The Flipside of Elite College Admissions

Quartz: “The revelations that affluent families bribed their kids into elite universities … is also evidence that elite universities have actually become much more meritocratic, such that some mediocre but wealthy students who were once ushered into Ivy League colleges now feel they have to resort to bribery and fraud (or, at least, their parents do). It once was far easier to get into an elite university if you were white, male, and rich. In 1933, for example, 82% of Harvard applicants were admitted. By 2003, the number fell to 9.8%. Last year the number was 4.6%. Elite universities are now drawing from a much wider base of applicants, a trend that starting with the admission of women.”

“In recent years, the growing wealth of Americans, the rise of a global middle class eager for a US education (particularly in China), and—to the credit of the colleges—much more generous financial aid (Harvard is basically free for families that earn less than $65,000) has meant there are fewer slots available for lackluster children of privilege … University admissions are still far from egalitarian, but they have made strides in leveling the playing field.”

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Sticker Shock: What is the Real Cost of College?

CNBC: “According to the College Board’s 2018 Trends in College Pricing Report, from 1988 to 2018, sticker prices tripled at public four-year schools and doubled at public two-year and private non-profit four-year schools … During the 2018 – 2019 school year, the reported tuition at private non-profit four-year schools is an average $35,830. But in reality, many students end up paying far less. Here’s how. College ‘sticker prices’ include tuition, fees, room and board (TFRB) and do not account for scholarships, grants and tax benefits … students typically pay less than the published price.”

“In fact, the average net price of tuition and fees in 2019 is $14,610 at private nonprofit four-year schools. These students typically receive an average $21,220 in grant aid and tax benefits. Similar discounts are also in effect at public colleges. During the 2018 – 2019 school year, the reported sticker price for in-state students is $10,230 at public four-year schools, but the average net tuition and fees is closer to $3,740.”

However: “Many students underestimate the cost of living expenses when they go to college … more than a third of students struggle with basic needs such as food and housing. Prospective students also often overlook graduation rates when they are considering colleges, but they can be an important measures of a school’s quality and cost … just 40 percent of first-time full-time bachelor’s students earn their degree in four years, and only 59 percent earn their bachelor’s in six years … students may want to estimate what six years of tuition and fees will cost them at schools with low four-year graduation rates, and be mindful of planning their schedules and making the most of AP and other college credits.”

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Discovering the ‘Art’ of College

The New York Times: “While not typically top of mind as a go-to destination, college and university art museums have a common goal: to raise the bar for the academic and cultural life of a campus and its environs.” At Duke: “The Nasher highlights artists of African descent and female artists — those who have been historically underrepresented or omitted by art institutions.” At Dartmouth: “Students and visitors have access to its 65,000-object collection including works by Rembrandt, Francisco Goya, Mark Rothko, Yayoi Kusama, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frank Stella and Julie Mehretu, among others.” At Rutgers: “The Zimmerli Museum’s Russian and Soviet nonconformist art holdings contain over 22,000 objects by more than 1,000 artists and provide an overview from the 14th century to the present.”

At Colby: “A collection of nearly 900 works by the figurative painter Alex Katz is a highlight at the college’s museum of art.” At UT-Austin: “Founded in 1963, the Blanton Museum of Art is considered one of the largest university art museums in the country with collections of nearly 18,000 objects.” University of Michigan, Ann Arbor “has a permanent collection of more than 20,000 artworks collected over 150 years and features big hitters like Helen Frankenthaler, Picasso, Monet and Warhol. The museum also hosts around 20 special exhibitions per year.”

At UCLA:”The Fowler Museum, which opened in 1963, has a … total of over 120,000 art and ethnographic and 600,000 archaeological objects, but it’s the museum’s African art collection that makes it standout as a leader in the exhibition and preservation of art from Africa.” At Northwestern: “An evolving permanent collection of about 6,000 works focuses primarily on prints, photography and drawings.” At Princeton: The works include Greek and Roman ceramics, marbles and bronzes, Roman mosaics, stained glass from medieval Europe and European paintings from the early Renaissance through the 19th century.” And at Williams: “There are around 15,000 works of art in the holdings of the Williams College Museum of Art that spotlight work by African-American artists, work by women artists, and international contemporary art.”

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Hidden Gem: Norwalk Community College

With so much attention diverting to the deep, dark underside of higher education, let’s take a moment to shine a light on a hometown hidden gem: Norwalk Community College. NCC may not project much as a status symbol, but it certainly deserves serious consideration by certain high-schoolers. Surprisingly, this includes the highest performing students.

Here’s why: The most selective universities favor applicants who not only take advantage of everything their high schools have to offer, but who also pursue additional opportunities above and beyond the norm. Students who want to impress dream schools with their passion for learning should think about enrolling in a high-level course or two at NCC. Their application will be all the more outstanding and memorable for it.

NCC is, of course, best known as a place for those who are just not quite ready for a four-year college experience. This could be because of academic issues, financial considerations, emotional state, or some other personal reason. For such students and others, NCC offers an attractive pathway to a four-year college. For one thing, it maintains a special arrangement with UConn, which guarantees transfer admission to NCC associate-degree graduates with at least a 3.0. Not bad! For another, it provides a low-cost way to earn college credits before transferring to a four-year school.

At a two-year tuition cost of about $9,000, students can take care of basic college requirements on their way to a bachelor’s degree at one of America’s finer universities, up to and including the Ivy League. It’s a fact: NCC grads have been known to go onto Columbia, Yale and other highly selective schools. Indeed, many elite schools pride themselves on accepting community college grads.

Sadly, community colleges are often dismissed and even derided. That’s not only unfair, but outdated and just plain wrong. Right here, in our own backyard, is a local treasure, Norwalk Community College. Can you dig it?

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No Shortcuts: Getting in Means Getting it Done

On the one hand, the unfolding college admissions scandal involves a tiny percentage of super-wealthy applicants at a tiny percentage of hyper-elite schools. It’s easy to dismiss this disgusting news as an esoteric anomaly that has nothing to do with the vast majority of honest, decent, law-abiding citizens of every stripe who would never even think about doing something so egregiously wrong. On the other hand is the cold truth that, on some level, nearly everyone tries to turn the process to their advantage in one way or another, both those with and without means. Getting admitted to college can be like life itself: not always fair. Yet, somewhere in the middle is something more fundamentally true, which is that success in college admissions, and life, comes to those who do the work.

It’s up to the students to challenge themselves, get good grades and scores, win awards, as well as actualize themselves outside the classroom by volunteering, creating, leading, or whatever it is that defines who they are as people. Beyond the numbers, colleges value a zeal for learning and a zest for life. In all but the smallest fraction of cases, they know a phony when they see one. Corrupt actors aside, the last thing they want is to admit a student who doesn’t understand the very meaning of success and is destined to fail.

Some students are extremely motivated to get into a bunch of highly competitive schools. They usually require guidance but are self-starters by nature and only too eager to research and visit campuses, dive into their essays and every little nook and cranny of their applications. Not surprisingly, they approach their schoolwork and all aspects of their lives with the same level of enthusiasm and drive. They have a fair, though not exact, idea of what it takes to get into the schools of their choice. They understand that while there are never any guarantees, they can increase their chances if they focus their efforts. They harbor no illusions.

Other students are somewhat less motivated, or not motivated at all. It’s not always easy to discern what’s underneath the attitude, although often a certain “fear of the unknown” lurks within. So, part of the challenge is to demystify this strange, new world they are entering by illuminating why it’s something to be excited about. Exactly what that entails may vary from one student to the next, but the goal is the same: to inspire them to do the work and help guide them to a better version of themselves. Some luck may be a factor, but more often than not getting ahead is down to getting things done.

No shortcuts. If there’s a secret to success, there you have it.

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Financial Aid: The Top 10 Private Schools

CNBC: “When it comes figuring out how they’ll pay for college, many families start by shying away from pricey private schools. Yes, annual tuition plus room and board at four-year, private universities is much higher — $48,510, on average in the current academic year — compared with just $21,370 at public institutions, according to the College Board. However, about two-thirds of all full-time students receive aid, which can bring the net price way down.”

“In fact, the top schools for financial aid all have sky-high sticker prices, yet their very generous aid packages make them surprisingly affordable, according to The Princeton Review … When it comes to offering aid, private schools typically have more money to spend.”

In order, the Princeton Review’s top 10 private schools for financial aid are: Bowdoin, Vassar, Princeton, Yale, Pomona, Vanderbilt, Williams, Washington University in St. Louis, California Institute of Technology, Colgate University.

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Some Colleges Let Students Be Teachers

Houston Chronicle: “Wearing a ‘Pursuit of Hoppiness’ T-shirt, Rebecca Lee begins a Wednesday night ‘Houston Microbreweries’ course at Rice University with a lesson on Indian Pale Ales … It isn’t your standard course at Rice. Not only because drinking beer is a major component, but because Lee and her co-teacher Alfonso Morera aren’t beer experts. They’re not even professors. Both are Rice undergraduates, and they’re teaching their peers. Rice’s ‘College Courses,’ which launched as a pilot around 2007, has become a fixture at the university. It allows students to teach one-credit classes on niche topics not offered by Rice lecturers and professors.”

“Princeton, Tufts University in Massachusetts, the University of California-Berkeley and other universities across the country offer similar teaching opportunities for undergraduate students … Mike Gustin, a professor of biosciences at Rice, proposed the courses in 2006 after learning that University of Virginia offered a similar program. Rice’s program has evolved over the past 12 years, with students quickly taking advantage of the opportunity to share, learn and congregate over their wide-ranging interests like knitting, counterculture movements in the 1960s, zombies and hip-hop.”

“Graded satisfactory and unsatisfactory, the courses can be taken or taught for credit up to three times, though Gustin said some students have gone on to teach for no credit at all … Students are required to take a six-week pedagogy course, or COLL 300, in which they learn the fundamentals of teaching, including the science behind successful, active learning, and how to frame their ideas in a scholarly way with the goal of providing students with a variety of perspectives and context … In the end, students craft a syllabus, prepare course content, submit a proposal to the dean of students’ office for approval and work with faculty mentors, who actively give them feedback.”

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Clemson Grafts Newton’s Apple Tree

Clemson: “Over the years, several dozen descendants of the Newton Apple Tree have been planted around the globe on the grounds of universities, research centers and even in botanical gardens. The next location lucky enough to claim this living piece of scientific history is the main campus of Clemson University with … the planting of a grafted clone of the Newton apple tree in a patch of soil surrounded by three buildings – Kinard Laboratory of Physics, and Martin and Long halls – that are teeming with scientists.”

“The story of Sir Isaac Newton and the apple tree first began to blossom in the 17th century. But the story of how a descendant of the tree came to Clemson University didn’t sprout until the first week of August 2017. Bishwambhar Sengupta, a doctoral candidate in the College of Science’s department of physics and astronomy, met up with his faculty mentor, Endre Takacs, and Takacs’ research group during an experiment they were conducting at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. While there, they visited a clone of the Newton Apple Tree that thrives on the NIST campus. Sengupta and the others found several apples lying on the ground and brought them back to Clemson.”

Takacs comments: “At first, I thought it was just going to rot. I didn’t know what was going to happen to it. But after a couple of months, I began to notice that it was aging really beautifully. I thought, ‘This is great. This is Newton’s apple’ … That afternoon, we decided that we would form a new club … called Newton’s Apple Club.” … “The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages an enormous database of plant material, agreed to help out. On Feb. 16, 2018, three young branches – with buds prepared for grafting onto modern rootstock – arrived at Clemson … The Clemson tree is only about 7 feet tall and is as thin as a broomstick. But in the years to come, it should grow many times larger, providing fruit for hungry passersby as well as food for thought for curious minds.”

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Helping Your Student Accept Rejection

The Washington Post: “It’s a scene that will play out in countless homes across the country from now through the spring, as high school seniors learn that, despite their best efforts, they did not get into their dream college. Often, it’s equally dumbfounding to their parents … Indeed, the process has become much more fraught than it was when parents of current high school students went through it … Case in point: In 2016, UCLA hit a record number of applications: 102,177 for a freshman class of about 6,500 students, meaning an acceptance rate around 6 percent.”

“Well before applicants hear from colleges, parents can take proactive steps to head off their children’s discouragement should they get rejected. For starters, many experts suggest de-emphasizing the ‘first-choice’ idea and focusing instead on building an application containing multiple schools, all of which a student would be happy to attend. This advice applies even to students with a strong shot at gaining admittance to highly selective colleges … It’s important for families to recognize that there are many factors in the college-admissions process over which they have no say. For instance, you can’t control how many qualified applicants will apply to any particular school, or know what a school is looking for in a given applicant pool.”

“There’s no controlling how a student will respond to a college rejection notice. But parents can, and should, control theirs, advise experts … Most kids recover from the disappointment of rejection fairly quickly … Fortunately, experts say, 17- and 18-year-olds tend to bounce back from rejection quickly.”

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Financial Aid: How To Interpret Your Award

CNBC: “A school’s financial aid offer typically maps out your expected family contribution and what scholarships or need-based aid you qualify for, not only in the first year but throughout your college career … At public, four-year institutions, tuition plus room and board for the current school year hit $21,370, according to the College Board. At four-year private universities, the cost was more than double that: $48,510, on average … The first thing families should do is take the time to understand the financial aid award letter — particularly the difference between scholarships and loans.”

Ashley Boucher, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, which provides loans to students, explains: “It will show free money, like scholarships and grants, and borrowed money, like loans. Not every offer is created equally. If you compare a package that has a higher percentage of loans, it might make sense to take a smaller package that has more money that doesn’t have to be repaid.”

“To get a better sense of your total cost, also consider books, supplies and transportation costs … Note the terms of the aid being offered. Is it renewable for all four years, and what is the minimum grade point average you have to maintain? A school that seems more generous initially might offer less funding down the road … Schools are often receptive to appeals for more aid; they just don’t advertise it. The best way to make such a request is to write a letter to the school’s financial aid office.”

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