Episode 68: Tips from Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita, Spelman College

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Today’s episode is a bit of a departure from what Marie and I usually do, and it comes as a result of the Early College high school conference we just attended, where we were pleased to be presenting a session on making schools an open book for parents—that is, ways that schools should invite parents to engage with them in a serious and productive manner.  That doesn’t mean just showing up at parent-teacher conferences, by the way, but that is a topic for a different episode.

Episode 68: Tips from Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita, Spelman College on USACollegeChat podcastWhile we were in Atlanta at what turned out to be an excellent conference, sponsored by EDWorks, which is an Ohio-based nonprofit leader in the Early College high school movement (that’s a shout-out to you, Andrea Mulkey, and the great work you do), we were privileged to hear a question-and-answer session with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.  Dr. Tatum served as president of Spelman College for 13 years before retiring last summer (though she has certainly not retired from the world of education and how to improve it for students and especially for students of color).  Dr. Tatum is also the author of a number of books, at least one of which I intend to buy and read, and that is Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: And Other Conversations About Race, which is getting ready for its 20th anniversary edition.

In the Q and A session, Dr. Tatum was forthcoming and candid, and Marie and I got the feeling that she was telling the audience exactly what she thought—which is a rare trait among college presidents I have heard speak.  So what we would like to do in this episode is simply highlight just a few of the many points that Dr. Tatum made—as accurately as my notetaking during the session and our memories allow—and add a few comments of our own.

1.  College Readiness

When asked about her definition of “college readiness” for incoming college freshmen, Dr. Tatum spoke about three different ideas.  However, the first words out of her mouth were that students had to “read critically and write well”—and, by “writing,” she clarified that she meant “academic writing.”  Listeners, I am going to take that to mean that kids have to be able to write both to explain or inform and to persuade and that they have to do it clearly and objectively in a coherent and well-organized essay, using and footnoting sources when needed.

As you know from our earlier episodes, we spent some time last fall with students in high school English classes in an elite New York City public high school, and we were deeply saddened at the quality of their writing.  Even those students who had interesting things to say, lacked a command—or even an awareness—of the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and choice of words.  From Dr. Tatum’s point of view, I believe they had a long way to go before being “college ready.”

After a sentence or two more about reading and writing, Dr. Tatum quickly added “quantitative, too”—meaning that, of course, students also needed good mathematics skills.  But I feel as though her emphasis in that answer was on reading and writing—and maybe especially on writing.

Second, Dr. Tatum talked about social and emotional readiness for college.  She talked about some students who had been too sheltered by their parents and, thus, were not ready to be on their own.  This is exactly one reason that we here at USACollegeChat so often talk about the merits of sending kids away to college—that is, to give kids a chance to get out on their own, but in a mostly safe and protected environment, and see what the world is like, without the constant oversight and monitoring of their parents.  Parents, we know that it is hard for some of you to let go, but letting go is inevitable, so why not do it when your kid can get the support of a college community?

Then, Dr. Tatum went on to talk about the social and emotional readiness of students to come together across differences and succeed in a diverse community.  Students who come from segregated school experiences—whether their high schools were segregated by race, by income, by religion, or by gender—might have a harder time fitting into a community where everyone is not the same.  Parents, if your kid has gone to such a high school, you need to do what you can to help him or her make the leap into a diverse college community.

I, for one, advocate those diverse college communities, as you listeners know, and that is one reason I love my own alma mater, Cornell University.  Cornell was founded as an institution “where any person can find instruction in any study,” in the words of Ezra Cornell.  Of course, on the other side, there are plenty of great colleges that are designed to serve one population exclusively or primarily—from women’s and men’s colleges to faith-based colleges to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—and we have talked about all of them in earlier episodes.

Third, Dr. Tatum talked about financial readiness, noting that a lack of understanding about finances and how to seek out financial resources to cover college costs is one reason that some students do not actually finish their degrees.  In other words, students get only so far on initial scholarship money or loans or family support and then can’t continue when those funds run out.  So, being financially savvy and resourceful is an important aspect of college preparedness for more and more students as college costs keep rising and rising.  Parents, that is something that you can work directly on with your own kids during senior year of high school and, likely, well before.

In answer to the specific question about whether everyone needs to go to college, Dr. Tatum said, “maybe not,” but she went on to say that some form of postsecondary education would be necessary.  She commented that it would be better to prepare for college and decide later whether to go or instead to pursue some kind of postsecondary training, such as career-specific training in a wide variety of fields that do not require a college degree.  Parents, helping your kids become college ready academically, socially, emotionally, and financially just cannot be a mistake

2.  College Admissions

Let’s look at college admissions and at Dr. Tatum’s experience at Spelman, which we know to be a top-rated, highly selective HBCU (as we learned in our virtual nationwide tour of colleges in every state).  When asked what Spelman looks at in students’ applications during the admission process, Dr. Tatum replied that Spelman does look at ACT and SAT scores because they “give you some information, but not everything.”  She noted that Spelman staff members know that those test scores are correlated with family income, rather than with success in the first year of college—and yet those scores are still part of the admission decision process at Spelman, just as they are at most top colleges.

Dr. Tatum said that it was, in fact, better to look at applicants’ high school grades and at the rigor of the courses they had taken in high school—in other words, “did you choose the rigor and how did you do.”  This is something that we hear all the time, but I am glad to have it confirmed by a live college president in person.  Colleges understand, of course, that if a high school does not offer Early College courses or dual-credit college courses or Advanced Placement courses or International Baccalaureate courses, for example, then an applicant cannot take them.  But were there honors-level courses available, and did the applicant take those?

A few weeks ago in Episodes 61 and 62, we spoke about the new report just out from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s project called Making Caring Common.  The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.  It was endorsed by about 60 of our nation’s top colleges and universities, including all of the Ivy League schools.  One of the things the report recommended was this:

Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas. While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions process.  At the same time, it’s vital to increase access to advanced courses for large numbers of students in schools without access to adequately challenging courses. (quoted from the report)

Well, okay.  Which is it?  Should kids take as many rigorous courses as possible or should they concentrate on a couple of disciplines where they are most interested or perhaps most capable?  I said in that episode that I felt as though the endorsers of the report were a bit disingenuous.  In other words, the endorsers’ colleges could change their admissions standards at any time, without needing to get anybody’s permission.  So, why hadn’t they stopped looking for as many AP courses as possible from applicants?  Last week, our special guest Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which awards millions of dollars in college scholarships, agreed with me on that point.  As I said in Episode 62, what high school is going to be the first one to tell its students that it’s okay not to take as many AP courses as possible and what parents are going to be the first to go along with that advice?  So far, I haven’t seen it.  Until further notice, I have to believe that Dr. Tatum is going to continue to be right—rigor matters, and a lot of rigor is even better.  Parents, make sure that your kids are taking the most demanding courses they are qualified to take.  By the way, that also means tough high school math and science courses, right up through Physics, for example.

Spelman has a particularly insightful and unobtrusive way of judging the quality of the high schools that its applicants come from—apart from the rigor of the courses they offer.  Dr. Tatum said that applicants are asked to submit a graded essay from one of their high school courses.  Interestingly, this graded essay might tell more about the school than it does about the applicant.  Looking at an A on a poorly written essay tells Spelman something about the standards and rigor at that school, Dr. Tatum explained—and, of course, about the validity of the grades on that student’s high school transcript.  Well, that is one way to stop high school grade inflation—and maybe a very good one, at that.

3.  College-Going Culture in Elementary School

When does college-going culture begin?  Dr. Tatum explained that starting early is important.  She said that she knew as an elementary school student that she was going to college (she noted that her parents were educators).  She suggested that elementary schools partner with colleges and arrange to bring college students into elementary school classes to work with and mentor young students.  Spelman, in fact, has a community service hours requirement (as some other colleges have), so that certainly paves the way for such partnerships.  Dr. Tatum explained that, when those college students look like the elementary school kids (that is, when they come from the same kinds of communities and when are the same racial or ethnic background), it is motivational for little kids to see their “near peers”—older students like themselves—succeeding in college.

I have to say that I love that idea.  Parents, if you have a little one at home, suggest this to your child’s elementary school principal.  And if you have a bigger one going off to college in the fall, tell that child to see whether there is a program like this that they can get involved in on the college campus.

In an interview I did after our book came out, the interviewer asked me when parents should start talking to kids about college.  I remarked that I started doing that when they were old enough to understand words and could sit at the dinner table in their high chairs.  And I meant it.  But, I can live with waiting till elementary school.  Spelman has a great idea.

4.  Diverse Students Working Together

Dr. Tatum told us that she has been visiting college campuses while getting ready to update her book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”:  And Other Conversations About Race 20 years later.  She said that many campuses—though not all—have gotten more diverse, but that colleges haven’t figured out how to help students from different backgrounds engage with each other.

Dr. Tatum said that she thought that the best chance to do that sort of engagement was in the college classroom.  It might be okay, she offered, if students stayed with classmates in their own population groups socially; however, faculty must think intentionally about how to get diverse students to engage with each other in the classroom.  Dr. Tatum explained that sometimes the content of the course might make that easy—for example, a sociology course, in which groups of people interacting with one another is a likely topic of study.  But sometimes it has to be done by pairing students of different backgrounds as lab partners or by making groups of students of different backgrounds work together on projects.  Dr. Tatum noted that high school students who go to de facto segregated high schools don’t have opportunities for these kinds of interactions, so they don’t come with those interpersonal and social skills.

Of course, high schools that do have diverse student bodies should pay attention to Dr. Tatum’s ideas.  And, parents, if you have a high schooler at home, you might start talking now about the importance of learning to work with diverse students of all races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and genders—before it is time for him or her to go off to college.  The sooner someone learns those skills of getting along and working together, the better—because those are the skills all students will need after graduation when they enter the work force.

How do we get K–12 teachers and college professors to pay attention to this issue?  According to Dr. Tatum, many teachers and professors do not have much experience with getting diverse students to work together, so they will need workshops and training over a period of time—meaning at least as long as a semester, if not a full year.  It will require helping teachers and professors talk about race and socioeconomic class, including reflecting on our history.  That is a tall, but important, order for the high schools and colleges your kids are attending, parents.

5.  Grading Standards

Let me end this episode by returning to grading standards for a moment.  Dr. Tatum told a story that was quite similar to a story that a friend of mine told me recently about the college where she teaches.  Dr. Tatum’s story went something like this.  When she was a professor, she gave a student a grade of C on a paper, but she also gave the student the opportunity to revise it and improve the grade.  The student was not happy with the grade or the opportunity and told Dr. Tatum that she had a string of A’s in other courses.  Dr. Tatum spoke to one of the student’s other professors, who said that the student worked very hard and thus had been given an A in that professor’s course.  Dr. Tatum explained that the student wanted to go on to graduate school and that giving her A’s for C work would not be helpful to her in the long run.

While that story is certainly a message to college professors and high school teachers alike about the downside of grading based on effort rather than based on the quality of the work, it is also a message to students and parents.  The message to students is this:  It can’t always be about getting a perfect grade the first time around; sometimes it’s about learning to improve your writing (which, by the way, can almost always be improved) and learning what tough, but fair, teachers and professors can teach you.  Parents, that’s the message that you should be giving to your kids.

Learn more about these organizations and people mentioned in this episode…

Learn more in previous episodes…

  • Episode 19: Senior-Year Courses
  • Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EDWorks, a Subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks
  • Episode 24: Having the Money Talk
  • Episode 61: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part One
  • Episode 62: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part Two
  • Episode 67: A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Episode 67: A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships!

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Our show notes are usually a close rendition of what Marie and I talk about in our episodes. These show notes are different. They are a heartfelt request for you to listen to this episode from start to finish. You won’t hear another one like it.

A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships on USACollegeChat podcastToday, we are pleased to have Harold Levy, straight-talking executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, as our special guest. The Foundation recently co-authored, with The Century Foundation, a thought-provoking report entitled True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities.

Marie and I talked about the report some weeks ago in Episode 59, and some of the statistics that the report presented and that we discussed in that episode are, frankly, hard to forget. Here are a few:

  • At the most competitive colleges, only 3 percent of students come from families with incomes in the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution, but 72 percent of students come from families with incomes in the top 25 percent of the income distribution.
  • Only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to a selective school, but 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students do so.
  • High-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as high-achieving students from the poorest families (24 percent compared to 8 percent).
  • 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from the same 12 selective colleges and universities.

In today’s episode, Harold weighs in on what these statistics and others like them mean for our nation as low-income, smart kids fail to apply and enroll in to the kinds of selective colleges they are intellectually equipped to attend.

Harold also gives us an insider’s look at what was one of the scariest parts of the report for me—the section on the college admissions process. The report’s authors were brutally frank about that, and Harold is as well as he takes us inside the admissions game. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.

Please join us to hear about all this and more:

  • The inadequacy of current college counseling in high schools and what the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and others are doing about it
  • The generous scholarships offered by the Foundation to high-achieving, low-income students: to eighth graders, for study and enrichment during high school; to high school graduates, for their undergraduate college years; and to community college transfers, for their final years at four-year colleges
  • A critical review of a new report just out from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions (Marie and I recently tackled this report in Episodes 61 and 62.)
  • Thoughts about what is happening to average-achieving, low-income high school students in the college race

You won’t hear a foundation president or a big city school chancellor talk to you like this again any time soon. Really. You should listen.

Learn more about these organizations mentioned in this episode…

  • Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need
    • The Young Scholars Program for students entering eighth grade in the fall is currently accepting applications through April 14, 2016.
  • Big Future, a college planning site brought to you by The College Board
  • College Advising Corps, placing well-trained, recent college graduates as full-time college advisors in high schools
  • College Greenlight, connecting first generation and underrepresented students to caring colleges, generous scholarships, and life-changing counselors and mentors
  • CollegePoint, one-on-one college advising support for low- and moderate-income families
  • College Results Online, an interactive, user-friendly web tool providing information about college graduation rates
  • Pell Abacus, a short cut to financial aid for students receiving free or reduced lunch
  • ScholarCHIPS, for children of incarcerated parents

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

Connect with us through…

Episode 66: Geography Determines College-Going Behavior–Again

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

This is our eleventh episode focusing on news stories about higher education, and yet it returns to a theme of many USACollegeChat episodes. That theme is the geography of college-going behavior by graduating high school students. I think we are starting to sound like a broken record on this topic, and yet it is so important for parents to recognize and deal with.

Today’s story revisits this theme that we addressed seriously and at length in our nationwide virtual tour of public and private colleges and universities in every state in the U.S.

Geography Determines College-Going Behavior—Again 1. The Geography Statistics You Should Know

You all might recall that the reason we took you on that tour was one simple statistic: About 70 percent of high school students go to college in their home states. We speculated about reasons for that remarkably high number: familiarity on the part of kids and families, concern within families about sending kids too far from home, financial concerns, and familiarity on the part of high school counselors, just to name some. We were sorry (and still are) that kids were missing out on all kinds of opportunities—public and private, expensive and not, traditional and wildly innovative, liberal arts and technical—because they were not leaving home. We thought that giving kids and families more information could help.

A new report just out might call that strategy into question.

Published by the American Council on Education and written by Nicholas Hillman (Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison) and Taylor Weichman (a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison), the report is entitled Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of “Place” in the Twenty-First Century. The report makes lots of interesting points, but the bottom line, from our point of view, is this: Geography matters. (We would add, “And that’s too bad.”)

One statistic that the authors quote from other research is something that we will now add to our own arsenal of statistics about college choice. That new statistic is this: About 57 percent of incoming freshmen at public four-year colleges attend a college within 50 miles of home. Now, let’s be clear. The statistic is not that 57 percent of high school graduates go to four-year public colleges within 50 miles of home. But rather, 57 percent of freshmen at four-year public colleges have come from no more than 50 miles away. Think about it from a freshman’s point of view. If you are a freshman standing on a four-year public college campus, more than half of your classmates live within 50 miles of where you are standing.

We often say that colleges seem to want geographic diversity in their student bodies and that they seek freshmen from other states (and, indeed, from other countries), proudly advertising on their own websites their enrollment figures about how many states and how many foreign countries their students come from. Well, now you see why.

For those freshmen standing on those four-year public college campuses, it’s almost like being in high school or in a local community college—especially when a fair number of your high school classmates enrolled at your four-year public college, too.

2. Is Knowledge the Solution?

In their new report, the authors make an interesting point about some federal initiatives designed to improve students’ access to colleges, like the new College Scorecard (which we have not talked about yet) and College Navigator, which we have talked a great deal about. You might recall that College Navigator is an online service of the National Center for Education Statistics and that it provides all kinds of useful data about any college you enter into its search function—data like enrollments, graduation rates, profiles of newly admitted students, typically broken down by gender and by race/ethnicity. In fact, we have done whole episodes about those kinds of data and about how helpful we think they are. We have said that College Navigator is one more source of information to help high school seniors figure out where to apply and perhaps one more source of information for high school seniors to look at in making a decision about where to enroll. But maybe giving students and their families more information—even highly relevant and valuable information—is not nearly enough.

So here is the question that the authors investigate: Is college choice a result of having information and knowledge about colleges or a result of the location of a college—with location meaning one close or even closest to home—and what happens when there aren’t any colleges close to home? Here are a few findings from other research, presented by the authors (you can follow up on the details by looking at the full report):

  • The farther a kid lives from a college, the less likely the kid is to enroll.
  • The college decisions of kids from wealthier homes are less affected by home-to-college distance.
  • The college decisions of kids from working-class homes and the college decisions of kids of color are most affected by home-to-college distance.
  • Family duties and cultural traditions keep some kids closer to home for college—especially black, Latino, and Native American kids.
  • Kids in rural communities, who often have strong community ties, tend to stay closer to home for college.
  • Having a college close to home is associated with a high level of college enrollment (I would say, because it’s right there, and what could be easier).

None of these statistics is surprising, given both what we have talked about in earlier episodes and, indeed, given your own common sense. Not surprising, but maybe still concerning.

3. What Are “Education Deserts”?

The authors go on to talk about “education deserts,” which they define as communities with no colleges or universities located nearby or communities with only one nearby community college to provide a place for students who need a public institution with reasonable admission standards (with “reasonable admission standards” defined as admitting more than 75 percent of applicants). Just as there are “food deserts,” they say, where access to healthy, fresh food is unavailable in some low-income neighborhoods and perhaps especially in low-income neighborhoods of color, so there are education deserts, where families do not have easy enough access to public higher education.

I get the point, parents, and I believe you do, too. No one wants unnecessarily limited choice for students who need to keep costs down or need to stay close to home for other reasons—at least at the beginning of their college careers. But I wish that the solution could be to help students make the physical and perhaps social-emotional-psychological trip to a college farther away—and maybe even out of state.

4. What Should You Do?

Like the National Center for Education Statistics and its College Navigator or like the Obama administration’s College Scorecard, I would like to think that providing important information about colleges would be enough to help students make that trip. I would like to think that the information provided in our nationwide virtual tour of colleges would be enough to help students make that trip. But, evidently, it isn’t. Furthermore, the report offers the insight that even financial support, which so many kids need desperately, sometimes does not outweigh the power of geography.

So, what is the solution? Is it to build more colleges—ideally public colleges with reasonable admission standards—in areas where none exist? Is it to build more campuses of state public higher education systems (though maybe not the flagship system, with its higher admission standards) to pick up the abundance of students looking for a nearby college to call home? Is it to encourage colleges that already exist—at least public colleges—to consider the geographic region they are in and work harder to serve more of the students in it or close to it?

A lot of that sounds expensive to me, and a lot of that sounds as though it could take a long time to happen. Colleges can’t be built overnight, and college policies and practices can’t be changed overnight, either.

So, for now, Marie and I are here at USACollegeChat, and we are going to keep giving you information about colleges far and wide. We are going to keep encouraging you and your high schooler to think about the information. We are going to keep asking you and your high schooler to keep an open mind about leaving your state for the right opportunity. We are going to keep advising that geography does not need to be the first deal breaker on your list of things that would keep you from sending your high schooler to a college that is a perfect fit.

A college in another state might be the best chance your high schooler gets to go somewhere reasonably safe and reasonably well protected to live and learn with peers that are all not exactly like he or she is. Personally, I would like to take the child out of the desert rather than improve the desert. I don’t think it is a popular opinion, but it is mine. Call me if you want to chat about it.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment on the show notes for this episode at http://usacollegechat.org/episode66
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

Connect with us through…

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Episode 64: Volunteers To Help in College Applications Process

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

This is our tenth episode focusing on news stories about higher education. When we started this series about what’s going on in the news, I really didn’t know if there would be enough to talk about. It turns out there has been quite a lot!

Today’s story is equally for families with kids going into their final year or two of high school and for families with kids going into their final year of community college—that is, families with kids who might be facing the process of applying to a four-year college in the near future.

1. The Problem with Completing College Applications

In a February 8 online article in The Hechinger Report, entitled “Volunteer ‘Pushy Moms’ help community college students transfer to four-year schools,” Hechinger senior editor Barbara Kantrowitz writes about an idea that comes to you from Karen Dubinsky, the chief engagement officer at LaGuardia Community College (located in Long Island City, Queens), one of the seven community colleges of the City University of New York. Dubinsky’s idea is something that should be replicated in every high school and every community college immediately.

We are not kidding. I can’t believe more high schools and community colleges do not do this one simple, but likely highly effective, thing to help kids navigate the college application process and get into college: Enlist volunteers from among the parents of kids who have recently helped their own kids through the college application process and who might want to lend a hand to a younger student.

The article quotes Dubinsky’s description of LaGuardia CC’s Pushy Moms as “women in New York who have spent a lot of time and energy getting their kids into college.” In point of fact, the women are Dubinsky’s friends, whom she recruited to start Pushy Moms (originally and more boringly called the College Advisory Board).

These women don’t work miracles, and they don’t have friends in high places in prestigious four-year universities. What they do have is experience, a certain amount of kindheartedness, and undoubtedly empathy for kids and parents struggling through the process.

Just to get some perspective, LaGuardia CC has tens of thousands of students (actually 48,000 students from 150 countries), and many are trying to make the transition from two-year LaGuardia to a four-year college when they graduate. Many of LaGuardia’s students—especially those who have come by themselves from all over the world—don’t have nearby parents or other family members to help them figure out the next step in their education, and many of them can’t afford to pay someone to provide that help. My guess is that the college counselors employed by LaGuardia CC are about as overwhelmed as high school counselors in big cities are. Providing one-to-one college counseling for every LaGuardia student who needs it just isn’t going to happen.

2. The Statistics About Completing College

Couple that situation with this fact, as noted in The Hechinger Report article:   “According to a recent 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). These statistics are astounding. Let’s just say it again: 80 percent of two-year college students say that they want to get a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college, only about 25 percent actually transfer to a four-year college so that they can do that, and only 17 percent finally get the degree that they transferred for.

Parents, we know that we have said that starting out in a community college might be just the right thing for a variety of students—students who have no idea what they want to study in college, students who need to improve their basic academic and study skills, students who need to get better grades on their record before they apply to a four-year college, students who need to mature a bit before committing to a four-year program of study, and students whose families want or need the financial break of far cheaper tuition than four-year colleges.   We have said this and more in many episodes of NYCollegeChat and in our new book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (available electronically and in print from Amazon). We have praised community colleges for lots of things, including the fact that adults over 25, some of whom are returning to finish a college degree they started years before, can often find a truly good fit at a community college.

But looking at these numbers—from 80 to 25 to17 percent—I have to say that I am beginning to think twice. It is true that there are legitimate reasons for this decline between the declared intentions of newly admitted students and the realities of where they end up. Because many community college students are older than typical college freshmen, it is likely that adult responsibilities get in the way—part-time and even full-time jobs, spouses, and children. It is also true that some students who try a community college right out of high school do so as a last resort—that is, their grades or test scores wouldn’t get them into a four-year college, even a less-selective public one. Such students might have trouble all the way through their community college careers.

I am not faulting community colleges here. I believe they serve an important purpose for a significant percentage of graduating high school students, especially for students who need a little extra time to become fully college ready or who need to keep costs for the first two years of college low enough that they can actually finish. But numbers are numbers, unfortunately, and these should make any educator or parent think again.

Just to be balanced, you might recall that we offered some different, but equally disturbing, statistics in our last episode (Episode 63: College Graduation Rates Are a New Federal Priority). We noted that graduation rates from four-year colleges were so bad that the Obama administration has pledged to spend the next year trying to figure out what has been going wrong. In a recent U.S. News & World Report article (“Education Department to Prioritize College Completion,” January 21, 2016), reporter Lauren Camera quoted statistics from 2013 from the National Center for Education Statistics. She reported that only 59 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates in a four-year degree program completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. Not four years, but six years. That’s first-time, full-time undergraduates in a four-year degree program—in other words, these are the kids just coming out of high school and starting college full time in a bachelor’s degree program. These are kids like your teenager. After the community college numbers we just talked about, this 59 percent figure is really no consolation.

3. One Solution to the College Applications Problem

But let’s get back to LaGuardia CC’s Pushy Moms. One of Dubinsky’s solutions to the precipitous drop between the 80 percent of two-year college students who say that they want to get a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college and the approximately 25 percent who actually transfer to a four-year college is Pushy Moms.   Pushy Moms solves the problem of students who want to transfer to a four-year college, but cannot figure out how to negotiate the application process—which, by the way, is likely to be far more demanding than the application it took for them to get into LaGuardia as a public community college.

What exactly do the Pushy Moms do? Well, they do what moms do. They talk with LaGuardia students individually and over time about which four-year public and private colleges to apply to, about which colleges have the student’s desired major, about how to visit those colleges, about how to write any essays that might be required (and about how to revise and improve those essays, I’m sure), about any admissions tests that have to be taken, and about how to stay on schedule in getting transfer applications completed and submitted on time.

The Pushy Moms aren’t meant to replace the college counselors at LaGuardia, but I bet they often do. That’s how great the need for this kind of support is. The statistics are proof of that.

4. Next Steps

So, if you have a kid at a community college right now and want to see him or her make that transfer to a four-year college and you both need some help in order to make that happen, see whether the community college has a support service like Pushy Moms. Maybe you will be lucky.

But, what does Pushy Moms have to do with high schools? Simply this: There are a lot of pushy moms and dads (they can be pushy, too) who have helped navigate the college application process for their own kids in the past few years. Some of them have younger kids at home, who still need their help. But others don’t. The ones who don’t might have a little free time and might actually miss interacting with high school kids (yes, some are glad they are gone, but others of us wish they were still around).

These moms and dads could make up an effective volunteer corps to help students applying to colleges from your teenager’s high school—where they already know the principal and the teachers and the counselors and even perhaps some of the younger kids. I can already see this idea playing out in suburban high schools all over the country, especially in those suburbs where high school graduates go off to college and come back to live and raise their own families.

Of course, these moms and dads could also offer their services to schools that really need them, especially some urban high schools full of potential first-generation college students, who lack the family resources and family background necessary to put together winning college applications. As we all know, these urban high schools rarely have the number of counselors that would be needed to support all of the students who need help.

That is really the reason that Marie and I started this podcast. We were trying to make up for a lack of school counselors, and I was a mom who had recently gotten three kids of my own through undergraduate and graduate school admissions processes. Marie and I had also gotten a couple hundred high schoolers through the application process as they graduated from the Early College high school we co-founded in New York City. We knew how daunting it could be for families without any experience of their own in navigating college waters.

I recently wrote about this same topic on my blog for parents, called ParentChat with Regina. At the end of my ParentChat articles, I usually give parents some “marching orders,” which usually involve going to talk to the school board and/or their child’s school principal about current practices in the school district and the schools and possibly improved future practices. Here is what I said about the Pushy Moms topic.

High school parents: It is time to take a look at how parent volunteers are used in the college application process in your high school:

Ask your school board to talk about whether it has a policy on using parent volunteers in this particular way in your high school. Most boards will have a policy on volunteers, but this is a specific case, which could be endorsed in such a policy.

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity first to meet with the superintendent, high school principals, and counseling staff about current practice and about the desirability of adding this practice.

In addition, talk to your high school principal about starting a parent volunteer group like Pushy Moms. You don’t need to have a board policy to do it. It could be a project of your PTA, if you have a strong PTA, or it could be set up and run by your high school administrators or counselors.

Offer to help by recruiting parents of current students you know. Or offer to call parents of recent graduates to recruit them (teachers and counselors can probably point you to parents who did a good job for their own kids in the college applications process). Offer to help with the logistics of scheduling meetings between parent volunteers and seniors (meetings can be held in school facilities or, as with Pushy Moms, at local coffee shops and other public venues).

Stay focused in pulling this off in your high school. This is an idea with no downside.

As Marie and I often say, it is rare to find an idea in education that has no downside. We think that Pushy Moms—or Pushy Moms and Dads—is one. Don’t miss it.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Making a community college experience more like a four-year college experience
  • Considering the case of Guttmann Community College
  • Enlisting the help of PTA members who no longer have kids in K–12 schools

Check out these higher education institutions we mention…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

Connect with us through…

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Episode 63: College Graduation Rates Are a New Federal Priority

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

This is our ninth episode focusing on news stories about higher education—some that might immediately change your thoughts about colleges for your teenager and others that might take a bit longer to consider. This episode takes on a topic that we have talked about briefly before, and that is colleges’ graduation rates. This topic is similar to high schools’ and school districts’ graduation rates, though it is not as hotly debated and discussed in public forums, I think. All that might change this year.

College Graduation Rates Are a New Federal Priority on NYCollegeChat podcastIn a recent U.S. News & World Report article (“Education Department to Prioritize College Completion,” January 21, 2016), reporter Lauren Camera quoted President Obama’s Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell as saying this:

‘We continue to be very troubled by the completion numbers. . . . We know we have a completion problem. . . . And we’re going to spend the next 365 days really focusing on completion and figuring out ways we can ensure the most vulnerable students get the high-quality education they deserve.’ (quoted from the article)

That’s a good sentiment. However, I am thinking that all students should get the high-quality education they deserve. While I am sure that the most vulnerable students are at higher risk of not completing a college degree—or, at least, not completing one in a timely manner—I also believe that average students or just-below-average students who managed to start college might be having some trouble finishing, too.

1. Some Statistics

Let’s look at some statistics. According to Ms. Camera’s reporting of statistics from 2013 from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only 59 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates in a four-year degree program completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. Not four years, but six years. That’s first-time, full-time undergraduates in a four-year degree program—in other words, these are the kids just coming out of high school and starting college full time in a bachelor’s degree program. These are kids like your teenager.

The figures broken down by type of institution were 65 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates for private nonprofit institutions, 58 percent for public institutions, and a low, low 32 percent for private for-profit institutions. By the way, these figures do not include part-time students at four-year colleges, which would have made these numbers even lower since part-time students understandably take even longer to complete a degree. These figures also do not represent students in two-year degree programs, including students at community colleges; we would have to look separately at the completion rate for students in two-year degree programs, but that’s a different story.

So, in round numbers, about 60 percent of students who graduate from high school and go to college full time at four-year private and public colleges and universities are graduating with a bachelor’s degree in six years—rather than in the four years that those degrees were designed to be completed in. That is a sad, well-hidden secret.

Of course, these figures are averages, meaning that some colleges have much better graduation rates than these—and some colleges have much worse graduation rates than these.

2. How To Find These Statistics

What does this mean for you? It means that you should pay some attention to the graduation rates of colleges that your teenager is interested in applying to if you believe, as does the Obama administration, that a college’s graduation rate is one more indication of the quality of the institution and of the likelihood that your teenager will actually finish and get a degree once he or she starts. Fortunately, these graduation rates are available online on most college websites (even if you have to dig for them), but they are also available quickly and easily from NCES.

In Episode 58, we talked about looking at enrollment data for various colleges. Graduation data, like enrollment data, are part of what is called the Common Data Set, which is a large set of data covering many aspects of college life, including enrollment, graduation, characteristics of admitted students, and much more. As we explained in Episode 58, the Common Data Set is a product of the government-funded Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (known as IPEDS). I said in Episode 58 that I usually found enrollment data for a particular college by searching on that college’s website for “Common Data Set.” And sometimes that took a while.

I then discovered that IPEDS has a great college search function of its own (housed at NCES), called College Navigator, which provides the Common Data Set statistics for each college quickly and efficiently in one place. So, if you are interested in looking at a college’s graduation rate, just go to the College Navigator website, enter the name of the college you are interested in, click search, click on the college’s name that comes up, and then click on the heading entitled “Retention and Graduation Rates.”

When you do that, you will see three headings of statistics, all of which are well defined. The third heading is “Bachelor’s Degree Graduation Rates,” and it is defined this way: “Bachelor’s degree graduation rates measure the percentage of entering [first-time] students beginning their studies full-time . . . planning to get a bachelor’s degree and who complete their degree program within a specified amount of time.” There are several statistics under this heading: “Graduation Rates for Students Pursuing Bachelor’s Degrees,” “6-Year Graduation Rate by Gender for Students Pursuing Bachelor’s Degrees,” and “6-Year Graduation Rate by Race/Ethnicity for Students Pursuing Bachelor’s Degrees.” The first chart of graduation rates is broken down into students who started in 2006 and 2008 and also by 4-year, 6-year, and 8-year time-to-graduation time frames.

3. Looking at a Sample of Colleges

Let’s take a look at a sample of 4-year (which is the ideal, of course) and 6-year graduation rates for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees who started as freshmen in 2008. I have chosen these schools at random, except for trying to represent different geographic regions of the U.S. Let’s start with a handful of excellent private universities:

Institution

4-Year Rate

6-Year Rate

Yale University 87% 96%
Rice University 81% 91%
University of Chicago 87% 93%
Stanford University 76% 95%
Washington U. in St. Louis 90% 95%

 

Now let’s look at a handful of excellent private liberal arts colleges:

Institution

4-Year Rate

6-Year Rate

Amherst College 87% 94%
Barnard College 82% 89%
Carleton College 91% 93%
Colorado College 81% 86%
Kenyon College 89% 89%

 

Now let’s look at a handful of excellent public flagship universities (these are figures for the main flagship campus only):

Institution

4-Year Rate

6-Year Rate

University of Virginia 87% 94%
University of Michigan 76% 91%
Pennsylvania State University  

66%

 

86%

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  

80%

 

90%

University of California–Berkeley  

72%

 

91%

 

Now let’s look at a handful of private colleges and universities that are not quite so selective:

Institution

4-Year Rate

6-Year Rate

Quinnipiac University 72% 76%
Denison University 79% 82%
Drake University 66% 74%
Millsaps College 62% 64%
Lewis & Clark College 71% 79%

 

Now let’s look at a handful of public flagship universities that are not quite so selective:

Institution

4-Year Rate

6-Year Rate

University of Rhode Island 39% 59%
University of Alabama 39% 66%
University of Utah 24% 62%
University of Oklahoma 37% 67%
University of Arizona 40% 60%

I hesitate to make too much of my random sample, but I think it is evident that, on the average, less selective public and private colleges and universities have lower 4-year graduation rates and lower 6-year graduation rates. Not every college, of course, because that’s how averages work.

If you want to look at more detailed graduation rates, you can do so by gender or by race/ethnicity. For example, at the University of Alabama, the 6-year graduation rate for black or African-American students is 60 percent; for Hispanic or Latino students, 63 percent; and for white students, 67 percent. I have to say that those numbers are closer together, fortunately, than I thought they would be. And that’s important information to know.

4. Why Should You Be Looking at These Data

So, have we convinced you to take a look at the graduation rates for the colleges your teenager is interested in? The bottom line is that it can’t hurt. We are not saying that you should rule out a college that has a below-average graduation rate—which you now know is about 60 percent for the 6-year time frame. But, if your teenager is trying to decide between two colleges and one has a way higher-than-average graduation rate and one has a way lower-than-average graduation rate, then that should be food for thought. A lower-than-average graduation rate could mean a variety of things—things that would affect your teenager, like it is difficult for students to get into all of the courses they need to graduate because of overcrowding in core classes, and things that might not affect your teenager, like the college might have a mission to take more underprepared high school graduates than the typical college. But whatever the reason, we think that graduation rates are worth knowing.

In conclusion, I looked up a couple of my favorite intriguing colleges, which shall remain nameless (but you might guess some of them if you listened to our virtual tour of colleges nationwide). Their graduation rates were well below average. But the colleges are so unique that I probably won’t let those graduation rates stop me from recommending them. Having information lets you make the best informed judgment you can. And when you are about to commit your teenager’s future to an institution for four—or more—years, making the best judgment you can is priceless.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • How choosing a certain major could hurt your chances of graduating on time
  • How working while in college could hurt your chances of graduating on time
  • How lack of academic support services could hurt your chances of graduating on time

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

Connect with us through…

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.