Monday, December 19, 2016

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

Ever since I moved to Virginia in 2015 I've been struck by how many students and families aspire to gain admission to one of the many state colleges and universities in the Commonwealth. But the more I've learned, the less surprised I am; Virginia public colleges and universities have something to offer everyone, and at very competitive price points. Last week I had the chance to visit the University of Mary Washington, a small-to-medium sized institution in Fredericksburg, and I was quite impressed. I would not hesitate to recommend it to a student looking for challenging academics in a nurturing community with ample chances to work closely with a talented faculty.

University of Mary Washington At A Glance

A little over 4,300 undergraduates (approximately 64% women/ 36% men). UMW is somewhat selective, having accepted about 4,500 of their 5,500 applicants to fill a first-year class of 972-- an overall acceptance rate of around 80%. Despite being a public university, UMW does not put a quota on Virginians, so this might be a good choice for out of state students.
Programs of Study:
50 majors and 35 minors for undergraduates; students can also combine majors into a customized area of study. Pre-dentistry, pre-medical, pre-veterinary and pre-law programs. Master's degrees awarded in education, business and geospatial analysis.
NCAA Division III; 22 varsity teams (12 women's, 10 men's); numerous club and intramural sports.
Campus Life:
Over 130 clubs and organizations on campus; no official Greek life. On campus housing is guaranteed for the first two years. Fredericksburg is a quiet city a short walk away; it's conveniently located one hour south of Washington, D.C. and one hour north of Richmond on Interstate 95.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $23,000 for Virginians, and about $37,000 for non-residents.  Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). UMW touts their distribution of over $35 million in financial aid (though this includes loans).
UMW has Early Action AND Early Decision as well as Regular Decision options. The ED deadline is November 1, the EA deadline is November 15, and the RD deadline is February 1. Students use the Common App.
Students must send official scores for the SAT or ACT. Mid 50% of the old SAT was 1040-1230 (CR+M) and 23-28 for the ACT. There is a test-optional application method available to students with high school GPAs over 3.5, but not if they want to be in the honors or nursing programs.

For over a century, the University of Mary Washington (UMW) has continued to evolve, growing from a women's college, to a co-ed college to a university with an expansive campus and excellent facilities. UMW is a great option for first-generation college students; about 1/3 of their undergrads are the first in their families to attend college, and the University has several programs in place to help students of all backgrounds make a smooth transition to higher education.  This also helps give a certain level of diversity that may be lacking elsewhere.

During my visit I was impressed by the campus, which is deceptively big. Driving up to the university it seems nestled in a residential neighborhood of Fredericksburg, a small city halfway between Virginia's capital city of Richmond (to the south) and Washington, D.C. (to the north), but once I arrived on campus, it was much larger than I thought. All told, between parking my car, walking to the admissions office, going on the tour, and getting back to my car was 6,000 steps, according to my iPhone. Dorms, dining halls, the library and fitness center and academic spaces are pretty spread out, so students at UMW do a lot of walking!

During the information session we were told that the most popular fields of study at the University of Mary Washington are business, psychology, history and the sciences. They are particularly proud to have the #1 historic preservation program in the country. UMW students can also partake of 5-year education and business programs to get master's degrees, and there are pre-professional tracks for future doctors, lawyers, dentists and veterinarians; additionally, the university is in the early stages of planning a program that would give students a Master of Science in Nursing degree. The University touts its study abroad program; we were told "you can go anywhere but North Korea, and if you want to go there you haven't thought it through". That's a witty line, but they do seem to have a wide range of options, and financial aid travels with students. Finally, the honors program is available to any student with a high school GPA of 4.0 or above with 1300 SAT/29 ACT. Those are lofty numbers, but students who qualify get a research grant in their junior year, priority scheduling and access to an "honors lounge". Interested? If so, there is an extra essay on the Common App.

One thing that struck me on my visit was that UMW has many of the features of a university while combining the size and accessibility of a mid-sized college. The average class size is 22, but my tour guide (a senior) mentioned that she had a class of six last year. All of the courses are discussion based, seminar style classes and there are no graduate teaching assistants. Besides giving undergraduates greater access to research opportunities and resources, it also makes for a campus where students and faculty can forge tight bonds. I heard several stories of professors looking out for students' welfare and going over and above the call of duty to make sure that students were healthy and succeeding. The overall vibe was of a group of educators who really wanted to help their students succeed. I think that students who want to have the chance to find a mentoring relationship with their professors should take a close look at the University of Mary Washington.

The University has a wide array of Division III, club and intramural sports. No football, wrestling or ice hockey, but most other popular sports, along with some unusual options, like equestrian, and burgeoning club programs in rugby, rowing and fencing to name just a few. There is a very extensive fitness center/athletics center attached to the library that seems to be the nexus of student healthiness and would appear to give every conceivable option to students looking to stay in shape. 

The information session and my tour guide both reinforced the idea that with over 120 clubs and organizations there is a lot to do on campus. One thing that impressed me was the emphasis that was placed on service related organizations. Quite a few student groups seem focused on campus based or community based outreach and service opportunities. UMW does not seem to have an official Greek life, but in talking to the tour guide, it appears that many of the sports teams serve as loci for gatherings and group bonding. Students overwhelmingly stay on campus on weekends and there is apparently a lot to do at school, in town, and a short drive away. 

UMW has 17 residence halls and apartments, ranging from traditional dormitory rooms, to suites to modern furnished luxury apartments across US 1 and connected to the campus by a sky bridge. Housing is guaranteed for the first two years and 70% of students stay on campus all four years of their college careers. The dormitory we were shown was clean and comfortable; most impressive was that we were shown an actual student's room! This rarely happens anymore, and I appreciated seeing an authentic space, as opposed to a Bed, Bath and Beyond window display. The room was a traditional double, and while small, it seemed like it would be perfectly comfortable. First year students are housed with the other members of their First Year Seminar class, which helps make sure that students are prepared for the writing, speaking, and creative and critical thinking skills they will need for the next four years.

Another thing that stood out for me was the emphasis on UMW's honor code. Like the University of Virginia and other institutions in the state, UMW has a simple code ("a student will neither lie, cheat nor steal") that defines a myriad of interactions every day. Students can feel safe leaving their belongings at a table, or leaving a door unlocked because their possessions will not be molested. I heard multiple stories of professors giving students their end of term exams, then saying "I'll be in my office if you need me", trusting students to take the tests un-proctored, without fear of cheating.   I heard similar stories at the University of Virginia, but it is nice that students looking for a smaller, more intimate campus can still have this experience at the University of Mary Washington. My tour guide said that the honor code was a reason why she chose UMW, and I'm sure that she isn't alone in that sentiment.

Admissions-wise, I found it very interesting to learn that (unlike, say, the University of Virginia) there is no quota requiring a certain percentage of students to be Virginians. The majority of students ARE from the Commonwealth, but UMW could be a good option for students from other states for several reasons, including the relatively reasonable cost. $37,000 is the total cost before financial aid for non-Virginians, which is a pretty competitive price. 

Students who want to apply can choose from several plans (Early Action, Early Decision, Regular Decision) and will be reviewed "holistically and individually"--this is a reason why the essay is "a huge part of a student's application", so don't phone in the writing portion!  There is "no rigid formula" for admission, but they want to see students who have challenged themselves with the most rigorous curricula available at their schools. Standardized test-wise, the mid-50% of accepted students' test scores are not super high, so UMW should be achievable for a wide range of good students. There IS a test optional path, but it is only available to students with at least a 3.5 GPA in high school, and there are quite a few other exceptions, so it is worth reading carefully to decide if it is best for you. Students who apply test optional will have their strength of curriculum play an even larger role in the decision, so it probably isn't for low test scorers who didn't push themselves in the classroom.

The University of Mary Washington has a lot to offer to any student, but I think it is a great choice for a student who is looking for a challenging college curriculum but who would like the support of a faculty and administration that puts its focus on teaching and student achievement. For Virginians, the cost (around $22,000) is extremely reasonable and even for out of state students it could be a competitive option, especially for wealthier families. The University of Mary Washington seems to be a place that will support students as they go through their college careers, and will make sure that they are prepared to succeed. Perhaps this is why 95% of students are in graduate school or their chosen career field six months after graduation?  I think that any student interested in a small to medium sized university, especially someone who wants to have the chance to work closely with professors for four years, should give the University of Mary Washington a close look.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

NACAC 2016: Observations On Presentations About the SAT and ACT

Every year in September the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has its annual conference. NACAC is a great organization made up of high school counselors, independent educational consultants and college and university admission officers and I'm proud to have been a member for years. Along with 6,000 other professionals I attended this year's event in Columbus, Ohio as part of the Method Test Prep team, and as always I enjoyed making new friends and renewing old acquaintances during my four days in the Buckeye State. 

Going into the conference, two of the sessions I looked forward to most were the separate presentations from David Coleman and Marten Roorda, respectively the chief executives of the College Board (owners of the SAT) and the ACT.  After so many changes, so much anxiety, and extensive confusion regarding the two tests, I thought that there would be great interest in hearing directly from these two leaders just what they thought of the current state of college admissions testing.  I've uploaded my notes from the session (typed as quickly as I could while the men were speaking) for your reading pleasure; what follows are some observations after having a few days to think about what I heard.

While many people doubtless wanted to see a heavyweight showdown with the two men on stage at the same time, it wasn't to be. David Coleman spoke on Thursday afternoon, and Marten Roorda spoke in the same room the next day. Coleman's session was formatted as a "Q&A", and Roorda's being more of a prepared speech. The room was gigantic, with hundreds of seats, a large screen and microphones scattered throughout the audience for questions. 

The first thing that was evident to me was how many empty seats there were for Coleman's session. At NACAC 2015 I was totally shut out of the one session I really wanted to see, which featured admissions data guru Jon Boeckenstedt of DePaul University--even the overflow crowd was too much for the fire marshal's taste. Fearing a similar situation, I arrived extra early for Coleman, but more than half of the seats were empty. Interestingly, this session was counter-programmed with another presentation by Boeckenstedt--perhaps that's where everyone was? Or it could be that people are frustrated by the poor communication from the College Board over the last year; as one of my friends said “I’ve left too many College Board presentations angry to want to go to this one”. That said, at least 300-400 people were present to hear from the usually quiet Mr. Coleman.

Coleman, who took over the reins of the College Board four years ago after leading the effort to promulgate the Common Core standards seemed to go into the session with a plan, and the plan was to admit responsibility early and often for the College Board's failures in implementing 2015's many changes. The first question set the tone: "So David, it hasn’t been a good year..." Coleman gave a great answer that was clearly well planned: "Thanks to all of you who do this hard work. Frankly, we made your work a lot harder last year and I'm sorry about that...This was not ok....When the College Board betrays your ability to help kids it's a harm. It has real impact on people's lives." 

I thought that was a strong response, but the audience was unmoved--in fact a noteworthy phenomenon throughout Coleman's talk was the many times that he said things that in almost any other setting should have received applause but in this case were met with silence. For instance, see some of the answers and imagine how badly the College Board must have burned people for all of these to be met with comparative silence:

Q: Why no fee waivers for the CSS Profile (an extra, fee-based tool some colleges use for financial aid decisions)? "It's not fair. But I can announce that all students who qualify will automatically get CSS Profile waivers. It's wrong to keep asking families to say they are poor and to prove it for small amounts of money. We will do better. This is effective now."  This was a wonderful remark that showed Coleman's fundamental humanity, and it's a shame that the audience treated it so skeptically.
Q. Regarding the ACT's disavowal of the concordance tables between the new SAT, old SAT and ACT, how should we counsel our kids? "Concordance is necessary, but a necessary evil....I have good news for you. We and ACT have come to an agreement, and we will work together with all deliberate speed to have a new concordance for 2018.”  I'm not sure if anyone else noticed the quote from the slightly less famous Brown v. Board of Education II opinion, but to me "all deliberate speed" is the classic example of an oxymoron; I can only hope this time it works better than it did in the fifties.
Q. He was asked if he'd read an article in The Atlantic about school counselors. His response should have been a great example of solidarity with the audience, but it seemed to ring hollow: “Half of what we do is to help students grow and show their work to get ready for college. The other half is to propel kids to opportunities. If we leave futures up to chance, we have lost...When we get our problems under control, I want to become a central spokesman for the role of counseling."

With about a half hour left in the session, we were told that Coleman would take 15 minutes of questions. Quite a few people lined up at the microphones. At the end of 15 minutes, after we were told the session was over, Coleman (magnanimously?) agreed to another 15 minutes. Whether this was staged or just simple confusion I can't say. The questions from the audience were a bit more pointed and the responses generated a little bit of news, and demonstrated a bit more evasion than in the prior examples.

One very abrasive questioner, for instance, expressed her frustration with the process to grant students with disabilities accommodations (extra time, scribes, readers, etc.); "why does it take so frigging long?  It's ridiculous! What the hell?!"  Coleman was calm and empathetic, saying "you're right, by the end of the year we will announce substantive and significant simplifications of the appeal process".  He also noted that accommodations for English Language Learners will be available soon, at least for the School Day Testing sites. That was good to hear, and somewhat newsworthy. Along the same lines, James Murphy of the Princeton Review (who wrote the Atlantic article mentioned above) asked when the SAT Subject tests will go to 4 choices per question with no guessing penalty (like the revise SAT) if it is so much better. Coleman said that was a "good point. The future of the subject tests is non-trivial" to the College Board, and he speculated that they might be redundant due to Advanced Placement tests. 

The possible elimination of the subject tests is, to me, quite newsworthy. According to Adam Ingersoll of Compass Prep, currently very few (you can count them on one hand) schools explicitly require these tests (down from nearly 100 earlier in the decade), though many "recommend" them, which serves only to enrich the College Board, in my opinion. Dropping these tests from the to do lists of over-burdened, over-tested and over-stressed high schoolers would be a good idea, but not if the idea is to replace them with Advanced Placement tests, since not every student has access to AP curricula at their schools. 

Coleman was more evasive on the topic of standardized test bias. An independent consultant from South Florida asked about the latest article from Reuters about SAT and ACT problems that says that the designers of the new SAT knew in advance that there was a racial bias in the new math questions. The article is worth a read, and it notes that the vocabulary in the much wordier math questions on the new test may cause problems for racial minorities, English language learners and economically disadvantaged students. Coleman only talked about the second group: "We have found that ELL students who might have trouble with wordier questions have no measurable problem completing the test. We will do everything we can to simplify the math section. Superfluous words are superfluous. But we will not go back to useless math questions. We will have elegant, brief, easily accessible math questions."  I was disappointed that he didn't take the chance to give a forceful defense of why the new SAT fixes the racial biases in the old test. Maybe it's because he can't?

The final question that was posed seemed to be an outgrowth of the writing of my friend Jim Jump. Coleman was asked why there is no "ethical, moral or philosophical dimension" to standardized testing. He replied by saying that the exam isn't an ethics test, but that "the ethics of admission is a core issue of our time". He said that College Board research (you know what I think of that) shows that devotion to just one activity correlates most directly to future success. He thinks that the College Board is "partly culpable" in the "activities arms race" and wondered if the Common Application would be better off listing only three slots for extra-curricular activities instead of 10.


After Coleman's talk, speculation was rampant about what kind of approach Marten Roorda would take. Coleman seemed SO contrite and empathetic that some wondered how the ACT boss would approach the recent failures and confusions his company had perpetrated. I arrived early again, but definitely didn't have to rush; there were less than 100 people in the very large room at the outset of the event, and as it went on people kept leaving in frustration, to the point that I counted 71 people at the end.  

Marten Roorda took over the helm of the ACT in 2015 after previously running one of Europe's largest testing firms in his native Netherlands. His presentation struck this former public speaking teacher as one of the weakest I've ever seen. Roorda has a deep, soothing voice with an accent that isn't hard to understand, but that definitely takes concentration to fully understand. He employed a PowerPoint slide show, but the text was far too small for me to read in my seat at the rear of the room. Worst of all, Roorda made next to no eye contact and simply read a speech. Joyce Smith, the CEO of NACAC introduced the speaker and tried to set the tone: "It's Marten's first NACAC, so please be gentle to him" she implored. Unfortunately, he does not seem to have done any research into NACAC before coming, as his speech ignored the fact that the audience was made up of people who work with students and families who want to go to college. Instead, he focused on the growth of the ACT's market share, and the development of even more tests.

"You don't know about me," he began "but if you know anything about ACT, you know we like numbers. Let me tell you a new number....64%. That is the percentage of 2016 seniors who took the ACT. For the 12th straight year an increase in users, and for the 5th straight year we are the most popular test."

That seemed like an interesting start. He said that the ACT was created in 1958 not as an aptitude test (a dig at what the A used to stand for in SAT) but as one to help with placement. "To include, not exclude". Sadly, he didn't really return to this theme again. He spent the next 20 minutes describing companies that ACT has recently purchased and spun off into the new "ACT Assessment Technologies", recent experts in psychometrics that he has hired as part of his goal to "build a team of world-class scientists", and new tests that the ACT will be rolling out soon. Over a dozen people walked out during this session, one grumbling under her breath "I've never had a bigger waste of time in my life". 

Roorda did take questions at the end, and while he demonstrated more empathy in this part of the program, it may have been a case of too little, too late. When a teacher from a Native American school in Washington described her students driving 90 miles to a test center only to have their (ACT approved) calculators disqualified by the proctor, Roorda was genuinely disturbed and promised that his team would look into the situation.  On the other hand, when a college counselor from New Hampshire asked a follow up question about increasing the number of test centers so rural students wouldn't have to travel so far, he was told "America is a big place, we have 6 to 7 thousand test centers across the country and more centers will increase costs. We want to keep prices lower. But if we get a signal that in an area there is too much travel we could look at [it]. Students should communicate with us about this." I can’t imagine how much more costly it could be to have more schools host the ACT, and if it makes life easier for the test takers, it seems desirable, but what do I know? 

While keeping costs lower may be a concern, when he was asked if the ASPIRE and PreACT tests are "a price grab", all he said was "the ASPIRE and PreACT are totally different and not comparable" but implied that schools should administer both to students (along with a new set of assessments that start as early as 3rd grade). 

Roorda may not be a cold technocrat, but it was definitely how he came across to the audience. Especially in contrast with Coleman's almost uncomfortable levels of empathy, Roorda seemed to be distant and unconcerned with nuance. I'll give an example. When Coleman was asked about the growth of "test optional" colleges and universities, his answer was warm, human and thoughtful: 

"I don't want to seem to disparage schools that choose to be test optional. I understand the “humanity” to not force kids to take a test that they won’t do well on. But the SAT today measures the few things that are impossible to catch up on in college if you don’t know them (literacy, reading, certain math). It is very rare for a remedial student to catch up in college. Less than 1 of 10 without basic math can do college chemistry. We can make the test optional, but don’t make the skill assessment optional."

That's a good answer. Roorda merely said "We think colleges are missing an opportunity by going test optional. More, objective information is good and badly needed, both for schools and students. Grades may not translate into readiness." Considering that many colleges that make submission of standardized tests optional do so because they find a student's transcript to be the best predictor of college success, this seems to be a needless insult to the audience. Along the same lines, he also criticized grade inflation at the college and high school levels and predicted that the ACT score might someday serve as the proxy for "bright, engaged and aware" that a college degree "used to signal" but no longer does. 

One further question about test optional admissions came from Jay Rosner, another Princeton Review staffer. He asked "regarding your statement that 'more information is better', more information that shows the same disparities in race and economics isn't more useful, is it?" Roorda's answer was, if not surprising coming from a researcher, definitely jarring to my ears:
"I feel strongly about this. We must be thankful that a test can expose what is wrong with society. We are not trying to kill the messenger. Standardized tests should not be blamed, we should keep highlighting gaps. It is statistically not sound to say that our tests are biased." 
He's right that exposing societal ills is beneficial, but millions of students don't take the ACT to diagnose America's racial and economic problems, they take them to go to college (or, increasingly, as a measure of their public high school's success in preparing students for "college and careers"). If the makers of the ACT are aware of disparities among different groups in the population, why don't they try to equalize for that in their tests?


I was glad to be able to attend these sessions. I felt that I learned a lot about the state of standardized testing, and while neither Coleman nor Roorda chose to focus much on what Coleman called the "bloodsport" between SAT and ACT, it was pretty clear to me that these very large companies, while "non-profit" for tax purposes, have a great economic imperative to increase sales and market share at the expense of the other. Coleman said "We made the new SAT to be much better than anything else. I urge you to take a fresh look at the SAT", while Roorda noted that the ACT gives a specific STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) score, and that "we don't sell different subject tests like some others".  I hope that the leaders of the College Board and the ACT will continue to make themselves available to questions, comments and suggestions from the college admissions counseling community to make sure that they keep refining their products so that they best serve the students who spend so much time, effort and money on college admissions tests.