Friday, December 26, 2014

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to Virginia Commonwealth University

As promised, I will use this space to share my experiences visiting colleges with you. Hopefully you will find these notes useful. If you like the schools I discuss you should do everything you can to visit on your own, but this will tide you over until you are able to.

In mid-December I visited Virginia Commonwealth University, a public institution which is located in Richmond, the capital city of Virginia. VCU is located on a vibrant, exciting urban campus and has well-regarded programs in medicine, fine arts and business. Students at my school have not paid much attention to VCU, but based on what I saw, they are missing out; VCU offers a lot, and at a very competitive price. During my visit I attended an information session and took a tour and I came away extremely impressed.  I look forward to recommending Virginia Commonwealth University to my college counselees.

Virginia Commonwealth University At A Glance

About 23,000 undergraduates (approximately 57% women/ 43% men). There are an additional 9,000 so graduate students.
Programs of Study:
Over 60  majors. Bachelor (B.A., B.S., B.N., B.F.A.), Master and Doctorate programs in many fields. 13 pre-professional programs in health, law and education
NCAA Division I; 15 varsity teams (8 women's, 7 men's); 26 club sports and numerous intramurals.
Campus Life:
The Monroe Park campus is located in the center of the city, and the Medical College of Virginia campus is a short bus ride away. Both are extensive. Students live at Monroe Park campus, where they can partake of over 500 student organizations. There is also a separate campus in the nation of Qatar.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees for Virginia residents total just about $22,000 (tuition is around $12,000); for out of state residents the total cost is just about $40,000 (tuition is about $29,000). Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Note that costs can vary greatly depending on housing options.
The Regular Decision deadline is January 15. Students seeking scholarships should apply by December 1.
SAT or ACT (test optional for students with high school GPAs of 3.3 or higher). Mid 50% of SAT are 1040-1240 (CR+M) and 22-27 for the ACT. SAT Subject Tests are not required.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), is located in the heart of Richmond, the capital city of Virginia. As I mentioned in my notes about the University of Richmond, the city of Richmond is small to medium sized, with less than a quarter of a million people in the city proper, and a metro area population of about 1.3 million. Despite its size it offers many amenities typically found in larger cities, from effective public transportation, to multiple museums and ample opportunities for public and private sector internships. They also have excellent medical facilities, due in no small part to the presence of VCU's hospitals. VCU was established in 1838 as a medical school; it continued to add new programs for the next 130 years until in 1968 the Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia merged to form Virginia Commonwealth University. VCU continues to grow to this day, recently adding a campus in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar.

VCU's main campus is located near Monroe Park in downtown Richmond. My tour did not cover the Medical College of Virginia campus which is across town. The campus is quite walkable and while I was there I saw a lot of construction, including a new main library addition that will open in late 2015. The campus is also car friendly, with ample on-street parking options and a wealth of parking garages available to cars with VCU stickers; all students are allowed to have automobiles, but they can also get city bus passes if they'd prefer to avoid the extra hassle of having a car. Richmond is served by Amtrak, and is easily accessible to the rest of the Eastern seaboard by high speed Acela trains, and to the world via Richmond International Airport so a car is definitely not necessary. 

Shaffer Hall, the dining hub on campus

Brandt Hall,  freshman suite-style dorms
I visited during Winter break and consequently our tour was not able to include some elements that are usually featured on such walkabouts, most notably the dorms. However, we did walk past several of them. VCU students can live in 10 residence halls (co-ed by floor), 6 of which are reserved for first-year students. Housing is guaranteed for first-year students and for students who would prefer to move off campus, there are many inexpensive apartments in Richmond. Housing ranges from high-rise dorms like the ones at right, to smaller apartment and suite style residences. Costs vary depending on housing options and academic programs; this webpage provides a form to help estimate how much a person would pay to go to VCU. It is clear, however, that for cost-conscious Virginia residents, VCU is a great option and even for out of state students, VCU can cost up to $20,000 less per year than comparable universities.

VCU's campus seems to be pretty security conscious. The University has 362 emergency call boxes spread across the campus, along with 90 sworn officers in their campus police department. While I was on campus I saw several VCU cops and also a Richmond police car. My tour guide said that the VCU police were "nationally ranked"  and attested that they were friendly and not viewed as adversaries by the students.

a view through the window into the fitness center
VCU has 15 varsity sports which compete at the NCAA Division I level; they are especially proud of their men's basketball team which made the Final Four a few years ago. They also offer over a score of club sports, ranging from badminton, to lacrosse to rugby. The athletic facilities are vast and well-equipped, including the student gym pictured at left; the climbing wall is changed every two weeks to present continual challenges to users.  In addition to sports there are over 500 student activities, including such oddities as a "pancake eating club". Any five students can form a club at VCU. I approve of this approach; when I was in college, a friend and I formed a "Yahtzee and Onion Rings" club, where we went to a local restaurant to listen to jazz, play Yahtzee and eat onion rings. It was one of my favorite parts of college, and I am glad to see a large public university embracing the quirkiness of its student body. 

countdown clock in Visitor's Center
Students who are interested in applying to Virginia Commonwealth University can use the Common Application. VCU is somewhat selective, admitting about 64% of its applicants. During the information session I was told that new for 2014 was an emphasis on more subjective elements of an applicant's portfolio. While it must be hard at a place that gets 15,000 applicants each year, they are now trying to be much more "holistic" in reviewing applications; the rigor of a student's courses will be carefully considered, as well as extra-curricular activities and student writing ability. The mid-50% of accepted students last year had GPAs of 3.34-4.02. That said, standardized tests are still required at VCU and they run a wide gamut; the mid-50% of the SAT (CR and M) range from 1040-1240 and the ACT between 22-27.

large ram's horns outside the student center
The most popular majors at VCU are Biology, Psychology, Mass Communications and Criminal Justice. VCU is a relatively diverse campus, with students from over 100 countries on campus, but 85% of the student body comes from Virginia. so international students only make up 5% of the total.  I was very impressed with the racial makeup of the campus. They state that 16% of their students identify as African-American (more than twice the percentage at the University of Virginia) and all of their promotional material prominently feature people of color. Over 19% of Virginia's population is African-American, so it is good to see one of its public universities try to match that ratio in the student body.

Currently VCU offers over 60 majors in the following 13 schools and colleges:

  • College of Humanities and Sciences
  • School of Allied Health Professions
  • School of the Arts
  • School of Business
  • School of Dentistry
  • School of Education
  • School of Engineering
  • Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs
  • School of Medicine
  • School of Nursing
  • School of Pharmacy
  • School of Social Work
  • VCU Life Sciences
  • VCU Honors College
Students can apply to the Honors College at any point in their careers, but for incoming freshmen VCU wants to see an SAT score (CR+M) of at least 1270 or an ACT score of at least 29. These are not very difficult hurdles, and I would definitely encourage high achieving, motivated students to consider VCU's Honors College. Honors students get special housing (with single rooms), access to extra scholarship money, early course registration, special library privileges and additional access to research opportunities. The deadline for applications is January 15, but students seeking merit scholarships should apply by December 1st. Parents should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by March 1st.

poster in the Visitor's Center
I enjoyed my visit to Virginia Commonwealth University.  It compares well against larger state universities (such as Penn State), while providing the added benefits of an urban location.  The campus is very artsy, perhaps due to the presence of VCUArts, the number one ranked public arts and design program in America.  Honestly, I wish I could show you the viewbook--it is one of the most creative ones I've ever seen, featuring numerous cutouts and clever typography; send for one and you won't be disappointed. Despite only 15% of the population coming from outside of Virginia, I got the feeling that VCU prided itself on its diverse student body. As an example, I was pleased to see literature about LGBTQ students prominently displayed in the Visitor's Center.

VCU combines a location in a thriving small city with a wealth of academic and cultural options for students to pursue. Despite the relatively large size of the student body VCU works hard to make sure that nobody gets lost in the shuffle; first year students, for instance, are required to meet with their advisors twice per semester, and many meet much more often. If you are looking for a large, urban college on the east coast (such as George Washington University, or Drexel University, or Pace University) I would definitely give VCU a close look. I know that I will be recommending it to my own students. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to the University of Richmond

As promised, I will use this space to share my experiences visiting colleges with you. Hopefully you will find these notes useful. If you like the schools I discuss you should do everything you can to visit on your own, but this will tide you over until you are able to.

In mid-December I visited the University of Richmond, in the capital city of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The University has become an increasingly popular option among students at my school, and colleagues who had been to the campus couldn't say enough about it. During my visit I attended an information session and took a tour and I came away extremely impressed.  The University of Richmond combines a campus so beautiful that it looks like a movie set with a wealth of opportunities for students to experience. I look forward to recommending the University of Richmond to my college counselees.

University of Richmond At A Glance

About 3,000 undergraduates (approximately 52% women/ 48% men). There are an additional 1,100 or so graduate students.
Programs of Study:
Over 60  majors. Undergraduate degrees offered are Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science. Multiple Master's degrees are also awarded along with Juris Doctor degree from the law school.
NCAA Division I; 16 varsity teams (9 women's, 7 men's); over 30 club and intramural sports.
Campus Life:
350-acre campus on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. 14 non-residential fraternities and sororities.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $57,470 (tuition is around $46,680). Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as well as the CSS PROFILE. The average need-based financial aid award is $42,000.
The Early Decision I deadline is November 15, and the ED II and Regular Decision deadlines are January 15.
SAT or ACT. Mid 50% of SAT are 1340-1410 (CR+M) and 30-33 for the ACT. SAT Subject Tests are not required.

©2014 Courtney Lewis
The University of Richmond, or "UR" as they like to call themselves, is located on the west side of Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a small to medium sized city of less than 250,000 people (about 1,300,000 in the metro area) but it is the capital city of Virginia, and as such it offers many amenities typically found in larger cities, from effective public transportation, to multiple museums and ample opportunities for public and private sector internships. The university was founded in 1830, but moved to its current location in 1914. At that time a women's college, Westhampton College was founded alongside the men-only Richmond College. While the two institutions merged into the University of Richmond years ago, they still maintain a very unique "coordinate system"; under this scheme, the campus contains both colleges; women and men have their own deans, student governments, honor councils and residences. While UR is thoroughly co-ed with a nearly equal balance between men and women, this could still be a good option for someone interested in "semi single sex" education. 

The expansive campus is one of the most gorgeous I've ever seen. It spans 350 acres, but it is walkable end-to-end in 15 minutes. All of the buildings are air-conditioned against the Virginia humidity. Though its buildings have been built over the last century they have a great deal of architectural cohesion; additionally, they seem to have spared no expense to make the structures beautiful inside and out. The lake in the middle of the campus is lovely, and considering how mild the weather was in December, I am sure that students enjoy it nearly year round.

courtesy of the

UR was the beneficiary of one of the largest higher education donations in American history when alumni and local philanthropist E. Claiborne Robins gave $50 million in 1969 (over $300 million in contemporary dollars). Robins ran the pharmaceutical company A.H. Robins, former maker of Robitussin and ChapStick. I was told that to this day, a small portion of ChapStick sales goes to the University, and that the infirmary dispenses the products to students. The gift has grown through wise investment to an endowment of $2.1 billion, the 34th largest in America, which doubtless helps provide for the world-class amenities available to UR students. 

I visited on the first day of Winter break and consequently our tour was not able to include some elements that are usually featured on such visits, most notably the gym and the dorms. While I wasn't able to see the residences, I was told that nearly 90% of students live on campus for all four years, which indicates that they must be pretty nice. The university has 14 fraternities and sororities, but they are non-residential; in addition to this UR eschews freshmen-only residences, so students get to live with a representative cross section of their peers from day one. I have always approved of this myself; my first year in college I lived on a floor with older students, wound up in a band with a bunch of fourth-years and made many friends outside my age group.  It was quite rewarding for me, and I am sure that Richmond students have similar results. 

©2014 Courtney Lewis
UR has 17 NCAA Division I teams and 30 club sports, including ice hockey, badminton and quidditch. Several varsity teams play in Robins Stadium, a newly built multisport palace located next to the admissions office. As you can see from the picture, Richmond is proud to be the only team in the country called the Spiders, and the arachnid logo is omnipresent--web designs are even built into the steel railings around the stadium. I really mean it when I say that they are serious about being called the Spiders--one of their supplemental essays on the Common App is an open ended one, asking students to "please tell us something about spiders". That said, I am rather an arachnophobe, and I was not scared walking around campus, so you should be okay too.

UR prides itself on being a "suburban campus with an urban feel" that "doesn't know our own size"; based on what I saw, they definitely punch above their weight--the casual observer would be excused in thinking that the university had at least twice as many students as they do. Richmond maintains a center in the heart of the city called "UR Downtown" that is a short shuttle drive away and makes it easier for students to take advantage of urban resources. The university seems to combine the best of a big university with a smaller college--classes average 16 students, and the largest lecture hall on campus has a maximum occupancy of 47. Students seem to like this: I was told that Richmond was ranked the 7th happiest campus in the nation, and that a remarkable 94% of students return for a second year. Based on other benchmarks, I bet they stay happy. Richmond wants their students to have the financial flexibility to be able to travel, do internships and otherwise engage with the larger world, and to that end they have just announced "the Richmond Guarantee" which will provide up to $4,000 per student to subsidize an off campus learning activity. Finally, of the class of 2013, 96% of graduates were "employed, engaged or enrolled" in a position that let them use their degrees within six months of commencement.

©2014 Courtney Lewis 
Students who are interested in applying to the University of Richmond can use the Common Application. UR is very selective, admitting only about 30% of applicants. They promise an "holistic review", and I was told that the student's transcript is looked at very closely. They are looking for students who have earned A, A- and B+ grades in a rigorous curriculum. UR looks to see that students have challenged themselves to the best degree that they were able based on the context of the school's overall curriculum; in other words, a student who attends a school without AP classes won't be penalized for not taking those courses, but if she attends a school with a dozen AP options, she should have taken several. UR requires standardized tests, and their mid-50% scores (1320-1410 for SAT and 30-33 for ACT) are pretty high. They look closely at the SAT writing section, as well as the written parts of the Common App (including the spiders part) to make sure that all incoming students can express themselves well. The Early Decision I deadline is November 15 and the EDII and Regular Decision deadlines are January 15. Students seeking to be a "Richmond Scholar" (beneficiaries of 45 full tuition scholarships) must apply by December 1.

All UR students start their careers in the College of Arts and Sciences; students don't declare a major until sophomore year. I was told that the top four majors are psychology, biology, international studies, and business administration; the business students have a "trading floor" to work with, and are actually given a portion of the University endowment to invest every year. 59% of students study abroad in their career which is a pretty good rate. Richmond makes sure that students are reimbursed for "cultural activities" (museums, lessons, etc.) while studying out of the country; my tour guide spent several months in New Zealand and was reimbursed for taking the Lord of the Rings tour. Undergraduates who study classes related to the law can use the law school and its library, which can be a big help for research projects. I was told that students form close relationships with their professors; our tour guide related that when she was studying in the business building a professor came to check on her, because she hadn't moved for so long! At UR all courses are taught by faculty members; there are no teaching assistants. The university is very proud of its School of Leadership Studies, which they say has been a model for similar programs at other colleges across the country in the last two decades. It is an interdisciplinary program that draws from multiple perspectives to help frame what makes a leader, rather than specifically training students to assume a leadership role (though doubtless many eventually do). Students apply in their second year if they want to major in Leadership Studies.

©2014 Courtney Lewis
The Boatwright Library (named after a longtime college president) is a lovely building that has many modern features. It makes a good balance between offering students collaborative and individual study spaces with plenty of available technology and nearby support from librarians (with welcomingly decorated offices). It is open 24 hours every day and like many buildings on campus features a café space. The library devotes a large amount of space on the main floor to collaborative learning. Whiteboards abound for groups of students to work together; students were asked what they most wanted to see during the recent renovations, and this is what they asked for. The library has over 500,000 volumes; there is also a music library and a law library (located in the law building). Also, for history students drawn to Richmond by Revolutionary War or Civil War history, the Library of Virginia is nearby and is another great source of research material for students; when I was there they had a museum quality exhibit on the slave trade in Richmond that gave me many ideas to use in my history classes.

I really enjoyed my visit to the University of Richmond.  It is quite diverse, drawing students from 47 states and 70 countries; in fact the other people on my tour came from Connecticut and China. While I didn't get to see the dorms or the gym, I still felt that I received tons of useful information; my tour was led by a senior from Virginia named Pooja, who was one of the best tour guides I've ever had and she covered a lot of ground. Pooja's love of the University was abundant and obvious throughout our hour long walk around campus; she kept saying how much she would miss it when she graduated, and it is easy to see why. The University of Richmond seems to be the perfect combination of small college feel and big university features. I had never visited a college so far south, but it was quite accessible from northeastern Pennsylvania (a six hour drive) and is on the Acela (high speed rail) line from Amtrak making it quite easy to take the train to Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Having visited I can understand why it is so popular, and I will definitely be recommending it to more of my students in the future. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

My Thoughts on Three New College Admissions Methods

At age 17,  I decided to limit my college search to tiny Marlboro College in Vermont (which eschewed traditional classes for one-on-one tutorials) and Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts (whose professors give detailed narrative evaluations instead of grades). There were other reasons--I wanted a college where I could watch Red Sox games on local television, for instance--but even back then I was skeptical about the role that one-size-fits-all assessments can play in academics. I got into both colleges and, in the best decision of my life I chose Hampshire which is where I met the person to whom I've been married for nearly 21 years.

But why did these colleges choose me? I did not do well on the SAT. My score on the Critical Reading and Math sections (this was before the Writing section was part of the test) was 1080.  In 1995, eight years after I took the test, the College Board "recentered" their scores, which gave me a boost to what would nowadays be an 1170. My low score was mainly due to my inability to understand algebra, but my verbal score on the old scale was a low-ish 650. Nowadays, as a jaded 21st century college counselor I would immediately urge 17 year-old me to retake the test or use to look for "test optional" schools. Back then, though, I was kind of on my own, and I think that my admission came down to three factors:
  1. Self-selection: most people wouldn't choose a small, alternative college, so my interest was a predisposing factor for admission.
  2. Interview: Nowadays very few colleges do formal interviews, but in the 1980's they were commonplace. I think that I did a good job of expressing myself verbally to the admissions people at both schools.
  3. Creative Essays: I don't remember Marlboro's essay, but Hampshire had several to pick from. I chose "Compare two different types of artwork". I compared a photo of dead soldiers on the Russian front in WWII to the Al Stewart song "Roads to Moscow"

Lately, three colleges have announced changes to their admissions policies, all with the goal of increasing opportunities to prospective students who don't test well, or whose high school grades don't tell the whole story. Bard College offers an online essay competition which vitiates the need to send test scores, transcripts or recommendation letters; Goucher College has a similar approach that replaces Bard's essays with a short, student-produced video; and lastly, Hampshire College has become the first school in the country to refuse to consider standardized tests in their admissions decisions

Bard's approach is quite interesting. Prospective students have several months to write four 2,500 word essays on a range of esoteric topics.  Each of the topics contains a provocative question along with several linked readings, videos or works of art. Questions cover history, philosophy, art, science, mathematics and the classics. Applicants must incorporate the links into their essays. 2,500 words is a little more than five pages, so students have a lot of room to stretch out. Once all four essays are submitted they are given to a committee of Bard faculty members to grade; if applicants receive a composite B+ or above, they are admitted. Clearly Bard figures that this method will provide them with people who are ipso facto qualified to do B+ level work at Bard. The program is quite new, and I will be interested to learn how many prospective students avail themselves of this option. Bard gets less than 5,000 applications every year, but if even 20% come to use this option it will create quite a lot of extra work for their faculty. I like this plan, but do not see how it can be scalable. 

Goucher's new option seems to me to be more of an attention grabber, and I doubt that it will actually help them find a large number of students ready to succeed in college.  Goucher asks students to stand in front of a camera (even a smartphone), introduce themselves, and then communicate, in whatever way they want, "how they see themselves at Goucher". They have published a rubric, which assesses the video on (among other things), an ability to "think in-depth". Though I am glad that they have stated that "[v]ideos will not be evaluated on production quality, but rather on the thoughtfulness of the response", I am rather unsure that "in-depth" and "two minutes" are compatible. I have taught video production to high school students, and I have watched the works of many teen videographers in my 19-year career, and I am not sure that many of them would be able to prove to a casual observer that the auteur was capable of success in college. Where Bard's willingness to ignore high school transcripts for successful essay writers may make some sense (as students would have to prove an ability to write and think about complex topics while managing multiple significant projects), a two-minute video can't do that. Goucher has some ambitious goals for its graduates, and it is impossible to predict a young person's success in so many areas based on a short video. The high school transcript would at least demonstrate whether or not the student had any aptitude for reading, writing and math. Goucher gets less than 4,000 applications every year. This may be a way of increasing the number of total apps, and it certainly won't take very long to assess a two minute video based on a skimpy, subjective rubric, but I cannot imagine that this plan will be emulated by many other schools. 

Hampshire's new policy sounds to me like it has the best chance of spreading to other colleges. Put simply, after years of being "test optional", Hampshire is now the first "test blind" college in the country. According to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Meredith Twombly:

"Tests aren't part of Hampshire's pedagogy, so why would we use a test to determine which students would thrive here? The SAT is essentially one test on one day in a given year. Students' high school academic records, their history of civic engagement, their letters of recommendation from mentors, and their ability to represent themselves through their essays trump anything the SAT could tell us."

More interestingly, Hampshire has linked their new decision to greater fairness in the financial aid process. A little-known aspect of many schools' "test optional" policies is that they do require standardized tests for students seeking "merit" (as opposed to need-based) financial aid.  Hampshire has decoupled tests from the merit discussion, as Twombly notes, "It is no secret that many colleges base financial aid awards largely or partly on test scores. Financial aid should be used to support students who most need assistance, not to reward those who are good test takers." In an interview with USA TODAY, Twombly admitted that only "a handful" of other schools might follow Hampshire's lead; especially in light of the fact that US News and World Report has dropped Hampshire from its Top Colleges list for refusing to consider test scores (which are a key part of their algorithm). Hampshire says that their annual number of applications exceeds 2,800. This new method may slightly increase that number, but just as it was 27 years ago, Hampshire's population is naturally self-limiting to those people seeking an alternative education. Instead, I imagine that this new plan will be a way of increasing "mind-share" and raising the college's profile to people who may never have heard of the school otherwise. And Hampshire still requires applicants to submit their high school transcripts. 

Three small, relatively elite colleges does not make for a "trend", but could they be the tip of the spear in a move to reform college admissions?  I doubt it. The Common Application is a monolithic structure that drives college admissions toward standardization and schools that get tens of thousands of applications would never be able to process that number of these new, unique apps. While some smaller colleges may be willing to try some diversionary methods to (charitably) help atypical applicants gain admission or (cynically) increase the number of applications to increase their rejections, I can't see that many will risk the fallout of being dropped by US News and other college ranking services. I will follow these developments closely and will be interested to see what the results are after five years. What do you think about these non-traditional ways of assessing college applicants?  Tell me in the comments!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to Hood College

As promised, I will use this space to share my experiences visiting colleges with you. Hopefully you will find these notes useful. If you like the schools I discuss you should do everything you can to visit on your own, but this should tide you over until you can.

In early August I paid a visit to Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. Over the years a few students from my school had been admitted to Hood, but I had not actually been to the campus. During my visit I took the standard tour and also had a chance to talk with members of the admissions staff. I came away very impressed with Hood; it combines one of the most beautiful campuses you'll find with a great location and a welcoming campus environment that is home to a varied, challenging curriculum. I look forward to recommending Hood College to my students.

Hood College At A Glance

About 1,400 undergraduates (approximately 67% women/ 33% men). There are an additional 1,000 or so graduate students.
Programs of Study:
34 majors. Undergraduate degrees offered are Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science. Multiple Master's degrees are also awarded.
NCAA Division III; 19 varsity teams (10 women's, 9 men's).
Campus Life:
50-acre campus in the city of Frederick, Maryland. No fraternities or sororities.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $46,000 (tuition is around $33,600). Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
Hood has a rolling admissions plan.
SAT or ACT. Hood is test optional for students who do not believe that standardized tests will represent their academic potential.

Hood College has a lovely campus lined with tall trees and stately red brick buildings in the city of Frederick, Maryland (population around 67,000). in the northwestern part of the state. Frederick is a mid-sized city that is also the site of the Army's Fort Detrick, a medical research center that provides internships for Hood students. Hood College was founded in 1893 as a women's institution; it moved to its current location in 1915. Hood became co-educational in the 1970's and men have lived on campus since 2003. Currently the gender balance is about two-thirds women to one-thirds men.

The campus is a mix of older and more modern buildings but they are uniformly built of red brick and the campus looks very cohesive.  If you think that red brick buildings are beautiful (like I do) Hood may be the place for you!  The landscaping on campus is impeccable, with clearly labeled trees and plantings.

Only about half of the students live on campus in one of five dormitories. The low percentage of resident students probably owes more to the desirability of living in Frederick, an amazing small city that I can't wait to visit again, than to any failings of the dorms. That said, the dormitory I visited (which had been renovated just last year) was decidedly no-frills compared to many other college dorms. My tour guide stressed that Hood was not "a suitcase college" and that there was lots to do for students on campus and in town, and I have no doubt that it is true. 

Hood boasts a new athletic center which houses the gym and a fitness center--it is quite well-equipped while not being overwhelming. There is also a new aquatic center that is home to their swim team and features an Olympic-sized pool. The old gymnasium is available for intramural activities, and there is a nice artificial surface field next to the softball stadium for turf sports.  In the spring of 2015 Hood will field its first baseball team, which will get to play at least some home games at the home stadium of the AA Frederick Keys, which is pretty cool. Like other colleges, Hood is probably hoping to attract some more men to the college; if you are a baseball player, this might be a good opportunity for you.

Hood prides itself on being the "most diverse private college in Maryland", in terms of cultural, religious and economic diversity. About 60% of the approximately 1,400 undergraduate students come from the Old Line State and many of the rest hail from the mid-Atlantic region. Hood emphasizes the practicality of their degree: I was told that 90% of 2013 graduates had a job or were in graduate schools within six months of receiving their diplomas. New for 2014 is a program that guarantees a degree in four years if certain conditions are met; to be honest, if a student meets these conditions at most private colleges they will graduate on time too, but I like that Hood lays this on the line as they do. Hood consistently earns a place on "best value" college lists; they have a merit aid budget of about $6 million with most scholarships between $6,000 and $18,000. That said, Hood may not meet 100% of a student's demonstrated need. Hood will automatically review students for merit aid when reviewing applications; Hood is test-optional and does not require standardized tests. Students with high school GPAs of 3.25 or higher will be considered for merit assistance even if they did not submit test scores. Hood is very generous with Advanced Placement for students with AP test scores of 4 or 5.

All classes at Hood are taught by professors and the school touts the close relationships between students and their teachers; besides regular office hours, many departments eat in the dining hall at least once per week to be more accessible. Academic facilities seem well-equipped and welcoming. They have several interesting multi-disciplinary programs; ones that caught my eye include the Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies (for students interested in the environment) and the Center for Global Studies (which funds scholarships to facilitate study abroad opportunities).

Hood students have access to internships and summer jobs throughout the Baltimore/Washington corridor and undergraduate research opportunities abound. Management, biology, education and psychology are among the most popular majors. The average class size is 17 (campus legend has it because that is how many students fit on the benches popularly used for outdoor classes on nice days), and there is a 12:1 student to professor ratio.

Hood is in the fourth year of a program where every incoming student receives an Apple iPad; the entire campus boasts wireless access and professors are committed to making material available on Blackboard class sites. There are 24 computer labs on campus for students who need more powerful computing devices.

The 57,000 square foot campus library is home to over 200,000 volumes, but it is part of a five college interlibrary consortium which has access to over 1,000,000 volumes; my tour guide says that she and her friends have never had to wait more than a day for ILL materials to arrive--some are sent digitally. The library subscribes to over 300 periodicals in print and online.  I was also told on my tour that the library has one of the largest collection of writings about President Kennedy's assassination, which could be interesting to history buffs.

Like many former all-women's colleges, Hood prides itself on many campus traditions. From the first day of school, when all four undergraduate classes gather in the outdoor theatre for convocation (each class wearing beanies known as "dinks") to the strawberries and ice cream meal the morning of graduation, Hood students are given chances to participate in the lore of the college. In the center of the campus is a large pergola where, tradition says, if you have your first kiss you will experience true love! There are no fraternities or sororities at Hood--the defining social group is the graduating class. Banners hanging from the walls of the student center depict important events in the histories of each graduating class.  What a colorful, spirit-filled way of building loyalty to the college!  These traditions might not be for everyone, but I like them.

New for 2014-15, Hood has streamlined its admissions plan. Hood now uses a rolling admissions policy.  Rolling admissions means that colleges are continuously reviewing applications and making offers of admission, rather than waiting until a set application deadline prior to starting to read the files. Rolling admissions schools are good options for students who do not want the stress of waiting until March or April for decisions. Rolling admissions also has the chance to reward students who apply earlier in the process. To make things even easier, Hood uses the Common Application.

I really enjoyed my visit to Hood College.  If you are looking for a small college environment with ample research and internship opportunities and are attracted to a school with lots of campus traditions (and red brick buildings!) Hood could be for you. Seek out Hood's representatives if they visit your school or local college fair, or schedule a visit to see the campus if you think you are interested; I think you will be impressed. Please share your thoughts about Hood College in the comments below, and good luck on your college search!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to Loyola University Maryland

As promised, I will use this space to share my experiences visiting colleges with you. Hopefully you will find these notes useful. If you like the schools I discuss you should do everything you can to visit on your own, but this should tide you over until you can.

In early August I paid a visit to Loyola University in Baltimore, MD. While I had previously met with admissions representatives from the university when they came to my school, and had heard positive comments about the place from students and family members who attended there, I had not actually been to the campus. During my visit I attended the usual information session and took the standard tour and also had a chance to talk to the admissions counselor responsible for our geographic area. I came away very impressed with Loyola; it features a beautiful campus and its curriculum and philosophy of education are very appealing. I look forward to recommending Loyola University to my students.

Loyola University Maryland At A Glance

About 4,000 undergraduates (approximately 60% women/ 40% men) and 2,000 graduate students.
Programs of Study:
30 majors, 40 minors. The option to create an individual major exists. Bachelor, Master's and Doctoral degrees are offered.
NCAA Division I; 18 varsity teams, numerous club and intramural sports.
Campus Life:
80-acre campus in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Loyola is part of a fourteen-college consortium called "Baltimore Collegetown"that lets students take classes, use the libraries, and ride free buses throughout the member institutions.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $59,000 (tuition is around $43,000). Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and CSS PROFILE. 95% of students had their full need met.
There are three admissions options.  Early Decision (new for 2014-15) deadline is Nov. 1st; Early Action deadline is Nov. 15th; Regular Decision is Jan. 15th. Applicants can use the Common Application or Loyola's own, shorter application.
Loyola will accept the SAT or ACT. They do not look at the writing portion of the SAT or at SAT Subject Tests. Loyola is fully test optional--about 1/3 of students do not send test scores. Test scores are not required for merit aid consideration.

Loyola University Maryland was established in 1852 and moved to its current location (the Evergreen Campus) in 1922. It is the oldest of four Loyolas in America; they are unrelated, but they are among the 28 Jesuit institutions of higher learning in the United States. Like its fellow Jesuit colleges, Loyola places a great value on educating the minds, bodies and spirits of its students. About 70% of students identify as Catholic, 26 professors are Jesuit priests and Mass is held in the Chapel every day.  All students must take two religion courses to graduate, but the admissions officers and my tour guide (a rising senior from Baltimore who is a Quaker) made sure to emphasize that religious involvement was optional, and no one was pressured to participate. That said, there is a strong commitment to give back to society and help others; 80% of students are involved in some kind of community service efforts.

Loyola has a very attractive college located at the edge of the city of Baltimore, Maryland. It does not feel at all like an "urban" campus, though it is just a short walk from upscale restaurants and shops, and is a ten-minute drive from the Inner Harbor. Baltimore boasts over a dozen colleges and universities, with over 120,000 undergraduates making it a true "college town". The consortium of all of these schools makes it easy to access academic and social resources at institutions such as Johns Hopkins, Goucher, Towson and others.

The campus is divided into academic and residential sections. The architecture is varied in both, but the academic section features lots of stone and steel, along with a beautiful Tudor-style building housing admissions, other administrative offices and several academic departments including history and philosophy.  There is an expansive quad with benches, trees and flower plantings. I was told that students use this for recreation during the year (Frisbee, etc). The entire campus appears to be very well-lit and is very walkable; I was told that it is a 7-10 minute walk from end to end.

The residential section, which also includes the library, is more modern looking, but also features lots of green spaces for recreation. The library is a striking, modern building that underwent a $20 million renovation in 2008.  It is part of a consortium of libraries that gives students access to over one million volumes.  Loyola has a range of housing options. The dormitory space shown on the tour is the newest first-year student dorm; it features pairs of double-occupancy rooms with adjoining bathrooms.  It was perfectly adequate, though it didn't knock my socks off.  That said, Loyola dorms are consistently ranked highly by the Princeton Review, coming in with the second highest-rated residence halls in America this year. The new food service provider also gets good reviews. Housing is not guaranteed for all four years, but apparently rooms are available for anyone who wants one.

Most athletic facilities are about a mile and half down the road at a newly opened soccer/lacrosse stadium. Students can walk or run to the stadium, but shuttle buses circle the campus continuously through 2am to give a lift to anyone who would prefer to ride. To get around the Baltimore metro area, students can utilize the free Collegetown bus service (which covers the territory between Union Station in downtown Baltimore and the Towson Mall), and if they choose, the #8 and #11 city buses stop on campus as well.  While I was there I saw a bus or van every few minutes. For those who would like their own car there is ample parking on the fringes of the campus. Students (not first-years) can have a car on campus for $400/yr. However the college also loans automobiles for 3 days to students (unlimited milage) and will begin a partnership with Zipcar this year.

Loyola boasts a 12:1 student to professor ratio and no classes have more than 40 students. Emphasis was placed on the close relationships students have with their professors. Nearly two-thirds of Loyola students study abroad, usually during their third year. They are able to participate in over 75 different programs of varying duration all over the globe and 15 of them are all inclusive, meaning that whatever it costs them to attend Loyola will cover all costs of their study abroad program including travel. Some highlights of the academic program include "The Core", "Loyola 101" and "Messina".

The Core comprises the liberal arts foundation of a Loyola education, during which students take 17 courses across all academic disciplines. Loyola does not require students to choose a major until the start of their fourth semester. Popular majors include:

  • Business
  • Biology
  • Communications
  • Education
  • Psychology
  • Speech Pathology
  • Accounting
One feature I found particularly useful was that students accepted to Loyola are automatically admitted to the schools of Business & Management, Education and Arts & Sciences; no separate application is required and students do not have to choose a school prior to matriculation. I think this would be a very good option for the student who (for instance) thinks she wants to be an engineer, but who may not have been able to take the most advanced math curriculum in high school.  That said, there is no doubt that students are challenged in their majors, as the amusing t-shirt in the entranceway of the science building attests.
Loyola 101 is an option for first-year students.  It allows them to live together in the same dorms and be taught by their faculty advisors on topics such as life in Baltimore, Jesuit education and the adjustment to college. Messina comprises two courses (one in the Fall, one in the Spring) linked by one of three themes: "The Visionary"; "Self and Other"; and "Stories We Tell".  Like Loyola 101, Messina students live together and at least one of the two classes will be taught by their academic advisor.

Loyola prides itself on a four-year graduation rate of 80%, which is excellent compared to the national average of 59%. For students who seek post-college professional programs, advising is available for Pre-Law, Pre-Med, Pre-Dental, and Pre-Vet; during the info session we were told that the acceptance rate to graduate programs is around 80%. Doubtless many of these students participated in internships during their college careers: 70% of Loyola students experience at least one and many have two or three prior to graduation. The Career Center works closely to help students find opportunities and 98% of 2012 graduates had a job or were in a grad program within 12 months of graduation.

Loyola University accepted 58% of 13,800 applications last year to complete a first-year class of 1,100. The admissions staff is "small but mighty" consisting of only seven admissions counselors. Despite this, they work hard to provide a "holistic" review of the applications. Prospective students can use the Common Application or Loyola's own application (with no preference given to either). Admitted students last year generally earned grades of B+/A- in high school with unweighted GPAs of 3.5. Emphasis is placed on high school grades and course rigor. Students are evaluated based on how they challenged themselves in their school curriculum. Advanced Placement test scores of 4 or 5 will earn college credit. Loyola is proud of its status as a "test optional" school where 30% of applicants do not submit standardized test scores (instead, an additional essay or teacher recommendation will suffice). Of the students who did send standardized tests, the mid-50% score for the SAT was 1140-1290 (critical reading and math) and 25-29 on the ACT.  Loyola does not consider the SAT writing score.

Loyola has three admissions programs: Early Decision, Early Action and Regular Decision. Early Decision (which will have its debut in 2014) is for students for whom Loyola is their unequivocal first choice; admission under ED is binding. Students applying ED need to get their materials in by Nov. 1st and will be notified by Christmas. The Early Action deadline is Nov. 15th; students will still receive early notification, but they will not have to commit to Loyola until May 1st. The Regular Decision deadline is Jan. 15th and they will be notified by the end of March. Last year nearly 60% of the class was built through the Early Action plan; while no one is willing to speculate what difference the addition of Early Decision will make, I think it is safe to say that students who are interested in Loyola should apply in November. Another incentive may be financial: notification of merit scholarship awards (typically given to A-/A students) comes with the acceptance letter and it stands to reason that more money will be available earlier in the process.

Loyola University is a good place for people who look to combine strong academics with service, and would be good for students looking for a "city" school as well as those who would prefer a more suburban campus. For students looking for the excitement of a mid-sized university with the close, mentoring relationships more typical at smaller colleges Loyola may be ideal. The chance to cheer on Division I sports teams could be appealing to a lot of students (though there is not a football team), and Loyola seems to be suffused with school spirit. Seek out Loyola's representatives if they visit your school or local college fair; and if possible, consider a trip to Baltimore to visit Loyola and some of their neighbors. I think that you will find Loyola to be quite impressive. Please share your thoughts about Loyola in the comments below, and good luck on your college search!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Things Are More Complicated Than "Don't Send Your Kid To The Ivy League"

As I've mentioned before, I am a history teacher and college counselor at Wyoming Seminary,  a highly regarded prep school with an international reputation for preparing its graduates for higher education. By nearly any measurement, Wyoming Seminary students are successful in the college admissions process and generally speaking most parents (who after all pay the bills) seem satisfied with the outcome of their children's secondary education. There is, however, a spectre haunting our admissions office--no, not that one--the spectre of the Ivy League.  

Some people have complained that not enough of our students wind up attending the most elite universities.  There are several reasons why this is so, most notably that very few of our students apply to those colleges (though 36% of our students were admitted to colleges that accept less than 1/3 of total applicants, which I call "elite" colleges).  While many people refer to "the Ivy League" as short hand for the most selective colleges, the picture is more complicated.  Out of over 3500 institutions of higher learning in the United States, most accept the majority of applicants; only 42 accept 20% or fewer (and the list ranges from the Ivies to places you might not expect, including conservatories such as Curtis Institute at 5% and Juilliard at 7.5% and Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Rust College at 14% and Albany State University at 20%).

But an article recently published in the New Republic has spurred further discussion about this issue. William Deresiewicz is a former instructor at Yale and author of the forthcoming "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life". His article raised numerous interesting topics and generated heated disagreement on the internet.  The following will summarize Deresiewicz's ideas along with some thoughts and observations of my own. 

Deresiewicz's main points are:

  • Students who have "won the race" to gain admission to elite colleges are clueless, sheltered and narrow-minded automatons.
  • College is the best time/place to be a learner, and the best colleges should be the best at teaching, but they are not
  • Students at these schools are risk-averse and generally unhappy, probably because the admissions process (including proximate aspects like the application, and more distant ones like the curricula and experiences at prep schools like mine) is narrow and empty and the concept of a "well-rounded" teen (not to mention a "pointy" one) is wildly out of whack
  • The elite colleges in America are products of the economic inequality in the country and actively work to maintain this by focusing on admitting so many people who can afford to pay their stratospheric tuitions. 

Deresiewicz has been occupied for years on the topic of the "disadvantages of an elite education", having written self-consciously about being unable to converse with the "short, beefy [plumber] with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent" who had come to fix his pipes. While Deresiewicz may have opted to see a therapist to deal with his anti-social awkwardness he seems to have chosen to write about his problems instead.  I think we learn quite a bit about William Deresiewicz c. 2008 when he observes:

"My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college."

In other words, he is a (recovering?) elitist who believes that his own experiences were typical. Six years later he still seems to be hung up on this idea, admitting:
"I should say this subject is very personal for me.  Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker.  You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth--"success."  What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want one--all of this was off the table.  It was only after 24 years in the Ivy League--college and a Ph.D at Columbia, ten years on the faculty at Yale--that I started to think about what this system does to kids..."

Ignore the self-conscious resume listing (I guess it is a hard habit to break) and note how artlessly Deresiewicz changes from first person ("I went off to college") to second person ("You chose the most prestigious place that let you in"); he still seems to believe that all Ivy League survivors have shared his experiences.  Personally, I doubt this. A former student at our school (who was the valedictorian as well as a captain of multiple sports teams that won multiple state championships and a dedicated leader of multiple community service efforts) is in her final year at at an Ivy League school.  She responded to Deresiewicz by writing:

"I am who I am because of my education at Wyoming Seminary and the University of Pennsylvania - I've been stretched to my limits and challenged each and every day in these environments (not "pandered" to or given "higher marks for shoddier work" like the original New Republic article states). Penn has allowed me to integrate my science learning with the humanities and explore a whole new academic world.... Above all, Penn has helped me unlock my passion for service and work to integrate that into all of my activities and my future career... "

I am usually reluctant to assume that experiences are universal, and so I am hesitant to accept that Deresiewicz's hangups have caused scores of thousands of elite college alumni to become social cripples when confronted with "inferiors". I prefer to believe that a person who has pursued education for the right reasons (personal growth and self-actualization) will be open to others, and if they were raised right, they will as we say in Yiddish, be a "mensch", not a "bulvan".  Oh, and the way to converse with the plumber?  Ask him how he is doing, offer him something to drink, and make banal observations about the Red Sox, who were on their way to winning the World Series. It's not rocket surgery.

Another of Deresiewicz's concerns is that elite colleges are focused on the economic "return on investment" for their graduates (high paying jobs) rather than what he thinks should be their emphasis: teaching students how to think and how to "build a self".  He rhapsodizes that:
" is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being--a soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways. 
College isn't the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best.  One thing is certain: If you haven't started by the time you finish your B.A., there's little likelihood you'll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted."
Leaving aside that if one aspires to be a professor and professional writer Deresiewicz' ideal college experience IS "career preparation", it seems that Mr. Ivy League is concerned that people without college degrees (or with the wrong kind of degrees) may think that people who don't have no soul. All they are fit for is to become plumbers (and probably Red Sox fans)...

In all seriousness, the question of return on investment (ROI) is a real one, and one that families and students should be concerned about; college is expensive, and with the level of college loan indebtedness growing so rapidly, people need to know how they will repay their financial obligations. And I agree that students in college should be given exposure to new ideas and ways of thought and expression. Fortunately, most colleges know this and make it hard to avoid. 

Deresiewicz argues that elite colleges are "technocratic", and only "train [students] in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions."  As a result, he believes that (except for the sciences) these schools treat students as "'customers', people to be pandered to instead of challenged...the result is higher marks for shoddier work." Grade inflation is a problem at elite colleges, perhaps because professors believe that anyone good enough to get in to their school is above average.  I am willing to stipulate that it is probably a problem that the most commonly awarded grade at Harvard is straight A's.  On the other hand, as a proud graduate of Hampshire College, I have never believed that grades have any meaning in the first place, so I can't get too worked up about this. 


Deresiewicz frets that students at elite colleges are so worn down by pressure that it causes psychological damage.  He refers to a woman whose boyfriend at Yale who faces the "stigma of eating alone and whether he's networking enough" and realizes that there is "a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them."  The psychological issues facing college students have become a serious issue everywhere, not just at elite schools and their causes are more complex than Deresiewicz seems to think. To Deresiewicz:
"Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.  A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study's 25-year history.
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success.  The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk.
 ...There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education.  But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school "stifling to the parts of yourself that you'd call a soul."
Despite having "been on the faculty" (he never calls himself a professor, so he may not have been on the tenure track) at Yale for a decade, Deresiewicz cannot find a student able to directly speak about the experience; instead the anecdotes meant to generalize about a widespread problem come from someone's boyfriend, and another student's other friend.  Note also, the confidence with which Deresiewicz asserts that students at elite colleges have "never experienced anything but success".  How can he possibly know the life experience of thousands of people?  As a college counselor I get to know my students very well, and just because a kid can be popular and earn good grades in high school doesn't mean that their lives are easy, or an uninterrupted upward trajectory.  Honestly, sometimes the nerve of this guy makes me wonder if he knows how to talk to anyone, even if they are trim, clean-shaven and think baseball is an uncouth variation of cricket. 

Deresiewicz' essay begins with a fly-on-the-wall description of a meeting of Yale's admissions committee, trying to evaluate candidates from eastern Pennsylvania. He says he was told that "successful applicants could either be 'well-rounded' or 'pointy'--outstanding in one particular way--but if they were pointy, they had to be really pointy: a musician whose audition tape had impressed the music department, a scientist who had won a national award."  He goes on to refer to them as "Super People" who have "a double major, a sport, a musical instrument, a couple of foreign languages, service work in distant corners of the globe, a few hobbies thrown in for good measure: they have mastered them all, and with a serene self-assurance that leaves adults and peers alike in awe."

According to Deresiewicz, these super people have reduced their lives to college essays. Having gone a couple of paragraphs without pontificating, he huffs:

"From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify.  The New York Times reports that there is now a thriving sector devoted to producing essay-ready summers, but what strikes one is the superficiality of the activities involved: a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance, 'a whole day' with a band of renegade artists: a whole day!
I've noticed something similar when it comes to service. Why is it that people feel the need to go to Guatemala to do their projects of rescue or documentation, instead of Milwaukee or Arkansas? When students do stay in the States, why is it that so many head for New Orleans? Perhaps it's no surprise, when kids are trained to think of service as something they are ultimately doing for themselves--that is, for their résumés. 'Do well by doing good' goes the slogan. How about just doing good?"
When Deresiewicz defines "superficiality" he immediately cites kids who spend "a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance"--what a bunch of posers! I would probably refer to people who make broad generalizations without doing any actual research, but what do I know?  And I am not at all sure what his beef is against Guatemala. But what really gets me about this passage is his snarky dig at the "slogan" about doing well by doing good.  This is pretty much the foundation of philanthropy in our culture, but Deresiewicz seems to think that it is just something that shallow, callow, wealthy, hyper-achieving teenagers like to say to themselves after dooming Milwaukee to more years of desperation without community service projects. 

I am beginning my nineteenth year working at prep schools, and having spent more than seven of those years as a college counselor I think that I might have just as good a sense of the college admissions game as Deresiewicz got from his couple of hours observing in the spring of 2008.  To me, admissions to the most elite schools is by definition (to paraphrase Deresiewicz) very difficult to attain.  Colleges with admissions rates of 33% or less (not to mention the schools with single digit acceptance rates) are able to take their pick of students.  If they wanted to, they could admit nothing but valedictorians and National Merit Finalists. But the thing is, they don't want to. According to this article from Stanford University's (with an admission rate of 5.1%) alumni magazine:
"There is no formula," [Director of Admissions Richard] Shaw says. For the alumni of a school that resides on the forward boundary of the digital frontier, where arrays of 1s and 0s have transformed life as we know it, this is unsettling. Even perfect test scores don't guarantee admission. Far from it: 69 percent of Stanford's applicants over the past five years with SATs of 2400—the highest score possible—didn't get in. 
Moreover, applicants aren't just competing against other stellar scholars. They're also competing against circumstances. "Whether or not one young person gets in is not necessarily determined by what they've done and what their characteristics are and their abilities and so on," says Provost John Etchemendy, to whom Shaw reports. "It also depends on the overall mix of people who have applied that year and bubbled to the top. So one year, being a tuba player might be really important. And another year, well, there are already these five even better tuba players and we don't need another." 
Cardinal head football coach David Shaw, '94, doesn't sign quarterbacks only. He tries to build a team. So, too, does Rick Shaw. That's where the word "holistic" comes in. Stanford, in addition to wanting superior scholars, also wants to bring in a pre-built community populated by kids from every stop on the geographic, socioeconomic and talent spectrums. 
"When [Stanford] takes students," says [Stanford alumnus Ralph] Figueroa, who, as an admissions officer at Wesleyan University was profiled in The Gatekeepers (2002), "you can often see they are not taking just a number. They are taking the personality, the talent. They are taking the contributions that aren't always obvious at first glance. I see it firsthand with my own students who apply—who gets admitted and who doesn't." 
Shaw acknowledges that part of the evaluation is subjective, which makes a denial of a superior candidate all the harder to accept. "We leave behind extraordinary young people. There's not a constituency that isn't upset. That's not only true for alumni children. My consolation prize is that I know those kids are going to be fine. They may be disappointed for a while, but they will wind up at very good schools and do very well."
The Stanford article also admits that each applicant only gets about 15 minutes of review as part of the "holistic" admissions process (except for legacy students, who get looked at twice). So with that in mind, and considering that grades and test scores will probably be pretty much the same for most applicants, is it any wonder that we advise students that the way to differentiate themselves is through their personal statement? It is also why we urge students to apply to a diverse list of schools. I tell students that they should only apply to schools that they want to attend, but that they should make sure that some of the schools they apply to have more welcoming admissions rates.  22% of students nationwide apply to more than seven colleges, though at our school the average number of applications is nine. With this being the case, students should be able to apply to one or more "reach" schools while still making sure that they will have a safe place to land regardless. 


Deresiewicz's final point is probably the most serious one, and is something that I wrestle with regularly. As he writes: 
"Let's not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself.  In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It's about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn't matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it's supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46% of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000 it was 55%. As of 2006 only about 15% of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be....
The major reason for this trend is clear. Not increasing tuition...but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game....Wealthy families start buying their children's way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel ("enrichment" programs to use the all-too-perfect term)--most important, of course, private school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is is parental income"
Once again it is easy to dismiss Deresiewicz's feigned shock at the horrors of living in Dayton (what does this guy have against the midwest?  It's not like people there have Boston accents). But he is right that there is heated competition among America's rich (and nouveau riche) to get their children a leg up. I know: I work at a prep school (located next to a city where 33% of school age children are in poverty) with day student tuition and costs of $25,000 year; despite having a very generous financial aid budget, most of my students are "upper middle class" and have parents who are professionals. I have always found it important to make sure that my students knew that their experiences were not universal. That said, there are more than a token number of students at my school who come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, so I try not to generalize. 

It can be a challenge when students debate about whether to include information in their applications that inadvertently reveal clues about their family's finances (ranging from detailing yearly vacations in the Caribbean to describing school-year part time jobs) because one would hope that colleges would admit students based on their merits; unfortunately, most have to take finances into account.  While many top-tier, wealthy institutions have been increasing financial aid recently, their "sticker prices" continue to rise. Perhaps as a result of this, most low-income students don't even apply to four-year colleges

Income inequality is a major problem, and as a teacher I consider it my duty to make sure that my students understand it.  But I do not agree with Deresiewicz that "the education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it." Some of his suggestions, such as "placing more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do" and "[colleges] should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth" seem reasonable.  Similarly, I tend to agree that things would be better if colleges "stop cooperating with U.S. News." But his other suggestions range from the silly ("[p]references for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded") to the picayune ("colleges should put an end to résumé stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars students can list on their applications") to the virtually impossible ("SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors"). 

Deresiewicz closes his article by saying "I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I've come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don't have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education."  This is an admirable sentiment.  It implicitly recognizes that students at Yale U and students at State U will have large classes taught by graduate assistants.  What I have learned from following the careers of my former students is that talented motivated people go to private colleges AND public ones; and that talented, motivated people will make the most of their opportunities wherever they wind up.  The problem of income inequality is inextricably tied up with America's broken political system; that is why so many underfunded public schools fail to provide for their students and why so many Americans struggle amid falling wages and disappearing opportunities. Regardless of their good intentions, private colleges will not be able to change this. 

I find Deresiewicz's article thought-provoking, but as you can tell, most of my thoughts are derisive: to me he seems insufferably stuck-up, shallow and I hope his book is better sourced than this article. In short, I think that "don't send your kid to the Ivy League" is needlessly reductive and sets up a straw man. My job is helping students find the colleges that will be the best "fit" for them. Colleges are not the same, and not every school is equally good for everyone. As my mother would say, "that's why there's chocolate and vanilla", or in this case, that's why there are three and a half thousand colleges in America. For other viewpoints, please consider reading J.D. Chapman, an independent school educator who disagrees with Deresiewicz on the value of an elite college education.  You might also want to read Andrew Giambrone, a self-identified "financial aid kid whose life-prospects were significantly bolstered by attending an elite school", or even Osita Nwanevu, a University of Chicago student who disputes the idea that if a person doesn't learn how to think in college that s/he is a lost cause. I would love to know what your thoughts are: please feel free to leave comments below.