Category Archives: At College

Two notes on colleges, from way, way, behind the front lines

This blog is currently on hiatus. I have a demanding day job, and our family is enjoying a welcome two-year respite between application years. (Quick personal update on our pseudonymous students: Mod Squad Pete is in his fourth year at U.Va., M.S. Julie is in her second year at U.Va., and M.S. Linc is a high school junior.)

However. Every now and then I see something I want to share and today is one of those days.Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 1.24.41 PM

Something current. In today’s New York Times Frank Bruni wrote How to Measure a College’s Value. I encourage you to read the column, which includes this result from an ongoing research project:

What else augurs well for success after college? Graduates fared better if, during college, they did any one of these: developed a relationship with a mentor; took on a project that lasted a semester or more; did a job or internship directly connected to their chosen field; or became deeply involved in a campus organization or activity (as opposed to minimally involved in a range of things).

Bruni’s conclusion could be my mantra:

What college gives you hinges almost entirely on what you give it.

Something older. Also from the NYT, here’s a November 2014 Q&A from the Social Qs advice column, written by Philip Galanes:

Admissions Gantlet

Our son is in the throes of college applications. Well-meaning family and friends ask us where he is applying. But no matter how comprehensive a list we give them, they invariably say: “Yale? What a terrible place. Don’t let him apply there.” Or: “Why not Duke?” Our son’s list was developed in consultation with his school counselors, who know his interests and scores, and we all feel good about it. Still, people are very strident and opinionated. How can we respond politely? Sonja, San Francisco

Nearly everyone (including me) supports the idea of personal autonomy — right up to the moment when the other guy is about to do something we wouldn’t. It’s a world of busybodies, Sonja. Surely this can’t be your first encounter with us? Still, college admissions are a sensitive area for many families, especially the competitive and lovers of status. (Again, pretty much all of us, no?)

The next time someone butts into your son’s college plans, just say: “What an interesting perspective. We’ll be sure to let Jake’s college adviser know.” No further words required — except maybe “plastics.” (Note to readers under 40: watch “The Graduate.”)

For any parents and students new to this game, consider carefully whose process this is and who should hear about the details. Many parents I know have had experiences similar to Sonja’s.

If you’re not comfortable just saying, “plastics,” try this from the first season of Gotham. In response to an unwelcome recommendation from James Gordon, the mayor said, “Thank you, my friend. Valuable input. Most refreshing.”

Good luck to all the students and families on the front lines this year.

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How close to home is too close?

How close is too close when it comes to choosing a college–for students and parents?

My husband drove our son, Mod Squad Pete—a second-year UVa student—back to college Sunday evening after Thanksgiving. The drive takes between ten and fifteen minutes, depending upon traffic. Meanwhile a Midwestern nephew drove a couple of hours back to his college in St. Louis, and our niece flew back to her college in Los Angeles from her home near Boston.

Screenshot of The Chronicle of Higher Education graph. Follow the link for the interactive graph.

Screenshot from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow the article link for an interactive graph.

Distance was just one of many factors involved in their college choices. Our nephew looked at a number of pre-engineering programs and selected a college that offered him a chance to play baseball, a President’s scholarship, and proximity for easy home visits. Our niece only applied to film schools—she’s majoring in production—and all but one were in California, prime location for access to the movie and television industry. At 3,000 miles from home, she’s one of the consistent twelve to fifteen percent of students who travel more than 500 miles for college. (See the graph accompanying Libby Sander’s Ties to Home in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

When Pete was in high school, we spent a couple of years expecting him to go to college 700 miles away. As it turned out, he chose a college seven miles away. Many students in our area either dream of attending UVa or want to avoid attending a college so close to home. Our son was in the latter group, yet changed his mind over the span of his senior year. Pete now will attest to what local UVa students had said to him:  there’s an entirely different and new world to explore on grounds, and it feels much further away from home than it is.

Making it work. When considering being that close to home, much depends upon the student-parent relationship (like most everything related to college).

Some parents have a hard time letting go. As Bella English wrote recently for the Boston Globe, in ‘Snowplow parents’ overly involved in college students’ lives,

In one extreme case of parental over-involvement, a college senior in December 2012 won a protective order against her parents for stalking and harassing her. Aubrey Ireland, 21, told a Cincinnati judge that her parents often drove 600 miles from their Kansas home to the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, unannounced, to meet with college officials, and falsely accused her of promiscuity, drug use, and mental problems.

Other parents–most I suspect–have raised their children with an eye toward both the increased freedom and responsibilities the students gain when leaving home.

Jennifer Conlin captured a sense of appropriate limits, writing for The New York Times, in When college is close to home, what are the boundaries?

“It was hard at first because I wanted Laura to immerse herself completely on campus, but I also wanted her to come home for family birthdays,” Ms. Wirth-Johnson said.
Leslie Gardner, who lives in Brooklyn and whose daughter, Rebecca Glanzer, is a sophomore at Columbia University, echoed the same sentiment.
“I worried that it would be too easy for me to access her,” she said. “But I also worried that she might access me too much.”
Both mothers said they waited patiently the first few weeks of college for their daughters to reach out to them.

Up to each family. Navigating a comfortable path for visits and phone calls is up to each family to figure out. We said something like this to Pete:  We won’t show up without calling first. We won’t bug you to come home often, but we’ll let you know what’s going on here, and we will want to hear what’s going on in your life.

We’ve enjoyed the benefits of his being nearby. We get to attend performances by his student jazz ensemble. We’ve had opportunities to meet and host his friends. Pete dropped by unexpectedly on a fall Sunday; he had to drive past our house on the way to set up an event at a local vineyard. Naturally, we don’t care if he shows up without calling first.

We don’t know where our daughter, M.S. Julie, will be next year. Near or far, we want her to establish independence and then share her stories with us as we watch her grow. We won’t hover, or smooth the path for our college students; we’ll just be right here when they need us.

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

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College Moving-In Week: the packing list.

Mod Squad Pete is five days away from moving into his dorm and — no surprises here — still working on his shopping list.

Bed, Bath & Beyond offers an online catalog…

He started early with a laptop purchase in June. We decided against purchasing the full dorm-room bedding set offered by his college (and I wrote about that here), but it took until yesterday for us to get to the store to buy sheets (and mattress pad, foam layer, duvet, duvet cover, etc.). Today he’s out with Mod Squad Dad picking up a refrigerator.

While I sought out lists and advice online (see What to Pack When Heading to College by Kelci Lynn Lucier, who also writes at College Parent Handbook), Pete said he had a mental list. I let that go until a week ago when we returned from family road trips and looked at the calendar.

Then Pete looked online for help and typed up a page full of items. He didn’t organize his list into categories, but Bed, Bath & Beyond offers this breakdown:

…or a simple check list.

  • Sleep
  • Organize
  • Wash
  • Eat
  • Study
  • Relax

Last night Pete started looking through his closet, thinking about what clothes to bring and what to leave. We’ve read college student advice against taking an entire wardrobe, so he’s leaning toward taking the variety he wants, but just enough for about three weeks or so, guessing at how often he’ll do laundry. Since it will still be warm here for a few more months, he doesn’t need sweaters or jackets or many jeans and chinos, for that matter. He’ll take a navy blazer and a tie, but no suit.

From Ms. Lucier, cited above:

Call me old-fashioned, but here’s the deal: Your student should be able to fit everything they need in your car. Yes, your car. (Exception: If your student is moving into an apartment and you need to furnish the place, you can break this rule.) Your student can get by with much less than they might think, and too many students bring too much stuff at the beginning of their first year in school.

Pete also has the advantage of parents living nearby. If he needs any particular item, one of us could drop it off.

[I won’t go into detail here about the potential disadvantages of parents living nearby. Pete knows we will not be dropping by unannounced nor uninvited.]

Pete has coordinated large-ticket items with his roommate:  Pete’s bringing the fridge and microwave, his roommate is bringing the printer and a TV. They have not discussed color schemes — one more thing I think might be different when M.S. Julie starts packing in a couple of years. Yet, to turn the stereotype on its head, Pete has the greater need for a shoe organizer.

Oh, yes, this week is all about focusing on the details and putting off thinking about that bigger picture:  he’s leaving home.

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What we learned at college orientation (and why we’re glad we went)

Fridge, microwave; who needs a dining hall?

A couple of weeks back, Mod Squad Dad and I joined Pete for his college orientation. This decision wasn’t an automatic “yes” — we live near UVa and are fairly familiar with the grounds. This is a busy summer with work, children’s activities, and other obligations, so we paused before taking a day and a half to take tours, listen to administrators, and eat at a dining hall.

We’re glad we went.

There’s plenty of advice available online for both students and parents about orientation.

Melissa Woodsen wrote a guest post for Countdown to College Coach, Making the most of college orientation:

…the BostonGlobe reports that most parents found the events to be more than worthwhile. With events ranging from “Meet the Dean” to model classes and seminars on “Letting Go,” parent orientations offer an in-depth understanding of today’s college experience that can’t be had from a distance.

From, see Signing up and Preparing for your Orientation Program, by Cara Ray:

Once you arrive at your orientation, make sure the STUDENT is taking the lead.  This is your first step into finding your place on campus. The faculty and staff on campus expect that you will be making decisions, not your parents. Carving your own way starts right now!

Cappex College Insider offers a list of what to expect and tips on how to best take advantage, in What to Expect at College Orientation:

Expect: Logistical tasks such as getting your student ID card, creating a school email (if you haven’t already), and registering for classes.

Tip: If you have the option, try to attend an orientation session earlier in the summer. Since you’ll be registering for classes before the late summer orientation students, it is more likely that you’ll get the courses you really want. Register for the number of credit hours your school recommends for freshmen. You can always drop a course if you get to school and the course load is too heavy.

From the US News blog, Twice the Advice, 6 Tips for Parents at College Orientation

2. Learn what resources are available for parents: Many parents—especially when the first child is leaving for college—have to get used to letting their child do the communicating with the school. There are often legal reasons for this, but it’s good for the growing up process as well.

That doesn’t mean parents are without a voice, however. During orientation you should learn when and how you can communicate with the school. If you don’t hear that information, ask.

Here’s what we saw and learned:

1. Parents asked questions we may not yet have considered.

Room for books, laptop, and keyboard?

  • Is using an illegal ID an honor code offense?
  • Will a bike (laptop, dorm room, etc.) be safe from theft?
  • What time should we arrive on Move-In Day?

2.  Parents asked questions we don’t really care about.

  • How many washing machines in ___ dorm?
  • How long will it take to get a triple room (assigned due to over-booking) de-tripled?

3.  Excellent administrators handled all questions professionally and thoroughly. This, in fact, was one of the most rewarding reasons for us to attend orientation:  the organization of the two-day event, the presentations and responses from administrators, the good humor and evident intelligence, the discussions of curriculum options and extra-curricular choices — all these reinforced our good feeling about Pete’s college choice.

4.  Administrators talked about what to expect and made specific requests of parents before our children go to college.

  • Talk with them about time management. Their time in high school was highly structured. College will require a huge adjustment to working within non-structured schedules. Teach them how to use unstructured time.
  • Discuss how to respond to problems. What steps have you taken? Have you talked to the RA? Have you talked to the Dean of Students?
  • High school typically requires black & white answers. College requires more thought in grey areas, critical analysis, tough thinking. Anticipate some confusion and frustration while making that developmental change.
  • Students will sign a roommate agreement form when they arrive, but many areas of possible discord can be talked through themselves, especially an agreed-upon policy on locking the door, overnight guests (and frequency), using each other’s things.
  • Have your child sign up for text alerts. They need to opt-in.
  • Make sure they thoroughly understand three terms:  effective consent, sexual misconduct, incapacitation.
  • Have them repeat, “Don’t drink what you didn’t make or open yourself.”

Orientation coupons

5.  The dining hall food was fine. Sure, Pete will tire of it at some point, but the food choices were excellent. But perhaps Pete wishes we hadn’t tried it out? The coupon reads:

A reminder: parents eat free when they visit during the 2012/13 academic year (beginning 8/24/12) at our residential dining rooms. (Two parents per student meal swipe, per visit. We regret that other family members are not eligible for this promotion.)

Just kidding, Pete. Four weeks from today, big guy.

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First Year [Freshman] Orientation

Welcome Class of 2016!

Sometime before the beginning of June Mod Squad Pete registered himself and both parents for summer orientation for first year students. At his college, the University of Virginia, one doesn’t say “Freshman Orientation” because one doesn’t ever say “freshman.”

[Expect a post on terms used and not-used at UVa.]

Pete registered for this week, traded a shift at his job, packed his bags, and was ready to go.

Actually, there was a bit more to it than that.

Instructions from UVa provided a deadline to upload a photo (with specific size, background, etc.) for his ID, requirements to familiarize himself with the Student Information System (which can be a real bear to deal with), and recommendations, such as to load up his course planner with possible selections in preparation for registration when visiting grounds. (One doesn’t say “campus” at UVa, either.)

Parents awaiting four hours of discussion panels.

Come orientation day, we showed up during the specified half-hour to find a very well-organized and cheerful team ready to process the five or six hundred students and their parents through the two days. “Students to the right; parents to the left.”

While many of us regrouped to drop off overnight gear at the dorm, the orientation team was clear:  many of the student activities were “parent-free zones.”

The student activities included:

  • Placement exams, if needed, for Russian, Latin, and German
  • Welcome and other speeches
  • Small group orientation ice-breakers
  • Scheduling workshop
  • Student life panel discussion
  • Activities at the fitness center
  • Course registration

Parent activities included:

Pete’s new address: top floor, corner room.

  • Welcome speech by the Orientation Director
  • ‘Parents as Partners’ discussion by the Dean of Students
  • Student Norms discussion (aka “Is Everybody Drinking?”) by the Student Health Center representative
  • Move in Day and beyond panel by Housing & Student Life representatives

Additional tours, open houses, resource fairs, and information sessions were available to all. We looked at a room similar to the type in Pete’s dorm.

Indeed, in an experience reminiscent of multiple dorm room visits on college tours,  we waited outside the room while multiple parents chatted away inside, squeezed in to take a look, stepped outside again after a parent elbowed us aside so she could measure the inside of the armoire, and then stepped back in just so we could see the darn room.

End result: we’re oriented. Pete is sort of registered — out of six courses in his planner, he is registered for two, awaiting professor approval for two, and wait-listed for two. Not bad.

M.S. Dad and Pete check out the view.

For the parents, and I’ll speak for both of us until M.S. Dad decides to guest-post:  every day of this post-high school summer brings us one step closer to the very exciting next step of Pete’s life [College! Wow! Moving Out!] and one step closer to the dreary next step of our life [Where did Pete go?].

Orientation reinforced that for all of us. We are so very excited for him and, oh man, we will miss him so.

Typical for this blog, I’ve got a few links on preparing for orientation. I’ll save those for another day.

If you’re a student — enjoy every moment of moving on, even the scary bits. If you’re a parent — well, we’ll learn how to deal with this just as we’ve learned how to deal with all the other bits of parenting (even the scary bits), right?

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How long should college take? Doonesbury weighs in.

In case you missed it a week ago, Garry Trudeau takes his turn at quoting Mr. Jefferson, and asks the question never heard in these parts: “Who’s Thomas Jefferson?”

How many years do you think a degree should take? See the full strip here.

Of course, Doonesbury could be reflecting changes to student financial aid programs which became effective July 1st. See the Project on Student Debt website for their Consumer Guide to Changes in Federal Pell Grants and Student Loans for 2012-13.

Change to Pell Grant Eligibility

Pell Grants are need-based federal grants available to both full-time and part-time undergraduate students. They do not need to be repaid. For the 2012-13 award year, the maximum Pell Grant remains at $5,550.

  • The maximum number of equivalent full-time semesters a student is eligible to receive a Pell Grant will drop from 18 to 12 semesters for all students, including those close to completion.

Meanwhile, some colleges don’t want students to finish too quickly. Here’s a UPI wirefeed titled, University sues over early graduation:

ESSEN, Germany, July 3 (UPI) — A German university is suing a student for lost income because he finished his bachelors and masters degrees in only 20 months.
The School of Economics and Management in Essen is asking the court to make former student Marcel Pohl, 22, pay an extra $3,772 after he obtained his degrees in only three semesters instead of the usual 11, The reported Tuesday.
“When I got the lawsuit, I thought it couldn’t be true,” Pohl told the Bild newspaper. “Performance is supposed to be worth something.”
Pohl said school officials agreed in advance he and two friends could take their 60 required exams despite divvying up the lecture hours between them and sharing notes afterward.
“We didn’t get any freebies, and we agreed [to] our plans in advance with the school,” Pohl said.
A university spokesman said officials do not want to comment before the case reaches court.

Hmm, sounds like he used his coursework well.

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Power restored at Mr. Jefferson’s University… and elsewhere.

June 27th Charlottesville Daily Progress.

I’m ready to get back to our college journey, but first I’d like to tie up a few local loose ends…

1.  On Tuesday, June 26th, to high praise from the University of Virginia community, the Board of Visitors reversed their ill-thought acceptance of President Sullivan’s resignation and reinstated her. This came after more than two weeks of rallies, hundreds of FOIA’ed emails, and thousands of tweets, column inches, chatter, and online comments.

2.  On Friday, June 29th, the Governor of Virginia reappointed Helen Dragas to the UVa Board of Visitors. It was Ms. Dragas, in her role as Rector of the BoV,  who — through borderline-legal manipulations and extremely poor management — launched the UVa community into this upheaval.

3.  Mere hours later, Mother Nature unleashed a derecho (straight-line storm with very high winds) and Virginia experienced its worst non-hurricane damage, leaving more than a million households without power, most for multiple days, and some are still without nine days later.

Coincidence? Surely.

In case you’ve not read enough about the UVa story, here’s one more article worth paying attention to…

Jeff Selingo, an Editorial Director for the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote Fixing College for the New York Times op-ed page. He outlines the source of the anxiety UVa and most colleges face today:

Students were not the only ones to go deeper into debt. So did schools, building lavish residence halls, recreational facilities and other amenities that contributed little to actual learning. The debt taken on by colleges has risen 88 percent since 2001, to $307 billion.

This heady period of growth occurred precisely when colleges had the financial flexibility to prepare for what was to come: fewer government dollars, a wave of financially needy students, a drop-off in the number of well-prepared high-school graduates who could afford to pay, and, of course, technological advances in teaching and learning. Instead, colleges continued to focus on their unsustainable model, assuming little would change.

Other information industries, from journalism to music to book publishing, enjoyed similar periods of success right before epic change enveloped them, seemingly overnight. We now know how those industries have been transformed by technology, resulting in the decline of the middleman — newspapers, record stores, bookstores and publishers.

Some of Mr. Selingo’s solutions will sound very familiar:  better use of technology and more online courses were at the heart of the Dragas-led complaints about President Sullivan. Other solutions take higher-ed to task for their own mismanagement:  shift the focus to academics from administration and reduce the number of wasted credits. If you’re at all interested in the challenges colleges face today, it’s a good start.

Finally, I’ll end this with a quote from President Sullivan, when she spoke to a crowd of supporters after the vote to restore her to office. This, from the Charlottesville Daily Progress: Historic day at UVa: Sullivan reinstated after two weeks of turmoil.

She also expressed relief.

“As we know, Mr. Jefferson provides a perspective for every occasion,” Sullivan said, drawing a laugh from the crowd. “And I’m reminded of his letter to James Warren after the election of 1800, in which he says, ‘It is pleasant for those who have just escaped threatened shipwreck to hail one another when landed in unexpected safety.'”

The crowd cheered.

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