Friday, September 22, 2017

What I Saw At NACAC 2017: A Summary Of "Testing Achievement and the Future of College Admission"

I attended the 2017 National Association for College Admission Counseling conference in Boston in mid-September. This was the third straight year I've been able to attend, thanks to my day job with Method Test Prep, a leading ACT/SAT preparation company. I spoke to lots of people (old friends, customers, colleagues) and the consensus seems to be that the college visits, the exhibits and the conference sessions were all very valuable.

I was able to attend two sessions:
  1. What Admission Deans Think-Results of an Inside Higher Ed and Gallup Survey
  2. Testing Achievement and the Future of College Admission 

The presenters for the session "Testing Achievement and the Future of College Admission" were:
  • Ben Wildavsky, College Board Senior Fellow & Executive Director
  • Lynn Letukas: College Board Associate Research Scientist
  • Edgar Sanchez: ACT Research Scientist in Statistical & Applied Research
  • Jerome Lucido: Professor at USC Center for Enrollment Research; Associate Dean of Strategic Enrollment Services
  • Jack Buckley: American Institutes for Research Vice President
Working as I do for a company that prepares thousands of students for the ACT and SAT while simultaneously recognizing the inherent flaws of standardized testing, I was quite excited for this session. The description of the talk was promising, though in the end I think the actual presentation did not live up to its potential. According to the brochure:
Despite widespread media coverage, underlying claims about the benefits of “going test-optional” have largely escaped empirical scrutiny, and support for these claims tends to be of limited generalizability and/or fail to adequately control for student selectivity and other factors. Hear a rigorous and balanced approach to the contemporary debate on standardized testing and the test-optional movement. Explore how test-optional practices emerged and expanded, how widespread grade inflation has made it increasingly difficult for institutions to solely rely on students' prior achievement, and how standardized admission tests can be used in predicting student retention, achievement, and graduation.
Looks good, right? Unfortunately, I found the session to be a disappointment. Instead of a debate, the members of the panel are contributors or editors to a forthcoming book called "Measuring Success" from Johns Hopkins University Press, and they spent the next hour giving lengthy summaries of a few of the chapters from the book. It didn't take long for the suspicious part of my nature (which is never far from the surface) to begin to wonder if this book would be "rigorous and balanced" the same way that Fox News is "fair and balanced" and would actually be a vehicle for the College Board and ACT to cast doubt on "test optional" policies to preserve their core businesses.

Ben Wildavsky introduced the panelists and then described the book. I'm amused when I look at my notes from the session; at first I wrote "PREORDER THIS BOOK!!!!", but as the talk went on I crossed that out and wrote "this book is going to be VERY dry and boring with lots of numbers. To help clarify? Or to obfuscate?" (there's that suspicious nature again). Wildavsky said that the premise of the book is that "arguments for test optional policies have not been studied rigorously; that they are based on isolated, non-reproducible case studies, and that they may have a downside, especially in a time of widespread grade inflation."

This led to the first presentation. Jack Buckley (whose biography notes that he "helped lead the redesign of the SAT") began by saying that he had eight minutes to discuss two topics: 

  1. To what extent should tests play a role in admissions?
  2. How should an institution best assess students in a manner that promotes fairness?

Interesting questions to be sure, but he didn't really talk about them. Instead, Buckley spent the next seven minutes giving a general overview of the forthcoming book, and then dove into a series of graphs describing what he saw as rising grade inflation at American high schools. According to his data, students' self-reported grades on SAT forms rose over time, while SAT scores decreased. Buckley says this has been confirmed by reviewing actual high school transcripts. Further, he said that research showed that "wealthier, less diverse schools have faster grade inflation than otherwise". More than once Buckley mentioned an article that had appeared in that morning's Inside Higher Ed--he seemed somewhat unhappy with the article and if you read it you will see why. I will be interested to read his research, but to me there are quite a few, if not "flaws", then "problematic areas" of this data. Specifically, he seems to use falling SAT scores as evidence of a negative trend, as opposed to seeing rising high school grades as a cause for celebration. Especially since the SAT has been completely revised (by Buckley!) to more closely hew to typical high school curricula since the data was recorded, doesn't that indicate that he might be viewing this through a distorted filter?

The next speaker was Edgar Sanchez of the ACT. He definitely spoke for longer than eight minutes and attempted to prove the following assumptions:

  1. There has been little research to show the impact of test prep and coaching.
  2. "Many studies" highlight the predictive power of the ACT. High School GPA is the strongest predictor of college success, but tests are valuable.
  3. Many institutions choose to go test optional out of concerns about diversity, but it's impossible to tell if test optional policies result in increased diversity because "other factors such as recruitment and awareness are present."

Sanchez told us that 25%-30% of the population had "discrepant ACT and High School GPAs" and that the only way to solve this "mixed message" was to consider both. Tests, he said, focus on cognitive skills while grades shed light on non-cognitive factors such as engagement, self-regulation, discipline and habits of inquiry. In other words, test optional schools lose the full picture. That might be true, but if he's right I could give up insights into "cognitive skills" if I still had all the other stuff he described. 

Part of the argument Sanchez made was that students with "high or standard GPAs and low ACT scores are more likely to suppress test scores and are less likely to be admitted. Not only that, but the ones who choose test optional are more likely to be women, poor or minorities and are less likely to come back for year two of college." I'll have to see the data, but this seems somewhat dubious to me. First of all, what's the proof that students with high grades who don't send test scores are less likely to be admitted? And secondly, he's basically saying that students with low ACTs are more likely to suppress those scores. But of course they are! And if the scores really are low, how would sending them help? It beggars the imagination to think that if high grades/no ACT is more likely to be denied that high grades/ low ACT are more likely to be accepted.

Sanchez summed up his point by concluding that "We stand behind the belief that more information is better than less information." Sure, that makes sense. But have the researchers at the ACT actually ever worked in college admissions?

Probably not, but the next speaker has. Jerry Lucido is both a scholar and a dean of college admissions, so I started to hope that he might engage with the topic in a more practical, less numbers-heavy way. Apparently his chapter in the book deals with "practitioners", but his presentation was rather problematic. First of all, he spent most of his time giving a long description of what test optional means and why institutions choose it, which only summarized what everyone in the room already knew. Lucido's point was that he "never doubted the sincerity of motivation to choose test optional", but that he was skeptical of the value of the policy. He concluded by saying that "the test optional practitioner is a pragmatic idealist" and that test optional admissions was "neither a panacea or the only way". In other words, he was the third straight presenter who told us that colleges should decide what's best for them, but they should decide on test optional policies after careful study. 

During the first two speakers I began to be aware of a certain, shall we say, restiveness on the part of the audience. Murmuring, people getting up and leaving, and lots of gesturing at friends in the audience increased steadily. Lucido's presentation didn't help with this, in part because of his constant stammering and repetition. He looked uncomfortable at the podium and this seemed to effect his speaking skills. The final speaker was Lynn Letukas of the College Board. Her presentation was marred by an inability to speak into the microphone and by the content. Basically she spent ten minutes describing every chapter of the book. That would have been fine if the purpose of the session was a book launch, but it purported to be a chance to engage with an important topic.

Just as I was becoming convinced that Letukas' role in the session was to eat up time and prevent questions, Wildavsky came back to the podium. He noted that there was 20 minutes left and that he wanted to leave "at least 15" for questions from the audience. By now, if you've been catching the tone of this summary you won't be shocked to learn that he only left seven minutes and there were already six people lined up at the microphones. Before asking for audience questions Wildavsky asked a couple of questions of the panel; the answer that seemed most emblematic of the whole session was when Buckley said that "case studies are not good ways to evaluate whether there is causality between test optional policies and student outcomes". 

When the seven minutes of audience questions began, I began to wonder even more if the fix was in. The first speaker was sloppily dressed and after asking if any research has been done to see why low GPA/high ACT scores exist (answer:no) wouldn't leave the microphone. At this point one member of the audience angrily shouted at Wildavsky (I didn't catch what he said) and stalked out of the room. 

The next question was from Jon Reider of University High in San Francisco. He asked "if the argument that test prep helps isn't rigorously proven, then why do ACT and SAT now urge test prep (from their preferred providers)?" He asserted that "research by anyone not from a test prep company shows that the impact of test prep is next to zero."  Ben Wildavsky responded with a short promotional statement about Khan Academy (the chosen partner of the College Board). Reider responded by saying that he thinks that "test prep is harmful, because it's a lost opportunity to study other things". Sanchez chimed in by agreeing that "any class time spent on test prep is inappropriate and has the chance to harm students." He said that people should do "some test prep, to avoid stress" but not more. 

That exchange was quite interesting to me. I work with hundreds of schools around the country, a large number of which use my company's ACT/SAT prep program. In many cases they are in states which require ALL juniors to take the ACT or SAT and reach a particular score--often the results of these tests are a big part of the school's official rating from the state Education Department and can impact the funding they receive. While this is almost certainly a misuse of the tests, it has also become an incredibly lucrative part of the test companies' business models. It's pretty bald-faced for an employee of the ACT to complain about declining test scores and then also complain about schools trying to raise them.

The next question came from an independent consultant from Brooklyn who asked if the book will be "promoted in a fair and balanced way". There was no clear answer, but since the question was so vague it didn't really deserve one. The final questioner was Wayne Camara who is a VP at the ACT. But guess what? Wildavsky interrupted to say that time was up and we had to clear the room right away to make space for the next session.  The other people waiting at the microphone were obviously disappointed. Jon Boeckenstedt, VP of Enrollment Management at DePaul (whose own writings are longtime favorite sources of mine) was next in line behind Camara and he made his way to the microphone to ask "How do you advise readers to consider research when writers and presenters have vested economic interest in the outcome?" As Wildavsky chided him for the tone of his question, Boeckenstedt smiled seraphically and walked away. 

As the speakers began packing up to leave, Camara and Boeckenstedt had a lengthy discussion at the back of the room. As this was going on, Jay Rosner of the Princeton Review Foundation told me that some of the back story of the tension in the room came from the fact that the editors had sought (largely in vain) for admissions professionals to write for the book but that it was evident that the articles would skew heavily against test optional policies. Hearing that made me even more willing to believe that the entire presentation was carefully structured to prevent any audience participation or, in fact, any argument in favor of test optional policies. In an era where people are increasingly sensitive to, and prejudiced against perceived bias, I can't help but worry that this book will be like lots of "fake news" and generate lots of heat, but shed little light on an important subject.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

What I Saw At NACAC 2017: A Summary Of "What Admission Deans Think"

I attended the 2017 National Association for College Admission Counseling conference in Boston in mid-September. This was the third straight year I've been able to attend, thanks to my day job with Method Test Prep, a leading ACT/SAT preparation company. I spoke to lots of people (old friends, customers, colleagues) and the consensus seems to be that the college visits, the exhibits and the conference sessions were all very valuable.

I was able to attend two sessions:
  1. What Admission Deans Think-Results of an Inside Higher Ed and Gallup Survey
  2. Testing Achievement and the Future of College Admission 

The presenters for the session on "What Admission Deans Think" were:

  • Scott Jaschik, the editor of Inside Higher Ed
  • David Hawkins, Executive Director for Educational Content and Policy for NACAC
  • Mary Ann Willis, the Director of College Counseling at Bayside Academy (Alabama)
I have to admit that I didn't read the full description of this session, and thought it would be more along the lines of "what kind of students do colleges look for", but I was pleasantly surprised to find out what it was really about. The purpose of the session was to reveal the findings of Inside Higher Ed's annual survey (in conjunction with Gallup) of admission deans. You can download the full report at their website. The focus of the survey and the presentation were on the difficulty of meeting enrollment goals, the "Trump Effect" on international recruitment and retention, and efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on campus. There was also brief discussion of challenges facing liberal arts institutions, rising student debt and the move toward "free" tuition at public institutions. The survey goes into depth on these and other topics and is worth the read.

The survey was sent to 3,547 admissions directors and enrollment managers, of whom 13% responded. The respondents came from 200 public institutions, 245 private ones, and 8 for-profit schools. 13% sounds kind of low, but if you've ever given a survey you know that it can be hard to get people to participate fully. 

One of the first findings discussed was the difficulty of meeting recruitment goals by the national decision day of May 1st. According to the survey, the number of colleges reporting that they met their target by May 1st is small, and shrinking fast:

This was quite surprising, and led to an interesting discussion. Scott observed that "if you didn't meet your goal by May 1 you're the norm in higher ed". He noted that the joke in the field is that "June 1 is the new May 1" and that some have argued that SEPTEMBER 1 is the new May 1. The panelists tried to discuss this development and the conclusion seemed to be that the enrollment goals that are being set (sometimes by offices higher up the chain from admissions) are unrealistically high. Plus families seem to be waiting longer to send in deposits (perhaps to try to play institutions off each other). Regardless of why, Scott noted that he feared that "some institutions will be pressured to do unwise things" to meet their goals by May 1. In response to an audience question, Scott noted that they will ask more questions next year to try to elicit just how "realistic" admission goals are.

The only sector that overwhelmingly met their enrollment goals was public doctoral institutions. Reasons could range from the large number of in-state students for whom these are the "first-choice" schools to the (perceived) prestige of these universities by international students and their families. Scott noted that even as states have eroded their support for universities, these institutions have great advantages in fundraising, donations, applicant pool and federal grants for research.

One question in the poll was "which group(s) will be the target of increased recruiting?" and the results were quite interesting:

I was very surprised to see the increased attention that private colleges plan to pay to transfer students; I mean, the pool of college age students may not be growing as rapidly as it was a few years ago, but overall enrollment in colleges continues to grow year over year. This effort to harvest transfer students represents almost a Malthusian world view that seems to reflect a zero-sum competition that I'm not sure exists. Also telling is the comparative de-emphasis on the part of private colleges and universities on veterans and minority students. It almost seems that public colleges and universities are more comfortable with diverse student populations compared to the privates. 

 At this point I want to point out that I was impressed by Scott's willingness to inject politics into the discussion. I personally believe that every topic is a political topic, but I can imagine that some people might have been nonplussed by this. Scott passionately addressed the data on the preceding chart by saying "We should think about these priorities. If private college's emphasis is non-need based merit aid, are they really going after the population not currently represented in American higher ed? Colleges measure demonstrated interest by favoring those who visit. But this has an obvious, unstated economic meaning--wealthier kids can afford college visits more." Especially since the topic of access to higher ed was a major theme of the conference, I welcomed Scott's focus on this issue.

You'll notice that the last item in the table shows a remarkable divergence on expected focus on international students.  They went into more detail later on:

This was quite interesting to me. I was a college counselor for eight years at a boarding school with a substantial international population and in many cases their default was to consider large public universities. But the leaders in the field clearly seem to be ceding international students to private institutions who in turn are preparing to pay heavily to increase international enrollment. Could this be due to a backlash against international kids at publics? Or could it be a "Trump Effect" that predicts a generally more hostile environment for immigrants? It was noted that international enrollment was flat this year, and expectations are for it to fall this year; apparently some schools are down 20-50%. Considering how many places depend on full-pay international students to help finance their discounts to American students, this could be a looming financial disaster for some schools.

Related to this is another side of the "Trump Effect": a concern that too many colleges (and college towns) are "excessively liberal". Apparently, independent consultants have reported that more parents are vetoing college choices due to a worry about the political views of the campus and area. Scott asked us to consider what it means when people perceive higher education this way. Personally, I don't think this is new. Deriding someone as a "college boy" (implying an effete elitism out of touch with common people) goes back for at least a century. That said, it is no secret that college populations (and university towns) are often isolated blue islands in the overwhelmingly red American landscape; this of course explains Republican efforts to disfranchise college students.

The twin topics of liberal arts colleges and student debt were addressed in an interesting way. Apparently, only 8% of students and 9% of parents "understand the value of liberal arts". As a result, there is overwhelming pressure to focus on college as a "pre-professional" education. Tied with this is the idea of getting one's money's worth and fear of graduating with debts no honest man can pay (as Bruce Springsteen would say). 36% of public institutions and a startling 78% of privates believe that "public discussion of student debt has discouraged applications to my college". Wow.

Taking a deeper dive into the topic of student debt, there is a growing divide between what admissions people think is "reasonable debt" for students:

What a difference! 36% of admission leaders at private colleges and universities seem comfortable with students graduating with at least $30,000 in debt, while only 10% of public institution admissions heads would find that reasonable. And 63% of publics think a maximum of $20,000 in debt is reasonable compared to 3% at privates. Quite a chasm between those two! Obviously the fact that privates cost less than publics might have something to do with this, but it's clear to me that going forward, the focus on containing costs will be at the public level. In fact, the survey took a look at that and the fear on the part of private institutions was palpable:

The only conclusion I have is that these limousine liberals running private colleges are probably secretly happy that Bernie Sanders' "free public college for all" idea didn't go anywhere!


After the data was presented, Mary Ann Willis and David Hawkins spoke briefly. Mary Ann agreed that "the general public doesn't understand liberal arts" and think college is for career preparation. She urged that admissions officers work harder to recruit students at smaller, rural schools like hers. She counseled that they shouldn't make assumptions about who goes to these schools: "I have students with their family name on buildings, and I have some who are Pell eligible". She also noted that at her school, kids apply to an average of 3.5 schools.

David Hawkins continued the focus on some political issues. He noted that America "confront(s) a real crisis with race, with 'have vs. have not'" He said that NACAC will be stepping up its effort to do a better job to communicate the value of higher education, not just economic, but personal and intellectual value. He also raised an interesting point that I would have liked to hear more about: he said that in 2002 the average yield rate for colleges was 48% but is now 36%. Why? I wonder if it's reliance on "write once, send many" tools like the Common Application, the Coalition Application and the Universal College Application. He closed with the frightening image of a "harsh new equilibrium in college admissions where the admission cycle is so long it reaches around and touches itself on the other end."

There were a number of questions from the audience which elicited more elaboration on these topics. The final question came from a secondary school counselor from Wisconsin who asked what the survey will look like in five years. Scott's response was glum: "I fear that five years from now we will have fewer small private colleges, more over-crowded regional public universities and flagship public universities will be more like elite private colleges. I'm worried about accessibility going forward."

Heavy stuff for sure! What have you or your students seen in your college admission experiences? Share your thoughts in the comments space below.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit To Columbia College Chicago

In mid-June I spent a few days in Chicago, and as always I thought I'd look for a college to visit. I didn't have to look far--in fact, the admissions office for Columbia College was LITERALLY right next to my hotel! I stopped by for a tour and informational meeting with a member of the Admissions team and I'm glad that I did--Columbia strikes me as a "hidden gem" for creative, confident students who are interested in pursuing studies in the arts with an eye towards becoming professionals, either creatively or on the business side of things. Columbia College's downtown, South Loop location in Chicago is as urban a campus as you'll find, so it's not for "country mouse" students, but for people looking at a city school, this is a great option. I recommend adding it to your list of possibilities.

Columbia College Chicago At A Glance

Size:Just over 8,600 undergraduates (approximately 58% women/ 42% men). Columbia College is less selective, having accepted about 7,300 of their 8,300 applicants to fill a first-year class of 1,550-- an overall acceptance rate of around 89%(including transfers). 
Programs of Study:99 majors and 46 minors for undergraduates; Columbia College is a pre-professional institution that prepares students to enter creative professions (as performers, creators, managers and anything in between).
Sports:No NCAA or NAIA sports, but there are some intramural teams.
Campus Life:Over 100 clubs and organizations on campus; no fraternities or sororities. On campus housing is NOT guaranteed so first year students desiring campus housing will want to pay their deposits as early as possible. Chicago is America's third largest city and offers a wide range of neighborhoods to live in, all connected by an excellent public transport system. Approximately 68% of students live in campus housing.
Costs & Aid:Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $37,800 (depending on housing and meal plan options).  Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). 
Deadlines:Columbia College uses Rolling Admissions, with a priority deadline for scholarships of January 15th.  Students use the Common App or Columbia College's own application. The application fee is a remarkably affordable $35.
Tests:Columbia College is test-optional, so students do not need to send ACT or SAT scores if the tests don't show them at their best. 

© Ethan Lewis 2017
Columbia College Chicago traces its history back to the Columbian Exposition (World's Fair) of 1893 when it began as a school to train public speakers. The performative aspect of the school's function has never gone away, and now Columbia College is a liberal arts institution with a focus on creative disciplines. Located in the South Loop of Chicago (mere blocks from the Art Institute, Millennium Park and other tourist destinations) the college serves over 8,600 students. The School of Liberal Arts and Sciences houses "traditional" departments such as English and History, but the majority of students major in the School of Fine and Performing Arts or in the School of Media Arts. According to the federal government's College Scorecard, 64% of students are in Visual and Performing Arts, with another 13% in Business, Management and related fields. Noteworthy programs include Comedy Studies, where students devote a full semester to study performance, writing and improv at Second City. One of the tour guides when I was there was a poised, together, funny young woman who was a rising senior majoring in comedy and management and was probably pretty representative of Columbia College students. 

Columbia College prides itself on its faculty, and that they are all "active in their industries". There are a good number of full-time faculty members at the college, but the number of part time instructors is remarkable; for instance, in Dance there are 6 full-time professors, 2 full time lecturers and 42 part time instructors. Obviously this means that students won't have trouble finding someone to work with and to mentor them, but it does make one wonder if there is a qualitative difference in the instruction received. I was later told that most departments have a ratio of 70% permanent faculty and 30% adjunct, but obviously this varies by discipline. 

Columbia College appears to be a very welcoming, diverse campus. Among other examples, they offer "Gender Inclusive Housing", which "welcomes students across all gender identities and/or expressions, including transgender, questioning, or gender non-conforming students." The college is also relatively diverse economically and ethnically; according to the College Scorecard, 38% of Columbia College's students come from families that earn less than $40,000--that is a large number (compared to, say, University of Chicago which comes up at 12% or Northwestern University, which has 14% of students from low-income families). 26% of Columbia College students are Black or Hispanic, compared to 14% at U of Chicago and 17% at Northwestern.  

© Ethan Lewis 2017
The campus is about as urban as it gets--spread across a rectangle about 8 blocks long by 6 blocks wide between S. Michigan Avenue and S. Clark St. The area is full of bus stops and elevated train stations, and Columbia College students can get a U-Pass from the Chicago Transit Authority that gives free, unlimited rides on public transportation.  Whenever I go to a city I always use the public transportation and in my (limited) experience, Chicago's buses and trains are some of the best in the country. Around the time of my visit, Chicago's mayor wrote an article in the New York Times explaining why, and the answer boils down to spending money to keep the system healthy. That said, there is no "campus" per se, and while the area is well policed (due in no small part to the thousands of tourists staying in nearby hotels) and according to my tour guide was in "the safest section of Chicago", this is definitely for students who are mature and streetwise, or who aren't afraid of becoming so quickly. That said, the architecture is really lovely in this part of the city, and Lake Michigan is literally a short walk away; for students actively interested in city living, Columbia College should definitely go on the short list.

Dormitory choices include traditional dorms, loft apartments and suites in several buildings throughout the neighborhood. One interesting living option is the University Center, a large building that has housing (on separate floors) for Columbia College, Roosevelt University, DePaul University and Robert Morris (IL) students. It also holds the dining hall for campus residents who opt for a meal plan. While these schools do not have a traditional consortium (such as the Five College Consortium in Massachusetts) I was told that students can take a class for their major at another nearby institution. 

© Ethan Lewis 2017
Academically, Columbia College is rigorous and demanding. All students must take core courses in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, including English composition, college-level math, science, social science, history, and literature, along with an "oral communication" course. While some students rush to complete these requirements, most students spread them across their four years. First year students take a seminar to learn "how to use the city as a tool for learning", and the choices are all incredibly interesting sounding! All students also must complete a capstone project to graduate--most of these are presented during the "Manifest" festival every spring. A glance at this year's listings shows the variety of projects undertaken at Columbia College.

Admissions-wise, Columbia College accepts the vast majority of applicants, but I suspect that this is partly due to the self-selecting nature of the applicant pool (creative people seeking a career in the arts) more than being "easy".  Standardized test scores are optional, but students who have a portfolio of their creative works are encouraged to submit it. According to the admissions representative to whom I spoke a great deal of attention is paid to the students' application essays (whether students use the Common Application or Columbia College's own application, the prompts are the same). Columbia College has rolling admissions, which means that while there is no fixed deadline, students would be wise to apply earlier in the cycle while the most spaces are still open--I would suggest that they aim to apply by the end of November to get a decision by Christmas.

Courtesy Google Image Search
The admissions team member told me that the "typical" student was "hands-on, minds on" and who embraces (and is good at) learning collaboratively. They seek "self-directed" students who are "progressive thinkers" who have "mastered both academic and creative writing" and are "ready to roll up their sleeves and start as first-years". They especially seek students who have taken AP courses or were in dual degree programs.

Perhaps as a consequence of seeking students who are so mature, Columbia College accepts a LOT of transfer students every year (815 last year compared to about 1,800 first year students). Columbia could be a GREAT option for your artsy students who are dissatisfied with their current colleges and are looking for a change.  

Since I started working for Method Test Prep in 2015 college visits have been a bit different for me--instead of having a number of active students in mind to "shop for", I find that I look at colleges through a much more "general interest" point of view.  While the students at the schools where I previously taught were predisposed to apply to much more selective institutions, it's important to remember that, as Jon Boeckenstedt of DePaul University notes, selectivity is more of an "input" measurement (related to the number of applicants) than any indication of quality. And the vast majority of college students in America attend institutions with admissions profiles closer to Columbia College Chicago's than, say, Stanford's.  So I have enjoyed visiting less selective schools and seeing just how passionate the students, faculty and staffs are about the work that they do. If you profess to value "fit" in the admissions process, looking at these kinds of colleges and universities could be an eye-opener for you and your students.

While I don't think that Columbia College Chicago is for everyone (the would-be engineer, doctor, or Wall Street Master of the Universe might look elsewhere), for students interested in a career in a creative field, this could be a great choice. Certainly the performance, exhibition and internship opportunities in America's third-largest city are nearly limitless as is the chance to build a meaningful personal Rolodex for future career opportunities. If you find yourself in downtown Chicago, do yourself a favor and pay a visit to Columbia College--I think you will be quite impressed.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

I Keep Going To College Board Presentations: SAT/PSAT Status Report Spring 2017

As a former college counselor and current representative for Method Test Prep (a company that works with over 1,000 schools nationwide to help students prepare for the SAT and ACT) I have a strong interest in changes to standardized testing for college admissions. Whenever I attend a national or regional conference where the College Board (parent of the SAT) or ACT, Inc. plan to give a presentation on their latest and greatest, you can count on me to be there. I've actually been to quite a few of these presentations now, and in late April attended the latest update from the College Board on how high schools and colleges can use the PSAT and SAT. It was fairly interesting, and as always I've included my thoughts along with a summary.  If you missed any of the previous installments, here they are:

In September 2015 the whole college admissions industry was curious to hear what the College Board had to say about the upcoming wholesale rewrite (reinvention?) of the SAT; the session in April 2016 was marked by a capacity audience's naked hostility to the College Board representatives fumbling attempts to explain what had been a rocky rollout of the new test. In September of 2016, the most noteworthy aspect of College Board president David Coleman's presentation at the National Association for College Admission Counseling was his frequent, explicit apologies for the poor communication and execution of the rollout of the new assessment.

In late April I attended this spring's College Board presentation at the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling (PCACAC) annual conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. The official title of the session was "The New SAT: Mid Year Review Session-Doing More With Data". Note that this presentation was also offered on the same day at the annual conference for the Southern, Texas and Rocky Mountain ACACs, so my guess is that if you have the chance to attend a regional ACAC meeting this spring you can see a version of this for yourself.  The PCACAC version featured Amy Miranda, a Higher Ed rep from the College Board, Josh Lubben from University of Maryland (who was on the panel the year before) and Edrika Hall, of Prince George's county public schools along with Ms. Allen. I expect that if you get to see this presentation in your area it will feature a college and high school representative from your region.

As I mentioned before, last year's version of this talk draw a crowd of over 100 that overflowed the capacity of the room in which it was held; this year's attendance was only about 30. Perhaps the diminished audience was due to other interesting sessions scheduled at the same time (several people told me they went to the one on applying to British universities, for instance) but the smaller crowd, of which about 2/3 were high school counselors or independent educational consultants, was attentive and interested. 

My perception (and if anyone from the College Board is reading this, please correct me) is that they expected the mix to be closer to 50/50, or perhaps to be skewed more towards the college side. After all, now that they've straightened out test procedures and score reporting, the big unanswered questions (such as the ETA for an official rubric to compare new SAT scores to the ACT) seem to be more on the college side of the process. Either way, the session was divided to spend the first half on high school and the second half on college and there was lots of information for everyone.

The counselors in last year's audience was resentful of being referred to as "K12 teachers", and this year the speakers tried to address that head on by focusing on the tools that school districts and schools could use to analyze student performance on the SAT (as well as the PSAT, PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9. The presentation began by discussing the successes of "Counselor Week", which was a week of special programming after the release of PSAT scores but before students could see them. According to the presentation there was a 165% increase in educators logging in to access test scores compared to last school year and most of the high school part of the audience indicated that they had done so themselves.

While this topic was interesting, it sort of elided the serious problems with score reporting in 2016--a year when students got scores before schools could parse them, where schools expected materials to be sent that had been discontinued, and where the College Board was uncommunicative at best and brusque and dismissive at worst when counselors had questions or complaints. This was why the upfront and frequent apologies in Coleman's speech were so appreciated. Unfortunately, whether through a corporate decision that all apologies had been made, or a personal style that tends toward brusqueness, Ms. Allen did not follow Coleman's lead. In fact, she started by saying "You should all be familiar with the K-12 portal now, correct? So I'm not showing you anything you don't already know."  This was borderline confrontational, and from my seat in the back of the room I saw several people indicate some surprise at the tone.

The K12 portion of the session focused on the data available on students and how to use it. They spent quite a lot of time discussing their "College And Career Readiness Benchmarks", a proprietary rating that purports to predict grades of C or better in college courses. These numbers are very important for the increasing number of states that require all high school students to take the SAT prior to graduation (it often figures into the state's rating for the high school), but they are not really relevant to college admissions. In fact, it struck me that the College Board really shouldn't keep referring to the Benchmarks as "BMs", considering what so many people think the numbers are full of...

Ms. Hall from Prince George's county explained that her district has fully bought into the College Board offerings: they use the PSAT 8/9 for high school course placement, they use the AP Potential report to "identify and recruit" students for Advanced Placement courses, and since all 11th graders in Maryland have to prove that they are "college and career ready", the district utilizes the SAT to demonstrate this status. Students who do not meet the threshold are required to use Khan Academy to brush up on the content before taking the test again as a senior.  Clearly this was meant to be seen as a model for other schools to adopt. My 19 year career was in independent schools, which I can imagine would balk at this suggestion, but I can imagine this being a very popular model in public schools in the coming years. And a profitable one for the College Board...

A member of the audience asked Ms. Allen how to use this kind of data to help students, which led to a discussion of the Khan Academy practice tools. According to the presentation, 1.1 million students linked their College Board accounts to Khan Academy. This is unquestionably a big number, but when one considers that nearly 7 million people took the SAT or PSAT in 2015-16 (and presumably the number will be similar this year) use of Khan is not as prevalent as it could be. The College Board considers an "active user" of Khan to be anyone who has completed at least one practice SAT problem (which means I am an active user, having answered at least three questions!) and claim that there are over 200,000 active users (not unique users) in any given week, and that on average they use the program for 44 minutes/week. They also claim (without explaining their source) that there has been a 10% drop in "paid-for commercial test prep resources".

If hundreds of thousands of students per week are actively spending about an hour each week preparing for the SAT it is unquestionably a good thing, but I wonder how true this is. Working as I do for "paid-for commercial test prep", I can confidently say that we are working with more students than we did last year. I can also say that while I am a huge fan of the College Board's partnership with Khan Academy, I do feel that there is a problem with the College Board's telling schools to refer kids to Khan since there is no way for a school official (counselor, administrator, teacher) to be able to know a) whether or not the student is working with Khan, and b) whether or not they are actually learning anything. In fact, this is the biggest selling point for Method Test Prep, as we can offer schools robust reporting tools that let them track student progress through our program. 

After the high school section was completed, the second half of the talk focused on colleges. Literally zero of the higher education part of the audience had logged into the College Board portal, which Ms. Miranda accepted with a rueful grin--she clearly expected a low number! Ms. Miranda was an excellent presenter, with a friendly, self-deprecating approach to the material and I found her engaging and collegial. Most of the information that she had to show described how admission offices could see summary data on the students who sent scores to their institutions. The college people in the audience were interested, but I saw several perusing spreadsheets on their laptops; this might be due to the date being a week before May 1--audiences at summertime ACAC meetings might be more attentive.

What stood out to me the most was that colleges can supplement the SAT data with College Board's "Enrollment Planning Service" (for $7,300 per year) to see overlap data on the students who send them their scores. In other words, they can see a ranked list of the other colleges to which students sent their scores. This was presented to us as being something they would get on a .pdf form, but it seemed like there might be a way to dig deeper to see the other destinations for test scores on an individual basis. Important clarification: I've been in touch with Ms. Miranda and she has confirmed that as far as colleges seeing overlap data for individual, specific students, "the answer is a definite NO. Enrollment Planning service and Higher Ed Portal users only get aggregate information and do not have the ability to drill down to the individual student level. As part of our commitment to protecting students' privacy, we never share individual student information unless directed by students (score sending)."

That said, the SAT and PSAT generate lots of useful data, such as reports on "top feeder high schools", "top geomarkets" and summary data on ethnicity/race and first generation college goer status. Currently, colleges and universities around the country pay large amounts of money to consultants to help them identify, market to, and recruit their classes. I wonder if the College Board's new focus on this kind of data will have deleterious effects on some of those consultant companies? And if the College Board intends to take some of that market for itself?

All in all, I thought that this presentation from the College Board was interesting, if far less controversial than previous ones I had attended. In a lot of ways, of course, this must be an easier presentation to put together: while last year's snafus required the College Board people to say "we will have reports and tools for you--trust us", now they were able to actually show completed offerings that have been used by many of the people in the audience. I was a little surprised that they still had nothing to say about an SAT/ACT concordance, and would have wished that Ms. Allen had been more conciliatory and taken more of a customer service approach, but I think that this presentation shows a College Board that is confident in their test, their tools, and their position in the market. After years of uncertainty due to changes in the test, this is a "new normal", and it will be interesting to see going forward whether the College Board opts for continued humility or becomes the 800 pound gorilla it used to be. Time will tell!

Monday, February 6, 2017

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

In mid-January I was passing through North Carolina and decided to pay a visit to Guilford College, in Greensboro. I'm so glad that I did! I think that I've previously mentioned in this space that I am an alumn of Hampshire College, and so it's understandable that I have a soft spot for small, liberal arts colleges that give students a chance to form close mentorship relationships with faculty while also fostering a deep focus on issues of social justice. All I knew previously about Guilford was that it was a Quaker college, and that one of my former students went there and loved it. Now that I've seen it up close I can see why. Guilford would be a great match for students interested in pursuing public service during and after college, but I think it would also be a very good fit for a student who wants a "small" college with "big" college spirit and sports. It's definitely one of the most interesting colleges I've visited in the last few years, and I recommend it heartily.

Guilford College At A Glance

Just under 2,000 undergraduates (approximately 53% women/ 47% men). Guilford is somewhat selective, having accepted about 1,800 of their 3,000 applicants to fill a first-year class of 350-- an overall acceptance rate of around 60%. 
Programs of Study:
38 majors and 56 minors for undergraduates; students can also combine majors into a customized area of study. Pre-dentistry, pre-medical, pre-ministerial, pre-engineering and pre-law programs. Guilford students can get Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Music degrees. 
NCAA Division III; 18 varsity teams (9 women's, 9 men's); numerous club and intramural sports.
Campus Life:
Over 44 clubs and organizations on campus; no fraternities or sororities. On campus housing is guaranteed and virtually all students live on or near campus. Greensboro is a vibrant, interesting city a short drive away but nice shopping and dining options are within walking distance.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $48,000 (depending on housing and meal plan options).  Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). 
Guilford has Early Decision, Early Action and Regular admissions options. The ED deadline is November 1, the EA deadline is December 1, and the RD deadline is rolling (which means that it's still a good idea to apply sooner rather than later). Students use the Common App or Guilford's own application.
Guilford is test-optional, so students do not need to send ACT or SAT scores if the tests don't show them at their best. But applicants who opt to forego sending test scores will need submit an academic portfolio that includes at least two examples of writing, one of which must have teacher grades on it. 

Photo by Courtney Lewis ©2017

Guilford College traces its history back to 1837, and played a role in the Underground Railroad in antebellum North Carolina; in 1990 the entire campus was added to the list of national historic places. Guilford became a four-year college in 1888, and has always been co-educational. Guilford has also always been associated with the Society of Friends, or Quakers. According to Assistant Director of Admission Fernando Gomes, while Quaker heritage is still very important to Guilford, it is not a "religious" school; only 6% of students are Quakers, and while there are "planned meetings" on Sundays, the campus ministry building hosts over 15 different religious organizations. 

Guilford students call professors and administrators by their first names. Having had the same experience at my college, it takes getting used to at first, but really goes a long way towards building the sense of being part of a community of scholars. Guilford seems to be a "liberal" campus, but (perhaps due to its Quaker background), one that is very welcoming of divergent beliefs and one that has a much more diverse population than I would have expected. Some of that diversity is economic: according to the Federal government's College Scorecard, 43% of Guilford's students come from families that earn less than $40,000--that is a large number (compared to, say, Duke University, which comes up at 14% or UNC-Chapel Hill, which has 21% of students from low-income families). A further example of diversity includes a freshman class this year with 49% students of color.

Photo by Courtney Lewis
The Guilford admissions office works hard to give visitors a personalized experience; besides the usual information session students get a personalized meeting with an admissions officer and I received a lovely handwritten card from Jocelyn, my super tour guide, about 10 days after the visit.  As you can see from the picture at left, I also had my own visitor's parking space! This doesn't seem to be a level of treatment just for visiting admissions professionals, because a young woman was visiting that day with her father, and she had a parking space too. 

The campus is just beautiful. Brick architecture, mature trees and sloping, expansive green spaces are the highlights. There is also a thriving working farm (which contributes much of its produce to the campus dining hall and also to local food charities) that I did not get to see on my visit. Guilford College is located in Greensboro, the seat of Guilford County and part of the 'Piedmont Triad' which also includes High Point and Winston-Salem. The area is home to over a quarter million people and is considerably more liberal than the majority of the state (North Carolina voters narrowly preferred President Trump to Secretary Clinton in 2016, but the former First Lady won Guilford county by almost 20 percentage points). Greensboro and its surrounding area has sports, music, arts and a thriving dining scene that makes it seem like a very congenial place to spend four years of one's life.

According to Mr. Gomes, the most popular fields of study at Guilford are business, creative writing, psychology, health sciences and the BFA in studio art. According to their latest alumni magazine (pro tip: always take a copy of campus publications) Guilford is adding a new major in Cyber and Network Security that will be the first one in North Carolina to feature 100% face to face classes. Other popular programs include sport science, sports management and exercise science, not surprising on a campus where over 1/3 of the students are athletes. If that number sounds high to you, it is; in fact, the deeper you look, the more amazing it is, because over 150 people play on the football team!  The size of the football team has a couple of interesting (probably unintended) consequences:
  1. the ratio of men to women is much closer to 50/50 than at other similar institutions
  2. it is very likely that every student knows someone on the football team
That second one might seem trivial, but it's not. I have worked with a lot of students who have said that they would prefer a smaller school, but they really want to have a football team to cheer for. Guilford gives the best of both worlds--students can be part of the panoply of college football, but compared to a bigger school they might actually be cheering for their friends, not just for laundry.

There is a lot to do on campus, ranging from the school newspaper and radio stations, to political and religious groups, to intramural athletics; but the strongest emphasis is placed on service opportunities. Guilford makes a point to have its curriculum (in and out of class) reflect their seven core values:
  1. Community
  2. Diversity
  3. Equality
  4. Excellence
  5. Integrity
  6. Justice
  7. Stewardship
Photo by Courtney Lewis ©2017
Everywhere I turned I saw examples of student work to make the world a better place, and it is impossible to imagine that anyone could attend Guilford and not be motivated to try to help others, either in the local environs of Greensboro, or on the other side of the globe (48% of students study abroad during their time at Guilford). From the farm center to the solar panels to the dining hall to the emphasis on community service Guilford tries to act locally to make a difference globally. They even have special elliptical machines in the gym that help power the building, and the faculty office building has a shower to encourage professors to bike to work.  That building (Archdale Hall) is the oldest on campus, but was recently renovated to attain LEED Silver status while still retaining its 19th century charm. Good job, Guilford!

The campus was full of art that made me think--I was particularly impressed by a series of posters I saw all over the campus (pictured at left) about consent. I also liked the statue outside of the science building that was a bike stand shaped like an endorphin molecule (for the pleasure derived from exercise) and the murals near the community service offices that showed Guilford students at work all over the world.

Guilford has six dorms, three themed houses and two apartment complexes on campus. Pricing for housing varies with the levels of amenities, but all of the rooms have air conditioning, a necessity in humid North Carolina! There is no Greek life at Guilford, but the themed options (Environmental Sustainability, Sustainable Farming, and Cross Cultural and International) are there for people who like to live with like minded peers.

As you'd expect from a small college, students get to work closely with their professors. There is a 14:1 student to professor ratio, but small classes are the rule, not the exception. My tour guide, Jocelyn, is an education major and she has had classes with as few as three and six students. In fact, the largest one she's had was introduction to psychology, with 26 students, which is remarkably small for such a typically oversubscribed course. Students sit around a table, or with desks arranged in a circle to help break down the hierarchy and make classes a place for discussion and collaboration. 

Photo by Courtney Lewis ©2017
Admissions-wise, applicants can choose from a binding Early Decision plan, a non-binding Early Action plan, or regular, rolling decision options. Guilford claims to take a "holistic" view of applicants. Unlike some much larger schools, (such as the University of Virginia), I actually believe Guilford when they say this. Partly it is due to the comparatively small number of applicants (around 3,000), of whom more than half will be admitted, but also it is due to the self-selecting nature of Guilford students. Mr. Gomes said that they are looking for "self-awareness" and "open-mindedness" which are not common among 18 year-olds, and are even more difficult to convey in a college essay. If at all possible, I think that interested students and their families should try to visit the campus to meet the admissions staff--this will help reinforce your case.

Another aspect of "holistic" admissions is Guilford's test optional admissions method. To take advantage of this, students submit a portfolio of work including at least one example of graded expository writing, and one that can be un-graded along with optional artistic, musical or other examples of student work. This is growing more common, and it's a good idea for students (especially those who do not score very highly on standardized testing) to get in the habit of keeping their school work when they get it back from teachers just in case they can use it as part of their application to college.

Photo by Courtney Lewis ©2017
I have visited dozens of colleges in my time, and I always look at a school through two lenses: first, to see if I can recommend it to one of my students, and second if I would want to go there. Guilford is absolutely a place that I will recommend to a wide variety of students, and it's also a place that I wish I could attend myself. The friendliness, the collegiality, and the unwavering focus on social justice and improving the world are an unbeatable combination. For a student who wants to be actively involved in her/his learning, who is interested in the planet and the people who live here, who wants to make sure that everything they study has a "values" component, and who is interested in being part of a lively community with strong school spirit, Guilford would be a great place to look; it's on the short list of my favorite colleges in America.