Episode 135: Another Look at Community Colleges

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Today’s episode in our series Researching College Options looks at a big option–an option that we have talked about in quite a few USACollegeChat episodes and in our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. Most recently, we took a careful look at this option about five months ago in Episode 113. However, I have to admit that I am considering it again, based on a new opinion piece by LaGuardia Community College President Gail O. Mellow in late August in The New York Times. The option is community college. As we said in Episode 113, the community college is a marvelous institution in theory, but a somewhat more disappointing institution in reality–or, at least, that has usually been our position.

If you are the parent of a high school senior, we know that some of you–perhaps many of you–are thinking about sending your kid to a community college next fall. Maybe that’s for financial reasons, maybe for academic reasons, maybe for maturity reasons, maybe for location reasons, maybe for some other reasons. Whatever your reasons, President Mellow has made us think again; so, let’s take another look.

1. The Pros of Community Colleges: A Review

Let’s quickly review some of the pros and cons about community colleges, also referred to as two-year colleges. Here’s an abbreviated list of pros we offered back in Episode 113 (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 over four years, especially in technical fields where workers in the labor force are in short supply.)
  • 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, these students can likely get into a better four-year college than they could have gotten into right out of high school.
  • 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. That’s critically important if paying for college is a major concern for your family.

That last point about very low cost is perhaps the main reason that kids head to a community college right out of high school. The fact that community college is so much cheaper than any four-year option–and the fact that kids can live at home and save even more money–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.

2. 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 when it is being made by adults returning to college or starting college for the first time. My own nonprofit organization has done market studies for quite a few community colleges interested in increasing their adult enrollment (that is, students over the age of 25) and in serving those adult students better. And, to be fair, community colleges are a great institution for getting adults into college study or back into college study. But, we are focused today on your kid, who is going to college right out of high school, and some of the statistics about community college completion rates and transfer-to-four-year-college rates are just plain scary.

You have to deal with this 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 just needed 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 have quoted evidence in previous USACollegeChat episodes that shows that students are more likely to graduate if they go to a more selective college, for many reasons. That is clearly a reason against having your kid choose a community college for next year.

In addition to a 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 way back in Episode 64, based on an article in The Hechinger Report. Here is a 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)

Parents, we said in Episode 113 that we thought you should think hard about whether your kid is different from the typical community college student–smarter, harder working, more motivated, more goal oriented. Just being younger might not help enough. 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 great four-year college you say you are saving up your money for.

3. President Mellow’s Point of View

And now we come to President Mellow’s point of view. I have to admit that some of my attitude toward community colleges comes from my belief that kids who can get into a satisfactory four-year college and who can figure out how to pay for it (including through loans and other unpleasant devices) should go directly to that four-year college. I worry that kids who could go to a four-year college, but don’t, will get sidetracked into community college and never get out. But perhaps I have not given sufficient thought to kids who cannot go to a four-year college, especially for financial reasons.

Let’s look at some excerpts from President Mellow’s recent opinion piece:

You might think the typical college student lives in a state of bliss, spending each day moving among classes, parties and extracurricular activities. But the reality is that an increasingly small population of undergraduates enjoys that kind of life.

Of the country’s nearly 18 million undergraduates, more than 40 percent go to community college, and of those, only 62 percent can afford to go to college full time. By contrast, a mere 0.4 percent of students in the United States attend one of the Ivies.

The typical student is not the one burnishing a fancy résumé with numerous unpaid internships. It’s just the opposite: Over half of all undergraduates live at home to make their degrees more affordable, and a shocking 40 percent of students work at least 30 hours a week. About 25 percent work full time and go to school full time. (quoted from the article)

Of course, some of these students who work full time and go to school full time are adult students over the age of 25–but, not all of them. For example, a lot of students who graduate from urban high schools, like the one we co-founded in Brooklyn, head off to college with both the intention and the necessity of working while they are enrolled. Marie and I worried that our students wouldn’t be able to do both successfully. We worried that they were going to have a hard enough time in college without spending 10 or 15 or 20 hours a week–or more–at a job. But, given their family circumstances, many of them had no choice, just as President Mellow writes.

She continues:

As open-access institutions, community colleges educate the majority of our country’s low-income, first-generation students. But public funding for community colleges is significantly less than for four-year colleges, sometimes because of explicit state policies. This means the amount that community colleges can spend on each student–to pay for faculty, support services, tutoring and facilities–is far less as well.

Tuition for low-income students can be covered by federal financial aid programs, but these students often have significant other costs–including housing, transportation, food and child care–that regularly pose obstacles to their education.

A recent Urban Institute study found that from 2011 to 2015, one in five students attending a two-year college lived in a food-insecure household. A study from the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that in 2016, 14 percent of community college students had been homeless at some point. At LaGuardia Community College in New York, where I am president, 77 percent of students live in households making less than $25,000 per year.

With financial pressures like these, studying full time is not an option. It is not uncommon for a student to take between three and six years to graduate from a two-year associate degree program. (quoted from the article)

And we can see why. Those statistics are sobering, and they do put community colleges’ lousy completion rates into perspective. Of course, you would still want your kid to come out of a community college on time so that he or she could move forward and transfer to a four-year college or enter the workforce and get a decent job. This is especially true if you, as a parent, can manage to pay the cost of attending a community college and keep distractions for your kid–like working a significant number of hours a week–down to a minimum.

Not surprisingly, President Mellow argues for a better financial deal for community colleges and their students, both in government funding and, interestingly, in philanthropy. She writes:

Community colleges need increased funding, and students need access to more flexible federal and state financial aid, enhanced paid internships and college work-study programs. Improved access to public supports, like food stamps and reduced public transportation fares, would also make a world of difference.

It’s not just that policy must change. Last year, more than $41 billion was given in charity to higher education, but about a quarter of that went to just 20 institutions. Community colleges, with almost half of all undergraduate students, received just a small fraction of this philanthropy. It is imperative that individuals, corporations and foundations spread their wealth and diversify where they donate their dollars. (quoted from the article)

I have to tell you that I was so embarrassed that my two alma maters might be on that list of 20 institutions that I didn’t even look at it–because obviously that is just the very definition of unfair advantage and privilege.

4. What’s Herb Alpert Got To Do with It?

Some months ago, I wrote a piece for my own blog, ParentChat with Regina, about the importance of music in a child’s education. But the really arresting part of the piece was about Herb Alpert, trumpeter extraordinaire and co-founder of A&M Records. (If you are too young to remember Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, go listen to Alpert’s signature style on YouTube. Start with “Tijuana Taxi” and “This Guy’s In Love With You”–and stay for all the rest.)

As it turns out, Alpert has done what President Mellow wishes more people would do. His foundation–co-founded with his wife, singer Lani Hall–has made a $10.1 million gift to Los Angeles City College (LACC), a two-year public community college. The money will create an endowment, which will be used to raise the number of music majors enrolled from 175 to 250 and to provide ALL of them with FREE tuition.

As reported by Carolina A. Miranda in the Los Angeles Times, Alpert said this about his gift:

LACC is a gem of an institution. . . . [My] biggest motivation was helping kids who don’t have the financial energy to go to a major college. At LACC, they’ve nurtured thousands of dedicated students every year. My brother went there. My ex-partner [record producer] Lou Adler went there. I’ve visited the school. It’s alive. It’s kickin’. (quoted from the article)

Alpert noted that he was especially interested in supporting a public institution where students of all socioeconomic backgrounds could get a college education. It’s as if he were simply channeling President Mellow.

5. So, What About Community Colleges?

So, where does all that leave us–or rather, you? Well, we are probably going to continue to worry when seniors choose a community college as their first step into higher education. We are going to continue to worry that some of them are going to have difficulty graduating from a community college in anything close to two years and/or transferring to a four-year college ever.

But we are also going to admit that financial constraints can cause families to choose a path that might not be as perfect as we would like for their own kids. If that is your situation, talk with your kid and think hard about the community college option. Think about how to keep working hours to a minimum so that study hours can be at a maximum. Talk about how important it is to stay on track and make progress toward graduation every semester. Help make the statistics better.

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Episode 134: The College/Career Value of Internships

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Welcome back from the Labor Day holiday and welcome back to school for those of you living in the Northeast, where the very last kids to start back reside. And welcome back to our series, Researching College Options, where we have spent the last three episodes talking about the academic hurdles that kids will meet in trying to get into a college. Those hurdles are, first, SAT and ACT scores of competing applicants; second, average high school grade point average (GPA) of competing applicants; and third, courses that all applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits (or Carnegie units) in each subject area, but also sometimes including specific courses, especially in math and science. To repeat from our previous episodes, all three of these academic standards matter at most of the nation’s most selective four-year colleges, and high school GPAs and high school courses taken actually matter at virtually all of our nation’s four-year colleges.

When we talked about high school courses taken (in Episode 133), we said that this is something you could probably still fix if your kid is just starting back to school now for his or her senior year. Yes, your kid’s fall semester courses were likely chosen some time ago, but changes can be made in most high schools as classes start if there is an important enough reason–and, clearly, meeting college entrance requirements is an important enough reason. Parents of younger students, we told you that you still have time to have a major effect on the high school courses your kid will take in the next couple of years, and you should absolutely start looking at entrance requirements now–before it is too late. Go back and listen to Episode 133 to find out why and how.

In today’s episode, we want to talk to all of you parents about something else that you can still influence–something else that will improve your kid’s college application, to be sure, but that will also just simply improve your kid. It’s not a new topic for us, and we hope it will sound familiar to you, too.

As we turn to today’s topic, let us remind you, one more time, to give your kid our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, designed to help students get the information that they need to make good choices about where to apply. We will talk more about the book in a few weeks–when you all are getting really nervous about those unfinished college applications.

1. What About Internships?

But now, we want to take you all the way back to Episodes 16 and 17, when we first talked to our audience about the topic of internships. I imagine that many of you listeners were not with us then since we had only just begun our podcast. Or, perhaps you had kids who were younger then and not yet in the throes of college applications. So, I think this bears repeating. Let us start with some internship basics and then talk about a new research study that offers some very interesting new evidence about the value of internships–especially for certain students. So, stay tuned.

Let us say first and foremost that students who have had internships in high school almost universally say that their internship was one of the most valuable learning experiences they ever had. And, from another perspective, their adult supervisors at the workplace almost universally say that having the student intern was a great experience for the organization as well. Undoubtedly, some students might be unprepared academically or socially for an internship, and some organizations might be unprepared to use an intern effectively. But, when a student is prepared and the organization is welcoming, an internship is a well-documented way of helping a student acquire some of the skills that he or she will need in real life, both in college and in a career.

Unlike many innovative programs brought into schools in the past century, there is simply no downside to student internships. About 40 years ago, my nonprofit organization started evaluating internship programs that were funded by government grants and operated by individual school districts, colleges, and nonprofit organizations. Every single program we studied offered great results for students and received high marks from the adults involved–both in the workplace and in the schools. We never evaluated any kind of innovative program that was more effective or more universally liked.

One of the best ones I ever saw was then called the Executive High School Internship Program, and it was used in many school districts. It placed students in executive internships–that is, students worked with executives in various professional fields. Back in the late 1970s, we did an evaluation of the Executive High School Internship Program in the Montgomery County Public Schools in suburban Maryland. At that time, the program placed students in, specifically, public administration internships–for example, working with County government officials. It was a really interesting idea, I always thought.

I searched for Executive High School Internships while I was preparing this episode and found a version of the program still offered in Montgomery County at the Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. Since almost nothing innovative lasts in education for 40 years, I am thinking that those administrators and parents and students in Montgomery County agreed with our highly favorable evaluation all those years ago. Here is an excerpt from the Walter Johnson High School website today:

The Executive Internship Program is a rigorous, high-quality profession-focused academic program. This program allows students to explore and clarify career options in a chosen area of academic interest. Students are required to use verbal, analytical, questioning, and writing skills while participating in their internship. The general expectations of the workplace will be followed throughout the experience. All students enrolled in this program should gain personal and professional experience that will assist them in meeting their lifetime goals. An internship enables students to identify a field of interest, observe and participate in related professional activities, and understand a chosen profession’s requirements and culture. This will help a student determine if a profession is compatible with his interests, values, skills, and aptitudes. Students will integrate academic knowledge [into] a professional setting and apply that acquired knowledge to a variety of experiences. Students will develop interpersonal communication skills, advance their social skills, and mature in their personal habits as a function of working in a professional environment.

The internship is a semester-long elective course completed during the school day or after school. The student receives honors elective credit . . . . (quoted from the website)

So, kudos to the Executive High School Internship Program and its legacy.

Marie and I can tell you countless stories of high school students’ internship experiences and how effective they are–from working in a prestigious architecture firm in Manhattan to working in a small, full-service advertising agency to working in technology support at a City University of New York college campus to working in a neighborhood children’s clothing store to working in a large engineering company, where one of our students actually solved a problem that the engineers were having trouble with. These are all stories from the internships our students had at the high school we co-founded in Brooklyn. Our Early College engineering- and architecture-focused high school was started in conjunction with NAF (formerly known as the National Academy Foundation and now going just by its acronym), a nonprofit organization that supports the programming of 675 career academies in high schools in 36 states, serving over 96,000 students. A formal internship is a key part of the NAF academy model.

So, if your high school has a formal internship program, get your kid into it. It looks great on those college applications because it is evidence that your kid has shown commitment over time, dependability, responsibility, initiative, and appropriate social skills in a real workplace environment. While these skills are all great for some future career, they are also equally important for success in college. Just think about it. And don’t forget, an internship might be an excellent source of college application essay material and an excellent source of additional college recommendation letters, if needed.

If your high school does not have a formal internship program, you can help your kid seek out an internship on his or her own–after school or on weekends (by the way, parents of younger kids, you still have summer options available to you). Ideally, you would have your kid look for an internship in a career field of interest and/or in a prospective college major field of interest in an organization where a responsible adult would agree to supervise and mentor your kid. (By the way, college applications often have an essay about why the student is interested in the major he or she has declared. An internship in the field is a great thing to write about in those essays.)

We are not saying that getting an internship on your own is particularly easy to do or that your kid won’t have to compete with college students, who are also looking for internships and who might be more qualified and/or at least more mature. However, we are saying that an internship experience with personal adult mentoring is priceless and worth the headache of trying to find one. Using whatever personal connections you might have at work, through friends, at your place of worship, or elsewhere might be your best chance of helping your kid find an internship.

Just a note: Some internships are paid, and some are unpaid. For example, NAF strongly believes that internships should be paid. To be sure, paid internships are a better simulation of the actual world of work and increase the likelihood that the student will be taken seriously by the adults on the job. Nonetheless, internships are such a good experience for students that we would argue that an unpaid internship experience is still worth it, and being able to accept an unpaid internship will definitely make it easier to find one.

2. The New Case for Internships

Now, I didn’t need any more evidence to tell me how valuable internships are. But, I was happy to find some while reading an August 29 article by Sarah Sparks at the Inside School Research blog at Education Week. She refers to a research report by the Urban Institute, which evaluated a high school program that provided mentorships, six-week professional career skills training, and a senior-year internship. The report looked, about two years after high school, at just over 1,000 students who had applied to the program in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Some of the applicants were put into the program (through random assignment), and some made up the control group. They were about average students (with an average high school junior year cumulative GPA of 2.7), and about 89 percent were African American and typically lived in “economically distressed” neighborhoods.

The report is entitled Pathways After High School: Evaluation of the Urban Alliance High School Internship Program, and it is authored by Brett Theodos, Mike Pergamit, Devlin Hanson, Sara Edelstein, Rebecca Daniels, and Tanaya Srini. Here are some findings:

  • Students in the program self-reported that they were more comfortable filling out the FAFSA and applying for other scholarships than students in the control group.
  • Male students in the program were more likely to graduate from high school than male students in the control group.
  • Male students in the program were more likely to apply to college than male students in the control group.
  • Male students who completed the program were 23 percentage points more likely to attend college than male students in the control group.
  • Male students who completed the program were 21 percentage points more likely to earn a two-year degree or be in college in their third year after high school graduation than male students in the control group.
  • Male students in the program were significantly more comfortable with their own “soft skills” (e.g., “speaking with adult coworkers, writing professional e-mails, making presentations, dressing professionally, completing work assignments on time and getting to work on time”) after one year out of high school and even more comfortable after two years out of high school.
  • The program shifted students with middling high school GPAs from attending two-year colleges to attending four-year colleges.

So, if you are the parent of an African-American male high school student, the data say that you should get him into an internship program, especially if he is just an average student. Of course, we believe that the rest of you should also get your kids into internship programs, because, as we said earlier, there is just no downside. You will be glad you did when it comes time for your kid to fill out those college applications, but you will also be glad you did when it comes time for your kid to function at college during the academic year and in the workplace during the summers.

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Episode 133: What High School Courses Will Get You into College?

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

We are in the fifth week of our new series, Researching College Options, and we have spent the last two episodes talking about the two most likely academic hurdles that kids will meet in trying to get into a college: that is, first, the SAT and ACT scores of newly admitted and/or enrolled freshmen at the college and, second, the average high school grade point average (GPA) of those students. I think we made it clear that both of these matter at most of the nation’s most selective four-year colleges and that high school GPAs matter, in fact, at virtually all of our nation’s four-year colleges.

So, let’s look one more time this week at what we call Step 13 in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–that is, Step 13 of getting the information that your kid needs to make good choices about where to apply. Step 13 is about researching the college’s admission practices; we’ve talked about some of this information, and more is in the book. Finding out all of the information we call for in Step 13 will give you an idea about how likely it is that your kid will be accepted by a college if he or she decides to apply. As we said in the last episode, no one can say for sure whether your kid’s grades or admission test scores or extracurricular and community service activities or letters of recommendation will be appealing enough to get him or her admitted to a particular college. But today’s episode is about one more academic hurdle that might stand between your kid and one or more colleges on his or her Long List of College Options (LLCO): that is, high school courses that your kid did or did not take.

1. What High School Courses Should Your Kid Have Taken?

We want to talk to you about this topic because it is something you still might be able to fix as your kid starts into his or her senior year in the next few weeks. Yes, your kid’s fall semester courses were probably chosen some time ago, but changes can be made in most high schools as classes start if it is important enough. So, let’s find out if it is important enough. Parents of younger students, you still have time to have a major effect on high school courses taken in the next couple of years, and you should absolutely weigh in. Here is what we wrote in our new book for kids like yours:

Let’s look at [another] admission standard–one that is less often considered and more often taken for granted–and that is the courses that applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits (or Carnegie units) in each subject area, but also sometimes including specific courses, especially in math and science.

Part C5 of the common data set [by the way, you can search for the “common data set” on each college’s website, and you will often find it] displays both REQUIRED and RECOMMENDED high school units, by subject area, but you should check out each college’s website for more detailed information. College Navigator [the online resource provided by the National Center for Education Statistics] does not have any specific information on this topic.

On a college’s website, this information [on required and recommended high school courses] can virtually always be found by starting with the Admission home page. You will find that the high school course or credit expectations of colleges do, in fact, differ, usually according to how selective the college is. But there are always a few surprises (like colleges that require students to have earned career and technical education credits in high school, for example).

After you write down the required and the recommended courses or credits, you can compare them from college to college, and you can see how well they match up with what you have taken so far and with what you will be taking as you finish up high school. Particularly if you are just a freshman or sophomore, this information can be invaluable as you plan your remaining semesters in high school. For example, what if a college on your LLCO requires–or, more likely, recommends–four credits of foreign language? Foreign language is something that lots of high school students drop out of before taking a fourth year. Perhaps that’s because they don’t know how many selective colleges recommend it.

The courses that you take in high school matter, including the courses that you take in your senior year. Colleges will tell you that slacking off in the senior year is never a good move. So, for example, a fourth year of math and a fourth year of science would be the best scenario for most applicants–and might be a mandatory scenario for entrance to top colleges and to some college programs, like engineering. If you don’t have a rigorous senior year planned, think again.

In the long, but crucial, College Profile Worksheet that we ask your kid to fill out for every college on his or her LLCO, we ask for the number of credits or courses required for admission to the college or to the college/school that he or she is interested in within the university as well as any specific courses required (like Biology or Algebra II). We ask for the information by subject field–meaning in English, math, science, social studies, foreign languages, arts, and other fields (which could include career and technical education or physical education or health or something else). And then we ask for the same information for recommended courses, including recommended courses like Calculus, for example.

Interestingly, many public state flagship universities have quite detailed lists of required and recommended courses that applicants should have taken, and my guess is that these lists are well known to high schools in those states so that high school counselors can make sure that students take them. At least, I hope they are. For those students applying to flagship universities in states other than their own state–as we have recommended that many students do–those students should be particularly careful about finding out what those requirements are and then meeting them. Why? Because the kids in those states are more than likely meeting all of them because their high schools know about those requirements and are well positioned to provide the courses that are needed.

Let’s look at one example. I took the University of Georgia, a very good flagship university–not the most selective in the nation, but a very competitive one. Here is what the website says about the College Preparatory Curriculum the university expects its applicants to have taken (remember that one unit is equal to one year of study):

At a minimum, by policy of the University System of Georgia, all first-year applicants must complete the College Preparatory Curriculum (CPC), which consists of 17 academic units in English (4), Mathematics (4), Science (4), Social Studies (3), and Foreign Language (2). The Georgia Board of Regents has a detailed high school curriculum guide to assist students in understanding what courses need to be completed for college. (quoted from the website)

Here are a few more details for University of Georgia applicants:

  • 4 units of math must include Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and one math course beyond Algebra II
  • 4 units of science must include 1 unit of biological sciences; 1 unit of physical sciences or Physics; 1 unit of Chemistry, Environmental Science, or Earth Science; and a 4th unit of science, which could include AP Computer Science (with two of the four units being lab sciences)
  • 2 units of foreign languages, with the two units being sequential units in one language

Those are serious requirements. I bet there are a lot of Georgia high school students and a lot of high school students in most states that cannot meet those standards even if the necessary courses were offered in their high schools. Parents, is your kid one of them?

The Georgia example is the reason we are telling you about this now. There is still time to add a fourth year of math or science to your kid’s senior year schedule–even if it is not the hardest math or science that you can imagine. I would a lot rather have four units of math and four units of science on my kid’s transcript and let the college figure out how hard those fourth-year courses actually were than not have the fourth-year courses there at all. In other words, the fourth-year courses do not have to be Calculus and Physics in order to count.

But every college is different. Really. That is exactly why we put these questions on the College Profile Worksheet. You have to know what each college expects or your kid cannot possibly jump that hurdle.

2. A Quick Look at Foreign Languages

Let’s look at my favorite part of this topic, and that is the importance of studying a foreign language in high school (and in college, by the way). It is one of those things that anyone who knows me might guess I am going to bring up–along with the importance of studying outside the U.S., the importance of the liberal arts, and the importance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), to name a few of my favorite soapboxes.

Here are a few startling statistics from an Education Week article in June by Corey Mitchell:

  • The American Councils for International Education estimates that 10.6 million K-12 U.S. students study a world language or American Sign Language. That sounds like a lot of students, but it is actually just 20 percent of American students.
  • Fewer than 10 percent of students in at least two states study a language other than English.
  • Arabic is the fastest-growing second language among U.S. residents, but only 0.25 percent of American students who study a foreign language study Arabic in school. Eight times as many study Latin. I am all for more Arabic, but all my friends know that I would hate to give up Latin.
  • Less than 1 percent of American students who study a foreign language are studying either Russian or Japanese, though both of these languages were popular some decades ago for obvious political or economic reasons.
  • The study of Mandarin, the most commonly spoken language in the world, is increasing among American students. That’s probably an important trend.
  • Eleven states require credits in foreign languages in order to graduate from high school. Does 11 sound like a lot or a little to you? Because it sounds like way too little to me.
  • The District of Columbia and 44 states are in the market for certified foreign language teachers. We are certainly going to need more teachers if we are going to convince more kids to study more foreign languages or foreign languages for more years.

And here is a quotation from Marty Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, also from the Education Week article:

“We’re such a long way in this country from having it be normal to grow up learning other languages. . . . Our future depends on our ability to engage with the rest of the world, and right now Americans have a very tough time doing that.”

We do indeed. So, parents, help your kid stand out when it comes to the college admissions game. Convince your kid to take four years of a foreign language in high school (assuming that your high school makes four years available and, if not, encourage your kid to take two years of one language and two years of another language). Do this not just to get your kid into college; do it for a lot of other great reasons, too. And now I?with my four years of high school Latin and my three years of high school French–will get off my soapbox.

3. It’s Labor Day!

So, we hear that it’s almost Labor Day. We will be taking next week off to catch our breaths and celebrate. You should do the same, because September will require you to hit the ground running. Parents of seniors, the time is here. We will be back with a new episode on September 7. We can’t wait!

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Episode 132: High School Grade Inflation and College Admissions

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We are in the fourth week of our new series, Researching College Options, and we spent time in our last episode talking about the SAT and ACT and their almost-unavoidable continuing role in college applications and admissions. Yes, we said that there are plenty of test-optional and test-flexible colleges, but the SAT and ACT are not dead and buried yet and won’t be any time soon, if ever. That topic was just about as inevitable as college applications season gets into full swing as this week’s topic, which is the super-important high school grade point average (GPA).

Unfortunately, if your kid is about to be a senior, that high school GPA is pretty well locked in place at this point. A great fall semester might help a bit, but it won’t do much to change a GPA that is already based on six semesters of high school work and it won’t help at all if your kid is applying to a college under an Early Decision option and/or if your kid is applying to one or more colleges under an Early Action option by around November 1. Your kid’s current cumulative GPA is what it is, and now we have to help you and your kid think about how to deal with it.

So, here are a few paragraphs of background from our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students:

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; nonetheless, 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 really 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 who have both mediocre or low high school grades and mediocre or low college admission test scores, the college choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year college–or maybe a public four-year college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as good private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too. If you look at the average high school GPAs of entering freshmen at many public state flagship universities, they are extraordinarily high–a 3.7 or 3.8 is not unheard of. Why again? Because many, many of the brightest students in a state want to attend–and do attend–the public state flagship university, for all the reasons we [have discussed before at USACollegeChat].

Understanding how important high school grades are in the college admission game is the first step, but it is one you should have taken with your senior several years ago. Parents of younger high school students, heed this early warning: Help your kid understand that there is really no way to make up for crummy–or even lackluster–high school grades when it comes time to apply to colleges. There just isn’t.

So, let’s look again this week at what we call Step 13 in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–that is, Step 13 of getting the information that your kid needs to make good choices about where to apply. Finding out all of the information we call for in Step 13 will give you an idea about how likely it is that your kid will be accepted by a college if he or she decides to apply. Of course, no one can say for sure whether your kid’s grades or admission test scores or extracurricular and community service activities or letters of recommendation will be appealing enough to get him or her admitted to a particular college. But several academic hurdles stand between your kid and one or more colleges on his or her Long List of College Options (LLCO), and high school GPA is one of those hurdles.

1. High School GPAs of College Candidates

So, we believe that your kid should find out the average high school GPA of admitted or enrolled freshmen in order to get a somewhat better grasp on whether he or she is likely to be admitted to that college. Here is what we wrote in our new book for kids like yours:

For many, but not all, colleges, you will be able to find the full distribution of high school GPAs and the average high school GPA of the students enrolled in the freshman class by looking under C11 and C12 of the common data set on the college’s website. [You will probably need to search for “common data set” on the college’s website, and you might find that the data sets are available for several years.] You also might find [high school grades] on a Class Profile sheet on the website, but you will not find this information on College Navigator [the online resource provided by the National Center for Education Statistics].

[The] average high school GPA will be on a 4-point scale. For example, a great college might show an average high school GPA of 3.8, meaning that its enrolled freshmen did extremely well in their high school courses.

As Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses have become increasingly popular and as more high schools have started to “weight” students’ grades in those courses (and sometimes in their own honors courses as well), there has been a rise in high school GPAs. In other words, when a student in a high school with weighted grades gets an A in a regular course, that A is worth a 4.0, or 4 points. But if a student in a high school with weighted grades gets an A in an Advanced Placement course, that A is worth a 5.0, or 5 points?that is, the grade has more “weight.”

Whether your high school does or does not weight course grades is something that should be part of the high school narrative profile that your school’s counselor will send off to colleges with your high school transcript. That profile is helpful to colleges in judging your GPA.

Nonetheless, one effect of all of this weighting of high school course grades appears to be that average high school GPAs of incoming freshmen are on the rise. We can tell this anecdotally by the fact that many colleges we profiled in our virtual college tour [back in Episodes 27 through 53 of USACollegeChat], including some not super-selective ones, post surprisingly high average GPAs well over a 3.5 for the incoming freshman class.

So, look carefully at the average high school GPAs that colleges are putting out there and see how yours compares. And, remember, some colleges will not provide one.

Well, that is a rather straightforward explanation of the high school GPA as one determinant in college admissions. As parents, it shouldn’t surprise you at all. But now let’s look at a newer explanation of that high school grade inflation, which we referred to, and its consequences.

2. The New Research on High School Grade Inflation

This explanation comes to you from a July article in Inside Higher Ed, which is, in its own words, “the leading digital media company serving the higher education space. Born digital in the 21st Century at the height of the Internet revolution, our publication has become the trusted, go-to source of online news, thought leadership, and opinion over the last decade.” This article, by Scott Jaschik, is appropriately titled “High School Grades: Higher and Higher.” Here is what Jaschik said about a new study, which was just released:

The study . . . will be a chapter in Measuring Success: Testing, Grades and the Future of College Admissions, to be published next year by Johns Hopkins University Press. The two authors of the study are Michael Hurwitz, senior director at the College Board, and Jason Lee, a doctoral student at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. . . .

The research is on students who take the SAT, and the study argues that these are representative of high school students who enroll in four-year colleges. The data come both from the Education Department and from surveys the College Board conducts of students who take the SAT.

A key finding is that, looking at cohorts of high school graduates who finished from 1998 to 2016, the average high school GPA went up from 3.27 to 3.38.

Notably, the gains were unequal among high schools, and the differences appear to favor students from wealthier (and whiter) high schools than average.

The study groups high schools by the magnitude of grade inflation. In the top decile of growth in average GPAs [meaning that the GPAs rose the most], black and Latino students made up only 22 percent of students on average, and only 32 percent of students were eligible for free lunch. But in the bottom decile of GPA growth [meaning that the GPAs rose the least], black and Latino enrollments were an average of 61 percent, and more than half of students were eligible for free lunch. The study finds that the average GPA at the high schools with the most grade inflation (top decile) has hit 3.56, while the average at places that haven’t seen much grade inflation (bottom decile, largely minority) is 3.14.

. . . [T]he study finds similar grade inflation in . . . weighted and unweighted grades. . . . (quoted from the article, emphasis added)

Well, that is quite a lot to process. It’s bad enough that grade inflation is taking place and skewing the way that everyone has to think about high school achievement. But it’s much worse to know that whiter and richer kids are disproportionately benefiting from what is already a lousy trend. You can draw your own conclusions about why that is happening. And here is one further surprising finding from the study:

. . . [T]he authors find that the proportion of students with A averages (including A-minus and A-plus) increased from 38.9 percent of the graduating class of 1998 to 47 percent of the graduating class of 2016. . . . (quoted from the article)

What? I was surprised–more like flabbergasted–to learn that almost 40 percent of students in the graduating class of 1998 had A averages (even considering that this was perhaps a somewhat select sample of that graduating class, like kids who took the SAT). Nonetheless, almost 40 percent seems high to me–or, more precisely, inflated already. The fact that the figure is now 47 percent is more arresting still. Do we really believe that almost half of the 2016 high school graduates–even half of the graduates who took the SAT–deserved A averages? That seems like a lot of kids to me.

But hold on a minute. Here is something that you might be thinking, something that would make these fantastic grades happy news, according to the article:

. . . [T]he authors acknowledge in their study [that] there could be a reason for the grade inflation that would make educators celebrate. What if students are smarter or are being better educated, and so are earning their better grades? The authors reject these possibilities, and cite SAT scores to do so. If students were learning more, their SATs should be going up, or at the very least remaining stable. But during the period studied, SAT averages (math and verbal, 1,600-point scale) fell from 1,026 to 1,002. . . . (quoted from the article)

Oh, so it’s just grade inflation after all. Here is the wrap-up and bottom line from the article:

While the authors said they didn’t think many educators would be surprised that grade inflation is present in high schools, they said it was important to look at the variation among high schools, a circumstance that has received less attention.

High schools “most prone to grade inflation are the resourced schools,” Lee said, “the ones with the highest level of affluence.” For those at high schools without resources, generally with lower GPAs, grade inflation elsewhere “puts them at a disadvantage in the college admissions process.” (quoted from the article)

So, this is one more instance of students from poorer communities–who are, as a matter of fact, disproportionately students of color–facing a tougher path to college. And this is one more instance of students from wealthier communities–who are, as a matter of fact, disproportionately white students–getting an undeserved break.

3. What Does It Mean for You

What does all this mean for your kid, regardless of how well-to-do or not-well-to-do your high school community is? It means that the race for good grades has gotten harder to win. Average high school GPAs of admitted freshmen are impressive–sometimes literally unbelievably impressive–even at colleges that are not in the top tier. If you have a senior at home and it is too late to improve his or her GPA, then you need to be sensible in looking at how your kid stacks up against the students who are being admitted to colleges on your kid’s Long List of College Options. If you have a younger kid at home, remind him or her every day just how important high school grades are–no matter what four-year college he or she is aiming for.

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Episode 131: College Admission Testing, One More Time

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We are in the third week of our new series, Researching College Options, and we are going to talk today about a topic that is unavoidable. It is a topic that we have talked about on several episodes of USACollegeChat and one that we have written about in both of our books for high school students and their parents. The topic is college admission testing–that is, the SAT and the ACT.

Parents, if you have a smart kid who is applying to top-tier colleges, then this episode is especially important for you. But, as it turns out, this episode is also important if you have a great kid with just average high school grades or even not-quite-average high school grades, who might end up in a college that requires some sort of remedial English or math courses for students with borderline or sub-par academic records. Why? Because satisfactory college admission test scores can be the way around those remedial courses, which have a generally bad reputation in higher education. And the statistics show that skipping past those remedial courses could ultimately mean the difference between a student’s graduating and not graduating ever.

In this episode, we are going to read you some excerpts from what we call Step 13 in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Step 13 of what again? Well, it’s Step 13 of getting the information that your kid needs in order to make good choices about where to apply to college. If your kid needs more help, go get the book at amazon.com.

1. Is It Time To Register?

So, why are we skipping all the way to Step 13 when we are just beginning this new series? That’s quite simple. It’s because Step 13 is about a college’s admission practices. And it’s because registration deadlines for the SAT and ACT are looming on the horizon, and we didn’t want you all to run out of time. According to our information, the registration deadline for the October 7 SAT test administration is September 8 (with late registration until September 27), and the deadline for the September 9 ACT test administration is already past, but late registration goes until August 18 (so you might need to hurry).

The chances are good that many of you have brand new high school seniors who have already taken the SAT or ACT at least once, probably last spring. Should your kid take one or both tests again? We would say “yes,” if your kid has done anything at all since the last test that might improve his or her scores–like take practice tests, take a test preparation course, pay more attention in classes in school, or something else. It is unlikely that your kid will do significantly better on the tests if he or she has not done anything to get better prepared since the last testing time.

If your kid has not taken either test yet, it is a good idea to take the SAT on October 7 and/or the ACT on September 9. Why? Because that still gives your kid a chance to take either or both tests a second time this fall, before regular decision applications are due around the first week of January of 2018. The SAT will be administered again on November 4 and the ACT on October 28. To repeat, however, if your kid does nothing to prepare in the intervening weeks between the two SAT or ACT testings this fall, then it is not likely that his or her scores will be much better the second time around.

Another reason that it is a good idea to have your kid take the SAT on October 7 or the ACT on September 9 is to get those scores back in time to submit Early Decision and/or Early Action applications around November 1. Early Decision and Early Action were the focus of Episode 108 and 109, and we would strongly encourage you to go back and listen or re-listen to them now. Understanding these two college admission programs–as annoying and as complicated as they are–could truly make the difference between acceptance and rejection for your kid and between enormous anxiety and mild anxiety from January through March. We can’t stress that enough. While there is some serious calculation that goes into an Early Decision application, as we discuss, there is no downside at all to submitting as many Early Action applications as possible. Really, none.

So, it is time for you to have a serious discussion with your kid about whether he or she should be taking or retaking the SAT and/or ACT on that first fall testing date: again, October 7 for the SAT and September 9 for the ACT. Every kid’s situation is different—how good any earlier scores are, how selective the colleges being considered are, how diligently test preparations are being undertaken, how confident and/or willing your kid is to sit through the test. For kids who are not confident and/or not willing and who have not yet taken either test, there is still November 4 for the SAT and October 28 for the ACT.

2. But Who Needs Test Scores These Days?

You might be thinking about now, “Who needs test scores these days? I thought they were becoming less and less necessary as more and more colleges stopped asking for them.” Well, we address this topic in both of our books and in other episodes of USACollegeChat, but the bottom line is this: Having good test scores to submit is always preferable to not having them. That’s just common sense, and you didn’t need us to tell you that.

Now with that said, are there very-selective and not-very-selective colleges that do not require the submission of SAT or ACT scores? Yes, absolutely, but we hesitate to publish a list because those colleges change every year. Here is what we wrote about that in our new workbook for high school seniors:

The college website is usually quite clear about whether a college is a test-optional college (meaning that students do not have to submit college admission test scores) or a test-flexible college (meaning that students are given a choice of various types of test scores to submit).

However, we have noticed that many colleges that do not require the submission of SAT or ACT scores receive them, nonetheless, from many applicants. Because those scores are usually quite good, it is evident that students with good scores do, in fact, supply them to test-optional colleges. How those scores figure into admissions decisions is anybody’s guess. Here is our advice: If you have good SAT or ACT scores, you should probably submit them to test-optional colleges, even though they are not required.

There are perhaps only a handful of colleges that say that they absolutely do NOT want any test scores sent to them and that they will NOT use them at all for any reason, including well-regarded Hampshire College, which makes a crystal clear statement on its website about this subject.

And, yes, it is true that many colleges, according to their websites, downplay the role of test scores in the admission process, even when those scores are required. You can believe those disclaimers if you wish. However, I will tell you that we continue to see very good candidates with great grades and great activities and great service to others and only-okay test scores get rejected from colleges that made those claims. So, be sure to have your kid prepare for the tests and get the best SAT and/or ACT scores he or she can.

3. How Good Do the Scores Need To Be?

Once you and your kid have chosen colleges to apply to, you need to get information about the test scores of students who have been admitted to those colleges or who actually have enrolled there. Here is how to get that information for each college on your list, as we explained to students in our new workbook:

To get started, you need to figure out whether the data you are examining are for “admitted” students or for “enrolled freshmen.” These two groups are obviously not the same because many students who are admitted to a college do not actually enroll. Since you are trying to figure out whether you will be admitted, using “admitted” student data, when available, is probably the better choice; however, either set of data will give you an idea of the caliber of the applicants a college accepts.

Start by looking up the colleges on your LLCO [Long List of College Options] on College Navigator [the online service provided by the National Center for Education Statistics] and going to the Admissions section of the college profile. These data will be for “enrolled first-time students.” Helpful data are presented clearly in this section.

Then check each college’s website. Some colleges do a great job of presenting data on admitted students or enrolled freshmen, and others simply do not. Some colleges make it easy by providing a page of facts and figures about the new freshman class–sometimes called a Class Profile (of students who enrolled) or an Admitted Student Profile (of students who were admitted, but did not necessarily enroll). However, it is not always easy to locate this page (though it is often in the Admission section of the website). If you can find the common data set on the website, you will want to look under the third part: C. First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission.

We have talked about and written about the common data set before. And, to repeat, it is not always easy to find on a college website; in fact, there are some colleges that I could never find it for. Nonetheless, it is an excellent source of all kinds of useful (and not-so-useful) data about any college you can name. Here are some specifics on this topic of test scores:

In part C9, the common data set does a good job of providing the following testing data:

  • The percent of students who submitted SAT and ACT scores
  • The SAT and ACT scores, by subtest, at the 25th percentile of students and at the 75th percentile of students (in other words, 25 percent of students scored at or below the score at the 25th percentile, and 25 percent of students scored at or above the score at the 75th percentile)
  • The full distribution of SAT and ACT scores, by subtest

College Navigator also provides most of this information, if that is easier for you to get to than the common data set.   Some college websites also provide the actual average, or “mean,” admission test score, and that can be handy, too.

If your scores fall above the 75th percentile of scores for a college’s students, that is good. If your scores fall right in the middle between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile, that would be just about average for a college’s students. But if your scores fall close to or below the 25th percentile, that would not be nearly so promising in terms of your chances of being admitted.

Remember, even if the college you are researching has declared itself to be a test-optional college, it might provide SAT and ACT information for those students who chose to submit test scores, and that information will be helpful to you.

4. And What About Those SAT Subject Tests?

Just when you thought the testing discussion was done, we have one more topic: the SAT Subject Tests (these are the tests that are in specific high school subjects and are generally thought to be harder than the SAT or ACT). To be clear, many colleges do not require any Subject Tests, but many highly selective colleges still do. So, don’t be surprised! You will need to go to a college’s website to find out how many Subject Tests are required and/or what specific Subject Tests (if any) are required for each college your kid is applying to.

If you are the parent of a high school senior right now, the Subject Test issue is particularly troublesome. Why? Because your kid might need to submit scores from–let’s say–two Subject Tests, your kid was great at biology when she took it two years ago, and now it seems like a long shot for her to go back and take a Subject Test in biology without a lot of studying and review of information learned quite a while ago. The opposite situation is not great, either–that is, your kid took biology as a freshman and took the Subject Test then, when she was in competition with older, more mature, more experienced kids taking the test. Of course, your kid might have taken an AP Biology or Advanced Biology course more recently and, if so, that would be helpful indeed. But let’s remember that every high school kid doesn’t have access to these upper-level courses taken in their later high school years and, for those kids, Subject Tests might prove to be a more difficult problem to solve.

Our point is this: Parents of all high school students, you need to do some advance thinking about Subject Tests during the high school years in order to give your kid the best chance at having a couple of good scores on his or her record. Taking Subject Tests in the spring of the junior year or in the fall of the senior year might be optimal in terms of a student’s maturity and school experience, but that might be too late for some subjects that were right up your kid’s alley. Whatever the case, thinking about Subject Tests for the first time in September of your kid’s senior year is too late.

5. Testing Nationwide

Now, let’s get a bit of a national perspective, because SAT and ACT testing is a much bigger issue than your kid’s personal testing choices. It might be useful, as a concerned resident of the U.S., to understand that issue these days. In The New York Times in July, University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski wrote this in a thought-provoking and comprehensive article:

In Connecticut, Illinois and more than 20 other states, the ACT or SAT is given, without charge, during school hours. As of 2017, 25 states require that students take the ACT or SAT. In some districts, including New York City, the test is given free during school hours but is not required.

Michigan began requiring public school juniors to take the ACT in 2007, and the share of high school graduates taking a college entrance exam rose immediately to nearly 99 percent from 54 percent. That growth was even sharper among low-income students; only 35 percent had been taking the test.

Joshua M. Hyman, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, studied the effects of this initiative while he was my student at the University of Michigan. Professor Hyman analyzed the test scores and college attendance of all public high school students in Michigan, before and after the ACT requirement.

The results were surprising. It was not just low-achieving students who had been skipping the ACT (or the SAT, which Professor Hyman also tracked). For every 1,000 students who took a college exam when it was optional, and scored high enough to attend a selective college, another 230 high scorers appeared once the test was mandatory. For low-income students, the effect was larger: For every 1,000 students who scored well on the optional test, an additional 480 did so on the mandatory test. . . .

Universal exams cannot, by themselves, close gaps between poor and rich students in college attendance. But in Michigan, it has produced small increases, especially at four-year colleges and particularly among disadvantaged students. The story is similar in Maine, Illinois and Connecticut.

Professor Hyman calculates that at a cost of less than $50 per student, a universal testing program is one of the least expensive ways to increase college attendance. Further, if the SAT or ACT replaces the standardized test that states require in public schools, it need not take up any additional instructional time, a key concern of testing opponents.

Many people worry that college admissions tests are biased against low-income and nonwhite students. But disadvantaged students who do not take the tests are out of the running for selective colleges. While we may wish for a better approach, these tests are a gateway to selective schools. (quoted from the article)

So, whether your kid is socioeconomically advantaged in every possible way or the first generation in your family to go to college, the SAT or ACT should be in your kid’s future–just as it should be for so many kids in the U.S. Let’s all admit it and figure out the best ways to help all kids get access to the tests and to that pathway into college.

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