Apr 30, 2010

Double-Depositing: A Victimless Crime?

A few years ago, the New York Times related how officials at Allegheny College were surprised to receive a commitment letter from a high school senior enclosing a check for $500 made out to … Lawrence University. Succumbing to hedge-your-bets syndrome, a conflicted young man hoped to purchase extra time by sending non-refundable deposits to two different institutions.

The schools conferred and decided to be merciful. Instead of revoking admission, they gave the boy 24 hours to decide between schools. And he did.

Colleges are not usually so understanding. Acknowledging that decisions are tough, the admissions “system” settled on a May 1st “Candidates’ Reply Date,” supported by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). To put some teeth in the rule, colleges have the right to revoke admissions for anyone not responding or anyone choosing to send multiple deposits.

Unfortunately, those with disposable cash and who can’t bring themselves to decide, occasionally circumvent the system by sending more than one check. But instead of making this a truly costly decision—like submitting binding offers on a couple of houses—colleges elected to turn the issue into a matter of ethics. Parents, students, counselors, and anyone involved in the process are advised that it is unethical to engage in double-depositing. So the wealthy and unethical among us may weigh consequences and the likelihood of being caught before dropping more than one check in the mail.

While seemingly arbitrary, the May 1st deadline does make some sense. First, it’s a trade-off. The system agrees not to pressure you for a decision before that date, but expects you’ll be ready to commit unconditionally when it’s time. Yes, some colleges fudge this agreement by offering housing or other incentives to sign-up early, but most live by the arrangement.

And double-depositing clogs the system. As frustrating as waitlists may be, they exist for a reason. Once you give up a position at a college, the institution may offer it to someone else. If you’re holding on to several reservations, the system gets backed up and beds potentially remain unfilled in the fall. At this point, ethics give way to very real business outcomes that result from the practice.

Taking a less popular position on the matter, George Mason University dean of admissions Andrew Flagel proposes, “[Double-depositing] isn’t unethical, it’s a purchasing decision.” He goes on to suggest a system that “embraces” the practice by encouraging honesty. How novel.

But really by May 1st, it’s time to move on. Waitlists and outstanding financial aid questions aside (these are the only grounds on which to ask for an extension), you’ve had months to think things over. Prolonging the decision-making process isn’t going to make the outcome better, only more stressful. And by the way, guidance counselors are the final gatekeepers in the process. It’s unethical for them to send final transcripts to more than one college or university on your behalf.

So congratulations on all you’ve accomplished, it’s time to decide!

Apr 28, 2010

Virginia Private College Week Offers the Opportunity to ‘Tour Schools and Save’

Mark your calendars. The Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia (CICV) announced that Virginia Private College Week is scheduled to run this summer from July 26 to 31 and will once again offer college-bound students the opportunity to tour schools and save.

Thanks to some creative thinking, CICV launched an incentive program designed to bring high school students and their families to Virginia’s private college campuses by giving away application fee waivers. Literally hundreds of students take advantage of the offer each year as groups of families drive from campus to campus on summer vacations that double as traditional college tours.

It works this way:

1. Decide which schools you want to visit. There are 25 from which to choose, and they are located in virtually every corner of scenic Virginia.
2. Register for tours at each of the schools you plan to visit. Yes, register. It’s not required, but it really helps the schools plan for materials and tour guides.
3. Pick up a passport at the first college. It’s cute—a little like Disney’s EPCOT.
4. At the conclusion of your tour, get the passport stamped.
5. Once you accumulate at least three stamps, mail the passport to CICV, 118 East Main Street, Bedford, VA 24523.

Bingo! You’ve won three application fee waivers for any of the Virginia private colleges, and not necessarily the ones you visited. If you have questions, you can call 540.586.0606 or visit the Virginia Private College Week website.

By the way, Virginia’s private institutions often get overshadowed by our strong public colleges and universities. I encourage you to take a closer look, as these schools offer wonderful opportunities for students with a variety of college criteria and interests. Much more information, including a very useful listing of colleges by majors, may be found on the CICV website.

Finally, I want to remind Virginia residents about the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG). This amazing program offers financial awards to students attending any of Virginia’s private colleges or universities. The sole eligibility requirement is that you live in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It’s really pretty sweet.

Apr 27, 2010

UVa, Virginia Tech Announce Tuition Increases While William & Mary Keeps Mum

Responding to continuing reductions in state support for higher education, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech have announced increases in tuition for the 2010-11 academic year. Possibly subject to minor tinkering from their respective Boards of Visitors, proposed fee schedules suggest significant increases in the total cost of attendance for in-state and out-of-state students at both institutions.

As part of an agenda largely devoted to school finances, the UVa Board of Visitors will be considering a 9.9 percent tuition hike for in-state students, keeping just below a previously predicted double-digit increase. Out-of-state students will be asked to pay an additional 6 percent, or $1,902 per academic year, bringing total tuition and fees to $33,574.

On top of tuition, UVa housing costs are expected to go up 4.9 percent for many student residences making the average rate of a double room $4,732 or $222 more than this year. According to a Finance Committee report, the increase will offset rising operating costs and help fund ongoing residence hall renovations. With tuition, fees, room and board as well as a 3.5 percent increase in meal plans, UVa’s total in-state cost of attendance will inch perilously close to the magic $20,000 per year mark.

In Blacksburg, Tech’s in-state undergrads will also pay nearly 10 percent more in tuition and fees, going from $8,735 to $9,589. The cost for out-of-state students will go up 6 percent, to $23,217 from $21,878. On-campus room and board will rise by 8 percent.

As state support has fallen off, both universities have increasingly turned to higher tuition and fees to make up the difference. UVa’s state allocation has been cut four times by a total of $36.8 million, or 25 percent, including a mid-year reduction of $4.7 million in the current fiscal year. To compensate, undergraduate tuition and fees have gone up about 84 percent and out-of-state tuition has increased by 44 percent, when adjusted for inflation.

UVa and Tech join other Virginia public institutions announcing tuition rate increases. Earlier in the month, Longwood and James Madison approved in-state rate changes amounting to 8.9 percent and 6.7 percent respectively. Old Dominion University will be increasing tuition and fees by 5.3 percent for Virginia students and 7 percent for those coming in from out-of-state. And in a recent announcement, Christopher Newport University will be going up by a hefty 12.1 percent for in-state students.

With the highest total in-state cost of attendance among Virginia’s public institutions, the College of William and Mary continues to remain silent about next year’s tuition. Announcements are expected in time for the Board of Visitors meeting scheduled for May 15, but not in time for the May 1st deadline by which admitted students must commit to attend.

Apr 26, 2010

Top Undergrad Programs for Video Game Design

Nothing sells like a ranking. And now, Princeton Review and GamePro Magazine have come up with a ranking of the “Top 50 Undergraduate Game Design Programs,” for prospective designers or those who dream about playing games for a living.

Formerly consigned to a far corner of the computer science department, game design has emerged as a highly respectable, multi-disciplinary course of study. Schools hoping to get in on the growing market for video designers are building glitzy new facilities chock full of cutting edge technology staffed with experts from industry.

Princeton Review got interested in the field after collaborating with game developer Ubisoft on the My SAT Coach game for Nintendo DS and the subsequent release of test-prep apps for the iPhone. “For students aspiring to work in the rapidly growing field of game design and the companies that will need their creative talents, we hope this list brings many wonderful candidates to these programs,” said Robert Franek, Princeton Review SVP/Publisher.

About 700 schools in the US and Canada were considered for the ranking. Of those, 500 were surveyed on academics (courses and skills fostered), faculty credentials, and graduates’ employment and career achievements. Schools were judged by the quality of curriculum, faculty, facilities and infrastructure. In addition, Princeton Review considered data on the availability of scholarships, financial aid, and job placement.

Eight of the fifty programs were deemed “best of the best” and ranked as follows:

1. University of Southern California, Interactive Media Division
2. DigiPen Institute of Technology, WA
3. Drexel University, Digital Media & Computer Science, PA
4. Becker College, Game Design and Game Programming, MA
5. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Games and Simulation Arts & Sciences, NY
6. The Art Institute of Vancouver, Game Art & Design/Visual & Games Programming
7. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Interactive Media & Game Development, MA
8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, GAMBIT Game Lab, MA

The other 42 recommended game design programs are listed alphabetically and may be found on the Princeton Review website. Local programs making it onto the list include Lynchburg College, VA, Old Dominion University, VA, and University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), MD.

Apr 24, 2010

Colleges with ‘No Loan’ Financial Aid Packages

When Williams and Dartmouth announced they were retreating from earlier “no-loan” financial aid pledges, a chill went through the air. Would other colleges follow suit? If so, what would be the impact on low- and moderate-income families hoping to avoid the treacherous student loan pit?

The good news, as reported by the Project on Student Debt, is that 50 other colleges with policies to limit or eliminate loans in student aid packages foresee no major policy changes over the next two academic years.

“We found that both public and private colleges are sticking with their commitments to capping student debt despite the tough economy,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, sponsor of the Project on Student Debt. “With students and families worried about how much they’ll have to borrow to get through, these strong, clear financial aid pledges send an important message that college can still be affordable.”

While generous programs at Ivy League and other big-name private schools have received greater publicity, the Project’s list includes pledges from 17 public institutions including Appalachian State University, North Carolina State, the University of Florida, and the University of Louisville. Liberal arts colleges on the list include Bowdoin, Colby, Davidson, Lafayette, and Lehigh.

Although several colleges plan to raise summer work expectations for students, increase work-study limits, or make other “relatively small” adjustments to their financial aid pledges, only Williams and Dartmouth reported major changes. Both colleges will continue to eliminate loans for low-income students, while capping—but not eliminating—loans for students with incomes above stated thresholds.

Locally, three universities pledged to maintain policies limiting student loans:

College of William and Mary: For Virginia residents with family incomes below $40,000, after the family meets any Expected Family Contribution (EFC), Gateway William and Mary covers the remaining student budget with grant aid.

University of Maryland, College Park: For students with an EFC of zero, the Maryland Pathways program covers the entire student budget with work-study and grant aid. For all seniors who have accumulated $15,900 or more in need-based loans, after the family meets any EFC, the program covers the remaining senior year budget with work-study and grant aid.

University of Virginia: For students with family incomes below 200% of the poverty level, after the family meets any EFC, the Access UVA program covers the remaining student budget with work-study and grant aid. For all other students, after the family has met any EFC and has need-based loans totaling $23,000 over four years, the program takes care of the remaining student budget with work-study and grant aid.

For more information on other schools with no-loan pledges, visit the Project on Student Debt website.

Apr 23, 2010

Freshman Retention turns out to be Key to the ‘100 Happiest Colleges’

My son was fortunate enough to be admitted to two wonderful colleges of equal academic distinction. One was located in the northeast, and the other in northern California. As he summed it up, we were looking at “snow and ice or palm trees and breezes.” He opted for the latter.

So it’s not surprising to me that weather and hours of sunlight would be key factors in the Daily Beast’s recent review of the '100 Happiest Colleges,' and that six of the top ten would be located in sunny California. But if weather counts, how did Harvard and Yale rank so highly—also in the top ten?

It turns out that 71 of the top 75 “happiest” colleges had freshman retention rates of at least 90 percent (the other four schools were in very warm and sunny places). While several variables figured into the equation, only one factor appeared relatively consistent among top scorers—freshman retention or the percent of first year students who return for a second year at the same institution.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of freshman retention in the college selection process. Often overlooked in favor of more familiar ranking information, freshman retention rates speak volumes about institutional ability to engage students. And absent other considerations, unhappy students generally don’t tend to stick around.

You can find freshman retention rates by school at the federal College Navigator. Type in any institution and follow the links to retention and graduation rates. If the number is low, feel free to ask hard questions and see what the school is doing to improve.

But back to the Daily Beast’s '100 Happiest Colleges.' While the ranking is more curiosity than meaningful assessment, the criteria used to evaluate institutions might be relevant to your college search:

• Campus housing (Source: College Prowler)
• Nightlife (College Prowler)
• Graduate indebtedness (U.S. News & World Report)
• Freshman retention rate (U.S. News & World Report)
• Campus dining (College Prowler)
• Number of student clubs and organizations (U.S. News & World Report)
• Daylight hours that are sunny (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration)

Several local colleges and universities scored well in these categories and made it onto the top 100 list including the University of Richmond (45), UVa (48), the College of William and Mary (51), Washington and Lee University (59), Johns Hopkins (71), Virginia Tech (73), and Georgetown (84). Note that all of these schools have freshman retention rates of 90 percent or more.

To view the entire list of the “100 Happiest Colleges,” go to the Daily Beast website.

Apr 21, 2010

Tuition Freeze Ends for Maryland Public Universities

At the University of Maryland, seniors are paying exactly the same amount of tuition they paid four years ago as incoming freshman. Thanks to a state-mandated tuition freeze, students across the 11-campus Maryland public university system have enjoyed a financial break that undergrads in Virginia could only dream about.

But the party’s over. Regents at the University of Maryland recently approved a 3 percent tuition increase for the first time in four years, ending the freeze for both resident and nonresident students studying in the Free State’s public institutions.

At the University of Maryland, in-state tuition, with an extra push from required fees, will rise from $8053 to $8416, or by 4.5 percent. Out-of-state students will pay $24,831 or 3.5 percent more next fall for the same education. Bowie State’s resident tuition with fees will increase from $6040 to $6153 or a modest 1.9 percent, while Towson’s total will go up to $7656, or 3.4 percent. Maryland’s “honor university,” the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) will also increase by 3.4 percent from $8872 to $9171.

The tuition thaw comes just as University of Maryland President C.D. Mote retires from the College Park office he has held since 1998. He leaves the campus with a stronger academic reputation and greater national respect, resulting in an incoming freshman class boasting of the highest SAT’s and grade point averages ever.

In 2005, Maryland’s public universities were considered a little on the pricey side, ranking 8th in the nation for total cost. Since Governor Martin O’Malley announced his intention to bring Maryland more toward the “middle of the road” in affordability, state schools have dropped to number 17 in overall expense, according to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing.

Across the Potomac, Virginia students are mostly waiting to hear what will happen with tuition for the next academic year. As the May 1st sign-up date approaches for prospective freshmen, UVa, the College of William and Mary, and Virginia Tech—to name a few—still haven’t made formal tuition announcements for the 2010-11 year. All signs point to increase. It’s just a matter of by how much.

Apr 20, 2010

Students in China among the Most Stressed in the World

Blogging from China

BEIJING—China’s senior high school students suffer a far greater rate of “high or comparatively high stress” than students in other major industrialized nations, according to a survey conducted by the China Youth and Research Center in cooperation with corresponding international organizations.

More than 86 percent of Chinese high school students feel under high stress, compared with 69 percent in Japan, 74.8 percent in the Republic of Korea, and 61.7 percent in the United States. According to China Daily, the poll found that top causes of stress in China were parents’ expectations, followed by “the students themselves.”

The number of high school students competing for spots in China’s limited university system no doubt contributes greatly to academic stress. More than half of the Chinese respondents claimed pressure came from competition among students. Only about 20 percent of the students from the other three countries were as concerned about peers.

And this competition is taken seriously. Between classwork and after school activities, Beijing students study an average of 12.7 hours per day, according to a report from the Institute of Social Sciences at Peking University. The numbers were 12.4 hours per day in Shanghai and 11.4 hours in Guangdong.

Also, China’s national college entrance exam, or the “gaokao” (tall test) is a “major event” in the lives of high school students hoping to pursue higher education. About 10 million compete annually for the highest scores to secure one of 5.7 million openings—and the test is currently the sole criteria for admissions.

To address the problem, the Chinese government is considering various reforms of the country’s educational system both to raise standards and provide more opportunity. Sun Xiaobin, a senior official with the Ministry of Education, explained in an interview with China Daily that proposed reforms should ease pressure, as test results will be “paired” with student interviews and an evaluation of the student’s high school performance as a part of the overall criteria for university admissions.

To see how well you might fare on the 'gaokao,' try some sample questions provided by Danwei or the WideAngle blog.

Apr 19, 2010

Families in China Obsess Over Educational Opportunity and the Future

Blogging from China

SHANGHAI—In an interesting twist on “over scheduled” child syndrome, millions of struggling Chinese parents have become “slaves to their children,” (hai nu) obsessively saving and sacrificing to provide enrichment opportunities not unlike those stealing every free after-school minute from children in US households. Hoping to gain an edge on the competition, Chinese parents arrange for a mind-boggling array of pricey lessons from English language tutoring to swimming, chess, music, gymnastics, and table tennis—all beginning early in the pre-school years.

“My son is fourteen months old,” explained Serena, a Chinese tour guide from the Zhejiang Province. “I send him twice per week for private classes to prepare him for school.”

According to a recent report in the Shanghai Daily, Chinese parents are increasingly obsessed with ensuring their children’s success, an issue exacerbated by China’s “one pregnancy” laws effectively limiting mom and dad to a single chance at producing the perfect child. The growing group of “parent slaves” is also driven by China’s high-pressure, test-based education and college admission system.

Taking to the internet to voice their complaints, Chinese parents hope the government will expand educational opportunities and provide relief for the rising cost of raising a child through college. Along these lines, more than 58 percent of adults surveyed in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou called for a “fairer” educational environment. The unbalanced distribution of high-quality educational resources is their top concern.

With a good job and support from both her husband and mother-in-law who watches the baby while she is away on tours, Serena looks forward to a successful future for her son and will work hard to provide it. “Maybe he will come to the US for college,” she concludes. “But that’s many years away.”

Apr 17, 2010

‘Graduation Rates’ Should Be Key Factors in College Selection

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 58 percent.

You might be wondering what the four-year graduation rate must be if only 58 percent of students graduate in six years. Trust me, it’s far worse. And the divide between public and private institutions is really disturbing—50 percent of all private school students graduate in four years while only 29 percent of students attending public institutions graduate in the same period.

Lots of perfectly legitimate reasons can account for taking so long to graduate. Sometimes students want to take advantage of pre-arranged co-operative learning opportunities. Sometimes time spent studying abroad factors in. And often, the delay comes about as a result of a change in major.

Regardless of the reason behind the delay, one thing is for sure. Those extra years are costly, and the ultimate failure to graduate can be devastating.

As is true in nearly every measure of college performance, institutions vary wildly in their graduation rates. Luckily, there is a wonderful website maintained by the Education Trust, College Results Online, that provides college four-, five- and six-year graduation rates.

At College Results Online, you can plug in the name of any school and get immediate feedback on what percent of undergrads manage to graduate within 4, 5, or 6-year timeframes. You can also ask the software to compare any school’s track record with its peers. You don’t even have to know who the peers are—the software will generate a list.

For example, a student considering George Washington University, will see that it posts a four-year graduation rate of 72.6 percent, a five-year graduation rate of 76.8 percent, and a six-year graduation rate of 78.1 percent. Six-year graduation rates among colleges labeled “similar” include:

University of Notre Dame: 95.5%
Georgetown University: 93.4%
University of Virginia: 93.2%
College of William and Mary: 91.5%
Boston College: 91.2%
Villanova University: 87.5%
UNC—Chapel Hill: 82.6%
Boston College: 81.6%
Syracuse University: 81.5%
University of Miami: 76.3%
Tulane University: 76.3%
American University: 73.0%
SMU: 71.1%
Northeastern University: 66.4%

Colleges will complain that graduation rates penalize for transfers “out” but don’t give credit for transfers “in.” This is true. But for my money—and yours, it’s a valid source of comparison among institutions and certainly worth investigating when evaluating different schools.

Apr 16, 2010

Economy Hits College Presidents In the Pocketbook

According to a recent survey conducted by Yaffe & Company, of Towson, Maryland, nearly 60 percent of private college presidents received no increase in compensation last year. About 14 percent had their salaries reduced and 43 percent remained frozen.

The survey tracked salary information for presidents who were in the position last year and this. Colleges providing information were promised confidentiality so no individual salaries were released. Most of the private colleges in the survey, similar to most private institutions in general, did not come with billion-dollar endowments.

An earlier Yaffe survey indicated that two-thirds of independent colleges and universities planned to freeze employee salaries. Among the respondents, 80 percent said the freeze would be imposed across the institution; 15 percent said it would affect only the president and top executives; and 6 percent said only the president’s salary would be capped.

Yet despite general belt-tightening initiatives at many colleges, a notable few presidents received hefty salary increases. About 10 percent reported raises of 7 percent or more.

And university presidents have done quite well over the past few years relative to the economy. Locally, Johns Hopkins University president William Brody made number eight on USA TODAY's list of top ten compensation packages at big non-profits. Earning $1,198,964, Brody came in just behind the presidents of NYU, Columbia, Penn, and Yale.

According to Inside HigherEd, some of last year's larger salary increases came at colleges where a president has finished a first contract of several years, and the board wanted to extend a message of confidence. Evidently, board members are more worried about losing a good president than spending a few additional dollars, even if other budget items receive significant trimming.

Apr 12, 2010

The JSHS Scholarship Competition Goes Live in DC

It’s no secret that colleges and universities are upgrading their efforts to recruit strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) applicants to fill departments hungry for undergrads with research or other lab experience. College-bound high school students would be wise to take the hint and redouble their efforts to explore this great route to college (and significant scholarship money) by investigating opportunities to showcase skills in these areas.

So how should you get started? One way is to see what other students across the country are doing in the way of scientific research. This year, the Junior Science and Humanities Symposia (JSHS) Program is broadcasting student paper presentations on April 30 and May 1, via live video webcast (log on after April 15 for a complete schedule). Finalists from regional competitions will present before panels of judges in a competition that could net them as much as $12,000 and an all-expense paid trip to London.

Long-time Virginia JSHS program director Tom DeVore, chair of the JMU Chemistry Department, encourages high school students to get involved by watching the webcast. “It is an excellent opportunity to see some excellent presentations, get a feel for the competition, and learn something new,” said Dr. DeVore. “I think you will be impressed with the students who have reached this level.”

The JSHS program promotes original research and experimentation in the sciences, engineering and mathematics at the high school level by organizing a series of regional and national symposiums during the academic year at 48 universities located throughout the country and abroad. Literally thousands of students compete in categories including environmental science, life sciences, medicine & health/behavioral sciences, engineering, mathematics & computer sciences, and theoretical physics.

And there is significant money at stake—both at the regional and national levels. Sponsors who support the regional competitions provide scholarships, cash awards, and other prizes in addition to the huge contributions from the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

By the way, teachers can get in on the prizes as well. A $500 award goes each year to one teacher from each of the 48 regions, honoring his or her contributions to advancing student participation in research.

Find out more by visiting the JSHS website, and be sure to set aside time to watch some student paper presentations on April 30 and May 1. I guarantee you will learn something.

Apr 10, 2010

Meet the Colleges That Change Lives

In 1998, native Washingtonian and long-time New York Times reporter Loren Pope had the brilliant idea to promote a lesser-known group of schools he aptly labeled the “Colleges that Change Lives” (CTCL) through an annual book tour. Reaching out to large audiences of enthusiastic high school students and their families, Pope’s tour has evolved into a much-anticipated event featuring all forty CTCL institutions.

This year, the Colleges That Change Lives will visit 25 cities. Students from Maryland, Virginia, and DC are invited to attend the CTCL event taking place on Sunday, May 23, at the Marriott Bethesda Hotel and Conference Center. The next nearest location would be Philadelphia, on Monday, May 24.

Organized as a college fair, each CTCL program begins with a 30-minute panel presentation on completing a college search. CTCL deans and directors share information on campus characteristics and learning components that lead to the most successful college experience. They also challenge students to view college rankings as just one measure of quality among many and encourage a more well-informed college search process—one that could be life changing.

After the panel presentation, the college fair will open. This is your opportunity to pick up information and meet with admission representatives from each of the CTCL colleges and universities. These events tend to be very well attended, so try to set priorities and come prepared with labels (your name, address, phone number, year of graduation, high school, and email address) you can affix to information request cards.

The CTCL events are free and open to the public, and pre-registration is not required. For more information and the complete tour schedule, visit the CTCL website.

Apr 9, 2010

How to Translate Financial Aid Letters

Don’t be alarmed if the financial aid letter you received in your admissions packet is about as understandable as a Chinese roadmap. Financial aid administrators (FAA’s) speak in their own jargon and think little of throwing around acronyms or blurring costs and expenses, which potentially get lost in translation for the novice FA recipient trying to decipher the bottom line.
To show families what they should watch out for in the letters they receive, both US News & World Report (USNWR) and FinancialAidLetter.com posted financial aid “decoders” on their websites. Using real letters from colleges in different regions of the country, experts parsed out meaning and graded each for clarity and content.

Responding to a financial aid letter from Northeastern University, USNWR graders noted that total costs were underestimated and no indication was given as to whether or not awards were “renewable.” Similarly, the letter from Allegheny College underestimated total costs and provided confusing information relative to the need to repay loans while in school.

Closer to home, American University was also called on the carpet for underestimating total Cost of Attendance by about $1600. On the plus side, readers praised American for informing students that they have the option of declining an offered loan.

But even the experts are confused. In a recent interview with USNWR’s Zach Miners, noted financial aid guru Mark Kantrowitz suggests that many financial aid award letters are not entirely upfront about costs and “apples-to-apples” comparisons among institutions may be complicated by omissions in information provided.

“Schools might not be listing the same set of costs,” Kantrowitz suggested. “Some might just be listing tuition and fees; others might be listing the total cost of attendance, which includes room and board, books, transportation costs, and miscellaneous expenses.”

You’d think there would be some uniformity here or at least the myriad oversight organizations involved in the allocation and administration of financial aid might demand it.

It would be nice to believe that FAA’s operate in their own little worlds of dollars and cents, and they don’t intentionally obfuscate the value of awards. Luckily, most are willing to answer questions and if you have some, don’t hesitate to call or email a college’s financial aid office. It’s better to get the explanations now and not be surprised later.

Apr 7, 2010

College 'Yield' Puts New Admits in the Driver's Seat

Many congratulations to all the college-bound high school students currently in the enviable position of sorting through offers of admission. You are now officially in the ‘driver’s seat.’

Yes, you worked hard in high school carefully crafting portfolios boasting of challenging courses, good grades, and significant accomplishments. You volunteered in your community, participated in school activities, and revealed your leadership potential.

You spent years making your case for admission. Now the colleges have one month to make their case for you to accept the invitation. And you should enjoy every minute.

Between now and May 1, colleges will work hard to earn your business. There will be invitations to ‘admit weekends’ and local events designed to get you signed on the dotted line. You will receive emails, brochures, pleading letters in the mail, and phone calls from enthusiastic admissions offices or current undergrads who are deliriously happy with their experience.

A few lucky students will get offers of free trips and will be flown in for a total VIP weekend chocked full of parties, concerts, and all varieties of entertainment solely directed at winning you over.

Why would colleges go to so much effort? The answer lies in the almighty “yield”—the percent of students accepting an offer admission to any institution. It works this way: colleges typically send out many more letters of admission than they expect to be accepted. Those with historically lower yields send out more letters than the more those with established panache like Harvard which has an annual yield hovering around 76 percent.

Yield is important because it is sort of a gauge of popularity—the higher the yield, the more popular the school. This popularity contest feeds certain rankings like USNWR which makes yield a fairly significant factor in its computations.

Colleges try very hard to peg their yield exactly every year because it makes life a whole lot easier. Too high a yield and dorms get overcrowded. Too low and the waitlist may get drained or the incoming class might not be full. Careers ride on yield, and admissions offices don’t want to mess it up. Beyond a popularity measure, yield is a clear indication of admission office skill in predicting numbers and match between institution and the individual student.

USNWR has used its access to Common Data Set information to generate lists of college yields ranked from highest to lowest. The following is a summary of the highest yields posted by liberal arts colleges and universities across the country last year:

US Naval Academy: 83%
US Military Academy: 79%
Brigham Young University—Provo: 78%
Harvard University: 76%
Stanford University: 71%
University of Nebraska—Lincoln: 69%
Yale University: 68%
Thomas Aquinas College: 68%
Yeshiva University: 67%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 66%

Local colleges and universities have mixed results:

University of Virginia: 48%
Virginia Military Institute: 48%
Georgetown University: 45%
Washington & Lee University: 42%
Virginia Tech: 40%
University of Maryland—College Park: 36%
College of William and Mary: 35%
George Washington University: 34%
St. Mary’s College of Maryland: 32%
Howard University: 31%
Johns Hopkins University: 30%
Catholic University: 22%
American University: 19%

Apr 5, 2010

Two Virginia Public Universities Announce Tuition Increases for 2010-11

Over the past week, two of Virginia’s public universities announced tuition increases for the 2010-11 academic year. Responding to state reductions in funding for public education, both James Madison University (JMU) and Longwood University will be asking students to chip in a little more for the coming year.

According to a press release from Longwood, total costs (tuition, fees, room and board) will go up by an average of 7.98 percent for in-state undergraduates living on campus and by 10.07 percent for out-of-state students. Compared with last year, total costs for in-state students will increase from $16,641 to $17,969. Costs for out-of-state students living on campus will go from $26,136 to $28,769.

“As a student, you expect to have a certain level of education, a certain number of professors, certain class sizes. We are trying to maintain that the best way we can,” explained Longwood vice president for administration and finance Kathy Worster. “We look at our total costs and the sources of revenue we have and see if there is a gap. That’s what causes an increase.”

Longwood was the first Virginia public institution to announce a tuition increase for next year. James Madison followed a couple of days later by voting to raise in-state undergraduate tuition and fees by 6.7 percent.

For the coming academic year, JMU’s Virginia residents will pay $7860, up from $7364. But unlike Longwood, JMU has elected to impose smaller percent increase on students attending from other states. For 2010-11, JMU’s out-of-state students will see their tuition bills increased by about 5.7 percent, or to $28,324, including room and board.

Undergrads at other Virginia public institutions expect to see similar announcements over the next few weeks. For now, the bigger names are taking a "wait and see" position allowing others to set the standard.

Apr 4, 2010

The Colleges of the Southeastern Conference Come to Town

The Southeastern Conference (SEC) is not only one of the most formidable football recruitment machines in the nation, but these twelve schools are also powerhouse recruiters of local high school students drawing hundreds of applicants from Maryland, Virginia, and DC to their beautiful campuses.

This year the SEC is coming to Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia, on Wednesday, April 7, and the Waterford at Fair Oaks Mall on April 8. Each of the schools is scheduled to make a presentation and each will have representatives available to meet individually with students seeking more information, including seniors who haven’t quite made up their minds.

To get up to speed on the SEC, it might be helpful to know a little about the individual schools. Here is what the schools say about themselves on the SEC website (statistics are from the common data set information provided by each school):

University of Alabama: For three consecutive years, US News & World Report has named this school one of the ‘top’ public universities in the nation.
Size: 22,046 undergrads
SAT/ACT: 990-1210/21-27
Out-of-State: 37%

University of Arkansas: Funded research has grown dramatically, with Arkansas’ faculty winning major research grants from the nation’s most competitive programs.
Size: 14,861
SAT/ACT: 1020-1270/23-28
Out-of-State: 36%

Auburn University: Auburn has had a nearly $4 billion economic impact on the State of Alabama.
Size: 20,031
SAT/ACT: 1070-1270/23-28
Out-of-State: 43%

University of Florida: Florida is the only school in the nation to finish in the top 10 in national all-sports rankings every year since 1983-84.
Size: 34,094
SAT/ACT: 1160-1380/25-30
Out-of-State: 3%

University of Georgia: The Wall Street Journal includes UGA among 16 “Hot Schools” that are drawing increased attention from students and families because of cost, safety, and academics.
Size: 25,150
SAT/ACT: 1130-1320/24-29
Out-of-State: 16%

University of Kentucky: UK academic programs boast 80 national rankings for quality of education and the school is one of only a few universities in the country with a teaching and research campus and a medical center in one central location.
Size: 18,591
SAT/ACT: 1000-1250/22-27
Out-of-State: 20%

Louisiana State University: LSU is designated as a Research 1 University—the “top” category of the Carnegie Foundation’s ranking of research institutions.
Size: 23,057
SAT/ACT: 1070-1280/23-28
Out-of-State: 21%

Mississippi State University: Mississippi State is home to one of the ‘top’ 20 supercomputing sites among American universities.
Size: 13,204
SAT/ACT: 970-1270/20-27
Out-of-State: 25%

University of South Carolina: USC’s undergraduate international business program is one of the ‘top’ ranked programs in the country according to USNWR.
Size: 19,458
SAT/ACT: 1090-1290/24-28
Out-of-State: 38%

University of Tennessee: UT is the oldest and largest public higher education institution in the state, tracing its beginnings to the founding of Blount College in Knoxville in 1794.
Size: 21,378
SAT/ACT: 1070-1270/24-29
Out-of-State: 13%

Vanderbilt University: In two decades, Vanderbilt has put more than $762 million toward renovation and construction on its campus, including the addition of state-of-the-art buildings for psychology, chemistry, and music, among others.
Size: 6,598
SAT/ACT: 1330-1500/30-33
Out-of-State: 84%

Apr 2, 2010

Ivy League Admissions Results Crash College Confidential

Unless my computer was playing some serious games with me yesterday afternoon, the College Confidential discussion board crashed under the weight of all the Ivy League admissions results that came flooding in.

The official explanation, while less direct, suggests I was right. “We’re still sorting out what happened, but it looks like a key part of our hardware infrastructure failed at the most inopportune moment,” said Roger Dooley, CC website administrator. “This is unprecedented in our 9 years of operation. We apologize for letting you down at this critical time.”

If you’re not in the business, you may not know about the tradition of posting admissions results within specific college or university “threads” on College Confidential. In fact, there’s a prescribed format that breaks into five general areas:

Decision: accepted, waitlisted, rejected
Objective (data): scores, awards, courseload
Subjective (data): extracurriculars, essays, recommendations, interview
Other: state, country, school type, ethnicity, gender, income, hooks
Reflection: strength, weakness, where else accepted

Thoughtful posters even include a description, if relevant, of the envelope and the date and time it arrived in a specific geographic area.

This year, the big day for results coincided with April Fool’s Day, which isn’t all that unusual for the Ivies. But the irony was not lost on the thousands of high school students desperately trying to log on to compare outcomes with others entered in the Ivy sweepstakes.

Even before the crash, results were looking grim. Over the weekend, Georgetown, which has stuck to the traditional snail mail operation, reported applications from 18,100 students, 3400 or 19 percent of whom received a green light to join a projected class of 1580.

UVa received 22,516 applications and admitted a scant 31 percent. Stanford and MIT admitted 7.2 percent and 9.7 percent respectively. While Duke’s applications went up by 12 percent, acceptances dropped to an all-time low of 15 percent. And with a 42 percent increase in applications, the University of Chicago reported that acceptances dropped from 27 percent last year to 18 percent for the class of 2014.

But the news that shut down College Confidential, no doubt involved the Ivy League. For the first time, Harvard applications numbered over 30,000 and acceptances dropped to 6.9 percent or only 2110 students for an incoming class of about 1660.

Yale accepted 7.5 percent or 1940 applicants out of 25,869 applicants and issued waitlist invitations to 932 students. Brown accepted 9.3 percent of 30,136 applicants, while Penn and Dartmouth accepted 14.2 percent and 11.5 percent respectively. And in New York, Columbia admitted 9.2 percent and Cornell admitted 18.4 percent of their applicants.

College Confidential slowly limped back on line throughout the evening. Responding to the official CC apology for technical problems, one student remarked, “Yeah man, don’t worry about it. [Two] hours is nothing compared to the 2 years CC has helped me!”

Apr 1, 2010

April Fool’s Day Is Alive and Well on College Campuses

Undergrads love a good joke. Here are some headlines appearing in student publications this April Fool’s Day :

The Diamondback, University of Maryland: “Panda to be university’s new mascot”
NYUNews.com, New York University: “NYU buys Columbia, eats Harvard University”
GW Hatchet, George Washington University, “'24' star takes over as chief of police”
YES Weekly, High Point University: “High Point to get new downtown stadium, major league baseball team”
Technique, Georgia Institute of Technology: “No more letter T”

But the best joke of all comes from a few Johns Hopkins administrators with way too much time on their hands. According to a report featured on their home page, Johns Hopkins University officially announced a name change to “John Hopkins” thereby eliminating the superfluous “s,” which has evidently tripped up more than one college applicant. University president Ronald J. Daniel comments, “We’re fighting a losing battle here. And we strongly suspect the extra ‘s’ was a typo in the first place.”

Enjoy the day!