Episode 128: College Enrollment in Decline?

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Today’s episode is going to be the final one of our Colleges in the Spotlight series because next week we are really getting down to the serious work of getting our rising high school seniors ready to apply to colleges. So, as we leave Colleges in the Spotlight, we want to take a look at a news story that might just be bringing good news to some of you. The story, which ran in The Hechinger Report and in The Washington Post at the end of June, was entitled “Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment.” Really, I said to myself. That could be great news for kids applying to colleges this fall.

Today’s episode will look at the national facts and figures of this new trend. Plus we will look at Ohio Wesleyan University–in today’s spotlight–a good small liberal arts college in Delaware, Ohio. Ohio Wesleyan enrolls about 1,700 undergraduate students and boasts an attractive 10-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. In the interest of full disclosure, my sister-in-law graduated from Ohio Wesleyan “some years ago” (that means more than 40 years ago) and, by all accounts, thoroughly enjoyed her time there.

And one final reminder: Don’t forget to get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–available at amazon.com. Quick and cheap! Your teenager is going to need it this summer when he or she might have some time to kill. We will tell you more when we get serious next week, so stay tuned.

1. The Facts and Figures on Enrollment Decline

Here are some of the facts and figures presented by Jon Marcus in The Hechinger Report article:

  • According to the National Student Clearinghouse, college enrollment has declined for five years in a row.
  • This year, there are 81,000 fewer U.S. high school graduates going off to college, which is a direct result of a decline in birth rate (particularly in the Northeast and Midwest).
  • Just over 18 million students were enrolled in colleges nationwide last spring–2.4 million fewer students than were enrolled in the fall of 2011, which was the most recent high point for college enrollment. I am going to say that over 2 million students is a lot of students to lose.
  • According to a survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, 58 percent of chief business officers said their institutions had seen a drop in undergraduate enrollment since 2013. (Although 58 percent is certainly the majority of colleges, it doesn’t mean that the statement is true for the most selective colleges–where it is likely not true, just to keep things in perspective.)
  • According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, over 400 colleges still had fall semester spots for freshmen and transfer students as of May 1. (Again, that doesn’t mean those 400 included the most selective colleges, but 400 is still a lot of colleges and every U.S. high school graduate does not, of course, attend a most selective college.)

What does the future hold? When will it all change? Not until 2023, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). Here is what The Hechinger Report article says about what will then be a “slow recovery”:

When it comes, [the recovery] will be [composed] largely of low-income, first-generation-in-college racial and ethnic minorities. These are the kinds of students institutions have generally proven poor at enrolling, and who will arrive with a far greater need for financial aid and expensive support. (quoted from the website)

So, colleges might not have an easy time of it as they work to stem the decline and turn enrollment around–not that many high school seniors and their families are going to be overly sympathetic about that.

Can this information work in favor of kids applying to colleges in the next few years? Before we consider what it all means, let’s look at the Ohio Wesleyan case study, presented in The Hechinger Report article.

2. The Story of Ohio Wesleyan

Hit with a decline in Ohio high school graduates, a prime recruiting ground for Ohio Wesleyan, the University took and is taking a number of steps to boost its enrollment, based on data that it looked at both from admitted students who decided to enroll and admitted students who decided not to enroll. Here are some of those steps:

  • Because the drop in male students was greater than the drop in female students, Ohio Wesleyan is adding two sports (and a marching band) to try to attract more male students.
  • Because students said they wanted more internship and more study abroad opportunities, both internships and short-term study abroad programs are being expanded.
  • Because new sources of students needed to be found, Ohio Wesleyan admissions staff members have been recruiting locally (in Cleveland), regionally (in Chicago), and much farther afield (in China, India, and Pakistan). In addition, the transfer process has been simplified so that students wanting to transfer into Ohio Wesleyan can do so more easily.
  • Because some undergraduates are concerned about where they will be going next for graduate study (Ohio Wesleyan enrolls undergrads only), articulation agreements with Carnegie-Mellon University and with a medical school have just been drawn up to make the transition from undergraduate to graduate study more straightforward–in at least those cases.
  • Because money is always an issue for students and their families, Ohio Wesleyan has budgeted more money for financial aid. In addition, “the University is considering freezing, lowering or slowing the rate of increase of its tuition and fees, which are now $44,690” (quoted from the article).
  • Because students are concerned about their futures, Ohio Wesleyan has been studying labor data and creating new majors in fields of high demand, including majors in data analytics and computational neuroscience. Ohio Wesleyan president Rock Jones was quoted in The Hechinger Report article as saying this: “We live in a really consumer-driven society, and to be honest a college is an investment. Families are much more discerning, and they approach it as consumers. That’s a cultural shift to which the campus has to respond.”

One of my favorite anecdotes from The Hechinger Report article is this one (and I think this will be particularly enjoyable for anyone who has friends who teach in colleges and who hear about the politics of higher education from those friends):

One of the greatest challenges, as at other places, has been to get buy-in from the faculty, who have to approve new academic offerings. Ohio Wesleyan invited faculty on the curriculum committee to meet with the financial-aid committee, giving them a sense of how serious the problems were and asking them for help in coming up with majors that might attract more students.

This doesn’t always work. One faculty member suggested a new major in sacred music, for example. “Some faculty have a very clear understanding of the issues,” [President] Jones said wryly. “Others, less so.” (quoted from the article)

3. More About Money

For those of you particularly concerned about financing a college education for your teenager (and who isn’t), consider this new statistic:

Small private, nonprofit colleges and universities this year gave back, in the form of financial aid, an average of 51 cents of every dollar they collected from tuition. That’s up from an average of 38 cents a decade ago. . . . (quoted from the article)

I guess that is good news for students and their families, but perhaps bad news for colleges that continue to try to make ends meet. Of course, there also has to be a point here when most colleges cannot give back almost everything they take in and still remain viable.

And while we could tell you stories of small private colleges cutting their tuition and, as a result, gaining additional students, here is one public flagship university story that could also prove valuable to some of you:

The University of Maine, in a state whose number of high school grads has fallen 9 percent since 2011, offered admission to students from elsewhere at the same in-state price they would have paid to attend their home flagships; that has attracted more than 1,000 new students for the semester that begins this fall, from all of the other New England states plus California, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. (quoted from the article)

We have talked about these kinds of arrangements with public universities in previous USACollegeChat episodes and in our most recent book, where we mention that some public universities provide generous discounts to students from contiguous states or to students in the region. The University of Maine seems to have found a way to expand that idea nationwide and win more students as a result.

4. What’s It All Mean for You?

So, what does all this mean for you and your own teenager? Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that your kid’s chances of getting into an Ivy League school or any other top-tier college are any better now than they were before you listened to this episode. Whatever happens to the number of high school students in the U.S. and no matter what the decline is in the number of high school graduates statewide in your state or nationwide, our nation’s most selective colleges are not going to feel the pinch. That is just our opinion, but it is probably right.

It is also likely true that the top public flagship universities are not going to feel the pinch, either–like the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California, Berkeley, and another five or 10 more. Why? Because those top flagships attract students from across the nation, and there will always be enough students with good enough grades to fill the best public universities.

But here is the good news. Your teenager might have a better chance now of getting into a good small private college–and there are plenty of those. If you have a super-smart kid, such a college could serve as a great safety school. If you have a kid with good, but not outstanding, grades and test scores, such a college could become a likely match rather than a reach school.

We have said for some time at USACollegeChat that our public flagship universities are the hidden jewels of our higher education system. And we are not taking that back. But now maybe we should add that good small private colleges might be the hidden jewels of our higher education system precisely because they will give you a better bang for your buck than you originally thought. Let’s keep that in mind next week as we move to the serious search for colleges for your teenager.

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Episode 118: It’s the Colleges’ Turn To Beg!

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Since Decision Day is almost upon us, we are going to refrain from giving any more general advice. If you want specific advice for your teenager, call us. That’s free advice available to parents with seniors until April 30 at 11:59 p.m. New York City time

So, we are in our new series, which we are calling Colleges in the Spotlight. Last week, we shone our spotlight on Spelman College and its fellow HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Today, we are headed to the West Coast to take a look at the University of California, Los Angeles, which we talked at length about way back in Episode 39 of our virtual nationwide college tour.

As we said then, UCLA was started in 1919 as the University of California’s Southern Branch and its star has been rising ever since. By many accounts, it now ranks academically with well-known and highly regarded UC Berkeley, the university that UCLA was the Southern Branch of. When we recorded Episode 39, UCLA’s incoming freshman class average GPA was 4.25, with comparably high SAT scores. UCLA serves about 28,000 undergraduates and a total of about 42,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. About one-third of its undergraduates are Asian, and about one-quarter are white. About 80 percent are California residents. UCLA’s undergraduates study in 125 majors across five schools and colleges: College of Letters and Science and the Schools of the Arts and Architecture; Engineering and Applied Science; Theater, Film and Television; and Nursing. And the Bruins play some great basketball, have won more NCAA titles than any other university, and have produced 250 Olympic medalists. It looks as though any candidate would need to be exceptional to get into UCLA these days.

Given those remarkable statistics, it is even more intriguing to listen to today’s episode in which the tables have now been turned: The college is trying to convince the students to come (rather than having the students try to convince the college to accept them). You might have noticed your friends who have seniors of their own travelling the country in this last week or two to take their kids to “admitted students’ days” so that everyone can get one last look before making the big decision. Well, I believe that a lot of those visits include a hard sell by college administrators, who have crafted the perfect sales pitch to convert admitted students into enrolled students. Why? Because, as we have said before, colleges are looking for a high “yield rate”–that is, the percentage of students who actually enroll from those who have been admitted. This yield rate affects the way some people judge a college and its attractiveness and its prestige–and it undoubtedly affects some of the many independent college-ranking systems as well.

1. “UCLA Works To Seal the Deal”

So, let us take you to an article written recently by Teresa Watanabe in the Los Angeles Times, entitled “UCLA works to seal the deal with thousands of freshmen admitted for fall 2017.” You should read it, if only for its great human interest angle and the personal stories of real seniors faced with real decisions. We will give you just some highlights here.

Let us start by saying that the article focuses on the work being done by UCLA’s vice provost of enrollment management, Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, to convert admitted students into enrolled students. The article tells the story of Ms. Copeland-Morgan’s hard sell to a group of 11 Los Angeles high school seniors. Really? The vice provost of enrollment management is meeting with 11 students? At some colleges, 11 might be almost a noticeable number of a small freshman class, but the UCLA freshman class is bigger than a lot of colleges’ total enrollment. That sounds like a lot of meetings for Ms. Copeland-Morgan.

The article notes these statistics:

[UCLA] sent out letters of acceptance to about 16,000 high school seniors last month and is now working to seal the deal with enough students to fill 4,350 freshman seats.

Last year, 37% of those offered admission accepted, a yield rate topped only by UC Berkeley among the University of California’s nine undergraduate campuses.

Copeland-Morgan told the [11 students she was talking to that] they were elite scholars who were selected from a record 102,000 applications from all 50 states and 80 countries. (quoted from the article)

Let’s look at these brand new numbers. First, UCLA was clearly quite selective in choosing to admit just about 15 percent of its applicants. It is a public university, after all. Second, as I do the math, UCLA needs only about a 27 percent yield rate to fill those 4,350 freshman seats. Last year, it got a 37 percent yield rate. Consequently, it looks to me as though UCLA is probably in fine shape–maybe too fine, if it gets the same yield rate and has to find room for an extra 1,500 freshmen!

The article continues as Ms. Copeland-Morgan talks to the 11 high school students:

She told them they deserved to attend UCLA, [which] she described as one of the world’s top 15 universities. She also tried to ease their worries that they might not fit in and feel comfortable. The campus is richly diverse, she told them and their parents, with more than a third of its students low-income, underrepresented minorities and the first in their families to attend college. (quoted from the article)

While those words might have been encouraging, especially since Ms. Copeland-Morgan was herself an alumna of the very high school some of the 11 kids were attending, she also noted that “UCLA’s top-notch faculty and staff included people who would help them find classmates to connect with–and keep them on the right path. ‘If we see any of them acting crazy, we’re going to talk to them like our own children,’ Copeland-Morgan said, prompting one dad in the audience to give her a smile and thumbs up” (quoted from the article).

By the way, it wasn’t just Ms. Copeland-Morgan at the sales pitch on behalf of UCLA. According to the article, “[o]ther staff members talked up UCLA’s food, three years of guaranteed student housing, 1,000-plus student organizations and elite athletics, with its teams boasting 113 NCAA championships.” I have to admit that I am surprised that UCLA would send more than one staff member to do this recruiting?or, in fact, that UCLA would send even one. But the article explains that this personal touch has improved UCLA’s yield rate, “especially among minority, low-income and first-generation college students” (quoted from the article). The article quotes one of the newly accepted students attending the sales pitch as saying this:

“I was nervous about UCLA because it’s so prestigious and because of my status as a minority,” he said. “But the staff seemed so friendly and caring. I can see myself walking onto the campus as a Bruin.”

And so the face-to-face hard sells seem to be working. And according to the article, Ms. Copeland-Morgan “said she jumps at the chance to make a personal pitch to students who can help UCLA fulfill its mission to reflect the diversity of Californians.” To that we say, good for her, good for the kids, and good for UCLA.

The article continues on this theme:

[Ms. Copeland-Morgan] and her staff also have . . . enlisted faculty members to help with what she called “culturally relevant” programs to give admitted students and their families a chance to get a feel for the campus. Recently, they sponsored an event, “Your Future is Bruin,” for Latino students, offering Spanish for monolingual parents and play spaces for siblings.

“UCLA has an obligation as an anchor institution in the city to give back in different ways to the community,” Copeland-Morgan said. “This is my passion. This is my ministry.” (quoted from the article)

So, what are the results of this considerable personal investment by UCLA staff, which has to come at a substantial price? According to the statistics quoted in the article, the results are impressive, especially when it comes to underrepresented minority students:

The yield rate for African American freshmen rose to 50% last fall from 44% in 2014, by far the highest among UC campuses.

At UC Berkeley, by comparison, the rate fell to 37% last year from 47% in 2014. UC Santa Barbara’s rate was 23%; UC Santa Cruz, 17%.

UCLA also increased its Latino yield rate to 52% last year from 49% in 2014 and its first-generation rate to 54% from 49% over that same period. (quoted from the article)

Enough said.

2. So What?

So what does this have to do with your senior? First, you should think about whether any administrators and faculty members showed up to make the big sales pitch at any meetings for admitted students you have attended recently. If they did, I believe that means that the college actually cares a lot about whether its admitted students come–and probably for more reasons than just to improve its yield rate. It likely bodes well for the attention that those professionals will give your kid in the future. Furthermore, if the college is reaching out to your teenager because he or she is African American or Latino or the first generation in your family to go to college, then you should be pleased and relieved that the college cares enough to make that effort.

Second, I hope that your teenager got a kick out of being on the other side of the bargaining table–especially if he or she had a grueling applications season and a difficult round of acceptances.

For those of you who have freshmen, sophomores, or juniors at home, you should think hard about going to any admitted students’ days when the time comes, especially if your teenager is trying to choose among several good options. You both should sit back at the sale pitches and let the colleges work hard to get your business. Ask important questions. Demand good answers. Enjoy your time in the spotlight.

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Episode 114: It’s College Decision Time!

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Well, it is almost April 1, the date by which a lot of colleges will make high school seniors happy or sad. In fact, many colleges have already done that in the past two weeks, with some doing so today and tomorrow. We are sure it is a tense time for lots of families–whether it leads to great joy or considerable disappointment. There is hardly a bigger issue in higher education, of course, than the admissions game, its fairness and unfairness, and its results for thousands and thousands of kids. Whatever the case may be, many of you are now in the position of making a final decision about where your teenager is going to go to college next fall.

Last year in April, we did a series of three episodes on making that college decision–one for above-average students, one for average students, one for below-average students–because we felt that their options and their reasons for choosing one college over another might be very different. You should go back and re-read the show notes or re-listen to Episodes 69, 70, and 71–or, at least, the one that best describes the academic standing of your own teenager. We just can’t do any better now than we did then in pointing out the serious questions you should consider in making that all-important choice with your teenager.

Of course, we know that many of you are too busy, especially right now, to review all three episodes, so we thought we would highlight some of the key points we tried to make in them. We chose points that apply to all seniors, regardless of their academic standing. We will assume for these discussions that seniors have a choice of colleges to attend, though that might mean as few as two colleges or as many as eight or 10 colleges. A small number of options, however, doesn’t necessarily make the choosing process any easier.

1. Rejection by the First-Choice College

Let’s start with what some families will consider the worst-case scenario, even though it likely is not really that: What if your teenager has just been rejected by his or her first choice? In Episode 69, we quoted from some remarkably insightful comments from a young woman named Julia Schemmer, who was rejected by her “dream” school–UCLA. She accepted a spot in the Class of 2019 at the University of California, Riverside. Here are some of the reflections that she offered other teenagers (originally published in High School Insider and re-published by the Los Angeles Times on March 31, 2016, as “Rejected from your dream school? Remember these three things“):

  1. It isn’t your fault. When a college rejection letter comes in the mail, it is easy to immediately invalidate everything you have ever done and view your experiences as a high school student as incomplete or inadequate. It’s not true. Many universities have rigorous application requirements with expectations that are often left unknown to anyone but the admissions board. You could have the perfect SAT, the most extracurricular activities, or the best GPA, but it could be true that the college wasn’t looking for things like that. . . .

  2. It’s not the end of the world. There are so many colleges and universities that would absolutely love to have you walk through their door. Whether it’s expanding your knowledge of other universities that may be better suited to your goals or working hard to transfer to your dream school, there are still opportunities to attend a great learning institution. When I decided to commit to attending a school different from my dream school, of course I was disappointed. However, I currently love the university that I attend and the major I am pursuing. If anything, UCLA will always be an option for my graduate school education. (quoted from the article)

Thank you, again, Julia! These are both excellent and important points. Neither is easy for kids to accept, however. No matter how many times any adult or older teenager says these two things, it is likely that kids will simply need to come to terms with this rejection over time. Parents, it’s not going to happen in a day or two–no matter how good you think the college options still on the table are. So, bear with your teenager while he or she goes through the stages of profound disappointment, whatever they are

2. Selectivity of the College

Let’s look at the selectivity of the college options that your teenager now has. We are going to assume that those colleges are not necessarily equivalent in terms of their selectivity. In other words, your child might have been accepted at a couple of selective private colleges (though not necessarily at a highly selective college), at a couple of less-selective private colleges, at your public flagship university or another public university in your state, and/or at a public flagship university or another public university in another state. You might also have a local community college on that list. But even if your child has just two options of colleges with differing degrees of selectivity, the decision-making process is still quite serious.

Let’s put the financial aspects of this decision aside for a minute and look first at the selectivity of the colleges. Let me start with our conclusion, which remains the same as last year’s conclusion, since no new research has indicated anything that would make us change our minds: Your teenager should go to the most selective school that accepted him or her. Are there any arguments on the other side of that decision? Yes, but they are not persuasive.

Apart from the undeniable prestige of attending a college that is more selective, we have said previously–based on a lot of data from various colleges–that graduation rates are higher at more-selective colleges. In other words, your teenager is more likely to graduate with a degree if he or she attends a more-selective college. Furthermore–and this is almost as important–your teenager is more likely to finish that degree in a reasonable amount of time, ideally four years (rather than the longer timelines many college students now operate on, where six years is not surprising). By the way, in the long run, getting out on time saves you money?sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

Practically speaking, what does our advice mean? It means that you should talk with your teenager about going to the toughest, most academically prestigious college possible. Not just because of the prestige factor, but because it will affect his or her future–both four years from now as graduation approaches and likely a whole lot longer in terms of the classmates your teenager will have and where they will all end up working many years from now.

Now, we know that many advisors would start talking to you about “fit” right now. We have even talked about “fit”?that is, how well your teenager will “fit” into the college community, based on brains or athletic ability or race or religion or socioeconomic status or any number of other things. We, too, want your teenager to fit into the college community that he or she chooses; we are just hoping that it will be an academically strong and well-resourced college community, with great professors and with students who progress through it and graduate on time.

Here are a few questions we asked last year: What if that most selective college is far away from home and you and your teenager wanted a close-to-home option? What if that most selective college is private and you and your teenager wanted a public option? What if that most selective college is located in an urban setting and you and your teenager wanted a rural or suburban option? What if that most selective college is not faith based and you and your teenager wanted a faith-based option?

Well, you are going to have to weigh all of these factors. But we are suggesting here that the selectivity of the college be moved to the top of your list of factors to consider when making this important decision.

By the way, the most selective college your teenager was accepted to might well be a public university?especially if it is your state’s or another state’s flagship university. As we have said many times, there is no prestige in attending a private college that is not as good as a great public college. For a list of great public colleges, go back and listen or re-listen to the nationwide virtual college tour we took you all on in Episodes 27-53. You will see the same names come up over and over again, including these: the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; the University of Virginia; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the College of William and Mary; the University of Iowa; the University of Washington; and the University of Texas at Austin. And there are quite a few more. If your teenager got into one of them, that is worth thinking really hard about.

And let us add one note about community colleges for those of you who did not listen in last week when we devoted Episode 113 to community colleges. If your child is at least an average student in high school, we don’t think that a community college is likely to be his or her best choice, although we understand that there might be financial reasons or family reasons to keep a child close to home and within commuting distance and that a community college might fit those circumstances very nicely.

Nonetheless, the difficulty that many students seem to have in graduating from a community college or in transferring from a community college to a four-year college really worries us. Listen to last week’s episode to find out about the scandalously low graduation and transfer statistics. Last week, we concluded that, unless you think your teenager is smarter, harder working, more motivated, and more goal oriented than the typical community college student, your teenager is likely to have some difficulty graduating from a community college and/or transferring to a four-year college. So, talk with your teenager and think hard about that choice.

3. Your Choice for Your Teenager

What if your teenager has just been accepted by the college that you really want him or her to attend, but that college is not your teenager’s first or second or even third choice? Who wins? That is one of the worst problems we can imagine.

As a parent and as an adult, I would like to say that you should win because you have been around longer and seen more and perhaps you even know more and are likely paying the bill. But I don’t think you can win in this situation without convincing your teenager that you are right. In previous episodes (like Episode 69), we have told many anecdotes that prove this point.

Here is the bottom line for us: College is hard, and it is almost impossible when the student is not reasonably happy there. So, parents, we believe that you will eventually have to give in to what your teenager wants because, in fact, he or she is the one who is going to have to do the work.

By the way, for all of you parents who have younger children coming up through high school and just starting the college process, here is your lesson today: Don’t let your teenager apply to colleges that you don’t want them to attend. It’s as simple as that. If you are satisfied, even if you are not necessarily thrilled, with every college on your teenager’s application list, that ensures that you will be satisfied with whichever one is your teenager’s final choice.

4. What About the Cost?

So, now let’s talk about money. What if your teenager got a great financial aid package–even a full ride–at a college that is not nearly as good as a more selective college that he or she was accepted by? Clearly, that is a hard choice. And I am not going to say to go out and find a bunch of obscure scholarships that go begging every year (though I know that happens). I am going to say that the best possible college education is something worth investing in–even if that means loans that your teenager gets and/or loans that you as parents get. I know that is not a popular position, and I know that many advisors and parents alike believe that having a student graduate with little or no debt is the most important thing. I simply don’t agree. By the way, as we have already said, attending a better college will likely ensure an on-time graduation–which, in the long run, can save you a lot of money on extra years of schooling.

Paying for college is hard–especially paying for private selective colleges. That’s just one more reason we love those great public flagship universities.

5. Next Steps

If your teenager has not already visited all of the colleges that have accepted him or her and that are still under serious consideration, you probably should do that now, if it is logistically and financially feasible. As we have said before at USACollegeChat, this is the best time to visit: when the list of colleges is short enough that the college tour can be reasonably cost-effective and efficient. The visits can be helpful both for your teenager in making his or her decision and for you as a parent in accepting that decision. Speaking as a parent, I think it would be difficult to send a child off to college without ever having seen it; and, yet, my husband and I did that when we sent our middle child off to Richmond, The American International University in London. Well, at least we had been to London, I told myself at the time. And it all worked out. We hope it will all work out for you and your teenager, too.

Here is an offer that we made last year at this time. Call me and tell me what your teenager’s choices are and what your circumstances are. I will be happy to give you some free advice, for what it’s worth. I do this all the time, and I would love to do it for you. Nothing is more important than making the right decision now. The next four years are critical.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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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

Learn more about these topics in previous episodes…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment on the show notes for this episode at http://usacollegechat.org/episode54
  • Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

Connect with us through…

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

Episode 52: So, How Many Colleges Did You Say?

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

Episode 52: So, How Many Colleges Did You Say? on NYCollegeChat podcast: How many colleges should your high school student apply to on NYCollegeChat podcastToday’s episode is an official stop on our blog tour to get the word out about our new book—How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. We appreciate the hosts of the other blogs we have visited on our tour—both through written guest posts we have done and recorded interviews where we have had the chance to chat with great hosts. We have enjoyed all of it. Here are the links to our virtual tour so far:

November 2: ParentChat with Regina

November 4: The College Money Maze

November 5: Parents’ Guide to the College Puzzle

November 6: Mission: Authors Talk About It

November 11: Together with Family

November 12: NYCollegeChat

November 13: The Staten Island Family

November 16: Road2College

November 18: Viva Fifty

November 19: Paying For College 101 Facebook group

November 20: Underground Crafter

November 24: High School Survival Guide

How To Find the Right College is now available for sale as a Kindle ebook or as a paperback workbook on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

The great thing about the tour was that the hosts of the blogs we visited told us what they wanted us to talk about, so all we had to do was talk. On this stop, we had to decide what to talk about. As we thought through what is likely to be going through the minds of our listeners who have high school seniors right now, we decided to talk about a question that will keep coming up over the next two months: How many colleges should my child be applying to?

You would think that this question would have gotten asked and answered at the beginning of the college search, but we believe that it gets asked and answered over and over again as the time to finish up college applications gets closer and closer.

In the interest of full disclosure, it happened to me. When my daughter was applying to colleges five years ago, we developed our list carefully—partly because she was looking for a dance major and that limited our choices significantly. We got almost to the end of the application season before we realized that she didn’t really have a safety school on the list—that is, a school that we were confident she would be admitted to. At the last minute, I remember saying something like, “Oh, no. We had better get a safety school on this list. Let’s choose a great campus of The City University of New York.” And we did, and that put our minds at ease—even though she didn’t end up needing that acceptance after all.

So, let’s talk about safety schools and about how many schools should be on your list. For more information on both of these topics, check out our book as well as our recent episodes of NYCollegeChat, which have taken our listeners on a virtual tour of public and private colleges in every region of the U.S.

As we said a few weeks ago when we did an episode about putting the final touches on that all-important college application essay, we had an opportunity recently to talk with about 100 high school seniors from one of New York City’s best public high schools—the kind of high school where students have to take an admissions test to get in. In addition to looking at their college essay topics (go back and listen to Episode 49 for that discussion), we asked them to make a list of colleges that they intended to apply to and a list of colleges that they would like to apply to, but weren’t for whatever reason (e.g., it was too expensive, it was too far from home, it was too hard to get into). After looking over their lists, here is what we noticed:

  1. Too many students do not spell the names of colleges correctly. Okay, I know this seems like a low hurdle, but you would be surprised at the mistakes we saw. For example, one of the premier campuses of the public State University of New York is Stony Brook University, which we talked about in Episode 50.  That’s S-T-O-N-Y, not S-T-O-N-E-Y. Another of the premier campuses of the public State University of New York is Binghamton University. That’s B-I-N-G-H-A-M-T-O-N, not B-I-N-G-H-A-M-P-T-O-N. And here’s one that adults sometimes get wrong, and it’s not really a spelling mistake: It’s Johns Hopkins University, not John Hopkins University—named for its benefactor, 19th-century philanthropist Johns Hopkins, an entrepreneur and abolitionist.
  2. For most students, there appeared to be little difference between the two lists of colleges—they were equally hard to get into, equally near and far away, equally expensive, and so on. In other words, I couldn’t figure out why the students weren’t applying to colleges on both lists. This observation led me to believe that they had not done a very good job of sorting through college options and applying their own criteria (that is, their own deal breakers, as we call them in our book) to the full set of college options in order to create their own list.
  3. As good students in a highly respected New York City high school, these kids had two great options for safety schools—the campuses of the public State University of New York (SUNY) and the campuses of the public City University of New York (CUNY). And yet, there were a lot of second-tier and third-tier private colleges on their lists—colleges that I imagine were meant to be safety schools for these kids students from a well-known high school. These second-tier and third-tier private colleges were not as good or as respected as many of the public SUNY and CUNY campuses. So, why were they on the lists? As we have said repeatedly in our NYCollegeChat episodes, there is no prestige in going to a private college—just because it is private—when it is worse than a good public university.
  4. Very few students had any public flagship universities outside of New York State on their lists. As we have said repeatedly in our NYCollegeChat episodes, we believe that public flagship universities are the hidden jewels of the higher education system. Here’s what we said in our book:

For many students, the public flagship state university is the place to be. Just remember, the best and the brightest high school students who live in the state really want to go to their flagship state university. Why? Because these universities are relatively inexpensive, academically respectable, well regarded across the state and across the country, often very competitive in sports arenas, chocked full of student clubs and activities, within driving distance of home, and a social hub for lots of their high school classmates. What could be better?

Some of my favorite colleges to talk to kids about are these great flagship universities, which many families, especially here in New York, never even consider. Many of the best flagship universities are as hard to get into as any top-tier private college—for example, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, UC Berkeley, and more. But some are less selective than those, making them super-appealing choices from many perspectives, including cost, caliber of the students, caliber of the faculty, and campus life. High on my list of great universities you didn’t consider: the University of Colorado Boulder. High on my list of intriguing universities you never dreamt of: the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. High on my list of interesting choices that a good, if not quite great, student from the Northeast can likely be admitted to: the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford and Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. For a good out-of-state student from a different part of the country, Ole Miss and LSU could serve as interesting safety schools.

So, looking at your child’s college list one more time, how many colleges is enough? Here is what we said in our book:

Of course, there is no right answer to that question. Through some common sense thinking and discussion, we could probably agree that applying to just two or three colleges sounds like too few and that applying to, say, 15 colleges sounds like too many. The right answer for your teenager probably lies somewhere in between, depending on how much variety there is in the kinds of colleges you are considering and depending on how many deal breakers you and your teenager have [when it comes to the types of colleges to put on the list].

For example, you can see right away that deciding to keep a student close to home for college—maybe even within commuting distance—would limit the number of options available to that student (unless, of course, home is a major metropolitan area, like New York City). Such a student might feel that five or six applications would be a reasonable sample of the variety of opportunities available close to home. On the other hand, deciding to send a student away to college would open up an almost limitless number of options. Such a student might feel that even a dozen applications would not be an adequate sample of all the opportunities out there.

As you and your teenager add more deal breakers—that is, more restrictions on the colleges you want to consider—you probably will feel better that fewer applications can cover the remaining college options. For example, let’s say you and your teenager have decided to limit your applications to small, private, four-year colleges in upstate New York that have French majors. With all of those restrictions, four or five applications might feel like plenty (though you might need a safety school, in that case, and perhaps a public one).

One more point: Your teenager should apply only to colleges that he or she actually knows something about and wants to attend. That might sound obvious to you, but it is not nearly so obvious to high school students as you might think. We find that students sometimes cannot explain why they are considering a certain college and sometimes cannot even find it on a map—even on a map of their home state. We have often used this minimum standard: If a student cannot find a college on a map, then he or she probably shouldn’t apply to it. Such students need more help in applying their deal breakers to a list of possible colleges, in finding out about a good many of them, and then in narrowing down the possibilities to a reasonable number—probably about eight to 12.

So, we notice that a couple of sources, like The College Board, are suggesting that the right number is probably from five or six to eight colleges. I think five or six is low, and here’s why. I want every kid to have some options—after any acceptances come in—for two reasons. First, a kid who has some choices likely feels better about his or her decision about which college to attend; a student who has only one acceptance—unless it was based on an Early Decision application and it is the kid’s dream choice—might feel a bit less excited about attending that college. Second, a kid who has some choice likely feels better about himself or herself when chatting with classmates in school and outside of school as all the kids compare their college acceptances. Now, I admit that maybe this is the mother in me speaking and that this is what I wanted for my own children. But I would like kids to feel satisfied with—even proud of—their college choice so that they will do the very best they can when they get there.

So, College Board or not, I am sticking with eight to 12 applications. By the way, as you are looking over the application requirements for each college on your list, we think you are going to find that some applications require little to no more effort than the work you have already done to complete others, especially if those colleges accept the Common Application and have no required additional essays. Other than perhaps paying an additional application fee, you really lose nothing by going ahead and applying.

Even though it is the second week of November, if you have a senior at home, we believe that you still would find our book to be helpful in these next two crucial months. And if you have a younger teenager at home, you will definitely find our book to be helpful as you and your child discuss your deal breakers and make that perhaps life-changing college list.

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why you should check out the percentage of applicants a college accepts when choosing a safety school
  • Why your child should apply to more than one SUNY or CUNY campus at a time
  • Why eight is not enough

Learn more about these topics in previous episodes…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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

Connect with us through…

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