Episode 163: What High Schools Do Colleges Visit?

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Welcome back to our new series entitled Looking to Next Year.  Today, we want to look at a well-known college recruitment practice and its ramifications.  That practice is the visiting of high schools by college admissions staff.  Maybe our discussion today won’t come as a surprise to you; but, whether it does or doesn’t, it’s a sad commentary on the U.S. in 2018.

1. A New Study

Just a few episodes ago, we quoted from an article in Inside Higher Ed by Scott Jaschik, and today we find ourselves doing that again.  This article is forebodingly titled “Where Colleges Recruit . . . and Where They Don’t.”

Here is the story:

[F]or many colleges, reaching out to students in person at high school events is a key part of the recruitment process. And even for the [elite colleges], this is an important part of outreach and regularly results in applications from those who might not have otherwise applied. But where do the [colleges] go to recruit?

A new study being presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association suggests that these visits favor those who attend high schools where family income is high. And these high schools are likely to be whiter than the population as a whole.

Two of the researchers–Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Karina Salazar, a doctoral candidate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona–published a summary of their findings in The New York Times. (quoted from the article)

So, let’s look at that opinion piece in The Times by Mr. Jaquette and Ms. Salazar.  They wrote about their findings, based on data from college visits–not any other kinds of student recruitment–made in 2017 by 150 colleges.  Here are some of those findings in their own words:

The clearest finding from our study is that public high schools in more affluent neighborhoods receive more visits than those in less affluent areas.

Only about a third of households across the country earn more than $100,000 annually, but nearly half of high schools receiving visits by private colleges and universities were in neighborhoods where average incomes were higher. Connecticut College visited neighborhoods with an average median household income of $121,578. Private colleges also disproportionately visited private high schools over public high schools.

Andy Strickler, dean of admissions at Connecticut College, said the school targets high schools that have historically provided students, or other schools that have a similar profile.

He said there was a good reason Connecticut College doesn’t always visit other areas: “There’s a trend for these students to stay closer to home for college.” (quoted from the opinion piece)

I get that colleges understandably visit high schools that have sent students in the past or schools with demographic characteristics like those high schools.  I get that colleges need to recruit as cost-effectively as possible.  I get that kids in high schools in less affluent neighborhoods probably do “stay closer to home for college,” for better or worse.  But I still am a bit disappointed by all of it.

Nonetheless, let’s not single out Connecticut College.  There is a chart in the opinion piece that shows that plenty of other colleges do exactly the same thing–that is, visit high schools in neighborhoods with higher median incomes than high schools they don’t visit.  And, what’s worse, lots of those colleges are public universities.  Let’s look back at what Mr. Jaquette and Ms. Salazar write about that:

While public research universities visited rich and poor neighborhoods nearly equally when recruiting in their home states, they visited the same affluent high schools targeted by private colleges when recruiting elsewhere. Most public colleges also visited far more high schools out of state than in-state. The median income of areas where the University of Pittsburgh recruited out of state, for example, was $114,000, compared with $63,000 for areas that were not visited. . . .

The attention public universities lavish on wealthy out-of-state schools is a response to state policy. Over the past decade, many states have cut funding for higher education, forcing public universities to become more dependent on tuition revenue. Research shows that public universities responded by enrolling more out-of-state students, who often pay two to three times more than state residents. And of course, only well-off students can afford that. . . .

In their out-of-state visits, our data also suggest, public universities were more likely to visit predominantly white public high schools than nonwhite schools with similar levels of academic achievement. For example, [in the Boston metropolitan area], the University of Colorado Boulder visited Dover-Sherborn Regional High School, which is 88 percent white and has about 154 students with proficient math scores, according to the federal Department of Education. But it did not visit Brockton High School, where just 21 percent of students are white but about 622 students have proficient math scores.

“In order to be good stewards of our funding, we consistently recruit at schools that have historically given us applications,” said Colleen Newman, admissions director at Boulder. “Given our limited funding, we are unable to expand our traditional recruitment efforts to all regions and all high schools that have academically talented students.” (quoted from the opinion piece)

Well, as loyal listeners know, I love recommending Boulder.  I think it is friendly to students from the East Coast and a great all-around university.  But I have to admit that I am not crazy about this recruitment strategy, though I understand the reasoning, of course.

Here are some more things I did not know, however.  I guess that I might have figured this out if I had thought about it, but I just never did.  I am wondering how much you have thought about this, parents.  Listen up:

Colleges don’t treat recruitment lightly. It’s big business for colleges and the firms they hire. Most colleges identify prospects by purchasing lists of students and their backgrounds from the testing agencies College Board and ACT. They can also hire enrollment management consulting firms, which integrate data from the university with data on schools and communities. This helps them decide which schools should be visited and which should be targeted with emails and brochures. One consulting firm we spoke with even knows information about individual students such as their family income and net worth, and the value of their home.

If colleges have all this data, why aren’t they better at targeting talented poor students and students of color?

The most common explanation is that there aren’t enough of them applying (the so-called achievement gap). Another explanation we hear is that talented students don’t apply because they don’t have the right guidance (called “under-matching”). . . .   Our data [suggest] universities are determined to court wealthier students over others, and they expend substantial resources identifying and reaching them.

There are many students from poor communities who get excellent grades but end up going to a community college because no one bothers looking for them. If colleges are serious about increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity, they should look for merit everywhere, not just in wealthy, white communities. (quoted from the opinion piece)

It’s hard to disagree with that conclusion.  It’s especially hard to disagree with that conclusion for public universities, which have a mission to serve the taxpayers in their own states.  It’s concerning that public universities might be pricing themselves out of the market for the students who need them most in their home states–or even for the students who need them most from other states.

In putting together his article, Mr. Jaschik corresponded with Mr. Jaquette about his study.  Here is part of that correspondence:

Jaquette, via email, said there is a contradiction between colleges’ statements that they are doing everything possible to recruit low-income, disadvantaged students and the findings of the new study.

“Scholarship on organizational behavior–on all types of organizations–finds that organizations publicly adopt goals demanded by the external environment,” he said. “But these public statements are poor indicators of actual organizational priorities. How they spend real resources is a better indicator.” (quoted in the article)

In other words, colleges might say that they are looking hard to bring in more low-income students because it is the politically correct, or even morally correct, thing to say.  However, their actions (in this case, their spending habits) speak louder than words.

2. What Does This Mean for You

So, what does this mean for you?  Possibly nothing, if you live in a relatively affluent neighborhood and your kid attends a high school with relatively affluent classmates.  The chances are good that college recruiters are going to come calling both now and in the fall.

But if you don’t live in a relatively affluent neighborhood and your kid does not attend a high school with relatively affluent classmates, the chances are good that you are going to have to look harder to investigate colleges and make your kid known to them.  It might mean that you will need to visit colleges in order to get colleges to notice your kid (although I wish you didn’t have to until after your kid is accepted and you all are trying to make a final decision).  Oh, unless you live in one of the places identified in a 2012 study by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery and cited by Mr. Jaschik in his article:

[The study] found a tendency by colleges to recruit only at high schools where they will find a critical mass of talented low-income students and not the many others where academic achievement may be more rare. The high schools having success at placing students in competitive colleges are in large metropolitan areas (generally from 15 cities) and their students are “far from representative” of the academic talent among low-income students, the authors write.

So it’s not that colleges don’t recruit at low-income high schools, but they favor the magnet over the typical high school–even though there are many students with ability who do not attend magnet high schools. (quoted from the article)

Indeed there are, and your kid might be one of them.

3. Happy Memorial Day

Well, it’s hard to believe that Memorial Day is just around the corner.  We are going to celebrate next week, but we will be back with you on May 31with the best episode we have ever done.  Stay tuned!

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Episode 162: The High School Courses That Colleges Require

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We are starting a new series today because we think that the college ship has sailed for almost all of our listening families with seniors.  Of course, some of you are still looking at a few options; some of you have even put down deposits at more than one college, or so we hear; and, some of you might be frantically searching for a new choice that offers rolling admissions or very late deadlines in the next couple of months.  As always, if any of you are in the still-undecided group, give me a call if you want some personalized advice.  I am happy to help, and the advice is free, of course.

We are going to assume that the rest of you out there have juniors (or even sophomores) and that you are relatively early in the college admissions process.  It is amazing to me, as I look at posts in a number of online groups for parents of prospective college applicants, how many of you with younger kids are already well into the college search.  So, this series, entitled Looking to Next Year, is going to offer a few reminders for parents of high school juniors as you start down a long–but hopefully exciting and not too painful–road.

1. Oh, No!  Not the Right High School Courses!  Part I

Let me start by saying that I love to complain about how far too many–I would say, even most–high school students do not take enough foreign language courses.  They don’t take enough courses either for their own good in life or for their optimal chances of getting into a great college.  We discussed this as recently as Episode 155, which was scarcely the first time we have brought it up.

But today’s episode expands way beyond my foreign language criticism about high school students’ own course decisions to a criticism that is almost unthinkable:  Many states’ high school graduation requirements will not meet all of the admissions requirements of their own public state universities.  Let me repeat this fantastical and sobering claim in the words of Catherine Gewertz in Education Week where she reported on a study released on April 2 by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and authored by Laura Jimenez and Scott Sargrad, both employed by CAP:

The think tank found that in most states, in at least one subject area, students must exceed their state’s high school graduation requirements in order to cross the threshold of the public four-year institutions in their state.

The CAP study describes two big problems. Most state diploma requirements:

  • Don’t meet admissions criteria for the state’s public universities. Noted by other researchers as well, this “preparation gap” can form a barrier to college when students find that the diploma requirements they completed fall short of the ones their state colleges and universities expect for admission.

  • Leave too much up to the student. In many states, students can decide which core courses to take in order to fulfill graduation requirements. That means they could finish high school with a relatively weak lineup of classes, or courses that don’t match well with their postsecondary goals. (quoted from the article)

Frankly, it’s hard to believe.  But the data don’t lie.  Listen to the number of states whose high school graduation requirements do not meet their own public four-year university’s entrance requirements:

  • 23 states miss the mark in foreign languages. (I now feel totally vindicated about the number of times I bring up this problem.)
  • 8 states miss the mark in mathematics. (That does not surprise me, unfortunately.)
  • 4 states miss the mark in science.
  • 4 states miss the mark in social studies.
  • 2 states miss the mark in fine arts.
  • 2 states miss the mark in the number of elective courses.
  • 1 state misses the mark in English.

If I were a taxpayer in any of those states, I would be marching on the state capital.  If I were the governor in any of those states, some state education department employees would be losing their jobs, and some state board members would be having serious discussions with me.

Interestingly and for whatever reason, physical education (including health) is the only subject field in which all states’ high school graduation requirements meet college entrance requirements and, in fact, 39 states’ high school graduation requirements exceed college entrance requirements.  Comparatively speaking, only two states’ high school graduation requirements exceed college entrance requirements in foreign languages.

Perhaps not surprisingly, English is the subject field where high school graduation requirements are most in line with college entrance requirements:  44 states have high school graduation requirements that meet English college entrance requirements and three states exceed them.  In other words, almost all states require four years of high school English in order to graduate, and almost all state universities require four years of English to get in.

So, let’s take a glance at a few states of particular interest, using the data in the CAP study:

  • These are the 19 states that do meet or exceed college expectations in every subject field, regardless of how rigorous those expectations are (obviously, it is easier to meet college expectations if the state university’s expectations are not all that high to begin with):  Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.
  • What about our two most populous states?  California, with its massive public higher education system, misses the mark in four subject fields.  Texas, with its very large public higher education system, misses the mark in two subject fields.  I can only speculate that students in those states who are anxious to get into their super-popular public universities exceed the state high school graduation requirements on their own.  Our home state, the very populous State of New York, misses only on foreign languages (you would think that people in my own state would have been listening to me by now).
  • Interestingly, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are the only two entities that technically exceed expectations in all subject fields; but, that’s because their public university systems set no specific coursework requirements.
  • These states were not included in the analysis, so I can’t tell you whether to panic if you live in one of these:  Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

2. Oh, No!  Not the Right High School Courses!  Part II

So, where does the CAP study come down on this issue?  Let’s look at a few paragraphs from the Conclusion:

[T]his analysis finds significant misalignment between the high school and college systems. What is required to receive a high school diploma is often not aligned with what students must study to be eligible for college admissions. This can be a matter of equity when more rigorous coursework such as advanced math, laboratory science, and foreign language courses are not offered on the high school campus, thus requiring college-bound students to seek this coursework elsewhere. . . .

Certainly, state high school graduation requirements are only a start to ensuring students are ready for college, career, and life. Many states allow or even require school districts to set additional requirements. However, not setting a minimum floor that at the very least meets state college admissions requirements puts students in districts with less rigorous requirements at a disadvantage, setting up inequities within states in access to college preparatory and career-readiness experiences. (quoted from the study)

It is a matter of equity. Why?  Because poor kids in less affluent school districts with minimum graduation requirements will not go the extra yard that is required to get into their state public university. Why?  Because they won’t get sufficient help from their high school counselors and because they likely can’t get sufficient help from their parents.  And so, they are at the mercy of inadequate state high school graduation requirements that won’t prepare them for admission to their state’s public higher education system, which might well be all they can afford.

But the CAP study says a lot more than this–much of which is very interesting.  For example, the CAP study takes this further step:

Depending on course availability and the boundaries drawn by graduation requirements, students have discretion in the types of courses they take to fulfill high school graduation requirements. States may require all of the specific courses and sequences to be taken, for example, Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II–or their equivalents–where three years of math are required. Where four years are required, states may require only some of the specific courses, for example, Algebra I and Geometry, and allow students to choose among the options to fulfill two additional math course requirements. Or, states may simply require a number of years of study and make no course type specifications. Each of these scenarios [is] also true for college admissions. (quoted from the report)

And the CAP study continues:

In almost every state for at least one subject, there is a preparation gap that necessitates students seeking admission to the state public four-year university system to take additional coursework that is not required for a standard high school diploma. What’s more, this additional coursework may or may not be offered on the high school campus. . . .  Students in high-income schools and districts with sufficient college counseling and resources to seek this additional coursework may have an easier time addressing these disparities than students in low-income areas, reflecting inequity in the availability of educational resources. (quoted from the study)

Indeed.  Let’s just say it again, because it is still incredible to me:  When states do not require high enough high school graduation standards to ensure that all of its high school graduates are eligible for their own public higher education–regardless of whether all graduates want to go on to college–those states are ensuring that their poorer kids in their poorer school districts are disproportionately negatively affected.  Why again?  Because in addition to the injustices of subpar graduation standards, subpar school facilities, subpar counseling, and subpar everything else, fewer of these poorer kids have college-educated parents who can make up the difference.

3. What To Do

I believe that there is no substitute for examining the entrance requirements of any college your kid is thinking about applying to in terms of credits and perhaps specific courses that the college expects or requires to be taken in high school.  We talk about this topic extensively in our second book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  Let me read some excerpts from a section of that book for students:

Let’s look at one last 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. . . . 

On a college’s website, this information 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. . . .

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.

And that’s exactly why we are telling you, parents, this information right now–when many high schools across the country are scheduling juniors for the classes they will be taking next fall as seniors.  It is not too late to look carefully at college requirements and to make an adjustment or two in next fall’s schedule.  You might have to insist with high school counselors or administrators, but it will be worth it.  Adding a course in science or math or foreign languages or something else that is missing is possible now, but it will be a lot harder to do next fall.  Good luck!

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