Archive for November, 2014

Colleges make it easier for students to show , not tell, in their applications

TOWSON, Md. — Madeline McDonough had a wistful “what if?” moment, pondering the offer that her school, Goucher College, has made to applicants: Instead of showing us your grades, send us a video.

“I really wish there had been options like that when I was applying to college,” said Ms. McDonough, 19, a junior studying sociology. “I didn’t have the best numbers, and I was stressed, worrying about how to show that I deserved the same opportunities as anyone else.”

Under the policy announced this month by Goucher, a 1,400-student liberal arts college near Baltimore, a prospective student may apply by submitting two pieces of work (at least one of them a graded high school writing assignment) and a two-minute video, rather than a high school transcript. José A. Bowen, Goucher’s new president, readily admits that he has no idea how many applicants will go that route, how many will be accepted or whether they will work out.

“This is an experiment, and there are plenty of reasonable objections,” he said. “We’re going to track these students, and we’ll really know in a year. If the kids who did video apps do worse than others, we’ll stop. If they do just as well or better, colleges around the country will be doing it.”

Students, parents and academics have long complained that competition for admission to highly selective colleges has become an overwhelming ordeal that favors bright but conventional, privileged worker bees over peers whose trials or quirks have gotten in the way of school. That is one of the criticisms in a much-discussed new book, “Excellent Sheep,” by William Deresiewicz, and a growing number of colleges have tried to address it.

As recently as the 1990s, there were only a handful of selective colleges that did not demand to see applicants’ ACT or SAT scores, but now there are dozens, including Bowdoin, Smith, Holy Cross, Brandeis, Wake Forest and the University of Texas, and more join the list every year. In the last few years, some top colleges have invited students to supplement their applications with a video.

Last year, Bard College went a step further, making transcripts optional, offering the alternative of an entrance exam consisting of four 2,500-word essays on a choice of scholarly topics, graded by professors. Now, Goucher, which was already test-optional, has raised — or lowered — the stakes, with a far less rigorous option.

On Wednesday, Bennington College announced that an applicant may submit a collection of work rather than a standard application. While the college would prefer that the submission include a transcript, it is not absolutely required.

The change at Goucher is characteristic of Dr. Bowen, a charismatic jazz musician and composer who took over the college in July. He bubbles with ideas about how to make higher education better and more inclusive, and talks about doing away with grades, having students declare a mission rather than a major, and coming up with new ways to assess how students grow. The video application drew scattered charges that Goucher’s move was a lowering of standards, a gimmick to draw attention and more applications, or both.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Brian C. Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, wrote, “This move sends an awful message to high school students and to a broader public that is already fed a steady diet of nonsense about the nature and value of education.”

Robert J. Sternberg, a professor of human development at Cornell and an author of books on teaching and intelligence, said, “A video can measure creativity, initiative and practical skills in a way a typical standardized assessment does not,” but it is not “a substitute for a high school transcript.”

“The video is also susceptible to bias in scoring,” he added, “for example, with regard to the attractiveness, ethnicity, weight or other perceived physical features of the video maker.”

But in general, reactions in higher education have been muted, with people voicing skepticism rather than condemnation — perhaps because Goucher, which accepts more than 70 percent of its applicants, is not risking the same kind of reputation as the most competitive colleges. Those elite schools still have far more demand than supply, but for other small colleges, this is a nervous time.

The number of college-age Americans is stagnant, consumers object more to rising costs and student debt, and cheaper, online alternatives are growing. Even with private colleges offering discounts, some have had trouble drawing enough students, and many others wonder if that will soon be their lot, too.

Dr. Bowen says Goucher’s new policy does not reflect a concern about enrollment, though the number of applications has slipped in recent years.

It may turn out that few people take Goucher up on the video offer; at Bard, just 41 of almost 7,000 applicants took the no-transcript route last year, though that was partly because it demanded a lot of work. On the Goucher campus, the reaction is largely positive, though here, too, curiosity about the results mingles with skepticism. Students said they would be interested, next year, to meet people who had enrolled at Goucher after submitting video applications, and equally interested to see how they managed academically.

“It accepts that different people have different styles, and that’s part of what Goucher’s about, so it’s an interesting option,” particularly for people interested in visual arts, said Colton Cincotta, a 20-year-old junior. “But is it going to be an easy cop-out for someone who hasn’t really done the work?”

Maria Venturelli, a first-year student, said students mostly liked the video idea, though many of them wondered if two minutes was long enough for an applicant to make an impression, or for the college to make a judgment.

“There is something very genuine about a video,” said Ms. Venturelli, 18. It fits the nature of the admissions process, she said, in which “you have to be a little narcissistic and sell yourself to the college.”

Dr. Bowen said he and the faculty, which endorsed the video applications, were moved by studies showing that many high-achieving students, especially those from low-income families, do not apply to selective schools.

“You have to find a way to encourage people to apply; they need a different kind of invitation, and students by and large have a phone and they understand video,” he said.

“People have learning differences, they mature at different speeds; a lot of great people might have blemishes on the transcript, and think they can’t get in,” he said. “We get mail from teachers thanking us for this, because they have students who want to hang themselves because they got a C in algebra.”

Goucher gives loose guidelines for the videos, and says production values do not matter. It tells applicants to say what they have to offer and why the college appeals to them, and says they will be judged on how clearly and convincingly they express themselves. (If they are admitted, the college will get their transcripts then, if only to know what classes they have already taken.)

The video, Dr. Bowen said, resembles what happens in the real world, in a job interview.

“All things being equal, I’d rather have a transcript,” he conceded. “Let’s say you’re a doctor. All things being equal, you’d rather have all of the tests done on every patient, but you can’t. Each of those tests comes at a cost.”


Original article can be found at:

Critiquing the college sales tour

Even though the Common App has made it immeasurably easier to apply to colleges than in the pre-internet dark ages of my youth, at roughly $50 a pop, it still makes sense for kids to pare their list of schools to those they’d really like to attend.

Which is where the college visit comes in. But after completing 12 of these campus cruises with my son or daughter over the past two years, I’m not convinced they accomplish what they should or could.

To begin with, the format is the same at every school: a 45-minute propaganda slide show by someone in the admissions department — complete with obligatory stats on the four-year graduation rate, campus diversity, and all possible positives from their U.S. New & World Report rankings — followed by an hour-long walk around campus guided by a student.

The first part of the program is so generic and predictable that the facts, figures, and slides quickly blend into boredom, no matter how peppy the presenter. (You know it’s bad when you glance across the room, as I did at one of these sessions, and find your son attempting to pick up a pencil between his nose and upper lip.) You find yourself hungry to hear something unique or unusual about the college.

It sometimes gets better when the student tour guides take over. But the emphasis is on the sometimes. After each guide gives a 20-second introduction of him or herself, the moms, dads, and kids scramble to line up next to the tour conductor who seems most engaging — and cross their fingers that they guessed right.

You know almost as soon as the tour begins. The hour can either be an interesting, even exhilarating, introduction to life on a vibrant campus or a painful glimpse into the life of a somewhat (dare I say it?) nerdy student. In those cases, the shy or awkward guide suddenly seems representative of the entire student body, leaving little chance the average kid will consider applying there, no matter how attractive the school seemed pre-tour.

My daughter and I saw six schools this summer; sadly, our feelings about them are very closely linked to our opinions of the tour guides. It’s embarrassing to admit that, but let’s be honest: Assessment by association is hard to avoid.

“My daughter and I saw six schools this summer, and sadly, our feelings about them are very closely linked to our opinions of the tour guides.”

For example, it is a near-certainty that a 17-year-old male jock will not be impressed with a tour guide who introduces herself as president of the knitting club (true story). Similarly, a male guide who delayed his tour by an awkward five minutes because an annoying insect was buzzing around him — refusing on ethical grounds to swat it, despite my daughter’s urging — was dull and uninspiring, which quickly became our view of his school. But the perky young woman who relayed delightful stories about her university’s campy traditions and her amazing study abroad, in Italy, had us ready to get our applications in that very day. (Yes, both of us.)

Then there was the earnest guide who walked backwards for the entire tour so that he could maintain eye contact the whole time — he made a very favorable impression, but what does that really tell us about his school?

The other nutty thing about these tours is that they tend to highlight fairly superficial aspects of the college experience. Food takes on super-sized importance, with the number of Starbucks, Dunks, and other fast-food outlets scattered around the place suddenly becoming very meaningful. Quality of the dorms counts more than it should. My daughter and I definitely had more favorable impressions of schools where the dorm rooms on display were done by Bed Bath & Beyond than the ones with linoleum floors and banged-up heavy wooden bunk beds adorned with plastic-covered mattresses.
Eeew, right?

But though I’ve just ripped the venerated college tour to shreds, I still wouldn’t recommend skipping it. Holding a teenager captive in a rental car for 20 hours, as I did my daughter this summer, has its benefits. Sure, there was the usual amount of fighting over which radio station to play and rolling of eyes when one person sang too loudly, but in between we managed to sneak in some laughs and real conversation.

And yes, MasterCard, that is priceless.

Lenore Scanlon is a working — and college-touring — mother of three teenagers.

By Lenore Scanlon

Original article can be found at :

Naked confessions of the college-bound

THE Yale applicant had terrific test scores. She had fantastic grades. As one of Yale’s admissions officers, Michael Motto, leafed through her application, he found himself more and more impressed.

Then he got to her essay. As he remembers it, she mentioned a French teacher she greatly admired. She described their one-on-one conversation at the end of a school day. And then, this detail: During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself.

“Her point was that she was not going to pull herself away from an intellectually stimulating conversation just to meet a physical need,” said Motto, who later left Yale and founded Apply High, a firm that guides students through the admissions process.

And his point in bringing her story up during a recent interview? The same as mine in passing it along:

When it comes to college admissions, our society has tumbled way, way too far down the rabbit hole, as I’ve observed before. And in the warped wonderland where we’ve landed, too many kids attach such a crazy degree of importance to getting into the most selective schools that they do stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out. The essay portion of their applications can be an especially jolting illustration of that.


Credit Ben Wiseman

It’s an illustration of something else, too: a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome, among kids who’ve grown up in the era of the overshare. The essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet, producing autobiographical sketches like another that Motto remembers reading at Yale, this one from a male student.

“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”

Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.

But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction. Sally Rubenstone, one of the authors of the “Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” has called this “the Jerry Springer-ization of the college admissions essay,” referring to the host of one of the TV talk shows best known for putting private melodrama on a public stage.

Stephen Friedfeld, one of the founders of AcceptU, an admissions consulting firm, told me that in the essay of a student he and his colleagues worked with this year, he encountered a disorder he’d never heard of before: cyclic vomiting syndrome. And Friedfeld and his colleagues huddled over the wisdom of the student’s account of his struggle with it. Would it seem too gross? Too woe-is-me?

Their solution was to encourage the student to emphasize the medical education that he’d undertaken in trying to understand his ailment. They also recommended that he inch up to the topic and inject some disarming humor. Friedfeld said that the final essay began something like this: “In my Mom’s car? Yep, I’ve done it there. As I’m waiting in line to eat my lunch in school? Yep, I’ve done it there.” The “it” was left vague for a few sentences.

Right now, during the summer months between the junior and senior years of high school, many kids who’ll be putting together their college applications in the fall start to sweat the sorts of essays they’ll write. And as they contemplate potential topics, some of them go to highly emotional places.

“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”

She’ll shepherd students through four or more drafts. Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.

Hernandez, Jager-Hyman and others in the booming admissions-counseling business try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.

“Admissions officers pay as much attention to students’ choice of essay topic as they do to the details in their essays,” Motto told me.

He added that admissions officers can sniff out an essay that a student got too much help on, and he told me a funny story about one student he counseled. He said that the boy’s parents “came up with what they thought was the perfect college essay,” which described the boy as the product of “an exceptionally difficult pregnancy, with many ups and downs, trips to the hospital, various doctor visits.”

“The parents drafted a sketch of the essay and thought it was terrific,” Motto said. Then they showed it to their son, “and he pointed out that everything mentioned happened before he was born.” He ended up choosing a topic that spoke to his post-utero life as a math lover who found a way to use those skills to help patients at a physical rehabilitation center.

THE blind spots and miscalculations that enter into the essay-writing process reflect the ferocious determination of parents and children to impress the gatekeepers at elite schools, which accept an ever smaller percentage of applicants. Students are convinced that they have to package themselves and communicate in entirely distinctive fashions.

“We argue that one of the ways to help your case is to show that you have a voice,” said André Phillips, the senior associate director of recruitment and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But in that effort, sometimes students cross the line. In trying to be provocative, sometimes students miss the point.”

Motto said that one Yale applicant “actually described himself as one of the world’s great Casanovas” and said that his amazing looks inspired envy in other boys and competition among girls vying for his affection.

In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.

The girl didn’t get into Yale, Motto said. Neither did the boy who mulled his genitalia. And neither did Casanova. There were apparently limits to the reach of his legendary sexual magnetism, and the Gothic spires and ivy-covered walls of a certain campus in New Haven lay beyond them.

By Frank Bruni

Find original article at :

Forget the rise in Tuition and Fees, What about living expense

Rising tuition will be in the news this week with the College Board’s release on Thursday of its two signature reports.

“Trends in College Pricing” and “Trends in Student Aid” are packed with numbers, but if history is any guide, the one thing people will want to know is how much tuition and fees went up this year.

All right, all right, I’ll tell you. Average published tuition and fees rose 2.9 percent for in-state students at public four-year colleges, and 3.7 percent at private nonprofit four-years institutions. You can read the full reports here and explore individual colleges’ prices here.

But tuition is not the whole story. Consider this: The average list price of tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges in 2014-15 is $9,139. Room and board charges for the same students? Those come to $9,804.

Living expenses are an “under discussed” aspect of college affordability, says Zakiya Smith, a strategy director at the Lumina Foundation, who held a private convening of experts to talk about them earlier this fall. Ms. Smith has been pondering living expenses lately, partly because of the handful of new “free college” efforts designed to cover tuition and fees, but nothing more.

Whether and how living expenses should be considered part of the price of college is a matter of some debate. And when it comes to how colleges estimate what students will spend on room, board, and other expenses, and the implications of those estimates, things get really interesting.

Part of the Price Tag?

Everyone agrees that college students must live somewhere, eat something, and have other basic needs met. But is paying for those things part of paying for college?

States often design their financial-aid programs so that the money must go to tuition and fees rather than living expenses, says Debbie Cochrane, research director at the Institute for College Access and Success. The tendency is to trust institutions more than individuals. “There’s this sense,” she says, “if we give it to students, who knows how they’re going to spend it?”

Part of the issue is how students in different situations are typically perceived. “We’ve all heard people express concerns about people taking out loans to live or to pay rent,” Ms. Cochrane says. You don’t hear that when students borrow to live in their college’s dormitory or buy its meal plan.

“Trends in College Pricing” says many living expenses “are not really part of the cost of attending college, but are expenses people face whether or not they are in school.”

Even so, the report does examine them. Why? “Because students tend to think of living expenses as part of the cost of going to college, and because they must come up with the funds to cover these outlays, it is useful to use these expenses as a proxy for forgone earnings.”

In other words, the big expense of going to college is the opportunity cost. Hours spent studying and going to class are hours that can’t be spent working. The report doesn’t try to measure opportunity cost, instead using living expenses as an estimate of what that cost would be.

That approach avoids making “student” a special status. “While we have to make sure that we are supportive of students’ needs to meet their living costs while they’re in school, we have to think about this in the larger context of a society where lots of people face this, students and others,” says Sandy Baum, the report’s lead author.

And there could be unintended consequences of “creating the situation where the only chance is to be a student or otherwise they won’t have the money to live,” adds Ms. Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and research professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

Public benefits are meant to help people who can’t afford to pay for food, housing, or other basic needs. But getting access to them can be challenging for students, says Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy. The center is running a pilot project in which community colleges work to help students get the benefits they are eligible for. But maintaining eligibility while enrolled is another issue.

Welfare, for instance, has a work requirement—one that federal law says can be fulfilled for 12 months by full-time postsecondary enrollment, Ms. Duke-Benfield explains. But only a handful of states allow recipients to meet their work requirements that way for more than 12 months. And even within that period, most states make students work at least 20 hours per week to stay eligible—a requirement that can slow or even stop their progress through college.

Whether the support comes from financial aid or public benefits, Ms. Duke-Benfield says, students need more resources. “If we’re serious about the completion agenda,” she says, “that means that we have to care about low-income students. And that means we have to deal with the fact there is an opportunity cost involved for them to go to college.”

That opportunity cost is often underestimated, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Imagine a student who goes from working full time to working part time so he can attend college. Working part time doesn’t just mean working fewer hours. It also usually means lower hourly pay and, in many cases, unpredictable or inflexible hours.

“You experience more than a one-to-one loss for each hour,” she says. Paying for degrees students will be able to actually finish, Ms. Goldrick-Rab says, means supporting their living expenses.

Estimating Cost of Living

The financial-aid system is based on the understanding that students face expenses beyond tuition and fees. Colleges come up with a figure for their cost of attendance—the sum of tuition, fees, room, board, books, and more.

Cost of attendance is an estimate, one that matters for a couple of reasons. First, it is used to determine a student’s financial need (the expected family contribution, the amount that students and their families are deemed able to pay, is subtracted from the cost of attendance to determine need). Second, it’s used to determine a college’s net price as defined by the federal government—an increasingly important metric.

So how do colleges come up with the number? Rick Shipman, director of financial aid at Michigan State University, walked me through his system.

At Michigan State, the amount for “room” is the price of the average double room on the campus. “Board” is a meal plan that provides all-you-can-eat food during dining-hall hours. Mr. Shipman could elect to use different amounts for students who live off campus, but he does not. In East Lansing, Mich., he says, prices are comparable, on campus and off.

After adding tuition, fees, room and board, and books, it gets more complicated. “You get to decide as an institution which things you’re going to count and how to count them,” Mr. Shipman says.

For example, Michigan State’s cost of attendance includes money to cover a bus pass, but not to maintain a car, because there is a good public-transportation system in town.

It’s important that colleges help families understand the cost of attendance, Mr. Shipman says. They should know that the amount budgeted for books is just an estimate. And they could decide not to spend everything the college has included in the budget. “The degree to which you clarify what these things are helps them understand whether that’s something they want to borrow for,” Mr. Shipman says.

What families do with that information largely depends on their finances, Mr. Shipman says. High-income students may well bring a car to the campus and pay for off-campus parking. Lower-income students often work hard to keep their spending in line with the budget the college has come up with.

“It does change the bottom-line notion of what it costs to go to school,” Mr. Shipman says, “if $5,000 is spending money.”

Prices, of course, tend to rise. But increasing the budget for living expenses is no small matter for a college. Increases in tuition are typically paired with increases in financial aid. Increases in living expenses, though, are often simply absorbed by students. So in estimating those costs, colleges must find an amount large enough for students to live on but low enough that it won’t lead them to take on unnecessary debt.

“The reality is also that cost-of-attendance budgets are political,” Ms. Cochrane says. Low-balling living expenses makes a college look more affordable. That matters more now that net prices (the cost of attendance minus average grant aid) are gaining steam as a consumer tool and accountability metric.

Same City, Varying Expenses

It’s clear that different colleges interpret living expenses differently. A quick look at the costs of attendance that various colleges report to the government in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System shows a great deal of variation in what colleges in the same city budget for housing and food, particularly for students living off campus. The Association of Community College Trustees raised that issue in a letter to the Department of Education detailing its concerns about the proposed college-rating system.

“Until the department gets a grasp on how they adjudicate cost of living, they can’t use net price as the mechanism to be transparent,” says Jee Hang Lee, the association’s vice president for public policy and external relations.

In a recent paper, Ms. Goldrick-Rab and two co-authors examined the relationship between what colleges budget for living expenses and what data in the MIT Living Wage Calculator suggest it costs to live where those colleges are. The researchers found substantial gaps. Instead of allowing colleges to come up with their own cost-of-living budgets, those figures should be standardized, Ms. Goldrick-Rab says. Colleges could still adjust for unusual situations.

Financial-aid administrators are fond of the adage “live like a student now, so you don’t have to later.” But what that means—and how much help students get in making things work—depends on where they enroll.

– See more at:

By Beckie Supiano