Strong Stories Can Overcome Weak Numbers

Writing in The New York Times, Frank Bruni explains how admissions officers at some colleges take the time “to notice details embedded in her letters of recommendation and mentioned fleetingly in bits of personal information.” For example, an applicant to Davidson College had ACT scores and a GPA well below that of most of its students. Her extra-curricular activities were not particularly noteworthy, either.

However: “She’d been reared by a single mother. She had a 6-year-old brother. And for the last few years, she’d spent three nights a week making his dinner and getting him to bed while her mom was at work, earning an income so modest that the teenager met the federal requirements for receiving free lunch at school … And though her high school wasn’t chockablock with counselors, she’d had the good sense to read up on Davidson and, in her application, lay out a mix of cogent, sophisticated reasons that it was right for her … Everything about her suggested maturity, independence, determination.” She got in.

Meanwhile, The Air Force Academy “has a 17 percent acceptance rate … Because it’s free and funded by the government, it feels an extra obligation to be open to all … And because it is preparing its students to be military officers, character matters as much as — if not more than — test scores.” The academy sometimes admits applicants “despite inferior scores, and who nonetheless perform superbly at the academy. One had an ACT of well under 20, and yet she’d earned A’s in A.P. classes at her high school in inner-city Philadelphia.”

“Delving into her background, the administrators concluded that the low ACT was in part a function of a childhood in which she’d bounced around in foster care and even lived with teachers … That she’d nonetheless challenged herself academically and maintained a high grade point average struck academy administrators as remarkable. They admitted her, and she went on to win a coveted award for her performance during basic training. An Academy admissions officer says it’s not about ‘a sad story or a sob story. It’s about: What are the candidates’ life experiences, and how did they react?’”

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Dear Penn Freshmen: It’s Going To Be Okay

Dear Penn Freshmen is “an online project launched in February by University of Pennsylvania Wharton School student Lauren McCann, reports Quartz. Started as a assignment for a course on organizational behavior, the project—which asks upperclassmen across Penn’s undergraduate schools to write letters to their younger selves—drew more than 10,000 unique visitors within 24 hours of going live.”

“Dear Penn Freshmen isn’t aiming to reform college mental health resources … It simply wants to show young students that falling through the cracks is neither shameful nor uncommon.”

Says McCann: “Particularly at high-pressure colleges, it’s so easy to crumble. A lot of the time, we talk about mental health and no one wants to come out and say they’re dealing with it… One thing that’s been really great about the letters is people’s willingness to put their name on it … At a place like Penn, everyone’s always trying to stand out and draw lines from one another, but we’re all dealing with a lot of the same issues … nothing is more comforting in the world than hearing ‘me, too.’”

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New Media Challenge College Newspapers

Huffington Post: “This is the new college media world: a trend of quickly growing startups, fueled by investors and seed money, running entirely on content that college students and fans of the provocative create.”

“In the past couple of years, websites like The Tab, the Odyssey, Spoon University and FlockU began to create a foothold in collegiate life and culture, just as student newspapers have scaled back. A small, central staff of professionals runs each outlet, while students write all of the articles … each say they can offer a more unfiltered view of collegiate life and a larger platform for writers, with potential connections to professional media outlets.”

“These startups won’t replace traditional campus newspapers, said Gary Kayye, who teaches at the University of North Carolina journalism school, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have an impact.” Says Kayye: “It’d be short-sighted and downright naive to think that these types of publications won’t have any effect. The plethora of campus newspapers that are owned by campuses need to seriously join the digital age and certainly the mobile age.”

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The New SAT Is For Students Only

Quartz: “College Board, the organization that runs the SAT, is putting its foot down. When the next test is administered in the US this Saturday (March 5), the only people who will be allowed to sit the exam are college-bound students and those using the score to apply to financial aid programs—no test prep professionals, providers, or counselors.”

“The change, the College Board says, was made to ‘ensure that everyone taking the test is doing so for its intended purpose’— which presumably means preventing nefarious test prep companies from stealing questions and selling them. There’s another explanation. This weekend will be the first administration of the redesigned, potentially bug-ridden SAT,” and the College Board may not want extra exposure for the new test, which has already attracted controversy.

“Banning non-students from the test won’t stop students themselves from cheating, in any case … Perhaps it’s one reason US colleges are increasingly dropping SAT requirements and relying more on measures of applicant quality such as essays, extracurriculars, and special demonstrations of talent.”

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Non-Academic Tests Stir Controversy

The New York Times: “A recent update to federal education law requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance … But the race to test for so-called social-emotional skills has raised alarms even among the biggest proponents of teaching them, who warn that the definitions are unclear and the tests faulty.”

“Argument still rages about whether schools can or should emphasize these skills. Critics say the approach risks blaming the victim — if only students had more resilience, they could rise above generational poverty and neglected schools — and excuses uninspired teaching by telling students it is on them to develop zest, or enthusiasm.”

“The biggest concern about testing for social-emotional skills is that it typically relies on surveys asking students to evaluate recent behaviors or mind-sets, like how many days they remembered their homework, or if they consider themselves hard workers. This makes the testing highly susceptible to fakery and subjectivity.”

“You think test scores are easy to game?” said Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “They’re relatively hard to game when you compare them to a self-report survey.”

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College Endowments: Size Doesn’t Matter

The New York Times: “In the latest annual National Association of College and University Business Officers-Commonfund study of endowment performance, the smallest endowments— those under $25 million — edged out the biggest endowments, averaging a five-year annualized return of 10.6 percent to the $1 billion-plus category’s 10.4 percent.”

“Even more surprising, the top-performing endowments over 10 years among all schools reporting data weren’t giants like Harvard and Stanford or even Yale … the top-performing colleges are two Virginia universities whose financial resources amount to a negligible fraction of the typical Ivy League endowment.”

“Radford University, which ranked first, has an endowment of $55.5 million, and Southern Virginia University, which was second, has an endowment of just $1.1 million. (Taken together, that’s 0.15 percent of Harvard’s endowment, the largest in the country, which is $37.6 billion.)”

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If You Are Thinking About Transferring …

The Washington Post: “According to a special report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a third of students end up transferring to other colleges or universities. Some of these students are transferring from community colleges, but many are also moving from one four-year school to another. New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that 37.2 percent of college students transfer at least once within six years.”

A few tips for transfer applicants:

  • “Grades in college are the most important factor admissions counselors use to evaluate transfer applicants. According to Andrew Flagel, the senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University, ‘Grades a student receives in college are far more predictive of how they will do at other colleges than anything else they have done’.”
  • “Some schools will let you simply reactivate your application if it’s within a year or two of the original submission. You’ll have to include a final high school transcript, a college transcript, and one or two letters of recommendation.”
  • “Some schools have a lot of transfer students, which might make for an easier transition. Check out the U.S. News & World Report Education list of schools with the most transfer students. Another good resource … is the Common Data Set. If a school has a high freshman attrition rate, “you know there will be space in that sophomore class.”
  • “It’s important to try to determine how your credits will carry over and how they will be applied to your graduation. Many schools require a transfer student to commit before they will give out information about transfer credits.”
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    Which Colleges Are The Most Fun?

    To determine which schools have nailed the formula for fun, Business Insider looked at 12 categories from The Princeton Review’s 2016 college rankings, including lists like “Party Schools” and “Lots of Beer.” Since alcohol isn’t the only way to have fun, (the formula) also included schools that placed on lists like ‘Happiest Students’ and ‘Best Quality of Life’ … the typical ‘fun’ school is a large public university with a strong Greek system and competitive athletics. However, several smaller schools with close-knit communities earned spots on the list as well.

    The school that has the most fun? University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, followed by Tulane, and then University of Iowa. You can review the rest of the list here.

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    Raise.me: Introducing Microscholarships

    A startup website called Raise.me allows students to earn scholarship credits in exchange for taking certain courses and realizing other achievements, The New York Times reports. “The start-up’s approach is a mash-up of two popular economic concepts. One is ‘nudging,’ that is designing systems to influence the choices people make, ideally for their own good. The other is microfinance — incremental loans for entrepreneurs who would not otherwise have access to funding.”

    “Raise.me charges participating institutions annual fees of $4,000 to $20,000 based on a college’s size and scholarship program. Each college sets its own criteria. Penn State has made its Raise.me program available to students at five high schools in Philadelphia, as well as six rural Pennsylvania high schools. Those students may earn scholarships of up to $4,000 a year for four years. Among other awards, the university offers them $120 for each A grade in a core course, $400 for each advanced placement course, $100 for each year of perfect attendance, $100 for a leadership role in a sport or extracurricular activity and $5 for each hour of community service, up to $500.

    “The potential risk is that introducing monetary rewards could curb students’ intrinsic motivation to succeed in school, or their innate enjoyment of activities like reading, in favor of striving for scholarship dollars.” However, Raise.me co-founder Preston Silverman “said that the scholarship program did not displace students’ inner enthusiasm, but rather enhanced their motivation by showing them additional ways they could prepare for college.”

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    Why is the College Dropout Rate So High?

    The New York Times: “Sixty percent of people go to college these days … But more than a quarter of those who start college drop out with no credential.” The drop-out rate is especially high among first-generation students who “miss out on the advice, support and voice of experience provided by parents with firsthand experience of higher education. There is only so much information that overburdened guidance counselors can cram into students during a few short meetings.”

    “Researchers are uncovering promising interventions that help get these students to graduation … Benjamin L. Castleman of the University of Virginia and Lindsay C. Page of the University of Pittsburgh devised a program that nudges students to complete the administrative paperwork required to stay in college. They sent texts reminding students to complete their re-enrollment forms and financial aid applications. Among freshmen who received the texts, 68 percent completed their sophomore year, compared with 54 percent of those who did not receive reminders.”

    “A new program at the City University of New York offers many of the supports that college-educated parents typically provide: intensive advising, a subway pass, textbooks and money to cover any shortfall between costs and financial aid. The CUNY program doubled the three-year graduation rate and also increased the proportion of students who went on from a two-year community college to a four-year institution. The program is now being replicated at colleges in Ohio.”

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