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.

Trip Report: University of the Ozarks

I visited the University of the Ozarks in March of 2015.  Full disclosure:  I was one of ten consultants invited to participate in an all expenses paid trip to tour the University and its disability services facility.

The University is in Clarksville, Arkansas, about 1 hour and 45 minutes from Little Rock.  The route is via freeway all the way, and access to the campus is straightforward.

Clarksville is a dot in the middle of a large rural area with a population of less than 10,000 people.  What there is of downtown is miniscule; social life appears to be centered on campus.  There is no getting around it: this is a very small campus basically in the middle of nowhere.  If students and families can get past that (and many will not), there is much to be had here for the right student.

Clarksville is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, and some religious influence can be seen on campus.  Participation appears voluntary, with the exception of a single required religion class.

The campus itself looks like it could accommodate many more than 600 students, and the facilities look much nicer than you might expect from the description above.  Think Sam Walton’s (and friends) donations, spent tastefully and effectively, and you will not be far off.

A standout is the media program, which appears to be what you might find in the heart of a much larger campus.  You can – and the students do – produce TV broadcasts and run a low power FM station there.  One very busy faculty member with a professional resume runs a very impressive operation that seems outsized for a campus of 600 students.  I believed her claim that many of her students move seamlessly into television production jobs.

As you might expect, the outdoors is another huge part of the student experience.  Arkansas is chock full of lakes and rolling hills, and the campus claims them for its own.  There are bike trails, canoeing, hiking, rock climbing – if you can do it outside, Ozarks students are doing it.  Students run a large outdoors operation, complete with opportunities to earn wilderness and fast water certifications.  Ample equipment is available for rentals.  If you live in the outdoors, or want to learn how to do so, this is a good place to do it.

The University offers a major in environmental studies, whose students work with government agencies and local environmental NGOs.  Some of those students take jobs with those organizations after graduation.

I came away impressed with the sheer effort and enthusiasm behind it all.  Having met a half-dozen of the faculty, I can report that they are, to use those hoary buzzwords, qualified (often sporting Ph.Ds from recognized schools), committed, and engaged.  Most important, they are particularly committed to their Jones Center students.


The Jones Center

The Jones Center is the latest innovation from a progressive institution.  Consider that the University of the Ozarks is:

  • One of the first co-educational schools west of the Mississippi River.
  • The first college in Arkansas to admit women (1875).
  • The first historically white college in Arkansas to graduate an African-American (1959).
  • The first historically white college in the state to have an African-American compete in intercollegiate sports (1963).

And, of most immediate relevance here . . .

  • The first college in the nation to establish a program for college students with learning disabilities (1971).

That mission – to accommodate special needs students and keep them as part of the mainstream community – has informed the University’s activities ever since.

The Jones Center opened in 1994 for students with learning differences, including ADHD; two years later, the Center created a program for ASD (autism spectrum) students, as well.

The philosophy is inclusive – Jones Students are treated like the other students.  They take the same classes, and the same tests.  Yes, Jones Students may spend time at the Jones Center, and their exams may be proctored there instead of in class.  But the idea that learning disabled students need to stay engaged with the wider world is firmly in place here.

The only concession appears to be additional assistance to ASD students, who are peer mentored in nice apartments next to the student dorms until they are acclimated enough to join their fellow students in the dorms.

Our group of consultants was invited to the University by the Jones Center.  We started off, not in Clarksville, but in Little Rock at a luncheon provided by the school.  We heard from an impassioned parent who explained the hugely positive impact the Jones Center had on her son.  I was moved and impressed.  There is clearly a lot of caring here.  But is it backed by resources and technique?  What does roughly $20,000 per year buy a student at the Jones Center?

Those questions were addressed at the Jones Center itself.  The low-slung building occupies about 3,000 square feet, subdivided into offices, cubicles, and a conference room.  Fancy is it not, and it must be crowded when in full swing.

But “full swing” is probably an understatement.  The Jones Center cohort of 58 students are served by 14 permanent staff and an army of over 100 carefully screened and trained tutors, readers, and transcribers.  Ponder that for a moment; each student is basically equipped with a village of helpers.

The heart of the system is the dozen or so coordinators.  These coordinators have daily meetings with each student concerning academic and social subjects.  A lot of attention is paid to developing executive function skills.  Reading and math labs with appropriate technology are available.  Advisors specific to the Jones Center help students schedule classes to accommodate their disabilities.

The Jones Center surrounds the student with a “circle of support”.  As the student matures, that circle is loosened accordingly, until the student can function independently.



The Jones Center offers a separate admissions pathway to the school.  The University has forgiving thresholds for admission:  an 18 ACT or 2.0 GPA will suffice.  But it gets more interesting for students who, for whatever reason, do not meet this threshold.  The Jones Center will independently review psycho-educational tests (or even perform its own) to determine whether the student has potential.  Such students may be admitted outright or provisionally.

When asked about the low cut-offs for admissions, the University staff (not Jones Center staff) emphasized that the mission of the University was to take students who may not have lived up to their potential for a variety of reasons (including disability), help them decide on their future path, and then help them begin to walk that path as they leave campus.  The University is not looking for scholars so much as potential actors in the world.



I’ve painted an admiring picture of the University and the Center, but is the picture bright for every potential applicant?  Who are the right students for this environment?

It is easier to define who would not fit in here:

  1. Students who reject a rural environment.
  2. Students who desire a lively social life outside campus.
  3. High achieving students.  The school simply does not have enough high-caliber students to push each other to perform; this is not a school which confers prestige.
  4. Students whose needs include psychotherapy and medication management.  At the time of my visit, The University was having trouble attracting therapists and doctors to the Clarksville area because of its size and remoteness.  There is no campus mental health center.

If the University can attract enough therapists and doctors on a contract basis to drive from Little Rock to Clarksville a couple of times a week to see students, it will resolve this issue for the majority of prospective students.  This is a work in progress, and students and families potentially requiring those services should ask tough questions before proceeding.

  1. Students who do not accept that they have a disability which is interfering with their ambitions.  This is perhaps the most important criterion.  Students are going to be cosseted with attention.  Unless they “buy in” to the fact that they need all of this support, they are likely to resent it and fail to thrive.


Students who are best suited to this campus are likely to be those who:

  1. Are aware of, if not frustrated, by their differences, and seek a supportive community which allows them to mainstream themselves socially and academically. This may range from the burly hunter at our meeting rocking in his chair with severe AD/HD, to the woman who matter-of-factly stated that Ozarks was her fourth college, but that she was confident that the Jones Center would help her graduate from this one.
  2. Will benefit from very close contact with faculty.
  3. Are less status conscious, have ties to the region, but would like to develop a wider vision of that big world out there and help to thrive in it.

For this smaller group, the Jones Center promises to be a wonderful option.



This is only one data point, representing a single visit to a busy campus with many people, including supervisors, with whom I did not meet.  It is just my opinion, which no doubt reflects certain biases and preconceptions.

Further, there is always the possibility that I misunderstood, or was misinformed, about the information presented here.  I will be happy to correct any errors brought to my attention.

Planning to “Trod the Sod”

Deciding which colleges to visit requires students and their families to make tough choices about how to allocate their time and money.  Summer is when many students have the most time to visit colleges.

What better time, then, to offer a guide to college visits, or, as they put it in the trade, a guide on planning to “trod the sod”?

Consider your objectives

Students should visit a college to help them determine whether they want to live in that community.  No amount of research can prepare for living through a New England or Midwest winter, or the vaporous heated atmosphere which settles on Washington D.C. from May through October, or the gloom that besieges the Northwest for weeks at a time.

Similarly, each college is a community with its own population and values.  Students should sample a community, even for only a few hours, before choosing whether to join it for the next four years.

The problem is that many students apply to a dozen colleges or more.  For most families, visiting that many colleges would cost too much time and money.  How should students and their families narrow the field?

One strategy is to wait until after the student has been accepted to a school before visiting it.  This saves time and expense, but comes with its own costs.  Students may apply to colleges which they could have ruled out with a visit.  Further, students may only have a month after the April 1 deadline for colleges to make admissions decisions and their own May 1 deadline to accept; arranging for last minute visits can be an expensive hassle.  Finally, as mentioned in my previous post (“You’ve Got Mail!”), many colleges are factoring into their admissions process whether students have “demonstrated interest” in the school.  Visiting is the best way to “demonstrate interest”.

Consider the odds of admission to get the best “bang for the buck”

Most college counselors encourage students to divide colleges into three categories:  “reach”, “match”, and “safety”.  If a student’s credentials are much stronger than the typical applicant to a potential college, that college is a “safety” school – it is a “safe” bet that the student will get in.  “Match” colleges are those where the student’s credentials “match” the average applicant.  “Reach” colleges are those where the student’s credentials are not as good as the average applicant, but are not so inferior as to make applying a complete waste of time.  (Luck does play a part in college admissions, and the student may offer some quality – perhaps geographic diversity or interest in a particular major that the college wishes to expand – that may result in admission.)

This classification is also helpful in deciding which colleges to visit.

Visit “safeties” first.  They are more likely to be located closer to home, requiring less time and money to visit.  Even if they are located out of state, spending time and money to verify that the student will be happy if the worst happens in the admissions process is a sound investment in your family’s emotional well being.

“Match” schools are next because of the importance of “demonstrated interest”.  While grades and test scores are still the most important part of the application process, in close cases a student’s “demonstrated interest” may tip the balance.

What if you cannot visit all of your “match” schools?  Of course, you will decide which “match” schools are the most desirable and the least expensive to visit.  Next, check the “Common Data Set” for each college by Googling the college’s name and the words “common data set”.  Colleges provide certain information to the College Board and guidebook publishers based on information they provide to the U.S. Department of Education.

Find Paragraph C7, a table where colleges state the importance of certain variables in their admissions decision process.  One item is “Level of applicant’s interest”.  Any college which states that it considers such interest is signaling that visiting will pay dividends.  Unfortunately, many colleges falsely claim not to consider an applicant’s interest; do not cross a college off your visiting list based on a “negative” answer.

Finally, students are tempted to visit their “reach” schools because those colleges best represent their hopes and aspirations.  Be aware that such a visit may further increase the student’s emotional investment in a school which he or she is unlikely to attend.  Although it is never easy to decline to visit such schools, families with limited time and resources should do just that; plan to visit if and when the student is admitted.

Taking it on the road

The first step is to decide when to visit.  As noted above, climate matters.  Ideally, you will visit each college during its “worst” season.  If possible, visit while classes are in session; an empty campus is not representative of the college environment.

Use the student’s name and e-mail account (see “You’ve Got Mail!”) to book your visit on each college’s web site.  You want colleges to “register” the demonstrated interest involved in booking a visit.  Sign for information sessions and college tours.  If the college offers special sessions for your student’s intended major, think about planning your trip to take advantage of them.  Students with specialized majors, such as fine arts, should try to meet a professor or even arrange an audition (or review of their portfolio).  At the extreme, a few colleges offer sleepovers, usually for admitted students.  These can be a very good way of helping students get a feel for the college while demonstrating interest.

If visiting multiple colleges, allot one day for each college.  Squeezing in two colleges in a day is possible (and necessary for some families), but can be tiring.  Fatigued students and families are more likely to forget or confuse important details about each visit.  Wondering what to do after a half-day touring the college and attending an information session?  Have lunch on campus or at a nearby student hangout.  Go back to your hotel and compare notes.  (Speaking of hotels, some colleges partner with local hotels to offer discounts for visitors).  See a museum or other tourist attraction – after all, this may be your only visit to the area.

Once you are on campus, spend an hour or so before any tours or information sessions walking around and visiting the student union to get a feel for the place.  Eating lunch on campus is also a great way to sample its wares, literally.

By the way, make sure that you know how to find the college and parking lots which you are allowed to use.  Nothing ruins a college visit like a parking ticket.

When you arrive at the admissions department, sign the guest book.  You only get points for demonstrating interest if the college knows that you actually visited.

College interviews are a separate topic not covered here, but at a minimum, be aware that any private conversation with an admissions officer is potentially an interview.

Take the campus tour and ask questions of the guide.  Of course, the guide is a student paid by the college to “sell it”, and will have a pre-packaged spiel.  However, asking a few questions that go off script may yield insights.

You might ask guides why they enrolled, where do they live (dorm or off campus), and what do they like or dislike about the college and their living arrangements.  Ask about their favorite study spots, and where students gather for movie night or other social activities.  If your guide has similar career interests, you can ask what they plan to do after graduation.  You might even discover careers that interest you.

Parents, to avoid embarrassing your student, do not ask more than two questions.  Silence is often golden, and students will learn more if they are not worrying about your presence.  Your place is at the back of the touring pack, exchanging information (i.e., gossiping) with other parents about their college visits.

Finally, students should heed their gut feelings during visits.  It is not unusual for a student to decide within minutes or hours that the campus “just doesn’t feel right”.  Perhaps this is the moment that the student realizes that he or she does not like an urban campus, or, as one student put it, “I don’t want to cross a four lane street to go to class.”  Parents and students should heed such feelings and simply leave.  Go have some fun and do not linger on the experience.  The whole point of the visit is to allow the student to make choices.  Celebrate them, even if you are disappointed.  Remember that it is a lot better to spend one uncomfortable morning at an unsuitable college than the next four years there.

You’ve Got Mail!

Is your student a “rising senior”?  Rising seniors are students who have finished their junior year in high school. If your answer is yes, then in the words of AOL (you do remember AOL, don’t you?), “you’ve got mail.”

Summer is the season when colleges begin communicating with rising seniors. Although this usually takes the form of postcards and brochures, some “tech savvy” colleges are also using e-mail. Students will often receive two dozen or more such communications over the next few months.

Before throwing away (or deleting) these communications, consider how to use them to your advantage. To do so, it helps to understand why colleges are communicating with your student.

How did “X college” find my student?

The College Board provides colleges with students’ names, test scores, and “interest data” that students submit when completing on-line “find a college” assessments. If you thought those assessments were just to help students, think again.

Why did “X college” communicate with my student?

Although we often focus on the fact that thousands of students are vying for admission, colleges compete for students with equal ferocity. There are over 2,000 four-year colleges in the United States. The number of high school seniors graduating each year is beginning to decline. An increasing number of families are finding college unaffordable. In this market, colleges need to reach out to students. These communications are the first salvo in a collegiate war for students’ attention.

My student does not have the credentials to qualify for “X college” – did the college send this communication by mistake, or should my student plan on attending?

There has been no mistake, but do not pack your student’s bags just yet. Some colleges that send out material – most likely the ones you have never heard of – may simply be advertising to likely prospects. These colleges have considered students’ PSAT scores reported by the College Board, selected those who are “good fits” for their incoming class, and gambled 90 cents or so to send a brochure in hopes of getting their attention. These colleges may justify your student’s attention.

Sadly, however, many colleges are simply “gaming” the system to achieve greater “selectivity” at your student’s expense.

What is “selectivity”?

Selectivity is a measurement based on the percentage of applicants whom colleges accept for admission. Colleges that accept a high percentage of applicants, say 60% of those applying, are considered “less selective”; colleges which accept lower percentages are considered “more selective”. Some “very selective” colleges, such as Stanford and Harvard, accept fewer than 10 percent of those who apply.

Colleges are rewarded for being more selective because the U.S. News and World Report uses selectivity in “scoring” each college. More selective schools move up in the rankings; less selective schools fall.

This focus on selectivity motivates some colleges to invite as many students as possible to apply for admission, including those students whom those colleges will surely reject. Indeed, rejecting a high percentage of these applicants will increase a college’s ranking. This is a perverse incentive for colleges, and destructive to applicants.

Is your student destined to be “cannon fodder” in the college ratings war?  Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If your student is being courted by a college that is out of his league, Ivy or otherwise, beware.

The good news is that you can use college communications to your advantage. The first step is to properly “receive” such correspondence; the second is to use that correspondence to increase your student’s chances of admission.

Receiving the mail/email

Create file folders for “college mail” and “prospective colleges”. Parents should skim each solicitation and place it into the “college mail” file. Once a week, students should review their mail, transfer interesting correspondence to the “prospective colleges” file, and recycle the rest.

Students should also create an e-mail account just for communicating with colleges. This allows students to stop receiving communications from colleges after admission season is over simply by eliminating that account. Students should provide parents with the username and password for that account, and both should check it regularly.

If the account is a gmail address (a common choice), note that Google may file communications under seemingly obscure categories, such as “social”, “promotions”, and “updates”. Look for new communications in each category.

Use college communications to create “demonstrated interest”

In addition to “selectivity”, colleges are concerned about their “yield rates”. The “yield rate” is the percentage of students accepted by a college who eventually enroll. Colleges aim for a high “yield” in part because it helps them predict how many students will enroll.

Imagine a college with 5,000 spaces for its freshman class, and 15,000 applicants. Should it accept 10,000 students, and hope that half will enroll?  If 6,000 students accept their offers of admission, then the college must find more instructors and dormitory space. If only 3,000 students accept, the college must turn to a “wait-list” and admit students it originally did not find to be a good fit.

The challenge of estimating yield is becoming more difficult because the adoption of the Common Application has made it easier for students to apply to multiple colleges. The result has been a vicious circle – more students apply to each college; each college rejects more of them because the applicant pool is larger; and the resulting increase in colleges’ “selectivity” prompts students to apply to still more colleges in hope of getting into a least one of them. Thus, we see more colleges offering “early action” and “early decision” options; students willing to apply early are more likely to actually enroll if accepted.

Colleges use “demonstrated interest” to help predict which students will enroll. Students demonstrate interest in colleges in a variety of ways. Campus visits are the best indicator of “demonstrated interest” because students and parents will only spend the time and money necessary to visit if they are already interested in the school. Thus, when arranging a visit, students should always register through the college’s web site; they should also sign the guest book when they arrive.

The interesting news is that colleges are now starting to track every student interaction with the college, from “check-ins” at college fairs to student’s e-mails to the college, to measure “demonstrated interest.”  Although grades and test scores are still the most important part of the application process, in close cases a student’s “demonstrated interest” may tip the balance.

This means that students should view communications from a college as a free opportunity to bulk up their admissions files at schools they would like to attend. For example, a client recently received an unsolicited e-mail from Hampshire College. That e-mail included a fancy graphic and a big circle with this message: “Click here to access our invitation-only site:  Ideas into Action.”

With one click, the student will add to his or her admission file with Hampshire. Repeating this with every follow-up e-mail Hampshire sends will give the student an edge when it comes time to apply. The same is true for written communications; most of these will direct students to college web sites which students should patronize.

In sum, the college admission process is now beginning earlier, and students are expected to do more to demonstrate interest in their college suitors. Take advantage of this new environment.

Trip Report: University of Southern California

I visited the University of Southern California (USC) in January of 2015 (before I started this blog).  I did not tour the campus because my focus was solely on the resources offered to students with learning disabilities.


Disabilities and the admissions process

Disability does not trigger any special review at the admissions office.  Disclosing a disability can still be helpful in providing a context for under-performance in high school.  Applicants are allowed to send in documentation, including IEPs and 504s — a useful benefit.



Although I called ahead, no arrangements were made for my visit.  This is a good thing (if somewhat bruising to the ego), as it allows for candid discussions with the actual staff, as opposed to administrators who may stick more closely to a script.  The staff I interviewed were open and friendly.  They appeared to be happy with what they were doing and well-equipped to do it.

The philosophy of “student as self-advocate” rules here.  Even after a student has registered with Disability Services, there is no follow up to determine whether he or she is using accommodations or whether those accommodations are helpful.

When I posed a hypothetical question about a parent calling in to ask Disability Services to do a “wellness check” on a student who appeared to be “lost” (i.e., not calling home, not showing up to class), the counselor took me literally, stating that she would call the campus police.  Maybe it was how I asked the question?  Perhaps, but I would hope that under such circumstances, the Disability Services office would reach out to that student, offer assistance, and encourage him or her to “check in” with the concerned parent.

The Disability Services office is also not well integrated into the rest of the university support system for students.  If a student is doing poorly in class, the tutoring and student advisory system responds but does not notify Disability Services unless the student reports the disability as a cause of the under-performance.  If parent-student ties and communication are frayed, valuable time might be lost while the student is floundering.

This is not unusual for universities across the country, even those with well equipped disability centers like USC.  My recommendation:  know your student well. If he or she is comfortable disclosing a condition and any problem encountered while at the university, the staff appears ready and willing to assist, and more than competent and equipped to do so.  If not, your student could get lost.  A certain amount of “helicopter parenting” may be necessary for students enrolled at USC.

But there is more here than just the Disability Services department.  I also visited the Kortschak Center for Learning and Creativity, down the hall – and independent from – the Office of Disability Services.  It is an ambitious and helpful attempt to assist students with learning disabilities who are having trouble with their studies.

The Center does not address students who are only having trouble in one class; those students are referred to subject-specific tutors in their respective academic disciplines.  Similarly, students who are having life struggles are directed to counseling resources.  The Center is the place for students who have systemic problems with issues such as executive functioning, language processing disorders, and dyslexia.

This last group of students visits Center coaches every week.  These students are exposed to new tablet applications (all Apple, no Android yet).  The staff demonstrated for me a “mind mapping” software package, Inspiration, which allows students to use visual outlines and flow charts in unusual ways.  This software is particularly clever because it also stores the underlying data in a Microsoft Word outline.

All of this activity is separate from Disability Services.  The Kortschak Center is looking to reach all students and identify those who are frustrated by their particular form of cognition — if some of those students have a learning disability (and many will be), so much the better.

So we are left with this:  a Disability Services department which is properly equipped and staffed but does not appear to offer outreach to parents or proactive intervention for students in distress.  This is in line with many other large universities. However, a student who can “self-advocate” is rewarded with access to a state-of-the-art, perhaps even breakthrough, learning lab that teaches them skills they can use for the rest of their lives.

Intriguing, yes?



This is only one data point, representing a single visit to a busy campus with many people, including supervisors, with whom I did not meet.  It is just my opinion, which no doubt reflects certain biases and preconceptions.

Further, there is always the possibility that I misheard, or was misinformed, about the information presented here.  I will be happy to correct any errors brought to my attention.

The Data Is Out There – But You Need To Look For It

In my previous post, I noted a growing interest in the Internet as a source of information about college. This post seeks to support an even more ambitious statement:  college counselors must regard the Internet as a critical source of information.

Consider this post to be Exhibit A in my case for using the Internet to assist students and their families:  the plight of the prospective undergraduate engineering student. This post concentrates on how the Internet can be mined for information which will help us avoid a “bad” placement.

At first glance, advising a pre-engineering student would appear to be easy work. There are relatively few engineering schools among the over 2,000 four-year institutions in the United States. The curriculum does not vary among those engineering schools, at least within a particular sub-specialty – such as electrical engineering – because ABET (the accrediting body for engineering education) requires a standard curriculum. Most engineering positions do not require state licensure, allowing students to work anywhere in the United States.

Pick the top-rated engineering schools that are likely to admit your student, in desirable locations, with reasonable tuitions, print out a list of that information, and you’re done. Right?

It’s not that simple.

While the engineering curriculum may not be changing, the rest of the engineering school environment is undergoing a rapid and radical transformation because of the swelling popularity of the major. According to Forbes magazine:

The most popular college major choice for high school seniors surveyed by Career Builder—the majority of whom already have a career in mind—is engineering. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/emsi/2014/09/12/the-most-in-demand-and-oldest-engineering-jobs/).

This is a recent development. As noted in “The Stem Enrollment Boom”:

Using data collected by UCLA, Jacobs and Sax write that from 1997 through 2005, the proportion of freshmen planning to enroll in STEM fields declined, hitting a low in 2005 of 20.7 percent. After modest gains in 2006 and 2007, real increases started to show up in 2008. The percentage of freshmen planning to major in STEM increased from 21.1 percent in 2007 to 28.2 percent in 2011, just as the recession was prompting many students and families to focus on the job potential of various fields of study. That represents a 48 percent increase in just a few years.


Engineering is the “hot major” of this decade. More students – and perhaps equally important – parents, are seeing it as the best path to probable employment after graduation.

Unfortunately, many of these students are lambs heading for slaughter unless you do some homework for your client. An examination of that vast library of information – the Internet – reveals why.

Engineering is increasingly regarded as a pre-professional major. By that I mean that unless you begin college as an engineering major (or “pre-major”), you cannot change your mind and enter the program later. Many colleges require that applicants specify their intent to enter an engineering program; these programs typically have tougher admissions standards than other departments. If at first you do not succeed in winning admission as an engineering major, well, thank you for playing – and goodbye. Consider the admissions decision one of my clients received this year from Purdue – admittedly an engineering powerhouse – after applying as a potential engineering major:

Thank you for your interest in Purdue. Unfortunately, because of the demand for the major to which you applied far exceeds its capacity, we cannot accommodate all applicants. However, you’re an excellent student who can succeed at Purdue. Therefore, we’d like to consider you for admission to an alternative major on our West Lafayette campus – and there are a number of outstanding programs.

To request an alternative major . . . submit the online form. 

When completing the form, please select a major in which you are truly interested. If you are admitted, we cannot guarantee you would be able to switch from the alternative major into the major you originally requested on your application. Typically, majors that are in very high demand at the admission stage also have limited capacity for enrolled students seeking to switch. 

Although we are not able to admit you to the major you requested originally, we hope you will request to be admitted to an alternative major. Earning a Purdue degree is a meaningful achievement that can open doors throughout your life. 

My client will not be a Boilermaker (Purdue’s mascot) engineer. For your information, here are just a few other colleges with similar policies:


http://www.seasoasa.ucla.edu/undergraduates/chmaj/com-faq (minimum 3.5 GPA in technical subjects)

https://engineering.cmu.edu/current_students/services/transfer.html (space available and grades)

http://www.engineering.cornell.edu/admissions/undergraduate/apply/transfer/requirements.cfm (grades)

The effect of these policies is to require high school students to commit to engineering well before they understand what that commitment entails. Unfortunately, not every prospective engineering major has the talent or inclination to become an engineer. One estimate pegs the attrition rate at an eye-watering 40% after the freshman year. See http://blogs.ptc.com/2012/08/06/high-dropout-rates-prompt-engineering-schools-to-change-approach/. This information should not be surprising – how many high school students have actual experience with engineering work, and in particular, with the extremely difficult mathematics involved?

Worse, an unsuccessful foray into pre-engineering and engineering course work can damage a student’s GPA and graduate school prospects. Unlike other departments, grade deflation rules the day at engineering schools. Per the New York Times:

After studying nearly a decade of transcripts at one college, Kevin Rask, then a professor at Wake Forest University, concluded last year that the grades in the introductory math and science classes were among the lowest on campus. The chemistry department gave the lowest grades over all, averaging 2.78 out of 4, followed by mathematics at 2.90. Education, language and English courses had the highest averages, ranging from 3.33 to 3.36.  Ben Ost, a doctoral student at Cornell, found in a similar study that STEM students are both “pulled away” by high grades in their courses in other fields and “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors.


Students who wash out of engineering programs are left at a serious disadvantage when applying to graduate programs, where the overall undergraduate GPA is a critical factor in admission. I will have more to say about this in another post.

But the problem which draws my attention today is that just battling to get into an engineering program is not enough. For many schools, a new competition begins on Day 1 of freshman year, and the stakes are high.

Some colleges do not admit students directly into their engineering major. Rather, they admit them as “pre-majors”. Admission to the major requires an additional application after the student’s sophomore or junior year.

You might think of this as an innocuous feature designed to make sure that students with little talent do not advance – a sort of early warning system that this career may not be for you. And once upon a time, it probably was.

Not anymore, and you will only learn that hard fact from the Internet.

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. See http://www.engr.washington.edu/prosp_students/undergrad-adm.html

What happens to the rest?  It isn’t pretty:

See http://www.dailyuw.com/news/article_656b56bb-ba58-5b50-bb3b-122f0681bcf0.html

No, please. Click that link. You will have to read it to believe it. Hit the Back button on your browser when you are done, and we will proceed.

You will not find this article in the information distributed by the University of Washington to visiting students. But Google did. 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.

Like many universities, the University of Washington has endured massive budget cuts. Unfortunately, its response has been to turn its Engineering Department into a collegiate version of the “Hunger Games”. Maybe Purdue did my client a favor by turning him away at the outset.

Before outraged UW alumni and administrators lunge to their keyboards to leave comments, I concede that many engineering schools use “weed out” courses to thin out their classes. (At Georgia Tech, disappointed students refer to the common practice of transferring out to a Business major as “taking the B train”.)

And the old “Paper Chase” movie line about Harvard Law School (“look to your left, now to your right – because one of you won’t be here by the end of the year”) makes it clear that this sort of winnowing has a long history, even outside engineering. (See Wikipedia for more information about just that winnowing at Harvard. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_Law_School)

However, I see a difference between requiring students to take extremely difficult introductory courses which award very low grades and UW’s practice of setting a very high bar merely to get into the major. The former practice still allows students to graduate in engineering unless they literally flunk out.

As the old joke goes, “what do they call a medical student at the bottom of his class?  Doctor.”

Students who fail to make UW’s cut have already invested years of tuition, and may incur further costs if they have to transfer to schools which do not accept all of their credits. They may have thought that UW accepted as freshmen only those whom it planned to graduate as engineers. Sadly, no.

The problem with UW’s enrollment control strategy is that students do not learn about it until it is far too late for them to change course (literally). The rules are virtually undisclosed until you begin matriculating at UW; unless you do extensive research on the Internet, you will not discover the problem. As a college counselor, the worst thing you can do is to set a student up for failure without even knowing the risks.

How bad is the situation at UW?

As the title of this post states, “The Data Is Out There – But You Need To Look For It.”

If you look (hard) for it, you will find a UW Engineering database where you can look up acceptance rates by sub-specialty (such as biomedical engineering or aeronautical engineering), by academic year, and even rates for under-represented and minority students. See


Variables include the department (sub-specialty), the quarter (first-time applicants apply in the Fall), and whether the student is already at UW or is a transfer candidate. There are also variables for gender and minority status.

Acceptance rates range from 30% to 45%. Fewer than half are accepted into the major. Further, this helpful table shows that UW’s winnowing has become much more severe since the recession. See http://data.engr.washington.edu/pls/portal30/STUDENT_APPL.RPT_APPLICANT_STATISTICS_YEAR.show.

This information is not mentioned in college guidebooks or the university’s glossy brochure. Once I pointed it out, my client did not apply to UW.

But UW may not be an outlier for much longer. Other schools are looking to control enrollment in this suddenly “hot” major.

Did you know that the Ohio State University keeps records – online – of its committee meetings?  Consider this nugget from the minutes of a College of Engineering Committee on Academic Affairs meeting in 2013.

10.1.1 We have 1750 new first semester freshmen this year and have 2300 students taking one of our Introduction to Engineering courses this semester.

10.1.2. We have a massive enrollment bubble going through the college, but our new enrollment management plans should help keep our enrollment under control.


And what might those enrollment management plans entail?

The plan was approved by the university and programs were required to create their own enrollment management plan that needed to be approved by ASAP. These policies are important to Engineering as it appears that we will have about 1,800 new freshmen this coming autumn. Part of the college’s enrollment management plan is increasing the requirements for admission of transfer students.


And that is exactly what Ohio State has done. Students applying to their sub-specialty majors in 2015-16 will find that the GPA requirements are significantly tougher than in previous years. Again, you can find this information on OSU’s website, but only if you know where to look:  (compare https://advising.engineering.osu.edu/sites/advising.engineering.osu.edu/files/uploads/Admission_To_Major/engineering_major_application_information_su2015-sp2016.pdf with https://advising.engineering.osu.edu/sites/advising.engineering.osu.edu/files/uploads/Admission_To_Major/engineering_major_application_guidelines_su2014-sp2015.pdf

In sum, the world is changing for engineering students. But unless you turn to the Internet, you will not detect and appreciate the magnitude of that change.

What Do We Mean By Fit?

College counselors have one mantra:  we find the best “college fit” for your student.  But what does fit mean, and how do we go about it?

“Fit” is a vague term which means different things to counselors, parents, and students.  Consider some of the commonly used criteria for evaluating a potential match between a college and a student:

  • Opportunity to learn (not just the acquisition of knowledge, but “learning how to learn”)
  • Availability of certain fields of study, and the strength of same compared to other colleges
  • Quality of professors, both in terms of knowledge and general likeability
  • Average time to graduation
  • Job prospects upon graduation
  • Best choice of graduate schools upon graduation (which is not quite the same thing as job prospects)
  • Availability of internships and co-ops (a longer form of internship which offers a better chance of winning a job offer from the company)
  • Likelihood of graduating (because if you do not graduate, the rest does not matter much)
  • Socialization (opportunity to acquire social skills, and even marital prospects)
  • Availability of on-campus housing for some, or all, years of attendance, and the condition of same.
  • Cost of attendance and availability of financial aid
  • Availability and affordability of study abroad
  • Quality of surroundings (e.g., most students will prefer California to North Dakota)
  • Likelihood of gaining admission

Some of these criteria involve several variables.  For example, the cost of attendance may depend upon the match between the academic performance of the student and the college’s targeted demographic.  Simply put, a student who is more “attractive” to a particular college may receive a significant amount of “merit aid” not offered to students with weaker academic credentials.  Thus, a student with an A average and a 1300 SAT (reading and math) score might receive no aid from Johns Hopkins, a full tuition waiver from a local public college, or a reduction in tuition from out-of-state to in-state rates at a school like the Ohio State University.

College counselors use interviews and questionnaires to obtain information about the student which helps tease out which colleges might provide the best match.  Then the hard work begins of deciding which of the factors listed above should weigh most heavily for the particular student, and selecting colleges accordingly.

Some of that work is based on the counselor’s prior experience with potential “match” colleges.  Many consultants visit over 20 colleges a year, and more than a few have visited hundreds in their lifetimes.  These counselors can develop a “mental database” of information which helps them sort quickly through the over 2,000 four-year colleges nationwide.

But therein lies a problem.  Nobody can visit over 2,000 colleges.  Further, the information gleaned from such visits can become dated.  Like any institution, colleges change with the times.  Key people leave; policies change.  Recently, facing tight budgets, colleges are limiting enrollment in certain “impacted” majors, or even cutting departments wholesale.  Even if colleges highlighted such information during counselor visits (they don’t), counselors would not have timely information unless they visited each school every year – which is impossible.

This is why there is growing interest among counselors in using the Internet to tap information about colleges.  This is my specialty, and I discuss it in more detail in my next post (“The Data Is Out There – But You Need To Look For It”).