Monday, June 29, 2009

Plenty to do this Summer to prepare for the Fall

The summer is definitely a well-deserved break for students to relax and recharge for the upcoming school year. But it's also a critical time period for parents and students to start game-planning ahead for a number of important admissions-related activities, including: SAT/ACT test preparation, beginning work on writing samples or visiting/research potential colleges. After all, once the school year begins, your son or daughter is going to see virtually all free time disappear under the weight of a full course load and extra-curricular activties. The sooner you can impress it upon your child to begin the heavy lifting now (in balance with leisure time), the more likely that the college admissions process during the academic year will become more manageable and free of stress.

One good place to start in building some potential summer goals as it relates to preparing for college applications this Fall is to review a typical timeline-based checklist. These checklists aren't a great fit for every student, but it covers the general milestones and pace of preparing for college admissions for most students. One list we like that seems pretty comprehensive and is worth checking out is from QuestBridge here.

We definitely recommend utilizing the summer months to begin work on the personal statement. Free of school and other distractions, your child may be better positioned to write a more substantive, unhurried essay. And of course, completing an initial draft early on will allow for plenty of time to edit and rewrite. Check out last week's Times blog post on college essay writing tips for a start.

Finally, take some time to weight the relative benefits of visiting prospective colleges over the summer with your child. The NY Times' Advice for Travel section is a nice place to look for advice on planning and making the most of college visits. Within the Bay Area alone, there are a number of great colleges and universities worth visiting over a weekend including but not limited to:

California Maritime Academy

Dominican University of California
Holy Names University
Mills College
Notre Dame de Namur University
Saint Mary’s College of California
San Francisco Art Institute
San Francisco State University
Santa Clara University
Stanford University
University of California, Berkeley
University of California at Davis
University of the Pacific
University of San Francisco

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Score Choice is Contentious!

There is a contentious discussion going on about Score Choice, the new decision by the College Board that allows students to report only select scores to colleges (you can view each school's policy on the College Board website, at the bottom of this page).

Score Choice is optional. If students do nothing else, the College Board sends all SAT scores to their colleges of choice, and students get four free score reports. Score Choice became available in March 2009, and interestingly enough, the College Board reports that the same volume of scores sent to schools from March to May. There is a distinction in Score Choice: Reporting all scores - V1 schools look at all scores, V2 schools look at best scores. Reporting only certain sittings - again, V1 schools look at all scores, V2 schools look at best scores. This distinction was created by a special task force of representatives from CSU, ElkGrove, UCSB, Seattle University, and USC.

Some interesting notes about the University of California policy: UC schools still require all scores - same with NCAA - and sticklers like Stanford & Pomona still require all scores (it's not a big list in the west). College board does not send scores without student consent, but the UC system shares scores in central database. The room becomes a bit restless, and college counselors are getting angry. They are justified: Score Choice only helps if you (have the time and resources to) take the SAT more than once.

Alice Kleeman from Menlo-Atherton calms the audience by saying that if we inform students and give the best possible information, it's doable. She noted something interesting that everyone else neglected to mention, and that is the integrity of the college application - what a signature means. At the end of the day, it's just one more policy each school has, and the more transparent and honest we can be about it, the better for our students.

Test Optional Movement Q&A

Another interesting discussion at WACAC about the Test-Optional movement, which has a growing membership of 700 colleges, presented by admissions officers from Pitzer College and Lawrence University. Good answers to a variety of questions:
  • What's the history of the Test Optional movement?
  • What's the difference in enrollment and outcome between submitters and non-submitters?
  • What part(s) of the application takes the place of emphasis on SAT?
  • Do you need to require other classes or remediation for non-submitters?
  • What broader correlations do you see with Test Optional?
  • How have scholarships changed since going Test Optional?
Bates College was the first school to go Test Optional in 1984. Their publication reports, "In a milestone 20-year study of its well-known policy for optional SATs for admission, Bates College has found no differences in academic performance or graduation rates between submitters and non-submitters." A self-serving, if not provocative, finding. In terms of long-term correlation, Bates saw a 0.1% difference in graduation rate, and a 0.01% GPA difference between submitters and non-submitters.

We all claim that test scores correlate to "success in college," but what does that mean? Are we talking about grades, attendance, matriculation, choice of major, or some more intangible measurements like critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, good ol' fashioned reading, writing, and math skills? It is not surprising that math and science students submit their SAT scores more often than humanities students (math and science colleges want more scores, because they need numbers to stay competitive in their field). Interestingly, the one significant correlation between submitters and non-submitters was that there was a higher percentage of submitters who gained admission to graduate school. Perhaps more interestingly, the study does not specify which group had a higher percentage of students who applied to graduate school in the first place.

The admissions officers at Pitzer and Lawrence continued to challenge our preconceptions of the meaning and validity of these tests. And it's worth asking, WHAT DO TESTS PREDICT? What do they add to our understanding of successful or unsuccessful, however we define that? Lawrence claims that tests make colleges too homogeneous, an amusing if not spot on observation.

Pitzer, part of Claremont Colleges, became Test Optional in 2003. The representative notes that if students have a 3.5 GPA or above, they usually don't submit. Since going Test Optional, Pitzer has seen an increase in students of color, their average GPA has gone up, retention rates have increased, and they have the highest per capita acceptance of Fulbright awards. Even the faculty say students are increasingly creative, thoughtful, and curious.

The Lawrence representative says schools back east want to accept a student, but they don't want those test scores, and this presents a conflict of interest (although it's also a conflict of interest this way: As fewer - and higher - scores are reported, a school's ranking goes up). He notes you'll get more students who resonate with the philosophy of the class, and that's interesting. The biggest flak the school got when it went Test Optional was from alumni. Another point worth noting is that these tests don't assess study skills or time management. Lawrence also saw an increase in applications from students of color, women, and non-native English speakers (though just as telling, there was no increase in the percentage of enrollment). We have multiple intelligences, there are other assessments, we must empower students to represent themselves best. We must ask, what are we about in the admissions process? What are we trying to do at school?

At Pitzer, it's not just an admissions decision (faculty have a say too). There are downsides, like more paperwork and upfront costs in school liasons, and the admissions committee works much harder. Pitzer claims about 50% of its students submit scores (but do they all take it?), and a handful of times scores come up in conversation. A school like Pitzer still does PSAT searches, and they require TOEFL (or Bridge program) for non-native English instruction. But more and more, it's a high school transcript (GPA), and letters of recommendation from teachers that take the place of this standardized weight.

Their last note was a meager plea for a school like Harvard to become Test Optional. They have so many other metrics they can use, and to leverage an Ivy League for looking at admissions differently would cause a sea change not just in the field of higher education, but of holistic education.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What To Do With Education Stimulus Money

We've heard President Obama outline his plan for rebuilding the American economy. He passionately declared that investing more in education is key for us to compete in a global economy.

As details of his plan come to light and Congress earmarks the dollars, it is important that we have two specific goals in mind: 1) Close the achievement gap, and 2) Prepare students for higher education. According to the Chronicle, San Francisco Unified School District is poised to receive nearly $42 million over the next two years from the stimulus package, while Oakland is set to receive nearly $60 million. Other funds will also be made available based on need - $13 billion nationally for schools serving low-income students.

What could SFUSD do with a proposed $42 million? I have several ideas:
  • repair, upgrade, and create green school facilities in our poorest neighborhoods
  • raise teacher pay and incentives, especially for those who work in low-income schools
  • hire more teachers to reduce class size to 15 students (see today's article in the LA Times)
  • hire more aides, para-professionals, tutors, and mentors to work closely with students and teachers during class
  • improve teacher and tutor professional development, offering language classes (Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin) and math classes
  • pay for after school tutors to supplement classroom work and bring students up to grade level
  • prepare students for college entrance exams and help with their college application
Last but certainly not least - get parents involved! A great new site referred to me by a friend, Parent Revolution, is paving the way...

College Admissions in the 21st Century: Education as a Commodity

Continuing my live blogging from WACAC, here are some sobering figures from high school and college graduation:
  • High school attrition rates have tripled in the last 30 years
  • Only 70% of 9th grade students graduate from high school (the figure is closer to 50% for low-income and minority families)
  • United States ranks 11th out of 32 similar industrial nations in terms of educational attainment
  • Four-year college grads made 54% more on average than those who attended but didn't graduate
The College Board is presenting a new vision for college admissions in the 21st century. They have drafted an open letter to education professionals, which includes both a declaration of values to guide your profession and a re-framed college discussion and call to action. Some interesting research tidbits and advice from a Santa Monica City College rep:
  • Academics - Algebra 2 completion has a significant impact on college success
  • Summer - keep the mind engaged and reduce cerebral shrinkage after graduation
  • Persistence - complete at least 20 units in your first year of community college (SMCC transfers more students to 4-year colleges than any other city college)
There's big applause as the College Board rep says it's time to do away with college rankings (I agree). Here's some independent sites to replace your perusal of US News & World Report's annual rankings:
  • The College Board
  • U-CAN
  • College Portal
  • Educational Conservancy
Who's going where? There are 18 million students in higher education today. Thirty-four percent attend public universities, 33% attend private schools, 14% attend non-profit institutions of higher learning, and 8% attend for-profit colleges. Online education is the fastest-growing sector of them all, with the University of Phoenix at the top.

Financial Aid Tips from WACAC

Knowledge is power. We've all heard that before, but it rings especially true when it comes to financing your college education. Especially in today's market, it's all about knowing the rules of the game, in this case the Financial Aid game. Here's some tips I picked up to lower your effective family contribution (EFC) from Fox College Funding:

1. If you have more than one student in college, note that! This will lower how much you have to pay for your most recent high school graduate.

2. Note the differences between FAFSA and CSS profile forms. They have different rules and apply different percentages to assets, income, and other financial data.

3. Assets should be reported with a 30-day "quick-sale" value - net of selling fees and taxes.

4. Custodial accounts can be reduced by reimbursing parents for expenses paid on the child's behalf.

5. For divorced families, FAFSA does not take non-custodial parent's financial info into account - for these purposes, custody is defined as the parent with whom the child lives (physically, not legally) the majority of the year.

6. If your first letter is denied, be sure to appeal in writing - from the student - and follow up in person (or over the phone). Other special appeal circumstances: change of employment, excessive debt or medical bills, private K-12 tuition, and supporting other family members. Appeal to other schools, and do some more homework: Check out FinAid!

7. If you can save for college, fill out Section 529 Plans. These are tax-advantaged tuition-savings plan sponsored by the state, state agencies, and educational institutions. For 2009-10 school year, it's counted as an asset.

8. PLUS loans are not financial aid gifts - these are awarded through the federal government - don't get fooled by seeing this on your award letter. (Standardized forms & awards letters coming soon!)

9. Federal Loan rates:
  • Direct loans:
    • Stafford - 6.8% fixed
    • Perkins - 5% fixed
    • PLUS - 7.9%
  • FFELP loans:
    • Stafford - 6.8% fixed
    • PLUS - 8.5% fixed
  • Military:
    • 6% interest rate for borrowers in military
10. Apply for local and regional private scholarships: clubs, foundations, service groups, corporations, banks, individuals, etc. Many are merit-based and awarded to specific ethnicity groups and fields of study. Over $100 million in private scholarship money was not given away last year because students didn't know they were out there!

11. American Opportunity Tax Credit - up to $2500 paid on tuition and school costs can be tax-deductible, thanks to the Obama Administration.

12. Tax saving opportunities for high income families: Gifting, shifting income, and shifting assets.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Five (More) Ways to Fix Our Schools

As always, I find a good article in the NY Times from former New York City schools chancellor Harold Levy. Here are some new - and not so new - ideas about how to save our ailing schools:

1. Raise the age of compulsory education to 19. Instead of being done at 18 after 12th grade, the federal government should pay for 1 year of post-secondary education - community college, vocational school, whatever - from the funds that the public school district would get for that student. "The benefits of an extra year of schooling are beyond question: high school graduates can earn more than dropouts, have better health, more stable lives and a longer life expectancy." Great idea, would be even if Obama put this into his federal education plan.

2. Reduce no-shows with high-pressure sales tactics. Making repeated home visits and early morning phone calls, securing written commitments, and eliciting oral commitments in front of witnesses would be valuable ways to compel parents to ensure that their children go to school every day. Great idea - in my former teaching jobs in Oakland and Providence, RI, and now tutoring in San Francisco and East Palo Alto - the best way to secure student involvement is to keep on top of their parent or guardian. And if not them, then give each student an advocate, an ally.

3. Advertise creatively and aggressively to encourage college enrollment. The University of Phoenix is an extraordinary example of an on-line (for-profit) school spending millions of dollars in advertising (on-line) to grow to an enrollment of 350,000. Although I encourage online discussion and believe education is going more and more into cyberspace, I lament the day we eliminate face-to-face discussion, teacher-tutor-student mentoring, and a relationship that can only be created in person. A good idea, but colleges already advertise, and you'll get more ad space for the richer - not necessarily better - schools.

4. Unseal college accreditation reports. Make these public documents and allow the Department of Education to rate and rank more objectively college performance and prestige. These reports are generally kept secret, and US News & World Report captures our attention with its schools self-aggrandizing themselves and marketing themselves to appear more selective or fill-in-the-blank as they can. This is a great idea.

5. Improve parenting skills. This is tough to evaluate, can often be perceived as patronizing, but increasing our collective compassion for one another is a good thing. Reading to your child as opposed to watching TV or playing a video game is also a sure fire way to increase literacy and improve the chances that your child will be a better applicant for higher education. Decent idea - I have a hard time blaming the parents.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Introducing our College Roundtable

When it comes to the ever-evolving, ever-confusing world of college admissions, there are few people more qualified to provide a dose of reality and clarity to the process than our wonderful network of local college admissions counselors and consultants. So we're kicking off a new College Roundtable that we hope to feature regularly. The idea is to lead with a discussion question and let our local experts share their knowledge. Hopefully, you find it useful! And if you have any questions that you would like to submit for future Roundtable consideration, please email

The May 1st deadline for high school seniors to commit to their schools of choice has come and gone. What did you notice that was different - if anything - about this year's process in working with your students and families to make that final decision? To what extent did the economy affect these decisions?

Irena Smith, Irena Smith Consulting
Although the fundamentals of the process have not changed, I have noticed that financial considerations played a more prominent role than in previous years. For the majority of my students, making the final decision still came down to which school offered the best fit; at the same time, schools which offered financial aid incentives, particularly in the form of merit scholarships, appeared far more attractive this year than they would have in years past. Just a week ago, one of my students committed to Princeton over UC Irvine, but the decision was a tough one: she had been named a Regents' Scholar at UC Irvine, and the offer of a free four-year college education, not to mention the multiple other incentives, was difficult to give up -- particularly in a year riven by economic upheaval and uncertainty.

Some private universities, such as Stanford, have recently expanded their financial aid programs, and as a result have seen an unprecedented surge in applications (over 30,000 to Stanford this year). Along similar lines, state universities -- which, in spite of increasing fees, are still a better "deal" -- were inundated with applications and turned away thousands of qualified applicants. Although the official notification deadline was May 1st, I suspect that the process is far from over: many students, affected by the anxiety and uncertainty that have spilled from the economic crisis into so many other aspects of everyday life, applied to many more colleges and universities than they would have ordinarly, just in case. As a result, there may be many unclaimed spots as some students ultimately opt for public education over the more expensive private schools, quite possibly leading many private universities to reach deep into their waitlists as they work to balance their expected and actual student yield.

Terry Piazza,
College Counseling Associates
Overall, our office did not see too much difference in the most current trends. The most select colleges are admitting 10% or less and the UC’s are getting more and more selective. We did notice that UCSC was more difficult to get into than previous years. Students will not be able to count Santa Cruz as a safety or back-up college. Additionally, UC Davis, Santa Barbara and Irvine cut their numbers of accepted students in order to accommodate the anticipated rise in yield. This trend made the mid range UCs more selective than in previous years. As far as any economic impact, we did see a rise in the number of families asking about financial aid and/or scholarships. Anecdotally, the smaller liberal arts colleges did seem to accept more of our students maybe because of their ability to pay full tuition.

Dewey Wilmot, Admissions Edge Consulting
May 1st brought the usual mix of soul searching, thoughtful deliberation and sometimes gut-wrenching decision making. The single largest affect of the economy on my clients, as well as other students and families whom I know, has been the enrollment limits within the UC and CSU systems. As usual, the top students (in terms or GPA, test scores and activities) got into the schools with the lowest admissions rates - Cal, UCLA, Cal Poly, etc.) But the students who were minimally eligible were denied at unprecedented rates. In many instances, eligible students were turned away from their local public 4-year colleges and are now facing the prospect of spending a year or more at a community college. When I encounter students in this position, I encourage them to look at it as an opportunity to excel in their classes and plan a curriculum that will allow them to transfer to a UC or CSU at the Junior level. In many cases these students may even be able to set the bar much higher than they might otherwise have. For instance, let's say a student had their sights set on UC Santa Cruz, with a 3.0 GPA and test scores slightly below the UCSC average. Because this student was near the lower limits of eligibility, they were denied admission. This student's dream was to attend college near the beach. but UCSD or UCSB are essentially out of reach for minimally eligible students. BUT, this same student could attend his or her local CC, work hard to earn A's and B's and apply to UCSD, SB or SC with a far greater chance of acceptance. Needless-to-say, California's Community Colleges are stretched to their limits right now. The upcoming budget resolution will be critical to next year's class and beyond!

On the flip-side, private colleges, and many out-of-state public colleges seemed to accept CA students at normal or even above normal rates. The main affect I saw the economy have on the process was in the ever-increasing use of waitlists by private (and even a few public) schools. Full paying students seemed to also have unprecedented negotiating ability during the waitlist process and colleges (despite the hits to endowments) didn't seem any less generous with their scholarship money. The well known, obvious example is RPI confirming with potential waitlist candidates that there will be a scholarship grant ($5000+) awaiting them IF they are to be selected off of the waitlist. Granted, this offer was given in prior years, before the current economic downturn, but it is symbolic of the type of thing going on at other schools: aggressive use of the waitlist as a recruiting tool.

Carola Ingram, Independent College Adviser

In Fall as the economy was clearly going haywire, I was working with two students who were obviously good candidates for early decision -- sure there was only one college for them, and good candidates for that college. In both cases, I advised the parents that financial aid this year seemed problematic at best, so they needed to be comfortable with these colleges even if no aid was available. Happily, in both cases the students were admitted, and in one case, the student received some merit money (from a small, very well-endowed liberal arts college), which obviously pleased the parents. I do think that families went into application season with trepidation about the economy, but didn't see very many of them change their college ideas drastically. I advised all my clients to have a "financial safety" college, which in many cases was a Cal State University campus.

In April, as regular admission students were making decisions, I found that it often goes back to their gut feelings, which they sometimes express the first time I meet with them. One client passed up a significant athletic scholarship to attend the "large, urban, diverse school back East" that she described the first time I met her. Another passed up several opportunities and decided to stay closer to home and try an architecture major, saying "if I don't try it now, I may regret it later." In both of these cases, the economy wasn't really a factor in the final decision -- it was more a matter of what spoke to the heart of the student. Remember that these are 17 and 18-year-olds, so they don't make decisions the way we adults might. That said, I know of several families who are very happy their students chose a CSU or a UC campus for financial reasons.