On watching my daughter head off to take the PSAT

It’s Saturday, October 19, exactly 167 years to-the-day after the first of my ancestors to come to America arrived in the United States at the port of New Orleans, on a ship from Bremen, Germany called Manco.  In fact, it was so long ago, Germany wasn’t even a country then.  If you’re interested, here’s the copy of the form that was filled out as they entered the United States.  It’s unlikely the clerk at the point of entry could understand them well enough to spell their names correctly; and given that it had been spelled so many ways in the records before 1846, it’s likely they didn’t think it mattered too much anyway.

We don’t know exactly why they left Germany to come here, but we think it was to escape military drafts; or perhaps they were being persecuted for their good looks:

Elizabeth and Franz

I thought of my ancestors as we got up early today to see my daughter, aged 15 for a few more days, off to take the PSAT, and wondered what they’d think if we could explain to them the way things operate these days.  And the more things unfolded, the more I thought about it.

Emily couldn’t find her calculator this morning, which is of course an important thing to have for this test. Normally, I’d stress out about things like this, but I instantly realized that it’s not really a big deal, so I shrugged my shoulders and let it slide.

For her the stakes are very low; she’s always done very well on standardized tests, but is probably five percentile points outside the range of National Merit cutoffs.  In other words, this is about as low-stakes as this high-stakes test gets.  Right now, the extraordinarily selective schools where scores really matter aren’t on her radar, and I doubt they will be when all is said and done.  Her outstanding academic performance should speak for itself when she applies to college, and will be supported by scores commensurate with her achievement in the classroom, for the schools who really care about such things.

But I can say that because I know what I know.  I thought about all the kids who don’t have parents who have worked in admissions and enrollment for 30 years.  For them, all testing is seen as very high-stakes.

Emily, like her brother before her, is a very bright kid, and yet by any measurements–standardized or not–she and her brother are very different people. Both are quiet and thoughtful, with varying degrees of genetic cynicism like their father, and healthy doses of warmth and affection like their mother. One is punctual and the other chronically late; one takes things as they come, while the other is focused and organized and always looking ahead; both have messy rooms, and interest in music; one is a whiz at math, while the other is facile with language and has been bitten by the acting bug. Multiply this by millions of kids, and you have a portrait of high school students in American and around the world.

And yet, we send all of them–future artists and chemists and actors and financial analysts and doctors and engineers–off to take a single test written by someone who has never met them; someone who has never taught them a class; someone who has never had the opportunity to see how they excel.  It is the most sterile, and in some ways, the most inappropriate use of the word assessment one might encounter.

We send them to take a test that purports to measure something important about them and all the other kids who are in, or who have gone through, high school.  Perhaps it does measure something important, if you consider the ability to pick the right–or most correct-answer from four given.  We all know that’s not at all like real life (where you’re not even always sure of the question, let alone given the range of discrete answers), but if given the choice, we’d probably all want to have that skill just in case; if nothing else, being able to eliminate wrong answers might come in handy if you’re ever on Let’s Make a Deal.

It’s important, however, to remember that the creator of the multiple-choice assessment considered the tests to be measures of lower-order thinking skills, despite their current reputation to the contrary. Now these tests are used not just to evaluate students but even entire school districts, as this email from my kids’ school points out.  And tests created by someone who’s never taught my kids drives how my kids are taught:

ScreenHunter_02 Oct. 19 12.03

When the scores come in, we’ll look at them, of course.  And when the mail arrives in bushel baskets, we’ll sort through it all, lingering fondly over some, and sending some unopened to the recycle bin.  But we’ll never define a complex human being by scores on a three-hour test on a Saturday morning; my earnest hope is that our kids don’t allow that to happen to themselves.


Is College Tuition Too Low?

I admit it: At times I like provocative headlines to shake things up a bit. But I think this one is worth thinking about.

Recently, on my other blog, Higher Ed Data Stories, I published a re-formatted Tableau visualization from the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can look at it here. The takeaway is that a) about 80% of college students in America go to public institutions, and b) about three-quarters of those that do pay less than $12,000 per year to do so.  So, for now, my headline applies mostly to public higher education.  (As you can see, in order to be able to afford the cost of the typical private, four-year college and university, you need to be somewhere in the top 5% of all family incomes in America. I don’t think anyone thinks private college costs are too low.) Thanks to Royall and Company, from whom I shamelessly copied this graphic.

But the fact that they pay anything at all is interesting.  By charging tuition to state residents, we are effectively saying that college education is not an entitlement.  If it were, it should be free to those who qualify and who wish to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

As a result, the low tuition allowed by state subsidies for this non-entitlement means that everyone gets a break, even if they don’t need it.  In other words, if a child of Bill and Melinda Gates decides to go to the University of Washington, people who are worth far less than they are (in other words, everyone else in Washington) end up subsidizing the education of their children.  Bill and Melinda seem like nice people, and I’m sure they’ve raised very nice children; this is nothing personal.  But it seems a bit unfair, don’t you think?

When a public university keeps its in-state tuition artificially low (measured against the fully loaded cost of instruction) so that even the wealthiest citizens of the state get a subsidy, guess what happens? Wealthy people tend to take advantage of it. And this squeezes out kids with fewer options, mostly those further down the economic food chain.

Every state I know of that has done a study (like this one from Minnesota, in 2008; chart on p.9) has found that median family incomes at state-supported institutions are higher than at the state’s private colleges and universities.  This was true even before the huge economic shakeout; with the push to enroll more out-of-state students (read: generate more revenue) happening at most flagships, state residents are likely to get squeezed via greater selectivity.  And, as I’ve ranted about before, greater selectivity and the race for prestige puts more pressure on low-income kids, because the things more selective colleges favor (test scores and the money to get coached, access to AP classes, well-crafted essays that have been professionally scrubbed, and activities you can only do if you don’t have to work to help with family expenses) skew wealthy.

The fix is not easy: First, a real tool to measure a family’s ability to pay for college.  Second, state and federal programs to fill the gaps.  Then, and only then, should state universities raise their tuition dramatically, to cover the full cost of instruction, so that those that deserve it can get it, and those that can afford it pay for it.  Sorry Bill. Sorry Melinda.

Another Blog of Mine You Might Like

I plan to keep writing using words, but I’ve also become interested in telling stories with data; and I think the stories I’m most qualified to tell are about higher education.

So, I’ve launced a new blog called Higher Education Data Stories.  I hope you’ll check it out, and I hope you find it interesting.

If there are stories you think should be told and could be told with data, let me know.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, it should save me a lot of time.

There are no Stealth Applicants. But there are a lot of Stealth Colleges

Lots of my colleagues are back from Toronto, where they attended the NACAC Conference.  Lots of discussion this year, as in previous years, has focused on “stealth applicants.”  I’ve never liked this term from the very first time I heard it. In fact, I find it offensive.

For those of you who don’t know, stealth applicants are those students who apply out of the blue; that is, they haven’t requested information from the admissions office in a formal way; as far as the admissions office can tell, they’ve never visited campus during a formal tour.  Never sat in a presentation at the high school.  Never even walked up to a table at the college fair.

Who do these kids think they are?

There are two problems with this: First is a problem of definition.  Many places farm Student Search and EOS mailings out to third-party vendors, and never load the names into their student database.  They’ve sent two or four or six or more emails, letters, or brochures to these students; the students assume they’re on the mailing list, and don’t take the time to request more information.  (Really, you’ve mailed them five pieces; do you think they’d automatically understand they should fill out a card to request more?)  The colleges thus don’t know these students were on the list of names they purchased from College Board or ACT, because they only put names in the database when students actively inquire via traditional means.  When students like this show up later as applicants, the admissions office is flummoxed.   So much for personal attention.

If you think about it, you could use this to teach Alanis Morissette the real definition of irony: Many of the colleges complaining about stealth applicants are the same ones who bombard students with emails that contain links to “Fast Apps” encouraging kids to apply to a school they’ve never heard of because a) it’s free and b) it’s easy.  The students should be referring to Stealth Colleges: They come out of nowhere, previously unseen, and drop weapons of class construction on the poor unsuspecting children (and yes, most of them are children.)

That’s the small problem.

The big problem is the arrogance of colleges: The assumption is that students should know they need to express some interest, because it’s so much easier for us.  And we think this way because fifty years ago, the only way you could find out about a college in the next state was to write and request information–often just a catalog.  (You could call, of course, but that was expensive.) Colleges got used to that: Everything was orderly and predictable.  No more: It’s now possible to find out almost everything you need to know about a place by looking online, not just on our websites, but dozens or hundreds of others, like College Confidential, College Prowler, Peterson’s, USNWR, etc.

And this, we seem to suggest, is the fault of the students.  They were born too late to figure out how things should be done.

Instead of blaming them, how about we understand the world has changed and deal with it?  Isn’t that one of the things you’re supposed to learn in college?  And isn’t part of the reason people laugh at colleges because we make so many assumptions about the way things should be, based on the way we feel the most comfortable?

It’s time for the profession to grow up.  These kids could teach you a thing or two.

The Admissions Industry Owes Students an Apology

Or maybe I should say a second apology.  And there will probably be more to come.

I had previously written an apology about how well-meaning admissions officers of my era contributed to the collective angst of a generation by using and repeating the phrase “choosing a college is one of the most important choices you’ll ever make.”  It sounds nice, and may wake up a kid or two, but it’s really not true.  Certainly choosing a college will affect friends, relationships, jobs, and untold other things; but there is no way to tell which choice is the best, no way to tell how things might have been if you’d chosen otherwise, and no reason to agonize over it at age 17.

But in the past few weeks  a couple of things happened.  Kent Barnds at Augustana wrote a blog post that talked about college admissions and big data and compared recent coverage of the NSA issue to college admissions.  In that post was a comment about how colleges can use FAFSA data to determine what college in a student’s list is “top of mind” based on the order the student or parent lists the colleges.

On a Facebook group for College Admissions Officers and Counselors and the NACAC e-list, Independent College Consultant Nancy Griesemer objected strongly.  I responded with a reminder that this is not new (it’s at least 30 years old and probably older) and that it can only be used against students at 50 or so colleges, although they are the 50 or so everyone obsesses over.  Still, I can see that it might add to student and parent stress.

Then, the Chronicle of Higher Education posted an excellent piece about measuring merit in college admissions, and referenced the term “black box” of selective college admission.  The Chronicl article is worth a read: I’ve long believed that the basis of much of our legal difficulty lies in the premise that “Qualified for Admission” means just GPA and test scores.

And finally I was asked to speak to the Common Application Board of Directors about issues in College Admission, and offered a few opinions about how they might make things better for colleges and applicants at the same time.  It’s a good group of thoughtful, future-focused people, and I had a nice time.  If I were King of Admissions, I said, we’d have a central application clearing house.  Every high school would have the same transcript and profile.  And we’d have the Coca-Cola National College Fairs, because for-profit companies know how to get messages to poor kids better than we do.

But during my talk, I uttered an off-the-cuff comment: “We all have to admit that complexity in our profession is good for business. A lot of people would be unemployed if college admission were more transparent and easier to understand and less stressful.”

There you have it.  As much as people like to complain about the stress and strain the complexity of the admissions process imposes on students, it’s a form of job security.  And this is true for admissions officers at colleges, high school counselors, and independent counselors as well.  It’s true for people who write about it; true for people who run websites to commiserate about the process.   Things are unlikely to change from inside the profession: As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

So, students, if you want change, I fear it might have to start with you.  I’m sorry about the reality, and sorry about having to be the one to break it to you.  But maybe one of you or some of you will be at the forefront of change in how we think about and do college admissions.


What I Learned by Writing for the CHE

I like to write, and I especially like to tweet and blog, because I can dash off some thoughts without too much concern about getting it just perfect.  Most of what I put here is essentially a first draft, sometimes with a quick review for grammar, spelling, parallel construction, dangling  antecedents and other obvious mistakes.  It’s not a living, just a hobby.

But a while ago, I was contacted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and asked to do a piece on my idea for a National  Clearinghouse  for undergraduate admissions.  Admittedly flattered, and eager for people in higher education and the admissions profession to engage in thoughtful discussion about some of our challenges, I accepted.  I went over the alloted word count by at least 40%, but the people at the Chronicle squeezed it in, and even deemed it worthy of their print version.

I spent a lot of time on it, yet there is a lot I’d change; sentences seem too short or too long, I see periods that should be semicolons, and in some areas, it doesn’t  sound like I sound in my head.  It seems the longer I spend on a piece, the worse it gets.  Reason #1 I don’t write for a living.

But the biggest surprise to me was the reaction online.  On The Facebook page for College Admissions Professionals, the feedback was positive: 25 likes and some good comments.  This is to be expected, of course, as no one wants to make an ass of himself in front of colleagues.  I also got some good replies from the NACAC Exchange list, as well as personal messages from people I knew.  Same thing; positive for the most part.  High School counselors seemed enamored of the line about the lottery. I was also glad to get a few respectful and thoughtful dissents, which I think are actually more helpful than agreements.  And I got a lot of people interested in how we make this all happen.  Some of them had financial interest in doing so.

On the Chronicle site, however, the comments were odd, to say the least: They centered on bias against Asians, how admissions can’t be humanized with databases, how everyone should not go to college, how this is really about how we should not participate in USNWR rankings, and how I put our rankings on our website.  (I don’t put things on the DePaul website, by the way.) There was also some banter about how all private colleges are evil because some used to have Jewish quotas, and how the UK system could never work here, and how kids are too pampered today.

Only a few actually seemed to be comments about what I wrote.  As a still-abstract idea, I obviously think it has some merit. I also think there would be some problems, not the least of which would be that the entities with financial interest in the current system would almost certainly spend a lot of money to make sure they had financial interests in the new system.  I would have hoped people could have commented on that.  I would have hoped for some real, thoughtful, passionate disagreement. I guess this is reason #2 I don’t write for a living; I don’t seem to make my point very well. (All this presumes, of course, that I have talent enough to write for a living; and as I learned from old Perry Mason reruns, you can’t submit into evidence assumptions not proved.)

I get that this is how the Internet works.  But at the same time, this is the Chronicle of Higher Education; in order to post on the site, you need to have a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which, I hope, means you have some real interest in the topic.  Yet the article simply became an opportunity for people to post their prepackaged issues in public.

I have often bemoaned the tendency of admissions people to avoid abstract conversations because they might cause some disagreement.  I’ve even been told publicly by the NACAC President that I was wrong to encourage some difficult discussions in the name of collegiality.

But I still believe it’s important for people in higher education today to challenge assumptions, to adapt to change, and to make things better for the students we serve.  They’re presumably why we’re here.  That’s the right reason.  The wrong reason is that if we don’t engage in these discussions, people from the outside–people with legitimate interests but no experience–will pick up the reigns and do it to us.



Random Thoughts on May 1

Have you heard?  It’s the end of April, which means it’s almost May 1.  If you don’t know what that means, or why it’s so important to people like me, you’re not in admissions or enrollment management or financial aid.  We all know.  And it has nothing to do with dancing around poles with streamers.

May 1 is the traditional “National Candidates (sic) reply date,” a very silly name given to the date we ask students admitted to the freshman class to respond to our offer of admission.  And yet, in reality, it means very little at all to almost everyone involved in admissions.

May 1 is one of those things that might best fall under the term “Collusion.”  Of the 7,000 or so post-secondary institutions in the United States, only about 1,700 are members of NACAC, the organization has the National Candidates (sic) Reply Date embedded in its Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  They’re probably the first 1,700 you’d name, however. And by nature of our membership, we collectively agree to give students the chance to wait until May 1 to respond.  Isn’t that kind of us?

(In the old days, there were tremendous and long-standing debates about whether May 1 meant the check had to be in the admissions office on May 1, or whether it had to be in the hands of the USPS by May 1.  When I learned that the IRS didn’t even start checking postmarks on Income Tax returns until about a week after April 15, something that always seemed silly to me seemed suddenly sillier.)

Many in admissions who claim to have a student-centered view of the universe suggest that the May 1 deadline exists for the benefit of students; that it allows them ample time after admission notification arrives (sometimes as late as April 15) to make an informed decision.  The implication is clear: You should know where you want to go, and when your options come in, well, damn it, make a decision already will you?  No, it’s not hard; no, you and your parents should have talked about money long ago; no, you can’t have an extension.  And no, we cannot, under any circumstances, accelerate the reading of applications to get you your decision earlier.  (This is despite the fact that a professor at one of the Ivy League Institutions–yes, that one–that happens to run a summer program on admissions once said at this summer program in which I was in attendance that  he could pick 90% of the freshmen with a math equation.)

In reality, I opine, May 1 exists because the visible and most prestigious colleges and universities operate admissions functions that maintain long wait lists of candidates.  And anything later than May 1 means they might not fill their classes with the pick of the litter students.  But it’s ironic that the same colleges that take months to decide whether a student is worthy somehow think the student should be perfectly capable of deciding in a couple weeks.

I’ll say it again: May 1 is for the most selective colleges.  Most of us don’t fall into that category. It may, by accident, work for students at the brand-name prep schools who have been on the glide path to college forever.  It probably works fine for kids who don’t need to worry about financial aid. It certainly works for the super-selective institutions who want to be done with another cycle and take the summer off. It’s self-interest, really.

To be clear, I have nothing against self-interest.  Without it, we might not exist.  And I have nothing against powerful members of a cartel getting the cartel to codify and legislate self-interest; I work in Chicago, and that’s the Chicago way.

I do, however, object to making it seem like it’s about students.  And I react, as I almost always do, to overwrought drama that surrounds it every year.

May 1 is especially meaningless because a) most colleges and universities will consider a good candidate who applies late into the summer, and b) most of them don’t have wait lists in the first place.  But at the same time, many are afraid to even indicate this on the NACAC “Space Availability Survey” that comes out every year.  It’s sort of like the pool of kids who didn’t get a prom date coming together in a parking lot to try to hook up at the last minute; you really want to go to prom, but you don’t want to be associated with some of the desperate losers there.  (Even among kids who don’t have prom dates, there’s a pecking order, you see).

And it’s also mostly meaningless because the freshman who enters college right after high school and stays four years is the decided minority: Maybe as little as 15% of all students.  Maybe 40% of all college students are over 25; and 9% of all college students in the US attend a California Community College.  May 1 comes and goes for these people without a second thought.

For me, May 1 means I’ll be watching numbers like everyone else.  We’ve been lucky; our dance card has been full the last couple of years, but past is not necessarily prologue.  But I wish it were not the case.

And for me, May 1 marks firing season: When good colleagues lose their jobs because not enough 17 year-olds, or not enough of the right kind of 17 year-olds end up enrolling at their college.  Demographics and uncontrollable things be damned; expectations are expectations.

That count is already at four, and it’s just the ones I know about; as we all know, the number will rise over the next few days.  And it will go all summer long.  When it comes to making those decisions, there is no deadline.