Tag Archives: Andrew Ferguson

Q&A: Son is a HS freshman — Where to begin?

A friend and parent of a high school freshman recently wrote:

Q.  I googled a college-related question a few days ago and by chance stumbled upon your Dr. StrangeCollege blog!
In the time it took me to find an answer to my question (partially from your blog and other online sources), I discovered that I am alarmingly overwhelmed by my complete and utter lack of preparedness. Clearly, I should start reading something about college, since L. is now in high school. I found it strangely comforting to think that I could go back and read your blog from the beginning. I feel calmer already!
Do you, in fact, have someplace that you recommend us poor, frightened, slightly nauseous newbie parents start learning about the whole process? Books? Websites?QandA block

A.  I have a lifelong habit of looking to books when I have a question. Here are a couple I would recommend for an overview:

1. The College Solution, a Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price (2nd ed.), Lynn O’Shaugnessy.

O’Shaugnessy has a website with the same name as the book; she also blogs for CBS Money Watch. While her focus is financial, she writes succinctly and with a good deal of common sense about most college-related topics. It’s a good quick introduction.

What’s fascinating is the motivation behind a school’s decision on which applicants capture a price break and which don’t. I can’t delve into this topic without at least mentioning this fact: Private and public colleges and universities routinely employ in-house enrollment managers or hire consultants who devise ways for colleges to use their institutional cash as strategically as possible to assemble their freshman classes. Typically this means helping institutions leverage their own revenue to attract the kind of teenagers they covet. Enrollment management practices have turned financial aid from primarily a utilitarian way to help disadvantaged students into a powerful tool to attract high-achieving students and the wealthy.

2. Crazy U., One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, Andrew Ferguson.

Ferguson is a journalist and magazine editor, but this is his story of the eighteen months from his son’s junior HS year through to leaving for college. He writes beautifully about the emotions involved (for parents and child), tells very funny stories (especially about the things parents say to each other), and digs deeply into areas you’ll probably want to know about, like college rankings, standardized testing, etc. This is what it looks like to parents today. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry. We made Mod Squad Pete read this one and it’s time for me to put it on M.S. Julie’s reading shelf.

It wasn’t until Christmas was upon us that I realized why he’d been so calm about writing his essays. He hadn’t been writing them.

“It won’t take long,” he said, after I pointed out that he hadn’t much time left. He had logic on his side, as he often did — inadvertently. It wouldn’t take him much time to get it done because there simply wasn’t much time to get it done. QED. By mid-January, when the last of the essays was sent off and all creation seemed to relax with a sudden release of held breath, a mother told me that she and her daughter had put in three solid months of work on the essays, “every day after school and weekends.”

“We did three months of work too,” I said, ” in twelve days.”

You might start here.

You might start here.

If/when you want to read more about things your son could be doing right now, you might look at Elizabeth Wissner-Gross’s two books. Her sons were both skilled and interested in a math/science track, so there’s an emphasis on STEM competitions, but there are plenty of gems in both books. I like these for cherry-picking tips related to a child’s specific interests:

What High Schools Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know), Create a Long-Term Plan for your 7th to 10th Grader for Getting into the Top Colleges

Keep in mind that grades are the currency by which opportunities are bought in today’s meritocracy. No matter how many after-school activities or advanced level courses your child has on his résumé, no most-competitive college or selective summer program will be impressed if your kid earns less-than-top grades.

What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know), 272 Secrets for Getting Your Kid into the Top Schools

The important picture to keep in mind is that admissions officers read hundreds of applications, and sameness is detrimental.

This might be the time for a few readers of this blog to call me out as an obsessive. Accepted. Especially when I admit that these are merely the books one might read to get ready to read about the specifics of selection, application, essay-writing, and financial aid. Recommended reading for those topics still to come.

This is also probably a good time to reiterate a few beliefs I hold:

  1. What the kid brings to college in motivation, study habits, and acquisition of real-life skills will make much more of a difference than getting into a top-ranked college (especially when the rankings are based upon such ridiculous criteria as college administrators ranking each other).
  2. There is a college for every student — if college makes sense for the student. “Only 2% of institutions accept less than 25% of their applicants. Those 60 elite schools (out of 2,421) educate just 3% of the nation’s full-time undergrads who are attending four-year institutions.” That from Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog here.
  3. Start thinking about finances — and what your family thinks makes sense to pay for a BA or BS — now. Talk about it with your student when he or she is still building the long list of colleges, before winnowing that down to a short list.

Good luck, newbie parent, to you and your student!

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College Rankings: Ignore or dive into the deep end.

No. 1 in College Tees.

Today all of the college reporters, consultants, bloggers, and more (clearly, including me) will report or comment on the release of the US News & World Report Best Colleges Ranking for 2012.

This is big news in higher ed because:

  1. Higher ed is a very, very, very big business.
  2. It sells a lot of magazines for US News & World Report (a magazine that no longer exists in print but for its college-related issues) and creates a lot of press. A 2007 press release from USN&WR stated within three days of the release their website received 10,000,000 page views, compared to 500,000 average views in a typical month.
  3. US colleges and universities pay very close attention to their own and their competitors’ rankings, whether they admit to it or not. Bragging rights — to prospective students and to wealthy alumni — are on the line.
  4. Many, if not all, of those same colleges and universities do what they can to game the system, and the system seems quite game-able. Many of the metrics — acceptance rate, peer assessment, admissions yield, and more — are susceptible to manipulation.

Want to read more about that last point?

See Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt-Free U., for his point by point rebuttal of the USN&WR college rankings, pp. 115-128.

Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U., provides a more historical view of the USN&WR college rankings, including the disdain college presidents had for this ‘beauty contest’ from the beginning in 1983, to specifics on how the rankings have been gamed, pp. 37-54.  Here’s a quick clip of Ferguson’s highly entertaining prose:

The university people… cringe at the notion that their students are mere consumers rather than spiritual entities whose souls require their special nourishment. They’re appalled by the unstoppable imperialism of the market — the relentless intrusion of cost-benefit logic, even into a realm that its practitioners hoped might be kept free from the market’s vulgarities.

It’s only natural, then, that they respond to this business mentality in the way they think businessmen would. They cheat.

What’s a prospective student to do? Take your pick:

  1. Ignore them; determine what’s important to you.
  2. Pay attention to the methodology; see if it fits with what’s important to you.
  3. Work on your essays. [Universal advice for college seniors.]

If you really want to take a look at college rankings, go for it — just don’t forget to check out how they put them together.

1.  The granddaddy of them all:  the US News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings. Bob Morse, the director of data research, on their methodologies here.

2.  The Princeton Review offers lots of options within its rankings, including the Green Honor Roll (high eco ranking) and the Financial Aid Honor Roll (high in generosity). See their methodology here.

3.  Forbes Magazine weighs in with America’s Top Colleges, as they “try and evaluate the college purchase as a consumer would:  Is it worth spending as much as a quarter of a million dollars for this degree?” Methodology provided by the Center for College Affordability & Productivity and it can be found here.

4.   Newsweek/The Daily Beast offers a whole slew of College Rankings, each with its own methodology. For example, the International list uses data from the two international listings below (#7 and #8) along with another listing from Spain and assigns its own weight to each datapoint.

5.  The Wall Street Journal offers ‘Top Recruiting Rankings‘. Anyone surprised that more students are recruited for jobs at larger universities? Here’s how they develop the rankings. (NB: these rankings were published on 9/13/2010.)

6.  Rugg’s Recommendations used to be available in book form; now available in pdf form by email. I wrote about it here.

7.  The 2011 Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Ranking, was released in August. The rankings are searchable by field or by area of study. Hard to find the methodology on their website, but Wikipedia offers it here.

8.  The Times Higher Education World University Rankings (which gets the coolest logo award, hands down) offers 2010-11 listings here. The 2011-12 listings will be available October 6, 2011. At one minute past midnight. That’s probably Greenwich Mean Time, in case you want to catch it as soon as it’s posted. There are a number of links related to the methodology, but my favorite is this one, humbly titled: Robust, transparent, and sophisticated.

9.  Finally, I have a fondness for the new rankings offered by Washington Monthly, if only because they’ve taken a completely different approach, looking at outcomes, instead of inputs:

Conventional rankings like those published by U.S. News & World Reportare designed to show what colleges can do for you. Since 2005, our rankings have posed a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? Higher education, after all, isn’t just important for undergraduates. We all benefit when colleges produce groundbreaking research that drives economic growth, when they offer students from low-income families the path to a better life, and when they shape the character of future leaders. And we all pay for it, through hundreds of billions of dollars in public subsidies. Everyone has a stake in how that money is spent.

That’s why one-third of each college’s score on our rankings is based on social mobility: How committed are they to enrolling low-income students and helping them earn degrees? Our second category looks at research production and success at sending undergraduates on to PhDs. Finally, we give great weight to service. It’s not enough to help students look out for themselves. The best colleges encourage students to give something back.

Speaking of outcomes, wouldn’t most parents/prospective college customers be interested in finding out which colleges rank highly on the National Survey of Student Engagement?  Too bad those results are available only to the participating institutions.

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