Tuesday, August 7, 2007

“College Unranked: Ending the Admissions Frenzy”

Essays from Admissions Reps and High School Counselors, compiled by Lloyd Thacker.

Mr. Thacker has led the opposition to rankings, like those of US News and World Report, for years. He believes it's a lousy way for students and parents to choose a college.
I met Mr. Thacker at the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admissions, where he was the keynote speaker, and was impressed with his passion for making this process "more manageable, more productive, and more educationally appropriate." He founded the Education Conservancy, an admission reform movement.

When he spoke at Harvard on 6/24/2007, he cited some stats that surprised me. Students were asked "how involved are your parents in your college process?" Only 10% of students said their parents were "too involved". Thirty percent said they wanted their parents to be "more involved." The majority, at 60%, said their parent's involvement was "just right."

Mr. Thacker also updated the audience on his efforts to stem the importance of US News and World Report's annual college rankings. Education Conservancy has convinced over 60 colleges to abandon the survey. 25% of the ranking is based on what other college presidents think of your college. (Is that any way for students and parents to pick a college?) He also wants students and parents to resist the commercial aspect of college admissions, if at all possible. Those aspects include spending lots of money on test prep, independent counselors, "getting in" books, and doing the "right" thing during summer break. ("I have never met any admissions officer who has a hierarchy of values for summer activities.") He wants students to be themselves, to be the creative, curious, hard working leaders that they already are! He reminded us that it's not WHERE you go to college, but WHAT you make of the experience.

I was in the midst of reading his book when I spent that week at Harvard. Here are my book notes.

Let Them Be Students, by Vanderbilt's William Shain

"Applications to the most selective institutions each year rise far faster than any increase in the number of students applying to college." (page 14) The good news? Only about 50 of 3,000 colleges admit fewer students than they turn down. The media focus on how impossible it is to get into college these days, while they should mention they are only focusing on those 50 colleges. Remember that magic number: 70%. That is the average admit rate for 4-year colleges in the U.S.

"Applications take a great deal of time and, to have impact, must be based on a relationship with each institution." (page 15) Learn all you can about the college by visiting in person, at college fairs, and interviewing.

He regrets that colleges recruit students only to turn them down, saying "excessive recruitment, especially if students are not carefully pre-screened, can too easily create an inappropriate expectation of admission." (page 18) Cheverus students, especially athletes, regularly receive recruiting letters from the Ivy League and other colleges who only admit 10-18% of all applicants. It does seem unfair that while coaches are asking students to apply, the admissions office does not have enough space to accomodate all the talented applicants. Later in the book, Reed College's Marthers admits the same: "college admission officers can send mixed messages" (page 73). For example, over 100 colleges visit Cheverus each fall during recruiting season, urging seniors (any senior!) to apply to their college. Then decision time comes in April, and denial letters end up in so many mailboxes. Reed's explanation on page 75 is refreshingly honest: "Students and parents need to understand that all admission communications, from web sites to viewbooks, reflect institutional self-interest. Colleges and universities want to provide stimulating and vibrant educational environments, so they seek to attract bright, motivated, talented students who, collectively, bring diverse backgrounds and interests."

Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation, by Harvard's Fitzsimmons, McGrath Lewis and Ducey.

Main point: The accumulation of credentials takes the joy out of being a kid! Where is the down time, the unstructured time? An old-fashioned summer job may be better than another sports camp or math week. They actually recommend - gasp -  a year off between high school and college for some students! (I'm always concerned the student will never get to college after all but the stats do not back me up.)

Sanity Check by Pomona's Poch

He wonders: how do students sort through the noise? (the chit chat amongst friends about the best colleges, the emails from colleges, the viewbooks, the phone calls, the recruit letters)

"If you read them closely, you will realize that viewbooks and even application questions will tell you a great deal about the values and style of the college you are researching. Make the effort to do the close reading. " (page 41)

Our Numbers Are Up! Is that Good? by Columbia Prep's Speyer

Colleges want to appear more prestigious, more selective, and rank higher than they did last year in US News & World Report. They figured out how to game the rankings so they can best the competition and improve their numbers. How?

  1. increase the number of applications to the college. It is a popularity contest, after all. More applicants this year means the school is "hot." Students, you know how they do this. They offer them for free, or offer to make a quick decision so you don't have to wait until April, they offer a shorter application with no essay, whatever it takes to drive more apps their way. You are being played!

  2. attract better students so the college seems more selective. How? Offer merit money to certain students who will raise the college profile, those with higher gpas and higher sats than average.

  3. go SAT optional. Colleges who go SAT optional usually rise in the rankings. Why? Only students with great SAT scores will submit them, so the college can boast high SAT scores that year. Also, SAT optional schools may be very appealing to students with lower SAT scores, but who are otherwise qualified, thereby driving up the number of apps to the college. They may rise in the rankings, and seem more popular.

  4. Manipulate the numbers. Take a look at any college's "average incoming freshman GPA", and admit it is higher than you'd expect. You may be correct. Colleges may leave out certain groups of students when calculating that number: athletes, legacy, or development cases. The moral of the story? Be skeptical when looking at the stats that colleges offer, and look at multiple sources to find out the truth.

  5. increase yield. The yield is the percent of students who accept the offer of admission. This number is highly prized and often manipulated. It factors into the US News and World Report rating, and people often lookat a high number as a measure of popularity. For a while, for example, Tufts was denying admission to students who were slightly over-qualified, assuming that the student meant for Tufts to be their safety school. Since Tufts was concerned about yield, they denied the student before the student would deny them! Early decision protects yield, in fact keeping it at 100%, since if offered admission the student promises to attend. Colleges keep long wait lists but will only offer a student a spot in the class and off the wait list if the student is definitely going to attend. That way, their yield from the wait list is 100%.  Did you have any idea it was this complicated?

"Remember: the more popular the college, the more political the admission process and the less control you have in that process." (page 185)

"Pumped up SATs do not mean better students. Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia, was a refreshing voice of skepticism and sanity...'every year I read that our incoming students had better grades and better SAT scores than in the past. I do not find a commensurate increase number of students who are intellectually curious, adventurous, or imbued with fruitful doubt. Many students are chronically stressed, grade-obsessed, and for fear of jeopardizing their ambitions, reluctant to explore subjects in which they doubt their proficiency.' " (page 62)

On Choosing the Right College, by Trinity's Hersh

"...you, and what you bring to your undergraduate years, are the most important variables to consider when choosing a college or university." (page 90)

On the importance of US News & World Report's rankings:

"don't rely on a magazine to choose a college! ...it's just a way to sell magazines!"

College Admission: As If Learning Mattered by St. Mary's of California's Beseda

His advice to students: think for a while, and write about why you want to go to college, and to a college in particular. Can you express that verbally (for interviews) and in writing (for the application)?

"Our goal isn't to entice as many potential applicants as possible. Contrary to the simpleminded notion of sales, one of the most valuable things we can do for a prospective student is to describe the distinct nature of the educational experience at our institution so accurately that a student can determine that it does or does not fit with their learning goals and objectives." (page 127)

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