in all walks of life;
to lose yourself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends –
this is the offer of the college for the best four years of your life. (quoted from the website)

Bowdoin’s tuition and fees are what you might expect by now in our travels through New England—about $48,000 per year. Interestingly, Colby and Bates post a comprehensive fee (including room and board) at about $62,000 per year—so comparably priced for tuition, if it had been broken out separately.

Let’s look briefly at Colby, founded in 1813, the twelfth-oldest private liberal arts college in the U.S. Colby offers its approximately 1,850 undergraduates a choice of 57 majors. About two-thirds study abroad at some point in their college lives, perhaps in the College’s annual January Plan session, when students focus on one thing only—a course, an internship, a study-abroad opportunity, or a research project. Colby has a No-Loan Policy, which “will meet 100 percent of [a student’s] calculated financial need, and . . . will meet that need with grants and campus employment—not student loans” that have to be paid back (quoted from the website). As part of its serious commitment to the environment, Colby worked hard to achieve carbon neutrality—one of only a handful of colleges to do so.

Bates is located in Lewiston, home of substantial French Canadian and Somali immigrant communities. Founded in 1855 by abolitionists, Bates was the first coeducational college in New England. When it opened its doors, it admitted students without regard to race, nationality, or religion; some of its early students were former slaves. In keeping with its founding values, Bates is also known for its inclusiveness, where student organizations are open to all students and there are no fraternities or sororities. The approximately 2,000 undergraduates study in 33 majors in two semesters and a short-term session in the spring, when students focus on one thing, often off campus (similar to Colby’s plan).

Let’s move on to Vermont and take a look at Middlebury College in Middlebury, located between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks. A prestigious liberal arts college, which also offers some graduate programs at other sites here and abroad, Middlebury has been known for its excellent language programs for a hundred years. Middlebury was founded by a few men in town in 1800 to educate men for the ministry and other professions. The first African-American citizen to earn a bachelor’s degree got it at Middlebury in 1823, after Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery.

Middlebury now serves about 2,450 undergraduates, studying in 44 majors, with a student-to-faculty ratio of 9:1—again common for these liberal arts colleges. As we have also seen at other colleges, Middlebury has a January term, when students focus on one course or an internship. In the best classic liberal arts tradition, Middlebury students must fulfill two sets of distribution requirements— (1) one course in seven of eight academic fields (including foreign language, with offerings in 10 languages); and (2) one course in each of four cultures and civilizations areas:

  1. Courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean

  2. Courses that focus on the process of comparison between and among cultures and civilizations, or courses that focus on the identity and experience of separable groups within cultures and civilizations

  3. Courses that focus on some aspect of European cultures and civilizations

  4. Courses that focus on some aspect of the cultures and civilizations of northern America (United States and Canada) (quoted from the website)

With 31 varsity sports and 31 NCAA championships since 1995, Middlebury has an active sports scene—and a lot of skiing for fun. Admission is very selective, with the Class of 2019 posting average SAT subtest scores very close to 700. Most incoming freshmen are in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Like its collegiate peers, tuition and fees run about $48,000 per year.

Coming quite a bit later to the game was Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, founded in 1932 as a progressive liberal arts institution. Originally a women’s college, it became coeducational in 1969. It claims to be “the first to include the visual and performing arts in a liberal arts education, and it is the only college to require that students spend a term—every year—at work in the world” (quoted from the website). Today, it serves just about 650 undergraduates in 10 areas of study and about 100 graduate students, with a student-to-faculty ratio of 9:1.

The seven-week off-campus winter Field Work Term, which is required of students every year, sees students working or interning in 35 states and 40 countries on five continents. Students complete two 14-week semesters in addition to the Field Work Term. Bennington’s liberal arts education is somewhat self-determined, as described on the website:

The Plan Process is the structure Bennington students use to design and evaluate their education. In a series of essays and meetings with the faculty throughout their years at Bennington, students learn to articulate what they want to study and how they intend to study it. They identify the classes they wish to take, as well as how those classes relate to each other and the rest of their Bennington experience: Field Work Term, tutorials, projects beyond the classroom, and anything else they undertake. (quoted from the website)

Some courses run three weeks, some seven weeks, and some the full 14 weeks each term, with credits assigned accordingly. Students receive narrative evaluations at the end of each course, but may request letter grades; students interested in graduate school are encouraged to request letter grades for at least two years so that a GPA can be calculated. Bennington has both a traditional application route, using the Common Application as a base, and a more unusual Bennington-specific application. In either case, college admission test scores are not required. Bennington’s undergraduate tuition and fees add up to about $48,000—unfortunately, the norm among these New England colleges.

Connecticut also has a trio of relatively well-known liberal arts institutions—Wesleyan University in Middletown, Trinity College in Hartford, and Connecticut College in New London. All are well-rounded traditional colleges with attractive campuses and excellent student-to-faculty ratios, as befits small colleges, from 8:1 at Wesleyan to 10:1 at Trinity.

Trinity is the oldest of these, founded in 1823, and is the second-oldest college in Connecticut (after Yale). It has been coeducational since 1969 and now serves about 2,100 undergraduates and about 100 graduate students. It has the oldest example of Collegiate Gothic architecture in the country. Trinity offers 39 majors, including engineering, with “two engineering degree paths: a Bachelor of Science degree, accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET [Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology] and a Bachelor of Arts in Engineering Science degree” (quoted from the website)—truly unusual for a small liberal arts college.

Trinity is very proud of its Center for Urban and Global Studies (noting that over half of all people in the world live in cities today), its Human Rights Program and interdisciplinary major, its credit-bearing internships, and its study-away programs in New York City and seven sites outside the U.S. Incoming freshmen posted a B+ high school GPA, and tuition and fees will set you back about $51,000, on the high side of what we have been seeing.

Wesleyan, founded by Methodist leaders in 1831, shares a bit of history with Connecticut College, founded in 1911. Originally all male, Wesleyan became coeducational (to a limited degree) in 1872, about 40 years after its founding. Then, when it chose to exclude women again around 1911, some of its alumnae helped establish Connecticut College for Women, for obvious reasons. Today, Wesleyan enrolls about 2,900 undergraduates and about 200 full-time graduate students (about 30 percent are students of color). Its undergraduates study in 45 majors. Though Wesleyan does not require college admissions test scores, about 80 percent of the Class of 2019 submitted them for consideration. The average SAT subtest scores were about 730 to 740 across the board. About 65 percent of students were in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Not surprisingly, tuition and fees are about $49,000 per year.

By the way, Wesleyan is a member of the Twelve-College Exchange Program, which includes quite a few of the colleges we talked about last week and are talking about this week, including Bowdoin, Mount Holyoke, Dartmouth, Smith, Wellesley, Amherst, and Connecticut College. Students can apply to spend a semester or a full year at any one of the other colleges.

Here is a quick look at Connecticut College, with about 1,900 undergraduate students studying in just over 50 majors and minors. Interestingly, each student is awarded $3,000 by the College to cover the costs of creating the perfect internship—in the U.S. or abroad—for each student in his or her area of interest. About 80 percent of students complete such an internship. Though the College does not require college admission test scores, about 70 percent of applicants provide them for review. Incoming freshmen post a set of SAT subtest scores hovering around 685. About 60 percent were in the top 10 percent of their high school class. The College has a comprehensive fee, which includes room and board, of about $63,000—which would be in keeping with residential students’ expenses at the other colleges we have been profiling. One of the most unusual things about the College’s website is the section called “Essays that Worked,” which is just that: sample essays from past applicants who were accepted. Of course, any college applicant could get value out of reading them.

So, let’s head north to Massachusetts to two of the traditionally highest-ranked liberal arts colleges in the U.S., both formerly men’s colleges: Williams College in Williamstown and Amherst College in Amherst. Williams opened in 1793, and Amherst followed some years later in 1821. Amherst’s first president had been president of Williams (there is still a rivalry today), and the president of the Board of Trustees at the time was Noah Webster. Amherst was established by Congregational clergy to educate primarily poor, but talented, students for a life in the ministry or other worthy careers. Williams went co-ed in 1970, followed by Amherst in 1975. Both have small enrollments of about 1,800 at Amherst and 2,000 at Williams (plus about 50 graduate students). About 35 percent of students at Williams and 45 percent of students at Amherst are students of color.

The colleges offer just over 35 undergraduate liberal arts majors. Student-to-faculty ratios are attractively low at 7:1 or 8:1. Williams offers its January Winter Study—the kind of focused program we have seen at a number of other schools (maybe New England is just too cold for students to be there in January), where students do a course, some research, an internship, or purposeful travel. Among its study-away options, Williams offers a semester at its Marine Studies Program at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and a year-long program at University of Oxford. Amherst is a member of the well-known Five College Consortium, which we have talked about and will mention again. On an athletic note, Amherst and Williams played the first intercollegiate baseball game in the U.S. in 1859.

Students at these two colleges are super-smart. College admission test scores are required, and about 65 percent of freshmen in the classes of 2018 scored 700 or higher on the SAT subtests. About 85 percent of Amherst students and 95 percent of Williams students were in the top 10 percent of their high school class. As you might expect, tuition and fees are high: about $50,000 at Williams and a comprehensive fee (tuition, room, and board) of $63,000 at Amherst.

2. Colleges That Change Lives

As we have said in several earlier episodes, Colleges That Change Lives is a nonprofit organization that was founded after the publication of the book Colleges That Change Lives, by Loren Pope, a retired New York Times education editor. There are now 44 colleges and universities profiled in the book and on the organization’s website. Those that are included are not necessarily famous institutions. Most are smaller colleges and universities that have proved to be successful at developing students both personally and academically so that they can succeed in life after their undergraduate college years.

Three of the 44 institutions profiled are located in New England. You should read about them in the book or on the website to learn more about them. They are Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts; Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont; and Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Hampshire is the fifth member of the Five College Consortium, centered in Amherst. It is by far the newest of the five colleges, having been founded in 1970 after a long planning process, and it is the least traditional of them as well. Its students are bright, creative, and motivated. While very selective in admitting freshmen to a student body of just 1,400 students, Hampshire does not consider college admission test scores “in any way” for admission or for financial aid awards. Its students study in five interdisciplinary schools and create their own individualized majors—called “the concentration” at Hampshire. The concentration includes courses and required volunteer work at Hampshire or in the community and required work from various cultural viewpoints as well as fieldwork and internships, if they make sense for the self-designed program. As seniors, Hampshire students complete a self-designed rigorous final independent project, which includes original work, similar to a graduate thesis. The campus is lovely and idyllic. The price tag is predictable at about $47,000 in tuition per year. My visit to Hampshire with my son about five years ago made me want to go back to school and go there myself.

You should read about both Clark and Marlboro in the Colleges That Change Lives book or on the website. Clark enrolls about 2,200 undergraduates and another approximately 1,000 graduate students and has incredibly appealing “5th-Year-Free Accelerated B.A./Master’s Degree” programs in 14 fields, in which students can earn a master’s degree in just one year at no cost. Marlboro’s approximately 230 undergraduate students (there are another approximately 80 graduate students) follow a self-designed interdisciplinary program while working closely with faculty in small classes, individual tutorials, and advising sessions and living in a self-governing college community. The average high school GPA of incoming freshmen last fall was a 3.6 at Clark and a 3.2 at Marlboro; college admission test scores are considered at both if submitted, but are not required by either institution (about 60 percent of admitted students submitted them at Clark, but only about 25 percent at Marlboro).

3. Institutions Better Known in New England

New England also has a large number of institutions that are better known in the region than in other parts of the U.S. Let’s look at a few.

Founded in 1914 by Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales as a business school, Johnson & Wales University (JWU) has been adding new career fields, new degrees (now including advanced degrees), and new campuses (now including Charlotte, Denver, and North Miami) ever since. With its main campus in Providence, Rhode Island, JWU describes the program for its 10,000 students (largely undergraduates) this way:

Our educational approach is designed to help you identify your career field. You can develop a structured plan, starting your first term, to build industry knowledge, professional skills and practical work experience to excel.

Build a toolkit that serves you for life. Our unique education model integrates academics and professional skills, including real-world projects in our hands-on labs, taught by our industry-expert faculty.

Round out your education with related work experiences and structured internships around the globe, along with career services, community service and leadership opportunities. (quoted from the website)

Undergraduates pursue serious career preparation in the College of Culinary Arts, School of Business, School of Hospitality, School of Engineering and Design, School of Professional Studies (with three equine-related majors), and six majors (two of which are directly career related) in the School of Science and Liberal Arts. And, yes, there are student organizations and varsity sports teams, too.

College admission test scores are mostly optional, except for the Honors program and some majors. Undergraduate tuition and fees run close to $30,000 per year—which seems like a bargain, given the prices we have been seeing in this episode and in last week’s episode.

Founded in 1929 (a lot later than many New England colleges), Quinnipiac University, with about 6,500 undergraduates and 2,500 graduate and professional students, is located on two campuses near Sleeping Giant Mountain in the small New England town of Hamden, Connecticut (a third campus for the professional and graduate schools, including law and medicine, is not far away). Undergraduates can study in 58 degree programs in six schools and colleges: the College of Arts and Sciences and the Schools of Business and Engineering, Communications, Education, Health Sciences, and Nursing. Quinnipiac offers a traditional college experience, with Division I varsity sports teams, school organizations (including fraternities and sororities), and red brick buildings surrounded by trees and green lawns. And perhaps, with an election year approaching again, you have heard Quinnipiac University Poll results in the news.

Incoming freshmen this year at Quinnipiac posted average SAT scores in the mid-500s across the subtests, and about 20 percent were in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Admissions staff note that they are looking for a B+ overall high school average. About 50 percent of students come from New England states, and another approximately 45 percent come from nearby Mid-Atlantic states. Tuition and fees are about $42,000 per year—just about the going rate for the region.

Founded a few years later in 1932 as the New Hampshire School of Accounting and Secretarial Science, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) offered its first bachelor’s degrees in 1966 and has been expanding into other fields and innovative programs ever since. Currently, SNHU enrolls about 3,000 students at its main campus in Manchester, where undergraduates can study in about 50 degree programs in three schools: the Schools of Business, Education, and Arts and Sciences. SNHU also offers accelerated bachelor’s degrees completed in three years in 10 business fields.

College admission test scores are optional. A couple of years ago, average SAT subtest scores for the approximately 50 percent of admitted students who submitted them were in the high 400s, and admitted students posted, on average, a high school GPA of about 3.1. Undergraduate on-campus tuition and fees are a relative bargain at about $32,000 per year.

SNHU is, however, a leader in online education, with about 60,000 online students studying in more than 200 career-focused and liberal arts degree and certificate programs. The courses are “asynchronous”—meaning that students can do their coursework at any time of the day or night rather than in online sessions at specific times with faculty and other students. I heard a presentation by an SNHU administrator at a College Board conference a couple of years ago, and I was quite impressed then with what I heard. Online tuition runs about $10,000 per year if a student is taking a full-time college course load. That’s a great bargain if you have a child who needs to or badly wants to study online. As we have said a number of times in our NYCollegeChat episodes, we are wary of having first-time freshmen commit to full-time online study—or even a course or two online—because it takes a lot of maturity and self-motivation and self-discipline to study online successfully. Many college freshmen just don’t have that. However, your child might be an exception.

Let’s wind up with a smaller faith-based college in Colchester, Vermont: Saint Michael’s College (affectionately known as St. Mike’s), enrolling about 2,000 undergraduate and 500 graduate students. Undergraduates study in about 35 liberal arts and sciences majors, plus business, computer science, education, journalism, pre-pharmacy, and engineering (through two 3+2 programs, one with the University of Vermont and one with Clarkson University). Here is what St. Mike’s says about its Catholic foundation and its influence on life at St. Mike’s today:

Saint Michael’s College is . . . the only Edmundite college in the world. We were founded in 1904 by the Society of Saint Edmund, an order of priests that came to Vermont from France more than 100 years ago, and whose ministry is based on service, hospitality and education.

Our passion for social justice means we don’t just talk about improving the world. We have a history of it. Part of the Edmundite legacy is the vital role they played in the Civil Rights movement in the South. We embody that spirit with nearly 70 percent of our students volunteering through our MOVE (Mobilization of Volunteer Efforts) Office. Our Peace and Justice program of study brings issues into the classroom, and the Edmundite Center for Peace and Justice connects the campus community to peace and justice concerns and resources.

The Society of Saint Edmund has a meaningful presence on campus. Their inclusive nature, caring ministry, tradition of hospitality and passion for social justice are at the heart of on-campus culture. Several Edmundite priests are active members of the faculty, while others are focused on the Society’s ministries in Selma, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Understanding the history and importance of Christianity and other religions, as well as examining questions of philosophy, ethics and the common good, are an integral part of the Saint Michael’s curriculum. In everyday life on campus, the opportunity to serve others, and the chance to look inside yourself and explore your own path to the greater good, are always at hand.

Our students come from all walks of life. No matter what your spiritual and religious affiliation (and even if you have none at all), you’ll be welcome and comfortable at Saint Michael’s. . . .

As part of our Liberal Studies Curriculum, students are required to take two courses in Christian Traditions and Thought. Both of these courses are College-level academic courses which do not require or expect any particular religious affiliation. The first course is a Religious Studies course in the general study of Christianity and the second, more specialized, course is chosen by the student from a list of qualifying Religious Studies or Philosophy courses. (quoted from the website)

Just over 50 percent of students at St. Mike’s are Catholic. St. Mike’s is a close-knit community, with all full-time undergraduates living on campus for all four years (unless they are living at home with their family)—a remarkable feature, which makes it easy for students to feel comfortable with each other, join clubs and sports teams, and make good friends. Classes are small, and professors care about their students.

College admission test scores are optional, but accepted students in the Class of 2018 who submitted SATs posted a trio of scores in the high 500s. About 20 percent of students were in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and about 70 percent came from New England. Tuition and fees are about $41,000 per year—evidently, in the ballpark of the going rate for private colleges in New England.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • What these small New England campuses are really like
  • What college has a good reputation among business and industry leaders
  • Who might be right for online study as a freshman

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Episode 13: Focus on Students with Academic Issues

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about student with academic challenges.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

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This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how options for students with academic issues.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

Focus on Students with Academic Issues on  NYCollegeChat podcast

Every student’s high school record is not as perfect as his or her parents might wish. The two most common problems are that the GPA (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) is not as high as it could be or should be or that the SAT or ACT scores (that is, the scores on the standardized college entrance examinations) are not as high as they could be or should be. Either of these problems makes choosing colleges to apply to a tense discussion.

Who is in the more difficult situation? Is it a student whose high school GPA is lower than ideal for whatever reason—sports teams, time-consuming hobbies or other outside activities, interest in the opposite sex, laziness, mediocre teachers, or family issues? Or is it a student whose SAT or ACT scores are lower than ideal for whatever reason—unfamiliarity with the test, refusal to study for the test or take practice tests, unavailability or unaffordability of a prep course to get ready for the test, test anxiety, or just a lackadaisical attitude toward standardized tests or college preparation generally? Let’s look at these two scenarios.

1. Students with Mediocre Or Low SAT/ACT Scores

What do we mean by mediocre or low scores? Let’s take the SATs as the example. If a student scores below 600 on any of the SAT subtests (reading, writing, and mathematics), that is a mediocre or low score. Scores in the low 600s are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too.

Having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades. While students’ SAT or ACT scores are important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges—including some really good colleges—that do not put so high a priority, or indeed any priority, on these test scores.

If you read the admissions blurbs on college websites, you will quickly see quite a few colleges that declare that SAT or ACT scores are not as important as high school grades and that the real picture of a student comes from the long and hard work the student has—or has not—done in classes over the course of the high school years. Those colleges will state that high school grades will tell them more about a student—about the student’s determination and perseverance and motivation, for example—than his or her performance on one test given on one Saturday morning. Indeed, they will cite research that says that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores—for all of the reasons that common sense would tell you.

For years, a relatively small number of colleges had said that SAT and/or ACT scores were not required in their admissions process. More recently, more colleges have been added to this list—so many, in fact, that this group of colleges now has a name: “test-optional” colleges. One very recent addition to that list is Bryn Mawr College. Professor Marc Schulz, a member of the Bryn Mawr admissions committee was quoted on the Bryn Mawr College website in July, 2014, as saying this: “We looked not just at the national data, but also took a very hard look at our own data over the last several years. It was clear that the standardized tests added very little predictive information after accounting for the strength of applicants’ academic work in high school and the admissions staff’s review of the whole application.”

Here are a few more of the “good” colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores for admissions (although a student may usually submit the scores if he or she feels they will help the application and “accurately reflect his or her academic ability and potential”): American University, Bard College, Bates College, Bennington College, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Sarah Lawrence College, Smith College, Wake Forest University, and Wesleyan University.

Now, there is also something called “test-flexible” colleges. These are colleges that give students a choice of which standardized test scores to submit during the application process. Some of these policies are more “flexible” than others. Here are a few of the “good” colleges that have some flexibility in choosing test scores to submit: Colby College, Colorado College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, and New York University.

By the way, you can search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online. But, because admissions policies change from time to time, you really need to check on a college’s website to tell just exactly how the college does or does not require or use SAT or ACT scores. For example, some colleges require standardized test scores for some applicants, like home-schooled students and international students, and not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S.

We will talk more about SATs and ACTs in an upcoming episode in a future series—how to prep for them, when to take them, how many times to take them, what the SAT IIs are, and more.

2. Students with Mediocre Or Low High School Grades

What do we mean by mediocre or low high school grades? If a student has a GPA below 3.0, that is a mediocre or low GPA. GPAs of 3.0 to 3.3 are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too. If the high school GPA is on a 100-point scale, a GPA in the low 80s or lower is a mediocre or low GPA.

Unfortunately, there are no “high school grades optional” colleges that we know about. Certainly, most colleges will claim to look at the whole picture—a complete profile—of a student during the admissions process; but, that whole picture always includes high school grades. While there can be reasons that high school grades are lower than the student is capable of earning—such as difficult family situations or personal problems or trauma—those reasons would have to be explained compellingly in an essay or an additional letter of some sort to the college. In short, it is very difficult to explain away mediocre or low high school grades.

When a student has mediocre or low high school grades, it is ideal if that student happens to have high SAT or ACT scores. Then, the college can imagine that the student is bright, but perhaps had some reason for not performing as expected in high school classes. None of those reasons would be a great excuse, but some colleges will make an exception for such a student.

However, most students who have mediocre or low high school grades do not have high SAT or ACT scores. For those students, the choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year—or maybe public four-year—college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too.

Instead, look at two-year community college, which gives a student a chance to erase a poor high school record with a better community college record. As we said in our first series, Understanding the World of College, a student who completes an associate’s degree at a two-year college can transfer that entire degree—that is, all the credits that were earned in completing that degree—to a four-year college and be well on the way to earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. When a student has earned that two-year associate’s degree, the spotty high school record is really a thing of the past for most, if not all, four-year colleges.

To be sure, there are four-year public and private colleges that take students with mediocre or low high school grades. The question for parents is whether those colleges have as good a reputation as the kind of four-year public or private college a student might be admitted to after a successful experience at a two-year community college. It might also be a matter of money. Doing the two years at a community college could save money that could then be put into a better four-year college for the final two years.

Of course, for parents of younger students, remind them that there is no easy route to a good college if high school grades are poor.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
  • Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
  • Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

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