Jan 31, 2014

Common App organizational review ignores important insight

Minutes after the Common Application launched the latest edition of its online application on August 1 of last year, Independent Educational Consultants (IEC’s)  in China, Korea, Singapore and across the world began opening accounts and walking through the process of learning the new software.

Without benefit of “beta” testing or live instruction on how the application would work, IEC’s were among the first to experiment with and develop workshops for students as well as colleagues on how to manipulate the new text boxes and deal with smart technology that didn’t always function as well as it should have.

IEC’s immediately picked up problems in language and instructions, and they made recommendations both via the Common App Help Desk and directly to administrative staff.  And within days, many of these recommendations were acted upon and changes were quietly made without acknowledgement of or appreciation for the dedicated professionals who tirelessly worked to smooth the rough edges of an entirely new system.

And thanks to the tenacity and collegial spirit of many IEC’s, school counselors who reported to work later in August could build on knowledge and expertise shared online and in public forums.  

"This is kind of a 'fan e-mail'--my first, at that! I am writing to thank you for all of your comments in the past month,” said one counselor in response to technical information shared about the new Common Application. “You have been an invaluable resource during the craziness of the new CA4."

Last month, the Common Application Board of Directors, whose membership is largely composed of representatives of private colleges and small independent high schools—no IEC’s, held an emergency meeting to discuss the launch of the CA4.

While acknowledging that this has been an “uncharacteristically difficult year,” the Board had a “highly productive discussion” and voted to undertake an independent review of Common Application organization and technology.

To be clear, this is a board initiative, but The Common Application and Hobsons’ staffs have welcomed the outside review and are fully cooperative,” according to an email sent to members on December 26, by board president, Thyra Briggs, of Harvey Mudd College.

Within days, Censeo, a DC based consulting firm with experience related to federal procurement and supply chain management, put together a set of surveys—one for Common App member colleges and one for counselors.  

In addition to the 517 member colleges and universities, 50,000 school counselors were surveyed.  Students were left out of the project because they lacked the “perspective” of being able to compare the old Common App with the new.  

And although both Censeo and the Common Application declined to say how counselors were selected and where the mailing list came from, one message came through loud and clear—IEC’s were not welcome to share their insights or participate in the project.

“HECA’s 780 members work with over 18,000 seniors a year,” commented Gael Casner, president of the Higher Education Consultants Association.  “In fact, this fall we were in the trenches with seniors during the day, during the evening and on weekends as they learned to navigate the new Common Application.  We celebrated when all green checks aligned correctly and scrambled for answers when they didn’t. Our first-hand experience with the Common App this year and in previous years places HECA members in a unique position to offer valuable input into the survey being conducted by Censeo.”

It’s worth noting that the 12-question survey sent to counselors, assumed the possibility that IEC’s would be among those surveyed, as the first question allows the respondent to identify as such. Yet with the exception of a few retired school counselors who have new careers as IEC’s, none were knowingly sought out for their opinions.

“We would love to offer the opportunity to CA to access our membership for feedback and our staff will work with theirs to make it happen,” suggested Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a membership organization representing 1300 IEC’s serving nearly 55,000 students annually.  “The vast majority of our members have been advising college-bound students for over 10 years and largely come out of school counseling or college admission positions—the very folks who could add perspective given the professional hats they’ve worn.”

Despite whatever message the Common App is trying to convey, IEC’s continue to work with high school students, school counselors, and colleges as valued professionals with a broad view of the entire admissions process. 

And they are being acknowledged for what they bring to the counseling profession.  The Colleges That Change Lives recently included Gisela Terner, an IEC from Wisconsin, among the 2014 Counselors That Changed Lives—a first for the organization and the industry.

It’s too bad that biases best left in the last century continue to get in the way of an honest review of technology and an organization in need of constructive criticism, advice, and a new perspective.  

“We are advocates of any system that eases the college application process for our students,” concludes Ms. Casner, on behalf of HECA and IEC’s in every corner of the world.

This is the first in a series of two articles

Jan 29, 2014

William and Mary and UVa among top 10 ‘best value’ public colleges for 2014

College of William and Mary
According to a ranking released yesterday by the Princeton Review in partnership with USA TODAY, the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary are among the top 10 ‘best value’ public colleges for 2014. 

The annual list recognizes America’s top undergraduate public and private universities offering outstanding academics, generous financial aid, and/or a relatively low cost of attendance.

Possibly reflecting recent changes in pricing and financial aid policies, this year saw a shuffle among the top colleges. UVa dropped from first to third place after the University of North Carolina and New College of Florida, and William and Mary went from 4th to 8th in the value ranking for public universities.

The Princeton Review selected its 150 best values—75 public and 75 private—based on data collected from 2,000 undergraduate institutions. Through institutional and student surveys, the project weighed more than 30 data points covering academics, costs, financial aid, percent of graduating seniors who borrowed from any loan program and the average debt those students had at graduation.

At about half (72) of the 150 colleges named best value, the average freshman grant for applicants who qualify for aid is $20,000 or more. And among the 75 public colleges, the average admission rate is better than 50 percent.

“Students who attend these schools don’t have to mortgage their futures to pay for their degrees,” according to the Princeton Review.

Locally, Christopher Newport, James Madison, Longwood, the Naval Academy, Radford University, Salisbury University, Virginia Tech, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, UMBC, and the University of Maryland-College Park were also named to the list.

Among the nation’s private colleges, the University of Richmond maintains its perfect record of being named a Princeton Review ‘best value’ for 11 straight years—each year since the project originated in 2004. 

“We are pleased by this recognition of the university’s excellent academic programs,” said Richmond’s president, Edward L. Ayers. “Our commitment to financial aid ensures that Richmond’s exceptional experience remains accessible to qualified students regardless of their financial circumstances.” 

Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins are the only other local private institutions to earn spots on the list.

The Princeton Review's "Best Value Colleges" list appears in two free online resources and a companion book. The list and school profiles may be found at http://www.princetonreview.com/best-value-colleges.aspx. USA TODAY posted an exclusive "Best Value Colleges" interactive database at a dedicated area on USATODAY.com: http://bestvaluecolleges.usatoday.com. There, users can access detailed information about each college and sort the list several ways including by state, tuition, enrollment, and average freshman grant. 

The Princeton Review’s book, The Best Value Colleges, has detailed profiles of the colleges with advice for gaining admission and financial aid from the schools.  The book also includes profiles of nine tuition-free colleges.

The Princeton Review's Top 10 Best Value Public Colleges for 2014 are:

1. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 
2. New College of Florida (Sarasota)
3. University of Virginia (Charlottesville)
4. North Carolina State University (Raleigh)
5. University of Michigan–Ann Arbor
7. University of Florida (Gainesville)
8. The College of William & Mary (Williamsburg, VA)
9. Truman State University (Kirksville, MO)
10. State University of New York at Binghamton 

The Princeton Review's Top 10 Best Value Private Colleges for 2014 are:

1. Williams College (Williamstown, MA)
2. Harvard College (Cambridge, MA)
3. Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA)
4. Yale University (New Haven, CT)
5. Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)
6. The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (New York, NY)
7. Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY)
8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
9. Amherst College (Amherst, MA)
10. Pomona College (Claremont, CA)

Jan 27, 2014

2014 FAFSA deadlines come way sooner than you think

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. Some will even give you a few good reasons why this is so important.

And here are a few more priority deadlines:

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—provided you remember to amend. 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).