Aug 31, 2011

'Washington Monthly' Rankings Not Too Kind to DC Area Colleges

In the race to steal a little thunder from U.S. News & World Report (USNWR), Washington Monthly recently brought out a third college ranking, following similar efforts by the Princeton Review and Forbes Magazine.

And despite what might seem like a natural focus on local institutions, Washington Monthly was not too kind to DC area colleges and universities. None managed to crack the top 10 in any of the rankings (National Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges, Masters Universities, and Baccalaureate Colleges).

In fact, only Johns Hopkins made it to number 20 in the National Universities category based largely on its huge research budget—about $1.7 billion—by far the largest in the country.

Coyly playing on President Kennedy’s famous inaugural quote, Washington Monthly modestly claimed that unlike similar rankings, theirs asks “not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country.”

To arrive at the answer, the magazine rated schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low income students), Research, and Service. Within each category were a series of metrics including the distribution of Pell grants, graduation rates, research expenditures, success of students and faculty, Peace Corps Rank, ROTC rank, work-study expenditure, community service participation and hours served, and allocation of institutional resources to community service.

While the broader categories were weighted equally when calculating a final score, metrics within each category seem a little fuzzy with the research score rewarding large schools simply for their size. Hence the top ten National Universities are:

  1. UC San Diego

  2. UCLA

  3. UC Berkeley

  4. Stanford University

  5. UC Riverside

  6. Harvard University

  7. Case Western Reserve University

  8. UC Davis

  9. Jackson State University

  10. University of Michigan

To compensate for the fact that liberal arts colleges offer little in the way of “extensive doctoral programs,” the research component was reconfigured to take into account “alumni success.” And the top ten Liberal Arts Colleges are:

  1. Berea College

  2. Morehouse College

  3. Bryn Mawr College

  4. Spelman College

  5. Swarthmore College

  6. Macalester College

  7. Amherst College

  8. Pomona College

  9. Harvey Mudd College

  10. Carleton College

For the record, Johns Hopkins (20), William & Mary (24), Georgetown (30), George Washington (41), and Virginia Tech (43) made it into the top 50 National Universities. Washington and Lee University (23), the University of Richmond (35), and Emory & Henry (49) were recognized among the top Liberal Arts Colleges. Loyola University of Maryland (35), Hampton University (37), James Madison University (38), and the University of Mary Washington (47) were ranked among the top 50 Master’s Universities.

Aug 29, 2011

Riding Out the Storm

Hurricane Irene spawned more than just a few tornados. For a look at how college students rode out the storm, check out some of the best Hurricane Irene videos posted on YouTube (so far).

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aug 27, 2011

Area Colleges Hunker Down for Irene

It’s the calm before the storm, and area colleges are keeping a “weather eye” for signs of Irene’s arrival.

As the storm slowly makes its way up the coast, students in low-lying areas to the south have already been evacuated, and those more inland are being encouraged to complete move-in plans as quickly as possible and make appropriate preparations.

  • American University: Students will be able to check-in and move-in 24 hours a day over the weekend. Those unable to arrive this weekend, can check-in and move-in during the week. It is expected that the university will be open on Monday for classes and certain scheduled events.

  • Catholic University: Returning students were permitted to move-in a day early, and student meal plans began with breakfast on Saturday morning.

  • Christopher Newport University: All students were told to leave the campus by noon on Friday and were advised that items left behind should be stored off the floor and covered with plastic. The university will assume no responsibility for belongings left in rooms. Residence halls will reopen on Monday at 4 p.m., and classes will resume Tuesday.

  • College of William & Mary: Students were asked to evacuate. Campus buildings, including residence halls were closed on Friday. The opening convocation and all campus events have been canceled through Monday.

  • George Mason University: Move-in plans have been adjusted to allow students to check in early, and all students were encouraged to check-in on Friday. All students are encouraged to exercise caution and keep emergency supplies such as first aid kit, medication, flashlight, batteries, water, and non-perishable food for their convenience.

  • George Washington University: Residence halls were opened on Friday instead of Saturday so students could get settled before the storm begins. Many scheduled events and activities have been canceled including the GW vs. Georgetown volleyball game.

  • Georgetown University: In anticipation of adverse conditions, the university will allow any student to arrive late and move in after Sunday when the storm is expected to have passed the DC region. Convocation has been postponed until Tuesday. In the meantime, Georgetown has brought in four additional industrial grade generators and will prioritize supplying power so that those on campus may be adequately fed and sheltered.

  • Johns Hopkins University: Saturday classes will be held as scheduled. All Homewood freshman orientation events will be canceled after 6 pm on Saturday and all day Sunday, including Freshman Convocation.

  • Loyola University Maryland: First-year students scheduled to arrive this weekend for pre-orientation programs will arrive on Monday. The university will be closed from 12 am to 4 pm on Sunday.

  • Marymount University: The university is prepared with supplies of bottled water, non-perishable food, and emergency lighting. Students are reminded that candles and open flames of any kind are prohibited in campus buildings.

  • Norfolk State University: Classes were cancelled on Friday and Saturday, and students living in residence halls were encouraged to leave the area.

  • Old Dominion University: The University closed residence halls on Thursday and offered to shuttle students to bus and train stations or to the airport. Staff will assess damage on Monday and decide at that time when to resume classes.

  • Regent University: The university will remain closed through Sunday. Further announcements about when the university will re-open will be made after university officials make an assessment on Sunday.

  • Salisbury University: Hurricane Irene’s effects are expected to be felt starting Saturday afternoon, and the storm is expected to pass through the area sometime early Sunday. After the storm passes, university officials will assess conditions. Classes have been cancelled for Monday, but the campus is expected to be open.

  • St. Mary’s College of Maryland: The first day of classes has been moved from Monday to Tuesday so that returning students can delay move-in until after the storm passes. SMCM is sheltering in place for students who wish to stay, but the waterfront is closed for all activities and the college is closed to visitors except for family members bringing students who have already been approved for move-in on Saturday.

  • Towson University: Because the Governor has declared a state of emergency, the University has cancelled its weekend move-in plans and postponed the Welcome to Towson program. First year students scheduled to move-in on Saturday now MUST move in on Monday. Saturday move-in is cancelled. Note that Towson will be sheltering approximately 600 international students who were working in Ocean City and Salisbury for the summer. Red Cross volunteers are on hand to assist.

  • Univesity of Mary Washington: All UMW classes are canceled for Monday, and classes for the semester will begin on Tuesday. For returning students, residence halls will be open for move-in on Monday.

  • University of Maryland—College Park: Students are asked not to arrive after 4:00 on Saturday and until after the storm has passed. Students in a position to go home for the duration of the storm and can travel there safely are asked to consider that as an option for the duration of the severe weather. University officials anticipate regular activities will resume on campus after the storm has passed through on Sunday.

  • University of Richmond: All classes and activities at the university are cancelled for Saturday. Normal campus operations will resume at 10:00 on Sunday. Most university transportation options will not operate on Saturday, and major campus facilities will close at 2 pm Saturday afternoon. All School of Continuing Studies classes and activities scheduled for Sunday are canceled as well. Boxed meals will be available for Saturday dinner that can be picked up before 2:00.

  • Virginia State University: All classes have been canceled until Monday.

Aug 26, 2011

10 Benefits of ‘Service Learning’

After Hurricane Katrina, Tulane University looked inward and became the first major “high research” institution in the country to require “service learning” as part of the undergraduate required core curriculum. The requirement was grounded in the belief that “public service, rooted in an academic context…contributes to the development of student engagement.”

Locally, American University’s Community Service-Learning Programs (CSLP) provides students the opportunity to receive an additional credit linked to a regular three- or four-credit course in exchange for completing an additional course assignment or project and 40 hours of service work relevant to the subject.

At George Washington University, the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service offers resources and support to faculty and students implementing service-learning into courses and programs. Specifically, the Center works to “enhance and grow GW service-learning in the District and around the world.”

Forty years ago, colleges weren’t particularly sensitive to the value of “experiential” learning. These kinds of opportunities were limited to those learning a profession like nurses or teachers and the few who could afford to study abroad. But all this has changed, as colleges clearly see the value of integrating community service with classroom learning.

The Hands On Network has developed a great list of benefits of service learning that are just as relevant to high school students as undergrads. Consider the following:

  1. Service learning can enhance personal development in areas such as self-esteem, moral reasoning, and concern for others and society.

  2. Students learn more readily because they are learning by doing.

  3. Service learning supports the development of social skills, communication skills, and problem-solving abilities.

  4. Involvement in service learning makes the subject matter in school real and relevant for students as they try out knowledge and skills.

  5. When young people serve others, they can see they are valued and can make a real difference.

  6. As students discover their own abilities to address issues, they are empowered to become active citizens.

  7. Young people learn leadership skills as they take responsibility for designing and implementing service experiences.

  8. Students become measurably more engaged in their education and their community.

  9. Community members become partners with schools in educating students.

  10. Through the implementation of service learning projects, schools become viewed as resources to the community.

To learn more about service learning opportunitites in your community, visit the National Service Learning Clearinghouse.

Aug 24, 2011

No Stress Tips for Jumpstarting AP Spanish Language

Spanish is by far the most popular foreign language taken by college-bound students. Once upon a time, French was the preferred language, and many parents still believe it’s best for more “selective” institutions.

Not so. Colleges are perfectly happy with virtually any foreign language. They differ only in the number of years required or recommended for admission.

Regardless of your specific language commitment, it’s important to practice over the summer months. And anyone reaching the Advanced Placement (AP) level would be wise to jumpstart a few lessons before heading back to school.

“…when you are dealing with a foreign language, it is best to keep it ‘fresh’ over the summer months,” explained Lola Quintela, a local Spanish language tutor. “The idea is to make it fun while reinforcing grammar and vocabulary.”

So how hard can this be? Not too, if you think creatively.

"Even some daily activities like going to the grocery store or to the ATM provide opportunities to learn and review,” advises Mrs. Quintela. “Next time you insert your bank card to process a transaction or are ready to check out using the Self-Check line at the grocery store, press the ‘Español’ button. See and hear what happens!”

As it turns out, this simple trick is a great way to review verbs in the command form.

Whether you’re signed up for AP Spanish Language or Spanish 1, there are a number of other no-stress steps you can take to build vocabulary, practice reading comprehension, and improve speaking skills. Here are a few:

  • Work with a tutor. Don’t wait until after you’ve tanked on the first listening quiz of the quarter. Start now and make it your goal to spend at least two hours per week brushing up basic language skills with a native speaker.

  • Go high tech. Check out iTunes University for Spanish courses and apps. Levels range from beginners to a more technical medical Spanish class offered at Yale. The Do It Yourself Scholar recommends Notes in Spanish (free podcasts) or Open Culture’s Free Foreign Language Lessons. And helps you make and share digital flashcards online, while gives you the opportunity to build vocabulary and feed the world!

  • Watch Univisión, Telefutura, or Telemundo. You can replay clips or entire videos to practice listening comprehension. It may be a good idea to start with the news because it’s already familiar or Sesame Street because it’s geared to kids. Be aware—some of the telenovelas are very entertaining.

  • Listen to Spanish language radio stations. While driving back and forth to sports or band practice, you can listen to the news or salsa radio stations. The announcers tend to speak quickly, but with many hours in the car your understanding will increase.

  • Read. Visit your local library and get books in Spanish. Children’s books are fun, easy to read and already familiar to students in their English version. Hint: The Magic Treehouse series is available in Spanish (La casa del árbol) and is perfect for students moving into Spanish 3.

  • Review for the National Spanish Exam. The National Spanish Exam website contains a treasure trove of old exams and practice exercises. You can improve reading comprehension, grammar and vocabulary by logging on and taking a few exams. Keep in mind that AP Spanish students should be working at levels 3 or 4 or higher.

  • Take lessons with the BBC. The BBC offers audio and video language courses in 36 languages—free of charge. You can start with any one of several 12-week beginners’ courses in Spanish, French, German, or Italian. Sign-up and you’ll receive a weekly email offering encouragement and tips to help your language learning. Or if your level of expertise is beyond beginner, test your skills and you will be directed to those parts of the site that will be most useful for you.

  • Visit a museum. The trick is to visit museums offering tours in Spanish. Locally, many of the major tourist sites have self-guided audio and group tours available in numerous foreign languages. This can be a very different way to see a familiar place.


Aug 23, 2011

What Freshmen Don’t Know

Born in the year the Internet took off and Amazon set up shop, members of the class of 2015 are the first to grow up taking the word “online” for granted. Ferris Bueller could be their dad, and the only significant labor disputes in their lifetimes have been in major league sports.

Each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the College Mindset List, the brainchild of Tom McBride, Keefer Professor of the Humanities and Ron Nief, former public affairs director. Designed to clue professors into what their new frosh experienced growing up, the list traditionally signals the start of the academic year.

Items on the list reflect the cultural and political world views of today’s 18-year-olds. For the class of 2015, most of them born in 1993, “Dial-up,” Woolworths and the Sears “Big Book” are as distant to them as “talking machines” might have been to their grandparents. And Andre the Giant, River Phoenix, Frank Zappa and Arthur Ashe have always been dead.

Here are some additional highlights:

• There has always been an Internet
• States have always required they wear bike helmets
• There have always been at least two women on the Supreme Court
• US tax forms have always been available in Spanish
• OJ Simpson has always been looking for the killers of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman
• Life has always been like a box of chocolates
• There has never been an official Communist Party in Russia
• Video games have always had ratings
• The Rocky Horror Picture Show has always been available on TV
• Faux Christmas trees have always outsold real ones
• Music has always been available via free downloads
• No state has ever failed to observe Martin Luther King Day
• Fidel Castro’s daughter and granddaughter have always lived in the US
• Women have always commanded U.S. Navy ships
• Frasier, Sam, Woody, and Rebecca have never frequented a bar in Boston during primetime
• Major League Baseball has never lacked a wild card entry in the playoffs
• Refugees and prisoners have always been housed by the US government at Guantanamo

Kinda makes you feel old.

For the complete list as well as lists going back to 2002, visit the Beloit College website.

Aug 21, 2011

Common Application forced to Backtrack

In an unusual change in direction for members of the Common Application organization, the Common App was forced to backtrack on a decision to unilaterally reduce the number of characters or words allocated to the short answer question on its 2011-12 electronic application form.

“Upon launching the 2011-12 system on August 1, we realized that we had neglected to inform counselors about the short answer change from 1000 characters to 750 characters in any of our spring updates,” explained Scott Anderson, director of outreach for the Common Application. “As you know, this change took many by surprise.”

For the record, 1000 characters roughly translates into 150 words, and 750 characters translates to about 125 words.

Unaware that the modification had taken place or that the Common Application was adjusting the space allotted to one of two essay questions on the form (“Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below”), students working on the application were thrown off by what seemed like arbitrary changes in the word count.

“Am I crazy or did the character count on the short answer section of the CA just revert back to 1000 characters,” noted Shelley Levine, a Maryland based independent college consultant who picked up the problem. “Earlier this week, the character count limit was 750, which usually came out to be way less than 150 words. Today, the instructions above the space read 1000 character limit.”

Evidently, the folks at the Common Application received a number of complaints about the short answer immediately following launch, as the question traditionally provided a 150-word limit. Without notifying colleges or applicants of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the Common App quietly went ahead and reinstated the former character limit.

But in the meantime, over 3,100 applications were submitted through the system—210 of which in the first 24 hours the Common App went online. And those students were forced to adhere to a different, much more restrictive word limit for their responses.

“While the 750 character count was only in effect for two weeks, we recognize that the timing is not ideal given that there are some students who may have already edited their original responses based on the shorter character limit,” said Anderson.

The shifts in character count and the resulting impact on students using the Common Application further underscores the power of the single largest electronic application provider in the country. That the change could take place without announcement and a correction made without apology is unsettling to many.

“What else are they going to change without telling us,” remarked another area college consultant. “This is really disturbing.”

And what should students do who already edited their responses to meet the 750 character limit?

If they haven’t submitted any applications, they can simply revise, making sure to use the “Print Preview” function to insure the answer fits in the space allotted, as character limits continue to be subject to truncation issues.

If they have submitted, there is little to be done, according to Anderson.

“Once an application has been submitted, it cannot be retrieved for editing. However, the fraction of students who submitted a short answer response using the 750 character constraint can certainly create an alternate version with a new response for subsequent applications.”

And that is what they should do.

Aug 20, 2011

UVa Class of 2015: Most Impressive in University History

Closing the books on the 2010-11 admissions cycle, the University of Virginia (UVa) Office of Admission announced an incoming class that “will collectively pack the most impressive academic credentials in University history.”

Two-thirds of the entering first year students are from Virginia. Ninety-one percent finished in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, and their average combined math and verbal SAT scores was 1,339—8 points higher than last year.

In fact, 4 entering students dialed “toll free” (earned perfect scores) on all 3 parts of the SAT, and 22 posted perfect scores on the Critical Reading and Math sections.

And the class is diverse. Nearly 8 percent are African-American, 6 percent are Hispanic, and just under 1 percent are Naïve American. About 1,125 students (32 percent) will benefit from AccessUVa, the University’s financial aid program, including 239 qualifying for full scholarship support.

In response to the call from Governor Robert McDonnell to increase the number of degrees awarded in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—the class entering UVa’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) is growing by 12.5 percent, from 585 students last year to a projected 658 for the Class of 2015.

“Over the past five years we’ve grown 25 percent, really without sacrificing quality and increasing diversity,” said Engineering School Dean James Aylor. “There’s no question that the STEM fields are very attractive. There are jobs out there in that arena.”

According to the UVa press release, the flow of students from Virginia’s community college system remains strong. The University expects to enroll 600 transfer students (up from 560 last year), including 325 (up from 264) from Virginia’s 23 community colleges.

And with the transfers, UVa will be able to achieve its traditional 70 percent in-state enrollment goal.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aug 19, 2011

The College of William & Mary Welcomes the Class of 2015

Today is freshmen move-in day at the College of William & Mary.

This year, the campus will welcome a new undergraduate class totaling approximately 1490 students, including an additional 30 first-year students who are arriving as part of the College’s new joint degree program with the University of St. Andrews.

Up from 1400 students last fall, the expanded class is part of a long standing plan to increase the size of the undergraduate school and enables the College to “maintain an overall undergraduate student body that includes 65 percent from Virginia.”

“This is an exceptional group of students,” said Henry Broaddus, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission. “They are as smart as they are diverse, and they bring with them the kind of credentials and experiences that will only enhance William & Mary’s reputation as one of the world’s great liberal arts universities. We are delighted to welcome them into the Tribe.”

Included in this year’s class are a student who built a robot featured by NASA; a student who is 668 cranes into his 1000-crane Senbazuru; a student who organized a benefit concert in Cambodia; and someone who was in Egypt at the time of the Arab Spring. Oh, and a member of the Blue Man Group is among this year’s entering students.

And the W&M Class of 2015 is diverse. Twenty-eight percent are students of color, 6 percent are international students, and 10 percent are first-generation students.

In addition, this year’s group includes 240 undergraduate transfers. Of those, 110 students came from the Virginia Community College System, with 41 transferring via the College’s guaranteed admission program with VCCS. Eighty-two percent of the transfers are Virginia residents.

And they are smart. Selected from a record-setting pool of more than 12,800 applicants, the first year students boast of a middle 50th percentile of 1240-1450 on the SAT math and critical reading sections. Of the students who attended high schools providing class rank, 79 percent finished in the top 10 percent.

Freshmen will have a few days to adjust to their new surroundings before the academic semester begins on August 24th. But in the meantime, here are a few events appearing on the new student orientation program:

  • A series of briefings ranging from student rights and responsibilities to undergraduate research opportunities

  • A night on the town in colonial Williamsburg

  • Tours of the library, career center, and book store

  • Volunteer service projects sponsored by Students Helping Out Williamsburg (SHOW)

  • A student activities resource fair

  • An “AV Adventure” billed as part flash mob dance party and part outdoor theater

  • Movies under the stars on a giant 30-foot screen with surround sound

  • Performances by hypnotist Tom Deluca, various rock bands, a cappella groups, and a stand-up comedian

  • An ice cream social

In the old days, orientation programs largely consisted of a stern lecture on “parietals” from the dorm mother. This sounds like more fun.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aug 18, 2011

Housing Crunch at UVa May Slow Future Plans for Growth

It’s no surprise that the University of Virginia might be a little tight on freshman housing space this fall. The Governor wants more undergraduate degrees from public institutions, and UVa is anxious to comply.

But with growth comes adjustment, some of which might be a little uncomfortable over the short term.

According to a Charlottesville CBS affiliate, about 90 more first-year students than expected enrolled for the Class of 2015, resulting in a scramble to find space in dorms already bursting at the seams.

To accommodate the extra undergrads, “forced triples”—three students in space designed for two—will be offered to students rooming in the Gooch/Dillard Complex and four buildings in the Alderman Road “new dorms” area.

“The rooms that have been tripled all have an additional set of furniture installed so that all three students have the same furnishings and storage space,” said university officials. “The triple rooms are also only set up in facilities that are suite style so that in addition to the space in the room, all students have a lounge space directly adjacent to the room and they share the suite with a group that is either 7-12 students in size.”

Earlier this year, UVa announced an increase in class target target size—from 3240 in 2010 to 3360 in 2011. To accomplish this goal, Admissions extended offers to 7750 students this year, as compared to 7212 last.

Evidently, more students than originally projected took them up on the offer, and the unofficial class size is 3,450 (the final count will come in October after the dust settles).

How these additional students will affect admissions decisions for the Class of 2016 remains to be seen. Plans to comply with the Governor’s request for continued growth are in place, but housing and other university logistics need to keep pace.

For now, incoming first-years will have the opportunity to “de-triple” as cancellations or “other factors” open up space. But the extra 90 students combined with a 97 percent freshman retention rate, may make Admissions think carefully about plans for the next class.

Aug 17, 2011

Virginia Scores High on the ACT

The ACT continues to grow in popularity and importance as a tool for determining college and career readiness, according to the Condition of College & Career Readiness 2011 report released today.

While national scores remain basically static, the number of high school students taking the ACT in 2011 rose to 1,623,112. This represents an increase of 25 percent since 2007 and an all-time record for ACT test-taking.

In 26 states, at least 60 percent of high school graduates took the ACT. And in 12 states—all in the county’s midsection—at least 80 percent of high school graduates took the test.

Over the past five years, the number of students taking the ACT in Maryland and DC increased by 37 percent and 28 percent respectively. But in Virginia, the numbers have dramatically risen from 11,519 in 2006 to 20,526 or about 24 percent of the Commonwealth’s high school graduates in 2011.

Why would this be? Perhaps it's because the test is considered by many to be more “consumer-friendly” than competing College Board products. And at an increasing number of colleges, the ACT with Writing may be substituted for both the SAT Reasoning and Subject Tests—saving the test-taker time, money, and aggravation.

But more important to college applicants is the fact that virtually every college and university in the country will accept either the ACT or the SAT. Because the tests are interchangeable, students may elect to submit scores from whichever test they choose—usually the one on which they scored best.

“The University of Mary Washington is happy to accept either the ACT or SAT as part of the application for admission," said Kim Johnston, UMW dean of admission. "We want the students to feel comfortable that they are sending application materials that best represent their abilities and potential for success at UMW. Many students are taking both tests and if they do, our admissions committee will use the test, SAT or ACT, that has the higher scores when making the admissions decision."

And they are increasingly choosing the ACT. Five years ago, only 14 percent of freshmen submitted ACT scores to the University of Richmond. Last year, 42 percent provided ACT’s, according to Common Data Set information on the Richmond website. During the same period, the percent of freshmen at James Madison University submitting ACT's went from 21 to 33 percent.

American University reports a 7.2 percent increase in ACT score submission from applicants this past year. At Catholic University, about 5.6 percent of freshmen submitted the ACT only for the fall of 2009. Last fall, that number rose to 10%. And at Johns Hopkins the percent of freshmen submitting ACT's increased to 41 percent from 26 percent in 2007.

The ACT is a first cousin to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which many of us took in grade school (long before computers were used to score them). It is a “curriculum based” achievement test designed to measure the skills necessary to succeed in college-level work.

For those keeping count, our area continues to score very well on the ACT. Virginia’s average composite score was 22.3, well above the national average of 21.1. The average composite in Maryland was 22.1 (down from 22.3 last year), and in DC, it was 20.0—up from 19.8. Subscores in Maryland and Virginia were very similar with Virginia scoring slightly higher in all areas.

And somewhere in the DC region, 14 students earned perfect composite scores of 36—ten in Maryland, and four in Virginia.

For more a more complete summary of ACT national and state test results, visit the ACT website.

Aug 15, 2011

Early Applicants to UVa Will Just Have to Wait

If you’re planning to be one of thousands of early applicants to the University of Virginia this fall, you may be in for a small surprise.

Unlike many of its peer institutions with similar early action (EA) policies, UVa will not be providing decisions until the end of January.

In other words, if UVa is your first choice, you won’t have your college future signed, sealed, and delivered before Christmas.

In all fairness, UVa is not alone in its Grinch-like decision to delay early admissions notifications. Although all of the Ivies and most other “heavy hitters” reward students organized enough to meet early paperwork requirements, a handful of schools enjoy having the extra time to think things over.

And there’s no way to know who does what based on application deadlines, selectivity, or size of the applicant pool.

For example, Bowdoin, Mt. Holyoke, and Pitzer advise early applicants around the first of the year. James Madison, Chapman, Wake Forest, Centre, Christopher Newport, Rhodes, and Holy Cross wait until mid-January. But Dickinson and Furman, as well as the Universities of Connecticut, San Diego, North Carolina, and Miami make students wait until the end of January or the first of February.

And while U Conn, Dickinson, and CNU give students until December 1 to file early applications, prospective Tar Heels must get their early action paperwork in by October 15th.

The early press surrounding UVa’s return to early admissions suggested that the decision was made in part as a response to requests from guidance counselors and students who wanted stress relief in the application process.

“The fact of the matter is that some students want to have an admission decision or an offer in their hip pocket early in the year,” said UVa admissions dean Greg Roberts in a carefully worded interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Even better, they’d love to have that decision before Christmas.

But by waiting, UVa is more likely to be providing stress relief to admissions staff, which will have a huge hunk of its total applicant pool in the door by November 1st and will gain time to provide the kind of holistic application reviews they promise.

In addition, the admissions office can take advantage of having several weeks to assess the strength of the entire “regular” applicant pool, as those candidates are required to file by January 1st.

Early decision applicants to other schools as well as strong students applying to single choice early action programs at Stanford and some of the Ivies will no doubt appear among those applying regular decision.

And so there will be stress relief—just not so much for UVa applicants.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aug 13, 2011

Just the Facts—The Best 4-Year Graduation Rates

One of the scariest numbers in postsecondary education is the national “six-year” college graduation rate. Every college and university in the country tracks it, and every school must submit their number for analysis by the federal government. Sadly, the percent of students starting as freshmen in four-year bachelor’s programs who graduate within six years now rests at about at 57 percent.

You might be wondering what the four-year graduation rate must be if only 57 percent of students graduate in six years. Trust me, it’s far worse. And the divide between public and private institutions is really disturbing—a little over 50 percent of all private school students graduate in four years while less than 30 percent of students attending public institutions graduate in the same period.

Locally, a handful of colleges can boast of 4-year graduation rates above 80 percent or well above the national average. These include the US Naval Academy (89%), Washington & Lee (88%), Georgetown (85%), UVa (84%), William & Mary (83%), Johns Hopkins University (83%), and the University of Richmond (82%).

Again, thanks to USNWR, here is a sneak peek of the top 4-year graduation rates for 2012:

1. Williams College (93%)
2. Olin College of Engineering (91%)
3. Yale University (90%)
4. University of Notre Dame (90%)
5. Princeton University (90%)
6. Carleton College (89%)
7. Davidson College (89%)
8. Pomona College (89%)
9. Bowdoin College (89%)
10. US Naval Academy (89%)
11. Duke University (89%)
12. Wesleyan University (88%)
13. Harvard University (88%)
14. Haverford College (88%)
15. Boston College (88%)
16. Vassar College (88%)
17. Washington and Lee University (88%)
18. Bucknell University (88%)
19. University of Pennsylvania (88%)
20. Northwestern University (87%)
21. Babson College (87%)
22. Columbia University (87%)
23. College of the Holy Cross (87%)
24. Claremont McKenna College (87%)

Aug 12, 2011

Just the Facts—The Nation’s Catholic Colleges

According to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 244 colleges and universities in the US identify with the Roman Catholic faith. They represent a wide variety of educational opportunities ranging from large research universities to small liberal arts colleges.

Most Catholic colleges have a specific founding order or group with which they further identify. For example Villanova and Merrimack College are Augustinian; Seton Hall (NJ) and the University of Dallas are Diocesan; Duquesne is Spiritan; and the University of Notre Dame is affiliated with the Congregation of Holy Cross—not to be confused with the College of the Holy Cross, which is Jesuit.

Locally, Catholic University is "independent," and Trinity Washington University has officially ended affiliation with the Church.

But by far, the largest group of Catholic institutions identifies as Jesuit. There are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities located in every corner of the country, including Georgetown and Loyola University of Maryland, in the DC area.

Using data from the National Center of Educational Statistics (NCES), the following is a ranking of all US Jesuit colleges by size of undergraduate population:

1. Saint Louis University (11,159)
2. Loyola University Chicago (10,077)
3. Boston College (10,076)
4. Marquette University (8081)
5. Fordham University (7950)
6. Georgetown University (7461)
7. Loyola Marymount University (5833)
8. Regis University (5586)
9. University of San Francisco (5521)
10. Saint Joseph’s University (5403)
11. Santa Clara University (5200)
12. Gonzaga University (4729)
13. Seattle University (4306)
14. Xavier University (4228)
15. University of Scranton (4154)
16. Creighton University (4133)
17. Fairfield University (3886)
18. Loyola University Maryland (3757)
19. Canisius College (3196)
20. University of Detroit Mercy (3149)
21. John Carroll University (2987)
22. College of the Holy Cross (2932)
23. Le Moyne College (2784)
24. Loyola University New Orleans (2764)
25. Saint Peter’s College (2412)
26. Rockhurst University (2120)
27. Spring Hill College (1310)
28. Wheeling Jesuit University (1086)

Aug 11, 2011

Just the Facts—The Largest Endowments

A college “endowment” is basically the total value of an institution’s investments—property, stocks, and cash. It mostly comes from donations from rich alums and others, but grows with wise management.

Usually colleges use the interest from their endowment to cover worthy expenses like scholarships for students. A college with a huge endowment may be less concerned about getting 100% of tuition from every student and can afford to repair buildings or buy new technology.

Without putting too fine a point on things, the size of an endowment can be an indicator of the financial health of an institution. And not surprisingly, nearly all endowments in the country took hits after 2008.

As part of information requested by the Congress, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tracks the endowment funds of colleges and universities throughout the country, with a focus is on the market value of the top 120.

The DC area is home to a number of colleges with endowments among the top 120 in the nation, including the University of Virginia (18), Johns Hopkins University (27), George Washington (44), Washington and Lee (57), Georgetown (58), William & Mary (112), and Virginia Tech (119). But none comes close to the more than $26 million stashed away by Harvard, which by the way lost 29.5 percent of its endowment between 2008 and 2009.

Top 25 endowment funds by rank order:

  1. Harvard University ($26,035,389)

  2. Yale University ($16,103,497)

  3. Princeton University ($13,386,280)

  4. Stanford University ($12,619,094)

  5. University of Texas System ($11,083,357)

  6. MIT ($7,982,021)

  7. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor ($5,914,285)

  8. Columbia University ($5,892,798)

  9. University of Pennsylvania ($5,170,539)

  10. University of California System Administration ($4,977,483)

  11. University of Notre Dame ($4,920,742)

  12. Emory University ($4,601,488)

  13. University of Chicago ($4,535,633)

  14. Duke University ($4,440,745)

  15. Northwestern University ($4,398,200)

  16. Washington U in St. Louis ($4,147,461)

  17. Rice University ($3,665,267)

  18. University of Virginia, Charlottesville ($3,531,688)

  19. Cornell University ($3,071,987)

  20. Dartmouth College ($2,999,497)

  21. Vanderbilt University ($2,833,614)

  22. University of Southern California ($2,671,426)

  23. University of Texas at Austin ($2,383,866)

  24. New York University ($2,194,839)

  25. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities ($2,070,002)

Aug 10, 2011

Just the Facts—The Highest Freshman Retention Rates

According to US News & World Report, as many as one in three freshmen don’t make it back for sophomore year. Although money problems tend to dominate, the reasons a student may choose not to return range from loneliness to academic struggles.

While colleges are quick to explain away low freshman retention by blaming federal methodology, it’s still a good metric to include in your college search. If it looks too low, don’t hesitate to ask what the college is doing to improve.

Locally, Johns Hopkins (97%), the University of Virginia (97%), Georgetown (96%), William & Mary (95%), University of Maryland (93%), George Washington University (91%), and Virginia Tech (91%) are consistently among the schools with high freshman retention.

Thanks to a sneak preview from USNWR of this year’s Common Data Set results, here are the colleges with the highest freshman retention rates:

  1. Yale University (99%)

  2. Columbia University (98%)

  3. Dartmouth College (98%)

  4. Princeton University (98%)

  5. Stanford University (98%)

  6. University of Chicago (98%)

  7. University of Pennsylvania (97%)

  8. CalTech (98%)

  9. MIT (98%)

  10. University of Notre Dame (98%)

  11. Brown University (97%)

  12. Harvard University (97%)

  13. Johns Hopkins University (97%)

  14. Rice University (97%)

  15. UCLA (97%)

  16. University of Virginia (97%)

  17. Duke University (97%)

  18. Northwestern University (97%)

  19. Washington University in St. Louis (97%)

Aug 9, 2011

Just the Facts—The Most Expensive Colleges

The statistical wizards at the Department of Education recently introduced a nifty website listing the highest (top 5%) and lowest (bottom 10%) tuitions collected at the nation’s colleges and universities.

As an added benefit, they’ve made it possible to generate separate reports ranking total tuition and required fees as one metric and total net price as another (note that net price is defined as the cost of attendance minus grant and scholarship aid).

While the intent of the website was to help Congress get a fix on schools that charge chronically high tuition, it can also be helpful to students and families concerned about costs. And even with a few computational glitches and some loud complaints from the colleges named, it’s useful information to have.

Locally, the news is good. Although St. Mary’s College of Maryland appears on the highest tuition and the highest net price lists for public institutions, local schools don’t have much of a presence in either ranking. UMUC and Christopher Newport were the only other local state schools cited on the net price list.

Among local private, not-for-profit institutions, George Washington University (3), St. John’s College (13), the University of Richmond (20), Johns Hopkins University (37), Georgetown (42), and Washington & Lee (46) are ranked in the top 5 percent for tuition and required fees. Note that none of these schools appears on the list of schools with the highest net prices.

Private not-for-profit baccalaureate institutions with highest tuition (national average-$21,324):

  1. Sarah Lawrence College ($41,968)

  2. Vassar College (($41,930)

  3. George Washington College ($41,655)

  4. Columbia University ($41,316)

  5. Kenyon College ($40,980)

  6. Colgate University ($40,970)

  7. Carnegie Mellon University ($40,920)

  8. Trinity College ($40,840)

  9. Bucknell University ($40,816)

  10. Tulane University ($40,584)

  11. Skidmore College ($40,420)

  12. St. Johns College—New Mexico ($40,396)

  13. St. Johns College—Maryland ($40,392)

  14. Tufts University ($40,342)

  15. Hobart William Smith Colleges ($40,235)

Note that not one of these schools appears on the highest net price list.

Public baccalaureate institutions with highest net prices (national average-$10,747):

  1. The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio ($24,192)

  2. University of Guam ($23,902)

  3. St. Mary’s College of Maryland ($21,468)

  4. Rowan University ($19,344)

  5. Miami University—Oxford ($19,305)

  6. Pennsylvania State University—Main Campus ($19,056)

  7. Pennsylvania State University—Altoona ($18,878)

  8. Pennsylvania State University—Erie-Behrend ($18,857)

  9. University of Pittsburgh ($18,786)

  10. Pennsylvania State University—Berks ($18,048)

  11. University of Cincinnati ($17,997)

  12. University of Colorado at Boulder ($17,929)

  13. University of Missouri—Kansas City ($17,782)

  14. UMUC ($17,626)

  15. Ohio University ($17,497)

Aug 8, 2011

Just the Facts—The Nation’s Largest Universities

As you might have noticed, we’re in the middle of rankings season.

Princeton Review, USNWR, and even Forbes target this time of year to present college-bound students with their picks for top colleges in categories relevant to factors they consider important in college search and selection.

And so we learn about campus beauty, drinking habits, and dedication to sustainability. We get insight into the opinions of current students, college administrators, and alums.

But it’s mostly just that—opinion—not much more accurate than what you or I may think on any given day.

So to counter some the more “subjective” lists generated by publications looking to increase sales, I’m using this week to present a few more objective “rankings” based on more measurable or concrete facts.

Size Matters
When deciding on a college, students have a range of sizes to consider—from tiny Deep Springs College (26) to massive Arizona State University (68,064).

Or more locally, college-bound students may be attracted to Randolph College with a total enrollment of 500 (including a Master’s degree program) or Liberty University, which now enrolls over 46,000 students and is the largest private university in the country.

It’s no secret that the size of an enrollment class completely changes the culture of a school. Going to a college with 200 freshmen is entirely different from going to a university with 10,000 per class. And this covers everything from personal interaction with professors to the availability of specialized majors or undergrad research opportunities.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the largest postsecondary institution in the US is the University of Phoenix (online campus) with 380,232 students. Kaplan University comes in a distant second with 71,011 students.

But if casts of thousands are not a problem, here is the list of the nation’s largest degree-granting nonprofit institutions:

  1. Arizona State University (68,064)

  2. Ohio State University, Main Campus (55,014)

  3. University of Central Florida (53,401)

  4. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (51,659)

  5. University of Texas at Austin (50,995)

  6. University of Florida (50,691)

  7. Texas A & M University (48,702)

  8. Michigan State University (47,071)

  9. Liberty University (46,312)

  10. University of Washington, Seattle Campus (45,943)

  11. Pennsylvania State University (45,185)

  12. University of Illinois at Urbana, Champaign (43,881)

  13. New York University (43,404)

  14. Indiana University, Bloomington (42,347)

  15. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (41,674)

  16. University of Wisconsin, Madison (41,654)

  17. Purdue University (41,052)

  18. University of South Florida (40,022)

  19. Florida State University (39,785)

  20. Florida International University (39,610)

Aug 6, 2011

The Forbes Take on America's Best Colleges

For the fourth consecutive year, Forbes Magazine recently trotted out its sorry attempt to compete with Princeton Review and US News and World Report for attention in the annual rankings wars. And number four is no better, useful, or accurate than numbers one, two or three.

Still it’s embarrassing to see how many publications rise to the bait and run the list. Even more embarrassing are the press releases from colleges basking in the glory of so much as a mention. Without naming names, one local college boasted of landing somewhere considerably north of 200 in the ranking of 650 institutions.

Happily, most of the Forbes top ten colleges ignored the honor and didn’t dignify the list with as much as a web note. In fact, the University of Chicago gave more attention to increases in campus parking fees than it did to its debut on the Forbes list.

Only the US Air Force Academy issued a release earnestly bragging of its ranking as a top 10 institution.

But did they look at the methodology? Even with 16 pages of self-justifying blather, Forbes can’t get beyond the fact that the most of the data used to generate their list has little validity. (17.5%)? (15%)? Who’s Who in America (10%)? And what sense does it make to lump major research institutions with liberal arts colleges in the same ranking?

For the record, is a compilation of opinions shown to be largely from very happy students OR very UNhappy students—not much in between. And, if anyone would bother to look, RateMyProfessors is becoming increasingly obsolete as a rating tool as colleges create and post their own private rating websites (see Stanford's site for a good example).

Equally ridiculous as a serious evaluation tool, invites readers to self-report salaries. Not only is there no possible way to judge the accuracy of this information, but it also usually represents a very small and select group of recent graduates.

And Who’s Who is a vanity listing geared toward selling books.

Interestingly, the folks at Northeastern University took a whack at the Forbes methodology after the university placed close to the bottom of the ranking because of its unique and highly successful co-op program. It’s too bad more college communities don’t publically go after Forbes for the same reasons.

So for what it’s worth, DC area institutions didn’t fare too well on the Forbes rankings. Only the U.S. Naval Academy (17) and Washington & Lee (25) made it within the top 25 “best” colleges in America. UVa (46), Georgetown (47), and William & Mary (49) found places among the top 50.

By the way, the Naval Academy was also named as one of the top 10 “best buys,” in a list humorously biased toward schools charging no tuition.

Aug 5, 2011

Local Colleges among the Top Contributors to Teach For America’s 2011 Teaching Corps

This week, Teach For America posted its annual ranking of the colleges and universities contributing the greatest number of graduating seniors to its 2011 teaching corps.

And if you think cracking the Ivy League is tough, try getting an appointment to this exclusive group.

With a record 48,000 individuals applying to join, Teach For America’s 2011 acceptance rate hovered around 11 percent. Incoming members earned an average GPA of 3.6, and 100 percent have held leadership positions.

Corps members are highly-accomplished college graduates and professionals who commit to teach for two years in underserved schools. The organization recruits from all academic majors and backgrounds and seeks individuals who have demonstrated “outstanding achievement, perseverance, and leadership.”

This fall, more than 5,200 new members will start teaching in 43 regions across the country. They represent more than 1,500 colleges and universities, and 77 percent are 2011 graduates. The top 2011 college producers for Teach For America were:

Large Schools
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (119)
University of California-Berkeley (89)
University of Texas at Austin (87)
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (80)
University of Florida (75)

Medium Schools
Harvard University (66)
Boston College (56)
Georgetown University (54)
Duke University (53)
Brown University (49)/Northwestern University (49)

Small Schools
Spelman College (36)
Wellesley College (24)
Barnard College (21)
Amherst College (18)
Claremont McKenna College (17)/College of the Holy Cross (17)

Among the top local contributors were the Universities of Virginia (66) and Maryland (56) in the large school category. Georgetown University (54), Howard (25), Johns Hopkins (25), and American University (22) also earned recognition in the medium-sized school category.

For college-bound students interested in pursuing careers in education, Teach For America offers incomparable training and leadership opportunities. In fact, two-thirds of the more than 24,000 Teach For America alums across the country are continuing to work full time in education. More than 550 serve as school principals or superintendents and over 50 serve in elected office.

More information and the complete list of top college contributors to the corps may be found on the Teach For America website.

Aug 3, 2011

Campus Visits Top the List

Not long ago, Cappex tapped the views of 1300 college-bound seniors who already completed the college search process.

Students were asked what helped introduce them to college options, what helped them get a feel for colleges, and what resources aided them in narrowing down their choices.

The answers were right out of a college counseling textbook: campus visits are key to all phases of college search and significantly outweigh in importance online and other resources including parental advice, college fairs, and high school counselors.

Many students start their college search by talking to family and friends, consulting with counselors, and visiting college websites. Once they get basic information, they typically arrange for campus visits.

Even with this sequence of events, Cappex found visits are by far the single most influential resource for introducing students to colleges and helping them understand what attributes appeal to them. College websites are the second most influential resource, followed by parents and generic college search sites.

Cappex also probed how students were able to get a “feel” for specific colleges under consideration. Not surprisingly, campus visits were cited by over 75 percent of the seniors as most influential. Individual college websites followed at 54 percent, and all those glossy mailers from colleges trailed at 37 percent.

As far as benefits to be derived from a college visit, getting an “authentic campus experience” is the number one response. There’s nothing better than “experiencing a day walking around a campus and nearby town” to get a feel for the place.

Also important were the ability to understand the geography or size of the campus and the opportunity to see what classes are like, check out housing, experience a typical day on campus, and observe students. Less important outcomes included understanding political views on campus, getting a feel for weather, and checking out food.

But there are some drawbacks to college visits. About 44 percent of respondents indicated that campus visits are hard to manage and pay for. In many cases, it’s just too difficult for students to see all the schools they are considering. Even so, college visits fundamentally help students make decisions throughout the college search process.

To help you plan campus visits, local colleges have arranged summer tours (note most colleges are closed on holidays and holiday weekends):

American University: The Welcome Center is open from 9-5, M-F. Tours and information sessions are offered at least once per day M-F.
Catholic University: Daily information sessions are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. and 2:00 pm, M-F (excluding Memorial Day through Independence Day). A personal interview can be scheduled before the information session or later the same day.
College of William & Mary: Information sessions and tours are offered M-F, at 10:00 and 2:30 (excluding August 15-19).
George Mason University: Information sessions and tours are conducted throughout the year, M-F, at 10:30 am and 1:30 pm and on Saturdays at 10:00 am and 11:30 am.
George Washington University: Information sessions and tours are scheduled twice daily M-F, at both the Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon Campuses. Interview times are available throughout the day.
Georgetown University: Information sessions followed by tours are held several times during the day M-Sat. Reservations are required.
Goucher College: Information session followed by a tour held M-F, at 10:30 am and 2:30 pm. Interviews may be scheduled directly after.
Johns Hopkins University: Tours and information sessions are offered M-F.
Loyola University of Maryland: Group information sessions followed by tour are held M-F, 9:15 am and 1:15 pm. Interviews may be scheduled immediately after.
Towson University: Campus tours begin 9:30 and 12:30, M-F.
University of Mary Washington: Daily tours and information sessions are scheduled M-F, at 10:30 and 2:00.
University of Maryland: Campus tours are offered twice per day M-F, at 11:00 and 2:00. Information sessions are available on a reservation only basis.
University of Richmond: Information session followed by tour held M-F, at 9:45 am and 2:15 pm.
University of Virginia: Campus tours are offered M-F, at 11:00 and 2:40, and on Saturday at 11:00. Information sessions are offered M-F at 10:00 and 1:00 (peak season only).
Virginia Commonwealth University: An information session followed by a tour held M-Sat., at 10:30 am, except on holidays and holiday weekends.

For the complete Cappex report and a few good charts, visit the Cappex website.

Aug 2, 2011

The 'Best' of the Princeton Review

In a precisely worded press release, the Princeton Review debuted results today of surveys conducted among 122,000 students attending 376 schools (up 3 from last year) designated the “best” colleges in America.

By early morning, the Princeton Review website became nearly impossible to navigate as thousands of interested parties raced to learn which schools earned distinctions in 62 published categories.

And this is big news. While Princeton Review gently tries to steer interest toward the 703 “Green Rated” schools and earnestly lauds the winners in “Fire Safety” or “Best Financial Aid,” most press inevitably flows toward schools with “Lots of Hard Liquor” or “Reefer Madness.” And that’s what sells books.

Pity the school described as “purgatory” or the college where professors are considered inaccessible. While high school students gravitate toward the party school list, parents understandably take a dim view of winners in many high profile categories.

“Each of our 376 best colleges offers outstanding academics,” said Robert Franek, the book’s author and Princeton Review Senior VP/Publisher. “Our goal is not to crown one college ‘best’ overall, but to help applicants find and get in to the college best for them.”

Unfortunately, the urban legend spin-offs from these competitions tend to have a long half-life, and reputations aren’t easily rehabilitated.

Mention West Virginia University in this area and you’re guaranteed to get a response more in line with its party reputation than its standing among the few colleges offering a petroleum engineering major.

The moral of the story is that for some colleges, publicity—any publicity—is welcome. For others, these rankings produce an ongoing headache as administrators try to explain the unscientific nature of the study or to laugh away a survey presumably conducted in the spirit of good fun.

Among the more positive local outcomes, George Washington University took first place in the “Most Politically Active” category and the University of Maryland earned a second place for “Best Athletic Facilities.”

Best campus food may be found at Virginia Tech, James Madison University, and the University of Richmond, which was also acknowledged in the “Most Beautiful Campus” category.

DC stood tall among “Great College Towns” with George Washington, American, and Georgetown earning spots among the top 20. The most politically active campuses also included American, GW, and Georgetown, as well as George Mason.

Dorms are like palaces at Loyola of Maryland and George Washington. And “Students Pack the Stadium” at Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland.

The University of Virginia joined a number of Ivy League schools with “great financial aid.” And professors got high marks at the College of William & Mary, while Virginia Tech was listed among the schools that "Run Like Butter."

To view the complete list of rankings you might have to open an account and risk having an email box flooded with college spam. Or you can buy The Best 376 Colleges—2012 Edition from Princeton Review.

Aug 1, 2011

What Test-Prep Companies Won’t Tell You

One of the more disturbing trends coming out of the “get ahead at any cost” college admissions mentality is the push to begin standardized test prep during the summer before junior year of high school.

And to prep early is to test early. After all, we want to strike while the iron is hot. Right?

So who benefits? Not the students shelling out significant sums of money so early in the game. And certainly not anyone eventually required to report multiple—sometimes embarrassing—test results.

The principal beneficiaries in the rush to prep are self-serving test-prep businesses and the two competing standardized test organizations. Each time you sit for a test, they see dollar signs.

The truth is that both the ACT and the SAT are designed to be taken by second semester

To fall into the early test-taking trap is to deprive students of important months of learning and set them up for multiple attempts supported by more and more expensive prep.

But isn’t that the point? Test prep companies are more than happy to take full credit for the learning that takes place in the classroom as well as for test-taking ability that naturally comes with growing up.

And that’s not all they don’t tell you. Here are a few more test-prep secrets based on research conducted by

  1. Improvement Rates. Test-prep companies love to boast about huge score gains. But a 2009 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that while many companies advertise average score increases of 100 points or more on the SAT, the average gains were more nearly 30 points—out of a possible score of 1,600. For the ACT, the average gain was less than one point out of a possible 36.

  2. Persistent Marketing. Once they’ve got your name and vital statistics, test-prep companies will continue their relentless marketing. Whether it’s a suggestion that you still can do better on the test or an invitation to visit college sites paying them for exposure, you can bet that the companies will be in no hurry to remove your name from their lists. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission reports that most complaints filed against the two major test-prep companies come from students being badgered after repeated requests to be removed from mailing lists.

  3. Effectiveness. There have been few studies on the relative effectiveness of different coaching services, products, and methods. In fact, most of the research conducted since the 1950’s involved studies of small groups of students “not necessarily representative of the national population,” according to NACAC. So who knows what really works?

  4. Pricing. Both Princeton Review and Kaplan say their services are often subsidized. Yet that information is not always shared with prospective clients who might qualify for discounted or even free classes. It certainly might be worth checking into, considering that companies typically charge $1,100 for a class and $100 to $200 per hour according to NACAC. Eduventures, a research and consulting firm, estimates 1.5 million students spend about $530 million per year on test prep and tutoring for the SAT alone.

  5. Do-It-Yourself. It’s possible that free practice tests, booklets, and online services perform just as well as pricey courses and tutoring. According to Consumer Reports, students using the free test-prep site posted score gains in line with those of students who used services that cost as much as $400. It takes a little self-discipline, but practice is what it’s all about.

  6. Guaranteed Refund. Many test-prep companies guarantee a refund if students don’t increase their scores. But the fine print and red tape make it really hard to collect. Improvements are often tied to PSAT scores and/or “diagnostic” tests administered by the companies which may or may not prove much. And the refunds may be tied to a retake which further reduces the dollar value of the offer.

  7. Defective Online Materials and Software. According to Eduventures, online test-prep products account for about $50 million of the $530 million test-prep products. But Consumer Reports found errors on practice tests for 6 out of 10 online services. Services offered by Barron’s Test Prep, Peterson’s Online SAT Course, and PrepMe were “particularly problematic.” Oops.

  8. What’s Really Important. The biggest influences on a student’s test score are a combination of what they’ve learned in the classroom and level of maturity. Test-prep companies have little control over either, although they’re quick to take credit when either works in their favor.

  9. Stress. Even the most dedicated students have trouble fitting test-prep courses into their schedules. Factor in class time, homework, and practice tests and you have an extracurricular activity that can pose a real drag on the already overbooked system. Although designed to reduce stress, these classes often produce anxiety that ratchets as the time commitment increases.

  10. Importance. A growing number of colleges and universities are choosing not to consider ACT or SAT scores. About 850 schools, including local favorites like American University, George Mason, Christopher Newport, Goucher, and Loyola of Maryland, have test optional or test flexible policies, according to FairTest, a nonprofit advocacy organization. Applicants to these schools who do not submit test scores will be evaluated on school performance and essays. So why spend the money?