A New Addition to College Curricula:  Preparing to Fail

The New York Times generally covers education issues in its “Fashion and Style” section.  Make of that what you will (including my reading habits), but one of their recent articles caught my eye: “On Campus, Failure is on the Syllabus” (June 24).

The lede is illustrative:

Last year, during fall orientation at Smith College, and then again recently at final-exam time, students who wandered into the campus hub were faced with an unfamiliar situation: the worst failures of their peers projected onto a large screen.

“I failed my first college writing exam,” one student revealed.

. . . .

The faculty, too, contributed stories of screwing up.

“I failed out of college,” a popular English professor wrote. “Sophomore year. Flat-out, whole semester of F’s on the transcript, bombed out, washed out, flunked out.”

“I drafted a poem entitled ‘Chocolate Caramels,’ ” said a literature and American studies scholar, who noted that it “has been rejected by 21 journals … so far.”

It is now a meme (see my entry on “Watch What You Post!” for a definition) that millennials are unusually fragile creatures who require cosseting against the vicissitudes of the real world.  In other words, they are weak creatures who have been raised in a bubble.

This is an odd idea on its face when applied to students admitted to elite colleges and universities.  These students have won an extraordinarily competitive race for four years to demonstrate that they are superbly equipped for any academic challenge.  Why would these students, of all people, suddenly crumble when they arrive at college?

Late adolescence is an uncertain, and even dangerous, moment.  At the extreme, this is the time when some forms of mental illness are more likely to emerge, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression.  See https://nami.org/collegeguide (claiming that one in five adults will experience a form of mental illness in college).  Students are also experimenting with adult life, including entering relationships which can end badly.

Further, many of these students have never experienced academic failure before they arrive at college.  The winners of a grueling race that penalizes even a “C” quite heavily, these students are heavily invested in succeeding, and are likely to be blindsided by failure.

Colleges are becoming alarmed at the frequency of students buckling under the new – for these students – experience of failure.  Smith College reminds students that 64% of students will receive a B-minus or lower during their time there.

And it goes a step further:

[W]hen students enroll in [Smith’s] program, they receive a certificate of failure upon entry, a kind of permission slip to fail. It reads: “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”

A number of students proudly hang it from their dormitory walls.

Smith is just one of many elite colleges rolling out such programs.

consortium of academics soon formed to share resources, and programs have quietly proliferated since then: the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, which features stories of rejection; the Princeton Perspective Project, encouraging conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling.

Some of this can be attributed to the newly fashionable idea that “grit” is an important ingredient for success.  As with most such revelations, a grain of truth can be puffed up into a silo full of grant-funded excesses seemingly devoted to accentuating the obvious.

However, such movements can also be useful, and this is one of them.  The “lesson” for students and the college counselors who work with them is that students should be made aware of the challenges ahead.  Most important, students should be told before they leave the nest that colleges have resources available to help students in distress.  Students should know the location of the Counseling Office on campus.  They should be instructed to seek help, and informed that doing so will not result in any social or parental stigma.

We all know that failure is part of life.  Make sure that your student knows that, too.  For my part, my students who just graduated high school and thought that they had heard the last of me until my Christmas break “check-in” are about to receive an e-mail with the New York Times article attached.

It Could Be Denver

The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) held its semi-annual conference in May in Denver, As part of that group, I visited several colleges of interest.


University of Colorado at Boulder

The University of Colorado at Boulder (“CU-B”) is located 30 miles northwest of Denver in the city of Boulder (107,000). The city is self-contained, which is very helpful because the promised light rail line to Denver remains a mirage.

Fortunately, Boulder is in a beautiful valley within two hours of some of the finest skiing in the world. The weather is advertised as providing about 300 days of sun each year. Boulder itself is a foodie, microbrew, green town that is one of the most sought after suburbs in Colorado.

CU-B’s strengths make it an attractive choice for students from every part of the country. It should be on the shortlist of every student who wants to become an astronaut or aerospace engineer; you can view CU-B’s alumni list here:  http://www.colorado.edu/aerospace/about-us/astronauts-affiliated-cu.

U.S. News ranks its aerospace engineering program at #12; the programs ahead of it are much more selective. And CU-B is not shy about reporting that the same ranking service chose its graduate physics department as #1 in the nation in Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics, ahead of MIT, Harvard, and Stanford.

STEM in general is a priority on campus. See http://www.colorado.edu/csl/pdfs/csl_materials/CSLBrochure_3-8-13.pdf for information on the university’s attempt to improve teaching and learning. Of course, many other universities are trumpeting similar initiatives, but CU-B’s appears to be ambitious in scope.

CU-B also has interesting programs outside of STEM. One of them is the environmental design program, which repackages the existing architecture program within a larger School of the Environment and Sustainability. Here is the university’s description:

Students enroll in studios, lectures, and seminars taught by 30 faculty with both academic and professional expertise. They design innovative “green” buildings and infrastructure and they work directly with cities to figure out how to integrate social, ecological, and economic needs to support a sustainable future. Students apply state-of-the-art educational technology including computing tools, digital image databases, fabrication equipment, and advanced media to make a persuasive case and bring their ideas into light. Layer on top of all this the resources of the Boulder campus—from sciences, social sciences, humanities, arts, and technology fields—and we offer an educational opportunity like no other.

Students interested in architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and design generally may find this approach intriguing.

Are there downsides to the CU-B experience?  Two come to mind. First, CU-B may become a victim of its own success. For example, the engineering school is planning to decrease enrollment next year to alleviate overcrowding – applicants may find it harder to win admission. Second, the popularity of the school contributes to a high cost of living:  Boulder is a very expensive place to live, and students who leave the dormitories for rental housing (71% of them this year) will need to budget accordingly.

How difficult is it to get in?  Admission requirements vary by program. The numbers for the College of Arts and Sciences for the middle cohort (25% to 75%) are GPA 3.37 to 4.0, SAT 1170-1350, and ACT 24-30. The numbers are similar for admission to the environmental design program. However, the engineering program raises the bar:  GPA 3.87-4.0, SAT 1290-1470, ACT 29-33.

The male/female ration is 56/44, perhaps fueled by the popularity of STEM at the university. The OOS number (percentage of out of state students) is 39%, suggesting that out-of-state students may need to post better numbers than those cited above.

CU-B is a typical large public university with some uncommon strengths, set in one of the most beautiful places in the country. It merits your attention.


Colorado School of Mines

They still tote the rock.

Decades ago, when your correspondent was applying to college, Colorado School of Mines was known as the finest engineering school in the West. It may still deserve that title, but it is not nearly as well known. This is a shame, because for certain STEM fields tied to the earth, there are few better in the country.

“Mines”, as it is known, is a public university serving 4,500 undergraduates and 1,300 students. Located in Golden, Colorado, a town of 20,000 people – with light rail access to Denver and Boulder – the school was founded in 1874, two years before Colorado achieved statehood.

The school notes that Mines was originally devoted to the study of – wait for it – mining.

Courses offered to students during the early years of Colorado School of Mines included chemistry, metallurgy, mineralogy, mining engineering, geology, botany, math and drawing. The focus of the early academic programs was on gold and silver, and the assaying of those minerals.

According to Wikipedia, in 1906 the school opened the first experimental mine in the nation for teaching purposes.

Its mission has broadened considerably today:

The nexus between the earth, the environment and society’s need to generate and distribute energy in an economic and sustainable way is central to Mines’ specialized mission. Faculty and students at Mines research new frontiers in resource exploration, extraction and processing, renewable energy production and distribution, advanced materials, and environmental impact, mitigation and remediation.

Mines welcomes students who wish to study engineering, computer science (the school has its own supercomputer), biochemistry, applied math and statistics, geoscience, or closely related fields. A complete list can be found here:  https://www.mines.edu/Undergraduate-Academic.

STEM students only need apply; those who are looking for a college with a robust liberal arts offering should look elsewhere. Indeed, Mines’ own application – it does not accept the Common Application – has no essay requirement.

Our tour guide gave us a window on the sort of students who go to Mines. She said that she decided on Mines after attending a summer day program where they built catapults. She said that it was the only place where she did not have to explain to her peers what a catapult was, and how to build it. She felt at home at Mines.

Indeed, teamwork and inclusion are important at the school. Professors teach all classes, which is unusual for an engineering school. The atmosphere emphasizes teamwork over competition. This should not be surprising, as almost every student has a job upon graduation. According to staff, 220 companies interview at Mines every year; and more are put on a waiting list in case a recruiting firm can’t make it. The gender ratio is 75:25, but the school also fields the largest collegiate section of the Society of Women Engineers.

Traditions are prized here. Each year about 1,000 students “pull” an ore cart from Golden to Denver, where someone at the Capitol reads from a proclamation declaring it Engineering Days in Colorado. Every student is given a hard hat upon entry. Although these usually just sit on a closet shelf, they can come in handy. We were hit with a hailstorm during our tour. Some students who really had to cross campus could be seen running across one of the quads, with the hail bouncing off their hard hats. So Colorado offers 300 days of sunshine, plus occasional hailstorms – it could be worse.

And what about the rock, you ask?  Incoming freshmen are expected to bring along a 10-pound rock from their hometowns. (I’d like to see students explain this to airport security.)  In a ceremony aided by upperclassmen, the students haul their rock up the mountain overlooking their campus, and place it in the whitewashed “M” at the top. Upon graduation, they are invited to go back to the “M” and retrieve a rock to take with them on their journeys, which probably ends up sitting on a shelf next to the hard hat and the Mines’ silver-plated diploma. The whole place has a bit of “old school” atmosphere that is hard to resist.

As for getting in, the numbers for the middle cohort (25% to 75%) are GPA 3.74 to 4.0, SAT 1370-1470, and ACT 29-32. The OOS percentage is 35%. These numbers are typical for good engineering schools.

Two additional facts stand out. First, admissions are rolling, and they open early – in September. Although students can still get priority admission status through November 15, they should aim to submit their application the moment admissions open. This is easier than it appears because, as noted above, there is no essay requirement. Second, Mines will give AP credit sparingly, and in many cases, only after the student passes a “challenge exam” in the subject.

Mines is a hard-core (sorry) engineering school with a small and cohesive class, professors who teach students, a few unusual majors (explosives engineering, anyone?), and an excellent location with the mountains nearby. For the right student, this place could be a perfect fit.


Colorado College

We travel 75 miles south from Denver for our final college, but the trip is worth it.

It is unusual to find a college which differs from others, not just in academic offerings, but in the structure of the curriculum itself. Colorado College (“CC”), in Colorado Springs, serving 2,100 undergraduates, is one of a handful of colleges in the U.S. where the academic year is based on a Block System – students take one course at a time, for three weeks and half weeks, before proceeding to the next. Students take eight Blocks each year, plus optional summer sessions and a half-Block over the winter break.

CC’s pitch for its Plan is compelling:

Want to study for your biology midterm without worrying about filming your documentary, reading 72 pages of The Odyssey, or training your psychology rat?

Why not take just one class at a time? 

Do not assume that CC is a trendy experiment. The College was established in 1874, and is graced by a large and stunning Norman Romanesque chapel built in 1931. A glance around various dedications on buildings reveals an endowment funded by the Packards (the “P” in “H-P”), the Waltons, and other luminaries. The campus is pretty, and the setting near Pike’s Peak is hard to beat.

The Block Plan was started in 1970, and has become the best-known feature of a strong liberal arts college. Students take one course Monday through Friday, usually from 9 a.m. to noon, with labs in the afternoon. Unless enrolled in a lab course, students have afternoons and evenings to themselves and each other.

Each Block period runs for 3 ½ weeks, ending the Wednesday of the fourth week; students get a four-day weekend before the start of the next Block.

One major advantage of this schedule is that professors can schedule trips into the field without conflicting with other courses. Students pursuing outdoor fields of study (e.g., archeology, geology, environmental studies, wildlife biology) are particularly well-served by this arrangement. CC mentions film students traveling to Hollywood and art students going to Paris – you get the idea. And with a 10:1 student/teacher ratio, education can be personal, to the point where professors often invite their class to dinner at their homes.

By the way, CC’s outdoor location at the foreground of the Rockies is perfect for its plan. Like all the other Colorado schools, there is plenty of sunshine and opportunity for winter sports.

CC attracts many students who are frustrated by having to multitask constantly in high school. These are students who prefer to “dig in” to a topic. They can immerse themselves fully in one subject. If they hate the class, they can either exchange it for another (on the first or second day) or grin and bear it, knowing that each Block only lasts for just over three weeks.

Students and counselors alike should read the College’s definition of the “right fit” student here:  https://www.coloradocollege.edu/lifeatcc/different/. The school tends to attract “intense” students. They may not be quirky, but they are definitely looking for something different. For most of them, that difference is the opportunity to fashion their own education, block by block. For such students, CC represents a wonderful opportunity.

Of course, great opportunities are not available for everyone. Only 17% of applicants are admitted, although the SAT/ACT numbers are not overly demanding:  averages of 1340 and 31, respectively.

Note that the annual cost of attendance is a hefty $65,000; students should investigate financial aid opportunities (most need-based) carefully.

Watch What You Post!

This blog does not usually cover breaking news, but Harvard’s recent move to rescind admissions for ten students based on their posts to social media makes this a timely topic.

The Washington Post is just one of many news outlets carrying the story:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/06/05/harvard-withdraws-10-acceptances-for-offensive-memes-in-private-chat/?hpid=hp_hp-morning-mix_mm-harvard%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.64e28d839ba4#comments

Like many schools, Harvard sponsors a Facebook page for admitted students. The page allows students – and admitted students who have yet to matriculate – to exchange information. The topics are typically mundane, including information about student groups, orientation, students seeking others with similar interests (e.g., incoming international students), and the like.

In this case, the Post reports that about 100 members of the freshman class created a messaging group which would “share memes about popular culture – a growing trend on the Internet among students at elite colleges.”  For anyone older than 30, this may require translation. A complete explanation can be found here:  https://studybreaks.com/2016/12/19/meme-culture/; my summary follows, quoting liberally from the link.

A meme in this context refers to a “humorous piece of online content, usually in the form of an image with text or video, that is copied and rapidly disseminated by internet users across all platforms.”  Many college Facebook pages have sub-groups that are devoted to communicating, and commenting on, memes related to college life. These range from tweaking the administration to edgier topics.

At this point, a small alarm bell should begin ringing in your head. It is one thing to exchange information, but views about potentially sensitive topics?  This may be dangerous.

And so it became on the Harvard Facebook page, as a group of students formed a separate group to exchange messages. Then an even smaller number of that group formed an “offshoot” page to exchange “off-color” or “R-rated” communications, including graphics. This “offshoot” page is where the trouble began. The Harvard Crimson reports:

A handful of admitted students formed the [offshoot] messaging group—titled, at one point, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”—on Facebook in late December, according to two incoming freshmen.

In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.”

Yes, this is very ugly. However, what happened next made news. Harvard admissions administrators learned about the offshoot group, and began monitoring it. Eventually, the administrators reached out to individuals and demanded explanations for particularly offensive posts. Harvard ultimately rescinded ten students’ admissions, well after the deadline for those students to enroll at other schools where they had been admitted.

Per the Washington Post and other news outlets, the university invoked a sort of “moral code” from its admissions policy that was included on the Harvard Facebook page:

As a reminder, Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character. 

This apparently includes posts on social media To recap, students congregated on a public web page created by Harvard, then created a “private” chat group, where they made off-color, and hateful, jokes among themselves. Harvard monitored this private page on the Harvard sponsored Facebook page, reviewed the communications, and rescinded admissions.

Aside from whether Harvard’s response was appropriate, the episode points to an emerging reality of the 21st century. Whatever you write or post on the social media — indeed, the Internet in general — is available to all to see, forever. It may, or may not, result in consequences.

On the Internet, typing something in “all caps” is the equivalent of (rude) shouting. This point needs to be shouted:


As college students would say:  rant off.

A surprising number of college administrators are looking for such material. According to Kaplan Test Prep, 35 percent of admissions officers said they check social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn more about applicants. About 42 percent of those officials said what they found had a negative impact on prospective students. See http://press.kaptest.com/press-releases/kaplan-test-prep-survey-college-admissions-officers-say-social-media-increasingly-affects-applicants-chances.

Even if Kaplan only surveyed “elite” colleges (my guess), those numbers are still eye-opening.

Students need to understand that their social media activity is “fair game” in the college admissions process, and act accordingly.


University of Washington Switches Gears on Admitting Students to its Engineering Programs

Faithful readers who have stuck with me since the beginning (okay, you can put your hand down), will remember one of my first posts about the need for counselors to find current and detailed information to help their students make informed choices. See The Data Is Out There – But You Need To Look For It.

One of my examples concerned the University of Washington, and the data I found was surprising.

Consider the University of Washington, a top-ranked engineering school.  The Engineering Department only admits 10-20% of applicants directly.  The rest are required to apply later, as juniors.  

What happens to [them]?  It isn’t pretty [link omitted]:

. . . .

To summarize, the majority of these very bright and talented students fail to get into their engineering sub-specialty.  (Thus, the would-be aeronautical engineer may have to settle for industrial engineering – much like a would-be brain surgeon ending up as a general practitioner.)  Some students get into none of the available sub-specialties, and either switch majors or transfer to schools to finish their engineering degree.

Well, not that my blog had anything to do with it, but the University of Washington is changing its policy, effective next year.  It will now admit about half its class, 650 students, directly.  Accounting for shrinkage after admission (about 40% of engineering students nationwide switch out of the major), the total will account for about half of the engineering degrees awarded.  The rest will come from students who transfer into the major, from other programs at the university, or from other schools.

However, there is an interesting footnote to this change in policy.  The department plans to enroll approximately 75% of its students from in-state, and the remaining 25% from “out of state or out of the country.”  If international students make up half of that 25%, your out-of-state student is going to find that getting into the University of Washington engineering program difficult, indeed.  But at least they will be rejected at the start, as opposed to waiting for two years for the hammer to fall and then not being eligible for the financial aid afforded to four-year students at UW.

And that’s cause for celebration.

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):


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,


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:


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.