College Admissions Plus
A newsletter concerning college admissions and related educational issues, edited by independent educational consultant and college admissions coach Mark R. Harris, of Chicago, Illinois Email:

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Wednesday, June 12, 2002
Apparently, books about grooming your child for elite Western colleges are all the rage in China:
This is a country where the hottest-selling book last year was "Harvard Girl," in which proud parents tell how they scientifically prepared their little darling, from age 0, to get into America's most prestigious university. That book's phenomenal success spawned close to a dozen quickie imitations, with titles like "Harvard Boy," "Cambridge Girl" (the British one), "Our Dumb Little Boy Goes to Cambridge," and "Tokyo University Boy."
One brave author, Zhou Hong, is bucking the trend with his daring offering "I'm Mediocre, I'm Happy," but "the book's title...was enough in itself to horrify many Chinese for whom advanced education is a consuming goal."
posted by Mark 10:44 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

More cracks appear in the early decision system as Harvard University considers whether or not to enroll students who have been admitted under a binding early program elsewhere. Harvard's own early program has always been non-binding. Previously to last fall, students could not apply to a binding and a non-binding early decision program simultaneously; however, the National Association for College Admission Counseling changed that rule in September 2001, and the change is now creating confusion.

It is confusing to explain, too, but is perhaps best illustrated by a hypothetical case. Johnny Valedictorian wants to apply early to both Yale (binding) and Harvard (non-binding). Previously he could not do this, but now, thanks to NACAC, he can. Here are the possible outcomes:

Admitted to Yale, rejected by Harvard: Johnny has to go to Yale.
Rejected by Yale, admitted by Harvard: Johnny can go to Harvard now, but he doesn't have to.
Rejected by Yale, rejected by Harvard: Johnny dials his ambitions down a notch.
Admitted to Yale, admitted to Harvard: Johnny has to go to Yale, right? It's binding.

It's in response to this fourth possibility that Harvard is saying "Not so fast":
Bill Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, said that rule is open to interpretation on a critical point: if an applicant is admitted early to both an institution like the University of Pennsylvania, which considers the admission binding, and to Harvard, can Harvard enroll the student?

In such a situation, Mr. Fitzsimmons said, the university had yet to decide whether it would consider a student's agreement with Penn to be binding on Harvard, should the applicant decide he or she preferred Harvard to Penn.

In other words, Dean Fitzsimmons said, Harvard might well permit a student who had made an early commitment to Penn to then break that commitment and enroll at Harvard.
If Harvard moves that way and chooses not to honor its "gentleman's agreement" with other universities to respect binding programs, that probably ends binding early decision as we have come to know it. If one reads between the lines of the New York Times article, you can tell that they are serious about this:
Under current early decision policies, students rarely break such pledges. But those who do — three, for example, did so at Penn this year, citing financial reasons — are not generally brought to account in the legal system. Indeed, Mr. Fitzsimmons said that one of the factors driving the discussion at Harvard were questions about whether such pledges were legally enforceable.

Mr. Fitzsimmons also questioned the legality of the lists of applicants admitted early that colleges with binding programs send to their competitors as a way to say, in effect, these students are now spoken for.
Coming on the heels of Yale's call to abandon binding early decision, and Beloit's and UNC's actually doing so, this gambit by Harvard suggests that endgame for early decision is coming very rapidly.
posted by Mark 8:35 AM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

Friday, May 17, 2002

A United States Court of Appeals has overturned an earlier court decision and ruled that the University of Michigan Law School may consider race as a factor in admissions in order to achieve a "critical mass" of minority students at the school. The vote was a close 5-4 and the case is expected to go all the way to the Supreme Court, which is apt to take the chance to clarify the famous 1978 ruling in the Bakke case (which appeared to encourage diversity, but prohibited quotas). The same Court of Appeals that ruled on the Michigan law school case is expected to rule shortly on a case involving the same university's undergraduate admissions policy, which automatically awards points on the basis of minority status (something the law school does not do, so the legal issues are slightly different).
posted by Mark 6:14 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

A recent New York Times article discussed the precarious state of many of the nation's "lesser" liberal arts colleges, which do not quite have the brand-name recognition of the elite schools, but are forced by economics to charge elite-school type tuitions. 34 such institutions have shut their doors since 1995, and others are teetering. The article contained some fascinating statistics:
Fifty years ago, half of college students went to private institutions. Today, less than one-fifth do...

In 1969, about half of all college degrees awarded were in liberal arts. The figure dwindled to less than 40 percent in the 1970s and is about 25 percent today.

posted by Mark 5:56 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

The three-part New York Times series "Getting In," which appeared May 5-7 while I was on an extended business trip, represented a considerable improvement on the CNN documentary "Kids Under Pressure" (discussed immediately below). The Times series profiled three capable students from completely different backgrounds and with completely different admissions issues: a Manhattan private school over-achiever; an ambitious African-American at a Bronx Catholic high school; and a recent Albanian immigrant at a public high school in Queens. The contrasts between the three students' experiences proved to be more compelling than the similarities between the three students from the same high school in the CNN piece. And the fact that the over-achiever did not get into the school of his dreams in the early round or the regular round made following his decision-making process and his reactions much more interesting.

The first installment contained hard numbers on "the growing number of students vying for a static number of slots" at the nation's most prestigious universities:
Harvard had 19,605 applications this year for 1,650 spots, versus 13,029 a decade ago. At Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., the most recent applicant pool was 4,229 for 390 spaces, contrasted with 2,883 in 1992. And at Washington University in St. Louis, 19,512 applicants competed for 1,280 places in the freshman class, up from 8,329 a decade ago.
Also of considerable interest were the details about the upscale private school guidance counselor who by making "due diligence calls" can learn whether a student is headed for success or failure in a given college's admissions process, and who lets safety schools know when one of his students is "locked in elsewhere" (so that those schools can avoid offering a meaningless acceptance and decreasing their yield percentage). This information-trading has some advantages for students and for schools, but can appear a little cozy - and certainly most high school students do not have such advocates working on their behalf. (A professor emeritus at Yale took specific exception to this practice in a letter to the editor following the series; other letters in response to the series can be found here.)
posted by Mark 5:45 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

Friday, May 03, 2002

CNN recently ran a fascinating documentary called "Kids Under Pressure" about the relentless quest for admissions to elite colleges by students at tony high schools like Santa Monica High School in California. My only two quibbles about this generally excellent piece are (a) all three students profiled are so driven as to be almost self-parodying, but viewers are given the impression that they represent some kind of norm, which I don't think is the case; and (b) all three get into their first choice colleges (Harvard, Dartmouth, and Berkeley), which gives viewers the impression that "hard work always pays off" and "dreams always come true": definitely not the case in the realm of college admissions.
posted by Mark 2:06 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

Following up on his December proposal "to end freshman early-decision programs," Yale president Richard C. Levin is seeking advance immunity from applicable antitrust laws from the U.S. Department of Justice in case the Ivy League decides to enter into a joint agreement on the issue. The government sued a group of elite schools once before over "alleged tuition and financial-aid price fixing," and Levin clearly wants to avoid a repeat. But his crusade against early decision, on the grounds that it favors affluent and savvy students and "gives colleges an incentive to offer less financial aid...since the accepted student has no other choices," appears to be gathering steam: the University of North Carolina announced last week that it was cancelling its early decision program:
"Carolina has taken this step because we believe it will best serve our future students and their families," said Chancellor James Moeser. "We want to encourage students to approach their education seriously, not by using strategy, and we hope to contribute to a national climate that encourages thoughtful choice."

..."We've observed growing pressure on students to choose colleges earlier simply because they believe it is their best chance to get in, without the benefit of the considerable maturation that takes place in the senior year of high school," [Dr. Jerome Lucido, vice provost for enrollment management and director of admissions] said. "In that respect, we don't feel that our early decision plan serves the students' interests or the interest of good college decision-making, and we feel a responsibility to that."
UNC is retaining its non-binding early action program.
posted by Mark 1:09 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

Worrisome figures released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education:
...on average, poor families spent 25 percent of their annual income for their children to attend public four-year colleges in 2000, compared with 13 percent in 1980. For middle-class families, the percentage of annual income required to attend public colleges nearly doubled as well, to about 7 percent from 4 percent. For the wealthiest families, there was no increase from the 2 percent spent in 1980.
Since access to educational opportunities is profoundly central to the mission of public universities, this trend deserves to be viewed with alarm.

posted by Mark 12:25 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

American universities that have collectively spent more than $100 million on developing online course offerings have little to show for their efforts, and many programs have been shut down altogether. The supply was created before the demand was proven to exist.
posted by Mark 12:16 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

Thursday, May 02, 2002

The Chicago Tribune notes the growing popularity of dual graduate degree programs, often combining an MBA with a JD. Many such programs exist on paper, but only at some universities such as Northwestern are the programs truly integrated and collaborative, involving real cooperation among the different schools. Students who enter the programs are gambling that in a credential-crazy society, more letters after your name (as well as more real skills) are always a good thing; but a legitimate question arises as to whether one can truly become fully educated in two professions in (increasingly) the same amount of time that most students take to learn one. one doubts that joint degrees involve compromises, including a restrictive course schedule. A budding trial lawyer or marketing executive would suffer from being unable to concentrate on relevant classes.

posted by Mark 4:04 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

A fascinating Wall Street Journal report details the efforts of Vanderbilt and other universities to court Jewish students:
...Vanderbilt is unusually forthright. It wants [Jewish students in order] to raise its academic standing..."Jewish students, by culture and by ability and by the very nature of their liveliness, make a university a much more habitable place in terms of intellectual life," [Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee ] said in an interview.
Some complain that a positive stereotype is "just as pernicious as a negative one"; however, Jewish students on the average score higher on the SAT than those of any other religious affiliation except for the notably intellectual Unitarians, so Vanderbilt (where Jewish students have been woefully under-represented) can hardly be faulted for trying to make itself more welcoming to capable students who might otherwise avoid it because of its Bible Belt location and its predominantly "Southern white Christian" character. Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University, officially Christian institutions, are following the same line and creating professorships in Judaic Studies.
posted by Mark 3:52 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

The Wall Street Journal reports that "schoools are getting tired of dilly-dallying students who take five and even six years to graduate":
Instead of wishing the problem away, they're going on the offensive, granting tuition discounts, running television commercials and even sending out e-mail alerts to get kids into their caps and gowns. The latest tactic at the University of Iowa: Asking new freshmen to sign a "contract" promising to get out in four years.
Unfortunately, none of these maneuvers is proving very effective. Plenty of students want to live off mom and dad as long as possible, and in a sagging economy in which there's little demand for new graduates, there's insufficient financial incentive to finish degree programs. It may be that we've made the college years too comfortable.
posted by Mark 3:32 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

Thursday, April 25, 2002

Some second-tier New England boarding schools such as Winchendon, Bridgton, and New Hampton are irking their first-tier league-mates such as Andover, Exeter, and Choate by recruiting basketball stars from the inner city and from abroad without much concern for academic merit. After some embarrassing routs, the academic prep schools are simply refusing to schedule the "renegade programs." The Wall Street Journal article does not make it clear that these trends are not entirely new: prep schools that offer post-graduate years have always recruited male athletes who wanted an additional year of athletic and academic seasoning before appying to college. They've just gotten better at it. Bridgton is the only all-PG prep school in the nation, and with its yearly rotating crop of 18 and 19-year old high school all-stars, inevitably dominates the competition.
posted by Mark 3:47 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]

The Wall Street Journal reports that many states are hacking away at higher education expenses, one of their "few large discretionary budget items." Community colleges, which cannot rely on research grants or private donations to make up the lost funds, have been especially hard hit. Tuition increases jeopardize the educational chances of precisely the striving lower-income students that community colleges are intended to serve.
posted by Mark 3:32 PM [<$BlogItemEditURL$>">edit]