April is the craziest month

T.S. Eliot may have called April the cruelest month, but for high school seniors that label might go to March. After the long autumn months of writing college applications and the cold winter months of awaiting a response (and hoping for the best), March delivers the stark reality of college admission decisions: yes, no, or would you like to wait for a possible yes later (at very low odds)?

The red bud in crazy bloom

The red bud, blooming like crazy, in April

Which brings us to the craziness of April and the decisions seniors and their families face. Even when the student is accepted into his or her favorite school, most families will want to look closely at each of the colleges offering admission.

Closely, and quickly: the May 1 deadline for the student’s decision fast approaches.

Here’s what many senior households may wish to do this month:

Visit the campus

If you haven’t yet visited the campus, now’s the time to take a look, before anyone writes a deposit check. Virtual visits may be great, but they cannot convey the smell of the freshman dorm, the path from one end of campus to another, or the typical style of students at the school.

Or visit again

I am an enthusiastic fan of admitted student programs. There’s a huge change from visiting as a prospective student to visiting as an admitted student, for a few reasons.

  1. The college takes this opportunity to make its best pitch. Now that the school has offered admittance, it would really like the student to accept.
  2. High school students make amazing strides in maturity through their senior year, in no small part due to the self-examination the admissions process requires. The student visiting in April of senior year is quite different from the one making the rounds junior year.
  3. Also, having that admittance offer in her hip pocket, the student is more able to imagine herself walking those same paths in just a few months.

Consider your family’s net cost

Many families will want to compare net costs; that comparison requires careful attention to the financial aid letters from each college, including determining the source and amount of aid from grants, loans (subsidized or not), work-study, and self-help. Most colleges develop their own financial aid criteria, so offers can vary widely. As Richard Pérez-Peña wrote in What You Don’t Know About Financial Aid (but Should), for the New York Times:

“…most consumers do not realize that colleges are free to come up with their own ways of defining a family’s ability to pay.

Most colleges stick largely to the FAFSA formula. But hundreds of private colleges require another form, the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, and use a related formula created by the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement tests. Many colleges blend the federal and College Board methods, tweaking them as they see fit, or simply add their own factors to the mix. The result is that comparable colleges can reach very different conclusions, and they do not make those formulas public.”

Study the colleges’ academic requirements

Dig deeply into the colleges’ websites to examine and compare academic requirements from each college, including

  • distribution requirements (the need to take courses in each of a number of defined subject areas),
  • possible major requirements,
  • graduation requirements, and
  • credit earned from AP or IB courses.

The amount of credit earned through AP, IB or dual enrollment can potentially affect the student in at least a couple of ways. Some colleges require a declaration of major once a specific number of credit hours have been earned; this can pop up earlier than the student is ready for it. Some colleges accept very few credits; that could cost the family an extra semester or two of tuition.

Chill

Oh, surely this is a universal need for other high school seniors and their families, not just our own. Let’s get this done and move on to thinking about roommates and color schemes and summer jobs and internships and walking the dog and gardening and catching an episode or two of “House of Cards” and, well, anything other than college admissions, shall we?

This post appeared in slightly different form on True Admissions, the blog of College Admission: From Application To Acceptance.

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Seniors: It’s almost over

Welcome to the last dip of the roller coaster.

Whether you began the ride way back in middle school, charting a path through Algebra, then Geometry, then Algebra II, and so on in order to get to AP Calculus BC for senior year, or you began with a few college visits during spring break of junior year, or some wide variation from either of those tracks… as March slowly fades away, if you (or your high school senior) applied to colleges via regular admission, the wait is almost over.

Soon you will have received the last of your admission decision letters.

I truly hope that you will receive exciting news from a college you care about.

And if you have received one letter that says thanks, but no thanks… at least you challenged yourself.

Soon, it will be the colleges’ opportunity to court you.

But for now and not much longer, in the splendid words of the Alabama Shakes, “You got to hold on…”

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The SAT: more of the same prep, same anxiety?

Illustration: Zohar Lazar, from The New Yorker

Illustration: Zohar Lazar, from The New Yorker

First, if you haven’t already read it, see There’ll be some changes made, with the news report and a reaction or two on the announced changes coming to the SAT in 2016.

Since we have a couple of years until those changes come along, here’s some more test-prep reading…

1.  Elizabeth Kolbert, writing for the New Yorker, offers, “Big Score:  When Mom takes the SATs.” Kolbert relates her own experience, as well as that of Debbie Stier, author of The Perfect Score Project:  Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, retaking the SAT as an adult, and covers a good bit of the test’s history as well.

Whatever is at the center of the SAT—call it aptitude or assessment or assiduousness or ambition—the exam at this point represents an accident. It was conceived for one purpose, adapted for another, and somewhere along the line it acquired a hold on American life that nobody ever intended. It’s not just high-school seniors who are in its thrall; colleges are, too. How do you know how good a school is? Well, by the SAT scores of the students it accepts. (A couple of years ago, the dean of admissions at Claremont McKenna College was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had inflated students’ scores to boost the school’s ranking.) As befits an exam named for itself, the SAT measures those skills—and really only those skills—necessary for the SATs.

I may be interested in reading about the SAT, but there is a less than zero probability of my registering to take the test, old or new. Just offering my real-world application of math.

2.  Walt Hickey, writing for FiveThirtyEight, offers advice in “How to Take the New SAT.” I’m likely to pay attention to his recommendations since FiveThirtyEight is the new data journalism organization headed by Nate Silver, statistician, baseball and politics forecaster, and author of The Signal and the Noise. Hickey examines the announced change that the SAT will no longer penalize test-takers for incorrect answers. Currently each wrong answer costs the test-take a quarter of a point.

Since the exam’s inception, students were advised to only guess on a question if they could eliminate at least one of the answers. This put expected value on their side, and they could hope to come out ahead in the long run.

Starting in 2016, with the death of the quarter-point penalty on wrong answers, there’s absolutely no reason anyone should ever leave a question blank on the SAT. According to College Board statistics, in 2012, every five points added to a test-taker’s raw score meant an additional 30 to 80 points on her curved final score.

So guessing isn’t just advisable, it’s about to become strategically crucial for people seeking to maximize their performance. Granted, everybody guessing is probably going to increase the average raw score, but that just means the College Board will adjust its grading curve commensurately.

If you choose not to guess, you risk falling behind the pack.

3.  Writing for The Atlantic, James S. Murphy says, “The SAT Prep Industry Isn’t Going Anywhere,” even though the  College Board president described their partnership with Khan Academy for free test prep, a “bad day” for test prep companies. Murphy has been an SAT teacher and tutor for the Princeton Review.

The truth is that there are no tricks to the SAT, or at least none that will make a significant change to a student’s score. Test prep raises scores by reviewing only the content students need to know for the exam, teaching them techniques they have not learned in school, and assigning students hundreds if not thousands of practice questions. It is this work, and not tricks, that overcome test anxiety. As Ed Carroll, a former colleague of mine, puts it,  “Competence breeds confidence.”

. . .

The main reason test prep isn’t going anywhere is that, as long as a superficial, high stakes test remains an important aspect of competitive college admissions, there will be no shortage of people looking for some advantage.  Admissions anxiety is not fomented by test prep companies. They do not need to make students and parent anxious.  The SAT has taken care of that for them.

4.  And finally, my favorite read on the SAT this past week:  Cora Frazier’s “New SAT Practice Questions” in the New Yorker. An example:

7. Student-produced-response math. You have one remaining pair of clean underwear, besides the pair you are currently wearing. You have an additional pair of underwear that doesn’t cover your entire butt and says “Thursday.” How many days can you go without doing laundry?

Now there’s a question with real-world applications.

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On the SAT: there’ll be some changes made

The College Board announced the details of its long-awaited revisions to the SAT this week. You’ve probably seen reports on these big changes:

Data, College Board Illustration, NYTimes

Data, College Board
Illustration, NYTimes

  1. The essay section will be optional and scored separately, changing the scale back to 1600 from 2400 (implemented in 2005).
  2. The test will no longer penalize students for wrong answers (now, each wrong answer takes 0.25 points off the score).
  3. Vocabulary words will be those students are more likely to see in college than the current, more obscure list.
  4. The test will be offered on computers.
  5. The College Board also tried to address the income-bias of the SAT by making fee waivers more easily available and by partnering with the Khan Academy for test prep.

Want to know more?

Eric Hoover, reporting for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, in Plans for New SAT Spark Mixed Reviews, outlines the changes and provides reactions from a number of college and college-prep professionals:

Ms. Leopold [executive director of CollegeTracks, a Maryland group that works with low-income and first-generation students] was skeptical of other changes in the SAT. “They do not address the underlying access problem,” she wrote, “that the College Board’s member colleges rely on a test that has been demonstrated to systematically understate the abilities of low-income and underserved minority students.”

. . .

Jeff Rickey, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Lawrence University, in New York, praised several of the coming changes in the SAT. “I applaud the College Board for tying the test better to what’s needed in college, the way they will provide readings across the curriculum other than just math and English, and also ask for analysis,” he said.

. . .

Mr. Roberts [dean of admissions at the University of Virginia] and his colleagues don’t even look at the SAT essays applicants write—just their scores on the writing portion of the exam. When the essay is no longer part of the SAT, he wondered how many colleges would require or recommend that students write one.

“Colleges will require it if they think it’s a useful tool,” he said. “But the College Board’s going to have to convince folks that this is something that will help us evaluate students and predict success.”

The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul, by Todd Balf, published in the New York Times magazine, provides extensive details about how and why the changes were made, as well as how David Coleman, president of College Board, worked with critics of the SAT to develop the revised version. Coleman was integral to the development of the Common Core, now implemented in more than forty states.

By the time he took over in October 2012, Coleman was well versed not just in Perelman’s critiques but also in a much wider array of complaints coming from all of the College Board’s constituencies: Teachers, students, parents, university presidents, college-admissions officers, high-school counselors. They all were unhappy with the test, and they all had valid reasons.

. . .

In redesigning the test, the College Board shifted its emphasis. It prioritized content, measuring each question against a set of specifications that reflect the kind of reading and math that students would encounter in college and their work lives.

Finally, Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment management for policy and planning at DePaul University, writing on the SAT revisions in The College Board and the Catholic Church, first provides his feelings on college admission tests:

–Any test created by someone who never taught the material to the students tested is inherently lacking
–SAT and ACT do explain freshman performance, but since the tests and High School GPA covary so strongly, it simply duplicates the effect of GPA, but does not do it better.  As an incremental measure over and above High School GPA, the benefit is negligible at best.
–GPA–even compressed GPAs from 35,000 different high schools–explains more about freshman performance than the SAT or ACT (no one from either organization disputes this, by the way).
–Both tests do, in fact, measure a certain type of intelligence: Picking the “right” answer from four given. And the fact that the tests might get it right 40% of the time seems good enough for many. However, this is not necessarily the way students “do” college.  In life as well as in many classes, sometimes you don’t even get the question; when you do, oftentimes the answer fails to be described in a few words.
–The tests have a very high “false negative” and a very low “false positive” for whatever it is (and we can’t always even define what it is) they purport to measure.
–Insecure people who have high standardized test scores are often the ones touting the value of standardized tests
–Super-selective institutions like the tests, even though they know it doesn’t predict much of anything academic, because: a) high numbers equate with “smart” and equate with “high quality” and b) they don’t need to, nor do they want to, take any risk on students, and c) they one thing they do measure really well–wealth–is important to many of them colleges.  It also gives them a convenient excuse to enroll fewer poor students.

Head over to the post to see what he thinks about the changes. Spoiler alert:  It includes the Who playing “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

We have two children who won’t have to take the SAT again, old or new. Our third child, Mod Squad Linc, will be taking the PSAT in the fall of 2014 and 2015, then taking the SAT for the first time in the spring of 2016… just in time to try out the new test.

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The Price of College, or how one college sets its tuition

In a recent post, The Price of College, or how a $60,000 tuition can be dubbed a discount, I described college pricing as complicated, individualized, and opaque. Upon occasion college administrators shed light on the process. A couple of years ago, W. Kent Barnds, Vice President for Enrollment, Communication & Planning at Augustana College, wrote about the steps Augustana follows to determine a price.

Old Main, Augustana College, Rock Island, IL

Old Main, Augustana College, Rock Island, IL

Augustana is a very well-regarded small, private liberal arts college in Illinois. Barnds’ post opens the door to the enrollment management perspective of admissions, a perspective internal to a college. While prospective students and their families may look at admissions as the team selecting the few who will be invited to attend, the college administration may look at admissions as the team charged with filling classroom seats and dormitory beds. If you’re interested in understanding the college’s perspective, I recommend you read Barnds’ post, Establishing the price (and cost of a college); here’s the introduction:

This is in no way a complete description of the many considerations that go into the decision-making process, but it’s a start. My goal is to keep it simple and provide the perspective of an enrollment leader. Another goal is to reinforce the idea that establishing price (and by virtue of establishing price, determining net cost) is neither as haphazard as tossing darts at a dartboard or a scientific certainty. It’s complex and somewhat idiosyncratic.

Not surprisingly, the process begins in May, after deposits are received and the admissions yield is determined, with an evaluation of how well the college recruited its fall class. (See What happens when, the college admissions calendar.) Barnds also mentions that the past several years have caused an increased focus on:

…a family’s willingness and ability  to pay …the changes in demographics in the Midwest that brings more first-generation and multicultural applicants to our pool …our position within the broader marketplace (publics, community colleges and high-quality, more selective privates that we know many of our accepts will pay more to attend) …far more conscientious about what the market will tolerate, rather than what we “need” to run our operation

Those demographic changes also include a smaller pool of high school graduates, especially in the Midwest. See Dwindling Midwest High School Grads Spur College Hunt, via Bloomberg:

A waning number of high school graduates from the Midwest is sparking a college hunt for freshman applicants, with the decline being felt as far away as Harvard and Emory universities.

Back to the considerations Augustana (and most other colleges) faces; these questions [pulled from Barnds' post] will directly affect offers of admission and financial aid to potential students:

  • How much did we spend in financial assistance in an effort to attract the class?
  • And, how much total revenue did the class generate?
  • What size class do we desire?
  • How many students from out of state?
  • What is the academic profile we seek?
  • How much aid can we afford to offer?
  • How little financial aid can we afford to offer and make the class?

And here’s another piece of Augustana’s process:

We typically discover that we can’t afford to do what we want to do. In this discussion we involve members of the admissions and financial aid staff and the chief financial officer (CFO), who provides guidance about “how much more revenue we need” to accomplish our financial goals for the coming year (think pay raises, new hires, programming, physical plant improvements, etc.). Hopefully, we get close enough to the targets during this process that we make the CFO and President happy and we think we can accomplish our goals. It is also during this stage that we begin to model a couple of different % tuition increases based on CFO recommendations.

Though Augustana is a nonprofit college, it still has to function as a well-managed business, balancing the needs of the college operations with the desire to attract a strong cohort of new students, leveraging financial aid and merit funds as efficiently as possible.

I appreciate the opportunity Barnds offers with this glimpse behind Augustana’s meeting room door.
 
Still more on the price of college to come.
 
 
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The Price of College, or how a $60,000 tuition can be dubbed a discount.

What’s your favorite analogy for college costs? The airline business, where every seat is sold at a different price? The automobile industry, where you’re a fool to pay the sticker price on the side window? Perhaps Alice-in-Wonderland, when a $60,000 tuition can be called a discount?

Illustration by John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.

Illustration by John Tenniel for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.

Learning about college prices and college costs is just one of the many learning curves for parents new to the system. A few reasons why:

  1. Pricing and costs are complicated, individualized, and opaque.
  2. The pricing and financial aid system changes often, even within one school.
  3. Many families try to decipher costs at a number of schools, and each college determines and presents costs in a different manner.

First, though, back to that discounted tuition. NPR’s Planet Money ran the story on university accounting a week or so ago, in “Duke: $60,000 A Year For College Is Actually A Discount.”

In 1984, it cost $10,000 a year to go to Duke University. Today, it’s $60,000 a year. “It’s staggering,” says Duke freshman Max Duncan, “especially considering that’s for four years.”

But according to Jim Roberts, executive vice provost at Duke, that’s actually a discount. “We’re investing on average about $90,000 in the education of each student,” he says.

That accounting depends upon the charges the university chooses to apply toward each student, according to a retired U-Cal Berkeley professor, who questions whether the costs related to professors chiefly involved in lab research (and the cost of building their labs), should trickle down to undergrads.

Will the undergrad take full advantage of the resources afforded by a research university, seeking out research opportunities and working with the professors? If not, $90,000, even marked down to $60,000, could mean the student and his or her family are buying a lot more college then they need.

Yet colleges, other than community colleges to some extent, don’t offer an á la carte system. You make your choice and you buy into the college’s value system.

Each college administration, and its Board of Governors or Regents or Visitors, makes its own determination of how much of the college’s total operating costs to pass along to the students as tuition and fees, or its price. At the same time each college makes additional determinations that lead to an individual student’s net cost. Those include, but are not limited to:

  • Will the financial aid policy be loan-free?
  • Will the college commit to meeting all of the family’s financial aid?
  • Will the college offer merit aid?
  • Will the college encourage completion in four years?

The statement from Duke University’s Executive Vice Provost that $60,000 represents a discount exemplifies a choice Duke made about how to allocate costs. Duke also decided to allocate a third of the $60,000 tuition paid by full-freight students to financial aid for other students.

Just when you may have thought the list of considerations for college choices was long enough, families may want to add a look at what each college values–what choices the college administration and Board make–starting with those that affect your student’s net cost. Even a cursory glance at higher ed journals, such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, could add more considerations to that list, including how healthy the college”s finances and endowments are, whether the college pays a living wage, how much the size of administration has grown in the past two decades compared to the size of faculty, and how many professors are hired versus lower-cost adjunct professors.

More to come on the price of college…

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College Application Deadlines: It’s the parents’ turn.

Hello, second semester, senior year. After the last few months discussing college applications, the focus now shifts to financial aid applications. financial aid

Parents often ask whether these applications are worth the time and trouble. My short answer:  Yes. These applications offer the possibility of funding a college education — grants, loans, and scholarships. (A number of colleges use the FAFSA and CSS College Profile along with the student’s file to determine merit awards or scholarships.)

As Michelle Obama recently said to northern Virginia high school students and their parents, “Don’t leave money on the table.”

The applications
FAFSA—Every college, from a local community college to a very selective private college, requires the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA determines a student’s eligibility for any federal aid, whether grants, subsidized loans, or work-study funds. The application is free; the 2014-15 school year version became available January 1, 2014.

CSS Profile—Most private colleges, which award their own funds in addition to federal aid, also require a completed CSS Profile, from the College Board. (These schools often have the strongest needs-based financial aid,) The Profile is not free; it costs $25 to send to one college, and $16 for each additional submission. (According to the College Board, “Students who are from low-income families with limited assets will automatically receive fee waivers.”) The 2014-15 school year form became available in October 2013.

Others—Certain circumstances, such as business or farm ownership, may require additional forms. Some colleges have created their own forms to be completed in place of, or in addition to, the FAFSA and the CSS Profile.

The documents
Financial aid applications are not so different from recipes, when it saves time to gather all the ingredients before you begin to cook. Start with these documents:

  • Most recent signed, completed tax returns
  • Social Security number
  • Driver’s license
  • Current statements from banks, retirement accounts, investment accounts, and any other assets
  • Current income and expense information, such as W-2s, 1099s, 1098s, etc.
  • Any untaxed income records, such as child support, workers’ compensation, etc.
  • Any other documents related to assets or income

The frustrations
The timing—This all sounds straightforward enough, but the timing involved makes it complicated and, yes, a bit frustrating. The FAFSA, CSS Profile, and other financial aid applications request specific information from our tax returns—and often these applications must be submitted—before the returns can be completed.

Providing estimates—The FAFSA and the CSS Profile offer the opportunity to enter estimates for the previous year’s Adjusted Gross Income, itemized deductions, taxes to be paid, etc., then changes can be made after the tax return has been completed. Changes will have to be made because colleges also require the completed tax returns or an online link to verify the application.

Yet, providing estimates presents a bit of a nightmare for households with incomes that vary, such as small business owners, consultants, realtors, farmers, or salespeople. Also, some items may sound simple enough, like a tuition credit, but are not because of frequent changes in the rules.

Early returns—Estimates will only go so far. Some colleges require signed, completed tax returns by February 15.

The quantity—College application year is the most complicated since students are applying for financial aidwith a variety of due dates and submission procedures from the full list of high school senior’s colleges.

So I get frustrated. I complain. I procrastinate. I write blog posts instead of completing the forms. Frustrating though it may be, it is doable, and it’s important to do for a number of reasons.

The why
Many college advisors recommend that every family should complete the FAFSA, at least.

  1. While some families may assume they make too much money to qualify for aid, there is only one way to find out. You have to apply.
  2. Meanwhile, American colleges currently operate within a system of very high Costs of Attendance, which can be whittled down to lower net costs through aid, merit awards, and scholarships. Very expensive private colleges, especially those with healthy endowments, may offer a much lower net cost, indeed one that could be comparable to that of a public university. There’s only one way to discover a family’s net cost for each college.
  3. Many colleges, especially private colleges, use the FAFSA and CSS Profile as a part of their merit awards and scholarships qualifications. One form I just saw included this permission request: “I hereby grant permission for Student Financial Services to release my academic transcript and information about my financial aid to your prospective scholarship donors.”
  4. Even families with high income and asset levels may wish to access unsubsidized Stafford loans, with favorable interest rates and repayment beginning after the student leaves college.
  5. Finally, families who may not quality for aid with one child in college are likely to see a change with two or more in college at the same time.

Now it’s time for me to stop procrastinating and follow my own advice.

This post appeared in slightly different form on True Admissions, the blog of College Admission: From Application To Acceptance.

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