Episode 116: Getting a Remarkable College Recommendation Letter

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For those of you still debating which college your teenager should attend next fall, let us remind you, one more time, to take a look at Episodes 69, 70, 71, and 114–all of which aim to help you sort through some of the issues you might be facing in choosing the best college for your teenager. We wish you the best during this often stressful time–and, if you need an outside perspective, don’t hesitate to give us a call. Seriously.

Well, we thought about taking this week off to enjoy everyone else’s spring break. But last week, I read a great opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “Check This Box If You’re a Good Person,” and I thought we should share it with you in case you missed it. The author is Rebecca Sabky, who works in admissions at Dartmouth College. Located in Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth is the smallest of the Ivy League institutions. I think that “Check This Box If You’re a Good Person” can fairly be called “a feel-good piece,” and I believe that we could all use that right now.

For those of you with freshmen, sophomores, or juniors at home, this piece will definitely give you an idea you never had before–and that’s saying something when it comes to the subject of college recommendations. So, sit back and think outside the box with us.

1. Ms. Sabky’s Piece

Because Ms. Sabky did such a good job of writing her short personal piece, I am simply going to read it to you. I don’t want to mess it up, and it doesn’t need any further explanation from us. By the way, this piece is part of the On Campus series in the Times?”dispatches from college students, professors and administrators on higher education and university life” (quoted from the website). So, listen to the podcast or follow this link to read the article.

As a parent, I feel exactly the way Ms. Sabky does. Raising a kind and generous child is every bit as important as raising a super-smart one. In the case of this Dartmouth applicant, his parents clearly got both!

2. Think Outside the Box!

So, think outside the box when it comes to your teenager’s college recommendations. We are not saying that an unusual off-the-beaten-track recommendation takes the place of recommendations from teachers, who can judge your teenager’s academic abilities–probably especially when applying to highly selective colleges. But an additional recommendation–when one is allowed by the college–that can shed light on your teenager’s personal traits and values could, evidently, end up being priceless.

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Episode 115: What About a Gap Year Before College?

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While today’s topic might not be an issue in higher education generally, it could well be an issue in your own teenager’s higher education–and it’s an issue that you might want to think about quickly right now if you have a high school senior. It is the notion of having your teenager take a gap year between finishing high school this spring and starting college this fall. For those of you who have high school juniors at home, it’s not too early for you to be thinking about this option, too.

For those of you wrestling with which college your teenager should attend when he or she has some options, let us remind you that, last year in April, we did a series of three episodes on how to think about that college decision–one for above-average students, one for average students, and one for below-average students–because we felt that their options and their reasons for choosing one college over another might be very different. You should go back and re-read the show notes or re-listen to Episodes 69, 70, and 71–or, at least, the one that best describes the academic standing of your own teenager. As we said last week when we highlighted some key points from those three episodes, we just can’t do any better now than we did then in pointing out the serious questions you should consider in making this all-important choice with your teenager.

With all that said, we are guessing that there are some families that are not thrilled with the college options they have at the moment, and today’s episode might give those families something else to consider. Like everything, the notion of a gap year has pros and cons, though I have to say that there are a lot of fervent supporters–far more than I thought before I did this episode. Let’s get some background.

1. The Background

Let me start by saying that I happened on an article from The Conversation from way back last May. The Conversation is, in its own words, “an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community.” The Conversation explains that its “team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public. Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.” (quoted from the website) The Conversation, which was founded in Australia and now operates in the U.K. and U.S. as well, is a free resource, which addresses issues in arts, business, politics, the environment, health, technology, education, and more–so check it out.

The discussion today comes from an article by Joe O’Shea, the Director of Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement at Florida State University, and Nina Hoe, the Study Director at the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University. In the interest of full disclosure, Mr. O’Shea is the president of the board of the American Gap Association, and Ms. Hoe is the Association’s Director of Research. My guess is that they might not be the most impartial chroniclers of the benefits of a gap year; nonetheless, they offer a lot of information on the topic in their article.

Although gap years have been discussed–and taken–in the U.S. for many years, the notion of a gap year landed squarely on our collective radar when Malia Obama decided to take 2016?2017 as a gap year before attending Harvard this coming fall. Now, that probably had to do with the fact that her father was finishing up his presidency more than anything else, but perhaps she put gap years on the map for a lot of families that had never thought about them.

The data show that about 11 percent of Australian students more than 10 years ago were taking gap years compared to no more than 3 percent of U.S. students today. What is a common topic of discussion and real alternative for educated families in the U.K. is rarely discussed here in the U.S., especially among middle-income and lower-income families.

And yet, Mr. O’Shea and Ms. Hoe assert, in their article, that gap years are getting more popular in the U.S. So, let’s look at what the research shows.

2. The Research

The authors present evidence that an alarmingly sizable percentage of students on college campuses are stressed severely enough–including to the point of being medically diagnosed with anxiety or depression–to cause them to seek counseling from on-campus health services. The authors also note that “faculty and staff are reporting that today’s students lack coping skills such as resilience and the ability to succeed independently despite adversity” (quoted from the article). It is a picture of too many college students who are burned out from intense high school years, over-anxious, and unable to handle the many demands of college academic and social life.

Well, if that’s the problem, what does research say about the solution? Here is what the authors say:

Research shows that a gap year . . . can provide students the opportunity to gain personal skills such as independence, resilience, confidence and focus. A combination of activities during this year that involve volunteering, interning or working, either domestically or internationally, can provide meaningful experiences that challenge students outside their comfort zones. These experience[s] can help students reevaluate how they understand themselves and the world.

Several peer-reviewed studies focusing on students in the U.K. and Australia have shown that students who took a gap year experienced a host of personal benefits, such as higher levels of motivation and higher academic performance in college.

A 2015 survey of over 700 former gap year participants found overwhelming personal, academic, career and civic engagement benefits associated with taking a gap year.

Over 90 percent of all respondents indicated that their gap year provided important time for personal reflection, aided in personal development, increased maturity and self-confidence, and fostered the development of interpersonal communication skills.

Specifically related to college, 73 percent of respondents reported that their gap year helped them increase their readiness for college, 59 percent said it increased their interest in attending college and 57 percent said it helped them figure out what they wanted to study in college. (quoted from the article)

As loyal listeners of USACollegeChat know, we are all about getting kids outside their comfort zone, so that is an appealing aspect of a gap year. And I do think that what the research finds is entirely believable. I imagine that most adults would agree that a one-year dose of the real world?whether that is in a volunteer or paid setting, whether that is at home or far away, whether that is working with people like you or people not at all like you?is likely to help teenagers grow up and give them more life-coping skills than they had when they started.

But what about their future academic life? What if they like the path they are on in their gap year so much that they decide not to go to college at all? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? And what happens when they do go to college after a gap year?

Here is some research cited, with obvious approval, on the American Gap Association website:

From Joe O’Shea’s book, Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs: “. . . In Australia and the United Kingdom, economic researchers found that high school students who deferred their admission to college to take a Gap Year went to college (after their Gap Year) at the same rate as those who accepted an offer and intended to go straight there (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012). They also found that taking a Gap Year had a significant positive impact on students’ academic performance in college, with the strongest impact for students who had applied to college with grades on the lower end of the distribution (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012).” In fact, in the United Kingdom and in the United States, students who had taken a Gap Year were more likely to graduate with higher grade point averages than observationally identical individuals who went straight to college, and this effect was seen even for Gap Year students with lower academic achievement in high school (Crawford and Cribb 2012, Clagett 2013). (quoted from the website)

Well, now I am really interested–because I feared that kids who took a gap year might end up opting out of college (which would obviously not be my preference for them). It is also persuasive that gap-year kids with lower grades in high school graduated with higher college grades than similar students who went straight to college. Whether that finding is the result of academic knowledge actually gained during the gap year or of enhanced personal traits (like motivation and self-confidence) doesn’t really matter, I guess. So, there does not seem to be a personal or academic downside to a gap year–at least according to this research, these authors, and the American Gap Association.

3. The Design (and Expense) of a Worthwhile Gap Year

How then do Mr. O’Shea and Ms. Hoe characterize an appropriate gap year experience? This is what they say:

Gap years need to be properly designed so they can challenge students with new roles and perspectives that accelerate their growth as thinkers and citizens. Experiences that push students out of their comfort zones and allow them to explore new cultures and people from different backgrounds can create an impactful experience. They provide students an opportunity to reflect on a number of challenges and also allow for critical self-reflection that can root part of their identity in contributions to others.

In an ideal gap year experience, students get to develop actual relationships with people who are different from them. And when that happens, students can begin to see the world from different perspectives and learn about the complexity of social challenges. (quoted from the article)

Of course, that all sounds great. And if that can be done in the context of an internship near home or a volunteer slot in a nearby community, then I can get past one fear I have, which is that that gap years are just one more thing that benefit rich kids who can afford to fly off to some exotic locale or who can get a fascinating internship because of their parents’ connections.   Do you know, by the way, that there are companies that plan gap years for kids, including booking all of the travel? That can’t be cheap. Just like college admissions coaching, the notion of gap year experiences has spawned a whole industry. And that does worry me a bit.

Perhaps the title of a New York Times article last May by Mike McPhate says it all: “Malia Obama’s ‘Gap Year’ Is Part of a Growing (and Expensive) Trend.” His article notes that the price tag on an international gap year program could run as high as $35,000.

But here are a couple of other ways to do it:

[U]niversity administrators . . . note that gap-year plans come in a variety of forms, some of them at no cost. AmeriCorpsCity Year, for example, pays students stipends to teach. Another popular program, Global Citizen Year, provides financial support–more than $6 million since 2010–for students to pursue experiential learning.

But those programs can be highly competitive. City Year, for example, says it selects only about one in four applicants. (quoted from the article)

So, although these programs sound promising, it’s like trying to get into college all over again. I am not sure how that helps kids cope with burnout and stress. And, as we might have expected, colleges themselves are getting into the game, according to Mr. McPhate’s article:

More universities have begun formal gap-year programs that take varying approaches to enrollment and the providing of aid, including Princeton, Tufts, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Elon University.

At Princeton and North Carolina, for example, freshman-year enrollment is deferred and at least some financial help is provided, while Elon considers participants enrolled and charges its regular tuition. Another program offered by the New School in New York City also treats students as enrolled and offers up to a full year of academic credit.

Florida State University is among the latest campuses to start offering scholarships to gap-year students. Late last year, the public institution said applicants could get up to $5,000, and sent an email to the entire incoming [freshman] class urging them to consider deferring their freshman year. (quoted from the article)

Clearly, I am not understanding how a gap year turns into a year where tuition is charged and a full year of academic credit is given. That really makes it sound more like a study abroad program. And, in fact, there are already colleges (NYU is one) where freshmen can take their freshman year in another country–a real study abroad experience before you ever study at home.

4. So What?

So, what is the purpose of a gap year and who should think about taking one? Well, I think that the vocal proponents of gap years think everyone should take one, given the positive results that the research seems to show. I am probably a bit more restrained in my enthusiasm, but I am willing to be persuaded. Parents, I am afraid that you are going to have to do some research of your own if you think your senior would benefit from a year of experiences–paid or unpaid, nearby or far away–before starting into his or her college career.

Here are a few quotations from another New York Times article, written last year by Abigail Falik, who is the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year (which we mentioned earlier) and who is, I am assuming, a bit partial to the notion of gap years.

 

What if college freshmen arrived on campus not burnt out from having been “excellent sheep” in high school, but instead refreshed, focused and prepared to take full advantage of the rich resources and opportunities colleges have to offer?

The “gap year,” a common practice across Europe and Australia, has yet to take root in the United States. A primary barrier is the stigma we associate with the term–it conveys privilege and frivolity and is often viewed either as a luxury for a select few, or remediation for kids who didn’t get into the college of their choice.

And yet, the research shows undeniable, positive impacts in terms of increased maturity, confidence and achievement. A recent Middlebury study showed that students who take a year off before arriving outperform their peers in their academic and extracurricular engagement on campus. . . .

Given its known benefits, it’s time to rebrand the “gap year” as anything but a “gap.” When used intentionally, the year before college can be a bridge, a launch pad and a new rite of passage. It’s the students who find the courage to step off the treadmill–replacing textbooks with experience and achievement with exploration–who are best prepared for life after high school. And a growing number of colleges are taking notice.

Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s undergraduate admissions dean, wrote a manifesto about the need for students to take time off before college. Rick Shaw, Stanford’s undergraduate admissions dean, now speaks about the value of non-linear paths and the learning and growth that come from risk taking and failure, as opposed to perfect records. (quoted from the article)

Well, if I had not been sure that the notion of a gap year was an issue in higher education when I started this episode, I am pretty sure now. Parents, start your research!

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Episode 114: It’s College Decision Time!

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Well, it is almost April 1, the date by which a lot of colleges will make high school seniors happy or sad. In fact, many colleges have already done that in the past two weeks, with some doing so today and tomorrow. We are sure it is a tense time for lots of families–whether it leads to great joy or considerable disappointment. There is hardly a bigger issue in higher education, of course, than the admissions game, its fairness and unfairness, and its results for thousands and thousands of kids. Whatever the case may be, many of you are now in the position of making a final decision about where your teenager is going to go to college next fall.

Last year in April, we did a series of three episodes on making that college decision–one for above-average students, one for average students, one for below-average students–because we felt that their options and their reasons for choosing one college over another might be very different. You should go back and re-read the show notes or re-listen to Episodes 69, 70, and 71–or, at least, the one that best describes the academic standing of your own teenager. We just can’t do any better now than we did then in pointing out the serious questions you should consider in making that all-important choice with your teenager.

Of course, we know that many of you are too busy, especially right now, to review all three episodes, so we thought we would highlight some of the key points we tried to make in them. We chose points that apply to all seniors, regardless of their academic standing. We will assume for these discussions that seniors have a choice of colleges to attend, though that might mean as few as two colleges or as many as eight or 10 colleges. A small number of options, however, doesn’t necessarily make the choosing process any easier.

1. Rejection by the First-Choice College

Let’s start with what some families will consider the worst-case scenario, even though it likely is not really that: What if your teenager has just been rejected by his or her first choice? In Episode 69, we quoted from some remarkably insightful comments from a young woman named Julia Schemmer, who was rejected by her “dream” school–UCLA. She accepted a spot in the Class of 2019 at the University of California, Riverside. Here are some of the reflections that she offered other teenagers (originally published in High School Insider and re-published by the Los Angeles Times on March 31, 2016, as “Rejected from your dream school? Remember these three things“):

  1. It isn’t your fault. When a college rejection letter comes in the mail, it is easy to immediately invalidate everything you have ever done and view your experiences as a high school student as incomplete or inadequate. It’s not true. Many universities have rigorous application requirements with expectations that are often left unknown to anyone but the admissions board. You could have the perfect SAT, the most extracurricular activities, or the best GPA, but it could be true that the college wasn’t looking for things like that. . . .

  2. It’s not the end of the world. There are so many colleges and universities that would absolutely love to have you walk through their door. Whether it’s expanding your knowledge of other universities that may be better suited to your goals or working hard to transfer to your dream school, there are still opportunities to attend a great learning institution. When I decided to commit to attending a school different from my dream school, of course I was disappointed. However, I currently love the university that I attend and the major I am pursuing. If anything, UCLA will always be an option for my graduate school education. (quoted from the article)

Thank you, again, Julia! These are both excellent and important points. Neither is easy for kids to accept, however. No matter how many times any adult or older teenager says these two things, it is likely that kids will simply need to come to terms with this rejection over time. Parents, it’s not going to happen in a day or two–no matter how good you think the college options still on the table are. So, bear with your teenager while he or she goes through the stages of profound disappointment, whatever they are

2. Selectivity of the College

Let’s look at the selectivity of the college options that your teenager now has. We are going to assume that those colleges are not necessarily equivalent in terms of their selectivity. In other words, your child might have been accepted at a couple of selective private colleges (though not necessarily at a highly selective college), at a couple of less-selective private colleges, at your public flagship university or another public university in your state, and/or at a public flagship university or another public university in another state. You might also have a local community college on that list. But even if your child has just two options of colleges with differing degrees of selectivity, the decision-making process is still quite serious.

Let’s put the financial aspects of this decision aside for a minute and look first at the selectivity of the colleges. Let me start with our conclusion, which remains the same as last year’s conclusion, since no new research has indicated anything that would make us change our minds: Your teenager should go to the most selective school that accepted him or her. Are there any arguments on the other side of that decision? Yes, but they are not persuasive.

Apart from the undeniable prestige of attending a college that is more selective, we have said previously–based on a lot of data from various colleges–that graduation rates are higher at more-selective colleges. In other words, your teenager is more likely to graduate with a degree if he or she attends a more-selective college. Furthermore–and this is almost as important–your teenager is more likely to finish that degree in a reasonable amount of time, ideally four years (rather than the longer timelines many college students now operate on, where six years is not surprising). By the way, in the long run, getting out on time saves you money?sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

Practically speaking, what does our advice mean? It means that you should talk with your teenager about going to the toughest, most academically prestigious college possible. Not just because of the prestige factor, but because it will affect his or her future–both four years from now as graduation approaches and likely a whole lot longer in terms of the classmates your teenager will have and where they will all end up working many years from now.

Now, we know that many advisors would start talking to you about “fit” right now. We have even talked about “fit”?that is, how well your teenager will “fit” into the college community, based on brains or athletic ability or race or religion or socioeconomic status or any number of other things. We, too, want your teenager to fit into the college community that he or she chooses; we are just hoping that it will be an academically strong and well-resourced college community, with great professors and with students who progress through it and graduate on time.

Here are a few questions we asked last year: What if that most selective college is far away from home and you and your teenager wanted a close-to-home option? What if that most selective college is private and you and your teenager wanted a public option? What if that most selective college is located in an urban setting and you and your teenager wanted a rural or suburban option? What if that most selective college is not faith based and you and your teenager wanted a faith-based option?

Well, you are going to have to weigh all of these factors. But we are suggesting here that the selectivity of the college be moved to the top of your list of factors to consider when making this important decision.

By the way, the most selective college your teenager was accepted to might well be a public university?especially if it is your state’s or another state’s flagship university. As we have said many times, there is no prestige in attending a private college that is not as good as a great public college. For a list of great public colleges, go back and listen or re-listen to the nationwide virtual college tour we took you all on in Episodes 27-53. You will see the same names come up over and over again, including these: the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; the University of Virginia; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the College of William and Mary; the University of Iowa; the University of Washington; and the University of Texas at Austin. And there are quite a few more. If your teenager got into one of them, that is worth thinking really hard about.

And let us add one note about community colleges for those of you who did not listen in last week when we devoted Episode 113 to community colleges. If your child is at least an average student in high school, we don’t think that a community college is likely to be his or her best choice, although we understand that there might be financial reasons or family reasons to keep a child close to home and within commuting distance and that a community college might fit those circumstances very nicely.

Nonetheless, the difficulty that many students seem to have in graduating from a community college or in transferring from a community college to a four-year college really worries us. Listen to last week’s episode to find out about the scandalously low graduation and transfer statistics. Last week, we concluded that, unless you think your teenager is smarter, harder working, more motivated, and more goal oriented than the typical community college student, your teenager is likely to have some difficulty graduating from a community college and/or transferring to a four-year college. So, talk with your teenager and think hard about that choice.

3. Your Choice for Your Teenager

What if your teenager has just been accepted by the college that you really want him or her to attend, but that college is not your teenager’s first or second or even third choice? Who wins? That is one of the worst problems we can imagine.

As a parent and as an adult, I would like to say that you should win because you have been around longer and seen more and perhaps you even know more and are likely paying the bill. But I don’t think you can win in this situation without convincing your teenager that you are right. In previous episodes (like Episode 69), we have told many anecdotes that prove this point.

Here is the bottom line for us: College is hard, and it is almost impossible when the student is not reasonably happy there. So, parents, we believe that you will eventually have to give in to what your teenager wants because, in fact, he or she is the one who is going to have to do the work.

By the way, for all of you parents who have younger children coming up through high school and just starting the college process, here is your lesson today: Don’t let your teenager apply to colleges that you don’t want them to attend. It’s as simple as that. If you are satisfied, even if you are not necessarily thrilled, with every college on your teenager’s application list, that ensures that you will be satisfied with whichever one is your teenager’s final choice.

4. What About the Cost?

So, now let’s talk about money. What if your teenager got a great financial aid package–even a full ride–at a college that is not nearly as good as a more selective college that he or she was accepted by? Clearly, that is a hard choice. And I am not going to say to go out and find a bunch of obscure scholarships that go begging every year (though I know that happens). I am going to say that the best possible college education is something worth investing in–even if that means loans that your teenager gets and/or loans that you as parents get. I know that is not a popular position, and I know that many advisors and parents alike believe that having a student graduate with little or no debt is the most important thing. I simply don’t agree. By the way, as we have already said, attending a better college will likely ensure an on-time graduation–which, in the long run, can save you a lot of money on extra years of schooling.

Paying for college is hard–especially paying for private selective colleges. That’s just one more reason we love those great public flagship universities.

5. Next Steps

If your teenager has not already visited all of the colleges that have accepted him or her and that are still under serious consideration, you probably should do that now, if it is logistically and financially feasible. As we have said before at USACollegeChat, this is the best time to visit: when the list of colleges is short enough that the college tour can be reasonably cost-effective and efficient. The visits can be helpful both for your teenager in making his or her decision and for you as a parent in accepting that decision. Speaking as a parent, I think it would be difficult to send a child off to college without ever having seen it; and, yet, my husband and I did that when we sent our middle child off to Richmond, The American International University in London. Well, at least we had been to London, I told myself at the time. And it all worked out. We hope it will all work out for you and your teenager, too.

Here is an offer that we made last year at this time. Call me and tell me what your teenager’s choices are and what your circumstances are. I will be happy to give you some free advice, for what it’s worth. I do this all the time, and I would love to do it for you. Nothing is more important than making the right decision now. The next four years are critical.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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Episode 113: The Community College Challenge

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


Today’s episode focuses on a higher education issue that we have talked about before at USACollegeChat, though not recently–that is, the pros and cons of attending a community college, which is a marvelous institution in theory, but a somewhat more disappointing institution in reality. At least, that has been our position in the past.

When I read a recent article about where community colleges find themselves these days, I thought we might look at them one more time. If you are the parent of a senior, we will offer some recent facts that might affect your decision to send your own teenager to a community college next fall. If you are the parent of a junior, these same facts might affect your wanting to use a community college as your teenager’s safety school option or as your teenager’s only option during the application process next year.

1. The Funding Picture

The article I read was written by Jeffrey R. Young and disseminated online by EdSurge. EdSurge is an organization that, in its own words, “report[s] on [the] latest news and trends in the edtech industry to help . . . entrepreneurs who build new products and businesses; educators who use these tools; [and] investors and others who support companies and schools” (quoted from the EdSurge website). So, here is some background for our discussion, thanks to Mr. Young and EdSurge:

Nationwide, enrollments in community colleges have been declining for several years, in part because the job market as a whole has been improving, so fewer people have felt the need to . . . [head] back to school. And even as some states and cities propose efforts to make two-year colleges free to students, the broader trend is that many state governments have scaled back public support for community colleges in recent years. In Arizona, for instance, the state funding for two major community college districts [Maricopa Community College District and Pima Community College District] is down to zero.

“Like all public higher education support, the funding is going down,” says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “It’s worse in some ways at community colleges,” she adds, because the total amount that community colleges spend per student has been decreasing, according to The College Board’s Trends in College Pricing. “They just don’t have the money to serve students the way they did,” she adds. “That’s a reason to be very concerned.” (quoted from the article)

Yes, that is a reason to be concerned–for sure, if you live in the Phoenix-Tempe-Tucson area, where funding is “down to zero,” and presumably if you live in other community college districts in similar financial trouble. We have read plenty in the news over the past year about public four-year universities that are living in a world of declining state funding and, often, that are raising tuition to make up for that loss, much to the anger of the state residents.

But, if you thought that public community colleges could be your fallback position, perhaps it is time for you to think again. Because what happens when state and local governments cut back on their funding of their community colleges? Clearly, the community colleges are going to have to raise their tuition–which, to be fair, is typically very low–or they are going to have to reduce educational and support services to their students. Unfortunately, there’s no free lunch, even at community colleges. For some students, whose only viable option is their local community college, either choice that a community college is forced to make will be a serious blow.

2. The Pros of Community Colleges: A Review

Let’s review quickly some of the pros and cons about community colleges, also referred to as two-year colleges. Here’s a list of reasons to put two-year colleges on your teenager’s list of colleges to apply to (these reasons are conveniently taken from our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students):

  • Two-year colleges offer associate’s degrees, which can be enough for some careers, including high-paying technical careers. Later, if the student wants to do so, the credits earned for an associate’s degree can be transferred to four-year colleges and applied toward credits needed for a four-year bachelor’s degree.   (In fact, some two-year colleges in some states are now authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees, especially in technical fields where workers in the labor force are in short supply. Students pursuing those bachelor’s degrees would need to stay at the two-year college longer, of course.)
  • Two-year colleges offer students who have struggled in high school a chance to improve their academic record and gain the fundamental skills and study habits they will need to succeed in more advanced college study. After doing well at a two-year college, such students can get into a better four-year college than they could have gotten into right out of high school.
  • Two-year colleges can be a good choice if a student is undecided about an academic field of study in college and/or about a future career. Trying out different academic majors and different programs leading to different career paths is cheaper and likely easier to do at a two-year college than at a four-year college.
  • Two-year colleges offer their students core liberal arts courses (which can often be transferred to four-year colleges later) and/or technical training in many different fields at a very low price. Putting two-year colleges on your teenager’s list of college options is a reasonable decision if paying for college?either right away for a two-year degree or eventually for a four-year degree?is a critical concern for your family.

Let’s underline that last point, which, I think, is the primary point for the kids who head to a community college right out of high school. The fact that it is so much cheaper than any four-year option is sometimes irresistible. We know that students can get financial aid of all kinds from four-year colleges, which could make their time there essentially free, but none of those deals is a sure thing. Paying the very low tuition at a community college, especially with whatever financial aid is available, is a sure thing.

Let’s also acknowledge that we understand that there might be family reasons to keep a child close to home and within commuting distance and that a community college might fit those circumstances very nicely. Sometimes it is hard to argue against family reasons like that.

3. The Cons of Community Colleges: A Review

So, what’s the downside of going to a community college? As we have said before at USACollegeChat, the choice of a community college for students coming right out of high school is quite different from that same choice being made by adults returning to college or starting college for the first time. But, we are focused here on students coming right out of high school, just like your own teenager. Here is what Mr. Young’s article says about one very important college statistic:

? [T]he truth is that community colleges don’t always pay off for students. Completion rates are notoriously low–only about 38 percent of students who started at a community college in 2009 completed a two- or four-year degree within six years. And students who take out even small loans to attend can end up with crippling debt if they end up with no degree to show for their efforts. As [Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Urban Institute] puts it: “You really can’t pay back anything if you’re working at the minimum wage.” (quoted from the article)

That is a sobering statistic: Not even half of community college students complete any college degree in six years–not even a two-year associate’s degree. Admittedly, that statistic includes all kinds of students who attend community colleges–from bright kids right out of high school who need to save money to returning adults who have been out of school for a decade to kids who struggled in high school and couldn’t get into a more selective college. Nonetheless, we quoted evidence many episodes back that said that students are more likely to graduate if they go to a more selective college, for many reasons. You have to put that in the scale as you weigh college options for your teenager.

In addition to that seriously low completion rate, the transfer rate of students from community colleges to four-year colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees is also shockingly low, as we reported back in Episode 64, based on an article in The Hechinger Report. Here is that statistic, which was taken from a report from Teachers College, Columbia University:

. . . 80 percent of entering community college students say they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about a quarter actually make the transfer and 17 percent eventually get the degree. (quoted from the article)

So, as parents, you need to think hard about whether your teenager is different from the typical community college student–smarter, harder working, more motivated, more goal oriented, or something. Because, otherwise, the statistics are telling you that he or she is likely not to graduate with even an associate’s degree and is likely not to transfer to that more expensive four-year college you say you are saving up your money for. We all think our own kids are different and, maybe, better. But how much are you willing to gamble on that?

4. What Is the Answer?

Mr. Young’s article also noted that community colleges are trying out a few ideas in the hope of improving those statistics, and that’s a good thing. Let’s look at two of them. The first idea is something that community colleges are calling “guided pathways,” and the idea really couldn’t be simpler. Here it is:

The metaphor for the traditional community college is a “cafeteria” of course offerings, says Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “We’ve since realized that too much choice is actually overwhelming,” she adds, “and too many students are unable to put together a program of study that gets them where they want to go.”

John Hamman, a dean at Montgomery College, agrees. “What we need to do is help and talk to students about, what do you want to do?” Many community college students who struggle with subjects like mathematics, for instance, might prefer a different track that requires less math–but may not know the option exists. . . . And we don’t do a good enough job helping students [take] those smart pathways.” (quoted from the article)

Well, this problem exists at all levels of schooling and can be solved, at least partly, by intelligent and experienced advisors. Certainly, we had to serve in that capacity at the high school we co-founded in NYC. It was clear that we had to be vigilant to make sure that students were taking what they needed to take in order to graduate–and, in our case, to graduate early in three years. But, it is also true that four-year college advisors need to pay attention to course selection and graduation counseling–especially, as we just said in our last episode (Episode 112), if students are trying to do four years of college in three years.

In this case of community colleges, given their low graduation rate, they absolutely need “guided pathways” to make sure that students get onto a track as soon as possible and stay on track to finish the courses needed to earn a degree. If you are looking at a community college for your teenager, it would be wise to check out whether it has these pathways spelled out and this kind of academic advising available.

The second idea aimed at improving community college statistics is making online coursework more available. Here is what the article said:

Community colleges are . . . starting to do more to offer online courses, says Rufus Glasper, president of the League for Innovation in the Community College. But they are more likely to offer blended programs and require at least some in-person attendance, rather than set up all-online programs, he adds.

“Community colleges need to do more with online so that we can have lower price-point options for our students as well,” he says. That can be especially tough for two-year colleges, though, since they often don’t have the resources to invest in new online infrastructure that it takes to start fully online programs. (quoted from the article)

On the other hand, I am wondering whether the fact that community colleges often offer blended courses instead of fully online courses is actually a plus. Quite recently, in Episode 107, we discussed the pros and cons of online courses for various groups of students. We remained concerned at the end of that episode about the ability of most freshmen to take important introductory or foundational courses online (like Calculus I or Composition 101 or Introduction to Sociology or Spanish I or Biology 101) and get everything out of them that they would get if they were in a classroom with a professor two or three times a week. Offering courses fully online to save the student money may backfire if the student cannot complete the course with a satisfactory grade or with a satisfactory amount of knowledge. We are going to remain concerned that fully online courses might not, in the long run, improve a community college’s graduation rate or successful transfer rate.

5. Where Does That Leave Us?

Toward the end of Mr. Young’s article, he again quotes Ms. Karp, of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College:

“This is their moment because [community colleges] are the access and equity engines of higher education,” argues Karp. . . . “In this age when we’re talking about how do we open up access to higher education but also make sure our labor force is prepared for . . . jobs of the future, they’re in an ideal position.” (quoted from the article)

Community colleges might indeed be in an ideal position in theory, but they are going to have to improve their results in practice. Those results are what continue to worry us as seniors choose their first step into higher education. Let me simply repeat what I said a few minutes ago: Unless you think your teenager is smarter, harder working, more motivated, and more goal oriented than the typical community college student, your teenager is likely to have some difficulty graduating from a community college and/or transferring to a four-year college. So, talk with your teenager and think hard about your choice.

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Episode 112: Speeding Up College Graduation

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One of the biggest practical issues in higher education today is the rising and insanely high cost of a college education–obviously. The cost of going to college is not something we talk about a lot here at USACollegeChat, partly because there are so many other people talking about it all the time. But sky-high cost is the reason behind the topic we are going to discuss in this episode: speeding up college graduation–that is, graduating in fewer than the traditional four years.

Of course, given that so many students these days are taking longer than the traditional four years to graduate–so many, in fact, that six-year graduation rates are a standard part of college data reporting–graduating in fewer than four years takes on a new meaning. When I was in college some decades ago, everyone knew one or two kids who finished in fewer than four years, and we all thought those kids were incredibly smart. But there was no institutionalized plan for speeding up graduation–at least not at my university.

1. The Early College Movement

Speeding up graduation is something that Marie and I know a bit about.   Back in 2009, Marie and I and principal Chris Aguirre co-founded an Early College high school in Brooklyn. While many Early College high schools were concentrating on getting high school students into college courses earlier while still in high school, our high school concentrated on getting high school students out of high school quicker and into college full time.

We adopted Chris’s crazy idea that all of our public school students–most of whom posted just average or below-average middle school grades–could be put on a three-year high school completion schedule by using trimesters instead of semesters during the school year. To be clear, that meant that our students could graduate in three years instead of the traditional four. Well, it was hard work, but it worked. At the end of our first three years, about 65 percent of our first class of students graduated–a full year early–and went on to college. We actually beat New York City’s four-year graduation rate. By the way, virtually all of the rest graduated the following year, on time.

2. The NYU Story

So, Marie and I know that more education can be accomplished in less time, if someone is trying hard to make that happen and if those in charge have set up the framework to make it possible. It was with those fond memories of our accelerated three-year high school schedule that I recently read about a new plan at New York University (NYU), where a year of undergraduate residential study is now about $66,000. The article by Elizabeth A. Harris in The New York Times gives us some background:

[In February], [NYU] announced a series of measures that [makes] it easier to graduate in under four years, part of an initiative aimed at diminishing the university’s enormous affordability problem.

In some ways, the school is just catching up with its students. Ellen Schall, a senior presidential fellow and the head of the university’s affordability steering committee, which is tackling college cost on a number of fronts, said that about 20 percent of N.Y.U. students already graduated ahead of schedule.

“We were surprised,” Professor Schall said. “That’s part of what convinced us we needed to make this more transparent and more available to more students.”

Students have long found ways to make it through school more quickly to save money. But there is increasing momentum to formalize the process in the face of ballooning outrage over college costs and student debt ? while N.Y.U. is expensive, many other private universities [also] cost $60,000 or more a year. (quoted from the article)

I was also surprised that 20 percent of NYU students graduated in fewer than four years. Perhaps that is really a sign of the times–a confluence of high college costs, an increase in options for earning actual college credits while in high school through Early College and dual enrollment programs, and the fact that more and more students are taking Advanced Placement high school courses and exams to try to get high enough scores to earn some college credits.

According to the article, here are some ways that NYU is going to help its students graduate quicker:

. . . [W]hile students pay for 18 credits per semester, many actually take only 16, officials said, so the university will increase the number of two-credit courses it offers.

It will also allow many students to transfer in up to eight credits from other schools, like local community colleges where they can take inexpensive classes over the summer–in the past, this has been allowed on a case-by-case basis. In addition, the university has trained advisers to help students create schedules that will get them to their three-year goal. (quoted from the article)

Okay, so I guess if students took an extra two-credit course each semester, or 18 credits instead of the typical 16, that would give them 108 credits in six semesters, or three years, leaving students perhaps another 20 credits shy of graduation. Allowing students to transfer in a certain number of credits from cheaper summer courses or from college courses taken while in high school puts these students closer to the goal line. At that point, they would need to take several heavier-than-18-credit semesters or additional courses during the summer at NYU itself–both of which would cost money. No one said it would be easy, but a substantial portion of $66,000 is a lot of money to save.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that students would need trained advisers to make this work. I imagine that there are confusing regulations galore that no student could ever figure out on his or her own at every college in the U.S. I recall how hard it was to get our kids out of high school in three years. Marie and I spent countless hours scheduling kids and checking to make sure that all of the State’s and City’s graduation requirements were being met as we went through those three years.

3. Stories from Other States

In the article, Ms. Harris widens her lens and tells these stories about public universities:

Gov. John Kasich, Republican of Ohio, pushed to make it easier for students in his state to graduate from public colleges early by allowing more credits from high school or technical programs. Gov. Scott Walker, Republican of Wisconsin, included in his budget proposal this month that schools in the University of Wisconsin system should create a three-year degree for 60 percent of its programs by the summer of 2020. Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., which is a state school, has also been experimenting with three-year degree options. (quoted from the article)

I think it is significant that colleges in the University of Wisconsin system–which would hopefully include the flagship campus at Madison–might create three-year degrees for 60 percent of its programs over the next few years. Of course, we will see what happens to that proposal. But whatever happens, it seems likely that other such proposals in other states might not be far behind. It is also important to notice that public universities are making these moves. As you know, public universities are often the default college solution for many students who cannot afford private colleges. And, for many such students, the cost of four years at their state’s best public institutions is, unfortunately, not affordable, either.

Here is what Ms. Harris says about private colleges:

Among elite private institutions, official [accelerated]programs remain rare, though Wesleyan University, the Connecticut liberal arts school, announced a formalized three-year track about five years ago. (quoted from the article)

Let’s take a look at the Wesleyan plan, as explained on its website:

Students who graduate in six semesters (three years of normal course loads plus summer courses) may expect to save about 20 percent of the total cost of a Wesleyan education. The three-year option is not for everyone, but for those students who are able to declare their majors early, earn credit during Wesleyan summer sessions, and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities on campus, this more economical path to graduation can be of genuine interest. . . .

For most students, the greatest challenge lies in figuring out a way to earn . . . [enough] credits and complete the particular course requirements for the major in six semesters instead of eight.  Understanding the ways of earning additional credit and accelerating the pace of one’s semester standing is crucial for developing a feasible three-year academic plan. (quoted from the website)

Okay, saving 20 percent isn’t bad–not quite a full year’s savings, but enough to make it worth pursuing.

Interested Wesleyan students will have to earn credits faster and will also have to declare their majors early, presumably in order to ensure that they can get all of the major’s requirements met. So, no waiting around till junior year and no changes once a student is headed down a given track. Clearly, accelerated graduation is not for the student who is taking his or her time exploring subject fields and majors and even trying out more than one major.

Let’s look at the ways Wesleyan says that students can earn additional credits on an accelerated three-year schedule:

Most students who graduate early use a combination of pre-matriculant credit, summer credit, and in-semester course overload. . . .

Pre-matriculant credit.  Up to 2.00 pre-matriculant credits [that is, actually credits for two courses] may be applied towards graduation.

  • Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test credit.  In most cases (exceptions include Biology, English, Computer Science, and Physics), it is necessary to first complete a course in an appropriate Wesleyan department to convert an AP or IB exam into Wesleyan credit.
  • College courses taken in high school.  To be eligible for Wesleyan credit, the course must have been taken with college students and taught by a college professor on a college campus.  If the course is listed for credit on the high school transcript, it may not be used for Wesleyan credit. (quoted from the website)

Of course, we all understand taking courses in the summer and taking additional courses during a regular semester. But the ways to earn credit before a student gets to Wesleyan are especially interesting and specific. Wesleyan places clear and academically rigorous restrictions on using AP or IB test credit as well as on using credits for college courses taken in high school. For example, it will not take dual enrollment course credit, and it will not take credits from the type of college courses that many Early College high schools now run. I actually couldn’t agree more with Wesleyan’s position on both of those; in fact, our Early College high school put our third-year students into courses that Wesleyan would have loved: on a college campus, with other college students, and taught by a college professor.

So, given all of these regulations, how many Wesleyan students actually graduate early? According to the article, the Wesleyan president “estimated that about 20 Wesleyan students annually graduate in three years, up from roughly three a year before [we] made the option official” (quoted from the article). That’s a big increase, of course, though not a substantial portion of the approximately 750 freshmen Wesleyan admits in a year.

4. What’s the Downside?

So, what’s the downside to an accelerated college experience other than the intense and likely difficult academic experience that we have already mentioned? People seem to believe that the biggest downside of all is that students will simply miss out on what it means to have the full college experience?including making friends (and future connections) of all kinds, exploring extracurricular activities, taking advantage of internships and study abroad programs, and the like. In fact, students on accelerated schedules do engage in all of these, but it is probable that some things will be missed in the face of the considerable academic pressure caused by taking additional credits each semester and each summer.

Is the hard academic work and some missed opportunities worth it? Is going to a more expensive college that a kid loves for three years better than going to a cheaper college that a kid is less excited about for four years? Here’s just one more thing for you to think about, parents, as you get your own teenager ready to make a college decision next month.

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