Jan 31, 2011

Gap Year Fairs Open Doors

Once dust settles from the drama of college admissions, many high school students begin reflecting on whether they’re really ready to charge directly into the demands of postsecondary education.

They find there are alternatives to the 16-year forced march from secondary school to college and start exploring options outside traditional classroom experiences.

For these students, the possibility of taking a "gap year" after high school yet before starting college may be the perfect antidote to the pressures of growing up in a success-oriented culture that placed little emphasis on developing independence and self-confidence or exploring interests outside of academics.

It’s an open secret that the popularity of the gap year experience is growing at an amazing rate in the US, in part because colleges think it’s a really good idea.

In their acceptance letters, Harvard, Princeton, Tufts, and NYU openly encourage students to consider the benefits of taking some time off in the form of a gap year.

In fact, Princeton has taken an even more direct approach by creating a “Bridge Year” program in which the university provides need blind financial aid for a portion of incoming freshmen to participate in nine months of university-sponsored service at one of several international locations including Ghana, India, Peru, and Serbia. Because of the overwhelming success of the program, plans are underway to expand both the locations and availability of Bridge Year opportunities for incoming Princeton students.

A strong proponent of gap year experiences, Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, William Fitzsimmons routinely offers gap year opportunities to high school students who start thinking outside the box early. “Normally a total of about fifty to seventy students defer [Harvard] until the next year. The results have been uniformly positive.” He adds, “Many speak of their year away as a ‘life-altering’ experience or a ‘turning point,’ and most feel that its full value can never be measured and will pay dividends the rest of their lives.”

If you’ve started the process of exploring the possibility of taking a gap year before college, you may want to attend one of 30 USA Gap Year Fairs scheduled to take place over the coming months. These events are designed to provide interested students and parents with a broad range of programs and the opportunity to meet with organizations focusing on education, service, and personal grown.

Locally, fairs have been scheduled for February 25th at Georgetown Day School, February 26th at Sidwell Friends School, and February 27th at Wootton High School in Rockville.

Guest speakers will include Karl Haiger and Rae Nelson, authors of “The Gap Year Advantage,” as well as Holly Bull from the Center for Interim Programs.

For more information on times and locations of fairs near you, visit the USA Gap Year Fairs website.

Jan 29, 2011

NASA’s Internship Programs Offer High School Students a Chance to reach for the Stars

The DEVELOP program, part of NASA’s applied sciences training and development operation, offers high school students exciting opportunities to work with science advisors and partner agencies on down-to-earth projects in local communities throughout the U.S. With feet firmly planted on the ground, students research topics in areas ranging from agriculture to weather and make important contributions in support of NASA’s broad-ranging earth science mission.

Since 1999, the DEVELOP program has grown into a nationwide internship program with teams located at six NASA Centers and three local government organizations in Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, California, Alabama, and Illinois. During the summer term, students work 30-35 hour per week for 10 weeks. Some internships are paid, while others are offered on a volunteer basis.

As part of a DEVELOP team, students conduct research in areas that examine how NASA technology can benefit partner organizations and construct projects that focus on practical applications of NASA’s research results. These projects often provide the basis for continued independent research and can easily evolve into national science competition entries. And it’s no secret that colleges are looking for students with proven interest or expertise in STEM-related fields.

High school students with a strong interest in environmental science, earth science, technology, computer science, environmental policy are invited to apply for one of the approximately 200 internships offered nationwide through DEVELOP. Thousands of students have already graduated from the program, and many discovered career paths along the way.

To qualify, students must be enrolled in high school, college or graduate school and must be at least 16 years of age. Students must also have a 3.0 GPA and submit an application that includes two letters of recommendation as well as an essay and academic transcript. For this year’s summer term, all applications must be postmarked by February 28, 2011.

Housing is not provided and students are responsible for living expenses. But for the student with interest in applied sciences who wants to get a head start on research, the cost may be worth it.

For more information on all the NASA programs for high school students or to download a DEVELOP application, visit NASA’s science education webpages.

Jan 28, 2011

Early Admit Rates Drop by 2% at Georgetown and GW

Cross-town rivals Georgetown and George Washington Universities recently reported decreases of about 2 percent in early admit rates for the Class of 2015. Although very different in terms of application processes, both schools experienced significant increases in the number of high school students submitting early applications.

Over 6650 students applied for Georgetown’s nonbinding early action program, representing a 9 percent increase over last year. Of these, 1,122 or 16.9 percent were admitted—down from last year’s early acceptance rate of 19.1 percent.

According to Dean of Undergraduate Admission Charles Deacon, Georgetown usually admits the same percentage or lower during early action as in regular admission. Early estimates suggested that the university would admit approximately 20 percent of applicants in total, but with recent announcements of a 6.8 increase in overall applications, that figure may be optimistic.

Based on numbers provided to The Hoya, Georgetown's School of Foreign Service admitted 19.4 percent of applicants while the College only admitted about 15.9 percent. The School of Nursing and Health Studies admitted 18.2 percent of its early applicants, while the McDonough School of Business admitted 16.9 percent.

Georgetown estimates that about 550 to 600 of the students admitted early will enroll in the university next fall.

After a dramatic drop in 2009, GW’s binding early decision I admit rate also decreased by 2 percentage points to under 38 percent. This year, George Washington received 1,482 EDI applicants or about 2 percent more than last year (earlier reports of higher numbers proved misleading as 250 students withdrew their applications) and accepted 532 students who have committed to attending GW in the fall.

Although overall application numbers have not yet been released, George Washington eventually hopes to welcome 2,350 students into the Class of 2015.

Jan 26, 2011

Local FAFSA Deadlines are Just around the Corner

Nearly every college and university has a clearly posted priority financial aid deadline by which the FAFSA should be filed for students to have the best possible chance of receiving both institutional and federal aid. Because most of these deadlines are either on or before March 1st, students and their parents must act early in the New Year—often before tax returns are filed with the federal government.

To underscore the importance of beginning the FAFSA sooner rather than later, even if it means estimating income and taxes to be paid, the following is a list of local priority financial aid (FA) deadlines:

You can research individual deadlines by simply going to a college or university website and entering “FAFSA” or “FAFSA deadline” in the search function. Only the most poorly constructed websites will fail to pop up a link to either an admissions or a financial aid web page clearly stating the priority deadline by which you should file your FAFSA. Most will even give you a few good reasons why this is so important.

Many states also have FAFSA deadlines that are entirely separate from but usually after institutional dates. A handy tool for researching individual state deadlines is provided on the FAFSA website. Locally, the State of Maryland has posted March 1st as its deadline, and the District of Columbia uses June 30th. Virginia is noncommittal and refers applicants to individual financial aid administrators (Hint: you may notice a pattern of March 1st as a deadline for the Virginia public colleges and universities listed above).

Filing the FAFSA by the priority deadlines and promptly responding to any requests for additional documentation helps ensure you’ll receive your financial aid letters at about the same time you receive admissions decisions.

Note that it takes the FAFSA processor 1 to 2 weeks to get information to individual colleges and universities—if the FAFSA is filed electronically. If you use the paper application, the turnaround can take from 3 to 4 weeks. And delays could be longer if your application is randomly selected for a more in depth review.

Remember you do NOT have to be admitted to a college or university before submitting your FAFSA. You CAN file using last year’s tax return to estimate income and taxes. If you have any questions or need additional assistance, contact the FAFSA on the Web Consumer Service either online or by calling 1-800-433-3243 (1-800-4-FED-AID).

Jan 25, 2011

UVa Plans to Admit Up To 250 Additional Students for the Class of 2015

It’s another “good news—bad news” story. The bad news is that the University of Virginia received 23,942 applications for the Class of 2015—a 6 percent increase over last year. This is despite an overall decline in the number of high school students expected to graduate in 2011.

The good news is that to increase enrollment, UVa plans to extend between 200 and 250 additional offers of admission in order to achieve an entering class of about 3,360 first year students—120 more than last year.

While UVa is not the only college experiencing a significant rise in the number of applications received this year, few have announced plans to so aggressively expand undergraduate programs.

Among those reporting application increases are Boston University (9 percent), Brown (3 percent), Chicago (12 percent), Columbia (32 percent), Dartmouth (15.7 percent), Duke (10.5 percent), Georgetown (7.9 percent), George Washington, Harvard (15 percent), NYU (10.5 percent), Northwestern (10 percent), Princeton (3.3 percent), Stanford (7 percent), Penn (15 percent), and Yale (5 percent).

“We’re in an environment now where students are clearly submitting more applications,” explained Greg Roberts, UVa’s dean of admission. “While we are flattered that so many students have interest in the University of Virginia, our primary focus is on the entering class.”

Thanks to the efforts of UVa’s outreach office and the support provided by AccessUVa, the number of low income and minority students applying to UVa appears to be rising. But according to UVA Today, some of those increases may be attributed to a sharp decrease in the number of students who declined to specify race, from 1,377 last year to 496 this year.

With the January 1st deadline passed, the Office of Admission now turns to the “daunting task” of building an entering class. Although the office brought on 10 temporary readers to support the effort, Dean Roberts or one of the full time associate deans plans to review every application. Decisions will be released by April 1.

Once this year’s decisions go out, UVa will begin the process of implementing and promoting a new "nonbinding" early admission plan, in which students may apply by November 1st and receive a decision by January 31, 2012.

“The new option is likely to boost the application total still higher,” Roberts said.
Picture provided by Wikipedia.

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

For the third consecutive year, Walmart and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund are teaming up to help first-year Hispanic students succeed in college. Under the partnership, the Walmart Foundation will support students by funding a number of scholarships and college transition services.

“The first year of college is often the most challenging for all students, particularly for the many Hispanic students who are the first in their families to go to college,” commented Hispanic Scholarship Fund President and CEO Frank Alvarez. “We are extremely grateful to the Walmart Foundation for their continued support of our efforts to give students the tools they need to succeed in college.”

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

To qualify, students must be of Hispanic heritage and must

  • have a minimum GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale,

  • be a US citizen or legal permanent resident,

  • be a graduating high school senior with plans to enroll full time in a degree-seeking program at a four-year accredited US institution, and

  • must apply for federal aid by completing the FAFSA.

Applications are currently available online through the Hispanic Scholarship Fund website and must be submitted no later than January 31, 2011.

Jan 24, 2011

Stanford Warns of Mountain Lions on Campus

In this area we call them cougars, and we don’t see them too often. But this week, Stanford University was forced to issue a bulletin warning all students that evidence was found of a mountain lion wandering around last weekend in an area of campus near the Stanford Golf Driving Range. A University utilities worker spotted what were apparently fresh tracks on trails not far from nearby graduate student housing.

A detail not often highlighted on campus tours, the foothills and open spaces in and around the Stanford campus are known as mountain lion habitat and sightings do occasionally occur. Although it took several days to make the rounds of campus publications, members of the Stanford community were reminded to be “alert to their surroundings, particularly when walking or jogging on trails in the early morning or early evening hours.”

In addition, students and others were advised that when faced with a mountain lion, they shouldn’t turn around or try to run way. “Appear larger by waving your arms or a jacket or other objects above your head.”

The bulletin also suggested grabbing a stick or rock while continuing to watch the cat and slowly moving away. “Attacks are very rare and most frequently the animal will go away."

Most of the cats spotted in recent years have been young males who like to roam large territories and don’t like all the disruption of campus construction. San Francisquito Creek, which runs from the hills behind the Stanford West Apartments and on through Palo Alto, has been described as a “wildlife highway” which is traversed by mountain lions in search of prey.

At least one group of undergrads recognizes the significance of the mountain lion to the Stanford community and advocates changing the mascot from The Cardinal to the Mountain Lion. On a Facebook page dedicated to the project, students point out

  • Mountain Lions are a local species—they live near campus.

  • The only group offended by Mountain Lions is deer, and even at Stanford nobody cares about deer’s rights.

  • No other D-1 school has the Mountain Lion as its mascot

Taking a page from the LSU playbook, it was suggested that Stanford could “buy” a mountain lion and build an environment for it at the Maples Pavilion—home of the Stanford basketball teams.

Concerned members of the Stanford community are urged by the Facebook group to contact President Hennessy in support of the petition for a change in mascot. “Until people live in fear of a color [The Cardinal] mauling them, [it’s] time to change.”

In the meantime, Stanford students finding themselves on or near the driving range should most definitely watch their backs.

Jan 22, 2011

The Common Application Announces Essay Topics for 2011-12

In case you’re sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for notification of next year’s essay topics for Common Application member colleges and universities, I have great news—the topics will remain the same as they have been for the past several years.

For juniors who are waiting “on deck” to begin the college application process, this means you will be asked to write an essay (250 words minimum) on one of several broad options, including:
  • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

  • Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

  • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

  • Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

  • A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

  • Topic of your choice.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Not if it ends there. But unfortunately, many colleges aren’t content with the basic Common Application requirement. They ask for “supplements,” which can be devilishly time-consuming and tedious.

For example, this year George Washington University asked for an essay of approximately 500 words that responded to one of three topics (your choice):

  • The nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill once wrote that "one person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests." Tell us about one of your beliefs - how you came to it, why you hold on to it, what has challenged it, and what you imagine its influence will be on your education or pursuits.

  • In his lecture "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," British scientist C. P. Snow asserted the provocative idea that scientists have "the future in their bones" while "the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist." Do you have views on the capacity of science and/or the humanities to solve society's most pressing problems? How has your education thus far prepared you to understand the relationship between "the two cultures"?

  • "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." - A. Einstein. Describe your most interesting mistake.

Obviously, the last option begs the question “Does this application count?”

Taking a more straightforward approach, Johns Hopkins asked applicants to discuss why they chose specific majors and to describe activities in which they intend to participate as undergraduates. The University of Mary Washington zeroed in on the college honor system and asked related questions.

In their Common Application supplements, the College of William & Mary wanted to know (in 500 words or less) “what makes you unique and colorful,” and the University of Virginia asked applicants to UVa’s College of Arts & Sciences, “What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, or challenged you, and in what way?”

While it’s reassuring to know that the Common App will stick with a group of essay topics that virtually covers the entire range of human experience, the bigger question remains as to what colleges will cook up in the way of supplementary essays for next year. I can hardly wait.

Jan 20, 2011

Retention Rates at Four-Year Private Colleges Fall to Lowest Levels Yet

According to a study published today by ACT, Inc., freshman retention rates at four-year private colleges have fallen to the lowest levels since the testing service began conducting surveys of colleges and universities 27 years ago.

And for the first time, retention rates at private colleges (72 percent) fell behind those at four-year public institutions (74 percent), possibly reflecting continuing strains in the economy and the ability of families to afford higher tuition.

“Students are better able to afford to return to public colleges than to private schools due to their lower costs,” said Wes Habley, ACT’s principal associate, who has been conducting analyses of retention data for the organization since 1985.

Overall college retention rates, or the percentage of first-year, full time students who return to the same institution for a second year, remained relatively stable. Two-thirds (67 percent) of students at two- and four-year colleges returned for their sophomore year, as compared to 68 percent in 2005 and 66 percent last year. Although improving, retention at two-year colleges (56 percent) still lags behind that of four-year institutions.

Locally, retention rates at four-year colleges and universities largely remain above national averages. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the University of Virginia (97 percent), Georgetown (96 percent), Johns Hopkins (96 percent), and the College of William & Mary (95 percent) had the highest percentage of students who began their studies in 2008 return in 2009.

The University of Maryland (93 percent), the University of Richmond (92 percent), James Madison University (92 percent), St. Mary's College of Maryland (91 percent), George Washington (91 percent), and American (90 percent) also posted far better than average retention rates.

In its recent report titled, What Works in Student Retention, ACT suggests that colleges are increasing the use of “learning assistance measures” (remedial courses, study groups, or tutoring) to help students stay in school. According to ACT, these strategies have become more popular than academic advising and first-year transition programs in efforts to improve retention.

“Unfortunately, the themes of this periodic study haven’t changed much since 1980,” remarked Habley. “Many students still enter college unprepared to succeed, and retention and completion rates haven’t changed a lot over the years.”

More information on the ACT survey of colleges may be found on the ACT website.

Jan 19, 2011

FAFSA Filing Mistakes You Can Easily Avoid

Even with the vastly improved FAFSA form, there’s no question that providing all the information required of financial aid applicants is challenging. But don’t let that stop you! Procrastination is a clear enemy in this process and may prevent you from taking full advantage of the government’s generosity.

The fact is that federal student financial assistance programs represent the nation’s largest source of federal financial aid for postsecondary students. In 2010, the feds processed over 21 million Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA’s), resulting in the delivery of approximately $134 billion in aid to over 14 million students and their families.

This year, the government expects to award even more in student aid based on information provided on FAFSA forms filed between now and June 30th. Yet according to an annual study completed by Sallie Mae and Gallup, 28 percent of families with college-bound students never got around to completing the form last year. Of those who didn’t complete the FAFSA, half of them either didn’t think they would qualify for federal aid or were unaware of the FAFSA.

And over a third reported they didn’t need financial aid. Didn’t need financial aid?

Don’t be in this group. The best way to complete the FAFSA is early and online. But making mistakes on the form can delay your application and possibly result in lost financial aid.

To help get you started, here a few costly FAFSA filing mistakes you can easily avoid:

  • Waiting to complete your taxes. Although it’s preferable to have completed tax returns available before starting, sometimes that’s just not possible especially if your employer is one of many who routinely ignore W-2 deadlines. Waiting for your employer’s bookkeeper can cause you to miss priority state and college filing deadlines, and these delays could cause you to lose aid. So go ahead and provide estimated information and plan to update once your taxes are done. (HINT: Use your last pay stub from 2010 to provide an income estimate).

  • Leaving a blank field. The most frequent mistake made by applicants is leaving a field blank. If the answer is zero or the question does not apply to you, write in a “0.” If you leave a question blank, the processor assumes you forgot to answer, and too many blanks may cause miscalculation or an application rejection.

  • Entering the wrong legal name. Make sure that when you register for a PIN number, the name you provide matches what it says on your social security card. If you’re JoAnne for the Social Security Administration, don’t suddenly become Joann for FAFSA. The same goes for Bubba or Billy Bob. And don’t forget the hyphen or drop one of your last names just because your parents are no longer together. The FAFSA verifies this information with the Social Security Administration and if names do not match, there will be delays in processing.

  • Providing an incorrect Social Security number or Date of Birth. Check and double check every number you enter in these fields. Errors can be as simple as reversing digits or entering a parent’s SSN in place of the student’s. This REALLY slows down the process. No aid will be awarded until all numbers are correct and match what the feds already have in the system.

  • Leaving the question about drug-related offenses blank. If you’re unsure or embarrassed, contact the Information Center instead of leaving this field blank. A conviction doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from getting aid.

  • Entering the wrong tax amount paid. Use the 1040 federal tax return for reporting taxes paid. Do NOT use your W-2 form for this purpose. NOTE: The online FAFSA will have a new tool in place that links the FAFSA to information provided to the IRS on previously-filed tax returns. This should help, but in the meantime take extreme care not to enter taxes withheld instead of taxes paid.

  • Confusing Adjusted Gross Income with Gross Income. The FAFSA specifies the line on the 1040 that lists your AGI. If you use the gross income figure, you are over-reporting your income and you could lose aid eligibility because of a high income. Again, the new partnership with the IRS should help, provided you file your return before you start completing the FAFSA.

  • Failing to sign the FAFSA form. This sounds like a “duh” moment, but you’d be surprised how many manage to screw this up. If you’re one of the 2 percent filling out the paper FAFSA, be sure to sign it. If you’re filing electronically, be sure to obtain your PIN before starting the FAFSA. Your PIN is your electronic signature, and both student and parent will need to have one to file online.

  • Forgetting to update tax information. If you submit the FAFSA before filing your taxes, you will have to estimate income and tax information. Once your taxes are complete (by April 15th), you must amend your Student Aid Report (SAR) by going to the corrections page on the FAFSA website. Do this as soon as possible, as over- and underestimating taxes can affect the amount of aid you receive, and colleges will not finalize your aid package until you’ve provided 2011 tax information.

  • Missing filing dates. Financial aid is given out on a first come first serve basis. Those who submit the FAFSA early and correctly are placed in the front of the line for aid. In the way of a reminder, the FAFSA website provides a list of known state filing deadlines. But since priority filing dates vary significantly by college, you’ll need to check with individual financial aid offices to get specific deadlines.

  • Listing only your top school on the FAFSA form. List all the schools to which you have applied. Gaming this question can lead to problems later. Yes, you’re showing your hand but sometimes that can work to your advantage particularly if you are applying to a list of schools that typically competes for the same students. You don’t want to miss a priority filing deadline because of a desire to maintain privacy about your college list.

  • Neglecting to coordinate related financial aid forms. These forms include CSS PROFILE, Institutional, or Verification forms. They ask for much of the same information as the FAFSA, but are filed separately. The key is to be consistent on all the forms. Colleges will compare answers and any discrepancies could result in lost aid.

  • Not filing the FAFSA because you think you don’t qualify. Way too many families make this mistake. Why? Sometimes families don’t realize that retirement and home equity are excluded. Or they think they simply make too much money. A little known fact is some colleges make scholarships available contingent on filing the FAFSA. And finally, stuff happens. Life can take unexpected turns, and you’re much better off having a FAFSA form on file in case an unexpected emergency changes your financial situation.

You can learn more about federal student aid by downloading Funding Education Beyond High School. If you have specific questions, check the FAQ section on the FAFSA website or contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center. Remember that delays and errors can be costly!

Jan 18, 2011

New Application Records Set

Common Application officials announced today that a new single-day record was set on December 31, 2010, when students submitted 127,175 electronic applications through the online Common App system. And as of January 15, applicants submitted more than 2.1 million applications, an increase of 22 percent over this time last year and surpassing the total volume for the entire 2009-10 admission cycle.

These numbers are hardly surprising as Common App member colleges all over the country are slowly rolling out application figures that are nothing short of breathtaking.

While many local colleges are still “processing” applications and haven’t released numbers, Harvard University reports receiving just short of 35,000 applications—an increase of 15 percent over last year and more than 50 percent higher since 22,955 applied four years ago. First-time Common App member, Columbia University received 34,587 applications, which represented a whopping 32 percent increase over 2009-10.

On the west coast, Stanford’s applications rose by nearly 7 percent, and Harvey Mudd College was up by about 14 percent—no doubt fueled by recent press concerning mid-career salary success experienced by Harvey Mudd grads.

In the Midwest, the University of Chicago received 12 percent more applications this year, while freshman applications to Northwestern University for next fall’s entering class reached 30,529—a 10.5 percent increase from last year.

Duke University received just short of 30,000 applications, 2,287 of which were submitted under the early decision program. Of those applicants, 24,307 applied to the College of Arts and Sciences and 5,219 applied to the Pratt School of Engineering, representing 10.8 and 7.7 percent increases respectively.

At the University of Pennsylvania, applications were up by almost 15 percent to 30,956, while Dartmouth College received over 21,700 applications—15.7 percent more than last year. And Brown recently announced receipt of almost 31,000 applications, representing a 50% increase over three years.

No doubt these numbers are largely the result of how easy it is to submit multiple applications through online applications. It was lots harder when you had to painstakingly type individual forms on the old IBM Selectric. But aggressive marketing as well as student insecurities about the need for an application safety net are also feeding the frenzy.

The Higher Education Institute reports that the percentage of students applying to 7 or more colleges doubled to 23 percent in 2009 from 12 percent a decade earlier. While the median number of applications is still about 4 and it’s rare for students to apply to 12 or more colleges (only 3.3 percent in 2009), the upward trend shows no signs of slowing down if Common App statistics are any indication.

Jan 17, 2011

104 Colleges and Universities Cross the $50K Mark for 2010-11

As recently as two years ago, only five colleges were priced over $50,000. This year, the number has grown to 104, including the first public university—the University of California at Berkeley, which is charging out-of-state students $50,649.

With the one exception, all other colleges charging $50,000 or more are private. They made up 9 percent of the more than 1000 private institutions providing cost information used for the analysis published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

And not surprisingly, a number of local colleges and universities appear on the $50K list. These include Johns Hopkins ($53,690), Georgetown ($53,591), George Washington ($53,025), St. Johns College ($52,176), Washington and Lee ($50,630), the University of Richmond ($50,420), American ($50,165), and Loyola of Maryland ($50,000).

Of this group, GW, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins have consistently maintained positions among the top 20 highest published totals for tuition, fees, and room and board for the past four years.

But no one, or at least very few families, pays sticker price thanks to various forms of financial aid. In fact, the College Board, which provided the data on which the Chronicle based its findings, estimates that the average net price for tuition, fees, and room and board at private four-year colleges has fallen slightly (when adjusted for inflation) from amounts posted five years ago, to $21,020 this year.

While Berkeley remains a tuition trailblazer for public institutions, 14 public institutions set charges at $40,000 or higher in 2010-11. Of them, eight are other campuses in the UC system as well as the College of William & Mary and the Universities of Colorado at Boulder, Michigan at Ann Arbor, Texas at Austin, Vermont, and Virginia.

In all fairness, however, it should be noted that among the nearly 600 four-year public institutions for which the College Board reported out-of-state charges, the median was $23,526.

But with severe budget reductions in Higher Ed announced in California, the future looks grim as states prepare to follow the lead set on the west coast. In fact, without the support of federal stimulus money, it looks like all bets are off on the cost of a public education for the immediate future.

Jan 15, 2011

NIH Offers Exciting Summer Opportunities in Biomedical Research

Summer programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer hundreds of exciting opportunities for high school students to work side-by-side with some of the world's leading scientists in “an environment devoted exclusively to biomedical research.”

As one of the premiere research facilities in the world, NIH consists of the 240-bed Hatfield Clinical Research Center and more than 1200 laboratories/research projects located on the main campus in Bethesda, as well as in Frederick and Baltimore, MD; Research Triangle Park, NC; Phoenix, AZ; Hamilton, MT; Framingham, MA; and Detroit, MI.

Program stipends cover a minimum of eight weeks, with students generally arriving at the NIH in May or June. And stipends are adjusted yearly with the amount depending on prior experience and educational level.

Note that this is not a commuter program; NIH does not provide housing to student interns. Every year, however, out-of-area students apply and make their own living arrangements for the summer. Nevertheless, students who live in the DC metropolitan area have a clear advantage for many of the internships.

To support the program, the NIH Institutes and Office of Intramural Training & Education sponsor a wide range of summer activities including lectures featuring distinguished NIH investigators, career/professional development workshops, and Summer Poster Day. These are incomparable opportunities which can provide the basis for independent research and related science competitions such as the JSHS, Intel STS, Siemens, and ISEF.

Summer internships are available for students who will be 16 years of age or older at the time they begin the program and who are currently enrolled at least half-time in high school or an accredited US college or university. Students who have already been accepted to college may also apply.

Interested students must apply online by no later than March 1, 2011. The application requires

• A resume
• A list of coursework and grades
• A cover letter describing research interests and career goals, and
• The names and contact information for two reverences.

Candidates are welcome to specify the scientific methodologies or disease/organ systems that are of particular interest to them.

In 2010, more than 6700 applications were submitted to the NIH Summer Internship Program. About 1200 were selected. Because applications are reviewed on a rolling basis from November through April by NIH scientists, students are encouraged to submit their applications as soon as possible.

For more information as well as some tips on how to increase your chances of winning an internship, visit the NIH website.

Jan 14, 2011

Over 130 FREE Kaplan ‘Test Prep’ Books Available for Download in Limited-Time Offer

One of the nation’s leaders in test prep, Kaplan Publishing (a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company) is offering more than 130 eBooks as FREE downloads. This extraordinary offer has been extended through January 17, 2011, and includes study aids for the AP, ACT, SAT, GMAT, GRE, and MCAT—among others.

“In August we witnessed over 500,000 free eBook download in an exclusive two week promotion that was hugely successful,” said Maureen McMahon, President and Publisher of Kaplan Publishing. “Helping students of all ages reach their education goals is always our top priority.”

Owners of the Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and Sony eReader can find titles selected from the Kaplan test prep collection at http://www.freekaplanebooks.com/, in six different categories—College, Education, Graduate, Legal, Medicine, and Nursing. The free downloads represent significant one-time savings for students preparing for college entrance exams, certificate programs, graduate school, and Advanced Placement exams.

Sample titles include:

  • From Here to Freshman Year
  • SAT/PSAT Critical Reading Practice Questions
  • SAT/PSAT Writing Practice Questions

  • ACT Strategies for Super Busy Students

  • SAT Score-Raising Dictionary

  • AP Biology

  • AP Calculus AB & BC

  • AP English Literature and Composition

  • AP Environmental Science

  • AP Statistics

  • AP US Government & Politics

  • AP US History

  • AP World History

  • SAT Subject Test: Chemistry

  • SAT Subject Test: Biology E/M

  • SAT Subject Test: Mathematics Level 1

  • SAT Subject Test: Mathematics Level 2

  • SAT Subject Test: US History

This is a limited-time offer requiring ownership of specific technology. If you’re among those lucky enough to have an eReader or any of the other listed devices, consider having a downloading party sometime between now and January 17, 2011.

For more information, visit the Kaplan website. And hurry!

UGA, Georgia Tech, and Emory Extend Application Deadlines

While recent winter weather patterns produced little more than inconvenience for the DC area, Atlanta is still reeling from the damage caused by highly unusual storms that continue to produce school closings and disruptions in normal city-wide activities.

Because of what Emory University characterizes as “unprecedented snow and ice,” the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, as well as Emory have decided to give all students a few more days to submit applications.

According to the UGA website, the deadline for “First Year online application completion” for both summer and fall of 2011 has been moved to Tuesday, January 18th, at 5 pm EST. All “application materials” must be received or postmarked by Friday, January 21st. Georgia Tech has extended its freshman regular decision deadline to January 21st.

Emory is postponing its regular decision deadline until February 1st. Students accepted through early decision are being granted five additional days to send in deposits.

All three colleges posted notices of the extensions on their admission websites and warned students not to wait until the last minute to submit applications. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, admissions officials “do not predict a delay in letting students know if they’ve been accepted.”

Picture provided by Wikipedia.

Jan 12, 2011

Graduation Rates Make a Difference

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is releasing a paper today confirming what nearly every educational consultant or guidance counselor providing college advice already knows—graduation rates matter to parents.

One of my favorite jaw-dropping moments with families I am advising inevitably comes when I disclose that the average six-year graduation rate for US colleges and universities currently stands at about 53 percent. Six-year? Fifty-three percent? Whatever happened to finishing up in four years?

That’s when I open my well-worn copy of the College Board Handbook or log-on to the College Navigator website to show them how well the colleges on their child’s list perform with regard to this key indicator. The reaction is predictable and falls along lines suggested by the AEI.

In short, the AEI found “colleges that admit similar students often have widely different graduation rates, and far too many fail to get a majority of their students across the finish line” and concludes that “providing graduation-rate information increased the probability that parents would choose the institution with the higher graduation rate by about 15 percentage points.” In other words, performance counts.

Graduation rates are hardly secret. The College Board knows them, and the US Department of Education publishes them. Yet part of my “value added” as an educational consultant is that I reveal them.

Not surprisingly, graduation rates correlate nicely with generally-accepted views of quality. For example, the University of Virginia and Georgetown University—both considered first-rate postsecondary institutions—share six-year graduation rates of about 93 percent.

But it’s not just the current graduation rate that matters. The rate of improvement or upward trend should also count.

And those local colleges and universities working to improve graduation rates are producing great results. For example, the University of Maryland has improved its six-year graduation rate from 71 percent in 2003 to 82 percent in 2009, while in the same time period George Mason University improved from 49 percent to 64 percent—15 full percentage points.

So after all the research on parental reactions to graduation rates, what does the American Enterprise Institute conclude? “[P]arents can and will evaluate colleges and universities and choose higher-performing ones, provided they have access to indicators of college performance that they can use.”

The AEI goes on to suggest that the US Department of Education could require all colleges participating in federal student aid programs to report their graduation and retention rates clearly on admissions and financial aid correspondence with students.

This recommendation won’t go over too well with colleges that feel the current methodology for computing these numbers, which fails to take into account transfer information, would unfairly prejudice families against their schools.

But short of ordering a massive retooling of marketing materials to include data that might not always be too flattering, it’s easier to ask someone who either knows the answer or knows where to find and how to explain it. And that’s where good college advising comes in.

For more information on the study or to download a copy of the complete report, visit the American Enterprise Institute website.

Jan 10, 2011

Carnegie Announces New Additions for the 2010 ‘Community Engagement’ Classification

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recently announced the selection 115 colleges and universities for its 2010 Community Engagement Classification. These schools join the 196 institutions identified in the 2006 and 2008 processes.

Unlike the Foundation’s other classifications that rely on national data, this is a relatively new “elective” classification. Colleges and universities choose to participate by submitting required documentation describing “the nature and extent of their engagement with the community, be it local or beyond.”

This year, 305 institutions registered to receive an application (up from 217 in 2008), about half of which actually completed the process to document community engagement. Of the total applications, 115 were successfully classified as community engaged institutions.

“Through a classification that acknowledges significant commitment to and demonstration of community engagement, the Foundation encourages colleges and universities to become more deeply engaged, to improve teaching and learning and to generate socially responsive knowledge to benefit communities,” said Carnegie President Anthony Bryk. “We are very pleased with the movement we are seeing in this direction.”

To be selected, schools had to provide descriptions and examples of institutionalized practices of community engagement that showed “alignment among mission, culture, leadership, resources and practices.”

The Foundation found a great deal of interest among colleges and universities in being recognized for community engagement commitments and noted an overall increase in student engagement tied to curriculum.

Locally, only Loyola University of Maryland, James Madison University, and the University of Richmond have received the Community Engagement Classification. Curiously, no colleges or universities in the District of Columbia appear on the list.

More information and the complete listing of institutions in the Community Engagement Classification, may be found on the Carnegie Foundation website.

Picture provided by Wikipedia.

Jan 8, 2011

Harvard Ponders Position on Early Admission

Shortly after the University of Virginia announced a return to non-binding Early Action, Princeton promptly reaffirmed its commitment to a “single review” process and indicated a desire to maintain the traveling roadshow the two schools created with Harvard several years ago.

“It works for us,” commented Robyn Kent, Princeton’s associate dean of admission. “President Tilghman is very committed to single review, and we have no plans to change our current application procedures.”

But now Harvard isn’t so sure. With the passing of the January 1st freshman application deadline, admissions staff may be taking a closer look at the costs and benefits of a process that results in relatively late submission of applications and supporting materials.

“We’re in the midst of a major study,” said Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons, in an interview with the Harvard Crimson. “At the moment, we don’t anticipate any changes, but we’re a dynamic institution.”

But change is clearly in the wind. In conversations concerning issues with the Common Application, Fitzsimmons expressed frustration with glitches in a system that prohibits colleges from downloading recommendations and transcripts earlier in the process.

For colleges with a “single review” process, meaning no Early Decision or Early Action, this can result in artificially long delays in receiving materials and getting application files started. These delays often result in bottlenecks toward the end of the process when the floodgate of materials suddenly opens.

Process problems combined with the understandable priorities of students seeking to submit at least one early application can result in a frantic rush of documents toward the end of the application cycle. And this makes staff crazy.

Harvard, along with UVa and Princeton, originally dropped its early admission program out of concern that the practice unfairly benefited more affluent or better coached students. At the time, all three schools hoped other high-profile colleges would follow their lead and join them in eliminating similar programs. That didn’t happen.

A side benefit of eliminating early admission was also considered the ability to set aside six weeks of fall travel time for carefully targeted recruitment trips. Without early notification deadlines, the three schools were able to use the extra downtime to promote greater accessibility in admissions.

But the free time has turned into more of a liability than a benefit, as applicants consider other schools and admissions possibilities before they begin preparing materials for schools with later deadlines. By December, high school students frequently claim to be burned out by the process and have little patience for starting new applications or beginning another set of supplementary essays.

Although UVa says the return to early action was a result of requests from counselors and parents, UVa’s Dean Roberts has been clear that the administrative nightmare of having so many applications come in December was an important factor in their consideration. There’s also been concern expressed about missed opportunities to recruit outstanding candidates before they commit to other schools.

Harvard has reviewed its decision every year, but the current review will be more extensive Dean Fitzsimmons told the Crimson. He promises, however, that the study will conclude in time for application materials for next year’s admissions season to be printed.

Jan 7, 2011

The Gates Millennium Scholars Program is more than Just a Scholarship

Since 1999, the Alexandria-based Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) Program has funded more than 13,000 scholars in more than 1,500 colleges and universities. And this year, GMS plans to add 1000 new names to the list of students receiving “good-through-graduation” scholarships at schools all over the country.

Funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the GMS program was established to provide outstanding African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander, and Hispanic American students with an opportunity to complete an undergraduate education in any discipline area of interest. “Continuing” Gates Millennium Scholars may request funding for a graduate degree program in one of the following disciplines: computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health, or science.

But this program is about more than just the money. Gates Millennium Scholars are provided with personal and professional development through leadership programs. The GMS program offers ACedemic Empowerment (ACE) services to encourage academic excellence; mentoring services for academic and personal development; and an online resource center that provides internship, fellowship, and scholarship information.

To be eligible for consideration, students must submit three required application forms online by Monday, January 10, 2011 or by mail with a postmark on or before January 10. These include

• Student Application (Nominee Personal Information Form)
• Educator’s evaluation of the student’s academic record (Nominator Form)
• Evaluation of the student’s community service and leadership activities (Recommender form)

Minority students with demonstrated leadership abilities who have attained a cumulative high school GPA of 3.3 on an unweighted 4.0 scale and who meet the Federal Pell Grant eligibility criteria are encouraged to apply. To ensure eligibility, candidates should file a FAFSA at their earliest opportunity.

For more information and all application materials, GMS homepage.

Jan 6, 2011

College of Charleston Reduces Tuition for Spring Semester

For local high school students considering the College of Charleston, I have a New Year’s present. At its November meeting, the College of Charleston Board of Trustees voted to decrease in-state undergraduate tuition for the spring of 2011.

“The Board of Trustees understands the concerns that have been expressed by our legislators and the difficult choices that have to be made in our current economy,” said Board of Trustees Chair Greg Padgett.

In June 2010, the Board voted to increase tuition by 14.75 percent for the 2010-11 academic year. The mid-year adjustment will bring the increase down to 7 percent and will result in an overall budget reduction of $2.3 million for the year.

Despite the budget cut, the College promises to keep in place the pool of financial aid created by the original tuition rate which provided for a 25 percent increase in money available to support the growing financial needs of students. Some “strategic initiatives,” however, will be placed on hold for now.

While still unusual, mid-year tuition adjustments—usually in the other direction—are becoming the new reality at cash-strapped colleges and universities. The California State University Board of Trustees recently approved a very unpopular 5 percent tuition increase for the balance of the 2010-11 school year that went into effect January 1, 2011.

And this time last year, the College of William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, Longwood University, and the Virginia community college system were all forced to increase tuition for second semester.

But news is good at the College of Charleston. Students will be returning from winter break with a little bit more cash in their pockets.

Image provided by the South Carolina Dept. of Archives & History

Jan 5, 2011

Area Schools Score Well Among Kiplinger’s ‘Best Values’ in Public Colleges

More than 10 percent of the 100 public colleges listed as “Best Values” by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine may be found in either Maryland or Virginia.

While the University of Virginia retained its number 3 ranking for the fifth time in six years, the University of Maryland moved up from number eight last year to number five in 2010-11—just behind the College of William & Mary, at number 4.

Acknowledging that the financial environment for colleges and universities could “hardly be worse,” Kiplinger’s points out, “Over the past few years, states have cut funding for colleges and universities by tens of millions of dollars, leaving schools much smaller budgets to cope with increased enrollment and greater demand for financial aid.”

The future doesn’t look much better as federal stimulus money, “which provided crucial support,” will soon run out, and states are likely to continue slashing support for public education.

“The takeaway for soon-to-matriculate students: Look for schools that deliver an outstanding, affordable education in good times and bad.”

Kiplinger’s bases its rankings on a combination of academics and affordability, with “academic quality,” carrying more weight than cost. Total expenses for in-state students (tuition, mandatory fees, room and board, and books), as well as the availability of financial aid (not loans) and the average debt per student at graduation are factors in computing overall cost.

In this year’s ranking, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came in number one for the 10th straight year, and the University of Florida continued to hold down the number two spot. Other top 10 schools include the State University of New York-Binghamton University, SUNY-Geneseo, University of Georgia, University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of Washington.

The article applauded UVa and the College of William & Mary for maintaining positions among the top five “Best Values” since the ranking was first published in 1998. Both schools draw high-scoring freshmen and post the highest four-year graduation rates on the list. UVa was also singled out for offering outstanding financial aid to students with need through AccessUVa.

Other Virginia universities ranked in the top 100 were James Madison (19), Virginia Tech (24), the University of Mary Washington (26), and George Mason (61). In Maryland, “Best Values” included St. Mary’s College of Maryland (40), Salisbury University (60), Towson University (78) and the University of Maryland Baltimore County (91).

Local colleges also scored well among "Best Values" for out-of-state students, with UVa at number 5, Maryland at 6, and the College of William & Mary at number 10.

Illustration provided by Wikipedia

Jan 3, 2011

Three Virginia Universities Drop ‘Commuter School’ Tag

Call it a case of “catching up with reality.” In the coming weeks, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, and Old Dominion hope to shed their dowdy commuter-school labels and officially transform into “residential” universities under a classification system administered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The reclassification is a big deal for all three schools. Every five years or so, Carnegie publishes classifications derived from national data on institutional characteristics and activities from sources such as the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the National Science Foundation, and the College Board.

These classifications take into account enrollment and instructional profiles, as well as the size and setting of all accredited, degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S.

This time around, the number crunchers at Carnegie finally recognized what communities surrounding the three universities have known for quite some time: availability of undergraduate residential facilities has grown enormously with the construction of new residence halls and campus-based recreation centers.

At George Mason, the transformation is nothing short of astonishing as new construction has entirely changed the face of the Fairfax campus. Ten years ago, GMU had dormitory space for less than 3,000 students. Capacity is now at 5,400 with room for another 600 beds under construction and expected to be completed by 2012.

This means that about one-third of GMU’s full time undergrads are living on campus, which meets the Carnegie Foundation definition of “primarily residential.” Schools with higher percentages of students living on campus are considered “highly residential.”

In Richmond, VCU has almost doubled housing capacity over the past ten years and currently boasts of nearly 5,000 beds with construction underway for a new 459-bed residence hall scheduled to open in fall of 2012. Future plans include about $1 billion in new academic, medical, recreation, housing and parking facilities on both the Monroe Park and MCV campuses.

Similarly, university-owned housing at Old Dominion has “more than doubled in the past five years,” according to Carole Henry, executive director of housing and residence life. In addition, the university is partnering with private entities to build housing on the fringes of ODU that will effectively extend campus reach.

In guidebooks and online descriptions, the College Board already labels GMU a “residential campus,” reflecting obvious changes in Mason’s demographics. In the last decade, the number of out-of-state students at GMU has grown at nearly triple the rate of the in-state population. Mason also draws a relatively large number of international students coming from no less than 125 countries.

Once Carnegie officially acknowledges these transformations, GMU as well as ODU and VCU will finally be rid of the commuter-school tag, which school administrators feel prejudices students and families shopping for colleges.

“When people perceive a college to be a commuter campus, they perceive there are not opportunities to get involved,” said Jana Hurley, GMU’s executive director of housing and residence life in an interview for the Associated Press. “It takes time to change these perceptions, but those perceptions are shifting more rapidly because of the changes we’re making.”

Jan 1, 2011

FAFSA Goes Live

Happy New Year! In case you missed the memo, the online FAFSA application went “live” just about the same time the Times Square crystal ball hit bottom at midnight on January 1st. And it's housed in a newly-designed website featuring a few additional bells and whistles that should make the 2011-12 FAFSA experience the best ever.

As I’ve noted before, National Fruitcake Toss Day probably receives more attention than the annual start to the federal financial aid season, which runs from January 1, 2011 to June 30, 2011. Nevertheless, it’s time to sharpen the pencils, put fresh batteries in the calculator, dig out tax returns, and organize bank records to tackle the single most important form necessary to make yourself eligible for millions in federal aid.

So, when is the best time to file the FAFSA? Right NOW!

With thousands of families competing for money this year, you need to submit your application as soon as possible. The earlier the FAFSA is received, the earlier it will get processed, and the better positioned you will be for grants and scholarships. And much of this money is first come, first served. Get the picture?

Start by organizing your documents. You need your Social Security number, driver’s license, income tax return, bank statements, and investment records. Next, if you haven’t done so already, apply for a PIN number. Both a parent and the student will need PIN’s to sign the FAFSA electronically. The application is easy and there’s no longer any waiting—a PIN can be generated on the spot.

Although a paper application is still an option (and can help as a tool for drafting responses off-line), it is highly recommended that you complete the web-based form and submit electronically to save time. If you have no internet access at home, libraries have online connections, and schools usually will make accommodations to support online FAFSA filing. Ask your guidance counselor or college/career center specialist for help if necessary. And always keep in mind that this is the FREE Application for Federal Student Assistance. Don’t pay for PIN’s or application forms. If in doubt, ask. FAFSA customer service representatives stand ready to respond online or by phone.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of early FAFSA filing. Money is seldom an unlimited resource, and colleges are experiencing financial problems just like the rest of us. They have deadlines and bureaucratic procedures to follow in the preparation of aid packages. And many of these deadlines come much earlier than you think.

Also, don’t delay just because you haven’t filed taxes yet. Use last year’s returns and plan to amend later. Corrections to the original 2011-12 FAFSA may be submitted up until September 15, 2012.

As my mother-in-law says, “WIGIG”—when it’s gone, it’s gone. So use the quiet time you have available the rest of the holiday weekend to get FAFSA started. Why wait?

Picture by Jared Byer at Flickr.