Oct 30, 2010

What’s Scary about Stanford—Halloween Tales Retold in Honor of the Season

Admittedly the 7.2 percent admit rate can be pretty frightening, and the new random application audits may be cause for alarm.

But what’s really scary about Stanford may be the ghostly tales surrounding the university’s founding and some of the little-known secrets locked in structures located far from paths traced by campus tour guides.

To celebrate the holiday, I offer a few of the university’s tales from the dark side.

Communications from the ‘Other World’
A seldom-told tale suggests that the founding of Stanford University may have been the result of communications from the “other” world. Shortly after the tragic death of their only child, Leland Junior, Jane and Leland Stanford traveled to New York and Paris for a series of séances.

According to Maud Lord Drake, who attended one of the séances, the idea for creating a university came directly from Leland Jr. in a spirit communication channeled through her to his parents. Responding to published accounts of the event, Leland Stanford vehemently denied this ever happened and insisted the idea for Stanford University came to him in a “dream.”

However true either story may be, it’s clear that Jane Stanford suffered her son’s death greatly and continued trying over the years to make contact with him via the “netherworld.” A grieving mother on a mission, Mrs. Stanford threw herself into the construction of the university that was to honor her son’s memory and supervised every detail down to designing the stained glass window found in Memorial Church, illustrating Leland’s rise to heaven in the arms of angels.

Sometime in 1893, Mrs. Stanford had her son exhumed from his original resting place and moved to a grand marble and granite mausoleum located elsewhere on campus. Both the mausoleum and the nearby university museum are said to be haunted by Mrs. Stanford’s restless spirit which regularly visits the toys and other family mementoes housed in the museum.

A Missing Memorial
For over 100 years, a marble memorial stood sentry over the spot where Leland Jr. was originally buried. Carved on its face are lines selected by Jane Stanford from a poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans that reads in part, “Yes, it is haunted this quiet scene, fair as it looks and all softly green…”

In 2000, the tablet disappeared to make way for the university’s Sand Hill Road development. To avoid disturbing senior citizens residing in the community, Stanford quietly relocated the memorial some distance away from the site of the small mausoleum that held Leland Jr.’s remains until they were exhumed and moved to the much grander family mausoleum in 1893.

While a small metal sign explains the relocation, the tablet no longer marks what Jane Stanford hoped would be a permanent memorial to her son. The real “haunted ground” in the poem is actually somewhere in the vicinity of a university-affiliated senior citizen complex.

The “Old Chem” Building
In his original plan for campus development, Leland Stanford insisted that the school’s first major independent science building—a chemistry lab—be located far from the “quad” because of his personal fear of fire and sudden explosion.

Unlike several other ornate and outrageously expensive buildings that were hastily constructed but totally destroyed before they could open, the distinctly Romanesque facility was finally completed in 1902. It would serve the department for 85 years despite significant damage caused by blasts from several earthquakes. When the building was condemned and finally closed in 1987, the Chemistry Department held a wake, in defiance of school directives.

But decades later, “Old Chem” continues to stand—an eyesore surrounded by weeds and a chain link fence kept far from public tours. The Victorian-era structure may be robbed of dignity, but its historical foundation saved it from demolition and may be the source of ethereal sightings of students holding glass beakers and flasks.

If you’re among the thousands of applicants burning the midnight oil to meet the Stanford University “Day of the Dead” Early Action deadline, I hope you enjoyed a little ghostly stroll down some of the back roads of Stanford’s past.

Oct 29, 2010

Has the Common Application Grown Too Powerful?

For reasons not immediately evident, the Common Application requires that supporting documents (secondary school reports, transcripts, and recommendations) submitted electronically to Common App member colleges go through the Naviance/Family Connection system.
The process is puzzling except that both Naviance and the Common App have one very strong connection through Hobsons—a for profit corporation specializing in “higher education marketing, including enrollment marketing and branding campaigns.” Hobsons also owns College Confidential, one of the most popular college chat communities on the web.

As an increasing number of high schools have begun to use the Common App’s online service, questions have surfaced about behind-the-scenes corporate relationships fueling the system. Specifically, there is concern about the Hobsons/Naviance role in controlling document flow to colleges, particularly when it works against applicants' best interests by refusing to cooperate with other application providers.

Defending the arrangement, the Common App organization recently issued a statement from executive director Rob Killion, “The copyrighted Common Application and associated forms are ‘of a piece,’ the result of 35 years of research, work, and evolution, and meant to be used together as part of a particular kind of admission process that our Association advocates.”

He adds in an interview with Eric Hoover, of the Chronicle of Higher Education, “If a student wants to pursue an alternative path, that’s their prerogative, but I’m not sure why we, for free, should have to subsidize someone else’s system.”

Over the past week, cracks in the system started appearing as school-based counselors voiced concerns in online forums about the inefficiency and flawed nature of the process. One local school counselor complained, “There are certainly philosophical issues here but there are also practical, logistical ones which are difficult to manage.”

To add to the controversy, Naviance is having difficulty dealing with an unexpectedly large volume of documents filed through the Common Application. Executives from Naviance issued pleas for patience from colleges and the counseling community forced to use their software for both Early Action and Early Decision applications due at Common App member schools in coming days.

According to Naviance CEO Stephen M. Smith, “…we have experienced several issues related to Naviance eDocs during the past three weeks that have impacted system performance and availability.” He explains, “…we significantly underestimated how many forms each school would send….usage has increased more than 400%, exceeding both the planned capacity and the contingency we included.”

Locally, much of the problem has been avoided as counselors—even in schools with access to Naviance/Family Connections—continue to employ old fashioned snail mail techniques to submit documents needed to support college applications. Fairfax County, for one, has resisted electronic submissions of out of security concerns.

But the Hobsons/Naviance issue may raise much larger questions for the entire college admissions community.

We know from Common App newsletters that business has increased exponentially, and the bounty is evident in corporate ability to fund events such as the recent National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) National Conference in St. Louis at the “platinum” level.

We can also surmise that reluctance to work with organizations not tied to Hobsons suggests a possible desire to control the market and push other vendors out. The consumer gets lost in these competitions as efficiency is sacrificed in deference to corporate loyalty and profit—even among nonprofits.

When all is said and done, the goal should be to devise a straightforward and easy to understand system of college application submission. Above all, individual businesses must be discouraged from carving out corners of the market with the goal of controlling the process.

The ability to submit documents electronically should be a welcome time-saving device available to applicants and counselors without additional expense or headache. As an oversight agency, NACAC should encourage application models similar to that used by the Universal College Application, which freely transmits documents to member colleges regardless of what “brand” form the applicant ultimately choses to use.

In the end, the biggest players in the admissions industry are going to have to come to terms with the monster they’ve created and reflect on how self-interest and desire to be the most powerful has affected ability to provide a product designed to meet consumer needs.

Oct 27, 2010

Colleges Signal Increasing Reliance on ‘Demonstrated Interest’ as a Factor in Admissions

In its 8th annual State of College Admission report, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) confirms what members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) reported earlier: colleges care about “Demonstrated Interest” and often make it a factor in admissions decisions.

While students’ overall academic achievements including grades, strength of curriculum and standardized test scores continue to be the most important elements in the admissions decision, applicants’ “interest” has become a more significant factor in the process.

From 2003 to 2006, the percentage of colleges rating demonstrated interest as “considerably” important jumped from 7 percent to 21 percent. In 2009, 76 percent of colleges assigned some level of importance to student interest in attending an institution (21 percent considerable, 27 percent moderate, and 28 percent limited).

No doubt the concern for demonstrated interest relates directly to slippage in institutional “yield” or the number of students actually accepting an invitation to attend. Although a recent decline in acceptance rates has leveled off to a national average of about 67 percent, declining yields are continuing to trouble college admissions offices.

From 2001 to 2007, average yield dropped from 49 percent to 45 percent. The average yield rate for 2009 was down to 43 percent, meaning that colleges, on average, “are enrolling increasingly smaller proportions of their accepted student pools.”

According to Common Data Set information, local colleges have experienced a variety of ups and downs in yield. For example, ten years ago George Washington University admitted 49 percent of its applicants and experienced a 30 percent yield. Last year, GW admitted only 37 percent and about 36 percent enrolled.

George Mason, on the other hand, went from admitting 59 percent of its applicants ten years ago to admitting 63 percent last year. The GMU yield, however, dropped from 55 percent to 31 percent in the same time frame.

And in 2001, the University of Maryland Baltimore County admitted 66 percent and enrolled about 39 percent of these students. Last year, UMBC accepted 69 percent and 37 percent enrolled.

Interestingly, all three of these colleges significantly increased their class sizes over this period, while at the same time trying to predict how many students would accept their offers of admission. No doubt each conducted sophisticated yield rate analyses to ensure classes were neither under- nor over-enrolled.

To try to get a handle on how high school students make enrollment decisions, colleges are increasingly turning to the “demonstrated interest” factor. According to NACAC, likely methods that college and universities might use to discern interest include “campus visits, interviews, content of open-ended essays, contact by students with the admission office, letters of recommendation, and early application through either Early Action or Early Decision.”

This is the second of three articles on NACAC's 2010 State of College Admission report.

Oct 25, 2010

High School Counselors Spend Little Time on College Counseling

Judging by complaints from both students and counselors, it’s no surprise that the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) finds that the average public school guidance counselor spends less than a quarter of his or her time on college counseling.

And sadder still, counselors at high-income and private schools appear to have the luxury of spending more time on postsecondary counseling than those in schools serving low-income communities.

In the 2010 State of College Admissions, an annual report from NACAC based on surveys of college admissions offices and high school guidance counselors, the wealth gap in the availability of in-school college admissions counseling could not be clearer.

While counselors in public high schools spend about 22 percent of their time on college counseling, private school counselors report spending more than double or 54 percent of their time on postsecondary admissions counseling. And in schools where more than 50 percent of all students receive free or reduced lunch, counselors spend more like 20 percent of their time on college counseling.

According to the US Department of Education, in 2008-09 public secondary school counselors had average caseloads of 434 students. Probing the availability of college counseling resources in both private and public schools, NACAC found the average student-to-college counselor ratio was 320:1, including part time counselors.

Public school counselors were responsible, on average, for 75 more students than those in private schools. In addition, more than three-quarters of private schools reported that they had at least on counselor whose sole responsibility was to provide college counseling, compared to 34 percent of public schools.

Student-to-counselor ratios also vary widely from state to state, with California (814:1), Minnesota (759:1), Arizona (743:1), and Utah (733:1) posting the highest, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Locally, Maryland (348:1), Virginia (308:1), and DC (275:1) come in lower than the national average.

NACAC surveys also found an interesting variation in counseling priorities between public and private schools. Public schools ranked “helping students with their academic achievement in high school” as the number one priority for counseling department goals, while private schools ranked “helping students plan and prepare for postsecondary education” as most important.

The differences between public and private school emphases on college counseling are even more evident in the availability and support for specialized professional development and compensation.

In 2009, 31 percent of high schools reported that counselors responsible for college counseling were required to participate in professional development related to postsecondary counseling, with private schools much more likely than publics to make this kind of specialized training a requirement (51 percent vs. 29 percent). And they were more than twice as likely to cover all of the costs related to this professional development—67 vs. 28 percent.

Is it any wonder that independent college consulting is a growth industry among middleclass families with students in the public schools?

Oct 23, 2010

5 Ways to Avoid Tuition Creep

Hefty tuition hikes at Virginia public institutions together with the lifting of Maryland’s 3-year tuition freeze makes parents wonder if anything can be done to avoid annual tuition creep. Frankly, the entire system looks a little scary, as college tuition increases continue to outpace the cost of living.

If you’re concerned that somewhere down the line college might just become too expensive, here are five ways to guard against creeping tuition:

1. Tuition Guarantees: According to US News & World Report (USNWR), all public universities in Illinois and at least nine private colleges guarantee freshmen that their tuition will not be raised. While other costs such as room and board are bound to increase, tuition at these institutions is guaranteed not to go up—usually for four years only. Locally, George Washington University has one such guarantee for five years that has proven to be an effective recruitment tool for prospective students.

2. Lock-In Tuition: A few colleges offer students the option of paying a fee over the standard freshman year tuition to lock-in that tuition price for four years. USNWR lists several universities, including Baylor and Niagara, as well as all Oklahoma public universities in this category. Again, colleges can and usually do increase other fees and charges.

3. Up-front Payment: For those wealthy enough to afford one very large lump sum payment, several colleges allow for a single up-front payment of all four years at the freshman-year rate. Among the schools making this offer are Vanderbilt University and Lynchburg College in Virginia.

4. “Prepaid” College Savings: Parents looking down the road at college tuition bills can invest in one of several “prepaid” college savings plans. Local options include the Maryland Prepaid College Trust, which also permits DC families to invest, and the Virginia Prepaid Education Program, which covers soldiers stationed in Virginia.

5. Go Tuition Free: In addition to the service academies, several schools including Cooper Union, Berea, College of the Ozarks, Curtis Institute of Music, Webb Institute, Deep Springs, and Alice Lloyd College are tuition-free. You may also find colleges that become tuition-free once certain qualifications are met. For example, Texas Women’s University offers a Presidential Scholarship covering full tuition to any valedictorian or salutatorian at an accredited high school. Drew University offers free tuition to qualified veterans, and a handful of colleges offer full rides to National Merit Scholarship finalists. Very low-income students may also find tuition completely covered at some schools, although these tend to be among the wealthier or more selective like Harvard, Princeton, Duke, or Penn.

Families still in the college shopping phase should not hesitate to ask admissions representatives how much they expect tuition to rise over the next four years. It might take a crystal ball to get an exact answer, but at least you open the door to exploring some of the options listed above.

Oct 22, 2010

Virginia’s Highest Paid State Workers Are Found at UVa

For middleclass families struggling to meet the annual tuition increases imposed by Virginia’s public institutions, it may come as a surprise that the Commonwealth’s highest paid state worker is the Provost of the University of Virginia.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dr. Arthur Garson, Jr., outgoing UVa executive vice president and provost, earned a cool $706,800 last year—more than double what provosts from other state schools are paid.

By comparison, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, made $166,250 (after a voluntary 5 percent pay cut). Nearly all of McDonnell’s cabinet members and key staff made $145,153.

For 2010, the average salary for state workers came to about $50,298, with 59,514 of the 92,924 employees earning less than average. More than 400 employees earned $200,000 or more, with college and university staff by far the highest earners on the state payroll.

After Dr. Garson, the state’s next highest salary goes to Dr. Steven T. Dekosky, who made $650,000, as the dean of UVa’s School of Medicine. Dr. Irving Kron, UVa Health Systems Department of Surgery Chairman, who is listed simply as “professor,” came in third at $561,100.

But the top earners were not just administrators. Fourth from the top was George Mason University men’s basketball coach, Jim Larranaga, who earned $525,000, last year as a “professional instructor.” William Lazor, offensive coordinator for the UVa football team, received $425,000, while the defensive coordinator James Reid earned $356,000—both paid entirely from state funds.

UVa’s new president Teresa Sullivan is the fifth-highest paid official at the University and seventh on the overall list of top earners with an annual salary of $485,000, according to the Times-Dispatch. She comes in just behind Virginia Commonwealth University president Michael Rao, who makes $488,500 and just above GMU president Alan Merten, at $468,000, and Virginia Tech’s president Charles Steger, at $457,040.

In fact, the first several thousand salaries listed on the state payroll are entirely dominated by staff employed by the Commonwealth’s public colleges and universities.

According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), Virginia’s undergrads at 4-year public institutions experienced an average increase in tuition and total mandatory fees of 10.5 percent. Students attending community colleges saw an 18.1 percent increase. Based on the data collected by the Times-Dispatch, it’s not hard to imagine where some of this money must be going.

Oct 20, 2010

When Should You Submit an Early Application?

By this time each fall, the typical college-bound senior is weighing the various application alternatives popularly served up on college admissions menus. Basically, there are three choices: Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), and Regular Decision (RD).

Under the terms of most binding Early Decision programs, applicants relinquish all rights to consider offers from other colleges in exchange for the possible privilege of being admitted early—typically before the first of the year. Once the ED contract is signed, you’re committed.

Although a few “boutique” ED options, cleverly labeled “non-binding” ED*, have appeared at a couple of schools (check out Furman University and the Stevens Institute of Technology), Early Decision is the least flexible of the three application alternatives because it locks you in and provides no opportunity to compare financial aid packages.

You may also run into colleges experimenting with ways to make the “binding” part of the decision more palatable by offering multiple ED dates. Regardless of the timing, this is not a road to travel unless you’re awfully sure of yourself and your financial situation.

Unlike Early Decision, both Early Action and Regular Decision are non-binding processes, which allow applicants to choose from among all colleges to which they are admitted. With acceptance letter in hand, you are free to compare financial aid packages—even negotiate a little. And as an added bonus, you can wait all the way until May 1st to decide.

Because EA decisions are generally rendered some time before winter break and high school students are notoriously enthusiastic about celebrating the holidays, most applicants find the EA option very attractive.

But EA isn’t the best strategy for all students. Generally, you should consider an early application if you are comfortable with the grades you have earned so far in high school and if you have already taken the ACT or the SAT and don’t plan to retake either test any later than October. You also need to be organized enough to get the paperwork completed and arrange for recommendations early in the school year.

Note that a few colleges like Georgetown, Stanford and Yale have set up “single choice” or “restrictive” EA options. This generally means that if you elect to apply early at these schools, you may not apply ED or EA to other colleges—but there are exceptions. In these situations, it’s wise to check the fine print before proceeding.

For some students, Regular Decision may be a better alternative. These would include those who are on the academic upswing a little later in their high school career and are waiting for seventh semester grades to be recorded or those who plan to take the SAT or ACT in November—either for the first time or for the opportunity to improve scores.

Most schools will concede that the early pool of candidates is generally “more competitive.” This is because these students largely got academics together early and could organize quickly. It doesn’t usually mean that the standard of admission is necessarily different from that used for RD candidates, although schools do tend to take a higher percent of the candidates from among the “earlies.”

According to the College Board, more than 400 schools offer at least one early application option. About 10 percent of these offer both EA and ED.

Local colleges offer a mixed bag of alternatives. American University, Johns Hopkins, William & Mary, and Virginia Tech fall into the binding Early Decision category. The University of Maryland, George Mason, UMW, JMU, Catholic, UMBC, and Loyola of Maryland are non-binding Early Action schools. George Washington, the University of Richmond, and Washington & Lee have ED I & II, while Hood and Howard offer both ED and EA. Georgetown is EA, with some restrictions, and the University of Virginia offers no early application programs—for this year at least.

*Binding only at the time of deposit.

Oct 18, 2010

Now We Are Six(ty)

Picture shirtwaist dresses and bouffant hairdos. Lassie and The Smothers Brothers dominated Sunday nights, while the Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza, and Ed Sullivan continued as perennial family favorites, possibly reflecting the general optimism of an expanding economy.

Although the Vietnam War was clearly escalating, young men could still avoid the draft by applying to college. We quietly got the word not to trust anyone over thirty, but those in the know were “Talkin’ ‘bout My Generation” with Pete Townshend, who hoped he’d die before he got old.

By the late sixties, LSD had hit college campuses and the scent of marijuana sometimes mingled with cigarette smoke lingering in high school bathrooms. In this era, eighteen-year olds could drink in DC, and most schools allowed smoking in designated areas.

This was the world in which I applied to college.

The high school I attended was the first “vocational” school in the Washington metropolitan area and honored as such by a presidential visit from LBJ. In a class of 630, I was among a small subgroup of students on an “academic track."

A product of the "Sputnik" era, I was gently pushed in the direction of excellence in math and the sciences. Our school was located near a major Air Force Base and responded to the Russian challenge by making available advanced studies in science and math.

In fact, the bias in course offerings was such that a typical “good” student could only excel in those areas, as strength in other disciplines was dismissed as less important and largely unrecognized. I really don’t think anyone in my high school ever heard of Advanced Placement, although the program was already firmly entrenched in other areas of the country.

Nevertheless, by the time I graduated, I had taken advanced math classes (two years of calculus) and participated in innovative science and lab programs. Because I did particularly well in math, it was assumed I would pursue math studies at the university level and possibly teach—a logical profession for young women.

In the fall of 1967, I began the process of applying to college. I was a member of the National Honor Society and a minor officer in the Future Teachers of America. Along with the rest of the college-bound seniors, I had already taken the SAT’s—SAT I (Reasoning) in the morning and SAT II (Subject) in the afternoon. The scores were reasonably good, but look better now with the extra 50 points the College Board added a few years ago. I never gave the slightest consideration to taking them a second time.

My best friend and I visited two colleges in the South. There were no organized tours. We just walked around the campuses and observed young women in pearls and young men in blazers. The trip was useful insofar as it confirmed our inclinations to go elsewhere.

At some point, I decided to apply to the University of Pennsylvania. The rest of the Ivy League, as well as many name liberal arts colleges, was not accepting women. Penn seemed like a reasonable distance from home—easily accessible by train and in a major city. My mother, who never attended college, did not approve and lobbied for something closer to home.

I didn’t give much thought to the application process beyond agreeing to the terms of an experimental Early Decision program and heading up to Philadelphia for a personal interview. I did, however, know enough to wear a suit I made for the occasion and was able to point my interviewer in the direction of the Simplicity pattern I adapted for the madly flowered jacket I stayed up all night sewing.

I also didn’t think about where the money would come from. I assumed I might get a scholarship, but it turned out that newly-created federal financial aid programs would guarantee the loans I needed to cover the balance of the tuition which was projected to be about $1950 per year plus another $1050 for room and board. It took me ten full years to pay off those loans.

My guidance counselor, whom I hardly met, did not support my application to Penn. He felt I was a much better “fit” for Towson State Teachers’ College (now Towson University) and sternly warned that his recommendation would not be particularly good if I insisted on not taking his advice. I never seriously considered a "safety" school.

Lucky for me, the recommendation was of little consequence. I submitted only one college application and was admitted early to Penn.

Over the course of four years, I changed my major three times, held several work-study jobs, interned at a local high school, and eventually graduated with honors. But that was all a very long time ago.

And with apologies to A.A. Milne, Now We Are Six(ty)!

Stanford Begins Random Application Audits

Following Harvard’s lead, Stanford University will soon begin randomly auditing applications for undergraduate admission, according to the Stanford Daily.

Both universities evidently see the need to check for admissions honesty after Harvard and Stanford admitted con man Adam Wheeler, as a transfer student. Wheeler managed to fool admissions staff at both schools by allegedly concocting a fantastic mix of academic credentials that got past their respective screening processes.

Responding to questions concerning growing evidence of application fraud, Stanford director of admission Robert Patterson told the Daily, “Many institutions, including Stanford, have responded to this prominent discussion on the national level of college admissions.”

He goes on to add, “We actively follow the principles and practices of NACAC [National Association for College Admission Counseling] and the College Board. Both organizations have seen an increase in application falsity and want colleges to look into this.”

Coming from the University of California system, which already audits applications, Patterson indicated that Stanford will implement random auditing starting with Early Action (EA) candidates, whose credentials are due on November 1st. Students chosen for closer review will be contacted directly to notify them of their selection in the process.

Without giving too much away, Patterson suggested that information contained on both the Common Application form and the Stanford supplement will be subject to review. This could include anything from addresses and phone numbers to extracurricular activities and discipline records.

In addition to implementing a system of random application audits, Stanford has also increased application fees to $90—by far the highest in the country for US applicants to a four-year undergraduate program. Evidently, application verification comes at a significant cost.

Oct 16, 2010

Colleges that Teach Philanthropy

Students in a philanthropy class at the University of Mary Washington recently issued a request for proposals to nonprofit organizations located in counties surrounding their campus in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Up to $10,000 in grant money is being made available to organizations serving low-income or homeless individuals or families.

“Applicants may include agencies that operate shelters or youth educational programs or work to develop adult skills,” according to the mission determined by the class of 22 students. The group wants the funds to benefit agencies focusing on sustainable, community-based programs in the Fredericksburg area.

The UMW philanthropy class is one of 15 similar “Learning By Giving” programs supported by Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation. The sister of investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, Ms. Buffett established the foundation with the hope of inspiring students to become leaders in their communities.

In their philanthropy classes, students formulate mission statements for their foundations, research nonprofits in their communities, and ultimately decide how to allocate funds. The class at UMW is located in the Economics Department and is titled “Economics of Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector.”

Other colleges and universities with Learning By Giving courses include:

Ball State University, IN (English): Giving and Getting—Understanding Charity and Philanthropy in the Modern World.
College of the Holy Cross, MA (Economics and Accounting): Environmental Economics, Government and Nonprofit Accounting
Cornell, NY (Human Ecology): Leadership in the Nonprofit Environment
Davidson, NC (Political Science): Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector
Georgetown, DC (Sociology): Philanthropy and Social Change
McMaster, Ontario (Business): Strategic Philanthropy and Leadership
New York University (Wagner School of Public Service): Philanthropy, Advocacy and Social Change
Tufts, MA (Experimental College): Experimenting with Philanthropy
University of Montana (School of Business Administration): Leadership and Motivation
Valparaiso, IN (English): Traditions of Giving and Serving in American Life
UC Berkeley, CA (Hass School of Business): Economics of Philanthropy
SUNY Binghamton, NY (College of Community and Public Affairs): TBD
UNC Chapel Hill, NC (Carolina Center for Public Service): Philanthropy as a Tool for Change

The students at UMW hope to make their awards by November 30th. For more information on the Learning By Giving program or colleges that teach philanthropy, visit the Sunshine Lady Foundation website.

Oct 15, 2010

Community Service and College Admissions: Does It Matter?

Community service not only “matters,” but according to findings from a recent study by DoSomething.org, the nature, duration, and level of volunteer commitment are also significant and figure into admissions decisions made by many “name” institutions.

In a survey sent to some of the most “selective” colleges in the country, DoSomething.org probed questions commonly asked by college-bound students weighing the relative importance of community service in their high school careers.

The results paint an interesting picture of what college admission officers really look for when they review applications:

• Almost three-quarters ranked community service in the top four most important factors considered along with GPA/Class Rank, standardized tests, and other extra-curricular activities.
• 70 percent valued consistent local volunteering over a long period rather than a “short stint” abroad.
• Commitment to a single cause was preferred 5 to 1 over scattered involvement with a variety of causes.
• Having a “founder” role in creating a new idea or project was chosen as the most important marker of good citizenship.
• Application readers like to see words like “commitment” and “passion” when applicants describe their community service in college essays.

Survey respondents were a little less definitive about the relative value of fundraising over an actual hands-on work experience with an organization. Forty-three percent, a slight majority, were more impressed with high level fundraising, while 30 percent supported the work experience, and 27 percent had no preference over either community service option.

And the results were very encouraging for students involved in political campaigns. Seventy-two percent of the admissions officers considered political work to be a type of community service, although one remarked, “It depends on the political work done. Community organizing seems more like service to me than working on a politician’s campaign.”

In her admissions blog, Notes From Peabody, UVa’s Dean J provides advice that seems to agree with the DoSomething.org survey findings, “I want to see that you’re involved in some stuff.” She adds, “There are people with long activity lists and there are people with short activity lists….We want to see commitment.”

DoSomething.org supports teen involvement in community service and provides a web-based forum for teens interested in creating projects or otherwise contributing to the world around them. For more information on the Community Service and College Admissions Survey, visit the DoSomething.org website.

Oct 13, 2010

How the National Merit® Scholarship Competition Unfairly Benefits a Few

If you happen to reside in a school district with special permission from the College Board, you won’t have to get up early on Saturday morning to take the PSAT/NMSQT® to qualify as a competitor for a National Merit® scholarship. Because your superintendent knows how much the program is worth in terms of prestige and real estate values, you will have the test administered this morning as part of an ordinary school day.

And if you’re really lucky, your school or school system will be paying all or part of the fees associated with the test.

The Wednesday test administration is an expensive luxury for a select group of students in districts wealthy enough to afford the costs associated with giving up one full day of school in favor of supporting a competition that pays off handsomely in other ways. Not only does the PSAT/NMSQT take away from instructional time, but teachers, counselors, and administrators are pressed into service as test proctors and facilitators.

At a recent training program sponsored by the College Board for counselors in Fairfax County, discussion focused on the wide variation in PSAT/NMSQT policies and pricing. The County receives a very generous discount from the College Board to subsidize test administration to 10th graders, which not only introduces students to the College Board “product” but also allows them a great opportunity to practice for the single test that will qualify them for a merit scholarship.

From there, schools vary in terms of support for the test with some PTSA’s or individual school budgets supporting all or part of the test fees for 11th graders, for whom the test matters as a qualifier for college scholarships awarded a year later. Some charge a token amount and others charge full freight plus a small administrative fee.

And some Fairfax schools administer the test to 9th graders, affording yet another opportunity for practice. By the time they reach junior year, these students will have had two practice PSAT/NMSQT opportunities and ample time to obtain PSAT test “diagnosis” based on scores as well as tutoring from an expensive test-prep company to help them prepare for the real thing.

Counselors in other parts of the country have noticed the disparity in how the competition is administered and funds are awarded. Many come from states where the ACT is more the norm for college standardized testing.

While these school systems often give the PSAT in the 10th grade (remember the discount), it takes a well-counseled and supported student to know the importance of taking the test in the 11th grade to compete for scholarships. And the fees are not always covered.

“…we advertised and encouraged all college-bound juniors to take the PSAT which they would have to pay for unless they qualified through the College Board fee waiver program,” said one former guidance counselor in a midwestern “ACT” state. Because fee waivers are only available for 11th grade students, those taking the test for “practice” in the 9th or 10th grades pay whatever the school or school system is charging.

Another midwestern counselor reports, “The schools in [school district] will not pay for it, but parents in our community generally are able to pay….For the 11th grade testing, we recommend juniors take it, but single out those who we believe have a good shot for the [national merit] money and contact them personally to recommend prep.” She adds, “In some systems…the counselors will not let weaker students take the PSAT.”

In fact, students from rural districts often have to drive long distances to find Saturday test sites. And the tests frequently conflict with athletic events or employment obligations, further disadvantaging students who don’t have the opportunity to take the PSAT/NMSQT during school time in the comfort of their home classrooms.

While the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) severely criticized the National Merit Scholarship Corporation for basing scholarship awards on single “cutscores” that vary from state to state, the program actually suffers from an even more fundamental fairness problem based on how the test is administered, by whom, and at what price.

And in the end, the test rewards those who are in least need of scholarship money—those who have practiced, prepped, and had the opportunity to compete in an arena subsidized by their school district.

If you’re a high school junior residing in Fairfax County, Virginia, good luck with the PSAT/NMSQT. Your school district has a lot riding on your performance.

Oct 11, 2010

Ask Your Tour Guide about Campus 'Traditions'

Often steeped in folklore and sometimes born of pranks, college traditions speak volumes about the community of students and campus culture of an institution.

At Washington & Lee University, students offer apples to Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller for good luck before exams. Further west and a little to the left of WLU, University of Wisconsin—Madison students touch a statue of Lincoln (his foot to be exact) to ensure similar academic success.

Traditions can also dictate a “bucket list” of must-do activities before graduation, like streaking the lawn at the University of Virginia. At Duke, students make a ritual of camping out in tents for days to get free tickets to basketball games.

Contradictory to what may appear to be the essence of tradition, some long-standing campus customs die out or become less relevant as time passes and what was once fun no longer entertains.

For example, when men were housed on one side of campus and women on the other, Penn students had a tradition of engaging in “Rowbottoms.” A spontaneous riot or “Rowbottom” would erupt when someone—inevitably from the male side of campus—yelled “Rowbottom” from a dorm window.

Word passed across campus and the women would hustle out to see men make fools of themselves. But with the introduction of co-ed “residence halls,” the tradition lost its novelty as a means of drawing attention from the opposite sex.

Inside College, the web edition of The College Finder, lists a number of “interesting traditions.” Here are some from that list together with a few local favorites:
  • American University: Around finals, students gather in the courtyard between Hughes and McDowell Halls for a Primal Scream and watch other students flash them from overlooking dorms.
  • Barnard College: During finals week, the president of the college, deans, and other members of the administration serve a Midnight Breakfast to students.
  • Catholic University: Every fall, first-year students compete in a city-wide scavenger hunt dubbed “Metro Madness.” Hopping around the city by Metro (the DC subway system), teams earn points for taking photos and videos of some famous and some not-so-famous sights and completing challenges.
  • Cornell University: Every St. Patrick's Day, first-year architectural students design and build a several-story-high dragon and parade it through campus. Costumed students accompany the beast and then eventually burn it in the middle of the Arts Quad.
  • Georgetown University: Ever since "The Exorcist" was shot on campus, Halloween has been celebrated in a big way. The film is shown after dark on Halloween, either outside on Copley lawn or in Gaston Hall. After it ends at midnight, Georgetown students gather in the cemetery on campus for the "Healy Howl,” which is directed at the harvest moon.
  • George Washington University: The entire campus marks the birth of GW’s namesake on February 22nd of each year. The celebration kicks off with a march to the Quad, followed by colonial refreshments, speeches and a bonfire—rain or shine.
  • Pomona College: For Ski-Beach, a busload of students dons parkas and gloves to ski the slopes of Mountain High, a nearby resort. In the afternoon, they re-board the bus and head to Newport Beach or another local beach. Somewhere between mountain and beach, ski paraphernalia is abandoned for swimsuits and boogie boards.
  • Rollins College: Every spring, the school president picks a day for the community to enjoy a holiday with no classes. Fox Day is announced by the placement of the Rollins fox, a large stone fox statue, out on the main lawn on the campus.
  • University of Maryland: Midnight Madness started in 1970, when at midnight on the first official day of team practice, Coach “Lefty” Driesell had his players take laps around the track that used to encircle the field at Byrd Stadium. Midnight Madness has since become a highly anticipated annual event, often featuring fireworks and a laser light show.
  • University of Mary Washington: Spirit Rock is a 20-ton piece of granite sporting many layers of latex paint. It is used by students to share their feelings, birthday wishes, achievements, and hopes for the future.
  • University of Virginia: According to tradition, before they graduate, students must run naked from the Rotunda down the Lawn to the statue of Homer (which must be kissed on the buttocks) and then back to the Rotunda before retrieving their clothes.

Any campus tour guide worthy of the title will almost certainly cover a few traditions while on tour. If he or she doesn’t, be sure to ask!

Do you have some favorite [printable] college traditions? Use the “Comments” box below to the list.

Oct 8, 2010

DC Students Need Highest Scores in the Country to Qualify for National Merit® Scholarships

As DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee struggles to improve test scores and reward outstanding classroom performance, the National Merit® Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) deals another discouraging blow to DC students. Once again, students attending District high schools are being held to the highest standard in the country to qualify for college scholarships as semifinalists in the National Merit Scholarship competition.

Tied only with Massachusetts, DC received a national merit qualifying score of 223—two points higher than last year. Students in Arkansas, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming only needed to score 202 points on the PSAT/NMSQT® to qualify for the same prize money and prestige, according to an unofficial list published by Barbara Aronson on her College Planning Simplified website.*

Closer to home, school systems adjoining DC also had lower qualifying scores. Maryland dropped a point from last year to 220, and Virginia remained even at 218.

Students may only qualify as “merit scholars” by taking the College Board’s PSAT/NMSQT in the fall 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 a combination of math, critical reading, and writing scores.

High scorers are notified whether they qualify for the next level of competition in September of senior year—twelve full months after the initial test was taken. Students who receive a score below the semifinalist cutoff specific to their state will be “commended.” Those above the cutoff—about 16,000 students according to the NMSC—are invited to continue in the competition as semifinalists. Approximately 90 percent of this group eventually earns finalist status.

But each state has a different cutoff. And as luck would have it, DC’s cutoff is usually the highest in the country.

“The very high PSAT/NMSQT National Merit Semifinalist eligibility cut-off score for DC reflects the large number of children from the nation's most privileged elites enrolled in the District's private day schools, such as Sidwell Friends, which President Obama's daughters attend,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “It is highly likely that few, if any, Semifinalists, are from DC's open-enrollment public schools, particularly those which serve the greatest percentages of low-income and minority students.”

So far, executives from the NMSC have brushed off calls to rethink the qualifying process. In letters to both the College Board and the NMSC, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) advised that eliminating 99 percent of test-takers from the National Merit Scholarship competition solely on the basis of a single standardized exam was “at odds with best practices in the use of admissions test scores.” NACAC’s Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admissions concluded that “the time has come to end the practice of using ‘cutscores,’ or minimum admission test scores, for merit aid eligibility.”

As a result of these concerns, a number of colleges withdrew their support for the National Merit Scholarship program. Notably, the entire University of California system and the University of Texas no longer offer scholarships specifically for national merit scholars.

And yet, the process remains unchanged as students in area high schools, including those in District of Columbia, start the first step of the competition next week with the administration of the 2010 PSAT/NMSQT®.

Schaeffer sadly concludes, “Because of its misuse of test scores—which correlate very strongly with family wealth and income—as the sole criterion for Semifinalist status, the National Merit selection process guarantees that a lion's share of its awards go to the children who least need financial assistance to attend college.”

There’s definitely something wrong with this picture.

*Note: The National Merit Scholarship Corporation does not officially release a complete list of qualifying scores for reasons known only to them.

Oct 6, 2010

‘Scholarship Search Secrets’ Available FREE Online

Now in its sixth edition, Scholarship Search Secrets is a terrific FREE eBook authored by Christopher Penn, of the Student Loan Network. Drawing from both from personal and professional experience, Penn uses his guide as a platform to show students how they can take responsibility for finding sources of financial support by following a series of specific instructions on where to look for and how to win scholarship money.

Among the scholarship “tricks of the trade” Penn shares is an understanding of how numbers figure into the likelihood of scoring money by applying for smaller, less competitive scholarships. “Every scholarship for which you are eligible is worth applying for, because a bunch of small scholarships will add up to a big one,” counsels Penn.

To make the application process easier, Penn recommends developing a “scholarship portfolio” including a standard biographical statement, plus answers to common questions in typical essay lengths of 250, 500, 750, or 1,000 words. Suggested essay topics are essentially those found on the Common Application or in individual application supplements.

In other words, if you’ve already completed a college application, you probably have at least one essay already on the shelf that may be recycled as a scholarship entry. In fact, you probably have a few if you’ve kept samples of your best written work on file. And over time, you’ll have opportunities to refine your work based on competition outcomes.

Using another free scholarship search tool, FastWeb, one local Fairfax County high school student was able to identify and apply for a series of scholarships following Penn’s general strategy. He won a few and lost a few. But eventually, the process became streamlined to the point that submitting a scholarship application took relatively little time and his successes added up to serious money—about 50 percent of his expensive private university tuition. He has since used the same strategy to successfully apply for graduate school grants and fellowships.

Scholarship Search Secrets also provides advice on how to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). There are warnings on how to avoid scholarship scams as well as a few insights on how to conduct productive scholarship searches on the web using a few “magic words.”

In Christopher Penn’s world, it’s never too early OR too late to start searching for scholarships. “While it may seem that many scholarships are intended for the very top academic performers or the poorest students, the reality is that there are scholarships for everyone,” explains Penn. “The best time to start is always right now.”

For more information or to download a copy of Scholarship Search Secrets, visit the Student Loan Network website.

Oct 4, 2010

Availability and Use of Campus-Based Mental Health Services Vary Enormously among Virginia’s Colleges and Universities

The tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi on the Rutgers University campus underscores the increasing importance of readily available mental health or other support services to prospective college students and their families.

It’s no secret that the number of undergrads arriving on college campuses with counseling needs is overwhelming the capacity of many counseling centers to provide them. In fact, a recent study presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting suggests a substantial increase in moderate to severe depression among undergraduates coupled with a doubling in the use of psychiatric medicines for depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

Yet in Virginia, a recent survey commissioned by the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care found wide variations in the availability and use of campus-based mental health services, with particular imbalances noted between public and private colleges and universities.

About 98 percent of the state’s 64 colleges participated in the survey which sought information on student access to mental health services and the ways in which colleges are responding to mental health crises.

According to testimony provided by University of Virginia law professor Richard Bonnie, counseling centers in Virginia’s private colleges have about 70 percent more staff and serve about 70 percent more students than counseling centers in four-year public institutions.

Survey results also indicate that an average of 56 students per four-year public college and six students per private college withdrew from school in 2008-09 for mental health reasons. Stated rates of medical withdrawal and psychiatric hospitalization in Virginia’s four-year colleges were 35 per 10,000 students for public schools and 12 per 10,000 in private institutions.

“During 2008-09, at least 11 Virginia college students committed suicide and at least 86 more attempted suicide,” Bonnie testified. “One-third of all public colleges experienced a student suicide, and about three-quarters experienced a student suicide attempt.”

The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors reports that 10.2 percent of students sought counseling during the 2008-09 academic year (a second study, the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, found 10.4 percent of students at four-year institutions sought help). Among institutions with fewer than 1500 students, an average of 18.3 percent of students received counseling, and at institutions with enrollments of more than 35,000, 7.2 percent of students requested these services.

What does this mean for parents and students shopping for colleges? In general, you should be aware of the availability of mental health services regardless of immediate need. Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suggests asking the following questions:

• Does the college offer faculty and staff training on how to recognize the warning signs of mental illness?
• Does the school have “bridges” to services beyond campus if needed?
• Are mental health services available 24/7?
• Is there coordination between mental health care at home and on campus?
• Are accommodations available for students with mental health problems just as for those with other disabilities?

Oct 2, 2010

College Fairs Offer a Little Something for Everyone

Fall is in the air, and college reps are on the road again. It’s college fair season, and you are cordially invited to attend one or several fairs depending on where your favorite colleges and universities happen to visit this year.

If you’re well into the application process or just beginning to explore a few options, a college fair can be a great way to gather information and meet admissions staff some of whom could eventually read your application.

So mark your calendar and choose from among the following more popular local options:

NACAC’s National College Fairs
Free and open to the public, NACAC’s National College Fairs are organized to promote interaction with admissions staff representing a wide range of postsecondary institutions. During the day, workshops are scheduled covering a variety of topics including financial aid, essay writing, NCAA eligibility, and students with disabilities. In addition, college counselors are available to answer questions and help with college search. Online registration is available for many National College Fairs, including greater Washington, DC, scheduled for Tuesday, October 12, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and Baltimore, scheduled for October 18-19, at the Baltimore Convention Center.

NACAC’s Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) College Fairs
PVA College Fairs are specifically targeted to students interested in studying theater, visual arts, graphic design, music, dance or other related disciplines. In addition to providing information on educational opportunities, admission requirements, and financial aid, staff is available to provide advice on portfolio development and auditions. PVA College Fairs require no pre-registration although the opportunity to register is offered online for many fairs including the one scheduled for Sunday, October 31, at the Washington Convention Center.

Portfolio Days
National Portfolio Days are specifically for visual artists and designers. These events are not so much college fairs as opportunities to meet with representatives from colleges accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. Portfolio Days require no registration and operate on a first come, first served basis. Local events are scheduled for Saturday, November 6, at Virginia Commonwealth University; Saturday, December 4, at the Corcoran College of Art and Design; or Sunday, December 5, at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

FCPS College Fair and Night
Students and their families are invited to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Fairfax County Public Schools Annual College Fair and College Night Programs. Both events provide opportunities for college-bound students and their families to gather information from several hundred participating colleges and universities. This year’s college fair will be held on Sunday, October 17 at Fair Oaks Mall. College Night will take place the following evening at Hayfield Secondary. In addition to exhibits, College Night features a series of workshops. For more information or to download a College Fair Ticket, visit the FCPS website.

Montgomery County Regional College Fair
Montgomery County Community College will host the annual Montgomery County Regional College Fair on Wednesday, October 13th. More than 150 colleges and universities will be available to speak with students and their parents about admissions criteria and procedures. Financial aid officers from local colleges and guidance counselors from MCPS will also be on hand to answer questions. In addition, two special workshops will be offered on the college admissions and financial aid processes.

National Hispanic College Fair
Partnered with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, these fairs are organized to help minority students gain access to a broad range of colleges/universities and vocational training institutions. These events are typically scheduled during the school day and require release from school. This year, the Montgomery County Public Schools are hosting a National Hispanic College Fair on Tuesday, November 2nd, at the Shady Grove Conference Center.

JET College Nights
Twenty-eight Jesuit colleges and universities located in 19 states work together to schedule "regional" Jesuit Excellence Tour (JET) College Nights. In the coming months, the tour will be in every corner of the country including Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago, and New York—to name a few host cities. Locally, two events are being scheduled for the week of March 7-11—one in Baltimore and the other in DC.

Korea Daily College Fair
Since 2006, the Korea Daily College Fair has brought together Koreans and other Asians interested in learning more about colleges and the admissions process. Each fair features keynote speakers or seminars covering a variety of topics including curriculum, admissions requirements, financial aid, campus life, and more. Fairs are held in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC. This year, the DC fair will take place on Saturday, October 2, at the Church for All Nations in Vienna, VA.

Oct 1, 2010

The Secret Life of the CSS PROFILE—the Less Familiar Financial Aid Form

October 1st marks the official launch date for the 2011-12 College Scholarship Service (CSS) Financial Aid PROFILE. The less familiar financial aid form, the CSS PROFILE is an online application that collects information used by a relatively small number of colleges and scholarships to award institutional aid.

Over the next few months, the word will go out that every college-bound senior and his or her family should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to qualify for federal financial aid. The online FAFSA form will become available on January 1st at midnight and should be completed as close to the start of the New Year as possible.

The CSS PROFILE requires an entirely separate filing and evaluation process. For those needing to submit the additional form, it amounts to another wall to scale in the process of securing sufficient funds for college. And it can be a headache.

While the FAFSA is a free service brought to you by your federal government, the CSS PROFILE is a program administered by the College Board and involves a fee. Unlike the FAFSA, which uses the same application for everyone, the PROFILE is specifically tailored to meet the needs of individual colleges. Extra questions may appear on a student’s form depending on the colleges listed when registering for the PROFILE.

It’s not all bad news. There are some tradeoffs in the data collected by the PROFILE. While taking into account all the sources of income and assets used by the FAFSA, the PROFILE asks for some additional information such as home equity, the income/assets of a noncustodial parent, or the cash value of insurance plans. On the other side of the ledger, the PROFILE takes into consideration expenses such as medical, dental, or private school tuition.

But then there’s the fee. The cost for submitting an initial application and sending one college or program report is now $25. Additional reports are $16 each. These charges are subject to change each year, and they don't tend to go down.

For very low-income students, fee waivers for up to six colleges or scholarship programs are available and granted automatically based on information entered on the PROFILE application. International students are not eligible for fee waivers.

The PROFILE may be filed any time after October 1st, and colleges typically want to have the paperwork completed at least two weeks before posted “priority” filing deadlines. Because these can come surprisingly early in the New Year, the PROFILE is usually completed with estimated numbers. Applicants definitely need to pay attention to deadlines.

For example, Johns Hopkins wants a completed PROFILE by November 15th for Early Decision candidates; Georgetown requests that all financial aid applications (including the FAFSA) be completed by February 1st; and American asks that all materials be submitted in advance of March 1st.

The College Board directs all questions to Customer Support, which may be reached at 305-829-9793 or by emailing help@cssprofile.org. You might notice there is no “toll-free” number. Unfortunately, most everything about this program costs.