Aug 31, 2015

What freshmen may or may not know

Born the year Princess Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris and Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in Los Angeles, members of the Class of 2019 have never licked a postage stamp and have always been able to turn to “Google” to do their research for them.  They take “Wi-Fi” for granted and consider email an ordinary but increasingly outmoded form of communication.

Each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the College Mindset List, the brainchild of Tom McBride, Emeritus Professor of English; Ron Nief, former public affairs director; and Charles Westerberg, Director of the Liberal Arts in Practice Center and Brannon-Ballard Professor of Sociology. Designed to clue faculty into what their new frosh experienced growing up and help them “be wary of dated references,” the list traditionally signals the start of the academic year.

Items on this year's list reflect the cultural and political world views of today’s 18-year-olds, most of whom were born in 1997.  And for better or worse, this group will no doubt think of the “last century” as the twentieth.

For the complete Mindset List, visit the Beloit website.  In the meantime, here are some highlights: 
  • The airport in Washington D.C. has always been Reagan National
  • There has always been an imaginary town in Colorado called South Park
  • Hong Kong has always been under Chinese rule
  • There has always been a hybrid version of the Toyota Prius
  • The Atlanta Braves have always played at Turner Field
  • Color photos have always found a place on the front page of the New York Times
  • Scotland and Wales have always had their own parliaments and assemblies
  • The Houston Oilers have never played in Houston
  • Harry Potter and friends have always been at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
  • The Commonwealth of Virginia has always been without an official state song
  • Phish Food has always been available from Ben and Jerry
  • Paul McCartney and Elton John have always been knights
  • The Lion King has always had a Broadway presence
  • CNN has always been available in Spanish
  • There has always been a Splenda alternative
…and there has always been a Beloit College Mindset List!

Aug 28, 2015

What freshmen were reading this summer

The summer reading program at Duke sparked controversy this year.

Each year, colleges and universities across the country assign a book as “common reading” to incoming freshmen.  Schools typically pick one book and ask students to read it outside of any course requirements.  Many times, the author is invited to help kick-off the year by speaking on campus at a seminar or at convocation.

And since 2010, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) has been studying these assignments to find out what books are selected, how many and what kinds of colleges have such programs, as well as how these books are integrated into academics.

Used as popular vehicles for introducing the all-important freshman first year experience, increasingly considered key to freshman retention efforts, summer reading programs provide sneak previews of what colleges consider important, controversial, or just plain interesting.

And they often set the tone for wonderful things to come, as freshmen make life-changing transitions from high school to college.

Unlike traditional “required reading” assignments designed for students to get a little ahead or keep in the practice of reading over the summer, college programs are more targeted to helping “start the conversation” during freshman.

“The common reading usually serves as an introduction to college life and offers a first impression of the mission and academic intensity of the institution,” suggests NAS researchers in their 2014 Beach Books report. 

But even the most benign “first year experience” assignments can spark controversy.  

In 2011, 60 Minutes ran an exposé on Greg Mortenson, whose books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools had become wildly popular freshman reading.  Shortly after, the books were quietly jettisoned from summer 2011 reading lists and invitations to speak were withdrawn.  In fact, no college has assigned Three Cups of Tea or Stones into Schools (Mortenson’s 2009) since the controversy, according to the NAS.

And this year, Duke University ran into problems with its recommended summer reading for incoming freshmen.  Some students objected to the selection of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, as borderline pornographic and inappropriate reading for students with strong religious values.

“It would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone’s way of thinking,” said Michael Schoenfeld, a Duke spokesman, in an email interview with Inside Higher Ed. “We understand and respect that, but also hope that students will begin their time at Duke with open minds and a willingness to explore new ideas, whether they agree with them or not.”

So what other books were freshmen reading? Based on an analysis of 341 colleges and universities, the NAS found 231 different titles assigned for 2013-14.  The most frequently-selected book (13 institutions—down from 31 the year before) was the
Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. 

The second most assigned, chosen by 11 colleges and universities, was This I Believe II, edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman.  The Other Wes Moore:  One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore came in third.

Other frequently-assigned books were Litle Princes, by Conor Grennan; Wine to Water, by Doc Hendley; and Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

A quick review of reading selections for the Class of 2019 suggests quite a bit of diversity:
And Stanford University traditionally assigns three books to incoming freshmen. This year’s selections include The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson, Cane River, by Lalita Tademy, and This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolfe.  

Not to be left out, many local colleges and universities are incorporating summer reading into their 2015 freshman orientation activities.

For example, students at the
University of Richmond will be joining UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin in reading Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, while Georgetown University's summer reading program will feature Romesh Gunesekera and his latest novel, Noontide Troll.

Taking a cue from one of last year’s most popular freshman assignments, Longwood University will be reading The Other Wes Moore, and first year students at Johns Hopkins University will read The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

American, freshmen will read Chasing Chaos: A Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid, by Jessica Alexander. Not only will Alexander visit AU to discuss the book on September 9, but students will also have the opportunity to win $200 in an essay contest following the presentation.

Further to the east, freshmen at
Salisbury University will read Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer.  Students are also encouraged to enter the New Student Reader Einstein Challenge by using memory tools from the book to remember sets of words, numbers, and names and faces.

Established in 1998, Virginia Tech’s Common Book Project is designed to enrich the first-year experience and create “sense of community for undergraduate students.”  This year, Tech students will be reading Little Princes, by Conor Grennan.

Going in a slightly different direction, first year students at Virginia Commonwealth University have been assigned The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. And Goucher students will be reading The Power of Mindful Learning, by Ellen J. Langer.

While a couple of common reading programs have been discontinued, GW’s among them, the NAS reports that for the most part, these community-wide activities are becoming more popular.  Most of the books assigned were non-fiction and more than half were published between 2000 and 2013. And 68 percent of the colleges brought the author to speak on campus. 

Aug 24, 2015

College admissions just got harder with changing standardized test policies

University of Pennsylvania

One of the biggest surprises of the summer has been how many colleges and universities are already turning their backs on the new essay or writing section of the “redesigned” SAT (rSAT), set to debut in March 2016.  And many of these schools are revising long-standing policies requiring the ACT with Writing, to align with what’s been decided about the new SAT.

While it seems reasonable for colleges to be announcing test requirements for students applying for entry in fall 2017, what’s making college admissions just a little bit harder is how many colleges are changing policies for students applying for fall 2016.

Over the past few weeks, a number of high-profile colleges and universities announced they will not be requiring the optional essay on the new SAT.  And some of these colleges decided to also drop the writing section of the ACT effective immediately, including the University of Pennsylvania, University of North Carolina, and Cornell University.  

Although some of the new policies could have been predicted, some came as a complete surprise to students and their advisers who followed instructions on websites available at the time they registered for and took standardized tests.

Certainly, colleges that never required the ACT with Writing would not be likely to require the rSAT with the optional essay.  According to the ACT, colleges falling into this category would include Georgetown, University of Chicago, Colgate, Macalester, College of William and Mary, Davidson, Reed College, and Southern Methodist University—to name a few.  

Colleges that are fully test optional also wouldn’t be requiring the SAT’s new essay, because well, they don’t require standardized tests for admission.  These might include Bowdoin College, College of the Holy Cross, Connecticut College, DePaul University, Dickinson, George Washington University, Lewis and Clark, Mount Holyoke, Pitzer, Providence College, Temple University and Wesleyan University (for a complete list and specific terms of test optional policies visit ).  

Because relatively few colleges have made public announcements about their policies vis-à-vis the rSAT, most of the information available concerning writing or essay requirements is coming from a webpage maintained by the College Board.  

But the College Board doesn’t address policies for the ACT.   In fact, ACT maintains an interactive webpage for this purpose.  But for now, it’s not doing a great job keeping up with changes in test policies already announced for this year at Penn, Cornell and Chapel Hill.

So what should an applicant do?  To determine if a college wants the ACT with Writing for either the class of 2016 or the class of 2017, applicants need to go directly to websites.  Some are more specific than others.  And some like Villanova and Boston College—both listed by the College Board as not requiring the rSAT with essay—have not been updated (as of this writing) and are not particularly helpful.

For now, testing requirements are in a state of flux and some colleges are reacting to changes in both the SAT and the ACT by dropping standardized tests, as suggested by the almost weekly announcements from FairTest, which keeps track of these developments.

But because test scores are cornerstones of college list development, counselors will probably continue to recommend the ACT for the class of 2017 and to cover all bases, they will recommend taking it with Writing—but it’s by no means an absolute given.  

For the class of 2016, most of whom have already committed to a test strategy and taken at least one standardized test, the recommendation for fall testing may be a little more nuanced.  If there’s the possibility of taking or retaking the ACT, it might be worth considering if colleges on your list really require or recommend the writing component to save time and money!