Jan 29, 2010

Area Colleges Improve Graduation Rates but Much Work Remains

Outside of price tags, few numbers dampen the enthusiasm of parents faster than graduation rates. Ask the average parent of a college-bound high school student what percent of college freshmen finish their undergraduate careers in four years, and most will settle on numbers in the 70 to 75 percent range. Probe a little further into six year graduation rates, and parents will chuckle, “Shouldn’t everyone be about finished by then?”

In reality, about 56 percent of the 1.2 million freshmen who entered college in the fall of 2001 graduated in six years, and the average four-year graduation rate is much lower--50 percent at private colleges and 29 percent at public institutions. If you’re an underrepresented minority (URM) student, the figures are even grimmer. Only about 40 percent of minority students earned a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Among local colleges and universities, six-year graduation rates are largely above the national average. In a sample of some more popular area college destinations, these numbers range from Georgetown and UVA where about 93 percent graduate in six years to Virginia Commonwealth University where only 47 percent of students graduated in the same period.

But look on the bright side. Because of dedicated efforts on the part of concerned colleges and universities, rates of graduation have been steadily improving over the past five years. Local gains may be found at Christopher Newport University, which went up by 15 percentage points as well as at Towson University and the University of Maryland where six year graduation rates rose by 10 and 11 points respectively.

For minority students, the highest rates of graduation are also found at the University of Virginia (90 percent), closely followed by Georgetown and the University of Richmond (88 percent). Greatest improvements were shown by George Mason University and Towson where the rates of minority graduation went up 16 and 17 points, as well as by Loyola and American University where URM graduation rates rose by 15 points.

Using data from College Results Online—a web-based tool that provides comprehensive information on college graduation rates by institution—the following chart compares area colleges and shows how much improvement has occurred both overall and among underrepresented minority students at each institution:

College or University

Overall 6-year Completion

URM 6-year Completion





American University





Catholic University





Christopher Newport
Old Dominion Univ





George Mason





George Washington










Goucher College
James Madison Univ





Johns Hopkins
Loyola of Maryland





Mary Washington





St. Mary's College





Towson University










UMD-College Park










Virginia Commonwealth





William and Mary





Although most colleges have improved overall graduation rates during the past five years, much work remains, particularly for minority students. Reports released by the Education Trust over the past few days address these issues and suggest that graduation rates among all students improve most where concerted effort is made.

Jan 28, 2010

Use of the Common Application Continues to Grow As Local Colleges See Huge Application Increases

Now that the dust has settled from early January application deadlines, the Common Application system has been busy totaling up system utilization figures. And the numbers support early reports from colleges and universities suggesting yet another banner year for applications.

So far, the number of college applicants registering with the Common Application is up 15 percent and counting. The most recently-reported number of applications already submitted through the system totals over 1.7 million, or about 19 percent more than at this time last year. Between December 31st and January 1st, the peak application period, 2.47 submissions per second were processed, and if the trend continues, the Common App is on track to receive 1.9 million applications by July 15—the day the system shuts down for 2010.

Local Common Application member institutions clearly benefitted from the overall increase in system utilization. Loyola of Maryland (30 percent), Johns Hopkins (13 percent), and American University (12 percent) saw double-digit increases, followed by Richmond (9 percent), Washington and Lee (6 percent), GW (3 percent), and UVA (3-4 percent). Although still receiving applications, Trinity University is up by 39 percent and Catholic University has already received 31 percent more applications than last year.

The relative ease of online applications, sometimes coupled with incentives such as fee reductions or waivers, accounts for much of the rise in application numbers. But it may also be the unpredictability of enrollment management decisions and the desire to fish for financial aid that drives students to apply to multiple colleges and universities. “We’re finding that students are shopping among colleges,” said Christine Mica, Catholic University Dean of Admissions. “Even though the total number of high school graduates is going down, the number of applications submitted per student is going up, in part because they want to be able to compare financial aid packages.”

For juniors just beginning the college application process, officials from the Common App have a bit of useful news. The essay prompts on the 2010-11 Common Application will be identical to those found on the current version. And so the cycle will begin again!

Jan 27, 2010

Walmart Teams with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund to Support College-Bound Latino Students

Walmart and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF) urge DC and Baltimore area high school seniors of Hispanic heritage to apply for one of several $2,500 academic scholarships offered through the HSF. To qualify, students must
  • have a minimum GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale,
  • be a US citizen or legal permanent resident,
  • complete a FAFSA, and
  • plan to enroll as a full time freshman in a four-year accredited institution in the US, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands or Guam during the 2010-2011 academic year.

Scholarships are limited to students residing in specific metropolitan areas including DC and Baltimore as well as Boston, Chicago, Detroit, LA, Miami, Minneapolis/Twin Cities, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.

In 2009, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund awarded more than $28 million in scholarships to over 4,600 students, two-thirds of whom were the first in their families to attend college. The Walmart program is one of many found on the HSF website to which Hispanic students are invited to apply. “Our goal is to put a college degree in every Latino household in America and we believe we will accomplish this objective with the support of companies like Walmart who have continued their wonderful collaboration, even in the midst of a tougher economic climate,” said Frank D. Alvarez, president and chief executive officer of HSF.

Applications must be submitted no later than January 31, 2010. Additional information as well as the online application form may be found on the HSF website.

Jan 26, 2010

Which States Have the Highest Qualifying Scores?

At the request of J. Kevin Fee, Esquire, of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, representing the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, I am editing this post to remove compilations of NMSC data and links to NMSC web pages. The information that the NMSC wishes to keep from public view may be found on several other websites.

If you live in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, or New Jersey, you’re out of luck this year. To qualify for a [large national] scholarship, you needed to score at or above the highest score cutoff in the country or [removed]—a full 20 points higher than competing students in Wyoming who needed to score [removed] to earn the same academic distinction and scholarship opportunities. Unfair? Maybe.

Each year, a magic wand gets waived over the total universe of PSAT scores, and a list of [large national] scholarship finalists appears. These finalists are invited to compete for a host of benefits ranging from scholarship money to automatic college admission. They’re lauded in the press and labeled as among the most distinguished high school students in the nation. What did they do to earn all this fame and fortune—take one test on one day. And if luck would have it, they happened to live in a state where their selection index—a combination of math, critical reading, and writing scores—happened to be above the cut-off.

The methodology for determining who gets the [large national] scholarship nod is loosely described on the [large national] scholarship website. To begin the process, high school students must take the PSAT in October of their junior year. In the spring after the test, 50,000 high scorers are contacted for program recognition as “commended” or “semifinalist” based on a selectivity index generated by the combined PSAT scores. This year’s national cutoff for recognition was [removed].

High scorers are then notified of their final status in September of senior year. Students who received a score below the semifinalist cutoff specific to their state will be “commended." Those above the cutoff—about 16,000 students—are invited to continue in the competition as semifinalists. Approximately 90% of the semifinalists eventually earn the finalist distinction.

But mysteriously each state has a different cutoff. And these cutoffs vary by year. Using data compiled and confirmed through several online sources, below is a chart listing selectivity indexes for 2010:


Because scholarship money, prestige, and college admissions are at stake, this is a huge deal.

Imagine living in Maryland and scoring 220an outstanding score that would earn semifinalist status in 47 states including neighboring Virginia. All those honors are out the window because of your address. Surely there must be a better way.

*Please note that the scores cited were not "official" from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. They were obtained as a result of research conducted using information freely provided on various public websites.

Jan 25, 2010

Is Getting Into College Harder Than It Was a Decade Ago?

The numbers are overwhelming. Colleges are breaking all application records—sometimes by as much as 42 percent, as in the case of the University of Chicago. But is it really that much more difficult for most students to get into college today than it was a decade ago?

Apparently not, according to a report released by The Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National Schools Board Association. In Chasing the College Acceptance Letter, the Center investigates the chances of an average student getting accepted to a competitive four-year college and found

• Average high school students expecting to go to college earn an overall GPA of 3.1, score 21 on the ACT (SAT equivalent of 980-1010), and pass math and science classes up through Trigonometry and Chemistry.
• Shrinking acceptance rates cited in so many news reports come from a higher number of applications submitted per student.
• The average college applicant today has about the same chance of getting into a “competitive” college as an average applicant a decade ago.
• Having the “right” credentials to get into college is less about posting all A’s, and more about earning “decent” grades, taking college-preparatory courses, and performing well on college entrance exams.
• Taking more rigorous courses, especially in math and science, gives an applicant a better chance of getting into a competitive college than does raising his or her GPA.
• Well-prepared low-income applicants are less likely to get into a competitive college than well-prepared high-income applicants: 66 percent vs. 80 percent.

The report acknowledges that some colleges did get harder to get into, but the vast majority remained the same or even easier. In fact, the rapidly-increasing number of college applications submitted per high school student, as facilitated by online systems, accounts only for an appearance of shrinking acceptances.

Although the number of high school graduates has been steadily increasing until this year, the number of open slots at colleges has gone up at nearly the same rate. Students sending out applications to far more colleges creates the illusion of more applicants, when in reality there are simply more applications.

But how does the average student improve his or her chances of admission? By taking more difficult courses. For example, the report found that average students could increase admissions odds from 69 to 79 percent if they completed Pre-calculus instead of stopping math at Algebra II. It would take a student raising his or her GPA from a 3.1 to a 3.6 to increase the chance of getting into college by this much.

Unfortunately, credential building doesn’t pay off as much for low-income students. Although minority students have a better chance of getting into competitive college than they did ten years ago, low-income college applicants went from having a 72 percent chance of getting admitted to just a 66 percent chance.

So the short answer is no, it’s not more difficult to get into a competitive college today than it was a decade ago. That is, unless you happen to come from a low-income family.

Jan 23, 2010

New Study Underscores Gap between High School Preparation and College Expectations

Not enough is being done to prepare students for the demands of college-level reading according findings recently released from the ACT National Curriculum Survey. In fact, the overall disconnect between high school perceptions of “college-ready” and actual expectations among college instructors is chilling.

The ACT National Curriculum Survey results are based on a sample of 7,680 middle/junior high school teachers, high school teachers, and college instructors in English, writing, math, reading, and science. They not only detail the gap between high school preparation and postsecondary expectations, but also set out specific subject-area knowledge and skills deemed most important for students to learn in order to be ready for college level coursework.

According to the report, high school teachers are substantially more likely than college instructors to believe that high school students are graduating with the reading skills required for success in college. Approximately two-thirds of high school teachers reported that the majority of their students are ready to read at the level needed for college work in their content area, but only about a third of college instructors said the same of their incoming students.

And the disconnect doesn’t end there. A full 71 percent of the high school teachers surveyed reported that state standards, such as those tested through Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) and the Maryland High School Assessments (HSA), prepare students “well” or “very well” for college. Only 28 percent of college instructors agreed. As the pattern of teaching to the test has become the norm, teachers are increasingly required to cover a large number of state learning standards—so many that they don’t have the time to teach all of them adequately. As a result, the report suggests that students may graduate from high school without having mastered the fundamental knowledge and skills that college instructors say students need to succeed in credit-bearing first-year courses.

In other words, despite the millions of dollars spent on standardized testing—state based and college admissions—students are still entering postsecondary institutions unable to do the most basic work required of them. Is it any wonder that colleges are increasingly called upon to remediate shortcomings in high school preparation and only 56 percent of all undergraduates complete their diplomas in six years?

Jan 22, 2010

College Goal Sunday Pairs FREE Tax Preparation Assistance with FAFSA Completion

Maryland is one of only two states in the nation pairing tax preparation services with FAFSA completion through College Goal Sunday. Together with Georgia, Maryland was selected to pilot an innovative program to provide low income families with tax preparation assistance to support FAFSA completion on behalf of college-bound family members.

“This year, College Goal Sunday is partnering with Y USA to ensure that we reach the target populations of low income, first generation, and adult learners,” explained Sharon Hasson, Goucher College Director of Financial Aid. “Two locations will offer Spanish interpretation and two will offer free tax prep with electronic filing provided by the Baltimore CASH Campaign.”

College Goal Sunday is an annual series of events designed to give families the opportunity to speak directly with financial aid professionals and get free help completing forms required by colleges, universities, and private career schools to qualify for scholarships, grants, and loans. In Maryland, seven events are scheduled over six weeks beginning on January 24th at the Calvert Library in Prince Frederick and ending on February 21st at the Prince George’s Sports and Learning Complex.

Tax preparation assistance will be available at Goucher College on January 31st, from 12 to 4 p.m. and at Loyola University on February 7th from 1 to 4 p.m. Spanish translation services will also be available at Goucher as well as at Montgomery College, on February 14th.

To qualify for the free tax service, you must either be a single tax filer making $25,000 or less in 2009 or in a family of 2 or more making $49,000 or less in 2009. You will need to bring tax documents including W-2’s, last year’s return, and all 1099 forms. No corporate or business returns will be done, and tax services will be provided only to those individuals or families completing the FAFSA.

Although event registration is not required, it is strongly recommended. Also, students and least one parent should register in advance for PIN numbers by logging on to http://www.pin.ed.gov/. Everyone needs to bring Social Security numbers, driver’s license (if available), income and tax records, bank and investment statements, and residency documents for noncitizens.

A nonprofit program, College Goal Sunday is funded through grants issued by USA Funds and the Lumina Foundation for Education. More information as well as a complete listing of events scheduled throughout the country may be found on the College Goal Sunday website.

Jan 21, 2010

Yale’s New Admissions Video Strikes a Controversial Chord

Yale hardly needs the promotion, but it’s difficult to resist the campy exuberance of “That’s Why I Chose Yale,” a music video premiered with much fanfare on campus and across the country via YouTube. In her email introducing the “new Admissions rock musical,” Yale Associate Director of Admissions Marcia Landesman said, “We think it is safe to say that there has never been another admissions presentation like it!” Then again, she’s probably never seen “Appalachian State is HOT HOT HOT” or the series of Marshall University TV commercials—other musical college recruitment videos currently making the rounds on YouTube.

But the Yale video is different, for Yale at least. The 16-minute musical foregoes campus stills and student interviews pasted together with acappella renditions of various old school favorites. Instead, viewers are treated to an entire production company of more than 200 students, faculty and staff dancing across library tables and through residence halls. Even NBC’s Brian Williams makes a cameo appearance, clearly avoiding an obvious prompt to sing his lines. Although the net effect is more Bollywood than Ivy, the message is fun and removes any hint of stuffy from the Yale image.

Targeting a generation of high school students weaned on Disney’s High School Musical and MTV, “That’s Why I Chose Yale” does evoke mixed reactions from prospective students, alums, and current undergrads. Armchair critics characterize the production as everything from embarrassing to fabulous. One local undergrad remarked, “It’s 14 minutes too long.” Another viewer called it “cheesy.” But many wonder exactly who the real audience might be. After all, as one prospective student pointed out, “Yale chooses us—not the other way around.”

If the goal was to create “edgy fun buzz” around the internet, then the video has succeeded. At last count, YouTube posted nearly 152,000 hits, including many from staff at local high schools who have been frantically forwarding the link with notes reading, “You have to view this!” And maybe you should.

Jan 20, 2010

UVA Receives Nearly 22,400 Applications for the Class of 2014

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Despite a decline in the expected number of high school graduates in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, applications are once again on the increase at the University of Virginia. Projecting a 3 to 4 percent growth in the total number of applicants for the UVA Class of 2014, Dean of Admission Gregory Roberts speculates that the flood of applications “represents the triumph of economics over demographics.” He goes on to explain that UVA “is an attractive option for recession-strapped families, having been ranked as No. 1 ‘best value’ among public colleges for two straight years by the Princeton Review.”

But beyond looking for value, applicants also appear to be attracted to more practical professions with guaranteed post-graduation employment. The number of students applying to the School of Nursing rose by more than 20 percent, and applications to the School of Engineering and Applied Science went up by about 10 percent. “My informal theory would be that in a bad economy, these are the kinds of jobs that people are drawn to,” explained Theresa Carroll, assistant dean in the UVA School of Nursing.

Among public institutions, UVA represents a great bargain, especially for in-state students. The total cost of attendance for the current freshman class is estimated at $21,140 for Virginians and $43,140 for out-of-state students. The University’s financial aid program, AccessUVa, guarantees student aid packages meeting 100% of demonstrated need—with no loans for students from families whose income is up to 200% of the federal poverty level. For students receiving aid, the average award is $15,840.

In addition to financial advantages, student recruitment was also bolstered by UVA’s continued participation in a traveling road show including admissions representatives from Harvard and Princeton universities. The joint tour attracted huge numbers of high school students and their families throughout the country—1400 participants at a single information session in Washington DC. While UVA’s applications went up by 3 or 4 percent, Harvard’s applicant pool crossed the 30,000 mark for the first time in school history and Princeton experienced a 19 percent bump in applications received.

Once the excitement wears off over the continued popularity of UVA as a ‘best value’ university, hard decisions will have to be made about possibly substantial tuition increases both for residents and out-of-state students. Hopefully this information will be available to prospective freshmen at the same time admissions decisions are posted online in late March.

Jan 19, 2010

More FREE Help Completing Your FAFSA

College Access Fairfax and the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) recently announced dates and locations for 8 Super Saturday workshops during which county families may receive FREE help completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. Similar to programs scheduled by the Virginia Association of Student Financial Aid Advisors (VASFAA) and College Goal Sunday, the Fairfax workshops will begin with a general presentation on financial aid and will include access to computers as well as one-on-one application support.

The first Fairfax workshop is scheduled for January 23rd at Stuart High School in Falls Church, followed by 5 additional sessions at different FCPS high schools on February 6. The final workshops will take place at Herndon High School (February 13) and Falls Church High School (February 20). Spanish translation services will be available at all sites, with Korean translators on-site at Centerville and Lake Braddock.

If you have any questions or need additional information, check the College Access Fairfax website.

Jan 18, 2010

Colleges Are Beginning to Report Record Numbers of Applications for the Class of 2014

The blogosphere is reeling and regular posters to the University of Chicago thread on College Confidential are going nuts—applications to the Windy City’s flagship university are up by an unprecedented 42%. Under the leadership of James Nondorf, Vice President and Dean of College Admissions and Financial Aid, applications have soared to 19,306 an increase of 5,742 over 2009. “Jim Nondorf is an extremely talented and knowledgeable admissions professional,” said Julia Solomon Ensor, a local Yale alum who worked for Nondorf as an undergrad in Yale’s admissions office. “It doesn’t surprise me in the least that he’s breaking all records at Chicago.”

And so far, Chicago isn’t alone. Double-digit increases in applications are being reported all over the country. The number of students competing for spots in the class of 2014 is up by 28 percent for the California State University system, 25 percent at the University of Hawaii Manoa, 21 percent at UC Merced, 20 percent at Brown, 19 percent at Princeton, 18 percent at DePauw (and still counting), and 11 percent at Duke.

Locally, the Baltimore Sun reports that Johns Hopkins experienced a 13 percent increase in regular decision (RD) applications. But even more impressive are numbers posted by Loyola of Maryland and UMBC, which went up by 30 percent and 27 percent respectively.

Other recently-released numbers include:

Harvard: +5%
Dartmouth: +4%
Cal Poly: +12.1%
University of California Santa Barbara: +7.7%
• University of California Davis: +6.5% (transfers +26%)
University of California Santa Cruz: +5.4%
University of California San Diego: +2.3%
Northwestern University: +7%
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: +3%

Stanford University reports receiving more than 32,000 applications for the Class of 2014. The Admissions Office estimates this represents and increase of between 4 percent and 5 percent over last year.

Although final numbers have not been released by other area colleges, early admissions figures suggest the trend may continue. Early Decision applications were up by 46 percent at American University, 24 percent at George Washington, 15 percent at the College of William and Mary, and 10 percent at Johns Hopkins. Nonbinding Early Action (EA) applicants increased by 18 percent at Georgetown and by 13 percent at Howard University.

As of December 1st, applications filed through the Common Application system were up by 24 percent over the same time last year. Could this have been a sign of things to come?

Jan 17, 2010

Inconsistent Financial Aid Deadlines Can Be Confusing

If you've applied to Brown, Dartmouth, or Harvard, you have about two more weeks to complete both the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE* to meet deadlines posted on their websites. If you’re applying to Princeton or want to study nursing at Penn, you really should have submitted financial aid materials by January 15th!

A quick look at local financial aid deadlines suggests that private colleges and universities press applicants to file documents several weeks earlier than public institutions, which often are guided by state requirements. Georgetown and GW list February 1st as deadlines for both the PROFILE and the FAFSA, while AU, Catholic, Howard, Richmond, Goucher, and Hood are willing to wait until February 15th. The University of Maryland and the College of William and Mary also want FAFSA’s by the 15th.

And then there’s the Ivy League. With logic that only a financial aid officer could explain, the Ivies manage to establish a range of deadlines that goes from the first day of November for some Early Decision (ED) applicants to as late as May 15—Yale appears to be in no hurry for the FAFSA. While the CSS PROFILE drives the process in most cases, applicants at Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth need to submit FAFSA’s by February 1st.

If you live in the DC area and need help with these forms, you’ll have to go to Prince Frederick, Dundalk, or Baltimore to attend one of only three FREE financial aid workshops scheduled in Maryland before the first of next month or to Falls Church for one in Virginia . Most of Virginia’s Super Saturday events take place on February 6th (College Access Fairfax) or 13th (VASFAA), and the DC College Goal Sunday is set for February 21st—long after the three Ivy deadlines.

The following chart outlines the financial aid deadlines posted for the CSS PROFILE, FAFSA, and relevant institutional applications on each of the Ivy websites:

Institutional Forms

¹Early Decision Applicants
²Preferred submission deadline
³All nursing applicants

The Ivy League does a better job coordinating athletic schedules. But the real moral of the story is: check the individual financial aid deadlines for each school to which you applied if you hope to receive aid.

* The College Scholarship Service Profile is an independent application distributed by the College Board designed to give private member institutions a more detailed look at the finances of college applicants and their families.

Jan 16, 2010

Scholarships Likely to Decline at Private Colleges and Universities

Now that colleges are tallying up applicant numbers and receipts look pretty good so far, the truly difficult task of determining how much financial aid to make available for next year’s freshmen begins. It’s no secret that money will be tight this year, but US News and World Report (USNWR) makes it look like private colleges are going to be exceptionally stingy as a result of decisions made in 2009.

According to USNWR, some financial aid officers believe “they went overboard last year” handing out money to compensate for the obvious drift toward public institutions among more thrifty college applicants. When things looked grim, officials at many private colleges offered “extra-big” scholarships to lots of applicants, just to make sure they had enough incoming freshmen to fill all those brand new dorms and lecture halls built when the economy looked better.

And the strategy worked. So well in fact that dozens of private colleges reported more generous aid offers resulted in large or even record-breaking freshman classes. Among these were the University of Richmond, Johns Hopkins, Roanoke College, and Trinity Washington DC.

But as a result of this maneuvering, 30 percent of private colleges will take in less total tuition dollars this year than last, according to a recent analysis by Moody’s. This decline comes in the face of an average 4.4 percent increase in the sticker price of a private school education, which currently averages about $26,000. In other words, while some students are paying higher prices this year, more students got much bigger scholarships than in previous years.

It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to figure that this kind of a strategy can’t last. The 30 percent of colleges that were so generous with scholarships that their revenues declined will have to tighten up aid for the next batch of freshmen. And as the economy improves, financial aid officers want to believe that families really can afford more than they estimated last year.

This means that many of this year’s applicants, especially those who don’t have the grades, test scores or special talents to make themselves especially competitive might have to spend a little more to attend private colleges. It also suggests that full pay candidates may become even more attractive to admissions.

Jan 15, 2010

Innovative Early Admissions Campaigns May Result in More time to Decide

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (subscription may be required) that colleges are experimenting with ways of evaluating applicants sooner and giving them early, nonbinding admissions offers. These strategies include encouraging rising high school seniors to apply during the summer, creating multiple early deadlines, and sending fast-track applications with basic information already filled in on the form.

In the old days, students were given two basic early admissions options. The student could apply Early Action (EA) and receive a nonbinding offer of admission some time before January of senior year. Or, the student could apply Early Decision (ED) and receive a binding offer of admission also before the New Year. Variations on the theme evolved, but the dividing line was essentially between binding and nonbinding.

While largely remaining in the nonbinding camp, the new early admissions campaigns are having an impact on the traditional admissions calendar. Conventional wisdom among college counselors suggests that these innovations may not always be such a good idea as they can produce additional pressure on already anxious high school seniors. Others argue that “[s]uch policies allow colleges and families alike to hedge their bets” by providing lots of time to weigh various college offers. And this is clearly what many students and families want.

Locally, Christopher Newport University sent out thousands of “VIP” applications to area high school seniors. The applications came with basic information filled in, an assurance of immediate review, a suggestion of admissions advantage, and a waiver of application fees. In a similar recruitment campaign, Roanoke College sent applications over the summer and encouraged students to apply by July 15th under their nonbinding EA program.

Prior to January 1st this year, students with whom I worked had nonbinding acceptances and scholarship offers from colleges in virtually every corner of the country. They benefitted from rolling admissions, VIP applications, and a variety of innovative admissions offers. While the colleges would prefer to seal the deal as soon as possible, in reality these early offers give colleges and interested students more time to communicate and get to know one another before final decisions are made.

Because no college can force a student to make an enrollment decision before May 1st of their senior year, students have lots of time to visit, meet with current students, or otherwise learn about the schools to which they will commit the next four or five years and many thousands of dollars. And all of this for the price of getting organized and submitting paperwork early.

While these early admissions programs don’t benefit every student and care must be taken to ensure that decisions are not pressured, there are advantages to knowing college options exist early in senior year. If the extra time is used wisely, more informed enrollment decisions may follow.

Jan 12, 2010

Virginia’s Public Institutions Once Again Named ‘Best Value’

The Commonwealth is on a roll! Earlier this month, Virginia’s colleges and universities made an impressive showing on Kiplinger's Best Values in Public Colleges for 2010, with 6 schools named among the top 100 in the nation. This morning, the TODAY Show and USA Today debuted the Princeton Review Best Value Colleges for 2010, and for the second year in a row, the University of Virginia topped the public college list followed by Virginia Tech, the College of William and Mary, James Madison University, and the University of Mary Washington.

Across the Potomac, the State of Maryland was also represented on the Princeton Review list. Salisbury University, St. Mary’s of Maryland, and the Naval Academy earned places among the top 50 in the nation.

Area private colleges did less well in the ranking. The only local schools appearing among the 50 Best Value Private Colleges were Sweet Briar College and the University of Richmond. Once again, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania topped the 10 Best Value Private Colleges, with Harvard University and Weslyan College of Macon, Georgia, coming in at two and three respectively.

The Princeton Review selected its 100 “best value” institutions—50 public universities and 50 private colleges—based on surveys of administrators and students at more than 650 institutions. Selection criteria covered academics, costs, and financial aid. “[T]he economic crisis and financial downturn have presented sobering challenges both to families struggling to afford college and to higher education institutions struggling to maintain their programs in the face of budget and funding shortfalls” said Robert Franek publisher of the Princeton Review. “We are pleased to partner with USA Today to present these schools for all they are doing to provide outstanding academics at a relatively low cost of attendance and/or generous financial aid.”

Tuition, fees, and room and board at four-year public institutions jumped 46 percent, from an average of $10,440 in 2000 to $15,210 last year, according to the College Board, which tracks costs. For private four-year institutions, costs rose by 28 percent during the same period. But to counter these increases, “Best Value” colleges provided on average $875 more in grant money per student this year over last. Nine schools on the list don’t even charge tuition, including the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

For UVA, the total cost of attendance for in-state students is approximately $19,112 and $41,112 for nonresidents. Need-based aid distributed to undergrads rose from $37 million in 2003-04 to $59.1 million last year, and 1250 entering students received these funds, according to USA Today. The average student got $9673 in need-based grants and graduated about $19,016 in debt.

Jan 9, 2010

College Rivalry Plays Out in Local Chess Championship

As reported earlier, college rivalries come in all shapes and forms. The more traditional football or basketball rivalries are celebrated events attracting huge national audiences. Other rivalries might be less visible, but are competed just as fiercely on fields of play appropriate to the sport.

One such rivalry, while not as long-standing as The Game between Harvard and Yale, is the chess duel between the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and the University of Texas—Dallas (UTD). Capping a near flawless performance over four days of competition play, the UMBC chess team recently captured first place at the Pan American Intercollegiate Championships held at South Padre Island, Texas, soundly beating both UTD and the University of Texas—Brownsville for possibly the biggest win in team history.

Earning bragging rights as champions in the “World Series of College Chess,” the UMBC Retrievers placed ahead of 27 other teams including Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and NYU. “This may be the greatest chess accomplishment for UMBC because it came against the strongest competitive field ever assembled on college chess,” said Alan Sherman, director and founder of the UMBC chess program and associate professor of computer science.

UMBC has now won or tied a record nine Pan-Am titles and is among the best college teams in the country. UTD challenged in the past, winning the championship in 2007 and 2008.

Members of the team include Leonid Kritz ’12 and Sergey Erenburg ’11, who are both grandmasters, and Giorgi Margvelashvili ’12, Sasha Kaplan ’11, and Sabina Foiser ’12. Many players attend UMBC on chess scholarships—up to full tuition plus a housing stipend. They play at least two hours per day in mentally challenging workouts and yet maintain very impressive GPA’s.

In 2008, UMBC got swept into its first-ever run to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But that was nothing compared to the crushing chess victory over rival UTD, at a school where “chess is king” and "Retrievers are believers."