Gradefund’s Blog

Just another weblog

Should Students Be Paid for Good Grades?

Posted by gradefund on January 15, 2009

Should Students Be Paid for Good Grades?

By Laura Fitzpatrick Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009,8599,1871528,00.html


Back in the day, a good report card earned you a parental pat on the back, but now it could be money in your pocket. Experiments with cash incentives for students have been catching on in public-school districts across the country, and so has the debate over whether they are a brilliant tool for hard-to-motivate students or bribery that will destroy any chance of fostering a love of learning. Either way, a rigorous new study — one of relatively few on such pay-for-performance programs — found that the programs get results: cash incentives help low-income students stay in school and get better grades. (See TIME’s special report on paying for college.)

According to a study released today by the social-policy research group MDRC, a nonpartisan organization perhaps best known for evaluating state welfare-to-work programs, cash incentives combined with counseling offered “real hope” to low-income and nontraditional students at two Louisiana community colleges. The program for low-income parents, funded by the Louisiana Department of Social Services and the Louisiana Workforce Commission, was simple: enroll in college at least half-time, maintain at least a C average and earn $1,000 a semester for up to two terms. Participants, who were randomly selected, were 30% more likely to register for a second semester than were students who were not offered the supplemental financial aid. And the participants who were first offered cash incentives in spring 2004 — and thus whose progress was tracked for longer than that of subsequent groups before Hurricane Katrina abruptly forced researchers to suspend the survey for several months in August 2005 — were also more likely than their peers to be enrolled in college a year after they had finished the two-term program. (Read “Putting College Tuition on Plastic.”)

Students offered cash incentives in the Louisiana program didn’t just enroll in more classes; they earned more credits and were more likely to attain a C average than were nonparticipants. And they showed psychological benefits too, reporting more positive feelings about themselves and their abilities to accomplish their goals for the future. “It’s not very often that you see effects of this magnitude for anything that we test,” notes Thomas Brock, MDRC’s director for young adults and postsecondary-education policy.

Although U.S. college enrollment has climbed, college completion rates have not. Only a third of students who enroll in community colleges — which educate nearly half the undergraduates in the U.S. — get a degree within six years. Hence the interest in this study among such philanthropic powerhouses as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund the MDRC study. (MDRC, by the way, was created in 1974 by the Ford Foundation and a group of federal agencies; originally named the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, it now goes only by the abbreviation.)

Given that the follow-up study of the program was disrupted as the schools struggled to rebuild enrollment and facilities in the wake of Katrina, it’s difficult to draw any long-term conclusions about the effects that cash incentives will have on community-college students. However, there could soon be more data to parse: with a grant from the Gates Foundation, MDRC plans to test cash incentives at community and state colleges in California, New Mexico, New York and Ohio.

Despite the study’s impressive, albeit short-term results, some critics in higher education are concerned that cash incentives will encourage students to start taking easier courses to ensure they’ll do well enough to pocket the money. “Everyone knows what the gut classes are when you’re in college,” notes Kirabo Jackson, an assistant professor of labor economics at Cornell who has studied cash incentives for high school students. “By rewarding people for a GPA, you’re actually giving them an impetus to take an easier route through college.” Other critics note that students’ internal drive to learn may be sapped as they focus on getting an external reward.

But those involved with the study note that particularly in this economy, cash incentives could help part-time students devote more hours to their studies. Faced with soaring bills for tuition, books and housing, many college students need a job just to get by. In the Louisiana program, all the participants were low-income parents, three-quarters of whom were unmarried or living without a partner. “We’re talking about adults who have quite a number of other responsibilities,” says Brock. “When you’re talking about minors who are required by law to be in school, that’s a different situation.”

Arnel Cosey, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and provost for the City Park Campus at New Orleans’ Delgado Community College, one of two schools in the study, says she understands why some people are concerned that cash incentives are nothing more than bribery. “But on the other hand, I think because I am involved with these students daily, I’m not sure that I’m opposed to bribing,” she says. “If that’s what we need to do for these people to reach these goals, which ultimately will lead to them having a better life, I wish I had more money to give.”

Besides, as Cosey adds, if all goes well, students will be getting cash incentives for their work soon after graduating — in the form of a paycheck. “Most of us wouldn’t turn up at work every day if we weren’t getting a check,” she says. “What’s wrong with starting the payment a little early?”


Posted in Alternative Payment, Education Incentives, Paid for Grades | Leave a Comment »

6 Rules That Can Help You Afford a Private College

Posted by gradefund on January 9, 2009

6 Rules That Can Help You Afford a Private College

Posted December 24, 2008

Jackie Steffen separated from her husband and lost the family home to foreclosure just as her oldest daughter, Rhiannon, was applying to colleges. Steffen, who works as a legal secretary in Chicago, says that wiped out her savings and quashed any hopes of borrowing to pay her daughter’s tuition bills. Yet Rhiannon is now a sophomore at $42,000-a-year Illinois Wesleyan University and will most likely graduate with less than $30,000 in debt.

More than 2 million families have lost their homes to foreclosure in the past two years. And economists warn that 3 million more families could lose their homes in the next couple of years. Many struggling parents fear that such financial difficulties may crush the college dreams of their children. But as the Steffens discovered, college is still possible if everyone in an extended family pitches in with wisdom, hard work, sacrifice—and some good luck.

“I think many of the families facing foreclosure today are hardworking, but with the accumulation of housing expenses and medical bills, they just get in too deep,” Jackie Steffen says. “These families are not lazy. They are willing to make an effort to keep themselves afloat. I guess that’s why I feel families facing foreclosure will eventually see their situation turn around for the positive. And I think that most students in college, or approaching college, are not looking for a free ride. They just want a little assistance, which I think is out there,” she says.

Here are some of the hard lessons the Steffens learned about paying for college during hard times.

1. Keep close to family: Jackie Steffen’s credit was ruined. She couldn’t qualify for any kind of loan to help her daughter cover the gap between the aid and the cost of attendance. Luckily, Jackie had long had a good relationship with her parents. “My mom and dad are retired, and they are not rich,” but they want their grandchildren to succeed, she says.

“Family is very important,” Rhiannon agrees. Without the help of her family, she wouldn’t be able to afford college, she says.

2. Students should take responsibility and action: In hard times, parents can’t do it all. Jackie says it was important that her daughter request her grandparents’ help cosigning an education loan, since it really was for Rhiannon. “It helps if the student initiates the request,” she says. “She had to promise to pay it all back. It is her responsibility, ultimately.” The experience taught Rhiannon that she and her family couldn’t secure enough loans to pay for her school, so she was energized to apply for scholarships. It turned out to be “a lot easier to ask someone for a reference or help with a [scholarship application] essay than it is to get someone to lend you $40,000 to get through school,” she says.

3. Apply to several different kinds of colleges: Rhiannon applied to a local in-state public university as a backup, as well as several private schools. But after counting up all her scholarships, it turned out to be no more expensive to attend her first-choice private school. Studies show that students who give themselves lots of college choices—including cheap in-state public universities and generous private schools—receive more financial aid than those who have limited choices.

4. Tell EVERYONE that you need help paying for college: Rhiannon’s grandmother happened to mention to her accountant that her granddaughter needed scholarships. The accountant suggested she try a foundation whose finances he also happened to manage. Rhiannon did, and won $75,000 worth of scholarships from the foundation—enough to relieve her of most of her college debt worries. “I learned that scholarships and money opportunities could literally come from anywhere and end up meaning the world,” Rhiannon says.

5. Communicate with your schools financial aid office: After she figured out how much it would cost to go to each school she got into, Rhiannon wrote a letter to her first choice, IWU, explaining the family situation and asking for more aid. IWU boosted her aid. Students “shouldn’t be afraid to be aggressive” about explaining their true needs to a college, Rhiannon says.

6. Dont despair, and keep trying: Rhiannon worked hard, earned good grades, and applied for lots of scholarships. In the meantime, Congress passed legislation making it a little easier for parents with mortgage trouble to get educational loans. And Jackie found affordable housing for her family and started working herself out of her financial hole. “Sometimes it seems like things are never going to get better. But, slowly but surely, they do,” Jackie Steffen says.

Posted in Alternative Payment, Cheaper Tuition, Financial Aid, Rising Tuition | Leave a Comment »

Getting the most bang for your college buck

Posted by gradefund on January 9, 2009

Getting the most bang for your college buck

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

As college admission deadlines wind down and families submit financial aid applications for next fall, freshmen in 2009 will be the first to start college clearly in the throes of the recession.

What this will mean for students and colleges is just beginning to be understood. But one thing is clear — now, more than ever, students and parents need to make every education dollar count.



The Princeton Review’s list of 100 “Best Value” Colleges for 2009, released today by The Princeton Review and USA TODAY, aims to help them do just that.

The education services and test-prep company’s annual list ranks the top 10 public and private colleges and universities; the rest are listed alphabetically. Deemed No. 1 Best Value for a public university is the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; No. 1 among private campuses is Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa.

Value is about more than just cost, says Robert Franek, Princeton Review’s vice president for publishing. “We didn’t want to put schools in the project that just had low sticker prices because that didn’t necessarily mean value.”

And questions of value take on added significance in this economic downturn.

“In the past, when recessions have been reasonably mild and short, people planning to send kids to four-year colleges continued to send them to four-year colleges and worked it out. But in the past, we haven’t had college-educated parents laid off from jobs,” says Tom Mortenson of Oskaloosa, Iowa, who publishes a higher-education public-policy newsletter. “This recession looks to be different.”

From 2004 to 2007, The Princeton Review’s results were published in a book, America’s Best Value Colleges, and data appeared on the company’s website. This year, through a partnership with USA TODAY, the full list and analysis are in an interactive database on The Princeton Review, based in New York, is not affiliated with Princeton University.

College costs have skyrocketed in the past 10 years. At public campuses, for example, in-state costs are up 37%, according to data from the College Board, a non-profit group that tracks annual tuition increases. This year, it says, average total charges for tuition, fees, room and board are $14,333 for in-state students, $25,200 out of state. The average total at private campuses is $34,132. Institutions themselves provide the largest source of grant aid — representing 42% of all grant aid, the College Board says.

Out of the USA’s 643 public four-year institutions and 1,533 private four-year campuses, The Princeton Review regularly analyzes data from approximately 650 campuses that it considers the best, although Franek says the schools in the mix do change from year to year. Of the 650, about 100 didn’t provide enough information to be considered as Best Values, says Ben Zelevansky, who directs Princeton Review’s data analysis.

The selection criteria looked at academics, costs and financial aid, using the most recently reported data from each institution for its 2008-09 academic year. Additionally, 160,000 to 175,000 student surveys provided input for the academic ratings.

The Princeton Review’s aim was to determine the average annual cost that a freshman paid for the 2008-09 school year, Zelevansky says; for public institutions, the determinations were based on calculations using a combination of in-state and out-of-state tuitions.

At the University of Virginia, the No. 1 Best Value for public schools, this year’s tuition, fees, room and board totaled $18,499 for in-state students and $37,749 out of state. The average grant UVA offered (including scholarships) totaled $9,531. The average 2008 graduate’s debt was $16,847.

UVA president John Casteen says AccessUVA, a financial aid program, is an effort to meet student need and has been funded since 2004. The current undergraduate enrollment is 13,726.

But today’s economic climate means cutbacks are expected, Casteen says. “We are in the middle of squeezing a great deal money out of the university’s administrative processes.”

At top-rated private college Swarthmore, with 1,480 undergraduates for the 2008-09 year, the total cost is $47,804, with the bulk — $36,154 — for tuition. But the average grant is $30,073. The school did not report the amount of student debt.

Alfred Bloom, Swarthmore’s president, says he expects increased financial aid will be needed. “We’ve had a long tradition of assuring that students can accept Swarthmore offers without regard to financial circumstances.”

At each of the top two campuses, about 70% of students graduated debt-free in 2008. But aid is not the only criterion for inclusion, says Zelevansky.

“This is not a list of America’s Best Financial Aid Packages,” he says. “This is a list of schools that provide the best balance of a strong education and a reasonable cost of attendance. The bottom-line cost for families is our concern here.”

Not listed are public schools including University of Wisconsin-Madison or University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; missing among private schools are New York University and George Washington University, the USA’s most expensive four-year campus.

“You can still get a solid education at a good value from a school that didn’t make our list, but the schools on our list really go above and beyond,” Zelevansky says.

Posted in Cheaper Tuition, Education Incentives | Leave a Comment »

Colleges Profit as Banks Market Credit Cards to Students

Posted by gradefund on January 9, 2009

Colleges Profit as Banks Market Credit Cards to Students


Published: December 31, 2008

EAST LANSING, Mich. — When Ryan T. Muneio was tailgating with his parents at a Michigan State football game this fall, he noticed a big tent emblazoned with a Bank of America logo. Inside, bank representatives were offering free T-shirts and other merchandise to those who applied for credit cards and other banking products.

Skip to next paragraph

Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times

Bank of America employees on the Michigan State campus offered giveaways like water bottles, backpacks and games to persuade students to apply for credit cards and other bank services.

Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times

A Fifth Third Bank display offered bottles of water, tuition raffles and a bicycle as an inducement to get incoming freshmen at Michigan State University to open credit card and other accounts.

“They did a good job,” Mr. Muneio, 21 and a junior at Michigan State, said of the tactic. “It was good advertising.”

Bank of America’s relationship with the university extends well beyond marketing at sports events. The bank has an $8.4 million, seven-year contract with Michigan State giving it access to students’ names and addresses and use of the university’s logo. The more students who take the banks’ credit cards, the more money the university gets. Under certain circumstances, Michigan State even stands to receive more money if students carry a balance on these cards.

Hundreds of colleges have contracts with lenders. But at a time of rising concern about student debt — and overall consumer debt — the arrangements have sounded alarm bells, and some student groups are starting to push back.

The relationships are reminiscent of those uncovered two years ago between student loan companies and universities. In those, some lenders offered universities an incentive to steer potential borrowers their way.

Here at Michigan State, the editors of the student newspaper wrote this fall that “it doesn’t take a giant leap for someone to ask why the university should encourage responsible spending when it receives a cut of every purchase.”

At Arizona State University, students set up a table on campus last spring to warn of the danger of debt and urge students to support limits on on-campus marketing.

The contracts, whose terms vary but usually involve payments to colleges or alumni associations that agree to provide lists of students’ names, have come under harsh criticism in Washington.

“That is absolutely outrageous, the sharing of students’ information with the banks,” Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, who oversaw a June hearing on campus credit card marketing, said in a recent interview. “That should be outlawed.”

College campuses are one place that young Americans are introduced to credit and the possibility of spending beyond their means, a problem now confronting the nation as a whole. For banks, the relationships are a golden marketing opportunity. For colleges, they are a revenue source at a time of declining public funding. And for students, they help pay the bills and allow more shopping.

But debt incurred in college becomes a serious burden at graduation, especially in a recession in which jobs are scarce. A survey of more than 1,500 college students by US PIRG in Washington found that two-thirds had at least one credit card. Seniors with balances had an average debt of $2,623 on their cards.

University officials say that their agreements with card issuers comply with the law and bring in valuable revenue.

“It provides money for scholarships and other programs,” said Terry R. Livermore, manager of licensing programs at Michigan State. He said that the program was aimed primarily at alumni and the university would not include sharing student information in future credit card contracts. “The students are such a minuscule portion of this program.”

Jennifer Holsman, executive director of the alumni association at Arizona State, said the association tried to teach students about responsible uses of credit. “We work closely with Bank of America to provide educational seminars to students in terms of being able to get information about how to pay off credit cards, how not to keep balances,” she said.

Credit card issuers say that they try to educate students to use cards responsibly and that the cards they offer on campus have more restrictive terms than cards offered to alumni.

“The available credit for undergraduates is capped at $2,500,” said Betty Riess, a spokeswoman for Bank of America. “We want to take a fair and responsible approach to lending because we want to build the foundation for a longer-term banking relationship.”

Ms. Riess said the bank had agreements with about 700 colleges and alumni associations, making it one of the biggest, if not the biggest, card issuer on campuses. She said that only 2 percent of the open accounts under those agreements belonged to students, but also said it was not possible to determine what percentage of program revenue resulted from fees and charges on those student cards.

Stephanie Jacobson, a spokeswoman for JPMorgan Chase, wrote in an e-mail message that the bank had fewer than 25 contracts with colleges or alumni associations and that while some of the contracts gave it the right to ask for and use lists of student names and addresses, the bank had not done so since 2007.

That may be because football games present a marketing opportunity that requires no address information. Abigail D. Molina, a second-year law student at the University of Oregon, applied in 2007 for a Chase Visa offered at a tent outside a football game. In exchange, she received a blanket.

“I mostly wanted the blanket,” Ms. Molina said. She added that this was her second university credit card. In 1994, when she was an undergraduate at the university, she applied for a card at a booth on campus and then accumulated about $30,000 in debt, almost all of it on the card. In 2001 she filed for bankruptcy. Looking back, she said it was “shockingly easy” to get the card, even as a first-year student.

Mr. Muneio, the Michigan State student, said he did not apply for a Bank of America card because he already had two Visa cards. “The last thing I need is another account to keep track of.”

Many students are unaware of the contracts that universities have with credit card issuers and do not question the presence of marketers on campus or applications in their mailboxes, despite recent protests on a few campuses.

Sometimes, the contracts have confidentiality provisions. Universities may try to distance themselves, stating that the contracts are only between alumni associations and banks. But the universities provide alumni groups with lists of current students’ names, addresses and telephone numbers, which the groups pass on to banks.

The New York Times obtained information about and, in some cases, copies of contracts between lenders, public colleges and their alumni associations using open records requests. Because private colleges are not subject to open records laws, they are not included.

While most universities contacted for this article did not provide detailed financial information on the contracts — the University of Pittsburgh, for example, confirmed only that it had an agreement — two did share numbers.

The alumni association of the University of Michigan is guaranteed $25.5 million over the term of its 11-year agreement with Bank of America. Under the agreement, the association agreed to provide lists of names and addresses of students, alumni, faculty, staff, donors and holders of season tickets to athletic events.

Much of the money goes toward scholarships, said Jerry Sigler, vice president and chief financial officer of the alumni association. He was unsure what students were told about the program.

“Students are generally told how they can opt out of having their information publicly displayed in directories or provided in response to requests like this,” Mr. Sigler added. “But it’s not to my knowledge specific to the credit card program.”

Michigan State University gets $1.2 million a year but is guaranteed at least $8.4 million over seven years, according to its agreement. The contract calls for a $1 royalty to the university for every new card account that remains open for at least 90 days, $3 for every card whose holder pays an annual fee, and a payment of a half percent of the amount of all retail purchases using the cards.

For cards that do not have an annual fee, the bank pays $3 if the holder has a balance at the end of the 12th month after opening an account, a provision that appears to give the university an incentive to get cardholders into debt.

A few schools have adopted policies that prohibit sharing student contact information.

Ball State University’s alumni association, which has a contract with JPMorgan Chase, does not provide information on students, said Ed Shipley, executive director of the association. “Who we market to is our alumni because that’s our purpose,” he said. However, the bank is permitted to set up marketing tables at athletic events.

The University of Oregon, whose alumni association also has a marketing agreement with Chase, stopped providing student addresses as concern grew about student debt, according to Julie Brown, a university spokeswoman. The university still permits marketing booths at athletic events.

Some research suggests that students may be using credit cards less frequently, in favor of debit cards linked to their bank accounts. A survey last spring by Student Monitor, a Ridgewood, N.J., company that tracks trends on campus, found that 59 percent of undergraduate students had debit cards, up from 51 percent in 2000.

But universities have arrangements with banks that offer debit cards too, perhaps raising some of the same issues that the credit card deals do.

At New Mexico State University, for example, students are given the option of opening a bank account with Wells Fargo if they want to convert their campus identification into a debit card.

The accounts are not mandatory, said Angela Throneberry, assistant vice president for auxiliary services at the university. But, she said, “There’s some revenue sharing that happens as part of this.”

Posted in Cheaper Tuition, Economy and School | Leave a Comment »

SoCal law school tempts students with free tuition

Posted by gradefund on December 26, 2008

SoCal law school tempts students with free tuition

By Linda Deutsch, Associated Press

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the new law school at the University of California-Irvine, poses in his temporary office on the campus in Irvine, Calif., Dec. 16. The nationally renowned constitutional legal scholar, who survived a very public political drama involving his hiring, firing and rehiring, heads the first new law school in California in 40 years.
By Reed Saxon, AP
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the new law school at the University of California-Irvine, poses in his temporary office on the campus in Irvine, Calif., Dec. 16. The nationally renowned constitutional legal scholar, who survived a very public political drama involving his hiring, firing and rehiring, heads the first new law school in California in 40 years.

IRVINE, Calif. — A new law school opening next fall in Southern California is offering a big incentive to top students who might be thinking twice about the cost of a legal education during the recession: free tuition for three years.

The financial carrot is part of an ambitious strategy by Erwin Chemerinsky, a renowned constitutional law scholar and dean of the new school at the University of California, Irvine, to attract Ivy League-caliber students to the first public university law school in the state in 40 years.

Scholarship winners will be chosen for their potential to emerge three years later as legal stars on the ascendance. Only the best and brightest need apply, but the school hopes to offer full scholarships to all 60 members of its inaugural class in 2009. Subsequent classes will be on a normal tuition basis.

Chemerinsky is convinced the prospect of free education, combined with a public-interest curriculum and the University of California moniker, will quickly fill his first class and eventually land Irvine among the nation’s best law schools.

“Our goal is to be a top 20 law school from the first time we are ranked,” he said.

Such a rapid rise to prominence would be unprecedented, but not impossible, said Richard Morgan, the founding dean of Boyd Law School at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1998, when that state had no law school.

“It’s like trying to fly the plane while you’re still building it,” he said.

Morgan warned that starting a new law school is daunting, and that the competition for top-notch students is fierce.

There are 200 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, including two new schools in North Carolina. Several others are in the planning stages in New York state, and dozens of unaccredited schools operate across the country.

At last count, 141,719 students were enrolled in ABA-accredited schools.

“During an economic downturn there is historically an increase in law school applications,” Chemerinsky said, explaining it’s an attractive option for undergrads with poor job prospects.

Luring top students hasn’t been the only challenge for Chemerinsky, an unapologetic liberal.

A year ago, he was a professor at Duke University when he was tapped to be dean of the new school in the heart of conservative Orange County. He was soon fired amid concerns about his liberal politics, as evidenced on numerous occasions during his 21 years as a professor at the University of Southern California.

He was rehired in the span of a weekend after campus protests and editorials cited his treatment while making the case for academic freedom.

Chemerinsky insists the law school will have no ideological orientation.

In a signal that political hatchets have been buried, Chemerinsky and UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake, who hired, fired and rehired him, will jointly teach a course in civil rights law when the school opens.

With the dustup settled, Chemerinsky has plunged ahead, hiring 19 law professors and administrators, including some who are abandoning jobs at prestigious universities. The school hopes to eventually enroll 600 students and employ 40 to 50 professors.

Rachel Moran, president-elect of the Association of American Law Schools, is leaving her longtime post at the University of California, Berkeley’s revered Boalt Hall to teach at Irvine. She likens it to a “Star Trek” adventure.

“You’re going where nobody’s gone before,” she said. “I feel that it’s going to be a remarkable ride.”

A law school has been part of the UC Irvine’s long-term plan since the university opened in 1965, according to the school’s website. Its cost was incorporated into the campus growth plan, and Chemerinsky says no additional state funds will be needed to cover its estimated first year costs of $25 million.

Some money has been saved by housing the school in existing campus buildings.

It’s also the beneficiary of a $20 million start-up grant from Donald Bren, chairman of the giant Irvine Co. development firm, and a $1 million grant from the Joan Irvine Smith and Athalie R. Clarke Foundation that will pay for the core collection at the law library.

Other Orange County businesses and law firms are pledging sizable donations to bolster an ambitious $100 million fundraising effort during the next 10 years.

Chemerinsky said he has made substantial progress toward raising the $6 million needed to fund full scholarships for his inaugural class. He’s promising students a unique educational program with hands-on experience in legal clinics and eventual job interviews with more than 70 law firms, public interest law organizations and government offices.

Still, in a society seemingly overloaded with lawyers, the question arises: Do we need another law school to churn out more lawyers?

“There isn’t a need for another law school like all the rest,” Chemerinsky answers. “This is our chance to create the ideal law school for the 21st century.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Q. and A.: College Admissions

Posted by gradefund on December 26, 2008

Q. and A.: College Admissions

Original post: For high school seniors scrambling to complete essays, collect recommendation letters and construct well-rounded packages, college application deadlines are looming, in a seemingly inscrutable admissions process.

To get an inside perspective, we solicited advice from some gatekeepers. This week, a panel of admissions deans from Yale University, Pomona College, Lawrence University and the University of Texas at Austin will answer selected reader questions.

But first they answered a set of questions from Times editors, discussing common misperceptions, standardized tests, financial aid, essay writing, fairness and what not to do when trying to make a good impression.


The Panelists:

Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., which in 2007 had 5,275 undergraduates and 6,083 graduate and professional students.

Bruce Poch, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., which has an enrollment of 1,520 students.

Steven Syverson, Vice President for Enrollment and the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., which has 1,429 full-time undergraduates.

Bruce Walker, Vice Provost and Director of Admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, a public university with 11,000 graduate and 39,000 undergraduate students.

Questions from readers (updated on Dec. 19 at 6:17 p.m.):


Would you be willing to comment on homeschooled students and the college admissions process? We have four children we are homeschooling and we hope to continue that up until they go off to college.


Do you have a bias against homeschooled students? They don’t always have the classes available to them, such as AP, honors, labs, etc. If you don’t have a bias, what do you look for in a homeschooled student? The transcript may include nonstandard courses. How do we let a school know, other than with standardized test scores, how they might be a good fit for that school?
— Leslie Howard


Mr. Walker of Texas: Homeschooling is a more recognizable educational enterprise than it once was. This has made directors of admission more comfortable with their ability to properly evaluate a student’s readiness for the rigors of a challenging college curriculum and a student’s social adaptation skills. We recognize that there are many ways to get a rigorous education, and AP and honors classes are just two of the most popular examples.

We probably provide better service and a more complete and personal evaluation of our homeschooled children than we do to our more traditional applicants.

While homeschooled children present slightly different application materials, the differences are shrinking. We are seeing parents become more entrepreneurial in finding good educational experiences for their children, and more parents are pooling resources to provide the more specialized subjects in the sciences. The Web has allowed for a much broader and more organized enterprise than was ever possible. Even the term “homeschooled” has become a less accurate description of where learning takes place. The term is more descriptive of where the administrative staff resides and where the student’s “home room” might be.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We welcome homeschooled students. Just as with high schools, there is great variation in the strength of the preparation we see among homeschoolers. And in many instances, because they are not presenting a traditional set of credentials, it is important for homeschoolers to be particularly thoughtful about what they will include in their application. Some will submit a number of SAT subject tests taken over the course of several years as a way to document their mastery of these areas. Others will prepare for AP exams as another way to document, with a traditional metric, the rigor of their work. Many will submit one or more substantial works they have done as part of their courses.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: I do have skepticism about some versions of home schooling. We will seek concrete evidence of preparation which may, for better or worse, fall both to a wider range of standardized testing but also to evidence of collaborative work with other students both academically and socially. The home schooled student does carry an additional burden of proof. How to address it?

Good and deep articulation of the courses of study followed. Representation of knowledge acquired and intellectual skills developed. Interview if possible. Admissions officers may rely more heavily upon standardized testing than we would like because the transcript of a home schooled student will carry the imprint of a parent and the references if written by a tutor or parent cannot address questions we would have regarding the engagement of a student with a teacher and peers in a classroom or collaborative learning environments.

Anticipate what we would like to see. Develop a full curriculum and make sure math and laboratory sciences are part of the experience. Even where general admission requirements may ask only for optional presentation of tests or where no SAT subject tests are required, I suggest that the student present those familiar representations of their work and achievement. If the standard expectation of the college is for two SAT subject tests, send more. Send four or five in different academic areas to fully represent a range of academic exposures.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We see only a few homeschooled applicants, and we do occasionally admit a homeschooled student. Evaluation is usually difficult, however. It helps if the applicant has taken some college level courses, and we can get evaluations from those teachers. We are not keen on homeschooled students where the only evaluations come from parents and the only other information available consists of test scores.


How well do the criteria used in the admissions process predict future college success? Do colleges track their students’ four-year GPAs and such and look for correlations with admissions data? If so, what kinds of trends do you see?


What procedures do you have in place to measure the fairness of your process? What kind of follow-up do you do on your decisions? In what circumstances would you consider one of your decisions to be a failure?
—Margaret Heisel


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: Most colleges periodically conduct research to correlate the data they collect during the admissions process with the outcomes experienced by their students. The two “outcomes” typically assessed are GPAs at the college and graduation rates. Not surprisingly, in the majority of studies, high school grades have the strongest correlation with college grades. The SAT and ACT have the next strongest correlation, but this too is not surprising because they have a strong correlation with high school grades.

I believe that defining “success in college” as the college GPA is too limited a definition, as there are many students who have marginal college GPAs but have had very successful college experiences in terms of their personal growth and the things they go on to accomplish after college. Assessing those other types of success are much more difficult than just tracking GPAs and graduation rates, so studies traditionally focus on grades as the measure of success. Most of us can agree, though, that a student who flunks out of college did not have a successful experience, so we conduct studies to try to identify the characteristics of students who have been unsuccessful.

Our application review process is designed to ensure that we give every applicant a thoughtful review and the opportunity to “rise to the surface” of the applicant pool. Some candidates clearly demonstrate are insufficiently prepared academically to be successful in our program, so the rest of their application may receive a less thorough review. If a student fails here academically, due to lack of preparation or ability, we would question whether or not we made the best decision.


Mr. Walker of Texas: We attempt to validate the objective factors of our admission process on a regular basis. We test for how accurate they are in predicting freshman year GPA. When attempting to predict longer range outcomes such as graduation or life success there are simply too many variables over which we have no control. There is a great deal that can happen in a student’s life over four years that has an effect on their GPA and graduation patterns but nothing to do with their intelligence. Even predicting one-year performance has the problem of variations in grading practices, disciplines pursued, class schedule, teaching styles, etc., making it difficult to get high correlations between test scores and freshman year GPA.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We draw our students from the very most competitive fraction of high school graduates. From a statistician’s point of view, there’s not much variance in that group – virtually all the students we enroll are extremely talented and accomplished with respect to what can actually be measured in the admissions process. Not surprisingly, they tend as a group to be very successful in school and career pursuits, both in the short and long runs. After they come to Yale, what differentiate them are their individual choices and decisions, not the small differences in their admissions credentials.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: At Pomona, training includes norming exercises where the entire staff will review the same set of applications to share multiple perspectives with our colleagues. The intended benefit is to expose our individual analyses to our colleagues and to consider and represent institutional interests, not personal biases.

There are other checks and balances, too. If someone on the admission staff has an external relationship with a candidate or the candidate’s family, they are required to remove themselves from any discussion about the applicant and to keep out of the admission decision. That same restriction applies to faculty members who sit on the admissions committee.

In the end, we face the judgment of faculty and deans who will share their impressions of their students with our staff. Students will also let us know what they think about their peers. We are ultimately responsible to the community as a whole for choosing well and if we get it wrong, we will hear about it!


How do the colleges weigh the writing portion of the SAT versus the reading and math sections? In other words, are students evaluated on a “2400” scale or the more traditional “1600” measure?
— Barry Schkolnick


Why don’t all schools take the writing portion of the SATs into consideration? I understand that it is important to get an idea of an applicant’s passion through their application essay but there is always a good chance that the essay is not a true indication of an applicant’s writing abilities since it could have been coached or polished by a parent, tutor, etc.
— Susan


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: Every college has its own system of review and weights different portions of the application differently. Despite the fact that an application essay may not be the candidate’s own work, many colleges also feel that the writing portions of the SAT and ACT are not necessarily indicative of the type of writing that is expected in college.

The admission process is imprecise and subjective. Applicants and their families often seek specific, concrete answers about the process in an effort to assess their chances for admission, and many are suspicious that somehow the process will not treat them “fairly” (which translates to: they won’t gain admission to the college they most want to attend, despite being a wonderful person who has done well in high school and will probably be very successful after college). College admissions officials are, for the most part, thoughtful, caring individuals. They take their jobs seriously. They read applications carefully. Informed by their institutional priorities at that particular moment in time, they weigh all of the information available to them about students in an effort to make the best possible matches between students and institution. At the most selective institutions, there are far more wonderful applicants than can be admitted. The fact that lots of good students are not admitted does not mean there is anything unfair about the process, even though there is not some magic, objective recipe that will guarantee admission.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: My impression is that the SAT writing test is more and more frequently working into the overall evaluations but that institutional differences certainly come into play.

I confess I am still adapting to the new vocabulary of a 2400 point scale. When I first had students saying, “I got 2230,” I had to quickly run calculations in my head. I knew what 2400 meant. But the reality is that admissions officers do NOT yet seem to talk the 2400s.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We have been getting more comfortable incorporating the SAT writing section into our evaluations, although again, it’s good to remember that at most selective colleges, high test scores characterize most of the applicants and most admissions decisions are therefore based on other criteria.


Are you willing to publish some aggregate statistics on your admits? For example, would you publish average and standard deviation of high school class rank and SAT scores, broken down by public school versus private school, and whether the student was a legacy or a recruited athlete?


Thank you for your explanations of how SATs and ACTs are used in the admissions process. When I researched colleges, I also wanted to use standardized tests as one factor in my evaluation. I’ve searched in vain for average scores on the MCAT, GMAT, GRE and LSAT exams taken by a school’s graduates. Why aren’t these scores available?
— John Martens


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: More statistics are publicly available than you might think, but myths persist despite whatever statistics get published. For instance, a number of readers seem to be under the illusion that Yale, and some its peer institutions such as Harvard and Princeton, cater exclusively to a powerful elite, where less qualified legacy applicants (children of alumni) dominate the admissions process. The truth is that in this year’s entering class at Yale, only 13% of the students were legacies, consistent with classes admitted over the last two decades. Moreover, enrolled legacies on average have test scores and grades higher, not lower, than the average for the class as a whole, and they also outperform their predicted college grades.

Unfortunately, cultural and media obsession with myths about a tiny handful of colleges obscures the real problems in higher education more generally. Among the poor, there is widespread lack of access to adequate K-12 preparation for college and to effective means for financing a college education. Among the affluent, artificial college ranking systems published by profit-driven commercial publications produce a status mentality that disguises the basic good news about our country’s higher education system. Relative to the rest of the world, we are absolutely loaded with high-quality colleges and universities looking for good students, and virtually everything important about student success depends on how a student uses the resources at a strong college, not which one in particular he or she happens to attend.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: Aggregate statistics are quite widely available though the Common Data set which is used for many college guides. Our aggregate representations of recent classes are on our Web site and I think you will find most colleges make that information freely available.

We haven’t cut all these figures up into all the subsets you have asked in large part because it reflects no statistically significant differences. At some point the numbers in those subsets can become small since our entering class is fewer than 400. (For example, male students from private schools in Montana versus women from Illinois or California or New York City public schools…). But I do take your point that this could be reassuring and provide further transparency.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: While we would be willing to research and provide such statistics, at colleges as small at Lawrence, some of the numbers you seek would not provide meaningful information. You also need to understand that many schools do not provide class rank, and the differences between high schools are as great among publics and privates as between the two groups. Groups like recruited athletes and children of alumni run the gamut from the top to the bottom of the class statistically, so there too, such statistics might not yield much helpful information.

I’m not sure how many colleges even systematically track those graduate and professional school test results for their graduates. And, again, at small schools like Lawrence, the small numbers in each of the categories might limit the value of the compilations.


I’m curious as to how admissions criteria are altered or shifted in importance for a transfer applicant compared with a freshman applicant.
—Colin J.


How are transfer applicants from community colleges viewed in the admissions process? What advice would you offer these applicants?
— Maureen


Mr. Poch of Pomona: There are huge variations in transfer student possibilities from institution to institution. Some have lots of room and some little or none. USC enrolls more than 1000 transfer students each year. Pomona has room for 10 to 15. Obviously different factors affect both of these patterns and common answers will be hard to find.

Transferring to Pomona is tough. There are proportionally many fewer spaces than there are for first year students in huge part because of the high graduation rate of our incoming first years. Space doesn’t open up. We look at the high school record, especially for those seeking to transfer as sophomores. We look closely at the college record and the extent to which the student has pursued a general education program which would leave them time to dedicate the time they and we would wish to their electives and their major when they enroll at Pomona. We will explore the reasons for transfer and to understand as best we may about why Pomona and how the student sees life changing in our educational environment. Are they transferring FROM something or TO something?


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Our unusual system of residential colleges makes the freshman year and sophomore years critical to our undergraduate program. So we maintain only a very small transfer program, limited to 24 places each year.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: In the case of transfers, the bulk of the academic evaluation focuses on the college record.

We welcome transfer applicants from community colleges and treat them essentially the same as transfer applicants from four-year colleges.


An increasing number of schools are offering their students the choice of studying for and taking the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. What are your views on this qualification regarding the importance you assign to it in the admissions process and its relevance in preparing students for college? Finally, thanks for taking the time and trouble to participate in this discussion.
—Simon R


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We treat IB programs very much like AP programs in our evaluation. We believe the IB program to be a strong, challenging program for college preparation.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: The IB program is a rigorous academic program that is gaining in popularity here in the United States. Some students take individual IB courses while others strive to complete the entire IB diploma. We view IB coursework as comparable to AP coursework, and will award Lawrence credit for strong scores on either the AP exams or the IB exams (though only those who complete the IB diploma can receive credit for their results on the subsidiary-level exams).


What recommendations do you make to applicants with learning disabilities. On the one hand, our son has achieved a remarkable academic record which is all the more remarkable given the additional hurdles he has had to overcome. I would think that such determination warrants special recognition. On the other, I suspect that some schools would see only a potential problem they would rather avoid. So should the application refer to these issues or should that wait until post-acceptance discussions about accommodations, etc.?


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: It helps us to have specific information about disabilities, whether learning-related or other, because as the questioner notes, it can help us see accomplishments in context and also determine better if we will be a good fit for a particular student. But let me say this: How does it help a student proceed in education and life to be taught that he or she needs to be manipulated or packaged or even disguised in order to gain some imaginary advantage with a college admissions committee? Good students in this country have many, many choices among excellent colleges and universities, where their success is going to depend almost entirely on their own actions and decisions. My general advice to parents is simply to worry less about achieving an admissions edge and to focus more helping your student to be happy, enthusiastic, curious and well-prepared to seize opportunities.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: A student who has worked against longer odds because of a learning disability and who performed well is able to provide evidence that they developed compensation mechanisms. That can work to their favor.

On the other hand, we do sometimes receive calls insisting the C or D grade on the high school transcript was because of a learning disability and that we can’t hold that against the student. It will be the performance (and underdeveloped compensation mechanism) not the disability that would work against the student.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We favor honesty in the admission process and therefore encourage students with learning disabilities (or other potential special needs) to identify that to us in the admission process so that we can put them in touch with the appropriate individuals on our staff to discuss the accommodations available to them. It has no impact on our admission decision, but if the student is skeptical, they can delay bringing it to our attention until after they are admitted. I encourage them to engage the college in dialog prior to enrolling, so that they can ascertain whether or not it will be a viable environment for them.

Questions from readers (updated on Dec. 18 at 4:50 p.m.):


As a teacher who writes 20 or so recommendations a year and tries to make each letter unique, can you offer any more information about how such letters are read? I try to present as honest an appraisal as possible but sometimes wonder if that’s in the best interest of my students. Do you look for what is stated in recommendations? What’s not said? After having written literally hundreds in my career, I find myself wondering if the at least 2 hours per recommendation I spend is worth it. Are there cases where recommendations will tip the balance for or against admission?


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Recommendations play a critical role for us, and we deeply appreciate the time teachers put into writing good ones. If you teach at a school from which we receive multiple applications, the same officer will read and evaluate any recommendations you write for those applicants. If each recommendation reads about the same, with numerous positive adjectives but little in the way of concrete detail, the recommendations tend not to be helpful. We look for professional judgment from teachers, not simply warm feelings. And we look to see whether teachers incline toward calling each bright student “one of the best I have ever taught,” or instead try to distinguish the really extraordinary individual from those who are strong in the usual ways.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: I am grateful for fulsome teacher references and even more appreciative of those which are candid, sharing the good with the bad. Over time we sometimes get to know a teacher who has written for a number of students. A balanced reference will establish credibility for a teacher and is very helpful for our efforts.

On the other end of the spectrum is the dismay we feel when we see literally identical references written for multiple students from the same classroom. Sometimes that has even meant a telling of the same tale or moment about students who clearly are not connected. That situation reflects more poorly on the teacher than the student, and while we recognize the enormous burden reference writing does require of the author, we value and depend upon that input from someone who has worked closely with a student.

References can command even greater importance in a residential college environment where our students will live and work together. Gaining a sense of competitive or collaborative instincts and an impression of a student’s interest in engagement with peers and instructors provides important insights which can have an impact on the learning communities we are trying to build.

The length of a reference isn’t our measure of its worth.

We are also very mindful of the context of high schools. A teacher engaging 200 students per year will not likely have the time to write many pages for each of her students. When they do, we will take notice that a top student has received such a strong endorsement. A teacher in a classroom of 10 to 15 students will often write more.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: Typically, all the documents in an application tend to affirm each other, but occasionally a recommendation, essay, or interview reveals something significant about the applicant that we would not otherwise have known. In most cases, no single document “tips the balance,” but in a few cases it does. I encourage writers of recommendations not to spend time summarizing information that will be available elsewhere, but instead to focus on aspects of the student that may be known only to you because of your interactions with them. Specific anecdotes or examples that support your comments are likely to be powerful. A short recommendation that effectively highlights one specific trait, activity, or characteristic can often be the most helpful.


Be honest: Do you really read all the essays submitted? Or, do you read only for the borderline cases?
– Vinod


Mr. Poch of Pomona: We do at Pomona. But some colleges use the essays as a tie breaker. And some work in a holistic review which more carefully considers the essay whether for content or writing style. In cases of a generally solid application, an essay becomes increasingly important.

In the case of an otherwise weak application, it may not take much more than a skimming of the essay to seal an impression. A brilliant essay presented in an application with substantial weakness in academic performance will not likely compensate for other concerns and could possibly lead to questions about authorship or editing influences. Essays that reflect or amplify the impression of the person created by the application as a whole are read fully and appreciated.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: At Lawrence University and other small selective liberal arts colleges, all essays and recommendations are read carefully (as is every other document the student submits). When reading an application, we strive to gain a reasonably complete picture of the student — strengths, achievements, and aspirations, as well any particular challenges they may have overcome. Through this process, we seek to identify students who will not only be successful, academically, but who will also contribute to the vibrancy of our residential campus community through their personalities, perspectives and outside-of-class activities. Academics is foremost, but we want this to be a stimulating, engaging environment in lots of other ways, as well.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We look at every essay from every applicant, and for students who reach the level of serious consideration, essays may end up being read multiple times.


How do you encourage students to spend their summers? Are professional work experience or programs abroad viewed positively or can some become too gimmicky?
– Evan


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: This was addressed well by one of my colleagues yesterday. Students should follow their passions and develop the aspects of their personalities and proficiencies that are most exciting to them, not the ones they think will best “package” them. Far too many students are spending far too much of their young lives attempting to do “what the colleges want to see in an applicant” in order to someday gain admission to some highly idealized (often hyper-selective) college. Loren Pope, one-time editor of the New York Times Education Section, who passed away earlier this year, spent much of his latter years promoting the concept that the quality of a student’s college education has more to do with the student’s engagement than with the specific college. Through books like “Beyond the Ivy League” and “Colleges That Change Lives” he argued that there are many wonderful colleges in the U.S. that offer an educational experience as good as (or better than) those at the highest profile colleges (albeit without the pedigree). The college search should focus on finding a college that is a good match for the student – not just the most selective place to which they might gain admission.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We encourage students to make use of their summers in the way they find most interesting. If they undertake a specific program, it should be because it appeals strongly to them, not because they imagine it will look best on a resume. Why? First, it is frankly impossible to know what will look best to a particular admissions committee at a particular college. Trying to outthink or outguess the admissions committee strikes me as a useless exercise, though many book authors and private consultants purvey the illusion that they can do this for you. Second, for both education and life, the best program is the one that you find most valuable for yourself at this point in your life. We also honor and value summer jobs; for many students they are necessary and for others they can be just as important a learning experience as anything else. What’s important to us in not what you chose to do for the summer, but what you got out of it.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: While unusual activities may add a great deal to a student’s experience and have a profound effect on their world view, for some it just comes across as decorative, not substantive. Is a special experience or summer expected or a minimum requirement? No.

Many of those “special” experiences reflect the educational and economic background of the family more than the curiosity or talent of the student. For example, I believe most admissions officers would assume it’s not fair to expect a student who works and contributes to family expenses to take an overseas internship. I confess I often wonder why some students who live in areas that have many social service needs unaddressed will ignore the local situation but move to another country to perform a similar social service. Is it really a service trip or is it a summer vacation built for college admission purposes? It may be both and that’s not a penalty point, but it isn’t a bonus consideration either. Is the student whose family connections provided an internship at a high-profile organization more worthy than a student who delivered pizza or tended to family farm commitments? The rest of the application will give us the answer.


It has long been understood that there are five main facets of an application: transcript, recommendations, standardized test scores, extracurriculars and essays. If a student’s transcript is in the weaker half of the applicant pool, but the remaining four facets are quite exemplary, will an elite college be willing to take a chance?


Mr. Poch of Pomona: The more selective the institution, the more likely the decision for admission may turn on things not so easily quantified. If the application suggests strong basic competence academically, the other qualities of a candidate become interesting and often determine the outcome. I am interested in both where a student is at the current moment as well as making a guess about where they may be in a year or two or three. Perfect records in high school don’t always suggest perfect students in college. A student who had a bump along the way may know more about how and why they learn than one who has been grinding along without a second thought. Glowing references, strong tested ability, leadership strength and a terrific interview can sometimes outweigh a transcript with a glitch or two but in highly selective environments are not likely to override a real mess of a record.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Weaker transcripts face tough sledding in a highly selective college environment. They don’t automatically disqualify a candidate for us, but you have to remember that we have many thousands of applicants with extremely strong transcripts who are also just as exemplary in the other ways that count.


I’m a junior in New Jersey, and I feel I’m a pretty good student. Recently, a college guidance counselor emphasized that doing community service is essential, not just for the common good, but also for college admissions. How valid is this claim? Also for competitive colleges, or just colleges in general, how highly do admission officers value honors classes or AP courses (regardless of the colleges credit policy for APs)?
-Akiva L.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: If there are honors and AP courses available, many of us would look to see them represented in the record. We are looking for course loads that suggest a level of rigor more comparable to college work. Sometimes the more interesting class or teacher may not be teaching in the honors or AP program. Tell us why you made the course choices you did and you may convince us, too.

Anticipate the questions we are likely to ask. Lay out all the pieces you know will be part of the application that you can control (essays, activities and their presentation); make some guesses about what your recommenders will say; and emphasize and then address (before we ask) those things that may not show you in the best light and tell us what you learned that may not be reflected in the record.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We neither privilege nor ignore community service. The thing we are looking for outside the classroom is not a series of check boxes on a resume; we’re looking instead for a high level of engagement or leadership in whatever it is that the student cares about most. For some students, community service is at the forefront of their extracurriculars, in which case we pay a lot of attention to what they have accomplished in that area. For other students, some other passion or interest holds primary sway, and we evaluate the engagement in that area. We know that very few students can fully engage more than one or two primary activities at a high level. Though it is fine for a student to have varied interests, a significant number of students make the common mistake of spreading themselves too thinly in a resume-building exercise.

With respect to programs of study, we are less concerned with particular course designations and more concerned simply to see that candidates have embraced and performed well in whatever their schools offer as a most challenging program. At the same time, we are not particularly drawn to one-dimensional students who have made their sole or primary objective in life amassing the largest number of honors or AP courses conceivable, accompanied by multiple efforts to achieve the world’s highest test scores.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We seek students who have taken good advantage of their opportunities by following their passions as well as exploring new opportunities. Because of our academic rigor, though, it is important to us that students have challenged themselves academically, which probably means taking advantage of some AP classes if they are available, but does not mean taking every AP class just because it is available.


Do you evaluate students from public and private schools differently? Does a student from a well-known private school automatically have a leg up?


Is the quality of an applicant’s high school taken into consideration?


We live in rural Wyoming where class offerings are limited because schools cannot afford to pay teachers to teach AP classes for five kids. What advice do you have for students in rural communities who are extremely bright and motivated but do not have access to the same course selections as students in urban and suburban areas? Is there any possibility for them to apply to elite schools?
-Sherrill Hudson


Mr. Poch of Pomona: A well-known private school student does not automatically have a leg up everywhere. Sometimes private schools have more grade inflation than the nearby public schools. Sometimes the students at the public or parochial school had to work harder to gain resources or opportunities that were more typically available at the independent school.

Context matters in the consideration of an applicant. Even within New York City or Los Angeles, there are vastly different opportunities available to students depending on the school they attend or the resources their family may have. 4-H commitments in a rural community may be as stunning a leadership signal as volunteer work in a New York City museum.

I think many applicants and their parents would be surprised to learn about the high school origins of most admissions deans and officers, even at the most selective colleges and universities. Those alma maters are overwhelmingly public schools and often are not public schools that appear on “top 10” lists.

I would urge The New York Times to poll admissions deans about where they attended high school and whether it was public, private, parochial, rural, urban, suburban, well-supported or under-funded.


Mr. Walker of Texas: To ask if the quality of an applicant’s high school is taken into consideration in the admission process is a little like asking if attractiveness is taken into consideration in a beauty contest. Though we try not to rely so heavily on the school that a student attended, the benefits of good schooling shows up in so many ways that it would be less than honest to say that the school one attended doesn’t matter. The goal is to not let the name of the school blind you the individual qualities of the student.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We recognize that there are differences in high schools, although it isn’t necessarily just a public-private distinction. There are both strong and weak public and private schools. In terms of academic rigor and opportunity, there are some public schools that can match even the best private school. We recognize that an ‘A’ at one school may indicate a different level of achievement and experience than an ‘A’ at another school, or even in another class. High schools send us profiles that help us to understand their particular environment. Grades are not just taken at face value; they too are context-based.

We have high regard for students who are clearly motivated and have seized available opportunities to challenge themselves within their school, even if the school’s offerings are more limited. If there were a test for motivation, time-management skills, and study-skills, I would take it over any standardized test we have available. To some extent, that’s what a transcript provides.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We are always looking for students who excel in context, and we are acutely aware that context and access to resources vary widely (and wildly) across schools. Every year we get the other side of this question from those at private schools; if I had only gone to a public school in a less populated state, would I have stood out more and been treated more favorably? It is important to keep your eye on the bigger picture. If you are a high-achieving student in whatever context your circumstances have placed you, a number of strong colleges are going to be vying for you as a student. And again, ultimately it matters far less which strong college admits you than it matters what you do with your opportunities once you arrive there.


Do they anticipate discounting more heavily as the economy worsens? Or do they hope to buck the trend among other luxury products?


Will the financial crisis affect your university’s financial aid policy? Will you put more weight on an applicant’s financial condition when considering his or her application for admission?
-Jason Bourne


Mr. Poch of Pomona: Pomona remains completely committed to financial aid support for our students and will remain need-blind in our consideration of applicants. We will continue to meet fully the demonstrated need of our admitted students who enroll, and we will continue to do so for the duration of their enrollment. We will do so without expecting students to assume any loan burden as part of our financial aid packages. There are a handful of colleges with similar plans and aspirations though there are many others that have financial resource challenges and may not yet know what they can afford to do next year. I have heard no outright reports of colleges cutting aid, but we do know that loan challenges will surface for some families.

I would reemphasize the importance of students and their families respecting deadlines for aid applications because the clearest way many colleges may have to control growing pressure on financial aid budgets may be to stick to those deadlines. Increasing numbers of students in recent years have delayed filing financial aid applications, sometimes because of costs and sometimes because of the paperwork. They have waited until after an offer of admission was extended. This delays getting an aid package and this year, could result in outright denial of support even for students who have need. Don’t dawdle in filing!


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: The downturn has forced us to look even more seriously at our expenditures and to identify areas in which we can significantly reduce them, but at Lawrence, there is a commitment to protecting the academic and artistic integrity of the institution. So, we have not eliminated plans to fill our current faculty vacancies nor are there any plans to cut our financial aid budget.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: A family’s ability to pay for a Yale education has no effect on our admission decision, and this has been true for over 40 years. Further, our president and trustees have made their first priority sustaining Yale’s quite extraordinary financial aid programs. We actively recruit lower-income students to come to Yale, and this is not changing with the economic situation.


There is a lot of controversy about using tests like the SAT and ACT in the admissions process, and some top schools don’t even use the scores. Other schools intend to deemphasize these tests in the admissions process in the future. Some studies have shown these tests not only to be biased against students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds but also to be a poor prediction of college success. How much do these tests really figure in the admissions process and how can you give talented poor kids a chance when so much emphasis is placed on the tests?


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: Lawrence University made the decision to go test-optional. Students who believe their ACT or SAT scores are consistent with the rest of their academic record and will represent them well in the admission process are welcome to submit their scores, whereas those who believe their test scores do not appropriately represent their academic capabilities may choose not to submit them.

In 2004, Bates College reported on 20 years as a test-optional college. They had collected SAT scores from non-submitters who ultimately enrolled and determined that, in spite of having SATs that were 160 points lower, the “non-submitters” graduated from Bates and achieved GPAs that were virtually identical to those of the “submitters.” You can read their fascinating study here.

The NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) Commission on the Use of Standardized Testing in Undergraduate Admissions recently released a report that is critical of the sometimes outright misuse and the overemphasis currently placed on these tests by our society. The entire report is available here. Additional good information is available at


Mr. Poch of Pomona: Colleges have a variety of testing requirements because they have found different parts of the application correlate best with success at that individual institution. Even the most selective colleges and universities use standardized tests thoughtfully and understand that they should be used in context, not as a stand-alone indicator. Grades matter. References matter. For some, test scores correlate perfectly with the rest of the application. For some, they may make little sense.

The weight assigned to test scores may vary within a college, too. A student from a comfortable background who had test prep courses and attended very strong schools may be expected to present stronger tests than a student who had fewer resources and no test prep. The dials are adjusted for all sorts of things in an application, including testing.

I urge students to look at graduation rates as one signal. Not just crude overall rates, but at graduation rates for students like themselves. Do financial aid students graduate at comparable rates to non-aided students? Do Latino students graduate at a rate comparable to the overall student body? Do students of African descent? Do student graduation rates vary by geographic origin? Do graduation rates vary much by the SAT or ACT score of enrolled students? All of this will signal that the colleges are fulfilling their commitments and are admitting students appropriately for that institution.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We know that test scores correlate highly with socioeconomic circumstances and school resources, so we do not penalize students with fewer advantages who also have somewhat lower test scores.


Mr. Walker of Texas: For some colleges, SAT or ACT results are not useful because nearly everyone is admitted anyway. For others, the test results have become less useful because all students have about the same test score and therefore the tests have lost all power to discriminate. And for others still, the test scores are useful as one piece of information but not the only piece that separates students from one another. If used honestly, the tests should only carry the amount of weight that is appropriate to make important distinctions among applicants that can’t be made more accurately in some other way.


To Mr. Brenzel of Yale: What is the purpose of deferring 2,644 students in this year’s round of applications? You say that the deferred student will be reevaluated in the regular application process, but seeing as your freshmen class this year had 1,892 students, there is no possible way that most of these applicants stand a chance of being accepted in addition to the 742 accepted early and the regular applicant pool yet to come. Why do you prolong the misery?
— Alexander


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: This question makes two false assumptions: that being deferred is a misery and that deferred candidates have relatively poor chances of admission. Though odds of admission to Yale are always long, each year we accept about the same percentage of the students deferred from the early round as we accept of the regular decision applicants. We are often looking to see how applicants perform in the first half of senior year, when many students are taking their most challenging schedules or seeing their primary activities outside the classroom bear fruit. At the same time, we do try very hard to give final decisions to as many students as possible, where we feel certain that we will simply not be able to offer admission in the spring. This year we let over 2,100 students know that we were closing our consideration of their applications, about 38% of our early candidates. Virtually all of these applicants were very strong students, who are going to attend great colleges and have great success. We only chose not to defer them so that they could focus wholeheartedly on their other applications.


For Mr. Walker: How has the controversial Texas “top 10 percent rule” — which guarantees admission to state universities for the top 10 percent of all high school graduates —affected the quality of the students admitted at Texas, and what is the retention rate from the freshman to sophomore year? Thank you.
— A. Alaniz


Mr. Walker of Texas: The disparities between the have and have-not public high schools that produce the top 10 percent students is cause for concern. Their preparation for study at a large, selective flag-ship is uneven given that they come from all high schools in the state.
Having said that, we have studied top 10 percent students since the law was passed in 1997. We have posted the annual results of our study on our Admission Research Web site for 10 years. What we have learned is: 1) As measured by freshman year GPA, top 10 percent students out-perform not-top 10 percent students. This has been without exception for 10 years. 2) Within the top 10 percent group, GPA goes up with increases in SAT scores. In other words, when we control for rank in class, SAT scores do matter as an indicator of freshman academic performance. 3) The superior performance of top 10 percent students extends across all majors. 4) Retention rates are highest among top 10 percent students. Visit our Web site for more information.

Questions from Times editors:


What part of the admissions process is most misunderstood?


Jeff Brenzel of Yale University: It is not well understood that we are not aiming to pick out the best candidate in a particular school or from a particular area, as measured by some predetermined criteria. Rather, we are trying to assemble the most varied and most interesting class we can from an extremely diverse group of close to 25,000 outstanding applicants. We do not aim to compare a student primarily with other students from his or her school; we look instead for students who will bring something of particular value to the entering class.

Second, few people seem to grasp the weight given to various aspects of the application, though this can vary considerably by institution. For us at Yale, for instance, standardized test scores generally do little to differentiate applicants, because virtually all our applicants score very well. Most important to us are the transcript and the school and teacher recommendations, which students can do little to influence once it comes time for an application. We also look closely to see where and how a student has developed talents or engaged the school or community outside the classroom. Essays and interviews round out an application, and we look here mostly to see whether they convey information that enlarges or enhances, while remaining consistent with what we hear from counselors and teachers.


Bruce Poch of Pomona College: Most of it!

As I read admissions-related Web sites and blogs, I am often struck by the mistaken and sometimes troublesome counsel about what matters. Sometimes that advice comes from counselors, sometimes from parents of other students and sometimes from peers rather than from the individual college. Some of that bad counsel relates to questions about what to report or what to conceal.

Grades and scores, the core if not sole basis of decisions at some institutions, may be a much smaller part of an ultimate decision for students applying to a very highly selective institution where most applicants clearly enough “can do the work.” Why students chose a particular course of study may matter a great deal to an admissions officer. How they approach a classroom or learning environment may mean more than just the letter grade received in a class.

Students should objectively look at what they have submitted and ask themselves if questions remain unanswered for a reader of that application. Do the essays reflect ideas and personality or just present a report of involvement? Does it sound like the student wrote the essay? Was a change of schools midyear explained or left to the wild imagination of an admissions officer who may read an unanswered question as a signal of danger? Why was a particular extracurricular activity the most important involvement?


Bruce Walker of the University of Texas at Austin: The most misunderstood part of the process is that colleges have different missions and goals when selecting a class, and that an acceptance or denial will likely be for different reasons across multiple colleges.


Steven Syverson of Lawrence University: We all have our own institutionally idiosyncratic ways of making admission decisions. But the common perception tends to be that all colleges are difficult to get into. The reality is that nearly 90 percent of America’s four-year colleges admit more than half their applicants, and with the exception of students who apply only to hyper-selective institutions, most applicants are admitted to one or more of their top choices.

Another misconception is that colleges admit students from the top down, academically, and stop when they have filled their class. The academically outstanding applicants will likely be offered admission, but a substantial portion of the class will be filled with students who are academically qualified, but also have some other characteristic that is attractive to the college (e.g., athletic or musical talent, a parent who attended the college, or a personal or cultural background that is unusual at the college).

And, when a student is denied admission to a college, there is often the presumption that they were not qualified. At highly selective colleges, the reality is that many (perhaps most?) of the denied applicants meet the academic standards for admission, but were not offered admission simply because there was not sufficient capacity to accommodate all academically qualified candidates.


Given that colleges need to admit a certain balance of athletes, legacies, artists, musicians and development-office selections, is it reasonable for people to expect the process to be fair?


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: This really depends upon what is defined as fair. Colleges don’t admit all their students just based upon their academic prowess. Each college strives to enroll a class that meets a number of objectives for the college — provide enough athletes to have competitive teams, provide enough musicians who play the right instruments to round out the needs of the orchestra, maintain good relations with alumni donors by enrolling their children, etc. These needs and objectives vary by college and by year. If this year we really need a bassoonist for the orchestra and a point guard for the basketball team, then bassoonists and point guards have an advantage. If next year we need a baseball pitcher and a violist, but have plenty of point guards and bassoonists, then bassoonists and point guards no longer have an advantage. It can be argued that it would be unfair to other members of the orchestra if the admissions office did not enroll a qualified bassoonist if they had the opportunity to do so.


Mr. Walker of Texas: We try to keep the process fair but you have identified some situations where the public believes the process is not fair. This is an extension of the question about what part of the admissions process is most misunderstood.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Every college aims at putting together a diverse and interesting class, and colleges differ greatly in their institutional priorities. Accomplished students with high aspirations will find a welcome at a broad range and a large number of excellent colleges. Further, it matters far less exactly which of those colleges they attend than it matters how prepared they are to engage the world of opportunities available at any strong college. The fairness issue that concerns me most is not whether well-prepared students will be admitted into good colleges. In this country, they will. The real fairness question is whether poor students have anything like an equal chance to obtain good preparation for college, not to mention access to a means for bearing the cost.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: I reject the conclusion that some of the things on this list are quantifiable or even a “given.” At some institutions, legacy interests are specifically excluded from consideration. At some, “development-office selections” do not exist (at Pomona, for example!). At some, coaches get their picks and let the admissions offices know whom to take, and at others, the coach may simply communicate interest in an athlete but will have no direct control over the choices made by the admissions officers.

I know of no place with a specific quota on legacies, artists, musicians or any of the categories listed. In a larger university with a Division I athletic program, typically the size of the institution translates into the athlete entering without displacing the possibility of another student enrolling.


How has the recession affected the admissions process and the availability of financial aid?


Mr. Poch of Pomona: This remains to be seen and there are crosscurrents and contradictory stories coming from across the country and which vary from public to private and large to small institutions. Many colleges are writing to alumni and friends reporting new assumptions for budget planning. Many apparently will freeze hiring or hold salaries to a current level or expect only very modest salary changes. Most conversations I have been privy to reflect serious concern about maintaining student access to their institutions and universities to students across the economic spectrum, whether those institutions are large or small, private or public, well endowed or more modestly endowed. Some colleges made very significant commitments to loan-free aid programs, which are being maintained this year. Many will work to ensure the continuing availability of aid even if other areas of the budget may have to be constrained.

I hope not to hear about colleges cutting need-based aid while preserving merit aid, but acknowledge that’s a personal bias, and that some may see this as a survival tool.

What does worry me is some early reporting of smaller numbers of middle- and low-income students submitting applications or submitting aid applications. I do think it will be critically important for students to submit their aid applications before deadlines this year and NOT wait until after an admission offer has been extended. In a year many colleges and universities experiencing a budget crunch, there may be nothing left at the end of an admissions cycle to actually meet their need if it has already been fully committed to those who got things in on time.


Mr. Walker of Texas: We are seeing higher numbers of applicants to public universities than in past years. We will not know the real impact of the recession until families have to pay a deposit and commit to a known cost.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: The support that colleges receive from their endowments is likely to decrease because the values of their endowments have dropped. This may cause some colleges to reduce the level of funding they can provide for financial aid. Other colleges may maintain their commitment to financial aid, or even increase it to assist those families who are in distress. Although it might be difficult to increase the commitment to financial aid at this time, it might be even more problematic for a college to lose enrollment. I suspect that families who can pay the full cost of education will be even more attractive to colleges now than in the past.

There are a number of plausible—and perhaps competing—impacts of these financial uncertainties. For example, it is probably prudent for private colleges (at least) to anticipate a drop in their yield rates, which will mean they need to offer admission to a larger number of students to fill their class. At the same time, some of the private colleges, particularly less selective ones, may see an increase in applications and enrollments as a result of public institutions reducing their enrollments of new students due to cuts in funding from their states. It is likely that we will see an increase in the number of students enrolling at community colleges, though at least one state is discussing reducing its community college enrollment. Typically when the economy is bad, the number of students enrolling in college actually increases because there aren’t many jobs available. It is very likely that graduate school enrollments will increase for the same reason. And colleges that offer programs to retrain workers who have been displaced from their jobs are likely to see demand for those programs burgeon.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Thankfully, it has not affected us at Yale, and President Richard Levin has just reaffirmed in an open letter to the Yale community that preserving our extraordinary financial aid initiatives is our first priority for the immediate future.


In an environment where so many applicants have good grades and test scores, what’s the most innovative thing an applicant has done to be appealingly memorable?


Mr. Walker of Texas: Students are being told (my perception that it is mostly by hired counselors) that they need to do something to stand out in the applicant pool. Clever promotional gimmicks will be talked about around the office but seldom, if ever, will the clever promotional gimmick be why a student gets admitted. The best self-promotion is to be an outstanding student.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: What works best is what best and most fully and consistently represents the applicant. Tricks that don’t fit the person end up looking like gimmicks, without real substance. The student who years ago sent in a life-size doll who was her “best friend,” equipped with a recorded endorsement of the applicant, left the admissions staff feeling like it was in a Twilight Zone episode. Creepy. Don’t send brownies, T-shirts or love notes. Just write a good application, choose recommenders well, write a thoughtful, personality-infused essay and if an interview is offered, do it.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: I resist answering this question directly, because many of us are striving to help make the college search and admission process less stressful for students. Every year the media publish some amusing stories about unusual strategies employed by individual applicants, but I fear this prompts more students to believe that doing some bizarre thing is an appropriate strategy to gain admission to their favored college. We should avoid encouraging that behavior.


Jeff Brenzel of Yale University: We’re much less interested in innovative applications than we are in innovative students, who have shown over time the spark of real intellectual curiosity and a real enthusiasm for engaging with peers, schools and communities.


How have you seen applicants shoot themselves in the foot?


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Few of our applicants shoot themselves in the foot. What concerns me more are the number of high achieving students whose lives are governed by what they, or perhaps more often their parents, imagine is going to improve in some slight way their chances of admission to this or that particular school. Exploration and growth serve a student best for the long run, both in education and life, not the construction of a perfect resume. We try as best we can to distinguish the one from the other.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: It is reasonably common for students to try to impress us with how much they love our particular college, by incorporating a mention of our college into their essay. (For example: “For the past four years, every time I was ready to give up on math, the thought of gaining admission to Lawrence University inspired me to redouble my efforts.”) But it is also a not-infrequent experience for them to forget to replace all the mentions of some other college in their essay. Though I doubt that many students are denied admission over such a faux pas, the current ability to “cut and paste” so easily can sometimes come back to haunt students.

It is also particularly imprudent to plagiarize an application essay.

But the most frequent form of self-inflicted damage is careless preparation of the application. In the days of handwritten applications, it might have been poor handwriting. Currently it is simply that they waited until the deadline to finish their essay and complete the remainder of their application, so they are hurried and don’t proofread carefully. A poorly presented application can, in fact, have a negative affect on the admission decision.


Mr. Walker of Texas: By creating inconsistencies within the application file. When students attempt to make themselves sound better than they are, the admission officer has to wonder where else the student has stretched the truth.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: See my answer to the previous question!


Do you have any way of getting beyond the persona that a student presents, on paper or in an interview?


Mr. Walker of Texas: A public flagship university with a large applicant pool, and limited time, rarely has the opportunity to get beyond the surface with an applicant’s persona. But there will be opportunities for getting to know the student better, such as scholarship competitions, on campus interviews, etc., that can help with this problem.


Mr. Brenzel of Yale: All aspects of the application say something to us. We try to add those things together to see whether we can picture a real, living person, with interesting talents and authentic interests. The information we have is imperfect, our judgments are imperfect, and the time we can spend on evaluation is short. But the process works well enough in general that the great majority of talented, hard-working students find a college where they can thrive.


Mr. Poch of Pomona: A complete application really does reveal a pretty full picture which does penetrate a manufactured persona. If teachers describe what a student is like in their classroom rather than just reporting the grade the student received, we may well get a glimpse into a student’s learning style or how they have used and contributed to a classroom. If a student provides a multi-page resume of activities and the teachers barely mention any of the leadership claimed in the activity roster, surely that may raise a question about actual involvement. Transcript performance will be reflected in teacher comments, too. Interviews likely will pick up on themes in the application and may amplify “why” a student has chosen some paths rather than just repeating “what” is on the list. It should all come together.


Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We do get beyond the persona that a student presents, but we’re not interested in digging into Facebook to do so.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Private Colleges Worry About a Dip in Enrollment

Posted by gradefund on December 26, 2008

Private Colleges Worry About a Dip in Enrollment


Published: December 21, 2008

First came the good news for St. Olaf College: early-decision applications were way up this year.

Now comes the bad news: the number of regular applications is way down, about 30 percent fewer than at this time last year.

“To be quite honest, I don’t know how we’ll end up,” said Derek Gueldenzoph, dean of admissions at the college, in Northfield, Minn. “By this time last year, we had three-quarters of all our applications. The deadline’s Jan. 15. If what we’ve got now is three-quarters of what we’re going to get, we’re in big trouble. But if this turns out to be only half, we’ll be fine.”

Not all private colleges are reporting fewer applications this year. Even in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, where most colleges seem to have dwindling numbers, some are getting more applications than ever. Still, in a survey of 371 private institutions released last week by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, two-thirds said they were greatly concerned about preventing a decline in enrollment.

Getting exactly the right enrollment — always a tricky proposition — is especially crucial for small colleges with tuition-driven budgets. One case in point came last month, when Beloit College in Wisconsin announced it would eliminate about 40 positions because 36 fewer students than expected had enrolled. The college has about 1,300 students and gets three-quarters of its $55 million budget from tuition.

Admissions officers nationwide point to several possible reasons for the drop in applications. Some students have pared their college lists this year. Many more are looking at less-expensive state universities. Many institutions accepted more students under binding early-decision programs, and each such acceptance drains off an average of 8 to 10 regular-decision applications. And some experts suspect that students are delaying their college plans.

The deadline at most colleges is still a few weeks off, so a last-minute flood of applications could raise the numbers to last year’s level. But admissions officers say they are not counting on that.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I don’t remember a year when applications started out behind and didn’t end up behind,” said Steve Thomas, director of admissions at Colby College in Waterville, Me., where early-decision applications were higher than usual but regular applications are running about 14 percent behind.

At Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where early-decision applications were up, regular applications are down about 15 percent, said Gail Sweezey, the director of admissions.

“One thing that’s happened this year is that there’s all this talk, and one-sided media stories, about how private colleges are unaffordable,” Ms. Sweezey said. “It’s become almost viral that there’s no loans, that schools are having problems. The truth is that a lot of private colleges have more financial aid available this year, but there’s lots of misinformation out there. And my guidance counselor friends tell me students may be applying to fewer places and turning to their state university, which will be at capacity.”

If some private colleges are grappling with the specter of too few applications, public universities and community colleges are having the opposite problem — more students at a time when their state financing is being slashed.

In California and Florida, some public institutions have been forced to cap enrollment. And even in states like Pennsylvania, where the number of high school graduates is declining, applications to public universities are growing.

“We have 47,971 applications as of now, compared to 45,760 at this time last year,” said Anne Rohrbach, executive director of undergraduate admissions at Pennsylvania State University. “We’ve been making offers since October, and we’ve already had 1,638 students say yes, compared to 1,096 at this time last year.”

Generally, Ivy League universities with generous aid packages to low- and middle-income families have as many applicants as ever — and even more applying for financial aid.

“We had 27,462 applications last year, and we’ve been running almost exactly on last year’s pace,” said William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College, which has eliminated early decision. “More students are applying for financial aid. It’s a significant increase, four full percentage points ahead of last year.”

Yale received 5,556 applications this year, 14 percent more than last year, for its nonbinding single-choice early action program, said Jeffrey Brenzel, the dean of admissions, who added that regular applications were running higher, too.

Dartmouth has more applications than ever, early and regular, as do Duke University, the University of Denver and the University of Rochester.

Jonathan Burdick, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Rochester, said the school’s reputation for generous merit aid helped draw applicants.

“This is a time when families may be looking at options that are less costly,” Mr. Burdick said. “There are a lot of families who may make $180,000 to $200,000 but can’t afford $50,000 a year and might apply to a Rochester, where merit aid this year can be as much as $14,000.”

Many selective private colleges say fewer applications are no problem.

“We’re down about 16 percent now, and I think we’ll be down 10 to 15 percent at the end, Jan. 1,” said Monica Inzer, the dean of admission and financial aid at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. “If our acceptance rate goes up a little, that’s O.K.”

Mark Hatch, vice president for enrollment management at Colorado College, said he expected to have about 5 percent fewer applicants this year and took a similar view.

“We admitted 26 percent last year, and if it’s 31 percent this year, we’ll make more people happy,” Mr. Hatch said. “I think the economic uncertainty has families, even families of means, telling their children to round out their college lists with state universities. This year, families want two safety nets, one for the first hurdle, admission, and one for affordability. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed a lot of parents this year listing their occupation as unemployed.”

At many colleges, financial aid requests are up significantly. At Connecticut College, for example, 42 percent of the accepted early-decision students applied for financial said, compared with 34 percent last year — and 36 percent qualified for aid, compared with 24 percent last year.

This has been a particularly difficult year for small private colleges that accept a majority of their applicants.

Stephen MacDonald, the president of Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., where applications are down about 15 percent, is taking steps to lure more students, including adding lacrosse for men and women and hiring a prominent coach, which he thinks will attract 20 to 25 students.

“We’ve also increased our scholarship award to children of alums, from $500, which is a nice gesture, to $2,500 a year, which is more than a gesture,” Mr. MacDonald said.

“We could still end up down 3 percent, which could sting,” he said. “This is a time when schools like ours, private liberal arts colleges that don’t have a big name, are in a potentially dangerous realm.”

Posted in Economy and School, Rising Tuition | Leave a Comment »

Obama Picks a Moderate on Education

Posted by gradefund on December 26, 2008

Obama Picks a Moderate on Education

The president will ultimately decide whether to take on the teachers’ unions.

Barack Obama picked Arne Duncan only partly for his skills on the basketball court. As secretary of education, he will be running one of the administration’s most important finesse games.

[Commentary] AP

Arne Duncan and Barack Obama in Chicago, Dec. 16.

The CEO of the Chicago public schools and the ultimate diplomat, Mr. Duncan rises to the rim at a moment when teachers unions are, for the first time, facing opposition within the Democratic Party from young idealists who favor education reform. They want to recapture what should always have been a natural issue for Democrats: helping underprivileged kids get out of failing public schools.

Considering the reviews from the right and the left, you might be confused about whether Mr. Duncan is a signal that Mr. Obama’s administration is lining up behind the reformers or supporting the status quo. Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor (and über reformer) Michelle Rhee endorsed the pick, as did President Bush’s Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings.

But Mr. Duncan also has fans among traditional Democrats, whose main interest is keeping the teachers unions happy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauded the choice, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised that he would enjoy a speedy confirmation.

So what should we make of Mr. Duncan? One promising clue comes from a group called Democrats for Education Reform, part of the growing voice for reform in the party. DFER is known to cheer Democrats brave enough to support charter schools and other methods of extending options to parents. Joe Williams, the group’s executive director, predicted that Mr. Duncan will help break the “ideological and political gridlock to promote new, innovative and experimental ideas.”

In Chicago, Mr. Duncan is credited with laying out plans to close 100 underperforming public schools. Fans also note that he helped raise the cap on charter schools to 30 from 15.

But his record is short of miraculous. Why have a cap on charter schools at all? And the teachers unions extracted plenty of concessions, including a ban on new charters operating multiple campuses.

Mr. Duncan is certainly no bomb thrower. His role instead will be to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of young idealists in the party, like DFER and the tens of thousands of young people who join Teach For America each year. This group, which continues to attract highly skilled young people, is fast creating the new Democratic elite in the education arena while challenging the education establishment.

At forums during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, several big-city mayors lined up with reform principles against union demands. Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., said that “As Democrats we have been wrong on education, and it’s time to get it right.” Washington, D.C.’s Adrian Fenty, a strong backer of Ms. Rhee’s effort to negotiate tough terms with the unions, remarked that the politics of school reform are changing fast.

At one DFER event last year, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. used the word “monopoly” — a major affront to teachers unions — to describe failing schools. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third ranking Democrat in the House, is another important convert to the idea of more parental choice in education.

It’s all a bit delicate, which makes Mr. Duncan Mr. Obama’s man for a good reason. He’s known for a flexibility that allows him to float between the traditional Democratic strongholds and the new wave of reformers in the party. With proper implementation, Mr. Obama could accomplish on education reform what President Bill Clinton did for welfare reform — taking a previously Republican issue and transforming it from within the left.

But unions aren’t about to slink off into the sunset. If they’re losing some of their clout at the national level, they maintain their grip locally. In many places, teachers angle to usurp the language of the reformers while pushing their own agenda. Thus “merit pay” has been twisted into a system that bears little resemblance to the original concept of paying teachers for teaching kids successfully. Instead, it has become pay-for-credential, offering salary bumps for continuing education and other qualifications, with no anchor to proven results in the classroom.

Mr. Duncan is a reformer at heart, if one who works collegially within the system. But in the end, much will depend on his boss. Whether Mr. Obama is an artful fence walker or a real agent of change — on schools or anything else — is a mystery the coming year may finally clear up.

Ms. Levy, based in Washington, is a senior editorial writer at the Journal.

Posted in Economy and School, School Reform | Leave a Comment »

Obama, McCain Spar Over GI Bill’s Education Incentives

Posted by gradefund on December 12, 2008

Obama, McCain Spar Over GI Bill’s Education Incentives

Thursday, May 22, 2008

John McCain hit back against Barack Obama on Thursday, after the Illinois Democratic senator accused the presumptive Republican nominee of neglecting U.S. soldiers by opposing a Democratic-sponsored GI bill that would increase education funding for U.S. troops.The bill, proposed by Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a frequently named potential vice presidential running mate for Obama, was approved by the Senate Thursday on a 75-22 vote. However, its fate is uncertain as it is part of a larger emergency Iraq war spending bill that President Bush has threatened to veto over additional spending in it.During debate on the GI bill, Obama said McCain, who is a Vietnam War veteran and comes from a long military family history, is parroting Bush for partisan purposes that only injure the troops. “Senator Webb and the leaders of both parties have introduced a 21st century GI bill that would give this generation of returning heroes the same chance at an affordable college education that we gave the greatest generation,” Obama said.  “I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country. … but I can’t understand why he would line up behind the president in opposition to this GI bill. I can’t believe he believes it is too generous to our veterans. I could not disagree with him and the president more on this issue. There are many issues that lend themselves to partisan posturing but giving our veterans the chance to go to college should not be one of them,” he continued.  McCain, who was not in town for the vote, took issue with Obama’s assertions about his commitment to the troops.  “I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did,” McCain said in a written statement.  The Arizona senator has never said that he does not support the bill because it is “too generous.” He has stated concerns that offering education benefits as early as the Webb bill allows would discourage people from re-enlisting. That contention was supported in a Congressional Budget Office report released a couple weeks ago that stated Webb’s bill could cut retention rates by 16 percent.  “It would be easier politically for me to have joined Senator Webb in offering his legislation. More importantly, I feel just as he does, that we owe veterans the respect and generosity of a great nation because no matter how generously we show our gratitude it will never compensate them fully for all the sacrifices they have borne on our behalf,” McCain said in his statement.  “Perhaps, if Senator Obama would take the time and trouble to understand this issue he would learn to debate an honest disagreement respectfully. But, as he always does, he prefers impugning the motives of his opponent, and exploiting a thoughtful difference of opinion to advance his own ambitions. If that is how he would behave as president, the country would regret his election,” he said.  Webb’s bill costs an estimated $52 billion, a number that can grow in out years as more take advantage of the benefits. It would provide to service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan up to 36 months of benefits — equivalent to four academic years — to pay for tuition, books and fees as well as a $1,000 per month living stipend for qualified veterans.  Twenty-five Republicans voted for the bill, including every member up for re-election and a few fiscal conservatives.  McCain’s version of the GI bill, co-sponsored with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Richard Burr, offers a “sliding scale” of payment for educational benefits that increases in relationship to length of service. McCain’s bill would increase monthly education benefits to $1,500, eliminate $1,200 enrollment fees and offer $1,000 annually for books and supplies.  After the vote, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean accused McCain of preferring to keep the troops in Iraq for 100 years over taking care of them when they come home.  “While Senator McCain talks about supporting our troops and veterans on the campaign trail, his real record tells a much different story. While we honor his service to our country, Senator McCain’s double talk on veterans’ benefits is one more reason he is the wrong choice for America’s future,” Dean said.  Obama added that he does not believe the Webb bill will have an impact on retention rates and argued that “in the long term this will strengthen our military and improve the number of people who are interested in volunteering to serve.”  Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said that even if the president vetoes the Iraq war emergency supplemental, the GI bill will be re-introduced in any future supplemental.  And despite McCain’s opposition to the Webb legislation, retiring Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia told FOX News: “This GI bill, one way or another, will be the law of the land.”

FOX News’ Trish Turner and Mosheh Oinounou contributed to this report.

Posted in Education Incentives, EducationalSpending, Financial Aid, Rising Tuition | Leave a Comment »

State higher education incentives should be based on market principles, says Michigan Sen. Wayne Kuipers

Posted by gradefund on December 12, 2008

State higher education incentives should be based on market principles, says Michigan Sen. Wayne Kuipers

by Wayne Kuipers | Flint Journal guest writer

Monday August 04, 2008, 4:29 AM

Wayne Kuipers

Editor’s note: This is a guest column by State Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland. Under the name “If You Ask Me,” each week The Flint Journal runs a guest column on a topic of interest. Read more by guest columnists.

The Kalamazoo Promise launched a nationwide discussion of private funding for public higher education. And while the program helps many students pursue degrees, efforts to adopt a statewide program still don’t address larger problems.

The legislation in the state Senate to create “Promise Zones” would provide both state and local dollars for many disadvantaged students.

The problem is funds don’t go directly to students, but to the state higher education system.

This limits students’ opportunities to use funds as they see fit. The “Promise Zone” legislation also provides no incentive for students to stay in school beyond their freshmen year.

Given the condition of Michigan’s economy, we need a bold plan making higher education affordable and rewarding students who attain degrees.

Funds should go directly to students. This lets them use our tax dollars to attend the university that best meets their needs. Each school would be compensated based on how many students it attracts and graduates. This puts the onus on universities to provide programs that help students find careers matching today’s marketplace. Ultimately, schools meeting the needs of more students will get higher funding.

The Plan also addresses “brain drain” — students leaving the state upon graduation. Employers often complain of too few qualified employees in Michigan to fill positions.

Under the proposed plan, students who work in Michigan after graduation could get low or interest-free loans to help with college costs. The plan’s primary goal, obviously, is to encourage more Michigan students to go to college by making it more affordable.

I recently presented this plan to Lou Glazier, President of Michigan Future, and members of his board of directors. They, too, share my belief that getting more kids in our universities is tantamount to the state’s economic recovery.

“The most prosperous places in the country are those with the highest proportion of adults with a four-year degree or more. Unfortunately, Michigan ranks 34th in college attainment. So finding better ways of encouraging far more of our kids to graduate from college and stay here after college is economic growth priority No. 1,” said Glazier, whose nonprofit focuses on generating ideas to help the state succeed in the Internet Age.

Of course there are many details left to hash out; including the possibility of providing tax incentives for Michigan companies to hire Michigan graduates. But embarking now on a market-based system that gives high school graduates more options in higher education is good for our educational system and the Michigan economy.

Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, is a state senator.

Posted in Cheaper Tuition, Education Incentives, EducationalSpending | Leave a Comment »