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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!

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