May 30, 2012

NACAC Supports Veterans Making the Transition from Combat to College

The Arlington-based National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) maintains a vast library of documents and materials covering issues in college admissions, including a number related to veterans and veterans' educational opportunities.  While many resources are freely available to the public on the NACAC website, more specialized information is usually housed in the members-only “Knowledge Center.”
To celebrate Military Appreciation Month, NACAC has “unlocked” all veterans’ resources in the Knowledge Center.  These materials will be made available to the general public through June 2, 2012.
Included among these materials is listing of model programs and scholarship samples offered by a number of military-friendly colleges and universities.  Also available is a “Military to College Guide” published by the Student Veterans of America and other more technical documents related to transition issues experienced by veterans who seek to enroll in college.
Veterans and anyone working with veterans in the combat to college transition process may want to take a look at what NACAC has put together with the help of some of its members and experts in the field of veterans’ education programs, including a webinar entitled "Assisting Veterans with the College Admission Process" (there is a cost for viewing).
And while you’re at it, here is a sample of other freely available resources supporting college search and financing: 
You can continue your search for additional materials with the search box at the top right corner of the home page. If the item does not have a lock next to its title, it is open to the public.
Founded in 1937, NACAC is a membership organization of more than 12,000 professionals from around the world who are “dedicated to serving students as they make choices about pursuing postsecondary education.” 
For more information about NACAC and the role the organization plays in the  admissions process, you can visit the NACAC website or attend one of the NACAC college fairs scheduled throughout the year.

The Financial Aid Clock is Ticking Down

James Madison University
Even though the clock is ticking down, there are still ways to stay ahead in the financial aid game. With a few properly-executed “plays,” you can definitely have an impact on what financial aid is offered and how close it comes to meeting your needs.
Here are a few good moves to make:
  • Complete the FAFSA. Even if you missed state and/or institutional priority deadlines, you should still complete a FAFSA as soon as possible. Yes, most schools have already allocated their funds. But if there is anything left over, they may try to accommodate late filers. And even if a school has distributed all its own aid, applicants remain eligible for federal loans and Pell grants. Do it NOW.

  • Submit Corrections. If you completed your FAFSA based on estimates, you should update immediately using tax information from 2011. Although colleges distribute financial aid packages based on estimates, they expect corrections to be made as soon as final information is available. Be aware that they may amend your package if revised numbers vary significantly from the estimates you provided—but this can work to your advantage if your income estimates were high.
  • Answer your mail. Watch for correspondence related to your FAFSA or other school-based financial aid requests. And keep in mind that colleges are required by the federal government to randomly select some applications for "verification."  If you are asked to provide additional information or to clarify any of your answers on application forms, respond immediately.

  • Review the fine print.  In the rush of decision-making, you may have missed some important terms in your financial aid package.  Be aware of any academic requirements to maintain your scholarship award and be sure that your aid is guaranteed for a minimum of four years. If you expect to study abroad, ask if your financial aid will carry with you.  Plan ahead. Don’t wait until the money disappears before addressing these issues with your financial aid office.

  • Keep colleges informed. Be sure to make colleges aware of any significant change in family circumstances, such as an unexpected layoff, a salary cut, a divorce, or the death of a parent or guardian. Most are very understanding and will make every effort to respond promptly and with great compassion. It’s better to be upfront about situations over which you have no control than to let a problem fester until neither you nor the college can solve it.

  • Educate yourself about student loans. All new federal education loans are being made through the Direct Loan program and your college’s financial aid office with funds provided by the US Department of Education. Although federal loans may offer lower interest rates and more flexible repayment plans (including some loan forgiveness opportunities), it’s up to you to be a smart consumer. Check out the information provided on the FinAid website and contact your financial aid office with any additional questions you may have.

  • Go back to the well.   It can’t hurt to ask.  As students make adjustments in their plans for the fall, previously allocated money may get freed up.  If you’re having a hard time making ends meet or if the mix of grant aid and loans is proving burdensome—even without an extraordinary change in circumstances—contact your financial aid office and explain the situation.

  • Continue the scholarship hunt. Admittedly pickings are getting a little slim. Nevertheless, continue checking with scholarship websites like Cappex or FastWeb, and register to receive up-to-date information on competitions or other scholarship opportunities. Also, don’t hesitate to ask about the availability of additional or future scholarship money at your college or university.

  • Keep your grades up. Colleges reserve the right to rescind merit scholarships if grades drop below the point of eligibility. On the other hand, strong senior year grades may push your overall GPA to a level high enough to qualify for additional money. Even a tenth of a percentage point could make a difference in dollars received. Again, it never hurts to ask.
If you have questions concerning FAFSA on the Web, do not hesitate to contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 1-319-337-5665. You can also contact the Center by email or request "live help" by clicking a button located on the FAFSA website.

Most importantly, remember that even at this late date, it’s worth playing the game to win.

May 28, 2012

Support for College-Bound Veterans grows through Yellow Ribbon Program Benefits

Amherst College War Memorial
Over the past year, the Yellow Ribbon Program has made significant improvements in benefits available to student-veterans enrolled in local colleges and universities.

Administered by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides tuition and fee benefits for those attending public institutions and creates a national maximum for those enrolled in private or foreign postsecondary schools.

Under the terms of the program, eligible student-veterans receive
  • all resident tuition and fees for a public institution
  • the higher of the actual tuition and fees OR $17,500 per academic year for a private school (exceptions exist in Arizona, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas)
Additional provisions may be made when tuition and fee expenses exceed these amounts if a student is attending a private school or an out-of-state public institution.

To accomplish this, the program allows postsecondary institutions to enter into agreements with the VA to fund tuition and fee expenses exceeding the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition rate.  The institution can contribute a specified dollar amount of those expenses and VA will match the institution’s contribution up to a specified limit.

And the “transferability option” under the Post-9/11 GI Bill may allow some service members to transfer unused benefits to spouses or dependent children.

Schools specify both the amount available and total number of Yellow Ribbon students covered by their programs—typically on a first come, first served basis. The VA then matches the agreed-upon amount and makes payments directly to the institution.

Last year more than 2,600 schools participated in the Yellow Ribbon program.  But according to the VA, the list growing for the 2012-13 academic year and the maximum number of students covered at individual schools is growing as well.

For example, last year George Washington’s Yellow Ribbon undergraduate program was capped at 150 students.  This year, the program has expanded to potentially cover 200 undergrads.  And GW places no limit on the number of graduate students covered by the program.

Here’s how it works for GW undergrads:  A Yellow Ribbon qualified student has tuition expenses of $45,780 and will automatically receive $17,500 as a GI Bill Base Benefit.  This leaves a remaining tuition cost of $28,280.  Under the terms of its agreement with the VA, GW will provide half the balance in Yellow Ribbon Program benefits (up to $18,000) and the VA will match the other half that is equivalent to 50 percent of the remaining net tuition cost (also up to $18,000 for GW students).  In other words, GW undergrads eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program will be able to attend GW without paying anything in tuition and fees.

At George Mason University, all out-of-state undergraduate, graduate, and law students with Yellow Ribbon Program benefits will receive a maximum of $10,000 per academic year ($5000 from Mason plus $5000 from the VA).  And at McDaniel College or Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, the combination of VA educational benefits and the Yellow Ribbon Program will fully cover any qualified undergrad’s tuition charges.

The VA recently announced the list of participating programs for 2012-13 and continues to process and update the list as additional institutions sign on.

In Virginia, Averett University, Bridgewater College, Christendom College, the College of William & Mary, Eastern Mennonite University, Ferrum College, GMU, Hampden-Sydney College, Hampton University, Hollins University, Liberty University, Lynchburg College, Mary Baldwin College, Marymount University, OldDominion University, Randolph-Macon College, Regent University, Roanoke College, Shenandoah University, Sweet Briar College, the University of Richmond, VCU, Virginia Tech, Virginia Wesleyan College, and Washington & Lee University are among the schools with active Yellow Ribbon programs.

Additionally, American University, Catholic University, Gallaudet University, GW, Georgetown, Trinity Washington, UDC, Goucher, Johns Hopkins, Loyola University of Maryland, McDaniel College, Maryland Institute College of Art, Mount St. Mary’s University, Notre Dame of Maryland, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Stevenson University, St. John’s College, UMUC, and Washington Adventist University have approved programs.

For more information and the
complete list of participating institutions, visit the VA website and search for the Yellow Ribbon Program.

May 26, 2012

Tour Colleges and Save

Eastern Mennonite University
The Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia (CICV) recently announced that Virginia Private College Week is scheduled to run this summer from July 30 to August 4th and will once again offer college-bound students the opportunity to tour and save.

Thanks to some creative thinking, CICV launched an incentive program designed to bring high school students and their families to Virginia’s private college campuses by giving away application fee waivers.

Literally hundreds of students take advantage of the offer each year as groups of families drive from campus to campus on summer vacations that double as traditional college tours.

It works this way:
  1. Decide which schools you want to visit. There are 25 from which to choose, and they are located in virtually every corner of scenic Virginia.
  2. Register for tours at each of the schools you plan to visit. Yes, register. It’s not required, but it really helps the schools plan for materials and tour guides.
  3. Organize your travel plans. Transportation information and driving instructions are available on individual college websites. Note that this is not an organized bus tour.
  4. Pick up a passport at the first college. It’s cute—a little like Disney’s EPCOT.
  5. At the end of each tour, get the passport stamped.
  6. Once you accumulate at least three stamps, mail the passport to CICV, 118 East Main Street, Bedford, VA 24523.
Bingo! You’ve won three application fee waivers for any of the Virginia private colleges, and not necessarily the ones you visited.

For example, if you visit Marymount, Shenandoah, and Lynchburg, you can use your fee waivers at any of these three universities or at Randolph-Macon, Washington & Lee, or the University of Richmond. Your choice!

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

And as you’re considering Virginia private colleges, don’t forget about the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG). This amazing program offers financial awards to students attending any of Virginia’s private colleges or universities. The sole eligibility requirement is that you live in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It’s really pretty sweet.

Also keep in mind that Virginia 529 plans can be applied to the tuition at any Virginia private college.  All four savings programs offered by the Virginia College Savings Plan—The Virginia Education Savings Trust (VEST), CollegeAmerica®, CollegeWealth®, and the Virginia Prepaid Education Program (VPEP)—can be used at any of the Virginia private colleges.

Start making plans now.  If you have questions about the tour or the advantages of Virginia’s private colleges, you can call 540.586.0606 or visit the CICV website.

May 25, 2012

Regional Finalists announced for the 2012 Google Science Fair

The 90 regional finalists were nominated from thousands of projects.
Just as the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) welcomed over 1500 young scientists in Pittsburgh, Google announced an impressive slate of 90 regional finalists in its second annual online international science fair. 

Open to students 13 to 18, the Google Science Fair received thousands of entries from more than 100 countries around the world, including a number from students in DC area high schools who beyond conducting experiments devoted hours devising online presentations and completing technical requirements for the fair.

To get the competition started, an international team of teachers was given the task of evaluating the projects on creativity, scientific merit, and “global relevance.” This was no easy assignment as entries covered a mind-boggling assortment of topics.

And the projects are amazing. Topics ranged from improving recycling using LEGO robots to treating cancer with a substance created by bees. 

Locally, Rishabh Mazmuder from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) is returning for the second year as a regional finalist.  This year’s research involves the role of “metallofullerene nanoparticles” in cancer therapy.

But the competition is far from over. The Google judging panel will narrow the list of regional finalists to 15 global finalists.  Their names will be announced on June 6th, together with the winner of the Scientific American Science in Action Award, for which there are 15 finalists.

The finalists in each age category will be invited to Google headquarters for the final round of judging, which will take place on July 23, 2012.  Grand prizes include a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands and a $50,000 scholarship.

And then there’s always next year. Google has already posted a sign-up sheet for the 2013 Science Fair.

May 23, 2012

Unlocking the Treasures of the Common Data Set

Georgetown recently posted its Common Data Set  for the first time.

The tricky part is finding where it’s posted.  But once you locate the Common Data Set (CDS) for a particular college or university, you’ll have the key to unlocking a treasure trove of valuable information.
And it’s often more current and complete than what’s posted on glitzier college search websites or printed in the mega college guides. 
For example, the 2012 College Board College Handbook  was printed in June, 2011 and contains data provided to the CDS for the 2010-11 academic year.  The 2013 edition is due out next month.
But most colleges have already posted CDS responses for 2011-12, and they are readily accessible online.  So why not get a jump on the 2013 Handbook by going directly to the source? 
Also, not every website or guide uses every morsel of information available through the CDS.  Few will tell you about wait lists or transfers.  But if you know where to look, it’s usually all there. 
And not only that, you can research trends by looking at CDS data over a series of years.  Unless you’ve kept all those bulky guides or filed away printouts over the years, no other source will so easily lend itself to historical research on wait lists, freshman retention, or graduation rates.
Keep in mind, however, that the CDS is a voluntary project in which participating colleges “self-report” information with little or no oversight. 
While unusual, there have been instances of malfeasance where colleges attempt to rig information to look better or improve their status on the USNWR rankings.  And not every college chooses to answer every question.
You can always double check information on the College Navigator website. But even then, the data is only as good as what colleges are willing or able to provide and it sometimes lags the most recent Common Data Set.
So for the extra motivated, here are a few of the treasures you can unlock with creative use of the Common Data Set: 
  • Graduation Rates.  For recent graduating classes, you can compute 4-year graduation rates by dividing B7 (completions in four years or less) by B6 (total class size).  Using this computation, Georgetown graduated 89 percent of the class beginning in 2004 within four years.  Question B11 saves you the math and simply states the 6-year graduation rate, which for Georgetown was 94 percent for the same class.

  • Retention.  Question B22 provides the freshman retention rate as based on the date the institution calculates its “official” enrollment—a number subject to some manipulation depending on who is counting and on what day.

  •  Admit Rate (Selectivity).  Using the answers to C1, you can get male/female as well as overall admit rates (selectivity) by dividing the number of admitted students by the number of applicants.  If you’re really tricky, you can see the relative percentages of male and female admits.  For example, the College of William & Mary admitted 44 percent of its male applicants for fall of 2011, but only 29 percent of the females.

  • Yield.  Once again using C1, the yield is computed by dividing the total number of enrolled students by the number admitted.  Note that because of the sensitivity and importance of this number, the definitions of “admitted” and “enrolled” are often subject to debate. 

  •  Wait list.  The answers to C2 will speak volumes about a school’s use of the wait list and what the likelihood is of admission from the wait list.  For example, in 2011, Johns Hopkins offered 2725 students places on the wait list for a class of 1279.  Of those, 2364 (or most) accepted spots on the list.  From that group, 19 were admitted.

  • Interview.  C7 suggests the relative importance of academic and nonacademic factors in admission.  This is a good place to see if interviews are available and how generally important they are.  Georgetown considers the interview “important,” while Johns Hopkins and William & Mary simply “consider” the interview.

  • Average GPA.  C12 provides the average high school GPA of all enrolled freshmen.  Because it’s hard to know if the number is weighted, recomputed, and/or representative of all grades submitted, the GPA response is left out of many college guides.  And for some of those same reasons, it’s a question that’s frequently left blank by colleges.

  • Transfer.  D2 shows how many transfer applications were received, how many students were admitted, and how many eventually enrolled.  Other basic information on the transfer process is also made available such as the terms during which transfers may enroll (D3), minimum credit units required for transfer (D4), the need for an interview (D5), and a minimum college grade point average (D7).

  • Residency. Under the “Student Life” section (F1), you can see the percent (and number) of out-of-state students (excluding international students) enrolled.  Both Towson and James Madison enrolled about 18 percent of out-of-state freshmen in the fall of 2011, while Johns Hopkins enrolled 90 percent from out-of-state.
  • Financial Aid.  The entire H section is devoted to financial aid, including scholarships/grants and "self-help" awards.  Interestingly, athletic “awards” are broken down separately in H1. And H6 answers the question of whether or not institutional aid is available to "nonresident aliens."

  • Percent of Need.  In H2i, you can find what percent of need the college claims was met for students awarded any need-based aid.  For Johns Hopkins, that amount would be 99 percent for freshmen and 99.7 percent overall, while Georgetown meets 100% of need.  Towson met 60 percent of need for full time freshmen, and American declined to answer the question.
There’s certainly an argument for letting the CDS gurus aggregate and message the data into more user-friendly formats.  But if you can’t wait until mid-summer and like the idea of going directly to the source, check out the Common Data Set.
This is the second of a two-part series.

May 21, 2012

The Common Data Set—Where the Pros Get Their Numbers

The Catholic University of America
Did you ever wonder where all those weighty college guides get their information?  Are you curious about how publications like US News and World Report collect data for rankings?  Would you like to go directly to the source? 

 If so, let me introduce you to the Common Data Set—a somewhat secretive by largely accessible fountain of information that anyone can tap into, if you know how.

The backstory is simple.  Several years ago, the Common Data Set (CDS) was created as a way to satisfy the endless appetite for college statistics among such organizations as the College Board, US News and World Report, Peterson’s, and Wintergreen Orchard House.

The idea was to reduce duplication of effort and meet publishers’ needs by asking colleges to complete a single survey the results of which would be compiled into a shared data base.

So rather than answer a zillion questions from many different publishers and websites, schools now fill out a lengthy standardized form each year. Data is collected, which is then used for everything from college rankings to online college search tools.

And many colleges are kind enough to publish their surveys on their websites so anyone can have access to the information. It’s a goldmine covering everything from admissions statistics to graduation rates.

Typically, you can find CDS responses by going to a college’s Institutional Research Office webpage or by using the website search function and entering “Common Data Set.” You can also Google “Common Data Set” and institution name. If the information is posted, it will appear as a link.

But not all schools post the CDS and the URL's change frequently, so don’t be alarmed if after several attempts nothing comes up. A number of colleges simply don’t want the public to have easy access to what may be unflattering statistics or information they feel could be misinterpreted. 

And keep in mind, that the folks who administer the CDS don’t audit the information for accuracy.  They rely on colleges and universities to provide accurate and truthful information, which isn’t always the case.

Also, it’s fair to say that colleges are sometimes confused about terms and definitions.  For example, the CDS provides no guidance on what is required for Grade Point Average (GPA) information—weighted or unweighted.  As a result, the reports on GPA are sometimes one and sometimes the other.  And sometimes, the question simply isn’t answered.

Finally, don’t confuse the Common Data Set with the federal government’s College Navigator.  They involve two different reporting systems and produce two different reports.  Where they intersect, College Navigator is usually the more accurate (colleges generally don’t try to fool the feds) but sometimes the CDS stats are more current and more detailed.

You can begin your explorations into the Common Data Set, by checking out a few local college webpages:

Note that the most recent data should be from 2012-11, but some schools are slow to post.