The New Common Application Essays and the Path Not Taken

The Common Application is an on-line admission application created and accepted by a consortium of about 700 colleges.  Almost every top-ranked college uses it, with the notable exception of the University of California system.  It is referred to as the “Common App”, after the website students that log into to complete their applications:  www.commonapp.org. Although many colleges customize the “Common App” by adding supplemental essays and short answer questions, almost every applicant must complete the “Common App essay”, a 650-word discussion of one of several specified questions.

Every two years, the Common App consortium revises those questions; this post discusses the revisions for 2017-18.

Why mention this now, when applications will not be due for at least six months?  Because summer (and even Spring Break) is the best time to start outlining, and even writing, the essay; students will be busy enough in the months thereafter with tests, homework, and college selection.

You can review the 2017-18 questions here:  http://www.commonapp.org/whats-appening/application-updates/common-application-announces-2017-2018-essay-prompts.

Although Questions #1-5 include only minor revisions to the same questions used in 2016, Question #7 has not been used in several years, and Question #6 is new:

  1. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  2. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. 

Question #7 is for students who are unable to “shoehorn” their essay into one of the other prompts.  Colleges are again realizing that some experiences or ideas are not easily categorized.  However, because most essay topics can be shoehorned into Questions #1-5, not just any essay will do – only an unusual and startlingly good effort will impress college admissions officers.

Question #6 is a welcome attempt to reach students who do not have many traditional extracurricular activities because they spend their time on one activity away from school.  The essay is aimed at students who self-study a field in depth (“lose all track of time”).  The interest is unspecified, so almost any pursuit will do (e.g. archeology, linguistics, philosophy, particle physics, linguistics, ornithology).

The essay asks students to expound on why they immerse themselves in that topic, idea, or concept, what problems or events in that field intrigue them, and how they explore them.  The essay should demonstrate an ability, and passion for, self-guided learning.  The results of that learning are not particularly germane to the essay, but if the student has won a Nobel Prize as a result of his or her endeavors, I would fit that in somewhere.

Do not neglect the second part of that prompt: “What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”  Colleges want “self-starters”, students who can transcend the “show up at lecture and cram for tests” mode of learning and go out into the world and seek answers to interesting questions.  They are looking for students who can find their own resources, and perhaps even more important, their own mentors.

This prompt is different from the other Common App essays, which are often used as showcases for student writing.  Those essays give free rein to the student to include well-turned phrases, clever metaphors, and even concern about the plight of others.

This prompt is different; it calls for prose.  It is ideal for “geeks”, “nerds”, and other students who travel off the beaten path in pursuit of a “passion.”

I call this prompt the Robert Frost question.  See https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/core-poems/detail/44272.  It represents a huge opportunity for the right student.  The gains to be made by carefully crafting a case that the student has an exceptional “thirst for learning” – and ability to quench it at the college level – will outweigh flashier essays written in response to the other prompts.

Students who are traveling that “path not taken” should begin planning their Robert Frost essay now.

College in the Big Easy

There are college towns, and then there is the “Big Easy” – New Orleans.  I report back from the Fall Conference of the Independent Educational Consultants Association meeting in New Orleans to briefly profile three local colleges:  Tulane University, Loyola University of New Orleans, and Xavier University of Louisiana (not part of Xavier University in Cincinnati).

First, a word about the terrain.  New Orleans is a fascinating city (more like a town in its feel, really, but with 400,000 people), but is a mixed bag for college students.  Although these schools are located away from urban “hot spots”, crime is a minor, but significant, concern.  Students heading here need some “street smarts”.

Second, New Orleans is essentially located in a swamp; the heat and the humidity can be a bit oppressive.

Third, and making up for the first two, New Orleans is one of the cultural capitals of the United States.  The food is superb – trust me, your correspondent sampled liberally from some of the best restaurants in the area as well as from a humble beignet shack.  (Go ahead, look up “beignet” and see what has been missing from your life.)  From French to Creole and everything in between, the city can lay claim to serving the best day in and day out cuisine in this nation.

The music, ranging from New Orleans Jazz to blues, swing, and the rest, is ever present, from street musicians playing in the French Quarter and over on Frenchmen Street to many of those same musicians playing in sophisticated jazz clubs.  New Orleans moves to a lazy, syncopated beat, propelled by some of the finest practitioners of the art of jazz you will find anywhere.  (And, yes, the various masters playing at the Preservation Jazz Hall are very much worth your time.)

Finally, mass transit is excellent, with a street car meandering from the Quarter to uptown, where two of our colleges, Tulane and Loyola, are stops on the line.

Most interesting, New Orleans is a polyglot city reflecting its roots as an outpost for the Spanish and French colonial empires, and a place to which many Caribbean natives fled after disasters in their homelands.  There are several excellent cultural museums in the city, and plenty of work for budding anthropologists, archeologists, public health analysts, urban planners (how do you enlarge a city where every building is a historical treasure?), and tropical medicine specialists (yellow fever was the main killer in past decades; Zika may be the next visitor).

Periodic hurricanes, floods, and fires means that New Orleans is perpetually rebuilding and inventing itself; indeed, it is still very much rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina.  A budding social scientist can find plenty of hands-on experience simply not available elsewhere.

 

Tulane University

And this brings us to Tulane, a jewel of a liberal arts school in the South.  Tulane is a medium-sized school of about 8,000 students with a campus larger than its population suggests.  This group is committed to social service – Tulane was the first major research university in the country to include a mandatory community service component in its curriculum.  It goes the extra step of making sure that service is relevant, both to the community and to student learning.

Many of the students work on the ongoing rebuilding of New Orleans as a way of learning their subjects.  Architecture students design models, and then go out into the city and build the design which their class has chosen.  Tulane is particularly proud of its undergraduate public health and tropical medicine programs, which have plenty of communities to study (and help) on their doorstep before heading out into the world.

The campus itself is pretty, and the streetcar line down the middle allows Tulane students to reach the French Quarter within about 20 minutes.  This being New Orleans, a major focus of campus life is the cuisine, including some food trucks that our tour group wanted to halt to sample (no such luck).

Tulane is a major research institution, with relatively small class sizes, located in the South’s most remarkable city.  Admission is not impossible, either.  Tulane’s selectivity is 30%, the average high school GPA is 3.5, and the mean SAT and ACT scores are 1328/30.

 

Loyola University

As its name would suggest, Loyola is a Jesuit university.  It just happens to be located across the street from Tulane.  Some faculty teach at both institutions, and Loyola students can even take courses at their larger neighbor.

However, Loyola serves a different population and has a different mission.  This is a smaller, quieter, alternative to Tulane.  Its main attraction is certain renowned majors, such as Mass Communications (including journalism) and Music and Fine Arts.

The caliber of student here is also different; with mean SAT and ACT scores of 1130/25 and a whopping 95% selectivity, this school is for students who are seeking a more relaxed opportunity to develop their talents while still sampling the delights of New Orleans.  As a Jesuit school, a greater focus on the individual student is also a given.  My sense is that the most interested students will be those who gravitate toward the majors for which the school is best known.

 

Xavier University

Xavier is the only Catholic Historically Black College or University in the nation, with about 8,000 undergraduates enrolled.  The student body is 72% African-American, 10% Asian, and 4% Caucasian; it has achieved several historic firsts:

  • Xavier continues to rank first nationally in the number of African American students earning undergraduate degrees in both the biological/life sciences and the physical sciences.
  • The College of Pharmacy, one of only two pharmacy schools in Louisiana, is among the nation’s top four producers of African American Doctor of Pharmacy degree recipients
  • In pre-medical education, Xavier ranks first in the nation in the number of African American graduates who go on to complete medical school.

This is even more remarkable because their admissions policy is extremely welcoming.  Their selectivity is 84%, and mean test scores are only 1000/23.  Note that the gender balance is skewed:  27% male, 73% female.

The sciences are the most popular subjects, including psychology, pre-med, and pre-pharmacy.  This school is not a laid-back find yourself kind of place; the students are driven, and the climate is “studious”.  Rather, it is a center of excellence particularly popular with African-Americans, but available to all.

The Big Gap in “Gap Year”

After enjoying years of popularity in Europe, gap years are becoming trendy in America as a way for high school students to gain perspective and maturity before going off to college.  After graduating from high school, students begin their college career 15 months later, entering college in the fall term.

However, one obstacle to such plans is too rarely discussed – many colleges do not accommodate gap years easily, if at all.  Here are some of the college admissions issues that students and parents should consider when planning for a gap year.

 

When to apply to college

For students, the most convenient time to apply is along with their peers, during their senior year of high school.  However, a significant number of colleges, particularly public institutions, refuse to defer acceptances to the following year.  For example, the University of California and the California State University systems do not defer admission.

In those cases, students will have to apply during their gap years.  This means making sure that they secure new letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors long after the students have left campus.  This is particularly difficult if the students spend that “gap year” overseas.

Although the American Gap Year Association maintains a list of “gap year friendly” schools, many colleges are not included.  See http://www.americangap.org/fav-colleges.php.  Based on a recent search for a Midwestern student, I would add the following public institutions to their list as “gap friendly” colleges:

Iowa State

Kansas State (except for certain departments, such as landscape architecture)

University of Minnesota (Twin Cities)

The Ohio State University

 

Will colleges defer merit and need-based financial aid?

Even if a college will defer admission, it may require the student to re-apply for financial aid, both need and merit based.  This is true for federal financial aid, for example.  Further, many colleges take the position that a family’s financial condition may change during the gap year.  Thus, families should be prepared to file a new FAFSA or CSS Profile during the gap year, and, perhaps, compete again for merit aid and scholarships.

There is a risk that a “gap year applicant” may be considered a captive audience in such situations.  Unless the student has applied (or re-applied) to a number of colleges, they may, or may be perceived by colleges to be, in a weak position to reject financial aid offers.  We do not have enough experience with gap years to determine whether this a significant risk.

Students planning gap years may should consider a two-stage strategy:  1) apply during the senior year to “gap friendly” colleges in the senior year, and pay a nonrefundable enrollment deposit to the school which admits you on the most favorable terms; and 2) apply again during the “gap year”, and pick the winner after evaluating the next round of acceptances and financial aid packages.  This is not particularly fair to the schools that agreed to defer admission in the first round, but students may not feel they have a choice if those schools did not offer affordable financial aid packages.

 

Ask prospective colleges for their policies on gap years

Many colleges have a web page devoted to their gap year policies.  See e.g.,  https://undergrad.osu.edu/apply/gap-year-policy (The Ohio State University).  However, too many colleges do not, and even those that do may change their policies.  Therefore, I recommend sending the following e-mail to each college on your list:

 

Dear (Admissions rep for the student’s area):

E-MAIL STARTS:

My son/daughter, [NAME], would like to apply to [INSERT COLLEGE AND SPECIFIC SCHOOL/PROGRAM] this Fall, but is planning to take a gap year [include a brief, attractive description of the gap year plan, with a web site reference to any program that the student will be attending – this indicates a seriousness of purpose].  NAME will not enroll in any college institution or earn any college credits during that year.

If your college accepts [NAME], he [substitute “she” where appropriate] will ask to defer enrollment to the Fall of ___.  He will be applying for need-based and merit aid.

We have been unable to find any reference on your web site to your policies concerning this situation.  Would you please tell us:

1.       If accepted, will he be allowed to defer entry until Fall 2018?

2.       If he is allowed to defer entry, will any need-based financial aid award be affected?  Will he need to reapply for that aid?

3.       If he is allowed to defer entry, will any merit-based financial aid award – including scholarships – be affected?  Will he need to reapply for that aid?

Thank you very much,

E-MAIL ENDS

Read the college’s response very carefully to make sure that it covers all of the issues and that it applies to the particular school or department to which the student is applying (e.g., fine arts).  For example, Kansas State as an institution will accept deferrals, but its landscape architecture department will not.  If your student has a particular school or program in mind, you may need to send a separate e-mail to an admissions officer in that school or program.

 

Do not take college credit during the gap year

Finally, students should not earn college credit during their gap years.  Students who do so risk being treated by colleges as transfer students, forfeiting many of the financial aid advantages of being a high school applicant.  Colleges that defer admission will frequently require students to agree to this rule as a condition of deferral.

Mission Accomplished?  Maybe Not Anymore

Over the last decade, the media has bombarded parents with the message that students must show leadership to gain admission to college.  One democratic way to show that quality – participating in an activity not demanding athletic or political talent – is to perform community service work.  Any student can work at a community food bank or tutor children.

Many schools have added a community service requirement for graduation.  The “how to get into college” articles go one step further, portraying community service as a prized commodity which must be accrued and then displayed to admissions officers.  The method of display is often the college essay, where the student’s devotion is worked into the narrative.  Sometimes it is the narrative, as when students perform their community service overseas.  An overseas “volunteer experience” can pack enough activity to fuel a 600-word essay.

Private schools have been offering overseas trips designed to tick off this (perceived) box.  The trips typically last a few weeks.  The destination is a developing nation, and the itinerary includes both cultural immersion and some volunteer activity designed to improve the community.  Religious private schools are active in this area (made easier because many religious groups have missions abroad), but secular schools also offer these opportunities.

The idea is that if community service is a worthy goal, what better way to convince colleges that the student shares that goal than by going to “where the poverty is,” a developing country, and combining service with cultural education?  The college prep industry has magnified this trend by offering summer programs expanding on this theme.

However, for every revolution in college admissions, there seemingly comes a reformation; we may have just seen its beginning with an article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times.  Bruni roams the college education beat at the paper, and just published the bestseller Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.  His column this week decries the “mission trip.”  See “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/opinion/sunday/to-get-to-harvard-go-to-haiti.html?ref=opinion&_r=0).

Bruni quotes a student who passed up such a trip in favor of doing his bit at home.

“An awfully large percentage of my friends — skewing towards the affluent — are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa.”  He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them “with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,” explained.  The captions tend to say something along the lines of, “This cutie made it so hard to leave.”

But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.

“It rubs me the wrong way,” Hernandez told me, explaining that while many of his friends are well intentioned, some seem not to notice poverty until an exotic trip comes with it. He himself has done extensive, sustained volunteer work at the Flint Y.M.C.A., where, he said, the children he tutors and plays with would love it “if these same peers came around and merely talked to them.”

The article states that some admissions officers have become annoyed by what Bruni labels “drive-by charity work.”  One officer reports:

“Often they come to the same conclusion: People in other parts of the world who have no money are happier than we are!” she told me. “That is eye-opening to some students. But it can be a dangerous thing to write about, because it’s hard to rescue the truth from that cliché.”

Bruni also writes that some students try to demonstrate leadership by starting their own nonprofit groups.  They tick both the charity and “entrepreneur” boxes that way.  This sounds so much like my old stomping ground, Silicon Valley, that if it isn’t happening there I’ll be a bit disappointed.

Community service will probably always be a component of the college application, and there will always be questions about what form of community service, and how much of it, your student should be performing.  We will leave this more complex issue for another time.

But for now, suffice to say that Bruni’s article appears to herald a change in how college admissions officers will regard “mission service trips” abroad.  For those who are parenting or counseling students considering such trips, caution is in order.  Unless, of course, the motivation for a trip is purely service.  The test for that is easy:  will the trip be (modestly) omitted from the student’s college application?

Geographic (or Monetary) Diversity?

When I started this blog, I promised that I would occasionally “re-report” items of interest covered in the media.  Here is the first one.

Mark Twain defined an expert as “an ordinary fellow from another town.”  I rather doubt the University of California had that in mind when it decided to give preference to out-of-state and international applicants in admissions.  Rather, as explained in a recent New York Times article, the tuition differential between in-state and out-of-state residents provides a huge subsidy which helps keep universities solvent.

See Public Colleges Chase Out-of-State Students, and Tuition, New York Times, July 7, 2016:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/08/us/public-colleges-chase-out-of-state-students-and-tuition.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article

As noted in the article, this is a nationwide trend.  Even though the UC has backtracked a bit under enormous pressure (and a state auditor’s report criticizing the practice), the financial realities mean that most public universities will continue to give out-of-state and international students an edge in admissions.

If flush with cash, students can use this fact to their advantage by applying to premiere colleges outside their home states.  Note, however, that the old maneuver of moving to a new state, getting a driver’s license, and then seeking to pay only in-state tuition does not work anymore.  Most colleges carefully exclude those persons who moved to their state for “educational reasons”.

Caveat emptor.

When It Must Be Boston: Two Specialty Schools (Part 3: Bentley and Olin)

For the concluding post in our Boston series, we turn to two specialty schools:  Bentley University and Olin College of Engineering.

 

Bentley University

Some students are born accountants.  Well, perhaps not, but there are a few colleges nationwide devoted solely to undergraduate business studies.

Two of those colleges are in Boston:  Babson College and Bentley University.  Babson is renowned for its programs in entrepreneurship (consistently rated #1 nationwide by U.S. World and News Report), finance, and international business.  Bentley, founded in 1917 as the Bentley School of Accounting and Finance, is strong in accounting and finance, as well as in information management systems.   Bloomberg News just ranked it #10 in undergraduate business schools nationwide.

I was only able to visit Bentley on this trip.  The school serves 4,200 undergraduates (Babson serves half that number) on a 163-acre campus.  I would describe its style as nondescript New England, with brick buildings and mostly new in appearance.  It looks and feels like a college campus, if a bit homogenous.

But the most interesting takeaway from my visit is that attending a business college is not the same as majoring in business at your typical university.  Although both Babson and Bentley offer liberal arts courses, the focus of those courses is on crafting more literate business leaders.

For example, both schools offer foreign languages.  But the emphasis is on complementing business skills.  From the Babson course description for Arabic:

As the course progresses, more emphasis will fall on teaching Arabic in business contexts in an interactive and communicative way. This last part of the course will focus on developing students’ abilities in using Arabic in business environments, including commercial, media and financial purposes.

Babson also offers a separate course in Business Arabic.  Bentley is similarly focused, allowing students to major in a foreign language only when combined with a business studies major.

This observation is not intended as criticism.  The liberal arts offerings at both schools are, as the English would say, “fit for purpose.”  These business schools are focused on providing business education.  This allows for greater concentration on the core curriculum, particularly when the required liberal arts classes are designed for business students.

For example, at the prestigious Ross School at the University of Michigan, undergraduates spend their freshman year outside the school satisfying general education requirements, and, to earn a degree, are required to satisfy a four semester foreign language requirement.  Freshman at Bentley also pursue general education requirements in their first year, but take three business classes and a course in information technology.  Neither Bentley nor Babson have foreign language requirements.

Business colleges provide tools and programs which are beyond the reach of most undergraduates at other schools.  Bentley has a trading floor, fully equipped with Bloomberg terminals.  A student organization, BIG (the Bentley Investment Group) runs about $800,000 in university funds, and reports to the Board of Trustees.  It has 200 student members consisting of a mix of undergraduate and graduate students.  (A similar program at the University of Denver – also impressive – is only open to a few select graduate students in finance.)  The library at Bentley has dozens of academic and industry business journals available to students.

Bentley has a robust internship program, and plenty of corporate recruiters visiting campus.  The Career Services office posts detailed placement statistics on the Bentley website, and even accounts for the “non-responders” that most universities would prefer to ignore.  Bentley’s job placement statistics are impressive. Bentley students may not be the crème-de-la-crème of students nationwide, but they get good jobs, including at Big 4 accounting firms.  The same is true of Babson, which is more select in admissions.

Speaking of admissions, here are the numbers (Selectivity/GPA/SAT/ACT):

Babson:  26%/3.5/1281/30 (U.S. News and World Report has the ACT at 28; I’m using the school’s numbers).  Note also that Babson reports that it admitted 36% of all female applicants.

Bentley:  46%/3.6/1240/28 (GPA not reported by the school; my estimate is based other data)

Business colleges are a different breed; they are self-selecting in the sense that fewer students are willing to commit to a career path in business.  Students who are willing to do so should take a good look at both Bentley and Babson.

 

Olin College of Engineering

Olin is the outlier of our Boston college roundup.  Only 80 students are admitted each year, each with ridiculously superb credentials and records of achievement.  Indeed, the college suggests that letters of recommendation discuss how the applicant previously made such a huge impact during high school that his or her absence will leave a void behind in the community.  (Female students make up 50% of Olin’s incoming class each year.)

In other words, the odds that you know a student qualified to attend Olin are somewhere between slim and none.

Just in case that high bar does not limit enrollment, Olin goes one step further by offering only one degree – in engineering.

And each year 93% of Olin freshmen come back for more.

Olin is one of the most fascinating colleges I have ever visited, and it should be on your radar on the off-chance you bump into a technical prodigy who wants to do “hands-on” engineering.  Olin students remind me of the NASA ground-based engineers who had to design a supplemental carbon dioxide removal system out of procedure manual covers, hoses, and duct tape, and then walk the Apollo 13 astronauts through the procedure in one of the most heroic rescues of our age.  See https://www.quora.com/How-did-the-Apollo-13-engineers-fit-a-round-peg-in-a-square-hole-rapidly.  Or, to put it another way, if someday the dilithium crystals fail on a latter-day U.S.S. Enterprise, Olin engineers will be part of the crew called in to create a workaround.

This gushing is a natural reaction to Olin’s attempt to refashion the typical design and engineering curriculum.  With a few promising, but nascent, exceptions, every engineering program in the world starts with dry technical courses and a few desultory labs where certain long-known results are simply confirmed as they were in years past.  Many engineering students burn out long before they “know” enough to try practicing engineering.

Olin jump-starts the curriculum by making it project based, with an emphasis on design and fabrication.  Students learn their physics, chemistry, and math as needed during their projects.  Whatever the sub-set of engineering studied (and Olin offers electrical, computer, mechanical, and biomedical engineering), the emphasis is on the process of designing and making various projects.

It starts with students’ hands and machinery.  Olin has a wood shop(!) and a machine shop, and maybe more toy factories we did not get to see on the tour.  Trained technicians, or “ninjas”, are on duty well into the evening, every day, to help students learn to fabricate objects and put them together.

Olin’s other distinction is its emphasis on the needs of human users.  In its words: “[w]e believe that engineering is a creative enterprise that begins and ends with people and their desire for a better world.”

Olin’s approach is to place people at the center of frame as customers for the student’s products.  Student engineers are assigned products by customers.  Students design for those customer’s needs, confer with them through focus groups and direct collaboration, and fabricate the final products.  Students evaluate the success of their projects by the utility of the product and its suitability for the customer.

Olin engineers are thrown into the pool from Day One.  Their first assignment is to build . . . a toy.  Their user group?  A group of 4th graders from a nearby elementary school.  The finished products are displayed at Olin, and the 4th graders, armed with clipboards and stickers, descend upon the projects to evaluate them.  As one Olin student put it, you do NOT want a frowney face sticker on your toy.

Olin requires engineers to study the humanities, social science, and entrepreneurship to nurture their creativity and keep them focused on the “human factor” in engineering.

Students eventually exercise their engineering prowess in one of two senior capstone projects.  In “Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship”, Olin students fan out across the globe to underdeveloped countries to work on local projects defined by what the residents want designed.  The other track, SCOPE, is similar, but the customers are U.S. corporations and government agencies outsourcing particularly difficult work.

Olin’s emphasis on user-based design and development closely mirrors how engineering is done in the real world.  Private industry has noticed, and those Olin graduates who do not go on to prestigious graduate schools are hired in large numbers by established tech firms such as Microsoft and start-ups.

Blue Origin and Space X – the private NASA of our age – have picked up a few graduates, too.  After all, you never know when you might need an Olin engineer on a space mission.

When It Must Be Boston (Part 2: BU and Brandeis)

We continue our three-part series on Boston with two more universities:  Boston University and Brandeis University.

 

Boston University

Many of the colleges in this report are not actually in Boston, but in its suburbs.  Boston University is right on the Charles River, comprised of an urban strip of buildings spread over several city blocks which does not even seem like a campus at all.  If you want to experience “Boston”, and not just take a shuttle there, Boston University (BU) offers that experience on a large scale.  It is one of the largest private, independent, universities in the country, with 18,000 undergraduates.

With that size comes greater educational choice.  BU offers 250 academic programs ranging from archeology and Hispanic linguistics to physical therapy and public health spread over 15 schools.  Students can cross boundaries by taking a major in one discipline and a minor in another, including at the Sargent School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.  BU also has highly regarded film, theater, and communications/journalism programs.  Like many other colleges, BU is renewing its physical plant, opening a biomed center, an engineering center, and a new dorm.  Housing is guaranteed for four years.

It is also easier to win admission to BU than to Tufts and Wellesley.  BU’s selectivity is 34%, the average high school GPA is 3.6, and mean SAT and ACT scores are 1296/29.  Higher scores may be required for departments outside liberal arts, and early decision applicants have a decided advantage.

Can you find a “BU” equivalent elsewhere?  Yes.  A dozen or so flagship state universities are comparable, and most offer much better financial aid, particularly if you are a state resident.  But that is not the point – BU is in Boston.

 

Brandeis University

I know what you are thinking:  what is a nice Jewish school doing in a place like this?  The obvious answer is that Brandeis University is in Waltham, only nine miles west of Boston.

But seriously, Brandeis will be a bit of surprise to those (like this writer) who would associate it only with Judaism.  Brandeis University is the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college or university in the country; it was founded in 1948 (by Jews) as a school for all faiths.  One of the landmarks at Brandeis is the collection of three small chapels in a field, each hosting a different faith (Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant).  Each chapel has a window overlooking Chapel’s Pond, and each was built so that when the sun sets, no chapel casts a shadow on another.  It is beautiful in every sense.

Of course, Judaism is a focal point of the school’s identity.  Most universities have a Hillel which serves as a gathering point for Jewish students.  The Hillel at Brandeis has 11 different subsidiaries on campus.  (Somewhat less relevant, but appetizing, is the presence of a kosher deli and an Einstein’s Bagels.)

One tour guide told our group that it is an ideal place for him to explore his Jewish identity.  So there is that.  Yet, only 46% of students self-identify as Jews.

Brandeis should command the attention of Jews and non-Jews alike for its combination of a small liberal arts college with an emphasis on undergraduate research.  Enrollment is about 3,700 undergraduates, and the student-faculty ratio is a desirable 10:1.  The curriculum is very flexible, meaning that there are minimal general education requirements.  The 235-acre campus resembles a classic small liberal arts college.

For all its lack of size, Brandeis claims a larger share, per capita, of federal research funding than all other universities in the country.  (See https://www.umt.edu/research/resources/council/ResearchReport.pdf; of course I checked – this blog is about data, after all.)  Each summer, 100-150 students spend summers at Brandeis conducting research.

The other noteworthy aspect of Brandeis is its commitment to social justice.  Brandeis claims that its students perform more community service, again per capita, than any other college in the nation.  The Princeton Review agrees.  The college has its own Department of Community Service.  There are two newspapers on campus (for 3,700 students).  Students can volunteer for almost anything, and can work toward a better world without leaving campus.

When not working to save the world, students appear to enjoy a social life, with 260 organizations (again, for only 3,700 students) and 17 a cappella groups (this Glee phenomenon is getting out of hand.)

Brandeis is a small college with a big heart and serious aspirations.  Fortunately, perhaps because many pigeonhole it as just a Jewish school, admission to Brandeis is less daunting than its reputation and merit would suggest.  Selectivity is 35%, the average GPA is 3.8 (not known whether that is weighted or unweighted), and the average SAT/ACT score is only 1256/30.

When It Must Be Boston (Part 1: Wellesley and Tufts)

Many students and their families are drawn to a mecca of collegiate studies:  Boston.  Parents are looking for that “East Coast edginess”, a certain reputed quickness of mind and pace.  Whether Boston students truly match that stereotype is unclear, and, in any event, they are focused elsewhere – they see a lifestyle that few other cities can match.

Boston has four seasons and a cultural life second only to New York.  But unlike New York, Boston is one very large – and approachable – college town.  The percentage of young adults (ages 20-34) living in Boston exceeds that of any other major U.S. city, as does the number of college students per capita (250,000 students).

Public transit is widely available, and even the infamous “T” subway can be tamed by riding it outside commute hours.  Many colleges have their own shuttle services to various points of interest, including other nearby colleges.  For example, Wellesley shuttles its students to MIT to attend classes and for “social opportunities.”  (Did you know that there are frat parties at MIT?  Space does not permit details, but suffice to say that Wellesley and MIT have been linked academically and socially for decades.)

I was in Boston last month to attend the Spring national conference of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, and visited six colleges in and around Boston which might pique your interest.

The next few posts will discuss those colleges, two at a time.

 

Part 1:  Two From The Elite 

Wellesley College

Single gender higher education has been shrinking over the last few decades, leaving just a few standouts; Wellesley is one of them.

Founded in 1870, this college is just 12 miles west of Boston and enrolls 2,300 female students.  The 500-acre campus and surrounding town are gorgeous, and the school’s $1.85 billion endowment is one of the largest in the country.  With that kind of money, it was no surprise to see workers constructing a new arts annex primarily devoted to the visual arts, part of a complete renovation of campus buildings.

This is an elite college, ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges nationwide.  As noted previously, students are encouraged to take classes at MIT.  Wellesley is also a member of the “Three College Collaboration,” allowing students to take classes and engage in projects with the Olin School of Engineering and Babson College.  Fifty percent of students study abroad.

Wellesley students describe their academic environment as “very rigorous,” although most of the stress is self-imposed.  These are students who consider a canceled class to be a personal loss.  They have a passion for their work.

Wellesley’s single gender environment is designed to build self-confidence – as one student put it, “the ability to find my voice”.  Being close to Boston, and with shuttles to MIT and Harvard (on weekends), Wellesley is an academic retreat, not a shelter.  Students “can find the party off campus without having to live in it.”  Wellesley is for women who want the very best in their education, and are willing to work intensively to get it.  They use their education and talent to make a difference in the world.

Wellesley is updating its 19th century student traditions to match the tenor of the times.  In early days, graduating seniors in their caps and gowns would compete in a mile long “hoop race” – that old game where children spin a hoop along a path with a stick.  The winner was pronounced the woman most likely to be married first.  That changed in the 1980s – the winner was deemed the woman most likely to become the first CEO.

Now, in a shift which could be grist for a doctoral thesis, the school states that “the winner will be the first to achieve happiness and success, whatever that means to her.”  (Our tour guide stuck with the “CEO” version.)

But some things never change – the winner is still carried off by her “sisters” and “has the honor” of being thrown in nearby Lake Waban.  (That tradition started when the winner turned out to be a male Harvard Lampoon editor who had infiltrated the race.)

The point of such rituals is to instill in students a solidarity which continues after graduation.  Wellesley has a formidable alumni network to enable all students’ ideas of success.  Wellesley refers to it as “the most powerful women’s network in the world.”  (That $1.85 billion endowment is no accident.)  There are ten “active” alumnae in the network for every student on campus.

Most colleges promote their internships; Wellesley offers connections.  The difference can be life-changing.

Perhaps most interesting is that it appears easier for a female student to get into Wellesley than other, equally prestigious, schools.  Because this blog is all about using data to make better college admission decisions, we explore this issue further.

U.S. News and World Report ranks three colleges as tied with Wellesley for the #4-7 best liberal arts schools nationwide:  Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Pomona.

Consider the following “selectivity” statistics of those colleges, i.e., the percentage of applicants admitted (numbers in parenthesis are average SAT and ACT scores):

Bowdoin:             14.9% (1440/33)

Middlebury:       17.2% (1360/31)

Pomona:              12.2% (1450/32)

And Wellesley?  30.4% (1390/31)

Although selectivity is not the best indicator of difficulty of admission, a dramatic disparity among schools is informative.

You may have noticed that Middlebury’s test scores are a bit lower than Wellesley’s scores.  As a group, female high school students earn higher GPAs than their male counterparts.  Co-ed institutions seeking to maintain “gender balance” must therefore admit males with lower scores than the mean, and require higher scores for female applicants.  For example, Middlebury admits 19% of male applicants versus 16% of female applicants.  At Pomona, the numbers are 15% and 10%, respectively; at Bowdoin, 17% and 13%.  Thus, between schools of equal merit, women are more likely to be admitted to a single gender institution than to a co-ed counterpart.

In sum, the odds are better at Wellesley than at other equally prestigious schools.  And that is something to be “cock a hoop” about, indeed.

 

Tufts University

While Wellesley is a college that is seemingly less popular than its merits would suggest, Tufts may have the opposite problem – it is currently so popular that many students who would benefit from attending will be turned away.

Everybody likes Tufts – just search the web for references to happy students and Jumbo the elephant (the school mascot).  The campus is only five miles from Boston, situated on a hill with views of the area – be prepared to walk up and down a lot around campus.  Boston is very close, but the campus itself is somewhat isolated by virtue of its geography.  Shuttles take students into the city.  Note, however, that only two years of on-campus housing is guaranteed, so students must be prepared for apartment living after their sophomore year.

The key to Tuft’s success in recruiting students is to paint the picture of a friendly, supportive environment populated by a small group of 5,000 very bright students and a team of committed professors who are all kind to one another.  The “cut-throat” environment is said to not exist at Tufts.

After visiting the school and doing my homework, I see the same picture.  Everyone does like Tufts.  It does have a friendly “vibe” on campus.  Even the admissions staff blog – one of the best I’ve seen – tries to “de-stress” the admissions process.

You will also find a fine research university located only five miles from downtown Boston.  Opportunities for multi-disciplinary study abound.  Tufts offers an accredited engineering program, somewhat unusual for a school of its size.  It is even possible to transfer into that program; most universities discourage such transfers.

The university boasts a strong connection with the arts, including a five-year program for those rare students dedicated and talented enough to obtain bachelors degrees from Tufts and the New England Conservatory of Music.  It is not unusual for “Jumbos” to double major in a STEM discipline and an unrelated field, such as the arts.  Like Wellesley, 50% of Tufts students study abroad.

All courses at Tufts are taught by full professors – not teaching assistants or adjuncts – except in the Experimental College, where students help design courses taught by local experts.  And there are a lot of professors:  the student/professor ratio for the university as a whole is a very low 9:1.

Tufts is an elite college which seemingly offers something for everyone – if only everyone could get in.  The problem is that Tufts is so attractive, particularly as a second choice behind the Ivy League colleges, that it is simply oversubscribed relative to its considerable merits.  Only 17% of applicants are accepted, and the mean SAT/ACT scores are daunting:  1435/32.

Should this deter students from applying?  No, but they should know the odds before expending the time and effort to do so.  One admission tip:  pay particular attention to the “why Tufts” question on the application; Tufts has been known to reject sterling applicants who know so little about the school that it is clear that they are using Tufts as a “safety school” in case they are not admitted to the Ivy League.  Visiting the school before applying is a must.

An Unexpected Find in the Pacific Northwest

Because I am an Arizona college counselor, last month I visited the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

Stay with me, please, while I explain.  Arizona students qualify for in-state tuition at two nationally ranked state universities:

  • University of Arizona (in Tucson)
  • Arizona State University (in Tempe, a Phoenix suburb)

Both schools have strong programs in the sciences and engineering.  Although they are world-class in only a handful of areas – astronomy at the University of Arizona, for instance – they are certainly reasonable choices for all but the most competitive students.  Indeed, scads of students from other states decamp to these campuses each year.

Despite their merits, these universities also have generous admissions policies.  Arizona State University admits virtually all-comers as a deliberate strategy to serve its community, even as its Barrett Honors College is one of the best in the nation.  (https://asunow.asu.edu/content/nyt-columnist-calls-barrett-gold-standard-among-honors-colleges.)

And now the kicker:  in-state tuition at these universities is just shy of $10,000 annually, and resident students with higher GPAs often qualify for merit scholarships that waive up to $9,000 of that amount.  There is no need for a college counselor to help students who wish to attend those universities – students need only take 30 minutes to complete a very simple application reminiscent of what their parents completed back in the day.

So here is the dilemma for an Arizona college counselor – what sort of Arizona student should eschew such a deal?

In fact, there is a sizable group of students for whom the Arizona universities are not a good fit.  Consider the number of undergraduates attending these universities:

  • University of Arizona: 33,000
  • Arizona State: 40,000

Students looking for a classic small liberal arts education must look elsewhere.  And both universities are located in the middle of a vast desert where temperatures frequently exceed 100 degrees from May through September; classes during the summer session are often held at night, when temperatures merely hover in the 90s.  With apologies to Marilyn Monroe, even though “Some Like It Hot”, some don’t.  If you grew up in Southern Arizona, you might feel that it is time for a change.

Which brings us to the University of Puget Sound (UPS), the antithesis of Arizona higher education.  UPS is located in the cool, rainy, Pacific Northwest, in Tacoma (an hour south of Seattle on Puget Sound).  Undergraduate enrollment is 2,600 students.  The student-faculty ratio is 11:1, and only 1% of classes enroll more than 50 students.

This is liberal arts education in the “Colleges That Change Lives” tradition (yes, it’s in the book).  Professors are highly regarded – more of them have won “Professor of the Year” honors from the Carnegie Foundation than other Washington schools, by a wide margin.  They are committed to bringing out the potential in all of their students, not just the cream of the crop.  Again, this is quite different from the typical big school experience.  Of course, you will pay for it on a par with other top colleges its size.  But that goes with (leaving) the Arizona Territory.

Admissions are not unduly competitive:  the typical admitted student has a 3.5 GPA and SAT scores in the 600s for reading and math.  But some students bloom late – others just do better in small schools with committed professors.  The school is particularly strong in the sciences, with very good lab facilities (top 20 in the Princeton Review).  It also claims a significantly higher than average medical and dental school placement rate, and a top 10% ranking of colleges who go on to earn doctorate degrees.  UPS is also competitive for its size in the race for Fulbright and Watson fellowships.

Tacoma is a formerly run-down industrial town that is showing signs of life as a college town.  However, most activity still occurs on campus.  And a beautiful campus it is – compact, some beautiful brick buildings, Mt. Rainier in the background, and mature trees (the college was founded in 1888, so “mature” does not even begin to describe it).  Seattle and its environs beckon – students who love the outdoors will thrive here.  Out-of-towners are welcome; 78% are from out-of-state.

If you like music, you will like UPS.  The School of Music is nationally regarded, and UPS is the only liberal arts school in the Northwest (and there are plenty of them) to offer a full symphony orchestra, concert band, jazz band, and choral and opera program.  Seattle Opera is an hour north.  Students do not have to be music majors to participate, and the sheer number of performances makes campus life more interesting.

This is also a school for the socially committed student – 75 percent participate in community service, and it ranks in the top five for small schools sending graduates to the Peace Corps.  International studies are encouraged, with a whopping 50 percent of students going abroad.  This includes their “PacRim” program, where several professors take students to Asia for nine months of intensive study.

The other reason I came here is my interest in students with learning disabilities.  Small liberal arts colleges are often not favorable ground for those students.  Such colleges often do not have the funding to provide a full range of services, and they tend not to attract gifted specialists who can make all the difference for a student.  Because many are off the beaten path, students sometimes struggle to find medical and psychological providers on or off campus.

I was very pleasantly surprised by UPS, and will recommend it to my students with disabilities.  The reason:  Peggy Perno, who heads the program (indeed, she mostly IS the program).  She is a former social worker with a great deal of experience in mental health who runs UPS’ disability program like a much larger program, and with palpable warmth and caring.  Students use an “app” calendaring system to make sure that they make appointments, meetings, classes, and the like.  Perno concentrates on creating routines for students; routines become habits.

Because all students at UPS can get up to 2 hours of tutoring a week, her students get the same.  She welcomes high functioning students on the autism spectrum (ASD), and has created a “hangout” space in her office where those students can relax and socialize.  The school is small enough that this approach works.  Finally, unlike many liberal arts colleges, Tacoma is far from the middle of nowhere.  It is a city of 200,000 people, meaning that therapists and psychiatrists are available.

In sum, the school is small, welcoming to all, and . . . not in the middle of a desert.  For a certain type of Arizona student, what’s not to like?

 

Should Wealthy Families File the FAFSA?

Most college aid is provided by the government and colleges.  In order to obtain financial aid from the government in the form of grants and loans, students must file the FAFSA, a questionnaire inquiring about parental and student assets.

The same is true for students seeking need-based awards from colleges.  (Some colleges require the CSS Profile, which demands greater disclosure of parent and student finances, and usually results in a lower aid award.)

A few parents earn so much money that they are very unlikely to obtain need-based aid.  Should they ask for it anyway?

The answer might appear obvious (even without considering the ethical issues involved), but not to the author of a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Why Wealthy Families Should Apply for College Financial Aid” (1/15/16).

Her arguments for doing so, and my rebuttals, follow.

 

It demonstrates your ability to pay without any help

The author claims that colleges and universities need to build a freshman class that includes families that can pay the full cost of attendance along with those who cannot. For well-off families, “the FAFSA can be used as a positioning tool” that might give a student an admissions edge.  

Colleges and universities do not “need” to build a class which includes families paying full-freight.  They do so to pay the bills.  In some cases, parents and students can gain an edge in admissions by declaring their ability to pay full tuition.

However, that same “edge” can be obtained by checking the “I am not asking for financial aid” box on the application.  Turning down potential aid sends the same message as disclosing your wealth on a federally filed form.  Not sending a FAFSA also avoids angering an admissions officer who has wasted his or her time on an application for financial aid which clearly will not succeed.

To qualify for merit aid

The article states that “many schools won’t consider students for merit aid unless a FAFSA is filed”.  That is simply wrong.  Indeed, the first version of that article identified several of those schools, including William & Mary.  Being skeptical, I checked that college’s web site — no FAFSA is required.  In the current version of the article, the WSJ has corrected the claim.  “Merit aid” has always been treated differently from “need based aid”.  The former does not depend on financial need.

To give kids “skin in the game” via federal loans

I am not a fan of saddling students with debt unless it is necessary.  If you are wealthy, it is not necessary.  If something goes wrong for your student (e.g., he or she does not finish school and find a job), those loans can become an albatross.

“Because you just might qualify, particularly with multiple children.”

The “multiple children” scenario has merit.  But parents only qualify for such aid when both children are in school simultaneously.

“Because your situation might change”

The author gives an example of a student whose parents lose their jobs but are saved from ruin because they filed a FAFSA. This is alarmist.

I am not aware of any college that refuses to grant aid after a parent’s financial situation has deteriorated on the grounds that the parents should have filed a FAFSA form before their circumstances changed.  In such cases, parents file a FAFSA and their need for aid is determined from that form.

In sum, spend the time that you would waste filling out the FAFSA with your student instead.  You will both be happier in the long run.

Not sure whether you are “too wealthy” for financial aid?  Use the “net price calculator” for each college to get an idea of your eligibility.  You will find it by searching for “net price calculator” on the college’s web site. You can also “plug in” your financial information at https://fafsa.ed.gov/FAFSA/app/f4cForm?execution=e1s1, a “FAFSA forecaster” provided by the Department of Education.

For parents of means, the route to college funding runs through merit aid scholarships.  Many colleges will provide scholarships to their best applicants which defray the cost of tuition.  Some public colleges offer very large discounts, particularly to out-of-state students (typically eliminating the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition).

For example, The Ohio State University (and woe unto those who omit the “The” in the title) offers its National Buckeye Scholarship to students in the top 40% (yes you read that correctly) of their high school class with a minimum SAT (Reading plus Math) of 1260 or an ACT of 28 or higher.  A lot of students can qualify.

How much money is involved?  The scholarship awards $11,400 per year, roughly the spread between in-state and out-of-state tuition.  Ohio State is a very fine university, and that is a very sweet deal.