Monday, October 14, 2013

True or False Pt. 2: Parent's Weekend Presentation

Welcome back to another installment of "True or False", in which I look at the assumptions, beliefs, opinions and myths surrounding a specific aspect of college admissions.  I will use relevant data to evaluate whether or not these ideas are "True" or "False"--or somewhere on a continuum between the two.

As I've mentioned before, I am a college counselor at an independent boarding school in Northeastern Pennsylvania. This year for Parents' Weekend the college office is giving two presentations, including one where we simulate the experience of being on an admissions committee and also one where I will share some of my "True or False" research and field questions from the audience.   I'm really looking forward to it. Without further ado, here are some more popular beliefs about college admissions.

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    Our family is comfortably well-off so there is no reason to apply for financial aid: 

    Congratulations on your prosperity, but you would be wise to reconsider on this topic.  Just as one person's idea of "well-off" might not be that of the next person, it is important to understand that "financial aid" may mean more than you think it does.  Basically there are two general categories of assistance that colleges provide: "need-based" and "merit-based".

    Need-based aid is given to students whose family income falls within certain parameters.  Parents of all students who are American citizens seeking need-based aid (or financially independent students) should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This questionnaire yields the answers required by a rather complex formula that generates an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which is a base number used by college financial aid offices when generating awards. The FAFSA will also determine a person's eligibility for Federal loans and grants. It is important to note that the EFC is not necessarily how much a family will have to pay. This informative page from the Department of Education goes into more detail, but suffice to say that colleges will subtract the EFC from their calculated Cost of Attendance (COA) to arrive at the financial need required to study at their school.  Additionally, nearly 300 institutions (virtually all of which are private colleges) also require families to complete a College Board-owned product called the CSS/PROFILE in addition to the FAFSA; you should check on a college's website if they want you to fill out the CSS/PROFILE as well.  Unlike the FAFSA, it is not free.  If you are interested in seeing how your family's income may impact the cost of attending college, check out this unbelievably helpful resource. It will show you the cost of attendance by household income at over 1400 colleges and universities.

    Merit-based aid is awarded based on many factors, including high school grades, standardized test scores, athletic or artistic prowess, community service involvement or anything else that colleges seek to reward and encourage among their students. Colleges provide this aid in the form of grants or scholarships that effectively discount the cost of attendance. Merit aid is not dependent on a student's ability to pay, and can be (and often is) given to applicants from wealthier families.

    Now let's talk about why your family should complete the FAFSA and apply for financial aid. First of all, many colleges will not consider a student for merit aid if s/he has not filled out the FAFSA. Let's face it: no one wants to pay retail, and it is highly unlikely that an American citizen will truly pay the "sticker" price at a four-year college.  If filling out the FAFSA and applying for financial aid can save your family even a few thousand dollars per year it is probably worth your time, unless you are Bill Gates.  Secondly, the odds are in your favor: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 71% of all undergraduates in 2011-12 received aid of some sort (including any federal, state or institutional grants, student loans, work study benefits, veterans' benefits, Parent PLUS loans) compared to 66% four years previously.  While it is true that some of this aid came in the form of loans to students or parents, it is safe to say that most families will get some sort of mark down from the list price.  

    VERDICT: FALSE


    If I don't like the college I go to my first year I can always transfer; it's no big deal:

    This is something that every college counselor has heard.  Sometimes it is said by students whose "dream school" turned them down or put them on the wait list; other times by students who will base their matriculation decision on financial reasons, rather than "first choice" or "fit", or by students with low standardized test scores (these tests are rarely required in transfer applications). And to a certain degree, they are correct.  As the picture at right attests, a sizable portion of American college students transfer; either from two-year to four-year programs or the reverse, or from four-year to four-year schools.

    But before automatically stamping this assertion as "true", it is important to look at some facts.  First of all, admission rates for transfer students may even be lower than for first-years.  At Harvard, for instance, with an overall acceptance rate of around 5%, less than 2 of every 100 transfer applicants are accepted. Like most statistics related to Harvard, this is ridiculous but it is representative of national trends.  A 2010 article in US News and World Reports cited a National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) figure that the nationwide average acceptance rate for first-year students was 69% compared with 64% for transfers.

    Another important factor to consider is that a student who goes to college planning to transfer in a year may not be as likely to make friends, get involved on campus, or be as happy as her counterpart who is willing to give the place a chance.  While the preceding is purely speculation, the flip-side is not: transfer students are significantly less likely to participate in significant activities such as internships, study-abroad or capstone projects than students who spent their entire careers at one school. This could be due to the perception of having lost time prior to transfer, and the unwillingness to pay the opportunity cost to get involved in such activities.  Regardless, it may be a reason why transfer students report themselves to be less satisfied with the college experience.

    So while no one should hesitate to seek out a second chance if they find college disappointing, transferring may be more complicated than it appears at face value.

    VERDICT: MAYBE



    I self-identify as an athlete and I am going to play college sports!


    There is no question that you will be able to play sports in college. Despite their binge drinking, recreational drug use and questionable sexual habits, most college students are pretty healthy. One reason for this is the amount of money colleges spend on recreational athletic facilities; it is hard to find a college that doesn't have a well-equipped gym and that doesn't sponsor extensive intramural sports competitions among its students.  Many schools also offer "club" sports where students compete against teams from other colleges. These club sports range from traditional sports (ice hockey and rugby) to niche activities (skiing, cycling) to unusual ones only found on campuses (sprint footballQuidditch).

    Oh, that's not what you meant, is it?  Chances are, what you are expecting is to play college sports, probably in the NCAA, or perhaps in the NAIA (smaller, often religious schools). After all, you've played on your high school varsity team, gone to camps in the summer, played on travel teams and you are pretty good.  Not only that, college is expensive and schools will give you some of that merit aid mentioned above so that you can attend their school and help their team win. Well that is another thing entirely.

    Before we evaluate this one we should talk about how college sports are organized.  Around 300 colleges (and 60,000 athletes) participate in NAIA sports and about 1100 colleges and 450,000 athletes play in NCAA sponsored contests. The NCAA is further divided into multiple categories: Division I and Division II programs can give scholarships to athletes (even if they do not meet the normal minimum standards for admission) while Division III programs cannot; in Division III, students must meet the school's admission requirements.  The exception that proves the preceding rule is the Ivy League (BrownColumbiaCornellDartmouthHarvardPrincetonPennYale) whose teams play in Division I but do not give any merit aid, including sports scholarships.  Also, it is important to note that only a very few college sports will typically give "full ride" scholarships.  In most cases, sports scholarships may amount to 1/4 or 1/8 tuition at maximum.

    While the possibility exists to "walk on" to a college team (Penn State, for instance, holds open tryouts for every one of its teams every season), generally speaking varsity athletes in NCAA sports are recruited.  In all divisions and associations they were among the best players in their leagues and were probably the best player on their teams in high school. This makes sense when you think of it; as people advance in sports they go through a continuing winnowing experience.  There are over 21.5 million kids in youth sports in America, 7.6 million kids playing high school sports, and just over 500,000 playing in college. Especially in sports that do not have a professional option, college sports are the pinnacle of athletic endeavor.

    Coaches of college teams compete to get the best players for their team.  What does this mean to you? Quite simply, if you haven't heard directly from a college coach by the start of your senior year, you should not expect to play varsity sports as a college freshman.  And by "heard directly", I don't mean a pro forma email.  This article by Kerry Brown is a good summary of the various kinds of contact students may have with college coaches and "what they really mean". Further, coaches will not just come to passive student-athletes; if you want to play varsity athletics in college you should reach out to coaches by your 10th grade season at the latest, then stay in touch with them.  You should also create a YouTube channel with video of yourself playing in games, or demonstrating your skills, or both. If these things haven't happened, you should plan to move on.

    VERDICT: PROBABLY NOT THE WAY YOU THINK


    I should take as many AP classes as I can.  They will help my GPA and increase my chance of gaining admission to the college of my dreams.

    There are two parts to this issue.  One relates to what we in the business call "strength of curriculum" and the other relates to GPA. Both of these are significant factors in college admissions; in fact as you can see from the table below, they are generally considered to be the two most important.


    But if we take the time to unpack this a bit further, we can see that strength of curriculum is almost 18% less likely to be "considerably important" to admissions offices than grades.  This is why my advice to most students is that they should take the most challenging curriculum that will let them earn minimum grades in the B range. Advanced Placement classes are designed to be college-level courses taught in the high school classroom, with an equivalent amount of homework and as such they should be a challenge to just about every high schooler. There is nothing wrong with being challenged, but too much challenge can result in some unattractive grades.

    On the other hand, most high schools recognize this and they respond by weighting AP classes differently, so that an A in a normal class might be worth 4 points on a 4.0 scale, but an A in an Advanced Placement class would be worth 5 points (at my school it is worth a 4.7).  In that case, a student can feel comfortable knowing that she can challenge herself without the risk of torpedoing her GPA.

    Colleges spend a lot of time assessing the strength of curricula at schools from across the country. Because we do not have a national curriculum, America's 27,500 secondary schools get their educational policies from 13,800 school boards, or from state governments, religious groups (in the case of parochial schools) or boards of trustees in the case of independent schools.  To attempt to clarify this bewildering situation, every high school produces a "school profile" to put their institution into context. For your viewing pleasure, here is a link to the profile from Wyoming Seminary. Many colleges tell me that they know that our school is "harder" than the average and that they take this into account when evaluating our students.

    But "strength of curriculum" can mean two things: not just how hard the school is, but  whether or not the student took advantage of the school's rigor.  Our school offers over 20 AP classes while another school may only offer 2.  A student at the latter school will not be penalized for only taking one AP class, but a student at my school who only takes one may be seen as a shirker who took the easy way out. Finally, it is important to note that the stated purpose of Advanced Placement is to give students a head start on college based on their performance on national exams taken every May. These tests are graded on a scale of 1-5, with 3 being "passing"; many colleges will give students with 4's or 5's the chance to skip required basic distribution requirements. Unfortunately, an increasing number of AP test takers are not passing the exams; the pass rate has dropped from 61% to 57% over the past decade.  If students cannot earn at least a 3, they probably should not waste their time taking the AP class.  Instead they will probably learn more from a conventionally paced high school class.

    VERDICT: TRUE, BUT ONLY IF YOU CAN DO WELL IN THE CLASS