Episode 57: Another Look at College Visits

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Another Look at College Visits on NYCollegeChat podcast http://usacollegechat.org/episode57

Welcome to a new year—2016—but a continuation of our current Series 5 about higher education in the news. We have been looking at news stories of all sorts about colleges—some that might immediately influence your teenager’s decision about where to apply or later about where to attend and others that might take longer to impact your family.

In this episode, we are going to look at an article from a somewhat different news source: not the usual newspapers or education newsletters, but rather a college alumni/alumnae magazine. You might guess that it is one of my own alma mater’s magazines, and you would be correct. The article is from last fall’s Cornell Alumni Magazine.

1. Cornell University’s Campus Tours

The article, by Beth Saulnier, is cleverly titled—“Tour de Force”—with a tour de force, of course, being an impressive or highly skilled performance; but, in this case, those performances are actual campus tours. Ms. Saulnier’s article tells the story of Cornell University’s campus tours, which are provided every year for some 50,000 prospective students and parents. The capsule summary of the article in the Magazine says this:

They’re a familiar sight on East Hill: the University’s friendly, helpful, backward-walking tour guides. For the eighty or so undergrads who serve as guides each year, showing visitors around campus is a passion and a calling. It’s a competitive gig, with only 10 percent of applicants selected. And it can be a high-pressure job—because, as the guides well know, a campus tour can make or break a prospective student’s impression of their school. (quoted from the Magazine)

So, listeners, it’s even harder to get to be a tour guide than it is to get into the University, which has an acceptance rate for students of about 14 or 15 percent compared to the 10 percent acceptance rate for tour guides. The University must think that they are indeed important.

The article quotes Taiya Luce, the director of visitor relations, as saying this about Cornell tour guides:

We’re looking for people who can work with diverse groups, who are flexible and charismatic, who can answer tough questions honestly and authentically. Parents are looking at this tour guide and thinking, Will you be my kid’s friend? Is my student going to have a community here? . . . We’ve moved away from a lot of facts and statistics, which make people’s eyes glaze over. We focus more on authentic storytelling. (quoted from the Magazine)

Interestingly, Cornell tours run regardless of weather—which, given Ithaca’s long snowy and rainy season, is an impressive claim. Ms. Luce said that she has cancelled a tour only once—in the midst of tornado watches. And, by the way, tour guides are not allowed to wear sunglasses or hats with brims, because eye contact with the visitors is thought to be critical in building rapport.

2. How Important Could a Tour Be?

Because it is certainly true that facts and figures are readily available on college websites, perhaps it is that personal touch that will make the difference in how your teenager feels about a college and, subsequently, in whether your teenager will apply to it. You might think that meeting one student on campus would not be so powerful, but many researchers will tell you that the value of a case study of one individual can sometimes weigh more in people’s thinking than mounds of data; a person somehow just makes a more vivid impression.

I believe that is true. I recently took my niece to meet with an alumna from a college I thought she might find attractive. Sydney is interested in theater, and I have a young friend (here’s a shout-out to you, Holli Campbell) who graduated just a few years ago from the University of Evansville in Indiana. Holli, who majored in theatre management there, was the youngest company manager on Broadway last fall at the age of 24. The University of Evansville is a relatively small, private university with a total enrollment of about 2,500 undergraduate and graduate students, offering about 80 undergraduate majors in liberal arts, business, education, health sciences, and engineering. It has a lovely campus.

Now, I knew that Holli would give the University of Evansville a big pitch. And I knew that she would be persuasive—in part because of her sparkling personality. But, I can tell you that I would have gone to the University of Evansville at the end of that meeting. So, you cannot underestimate the value and the influence of one person who is talking about a college that he or she loves.

But let me get back to college tours. While my niece Sydney was visiting, I took her to see Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. We recently talked about Pratt in Episode 53. Pratt serves a total of about 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduates can pursue degrees in architecture, construction management, fine arts, photography, digital arts, graphic design, industrial design, fashion design, interior design, film, writing, the history of art and design, and more.

We were on a tight schedule, so we thought we would just look around and get a feel for the campus—and it is quite an attractive campus with clear boundaries, albeit in a very urban setting. As luck would have it, a tour for a handful of families was just starting from the admissions office, and we happily joined it. The tour was led by Pratt student Joe Mendoza, who did a great job.

We saw a lot of the campus: the library so beautiful that I took pictures inside it, the on-campus dorms (including a look at an actual freshman room), the athletic facilities, the cafeterias, the cool old building where you looked down on the old mechanical stuff (I know there is a more precise description of that, but it escapes me at the moment), and more. We learned a lot about Pratt’s history (including the reason that there are well-cared-for cats on campus), about its services for students (including the career services office, which helps students get internships while they are students and helps graduates forever with their career moves), about the security on campus (a really helpful and reassuring discussion, given Pratt’s urban Brooklyn surroundings), about the pros and cons for the different freshman dorms, about when the public is allowed on campus and when it is closed, and more. Because two students on the tour (including my niece) had an interest in the film program, Joe took us to the building that houses the film program, with its theater, stages for filming, and state-of-the-art recording studio. Not a theater student himself, Joe really went out of his way to accommodate the interests of the tour group. At the end of tour, I wanted to go to Pratt. He sold that institution in the subtlest possible way.

3. The Lesson Learned

So, here’s the lesson I learned—and I really should have known it already. Whenever we went to museums with our children, my husband would always say, “Let’s take the tour.” This was not because he loved to spend time in museums, but because he knew that the children would get much more out of the visit if they heard someone knowledgeable talking about what they were seeing.

Well, the same is true for college visits. Take the tour, parents and kids. There is probably not a better way to spend an hour or an hour and a half during a college visit. Why?

  • Because you will be able to see lots of things you would not have access to as a visitor wandering around the campus on your own
  • Because your teenager will likely feel more comfortable asking a question of a student guide on a tour than asking a question of a college staff member in a group information session or even in a private interview
  • Because you will be able to get some of your questions (and maybe all of your questions) answered in a relatively straightforward and honest way (That’s not to say that student tour guides aren’t trained in how to answer certain questions, especially sensitive ones—like about safety issues, for example. Because, of course, they are trained carefully—at Cornell, training lasts a full semester.)

3. What To Do Next

Our new book (that’s How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available electronically and in print at Amazon.com) talks about visiting colleges. We said that college visits are very important—because there really is no substitute—and that it is only the when and how of those visits that needs to be discussed.

We talked about the luxury of visiting colleges before your teenager applies, though that can be a time-consuming and expensive proposition. We explained that not all colleges of a certain type are the same. For example, my niece visited three urban colleges—two in Manhattan and Pratt in Brooklyn. They couldn’t have been more different in every respect: small and large, faith-based and not, selective and not so selective, broadly liberal arts and more focused academically, tiny campuses and not-so-tiny campuses (even multiple campuses in more than one borough of New York City). So, if you have the time and money to visit colleges at the beginning of the application process, that’s great.

However, visiting after acceptances have been received makes a lot of sense, too. As college application deadlines loomed this month, I have been saying not to worry about doing a lot of last-minute visits. Just wait. If your teenager is accepted at more than one college, spend the time and money in April to visit those colleges your teenager is trying to decide among. It might be that visiting your teenager’s first choice is all that is   needed—if the visit is successful and confirms that college to be the right one. That is a great cost-saving method.

Of course, sometimes visiting a college is simply not an option. In that case, as we said in the book, talk to anyone you can find who has visited the college. That might be a family friend, a high school friend, a teacher, a school administrator, a guidance counselor, or someone else. Some colleges have alumni/alumnae interviewers, who could serve this function nicely, too. In the case of my niece’s late-in-the-game interest in the University of Evansville, we had Holli, a proud alumna—as good and reliable a substitute for an actual campus visit as you are going to get.

Remember, too, we said in the book, that it is not only about the physical surroundings on a campus, but also about the intellectual and social surroundings. Photographs in a brochure or on a website or even a virtual campus tour on a website might resolve your teenager’s or your questions about the physical surroundings, but probably cannot answer questions about the intellectual and social surroundings, which are more likely to affect your teenager’s satisfaction with his or her college choice. So talking to current or recent students—sometimes even one student—can make all the difference.

Most college websites have a place for signing up for a campus visit, including a tour. Do that before you go—in case you are not as lucky as we were at Pratt to happen onto a tour that is about to start. I believe that a tour is likely to make your teenager (and you, too) like a college more—partly because you end up feeling more comfortable with the college and feel as though you know more about it. And that’s a good feeling when it comes to choosing a college.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • What you should watch out for on a campus tour
  • What you need to do on campus besides a tour
  • What parents can do that kids can’t

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

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  • 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
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Episode 55: The Liberal Arts Debate

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As we said last week when we kicked off Series 5, it seems to me that we have been reading and hearing a lot about higher education in the news. So we are going to dedicate some weeks to looking at news stories that are inspiring, upsetting, or just plain surprising—either about specific colleges or about higher education more generally.

Episode 55: The Liberal Arts Debate on NYCollegeChat podcast http://usacollegechat.org/episode55 Listen on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn

Some of the stories might immediately influence your teenager’s decisions about where to apply or later about where to attend, and other stories might take longer to impact your family. Either way, we think these are things parents should know and even act on.

Today’s topic is the liberal arts. While some parents believe that their teenagers should major in a field that leads directly to a job after college graduation rather than in the liberal arts, some colleges—including some unexpected ones— are stepping forward to praise the value of studying the liberal arts.

Let’s start by saying that studying the “liberal arts” means that students take courses in a variety of academic subjects, typically including literature, history, mathematics, fine arts, philosophy, foreign languages, biological and/or physical sciences (also called the natural sciences), and one or more of the social sciences, like psychology, sociology, or anthropology. Sometimes these subjects as a group are also called the “liberal arts and sciences” or just “arts and sciences” or “humanities and sciences.”

Our new book (that’s How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available electronically and in print at Amazon.com) talks about choosing liberal arts study vs. technical study for a whole chapter. We explain the debate and give the pros and cons for having a student study or major in one or the other. So we won’t repeat all of that reasoning here.

However, before we talk about an article on this topic that I read in The Hechinger Report last October, I want to say in the interest of full disclosure that both Marie and I took the liberal arts route for our undergraduate degrees—mine in English literature and Marie’s in sociology. So, it is possible that we are a bit biased in favor of having a liberal arts foundation. In Marie’s case, she never would have known that the field of sociology existed had it not been for the distribution requirements mandated by her traditional liberal arts college, Barnard. All three of my own children were gently guided in the past 10 years—both by their father and me and by their own colleges’ distribution requirements—into getting a liberal arts grounding first, before they went on to study for quite specialized bachelor’s degrees (in music performance, in visual arts and media, and in dance). All of us would take the liberal arts route again if we had it to do over. But that’s enough about us.

1. Two Unexpected Cases

In his article “The surprising institutions that refuse to drop the liberal arts,” Jon Marcus talks about two institutions that, by their very names, would appear to come down strongly on the side of technical study at the expense of liberal arts study. They are the United States Military Academy (commonly referred to as West Point) and the Culinary Institute of America—both located on the Hudson River a bit north of New York City. One produces soldiers, and one produces chefs—albeit some of the best soldiers and some of the best chefs anywhere.

Interestingly enough, however, West Point cadets choose from 40 academic majors that cover a broad array of disciplines—including American politics; art, philosophy and literature; foreign languages; history; sociology; and psychology; as well as management and the engineering and sciences you might expect. There are a lot of traditional liberal arts choices in that list. The Hechinger Report article quotes Brigadier General Timothy Trainor, the academic dean at West Point, on this subject:

It’s important to develop in young people the ability to think broadly, to operate in the context of other societies and become agile and adaptive thinkers. What you’re trying to do is teach them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. They’re having to deal with people from other cultures. They have to think very intuitively to solve problems on the ground. (quoted from the article)

It is this critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, judgment, dealing with consequences, cultural sensitivity, and the sociology of their interactions with others that the proponents of the liberal arts claim can be taught most effectively through courses in liberal arts fields of study. And West Point seems to agree.

So does Michael Sperling, vice president for academic affairs at the private, nonprofit Culinary Institute of America, who is quoted in the article as saying this:

There’s a certain level of anti-intellectualism in the popular culture that inappropriately sees the pursuit of core disciplines as frivolous. And that’s unfortunate, because the kind of things you learn in philosophy courses and history courses deepens your ability to act in the world. (quoted from the article)

I think that “frivolous” is exactly the word that some parents would use to describe liberal arts study, and I hope that those parents are rethinking that position now.

Ted Russin, associate dean for culinary science, earned his degree in philosophy. He is quoted in the article as saying that Culinary Institute of America students “would definitely have technical skills. They could make a croissant and it would be exquisite. But there’s a difference between knowing how to do something and understanding what’s happening.” The bigger and broader understanding of what’s happening is what, some experts claim, the liberal arts provide.

2. Other Cases

Those of you who are faithful listeners to NYCollegeChat are likely to recall other higher education institutions we have talked about during our virtual college tour over the last few months—institutions that required more or offered more liberal arts courses and majors than you might have expected.

Let’s look at a few of our other military academies. We talked about the United States Naval Academy (commonly referred to as Annapolis). Young men and women at Annapolis graduate with Bachelor of Science degrees in a choice of about 25 majors—mostly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics related to their future careers. But they can major instead in Arabic, Chinese, economics, English, history, or political science (and minor in other foreign languages).

We talked about the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, located in Connecticut, where seven of 24 core curriculum courses are from its Humanities Department, so cadets are well versed in the liberal arts when they graduate. Cadets may major in government (about 25 percent typically do) in addition to marine and environmental sciences and majors more directly related to maritime studies.

We talked about the Military College of South Carolina, The Citadel. The Citadel offers 20 undergraduate majors—with mandatory leadership and ethics studies—in the schools of business, education, engineering, science and mathematics, and humanities and social sciences.

Let’s look at some arts institutions. We talked about the Curtis Institute of Music and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Rhode Island School of Design, where both the arts and the liberal arts are required parts of the curricula.

We talked about Berklee College of Music in Boston, which offers 12 different undergraduate music-related majors. But all Berklee students take both a core music curriculum (e.g., ear training, arranging, harmony) and a core liberal arts curriculum in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences and mathematics.

We talked about one of our nation’s finest art colleges: the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), located adjacent to the world-famous art museum in downtown Chicago. SAIC offers a wide variety of art and design majors—along with a full array of liberal arts courses.

We talked about Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), located in one of our nation’s prettiest towns. SCAD offers more than 40 undergraduate and graduate majors related to the arts and design, including writing. But, as part of the general education course requirements for undergraduates, students take liberal arts courses in the humanities and fine arts, natural sciences and mathematics, social and behavioral sciences, written and oral communication, and computer literacy.

Let’s look at a couple of Massachusetts colleges, which are known primarily as business colleges. We talked about Babson College, where at least half of students’ courses are in the liberal arts, including the study of a language that is useful in business dealings today—perhaps a bit surprising for a business-focused institution.

We talked about Bentley College, which offers its undergraduates 23 majors in 11 business fields and five arts and sciences disciplines. In fact, about 20 percent of undergraduates double major in business and Bentley’s Liberal Studies Major (which has eight interdisciplinary concentrations).

Let’s look at some high-tech institutions. We talked about Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, which comprises schools of Engineering and Science, Business, and Systems and Enterprises—as well as a College of Arts and Letters, where students can major in art, music, literature and communications, philosophy, history, and the social sciences and “benefit from pursuing these disciplines charged by the latest advances in technology, science, and innovation and the fundamental idea that science and technology can be used as intellectual tools of inquiry” (quoted from the website).

We talked about the Georgia Institute of Technology (commonly known as Georgia Tech), located in Atlanta. Georgia Tech provides a “focused, technologically based education” (taken from the website) and offers degrees in six colleges—Architecture, Computing, Engineering, Sciences, Business, and Liberal Arts—with “more than 100 centers focused on interdisciplinary research that consistently contribute vital research and innovation to American government, industry, and business” (taken from the website).

We talked about Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, which offers 12 types of engineering and 50 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science, technology, management, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts. A Humanities and Arts requirement ensures that WPI students are well rounded; it consists of six courses of the student’s choosing, including courses from at least two different liberal arts disciplines, or a six-course sequence in Spanish, German, or Chinese—along with a final project.

We talked about the Colorado School of Mines, a highly selective and highly specialized engineering college. In addition to its applied science and mathematics majors, its geoscience and resource engineering majors, and a variety of other engineering majors, Mines requires a core curriculum, which includes humanities and social sciences courses.

We talked about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with its schools of Architecture and Planning, Engineering, Management, Science, and—last, but not least—the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. While we think of MIT as turning out first-rate engineers and scientists, students can also major in subjects in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. By the way, all undergraduates at MIT take eight courses in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (about 25 percent of their undergraduate program), so they truly become balanced students and informed citizens.

We talked about Columbia University’s well-known undergraduate Core Curriculum for Columbia College, its undergraduate liberal arts college. The Core Curriculum includes courses in literature, writing, art, music, civilization, science, and more. We said that the common texts that students read and discuss is like a greatest-hits list. But here is the remarkable statement from the website of Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science:

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

So, it is plain to see that specialized institutions—including institutions specializing in technical study—which seem unlikely champions of the liberal arts, are often, in fact, champions of the liberal arts.

3. What Some States Are Doing

Some states, however, have a different perspective. When dealing with financial cutbacks while trying to fund large public universities with taxpayers’ dollars, some states have questioned the value of the liberal arts—at least, some liberal arts fields anyway. Here are two ideas that have been proposed at the state level:

  • Charge students more tuition for liberal arts majors because the state does not believe that its economy needs them as much as it needs STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors and, thus, does not want to subsidize them to the same degree.
  • Encourage students who want to major in liberal arts fields to go to a private college to major in them and pay for that themselves—again, so the state does not have to subsidize those majors with public funds.

Some states have had their public universities cut back on some arts majors and some foreign language majors—not entire departments necessarily, but perhaps one language or one of the arts. Interestingly enough, these are the same two cuts that often get made at the high school level when public funds are tight. (Read Regina’s related blog post for more information.)

Maybe these states should have listened to what some colleges are saying—oh, and what employers are saying.

4. What Employers Are Saying

According to a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, about 75 percent of the 318 corporate leaders surveyed “want more emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge . . . exactly the kinds of skills advocates for the liberal arts say they teach. Ninety-three percent agree that ‘a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems’ is more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate major” (quoted from the article).

I am taking that to mean that a good job applicant who has an undergraduate liberal arts degree, who can speak and write and think and solve problems well, could be just as attractive to a corporation as a good job applicant who has an undergraduate business degree. So, parents, that is a viewpoint worth considering when it comes time for your teenager to choose a major for real as a college sophomore or junior or even to declare a tentative one on a college application.

5. A Few Practical Considerations

Let’s conclude with a few practical considerations. Marie and I have a preference for liberal arts study unless a student is absolutely dead certain that a technical field is his or her preference. That preference would have to be based on a long-time interest in that field, good grades in high school subjects that prepare a student for that field, discussions with people who work in that field, and some kind of internship or summer work experience in that field. All too often kids have an idea of a career they want to pursue without having any practical information about what that career is like in the real world.

And here’s one important thing to remember: Credits in liberal arts college courses (especially those taken in the first year of college) can be transferred far more easily among degree programs and even among colleges than credits in technical courses can. That means that a kid can change his or her mind after starting college (and many, many do) without losing too much time and, parents, too much of your money.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • How all students get their vocational or technical education at some point in their lives
  • What other reasons some states have for not wanting to fund liberal arts studies
  • Whether foreign languages, a traditional liberal arts discipline, are actually a technical career skill

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment on the show notes for this episode below
  • 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…

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Episode 54: Should “Elite” Be Getting a New Definition?

Should "Elite" Be Getting a New Defition? on NYCollegeChat podcast Series 5: Higher Education in the News #collegeaccess

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

For the past several months, it seems that we have been reading and hearing more and more about higher education in the news—both in publications for the general public and in publications geared for professional educators. We thought that, for our fifth series at NYCollegeChat, we would devote some weeks to looking at news stories that are intriguing and/or distressing about specific colleges and higher education generally—about students, professors, curricula, admissions, and more.

Why is this important to parents of high school students? Because you should be aware of both great and not-so-great things going on in colleges and about how they might impact your own child’s education. That is true whether you have children in college now or children going in the next several years. Some of the stories might have an immediate application to your life, and others might take longer to become important to you. Either way, we think these are things parents should know and perhaps act on.

1. Michael Crow’s Arresting Statement

Some weeks ago, I read the following arresting statement from Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, a public university with its main campus in Tempe:

We’re enrolling more students and admitting anyone who’s qualified. Those elite schools just don’t get it.

Whoa! Although Marie and I are the products of what most people would call elite private colleges and universities, we have spent a fair amount of our professional careers trying to improve college access for students who might otherwise not have had an opportunity to attend college, and sometimes we have worked with what most people would call less elite institutions to figure out how they can attract and serve those students. President Crow’s statement about college access for more students—indeed any qualified student—sounded good to me.

2. Some Facts About ASU

Our regular listeners might recall that we discussed Arizona State University (commonly referred to ASU) during our nationwide virtual tour of colleges, which ended two weeks ago. Let me recap what we said in Episode 37, when we looked at public universities in the Southwest region of our country.

ASU serves about 50,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students in Tempe, about 40,000 of whom are undergraduates. That’s a massive campus. Only about 60 percent of ASU students are Arizona residents (which is low compared to a lot of public universities), and a truly impressive approximately 40 percent are first-generation college students.

President Crow, who came to ASU in 2002, has made a successful effort to increase enrollment, especially of Hispanic and black students, and has made it possible for more low-income students to attend ASU by increasing ASU-supplied financial aid to them. Furthermore, he works hard at providing whatever extra help low-income minority students need in order to graduate. President Crow has also increased the number of out-of-state students (especially from California), who pay about double what state residents pay in tuition (about $22,000 compared to state residents’ $10,000). He encourages innovation among his administrators and is moving forward in using technology to get students through courses faster and more conveniently. (And, as I said back in Episode 37, I have to believe that he is even more dynamic than this paragraph makes him sound.)

Founded as a territorial school in 1885, ASU is now a university known for its Innovation Challenge competitions, a Startup School and a Startup Accelerator for new ventures, an Entrepreneurship Outreach Network, and the Furnace Technology Transfer Accelerator. ASU offers nine undergraduate, graduate, and professional colleges and schools on the Tempe campus, including the nation’s first School of Sustainability, established in 2006, with 99 percent of that School’s bachelor’s degree graduates currently employed or pursuing graduate degrees. And, in the midst of all that, it offers nine men’s and 12 women’s Sun Devils sports teams and more than 1,000 student organizations.

Now, let me say that ASU is also known for its online programs. As we have said in other episodes, Marie and I are reluctant to recommend placing freshmen in online programs because it takes a very self-disciplined and highly motivated student to succeed in online study, and we fear that many freshmen are not quite up to the task. However, there is certainly innovative cutting edge work being done in providing online education, and ASU’s offerings are impressive.

3. Michael Crow’s Article

So, on October 28 on LinkedIn Pulse, President Crow posted an article entitled “It’s Time to Rethink What ‘Elite’ Should Mean.” As I considered both his values and his success at ASU, I hurried to read it. I would like to read a good deal of it to you—because he said it better than I could and so that you can consider whether he is right. President Crow begins:


“All across the country, newly minted college students have settled into their campuses. . . .
“Some of these undergraduates may take particular delight in having landed a spot at one of America’s prestigious, highly selective schools—and rightfully so. The combination of a widely admired pedigree and academic excellence positions them for success.
“But what if our valuation of these exclusive clubs has been wrongly applied? What if we turn this thinking on its head and judge our schools not by the number of students that they turn away but by their ability to grant access and ensure student success?” (excerpted and quoted from the article)

“Wow,” I thought to myself. President Crow’s proposition really does turn our traditional thinking about excellence in higher education on its head. What if the word “elite” should be reserved for colleges that can take more students as well as more traditionally underrepresented students (like first-generation college-goers and low-income students and students of color) and get them through college successfully? How great must those professors be?

It reminds me of something I used to say to the teachers at the high school that Marie and I helped to co-found in New York City. Though it was an Early College high school, our students were no better academically than average urban kids—and often worse. Sometimes our teachers would get offers to go teach at one of New York City’s elite public high schools—the kind that kids had to take an admissions test to get into and the kind that was, therefore, filled with really bright kids. I would say to our teachers, “Sure, you can go teach there. You will be great. So would any teacher. Those kids are already great. They hardly need you. Why don’t you stay here and be great for kids that need you more?” I have to wonder whether President Crow ever said something just like that to his professors.

President Crow continued in his article:

“Every year ‘elite’ colleges and universities select a tiny fraction of the thousands and thousands of smart, talented and capable students who apply. These institutions then show up on highly touted rankings of the most selective schools in the country, as if a razor-thin acceptance rate was in and of itself a sign of achievement and a model of success.
“Today less than one percent of the nation’s undergraduates attend the top 50 liberal arts colleges and leading Ivy League schools. At the same time, many of our top-tier public universities are becoming increasingly selective. That means more and more qualified applicants are being denied access to world-class education.” (quoted from the article)

Elite colleges are just like elite high schools in New York City. They take in great students and then take credit for being great. And they are great in many other ways, but don’t forget that the students are still great when they arrive. Let’s think about that “less than one percent” President Crow referenced. Hardly any kids can go to the traditionally most elite private colleges and universities we have. And, what’s worse, our nation’s great public flagship universities are getting more and more selective. We know because we looked at the average high school GPAs of incoming freshmen when we did our virtual college tour. I have to tell you that we were shocked. Our regular listeners will recall how high those average GPAs were—and not only at the public flagship universities that we know are the most highly respected academically, like the University of Virginia (4.23 average GPA), the University of California, Berkeley (4.19 average GPA), or the University of Michigan (3.82 average GPA). Granted, those GPAs are averages, so some kids did not score that high; but, some kids scored even higher! These figures would support President Crow’s premise that “more and more qualified applicants are being denied access to world-class education”—that is, kids who have solid GPAs, but not stellar GPAs. Qualified isn’t good enough. President Crow sums up the situation for these otherwise qualified students:

“This represents a missed opportunity for them and a problem for us all.” (quoted from the article)

How is it “a problem for us all”? President Crow lays out a persuasive argument about that. He explains it this way:


“Higher education is critical to driving innovation and increasing our nation’s economic competitiveness. By educating larger and increasingly diverse segments of our population at the highest levels, we expand our ability to succeed in an increasingly global knowledge economy.

“This could not be more important: In the next three years, the U.S. is expected to face a shortage of 3 million highly educated college graduates, a gap projected to grow to 16 million by 2025, according to a Lumina Foundation report. Not only are poverty rates for Americans 25 years or older with no college education triple those with at least a bachelor’s degree, only 5 percent of graduates of public research universities come from families in the bottom fifth of income levels.
“In short, the current system is stacked against those who come from the wrong zip code, a reality that is increasingly troubling as our minority populations grow.” (quoted from the article)

So, what is the solution to the problem? Well, as you might have figured out, President Crow believes that it is what he has been doing at ASU. Here is what he says:


“I firmly believe that expanding access to higher education is a national imperative. At Arizona State University, we are admitting every qualified Arizona student (in addition to a growing population of qualified out-of-state and international students). This is something that schools like Berkeley and Michigan used to do back in the 1950s, but don’t anymore.

“Expanding enrollment need not undermine quality…. We saw our four-year graduation rates increase nearly 20 percentage points between 2002 and 2010….” (excerpted and quoted from the article)

 

How did President Crow and his faculty do that? Well, they probably did a hundred things, but they included, according to President Crow, “expanding the number of multidisciplinary degrees and programs to more closely link our students’ experiences with the needs of the real world that awaits them after graduation” (quoted from the article). As we did our virtual college tour, Marie and I have been seeing a fair number of college websites hyping their interdisciplinary/crossdisciplinary/multidisciplinary programs. There is quite a variety in those programs—like ones built around sustainability or environmentalism or “area studies” focusing on different parts of the world or different ethnicities. These programs bring together courses from a variety of disciplines—like various sciences, social sciences, and engineering or like social sciences, history, languages and literature, and the arts. Why? Because much of the real world of work does not function in tight compartments of specific disciplines or subject fields, but rather will require students to know something about and be able to think across subject fields, just as President Crow says.

At the end of his article, President Crow calls for “expanding our notion of what ‘elite’ really means” (quoted from the article). I’ve been thinking hard about that. Maybe he is right—that “elite” colleges should be those that do a great job of educating students and graduating students rather than just colleges that take in the best students to begin with. Clearly, our traditional elite colleges, in fact, do a great job of educating students and graduating students, and I’m okay with letting those colleges still be “elite.” But let’s seriously think about applying that adjective to the other ones, too—the colleges that do a great job educating all the rest of the students, especially the colleges that work diligently with students who started out at a disadvantage because of their race or ethnicity or their parents’ incomes or their poor elementary and secondary schools.

So, what does that mean for you, parents, as you look over the colleges that your child has just applied to or is about to apply to? It might mean that you should see past the traditional idea of a great college—an “elite” college—and broaden your idea of an elite college to include other colleges that are trying new approaches and working with new types of college students and doing a great job of educating them. Maybe that will actually make the application process more interesting and put less pressure on both you and your child.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why taking online courses at ASU might be better than taking them somewhere else
  • Why colleges with holistic admissions processes might help your teenager
  • Why you and your teenager must consider colleges outside your region of the country

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

Outside of New York State

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