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Friday, May 20, 2011

Overkill or a Savvy Strategy?

The admissions offices are so happy.  This season was such a success for so many of them!  Record numbers of applicants came in.  My undergrad alma mater's president commented, with glee, that the number of applicants has doubled in the past 6 years.  That's Northwestern, with over 30,000 applications.  Penn says: more than 31,500 students applied for 2,400 spaces in the class resulting in an all-time low overall admit rate of 12 percent!  Harvard only accepted 6.2% of their 35,000 applicants.  Yale and Columbia accepted fewer than 6% of the RD applicants and only 7% of EA/ED!

Look at these application numbers:  In 2013, about 250,000 applications were received by MIT, the Ivies, and Stanford.  In 2015, it was 298,000!

Northwestern, Penn, Stanford, Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell all report record numbers of applicants.  Together with the other Ivy League and Highly Selective Universities, admit rates plummeted.  Of the Ivies, only Cornell and Penn admitted more than 10% of the applicants.  The average number of applicants was 30,717.  There are only 24,149 seats all together!  With nearly 300,000 applicants!

It's not just the super elite schools, either.  Christendom, a tiny staunchly Catholic school reports its "best recruiting year ever" with a full class, and a waiting list.  The U of California schools also report record numbers of applicants.

So, what does it all mean?  Primarily it means that the schools very effectively preyed on people's fears of not getting in and students applied to many, many schools.  The norm used to be 6 schools - 4 good fits, a reach, and a safety school.  In the past two years, that has quickly shifted to 10 schools per student, with many of the bright kids applying to 15 or more.

Does the frenzy benefit anyone?  Well, yes.  The schools benefit.  They can all raise their tuition and fees.  The financial aid office, overall, can give out fewer dollars.  They have the same number of seats - with so many applicants, why should they accept those with great financial need?  There are very few need-blind schools (schools which do not consider financial need as part of their admissions process.)  Once again, our poorer students are going to bear the brunt of the negative consequences.

What do we do about it?  Well, let's take back our power.  Resist the fear of not getting in, choose schools prudently, and apply to 6-8.  Reduce the family's expense (there are application fees) and stress level.  Reduce the teacher and counselor recommenders' stress, too.  

Another factor to the numbers explosion may well be that 414 US colleges and universities can be applied to with a single application.  The Common Application is the way to apply to ALL of the Ivies, ALL of the top liberal arts colleges, and nearly all of the non-Ivy top schools.  Only Georgetown, UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, USC, and MIT don't use it.  The Common App. makes applying to numerous elite schools very, very easy.

Perhaps our elite schools could be encouraged to differentiate themselves again.  Given that it's all a numbers game, chances are slim.  Let's walk through this.  Say one school goes back to a private application.  That means extra work for all the applicants also applying to other Ivy/elite schools.  Those schools using Naviance (many of the better high schools) directly interface with the Common App.

Until the powers that be shift their focus or find that the market is saturated, I doubt we will see reform.  This side of the universities is their business side, not their lofty intellectual side.  With business, it's all in the numbers.  What is best doesn't come into consideration very much.

So, in the meantime, I urge sanity.  Choose your schools carefully.  Don't go for a school because it is prestigious.  Apply because it would be a terrific place for you, in particular, to grow and develop as a person and as an educated person.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Geeks and Social Cliques
This article posits what many of us "geeks" discover later in life.  By being different and retaining our individuality, our creativity, our uniqueness, and not abandoning our self-respect in order to conform and be accepted, we are happier with ourselves.  Our lives are more fulfilling.  We have fun and find deeper pleasure.  We also, often, continue to walk at a bit of an angle to the mainstream.  Our interests and tastes are not terribly influenced by the media or the advertisements which saturate our society and strongly support conformity.  Some of us have gone so far as to unplug ourselves; we don't own or watch television.  We retain control of our access to media, picking and choosing from the offerings on the internet, at the library and the now disappearing book store, on hiking trails, etc.  Frankly, with a house full of children, I don't have time to waste watching television.  I am too busy working with my children, helping them learn their lessons for school, and for life - conflict resolution, taking up the responsibilities which accompany freedom/privileges, working together for the good of all by contributing to the effective running of the household, etc.

Daring to step aside from the crowd takes courage, and the conviction that our pursuits are worthy of our time and attention.  The most precious asset any of us has is time - we will never have it again nor can we "earn" more of it.  So, our choice of how to spend it is key.

It is important to support the creative and free thinking of our students, particularly our elite students.  Consequently, liberal arts educations are highly esteemed by me.  There are many colleges and universities which will give students a mainstream education.  However, our innovators are not likely to thrive there, no matter how recognisable the university's name.

It is absolutely critical that parents and students keep the college selection task at the forefront of their minds for the first three years of high school, and before that, if the child is gifted, intellectually, athletically, or artistically.  During these years, college exploration and evaluation must be an ongoing task.  What is the best setting to further the educational goals of this student?  Which environment will best facilitate optimal growth and development of our student/child's gifts?  What setting is best?  If, however, the family's goal is prestige, then their favored college selections will be skewed and a serious mismatch may well occur.  The film, "Dead Poet's Society" is a must-watch for high school parents.  It is absolutely critical that parents listen to their children and honor them.  Don't put Harvard hopes on a child who would be stifled at Harvard.  It is the solemn responsibility of parents to remember that this is about the child, not the bumper sticker.  It's not about bragging rights to the prestigious schools.  It's about the bragging rights that our child is blossoming and joyfully developing his or her talents in a healthy, supportive environment.

Don't get me wrong; there is a place for prestigious schools.   I went to two of them.  I have the diplomas on my wall.  But, those pieces of paper, valuable though they are, do not make me the woman I am today.  My choices do.  My ability to reason, evaluate, and carry out activities and bring ideas into fruition do. My morals, revealed in my daily living choices, reveal who I am.  I may have the best education from THE best schools but, if I use it for ill, I will wear an orange prison jumpsuit and share a cell with a high school drop out.

As parents, it is imperative that we support our children as they walk the halls of our schools.  That we support their uniqueness and giftedness, whether it is the "in" thing or not, whether they will apply to the Ivies, or the community colleges.  It is, after all, our job to help our children become the best, most productive adults possible.  They are the future leaders of our families, communities, companies, and nation.  They are not our trophies - "Harvard Mom" bumper stickers cannot be our goals if we are being true to ourselves and our children (unless, of course, our student is a Harvard-type student).

So, go do the "right" thing and encourage your child to be true to him or herself!  To be the best person he or she can be, every day.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Admissions, the numbers game

Northwestern, Penn, Harvard, etc.. All are reporting receiving record numbers of applications for undergraduate admission this season.  Their marketing teams should be having post "game" celebration parties.  They met their objectives very, very effectively.  Record number of applications for a fixed number of seats in the class means much lower acceptance rates. Obviously, this adds to the exclusivity feel of the university.  It also nudges up the SAT and ACT score averages.

However, does it improve the quality of the education received?  Or the caliber or quality of the entering class?  Inherently, admissions has no impact on instructional quality or programming.  Northwestern, for example, had the number 4 engineering school when I was a student there in the 1980s.  However, its focus is primarily research and faculty publications.  The caliber of classroom instruction was mediocre and occasionally, I'll be honest, poor.  For this, my parents and I paid a fortune and I earned an engineering degree from an esteemed university, but I did not gain an excellent education.  My experience is not unique and I don't mean to single out my undergraduate alma mater.  This scenario is played out repeatedly over the years on campuses across the US.

Students and their parents need to look past the numbers the marketing and admissions teams worked so hard to generate in order to make their school look more attractive.  Student/Faculty ratios can be misleading - be sure only undergraduate classes are included.  And find out how large the large classes are.  Sitting in a class of 400 is a completely different experience than studying that same material in a group of 35.  As is being taught by a TA (graduate student hired to be a professor's Teaching Assistant).  Sometimes it is better.  Sometimes not.  If they are all foreign born with heavy accents, your student will face quite a challenge to their education.

So, what's my point?  My point is to urge families to look carefully at the various colleges and universities they are considering for their child.  Don't get dazzled by the marketing, the pretty campus, and the stats.  Look for the things that really matter - the education the student receive, the lifestyle of that college community, and the personal and academic caliber of the student body, for example.  Explore the graduation rate, the retention rate, the typical number of years students take to graduate.  Speak with the placement office and alumni relations.  What sort of future could be the result of studying there?

More information will be posted this Spring and Summer regarding the stats from the top schools.  Check back often!