Episode 97: An Overview of Your Teenager’s List of College Options

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

In our last four episodes, we have been suggesting some steps to take in order to narrow down your teenager’s long summer list of college options. But let us be the first to say that we are okay if your list is still long–say, 15 colleges or so. Let us say again that we know many “experts” will complain about a longish list, including guidance counselors or college counselors, who understandably see long lists from seniors as a lot of extra work. But we really don’t want your teenager to lose out on a good option next spring because of some extra work this fall.

And, let us say once more: Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and file it now. No reason not to!

Finally, we know that some of you have Early Decision and Early Action deadlines just days away, and we wish you all luck and calm as your teenager wraps up those applications.

So, where do we stand? Well, after 10 summer assignments to expand your teenager’s list of college options and four episodes devoted to filtering that list a bit, you are just about ready to finish the college applications that, we hope, you have already started. But, there is still plenty of time, even if you are running behind and your teenager has yet to open up that Common App. Wherever you are in the process, you should have a list of college applications your teenager plans to submit on time–or early!

1. The Overview

It probably makes sense to look at that college list now as a group of college options, rather than as individual colleges. In other words, we believe that your teenager should have a number of bases covered. Let’s look at a few.

The most obvious is some variety in the selectivity of the colleges on the list. We talked about that as the first filter in Episode 93. Your teenager’s list should have perhaps two or three selective colleges that might be a reach, perhaps two not-so-selective colleges that could serve as safety schools (including, ideally, a reasonable public four-year school in your home state), and maybe 10 or so colleges that seem just about right academically.

Personally, I think there should be some variety in the size of the colleges on the list (in terms of undergraduate student enrollment). I do not believe that high school seniors in the fall are well equipped to know whether they would prefer a small or large college–or even whether the size makes any difference at all to them. I would like them to have some size options to consider next spring after acceptances come in.

Similarly, I think there should be some variety in how traditional or innovative the colleges are academically (in terms of their schedules and grading practices and distribution requirements). I would love to see every teenager have a choice next spring between a traditional college program and one that breaks a number of the rules. I believe that, as the time to go to college gets closer and as teenagers mature in their final year of high school, they might be better able to consider which academic environment is more appealing to them.

And it is no surprise to our regular USACollegeChat listeners that I think there should be variety of college locations on the list. Obviously, that means some out of state and some in state. I am less concerned that some be in urban, suburban, small town, and rural areas, though I certainly wouldn’t fight that idea if your teenager is not sure of the community surroundings he or she would prefer.

Here are some other things you might look for from the colleges on the list, keeping in mind that including colleges with these various characteristics will help make your teenager’s selection from among acceptances next spring a better experience–even if every college on the list can’t have every characteristic:

  • Attractive on-campus housing options
  • Many engaging extracurricular activities and clubs
  • Great sports teams, either to play on or to cheer for, whatever your teenager prefers (of course, sports teams can be seriously important for those students who are hoping to get an athletics-based scholarship, but that is a whole separate topic)
  • Availability of fraternities and sororities (especially if your teenager is accustomed to hearing you or other family members talk about theirs)
  • Sponsorship of study abroad programs (although students can usually take part in study abroad programs operated by other colleges or by independent organizations, like the excellent American Institute for Foreign Study, it is just easier to do one that the college itself sponsors)

2. One More Question

As your teenager and you look over the final list of college options, we would say that it is important for you to ask him or her one more question about each college: “Would you want to go to this college if you got in?” If you and your teenager have been diligent in putting together an expanded list this summer and then in narrowing it down, if necessary, in the past month or so, we know that you two know quite a bit about each college still on the list. We would say that it is likely that you know more about each college still on the list than the majority of students applying to it. But knowing all about a college doesn’t make you want to go there.

Can your teenager tell you several pros for each college on the list–that is, several reasons why he or she would be happy going there? Does your teenager seem proud of his or her options–for example, does he or she talk about them with friends? If the answer is “yes” to these questions, then it is likely that your teenager would want to go to each college if he or she got in. Now, of course, there are some colleges on the list that your teenager prefers. Maybe there is a first choice; maybe there are several top choices. But no college left on the list should make your teenager feel sad, I think.

3. The Community College Option

And that brings us to a topic we haven’t discussed much recently: Do you put a two-year public community college on the list? Although we remain concerned about the low graduation rate and the low transfer rate of most community colleges, it is still possible that a community college is your teenager’s best or only choice or best safety school choice. If you can be sure that your teenager will be admitted to a public four-year college in your state, personally I would go with that option instead of a two-year community college option.

However, if you cannot be sure that your teenager will be admitted to a public four-year college in your state or if your family circumstances would be too strained by sending your teenager to a public four-year college (either financially or otherwise), then put the local community college on the list. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area that has more than one conveniently located community college option, then choosing among them can be as important as choosing among four-year college options. All community colleges are not created equal, any more than all four-year public or private colleges are. So do your homework or give us a call.

4. What About Cost?

One final word about cost: Sometimes I think that almost all some parents talk about is the cost of a college before allowing it to stay on the list. We understand how cost affects your lives, but we are concerned that it is very difficult to judge what kind of financial aid package your teenager might get from what kind of college. Therefore, using cost as a filter for taking colleges off the list is risky. (If you’re concerned about cost, listen to Episode 74: 17 Ways to Make College More Affordable.)

Again, we would advise that you make sure you have a good public four-year college in your home state on your teenager’s final list–maybe more than one. Those colleges would be your best defense in a world where cost is going to have to be a major part of your teenager’s final decision in accepting a spot in a college next spring.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
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Episode 96: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 4

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

In our last three episodes, we have been suggesting some steps to take in order to narrow down your teenager’s long summer list of college options in case it is too long. However, as we have begun to say–and frankly, I am a bit surprised by this–perhaps your list is not really too long. Let’s say you still have about 15 colleges on the list. Even though we said in our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available at amazon.com) that applying to 8 to 12 colleges seemed like a reasonable number to shoot for, I am beginning to like the number 15. As we have said before, don’t take colleges off the list if you believe your teenager could be happy there. And while you and your teenager probably can’t survive 25 applications, I am thinking that 15 might be survivable. But let’s see what you think by the end of this episode.

And again, let us remind you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Fill it out and file it now. Get whatever help you need to fill it out. But do it, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting to qualify for a lot of financial aid.

And, let us remind you for the last time, that many of those Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are coming up in about 10 days. I cannot see any good reason not to apply for Early Action if colleges your teenager is interested in offer it. But to do that, you would need to be pretty far down the track in completing those applications by now, including having asked for recommendations from teachers and having requested that your high school transcript be sent.

So, let’s recap where we stand in narrowing down the list–to 8 or 12 or even 15 colleges. In Episode 93, we took Step 1 in narrowing down your teenager’s list by looking at college selectivity–in other words, is your teenager likely to get in, based on his or her academic record. In Episode 94, we took Step 2 by looking at the college’s academics–that is, the availability of your teenager’s current favorite major, the presence of any core curriculum or distribution requirements, and the attractiveness of traditional and innovative college term schedules or grading practices. In Episode 95 last week, we took Step 3 by checking whether you might want to use college enrollment as a filter?that is, how many undergraduate students there are, what the class sizes and student-to-faculty ratios are, and what the breakdowns of the student body are by race, ethnicity, gender, or another demographic characteristic.

1. Step 4: Location Filter

Now, let’s look at one last filter, and it’s the one that I fear you have used from the very beginning, perhaps subconsciously or perhaps very consciously. Step 4 in narrowing down the list is using college location as a filter. Let me start off by saying that I don’t think you should use college location as a filter at all. In fact, as those of you who listen to USACollegeChat know, there is no filter I like less than this one. I never used it when I was looking at colleges, and I never used it when my three children were looking at colleges. With that said, there are two different aspects of college location that either your teenager or you might find yourselves considering.

The obvious first aspect of location is how far the college is from your home. This is what our summer assignments started with. That is, we said, “Pick one college from every state and put all of them on your teenager’s list.” Now, we didn’t really expect you to do that (though I would have been thrilled if you had), but we did hope that it would cause you to spread your wings a little and look beyond your own backyard.

This is also what our virtual nationwide tour of colleges (Episodes 27 through 53) was all about. It was an effort to take you outside your geographic comfort zone and get you to realize that the chances aren’t all that good that the best college for your child is in your hometown or even in your home state. Now there are exceptions to that, of course. But, there are many, many colleges out there–most of which you will never even consider. And that is too bad.

We understand the exceptions, and we respect them. We understand that some families for cultural reasons want to keep their teenagers close to home, perhaps in order to participate in family events or religious events. We understand that some families need to have their teenagers live at home in order to make college even remotely affordable or in order to help with family responsibilities. In those cases, we hope you find a great college choice nearby.

We also know that, for some kids, the perfect college is right at home. That happened with my daughter, who was planning a dance major, and we like to think that the best college for that is in our hometown?that is, the joint Fordham University and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater‘s B.F.A. program here in New York City. Of course, I made her apply to out-of-town colleges with good dance majors, too; but, when she got her acceptance letter from Fordham, I knew she wasn’t going to any of the other ones. In Polly’s case, the perfect college was right at home.

At my real job at Policy Studies in Education, I have had the great privilege of doing projects for a couple hundred colleges across the U.S. I have had the chance to visit many of them in many states–huge universities you all know and little colleges you never heard of. I have seen a lot of colleges, far and wide–and I wish you could, too.

Now, let me speak for Marie for a minute. Marie, as you can probably tell from all of our episodes, is always the more practical and realistic of the two of us. Marie would say, “Have the serious talk with your kid right now. Don’t let your teenager apply to a bunch of colleges all across the country if you have no intention of letting him or her go to them. If location is a deal breaker for you, tell your kid now rather than disappoint him or her in April after the acceptances come in.” Marie, I see the value in that, but I still have to hold out hope that an acceptance to a great college in Colorado might cause a parent in New York to think twice next spring before insisting that the kid choose a college close to home.

Let’s look at location a second way, as we did in Assignment #6 (in Episode 86). There we took a closer look at the community that the college is actually located in–that is, whether it is urban, suburban, small town, or rural and what kinds of cool stuff the community surrounding the college has to offer (for example, biking and hiking trails, lakes and beaches, historic sites, cultural facilities and events, or fantastic restaurants). For some teenagers and parents, the perceived safety of a suburban or rural location warrants filtering out all of the urban campuses on the list. For others, the excitement factor of living in a cosmopolitan city warrants filtering out all of the campuses except the urban ones. I heard my own recent college graduate say to an anxious high school senior last week, “You might be a little scared of going to college in a city right now, but you will be happy you did by the time you are a junior or senior and you are getting bored with the college campus life. You will be glad that you have a whole city to explore and take advantage of.” Spoken like a true New Yorker.

So, a charming small college town, with great coffee shops and recreation areas or a giant city with everything anyone could want or something in between? This is really your call.

2. Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

So, do you have enough colleges left on the list? Try to let your teenager talk through his or her opinions about location and type of surrounding community, but let your teenager know that neither of these has to become a filter–unless, of course, you say so.

As we said last week, we are beginning to think the fewer filters, the better. You can always apply these filters next April once you see where your teenager has been accepted. That’s especially true if you are holding off on college visits (or, at least, some college visits or final college visits) until then–when you can really judge the distance from home, the ease of transportation to and from the college, and the type of community firsthand.

So, Step 4 is done. Remember that we are okay if you still have 15 or so on the list as we move into an overview of the full list next week. But, as we said last week, if you are already down to just a handful of colleges, you might want to back up and reconsider some of those colleges that you took off the list or add some new ones.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below 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

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Episode 95: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 3

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

In our last two episodes, we have been talking with you about how to narrow down your teenager’s long summer list of college options in case it is too long. As that list begins to get shorter, I am beginning to feel as though we should have let you keep it long. Well, not crazy long–but 15 colleges or so is still reasonable to me, at this point in the process. As we have said before, there are quite a few colleges out there that would likely be a good match for your teenager. Don’t feel that you need to take colleges off the list if you can imagine your teenager’s being happy there. You should not be aiming for some arbitrary number of options.

Again, let us remind you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Fill it out and file it now. Get whatever help you need to fill it out. But do it, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting to qualify for a lot of financial aid.

And, let us remind you again, that those Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are coming up quickly–mostly around November 1. I cannot see any good reason not to apply for Early Action if colleges your teenager is interested in offer it.

In Episode 93, we took Step 1 in narrowing down your teenager’s list by looking at college selectivity–in other words, is your teenager likely to get in. In Episode 94, we took Step 2 by looking at the availability of your teenager’s current favorite major, the presence of any core curriculum or distribution requirements, and the attractiveness of traditional and innovative college term schedules or grading practices.

1. Step 3: College Enrollment Filter

Today, we are discussing Step 3 in narrowing down the list–if you think it needs to be narrowed down any further–and that is using college enrollment as a filter. In our previous episodes, we have looked at college enrollment in a variety of ways, and you might want to use some of those ways as a filter now.

First, does the size of the student body matter? You can look back at summer Assignment #1 (in Episode 81) and double check the size of the undergraduate enrollment (and the graduate enrollment, if you think it is desirable to send your teenager to a college that also offers graduate study). Personally (and I think I might be alone in this attitude), I think that this filter is over-used by lots of teenagers and their parents.   I hear kids say things like this, “I think I would like to go to a small school. (Fill in the blank) university seems too big to me.” Okay, I get it. A big university might seem overwhelming at first to a high school senior. But perhaps that is because that teenager has had no reason at all to be in a large university setting, and I believe that a teenager has no rational basis for making a valid judgment about it.

Furthermore, I don’t think you can judge the size of a college based on the size of your high school, though I am sure it is tempting. I can understand that a teenager coming from a small public high school or a small private school might feel that he or she would get lost in the shuffle in a large university. I can understand that, for such a teenager, a large academic setting might be outside his or her 17-year-old comfort zone. But that is no reason to assume that such a teenager would not do well in that larger academic setting, given half a chance.

When my husband was applying to college many years ago, his parents thought that he should go to a small liberal arts college. I am not sure why they thought that, but they did. As a result, he applied only to good small liberal arts colleges, and so, of course, he ended up attending one. He did well at it and liked it, but I believe he would have done equally well at a large university and would have liked it equally well. (By the way, he went on to Columbia University for graduate school and did not seem one bit fazed by its size.) In other words, size should never have been a filter for him–and I believe it should not be a filter for most teenagers. My guess is that many of you parents have some intuitive feeling about the best college size for your teenager (just as my in-laws did)–let’s call it a bias. I don’t know where you got it–perhaps from your own college education or from your own view about how outgoing and self-sufficient your teenager is or isn’t. Unless you have some kind of actual evidence that you are right, you might want to think twice about using college size as a filter for taking colleges off your teenager’s list.

Second, let’s look at size a different way, as we did in Assignment #5 (in Episode 85). There we took a closer look at both student-to-faculty ratio and class size (that is, how many students are sitting in the classroom when your teenager is trying to learn organic chemistry). As we said in Episode 85, student-to-faculty ratios are usually lower at small private colleges than at large public universities, which is not surprising. Small private colleges advertise the college culture that comes with a low ratio as one of the reasons to choose a small private college instead of a large public university. Further, when you see a very selective private university with a student-to-faculty ratio that makes it look more like a small private college, you have to be impressed. And I have to admit that there might indeed be a difference in faculty accessibility between a college with a student-to-faculty ratio of 9-to-1 and one with a ratio of, say, 18-to-1. If personal attention from and personal relationships with professors is something that is quite important to you or your teenager, you might want to think about a student-to-faculty ratio filter.

Let’s recap the class size discussion we had where I claimed that class size might just be a matter of personal choice. I said that I had preferred large classes in collegehuge lectures by a brilliant professor. But I allowed that many students prefer small seminars where students get to express their own opinions and talk back and forth with each other and with the professor. What I truly believe is that there is a good chance that your teenager doesn’t know which of these he or she would prefersince most high school students have never experienced huge lectures by brilliant professors, or indeed small seminars that are intellectually demanding, for that matter. Does that make it difficult to choose class size as a filter? I would say that it does.

So far, it seems that I am arguing against a lot of these filters. All of these characteristics of colleges are good information to have, but maybe aren’t necessarily filters to use before even applying. Maybe I just hate for you to rule out too many options before you see where your teenager might be accepted and what decisions might be available to him or her next spring.

Let’s try a third filter, and that is whether the breakdown of the student body matters. You can look back at summer Assignment #4 (in Episode 84) and double check the percentage of part-time vs. full-time students, the male-female split, the variety and size of various racial and ethnic groups, and the states or foreign countries that students come from. For many students, none of these might be necessary as filters. However, your teenager might have some thoughts about attending a college where his or her own racial or ethnic group is only a very small minority of students. Or, your teenager might not want to attend a college that does not have a substantial mix of students from many racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as from many states and foreign countries. Attitudes about the inclusivity of students of all backgrounds might be linked strongly to your values as a family. Or not. Is your teenager more comfortable with students like himself or herself or with students just from your own geographic area? Should he or she be?

Now is the time to have that discussion with your teenager and to remember that college is one great time to broaden his or her views and explore key values about diversity. While you are doing that, take a quick look back at Assignment #10 (in Episode 90) to see whether you want to re-think your decision to include HBCUs, HSIs, single-sex colleges, or faith-based colleges on your list or to eliminate them at this time. Some of these colleges obviously offer less diversity than others, though they serve a different and perhaps equally valuable purpose.

2. Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

So, are you losing any colleges from your teenager’s list, based on filtering for overall enrollment size, the class size or student-to-faculty ratio, or the breakdown of the student body by race, ethnicity, gender, or some other important demographic characteristic? Try to let your teenager talk through his or her opinions about each of these, but let your teenager know that none of these has to become a filter.

In one sense, the fewer filters, the better. Each filter gives your teenager fewer chances to be happy next April.

So, Step 3 is done. Enrollment breakdown and size have been considered. Did you lose any colleges from your teenager’s list? I’m okay if you still have 15 or so on the list as we move forward to Step 4 next week. If you are already down to just a handful of colleges, you might want to take a few Steps back and reconsider some of those colleges that you have lost.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below 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

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Download this episode!

Episode 94: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 2

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

In our last episode, we started narrowing down your teenager’s long summer list of college options.  It made me sad to do it, but I had to admit that fall was here and it was time.  But we hope that you have plenty of colleges left on that list–at least 15 for now.  And we know that many of them would be a great choice for your teenager, because, as we said last week, there is not just one perfect choice for him or her.

First, let us remind you that you can now complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known to all as the FAFSA.  Fill it out and file it now.  Fill it out by yourself, get help from your teenager’s high school or a local library, or buy help from a service.  But, however you want to do it, get the form filed, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting to qualify for a lot of financial aid.  There is no reason not to fill it out and file it.

Second, let us remind you, as we have been doing for the past couple of weeks, that those Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are approaching–mostly around November 1.  While Early Decision is a serious and binding agreement, Early Action is not.  I cannot see any good reason not to apply for Early Action if colleges your teenager is interested in have it?unless perhaps you are waiting and hoping for improved SAT or ACT scores from November or December test administrations.  However, as we have said before, even students applying to colleges under Early Decision or Early Action plans will need some colleges on their lists in case those early acceptances don’t come in.

In Episode 93, we took Step 1 in narrowing down your teenager’s list.  We looked at college selectivity, as many counselors do, and offered the following advice:  Be brutal in considering colleges that are too academically demanding for your teenager (based on the GPAs, admission test scores, and sometimes class ranks of admitted or enrolled freshmen and based on required and recommended high school courses) and be equally brutal in considering colleges that are not academically demanding enough for your teenager.  You need only two or three super-demanding ones on your teenager’s list, and you need only two not-very-demanding ones, at least one of which should be a public four-year college in your home state that you feel okay about sending your teenager to.  That leaves a lot of spots open for colleges that seem to you are just about right–perhaps 10 or so.

1.  Step 2:  College Academics Filter

Step 2 in narrowing down the list–if it is indeed needs to be narrowed down any more–is to look at college academics from several perspectives.

First, does each college left on the list offer the field of study that your teenager is most interested in at the moment?  You can look back at summer Assignment #1 (in Episode 81) and double check the academic departments and the majors that each college has and the majors your teenager recorded as being most appealing to him or her.

Now, we have to say that this step worries us a bit.  We have seen many, many students change their major, their academic department, and even their school within a university after a semester or a year or even two years of college.  It is not unusual, as anyone with any experience in higher education will tell you.  We worry most when an option on your teenager’s list is a specialized college or a specialized school within a larger university and does not offer a liberal arts alternative in addition to the specialty.  Fortunately, I think that more and more specialized institutions–including well-known fine arts colleges and well-respected technical colleges, such as engineering schools–are requiring that students take some core liberal arts courses, which can be used as the basis for transferring to another academic field when the first one doesn’t work out quite as the student expected.

But to take the other side for a moment, if your teenager is dead set on majoring in civil engineering or genetics or French or art history or sports management or anything else, make sure that the colleges on the list have that major–and, preferably, have a well-respected program in that field.  You will know if it does because the college will happily claim that on its website.

Second, does the college have a core curriculum/general education curriculum/distribution requirements plan and is that a positive or a negative for your teenager?  Look back at Assignment #7 (in Episode 87) to see what your teenager recorded for each college on the list.  You will recall that we talked about many kinds of core curricula.  Some seemed easy to manage, some seemed far more demanding; some required many courses across many fields, some required far fewer fields to be covered.  You and your teenager might not agree on whether a core curriculum is a plus or a minus.  Just remember that your teenager is the one taking the courses.  If a college has core curriculum requirements that are super-objectionable to your teenager, now would be a good time to take that college off the list.

Next, let’s look at the college schedule, recorded back on Assignment #9 (in Episode 89).  Sometimes the academic term schedule can make the existence of various curriculum requirements more or less attractive or manageable.  For example, if you can take just one course at a time, maybe a math requirement would not be as scary to some students.  Or, if you can take courses on 7-week or 10-week schedules rather than 15-week schedules, maybe a student would be more willing to take courses outside his or her comfort zone.  And maybe now that your teenager sees the variety of innovative schedules out there, the idea of traditional 15-week terms is just plain boring.  So, take a careful look at the schedules of the colleges left on the list.

Finally, let’s look at a part of college academics that we did not zero in on when we did the summer assignments, and we should have.  (Don’t worry; it will be in the new book when it comes out.)  This particular piece of information might have shown up way back in Assignment #1 (in Episode 81) when we asked you to note on the worksheet “other appealing and/or unusual things about this college.”  That piece of information is the college’s grading practices.

Now, I am going to say that, in most cases, the college’s grading practices are pretty traditional.  And that might be fine with you and your teenager.  However, there are some colleges that are anything but traditional when it comes to evaluating student progress.  I was reminded of that when I read recently an exceptional statement by Jonathan Lash, the president of Hampshire College in Massachusetts.  You might recall that we spotlighted Hampshire in our virtual nationwide tour of colleges, back in Episode 43, where we said this:

Hampshire is the fifth member of the Five College Consortium, centered in Amherst.  It is by far the newest of the five colleges, having been founded in 1970 after a long planning process, and it is the least traditional of them as well.  Its students are bright, creative, and motivated.  While very selective in admitting freshmen to a student body of just 1,400 students, Hampshire does not consider college admission test scores “in any way” for admission or for financial aid awards.  Its students study in five interdisciplinary schools and create their own individualized majors?called “the concentration” at Hampshire.  The concentration includes courses and required volunteer work at Hampshire or in the community and required work from various cultural viewpoints as well as fieldwork and internships, if they make sense for the self-designed program.  As seniors, Hampshire students complete a self-designed rigorous final independent project, which includes original work, similar to a graduate thesis.  The campus is lovely and idyllic.  The price tag is predictable at about $47,000 in tuition per year.  My visit to Hampshire with my son about five years ago made me want to go back to school and go there myself.

And so, I read with interest what President Lash had to say in an opinion piece in The Hechinger Report, (September 15, 2016) entitled “Why do schools use grades that teach nothing?”  While I would happily read you the entire piece, you can go do that yourselves.  By the way, his piece also includes an eloquent defense of Hampshire’s decision to ignore college admissions test scores.  But here are quite a few paragraphs that cast an insightful light on the issue of grading and whether grading should perhaps make a difference in the college your teenager chooses:

A few years ago I was speaking to a group of parents whose children had just started Hampshire College. A father asked a question that was on many minds: “How can your college be rigorous without grading student work?” Before I could respond, another parent stood up and asked, “May I answer that?” I nodded with interest.

“I run a company,” he said, “and I have a few thousand employees in multiple locations. They’d be mystified if our managers started to give them grades. We manage by setting goals, evaluating progress, and mentoring employees on how to improve their performance. What would a letter grade tell them?”

At the college where I serve as president, we do evaluate student work; we just use a higher-quality method. Our students receive written evaluations not only on every assignment, but also for every course and learning activity. These evaluations are designed to be formative teaching tools?.

When we reduce students to numbers and grades, they and we focus on test-taking skills and grade requirements rather than on learning.

At Hampshire, instead of grades, our professors weigh performance against course goals using criteria such as a student’s demonstration of analytic thinking and writing skills, research abilities, use of primary and secondary literature/substantiation of claims, ability to use data, integration of theory and practice?.

After almost five decades of our professors’ assessing students using written evaluations, we’ve seen and documented their benefits as an alternative to grades. Grades tell students the absolute minimum about their abilities; they tell them only whether they have earned enough points under a teacher’s rubric to get a good mark.

Too many students use grades to figure out how to do only what’s required, asking their teachers questions like “What do I have to do to get an A?” At the same time, they’re trying to determine the minimum they can “know” to pass. “How can I game the system?” “What are the fluff courses that will get me an easy A?”

Grading systems also risk pitting students and teachers against each other through arguments about a grade and create counterproductive competition as students vie to outperform one another.

At many elite institutions, grades are absurdly inflated by professors with the result that students across the board receive more A’s than C’s. This has reduced the A-F grading system to little more than one of pass/fail.

In narrative-evaluation systems, students never have to worry about accumulating a GPA. Instead, they focus on the quality of their work, with guidance from teachers who are often learning with them. Evaluations create closer relationships between teacher and student and enhance the teacher’s role as mentor.

Evaluations enable teachers to diagnose weaknesses, reflect on growth, and present constructive ideas for improvement and intellectual development — and discuss it all with their students.

Using evaluations, students can concentrate on learning. Progress toward graduation is measured by the development of intellectual skills rather than the accumulation of credit hours?.

Narrative evaluations suggest ways to keep building on student effort and success. Any student can improve. Intelligence isn’t fixed; it’s malleable. And education is about growth and improvement?.

How do our students compare with the alumni of traditional, GPA-reliant programs? According to federal data compiled and reported by the National Science Foundation, Hampshire College ranks in the top 1.4 percent of U.S. colleges by alumni who advance to earn a doctorate. By this measure, we rank #30 in a nation of 4,000 colleges, side by side with the most distinguished institutions of higher learning.

And that’s without ever giving any student even one grade.  (quoted from the article)

Enough said, President Lash.  So, maybe grading practices should be something your teenager and you look at closely.

2.  Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

What I would do if I were you is check first to see whether my teenager’s likely major is available at every college still on the list. I would probably take any college that doesn’t have that major off the list–unless it has something else fabulous to recommend it.  I would also make sure that many of the remaining colleges offered a liberal arts program, just in case my teenager changed her mind even before next April.

With that done, I would make sure that my teenager felt comfortable with any core curriculum requirements or felt equally comfortable not having any.  Personally, I like some distribution requirements, but not a ridiculous number.  But that’s my view.  What’s my teenager’s view?  After figuring that out, I might narrow down the list, if necessary.

Finally, I would talk with my teenager about college schedules and grading practices.  Some sound so intriguing–much more intriguing than any options I remember from 1970.  I wouldn’t see myself taking any schedule options or grading options off the table, but my teenager might.  Act accordingly.

So, Step 2 is done.  I hope you didn’t lose too many options from your teenager’s list.  Maybe you didn’t lose any.  I’m okay if you still have 15 or more colleges on the list as we move forward to Step 3 next week.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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Episode 93: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 1

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We have put off narrowing down your teenager’s long summer list of college options as long as we can. I hate to start the narrowing because it always seems to me as though the colleges taken off your list might be opportunities missed. But we all have to remember that there is not just one college that is a good choice for your teenager. There are likely quite a few colleges that would be not just good, but excellent, choices for your teenager. So, in that spirit, let’s see where we stand here at the end of September.

First, let us remind you that October 1 marks the opening up of the online avenue for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, lovingly known as the FAFSA. There is no earthly reason not to fill it out and file it ASAP. We are not FAFSA experts, but there are many people who are. If you are unsure about FAFSA, look at available websites or seek help from your teenager’s high school. But, whatever it takes, get the form filed, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting a financial windfall in financial aid.

Second, let us remind you, as we have been doing for the past couple of weeks, that the first deadlines are approaching for Early Decision and Early Action admissions–mostly around November 1. If your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already narrowed your teenager’s list of college options. However, your teenager will need to keep a few extra colleges on the list in case the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices don’t work out. In that spirit, let’s look at Step 1 in narrowing down the list.

Let’s review your 10 summer assignments because, if you didn’t do them, there might not be much of a list to narrow down:

We are hoping that you still have at least 20 or so on your list right now.

As we look back at the 10 assignments, we notice that some have to do with college location, some with size, some with selectivity, some with the student body, some with academics, and some with logistics, like housing and safety. We did not talk much this summer about the cost of attending each college because it is hard to figure out cost without knowing what kind of financial aid package your teenager might get from any given college, based on your family’s income, your state of residence, and the academic or other qualifications of your teenager. Everybody else seems to want to talk only about cost, so we would like to start somewhere else.

We found it difficult to choose which filter to look at first, knowing that it would knock some colleges off your list right away and being sorry about not giving those colleges a chance to stay on your list based on their other really great qualities. But something has to go first. So, let’s look at selectivity of the colleges on your list.

1. Step 1: College Selectivity Filter

As we said in our book How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (on sale at amazon.com through 2016), this question is the one most high school guidance counselors bring up first. You have probably heard people say that a student should apply to a “safety” school that he or she is sure to be admitted to; a couple of “reach” schools that would be great, but might be beyond or just beyond what the student’s high school record warrants; and then some others in the middle that the student has a reasonable chance of being admitted to, though not guaranteed. Of course, that is really nothing more than common sense.

As for a safety school, we like to say that you should consider public four-year colleges (especially branch campuses of your state flagship public university, rather than the main campus, or a second-tier state system of public colleges that is not as prestigious as the state flagship university system). Some states have more public options than others, thus providing an array of safety school choices. We continue to focus only on four-year colleges in our search, believing that you can add the local public community college as an option at any point without too much difficulty.

As we find we still have to say to parents of teenagers, it is our opinion that not-very-selective private colleges that could reasonably serve as safety schools for most high school students are not likely to be academically better or more respected than whatever well-regarded public colleges are available in a student’s home state. Why would you pay more money to have your teenager go to a college that is not better? And, as we said many times during our nationwide virtual tour of colleges in Episodes 27 through 53, there is no prestige in going to a private college that is not as good as a great public college.

As for “reach” schools, keep in mind that applying to colleges is time consuming and not free (unless you have application-fee waivers, which are sometimes based on family income and sometimes based on a student’s excellent high school record). Applying to reach schools that enroll a majority of students with significantly higher high school GPAs (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) and/or or with significantly higher SAT or ACT scores than your teenager has might turn out to be a waste of time. So, should your teenager rule out applying to the most selective schools, given the chances that being admitted are slim, even if he or she is a good student? No, but perhaps consider applying to just two or three–and only if your teenager is truly interested in going to them. Applying to too many will likely make a disappointing acceptance season for your teenager.

What should you be looking for in terms of selectivity? I would say that you should feel okay about colleges where your teenager’s high school grades and SAT or ACT scores are average or just above average for that college. But, further, you should feel good about colleges where your teenager’s grades and test scores are above the 75th percentile of admitted and/or enrolled freshmen. This is part of the information–along with class rank–that we asked you to research and record back in Episode 82 in Assignment #2.

As we have said before, the two obvious academic problems for applicants are that their GPA is not as high as it might be or that their SAT and/or ACT scores are not as high as they might be. Either of these problems makes choosing to put too many truly selective colleges on your teenager’s list a risky move. However, as we have said before, having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades.

While students’ test scores are important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges–including some really good colleges–that do not put so high a priority, or indeed almost any priority at all, on these test scores. Check out our book or earlier episodes of USACollegeChat for more information about and a long list of what are referred to as “test-optional” colleges and “test-flexible” colleges, which might be a help for your teenager if those scores are not what you had hoped for. You can also search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online, including at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing website.

Remember that admissions policies change, and you should check on a college’s website to tell just exactly how the college does or does not require or use SAT or ACT scores. For example, some colleges require standardized test scores for some applicants, like homeschooled students and international students, but not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S. So do your homework–again.

The next part of the college selectivity filter is something less obvious, and that is to double check the number of credits or courses required or recommended for admission to the college or to the college or school that you are interested in within the university, along with any specific courses required (e.g., Algebra II). We asked you to research and record this information for each college on your list back in Episode 83 in Assignment #3. Keep in mind that a college does not usually penalize a student whose high school does not offer a course that the college requires for admission–like the third year of a foreign language. However, the closer your teenager can get to meeting all of the required courses and all of the recommended courses, the better chance he or she has for admission–obviously.

2. Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

So, what I would do if I were you, is look back at the data my teenager recorded for Assignment #2 and compare each college’s figures to my own teenager’s high school GPA, SAT or ACT scores (that is, whatever scores you currently have, even if he or she will retake the test this fall), and class rank (if he or she has one). I might divide the colleges into three piles: (1) those that look out of reach or almost out of reach, given the grades and scores of admitted or enrolled freshmen; (2) those that post average grades and scores about like my own teenager’s; and (3) those where my teenager’s grades and scores look well above average.

With that done, I would keep all of the colleges in the second pile on the list for now, especially if my teenager had taken or will take this year the required and recommended high school courses.

Next, I would talk with my teenager about the colleges in the first pile–that is, those that seem like a real long shot academically. I would look particularly favorably on those where my teenager had taken or will take this year the required and recommended high school courses. I might keep my teenager’s two or three favorites from that pile on the list for now, but I would try to help my teenager let the others in the first pile go.

Finally, I would talk with my teenager about the colleges in the third pile, where my teenager’s grades and scores are well above average, to see whether my teenager is holding on to too many “safety” schools, especially ones that are not truly appealing to him or her. I often find myself saying something like this to kids: “Why is that on your list? You are going to get into a better private college than that and you are also going to get into a better public flagship university than that. You don’t need it on your list, and you shouldn’t go there even if you get in.”

So, Step 1 is to narrow down your teenager’s list of college options by being brutal in reviewing the first pile (those that are too academically demanding of their applicants) and equally brutal in reviewing the third pile (those that are not academically demanding enough). We would like you to have at least 15 still on the list as we move forward.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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