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USACollegeChat Podcast

Oct 6, 2016

In our last episode, we started narrowing down your teenager’s long summer list of college options.  It made me sad to do it, but I had to admit that fall was here and it was time.  But we hope that you have plenty of colleges left on that list--at least 15 for now.  And we know that many of them would be a great choice for your teenager, because, as we said last week, there is not just one perfect choice for him or her. 

First, let us remind you that you can now complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known to all as the FAFSA.  Fill it out and file it now.  Fill it out by yourself, get help from your teenager’s high school or a local library, or buy help from a service.  But, however you want to do it, get the form filed, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting to qualify for a lot of financial aid.  There is no reason not to fill it out and file it.

Second, let us remind you, as we have been doing for the past couple of weeks, that those Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are approaching--mostly around November 1.  While Early Decision is a serious and binding agreement, Early Action is not.  I cannot see any good reason not to apply for Early Action if colleges your teenager is interested in have it—unless perhaps you are waiting and hoping for improved SAT or ACT scores from November or December test administrations.  However, as we have said before, even students applying to colleges under Early Decision or Early Action plans will need some colleges on their lists in case those early acceptances don’t come in. 

In Episode 93, we took Step 1 in narrowing down your teenager’s list.  We looked at college selectivity, as many counselors do, and offered the following advice:  Be brutal in considering colleges that are too academically demanding for your teenager (based on the GPAs, admission test scores, and sometimes class ranks of admitted or enrolled freshmen and based on required and recommended high school courses) and be equally brutal in considering colleges that are not academically demanding enough for your teenager.  You need only two or three super-demanding ones on your teenager’s list, and you need only two not-very-demanding ones, at least one of which should be a public four-year college in your home state that you feel okay about sending your teenager to.  That leaves a lot of spots open for colleges that seem to you are just about right--perhaps 10 or so.

1.  Step 2:  College Academics Filter

Step 2 in narrowing down the list--if it is indeed needs to be narrowed down any more--is to look at college academics from several perspectives.

First, does each college left on the list offer the field of study that your teenager is most interested in at the moment?  You can look back at summer Assignment #1 (in Episode 81) and double check the academic departments and the majors that each college has and the majors your teenager recorded as being most appealing to him or her. 

Now, we have to say that this step worries us a bit.  We have seen many, many students change their major, their academic department, and even their school within a university after a semester or a year or even two years of college.  It is not unusual, as anyone with any experience in higher education will tell you.  We worry most when an option on your teenager’s list is a specialized college or a specialized school within a larger university and does not offer a liberal arts alternative in addition to the specialty.  Fortunately, I think that more and more specialized institutions--including well-known fine arts colleges and well-respected technical colleges, such as engineering schools--are requiring that students take some core liberal arts courses, which can be used as the basis for transferring to another academic field when the first one doesn’t work out quite as the student expected. 

But to take the other side for a moment, if your teenager is dead set on majoring in civil engineering or genetics or French or art history or sports management or anything else, make sure that the colleges on the list have that major--and, preferably, have a well-respected program in that field.  You will know if it does because the college will happily claim that on its website.

Second, does the college have a core curriculum/general education curriculum/distribution requirements plan and is that a positive or a negative for your teenager?  Look back at Assignment #7 (in Episode 87) to see what your teenager recorded for each college on the list.  You will recall that we talked about many kinds of core curricula.  Some seemed easy to manage, some seemed far more demanding; some required many courses across many fields, some required far fewer fields to be covered.  You and your teenager might not agree on whether a core curriculum is a plus or a minus.  Just remember that your teenager is the one taking the courses.  If a college has core curriculum requirements that are super-objectionable to your teenager, now would be a good time to take that college off the list.

Next, let’s look at the college schedule, recorded back on Assignment #9 (in Episode 89).  Sometimes the academic term schedule can make the existence of various curriculum requirements more or less attractive or manageable.  For example, if you can take just one course at a time, maybe a math requirement would not be as scary to some students.  Or, if you can take courses on 7-week or 10-week schedules rather than 15-week schedules, maybe a student would be more willing to take courses outside his or her comfort zone.  And maybe now that your teenager sees the variety of innovative schedules out there, the idea of traditional 15-week terms is just plain boring.  So, take a careful look at the schedules of the colleges left on the list.

Finally, let’s look at a part of college academics that we did not zero in on when we did the summer assignments, and we should have.  (Don’t worry; it will be in the new book when it comes out.)  This particular piece of information might have shown up way back in Assignment #1 (in Episode 81) when we asked you to note on the worksheet “other appealing and/or unusual things about this college.”  That piece of information is the college’s grading practices.

Now, I am going to say that, in most cases, the college’s grading practices are pretty traditional.  And that might be fine with you and your teenager.  However, there are some colleges that are anything but traditional when it comes to evaluating student progress.  I was reminded of that when I read recently an exceptional statement by Jonathan Lash, the president of Hampshire College in Massachusetts.  You might recall that we spotlighted Hampshire in our virtual nationwide tour of colleges, back in Episode 43, where we said this:

Hampshire is the fifth member of the Five College Consortium, centered in Amherst.  It is by far the newest of the five colleges, having been founded in 1970 after a long planning process, and it is the least traditional of them as well.  Its students are bright, creative, and motivated.  While very selective in admitting freshmen to a student body of just 1,400 students, Hampshire does not consider college admission test scores “in any way” for admission or for financial aid awards.  Its students study in five interdisciplinary schools and create their own individualized majors—called “the concentration” at Hampshire.  The concentration includes courses and required volunteer work at Hampshire or in the community and required work from various cultural viewpoints as well as fieldwork and internships, if they make sense for the self-designed program.  As seniors, Hampshire students complete a self-designed rigorous final independent project, which includes original work, similar to a graduate thesis.  The campus is lovely and idyllic.  The price tag is predictable at about $47,000 in tuition per year.  My visit to Hampshire with my son about five years ago made me want to go back to school and go there myself. 

And so, I read with interest what President Lash had to say in an opinion piece in The Hechinger Report, (September 15, 2016) entitled “Why do schools use grades that teach nothing?”  While I would happily read you the entire piece, you can go do that yourselves.  By the way, his piece also includes an eloquent defense of Hampshire’s decision to ignore college admissions test scores.  But here are quite a few paragraphs that cast an insightful light on the issue of grading and whether grading should perhaps make a difference in the college your teenager chooses: 

A few years ago I was speaking to a group of parents whose children had just started Hampshire College. A father asked a question that was on many minds: “How can your college be rigorous without grading student work?” Before I could respond, another parent stood up and asked, “May I answer that?” I nodded with interest.

 “I run a company,” he said, “and I have a few thousand employees in multiple locations. They’d be mystified if our managers started to give them grades. We manage by setting goals, evaluating progress, and mentoring employees on how to improve their performance. What would a letter grade tell them?”

At the college where I serve as president, we do evaluate student work; we just use a higher-quality method. Our students receive written evaluations not only on every assignment, but also for every course and learning activity. These evaluations are designed to be formative teaching tools….

When we reduce students to numbers and grades, they and we focus on test-taking skills and grade requirements rather than on learning.

At Hampshire, instead of grades, our professors weigh performance against course goals using criteria such as a student’s demonstration of analytic thinking and writing skills, research abilities, use of primary and secondary literature/substantiation of claims, ability to use data, integration of theory and practice….

After almost five decades of our professors’ assessing students using written evaluations, we’ve seen and documented their benefits as an alternative to grades. Grades tell students the absolute minimum about their abilities; they tell them only whether they have earned enough points under a teacher’s rubric to get a good mark.

Too many students use grades to figure out how to do only what’s required, asking their teachers questions like “What do I have to do to get an A?” At the same time, they’re trying to determine the minimum they can “know” to pass. “How can I game the system?” “What are the fluff courses that will get me an easy A?”

Grading systems also risk pitting students and teachers against each other through arguments about a grade and create counterproductive competition as students vie to outperform one another.

At many elite institutions, grades are absurdly inflated by professors with the result that students across the board receive more A’s than C’s. This has reduced the A-F grading system to little more than one of pass/fail.

In narrative-evaluation systems, students never have to worry about accumulating a GPA. Instead, they focus on the quality of their work, with guidance from teachers who are often learning with them. Evaluations create closer relationships between teacher and student and enhance the teacher’s role as mentor.

Evaluations enable teachers to diagnose weaknesses, reflect on growth, and present constructive ideas for improvement and intellectual development -- and discuss it all with their students.

Using evaluations, students can concentrate on learning. Progress toward graduation is measured by the development of intellectual skills rather than the accumulation of credit hours….

Narrative evaluations suggest ways to keep building on student effort and success. Any student can improve. Intelligence isn’t fixed; it’s malleable. And education is about growth and improvement….

How do our students compare with the alumni of traditional, GPA-reliant programs? According to federal data compiled and reported by the National Science Foundation, Hampshire College ranks in the top 1.4 percent of U.S. colleges by alumni who advance to earn a doctorate. By this measure, we rank #30 in a nation of 4,000 colleges, side by side with the most distinguished institutions of higher learning.

And that’s without ever giving any student even one grade.  (quoted from the article)

Enough said, President Lash.  So, maybe grading practices should be something your teenager and you look at closely.

2.  Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

What I would do if I were you is check first to see whether my teenager’s likely major is available at every college still on the list. I would probably take any college that doesn’t have that major off the list--unless it has something else fabulous to recommend it.  I would also make sure that many of the remaining colleges offered a liberal arts program, just in case my teenager changed her mind even before next April.

With that done, I would make sure that my teenager felt comfortable with any core curriculum requirements or felt equally comfortable not having any.  Personally, I like some distribution requirements, but not a ridiculous number.  But that’s my view.  What’s my teenager’s view?  After figuring that out, I might narrow down the list, if necessary.

Finally, I would talk with my teenager about college schedules and grading practices.  Some sound so intriguing--much more intriguing than any options I remember from 1970.  I wouldn’t see myself taking any schedule options or grading options off the table, but my teenager might.  Act accordingly.

So, Step 2 is done.  I hope you didn’t lose too many options from your teenager’s list.  Maybe you didn’t lose any.  I’m okay if you still have 15 or more colleges on the list as we move forward to Step 3 next week.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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