Three Cheers for the Rankings!

The US News and World Report Rankings came out earlier this week. Last year I wrote “The Rankings, Meh…” This year I’m taking a different approach and cheering! I encourage you to try it out… here are a few examples of ways to use cheers in your conversations about rankings.

Buzz

1 – Scoreboard! Scoreboard! I love this one. It’s like the “talk to the hand” of cheers. One of my biggest issues with rankings is their heavy reliance on surveys. #what?! Yep. Nearly a quarter of the rankings methodology is comprised of peer reviews of Academic Reputation. “The academic peer assessment survey allows top academics — presidents, provosts, deans of admissions- to account for intangibles at peer institutions, such as faculty dedication to teaching.”

To be honest, you should stop reading at the word “survey.” A survey! Think about it: do you fill out surveys? Exactly. Neither do most people. Two words: human nature. Sure, these people may have a bigger title than you but the behavior does not vary–and that’s why they call them statistics. Typical response rates are in the 20-40% range, so we know these are heavily limited from the outset. And as master delegators, you have to wonder are these presidents, provosts, and deans actually completing them personally (no disrespect to them)? And when they do, are they answering all questions, or only those they’re most familiar with? If they’re not responding, who is? And even when they do respond, how much can they truly know about all of these other places, given how frenetic their schedules are taking care of their own institution? Oh…so many questions.

At best these peer reviews are incomplete and overvalued, and at worst, myopic and nepotistic. Yet they account for 22.5% (the largest factor) of the methodology. So when you’re completing applications this fall and a friend or a parent questions your decision to apply to a school because of its spot in the rankings, simply reply, “Scoreboard!” Or better yet “Surveys!” Talk to the hand, my friend. I am discounting everything you are saying right now.

2 – Overrated! Dah, dah, dadada! 20% of the rankings methodology is based on Faculty Resources. “How do faculty salaries and the number of students in the classroom compare to other universities nationally?” So a school sees they’re penalized on this measure and ultimately determines they can move the dial by increasing their average faculty salary by $2,000 annually ($8/day), and they launch a capital campaign to address this metric. Meanwhile, they address student class size averages by hiring more adjuncts to teach courses. Their rankings rise as a result. But did those dollars actually change the student experience? Did they make the faculty more invested in their teaching or research? Knowing these types of efforts are underway nationwide, would a school being 10 or 20 spots different from another impact your decision to visit or apply? “Overrated! Dah, dah, Adadada!”

3 – Not our rival! This is one of my favorites because it’s brilliant in its dismissiveness. It’s like rolling “your momma” “whatever” and “pssht” into a single three word phrase. Student Selectivity makes up 12% of the methodology. Call me a whistle-blower, call me a cynic, but this measure is severely flawed.

First, let’s be clear: not all schools count applications the same. Some schools arguably suppress their application total (and subsequently their admit rate) by only counting fully completed files, while others count glorified inquiries (snap apps or quick apps) in their total, or bolster counts even if a student does not submit all documents or follow up to complete all parts of the application (i.e. supplements, etc.). Some schools even count visitors to campus as applicants (actually, this one is an exaggeration… at least they haven’t been busted for it yet).

Second, we know in order to increase applications many schools are buying names and mailing materials to literally hundreds of thousands of prospects, even when their class goal is less than 1000 and the composition in geography, ethnicity, gender, and curriculum is not changing over time in a significant manner.

Georgia TechSo you don’t think I’m simply casting stones, let’s take Georgia Tech as an example. In 2017 our freshman application total was 31,500 and the admit rate was 23%. Two years earlier we received 27,250 applications and admitted 32%, nearly a 10 percentage point difference. It moved us from being among about 100 schools below 35% admit rate to about 50 schools below 25% admit rate. But I can say with certainty this measure is not reflective of the quality of education our students receive. Our student profile is essentially the same. We have not radically changed our faculty, curriculum, study abroad programs, or internship opportunities in those two years. And yet our student selectivity is what some would define as “vastly” different.

If you are reading this blog, I have no doubt this spring you’ll be sitting on multiple offers from colleges. You’re in. You’ve visited. You’ve compared the costs and trolled the deep recesses of their social media outlets. Decision time. Don’t let the admit rate and perceived selectivity be a factor in your choice. You can’t fully trust it, and other than some idle conversation in your first semester it has exactly zero bearing on your actual college experience. “Not our rival!” Or loosely translated, irrelevant.

Keep it in Perspective

We have now accounted for over half of the methodology. I’m happy to poke holes in the rest of the factors, but some of them are too easy.  What? Are you swayed by Alumni Giving? Me neither.

So what am I saying? Burn the magazine. Try Bob Morse before Congress. Both are reasonable. But I’m thinking more about changes in the micro:  I’m asking you to keep it all in perspective. If you are being told you should only apply to schools with an admit rate of 30% or less, I’m telling you to cite the Georgia Tech rule. If a friend is convinced the “Number 25” college is legitimately “better than” a school ranked 10 or even 25 spots below, remember those adjuncts, and remember the applications and admit rates are not always apples to apples. If you get into two schools and one is ranked higher, but the other gives you more aid and is by all counts a better fit for you, remember those surveys and the incredibly low response rates.

Anyone who has played a sport at a reasonably high level knows the other team is going to talk smack. They’re going to yell at you across the line. They’re going to bump and pull and jeer. So inevitably when you are applying or deciding on a college choice, someone is going to invoke the rankings this year. And when they do, you’ll be ready.

Na Na/ Na Na Na Na/ Hey Hey/ Goodbye.

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page or enter your email address. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

Ad(mission): It’s not fair.

Listen to the audio version here.

I suppose I could have gone with “An Admission: It’s not fair!” What can I say, catchy titles are not my thing. Working on it. But at this time of year, “fairness” is a resounding theme.

“How can you waitlist my son? He has 30 points higher and two more APs than your average. And we know someone down the street who got in that….”

“Something is wrong with your process if my daughter who has been through as many medical issues as she has and still has a 3.8 is not getting in. Talk about not being fair….”

“And don’t get me started on financial aid… or lack thereof.”

These are actual quotes from real people. Granted, they’re being used without acknowledgment (I didn’t think asking for permission to use them would be part of the healing process). Undeniably, there is something hardwired in us that longs for right, equal, just, fair, and perfect results. And these are noble aspirations.It's Not Fair

Kids are among the most vocal about longing for fairness. Spend the same amount of money on presents? “Well, he got more gifts.” Buy the exact same number of gifts? “That one of her’s is bigger!” “Okay, tell you what, I’m going to take all of these out to the fire pit then and you can play with this cardboard box.” Now they’re both screaming in unison, writhing on the ground and flailing, with great gnashing of teeth. It’s like a scene from Revelation followed by a simultaneous and guttural reaction: “That’s not fair!”

Well, my friends, neither is college admission. If you applied to a college that has a selective (meaning below 33% admit rate) process, or if you are a counselor, principal, parent, friend of someone who has gone through this lately, you know this to be true. Inevitably, you know someone who was denied or waitlisted that was “better” or “more qualified” or “should have gotten in.”

I try not to specifically speak for my colleagues, but I feel confident saying this for anyone that works at a highly selective college that has just denied a ton of the students you are thinking about/calling about/inquiring about: We know. It’s NOT fair. You’re not crazy. In fact, we’d be the first to concur that there are many denied students with higher SAT/ACT scores or more community service or more APs or who wrote a better essay or participated in more clubs and sports than some who were admitted.  But here is what is critical for you to understand– ultimately, the admission process for schools denying twice or three times or sometimes ten times more students than they admit– is not about fairness. It’s about mission.

Mission Drives Admission.

Selective colleges publish mid-50% ranges or averages on our freshman profiles to serve as guides, not guarantees. These are the quantifiable factors that provide an overall sense of the admitted or enrolling class. Yes, we look at test scores, rigor of curriculum, course performance, impact on a community, essays, interviews, and so on. But what drives a holistic review process and serves as a guide for admitting students is a school’s mission. Counselors in high schools talk a great deal about “fit.” Where are you going to thrive? Where are you going to create a network or be challenged? MissionWhere do you see students that will push and challenge and stretch you to grow as a person and as a learner? These questions come from the fact that they’re savvy and educated not just about our admission processes and stats, but more importantly about our distinct missions. Ultimately, choosing the right school should not just be about “can I get in?” from a statistical or quantifiable standpoint, but “do I align with their mission?” It takes more work to figure that out, but that’s your job as an applicant or prospective student.

If you look at the academic profiles of Caltech and Amherst, they are very similar. But take a look at their missions.

Amherst (abbreviated) “Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence… and is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership—in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.”

Caltech “…to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”

The difference in missions is why an individual student sometimes gets in to a higher ranked or more selective school and is denied at another. The student applying to Amherst has the same profile, involvement, writing ability, scores, and grades. but is a totally different fit in their process than for Caltech. This is, at least in part, what counselors are talking about when they say “fit.” It’s fit with mission. You’ll hear schools talk about “institutional priorities.” These are simply components of the macro vision and mission of a university.

A quick look at Georgia Tech

Founded: 1885. Classes begin 1888. One major- Mechanical Engineering. All male. It was a trade school responding to the needs of 19th century and early 20th century Georgia and US South.  The focus was on training and preparation for product creation and being prepared to lead and create the next in an industrializing state, region, and nation. Were there more “qualified” or “smarter” students at the time who had aspirations of becoming ministers or lawyers or physicians? Unquestionably. And had they applied with those intentions, they likely would not have been admitted. It was not our mission to educate students for those roles.

1912: Tech establishes a “School of Commerce” which is essentially a business program. 1952: Tech begins enrolling women. 1961: Georgia Tech becomes the first school in the South to integrate classes without a court order. It’s not hard for me to envision a younger brother in 1954 who is by all counts smarter than his older brother not being admitted to Tech due to this change in mission. Supply and demand drive admit rates. If your supply shrinks due to a shift in your mission, then admission decisions also change based upon factors besides grades, scores, or performance.

The University of North Carolina system is mandated by their legislature to enroll no more than 18% of students from outside of the state. This is why the admit rate for Chapel Hill is more than three times higher for in-state students vs. non-residents.  There are valedictorians from around the country not admitted to UNC (mission here) who get into Ivy League schools. Does this sound controversial or unfair? Not if you understand that mission drives admission.  Schools end academic programs. They add majors. They create new co-curricular programs or add or terminate sports teams. Mission changes and with it admission decisions are impacted to support those goals.

At Tech, our mission is “to define the technological university of the 21st century.” Our motto is “Progress and Service.” Our commitment is to “improve the human condition.” So while we are going to provide stats and averages and profiles like all other schools, these are the conversations in admission committee that contribute to decisions. Fair? No. Perfect? No. Reality? Yes.

What does this mean for you?

If you are a senior (or a parent of a senior) who has been denied or waitlisted: You are most likely just as smart, capable, and talented as other students admitted to that school. Move past the numbers and the comparison. You’re absolutely right: it’s not fair in a comparative sense. But that school has made its decisions in light of advancing their mission. Inevitably, you’ve also been admitted to a school where, if you looked hard enough, you could find someone denied with higher scores or more APs or better grades than you. But you fit their mission. Embrace that!

If you are an underclassmen (or parent of one): Selective schools will say, “We are looking to shape a class.” Counselors will talk to you about “fit.” As you try to digest and comprehend what that really means- or where that comes from- look to the school’s mission. Use the academic ranges they provide as a guide. Check out the profiles and other historical data to see how “students like you” have done in the past. But keep in mind those graphs don’t show the qualitative elements. When you are writing or interviewing at schools, do your homework in advance by researching. The essay you write for Caltech should not be the same one you write for Amherst. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (see what I did there?), is to find a school that aligns your academic ability with your vision of the future. Data is helpful. Stats are important. But fit, ethos, campus community, and your ability to be honest with who you are and want to be– that’s the best way to approach the process.Life is not fair

The other day my son was inconsolable. “She got presents on my birthday, and I never get anything on hers. It’s just not fair!” Finally, I just grabbed him, held him, and kept saying, “I know, son. I know.” So listen, you may not feel any better after reading this blog. Still angry. Still frustrated. I get it. I just wanted to save you that part of any email you send schools or the first part of a phone call. You can go right into other grievances and skip the “it’s not fair” part. We know, we know.

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address (above) and click “subscribe.” We also welcome comments and feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

What’s Next for College Admission?

While there’s never a slow time for college admissions, the cycle is about to pick up as a new crop of high school seniors work on their applications and think about where they’ll be next fall.  There are several changes that will affect the class of 2021 and beyond. Here are a few trends I’m keeping a close eye on.

Prior-Prior Year FAFSA

Starting this fall the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will be available earlier, now in October as opposed to January. And the forms will now use tax information from two years ago, known as Prior-Prior Year, as opposed to just the previous year.

Why does this matter? The change will enable students and families to file FAFSA earlier and receive federal aid eligibility information sooner in the college application process. Currently, financial aid information doesn’t become available until students and their families are nearing college decision deadline dates. While the schedule for Georgia Tech’s financial packages will not alter this year, the new rules will allow families applying to many schools nationally to receive their financial aid information earlier in the process, which will allow for more thorough and informed discussions about where to attend college. Even though the changes start this year, it will take a couple of years before we see the full impact across the higher education landscape.

Every individual family handles things differently, but I think that for the majority of people this is a very good thing. You will have more complete information on the table earlier and be able to rule in and rule out some places. I’m for anything we can do to eliminate some of the stress and anxiety over deciding where to go to college.

Turning the Tide

Turning the Tide, a report, released by Harvard University, calls on colleges to attempt to reduce application angst by not putting as much emphasis on test scores, redefining achievement and promoting meaningful contributions to the public good.

It is forcing people in admission to think differently and strongly consider what’s on their applications and how they are training their staff to review applications. These outside reports put colleges in the healthy position where we are asking good questions about how we can refine and improve the process.

For example, we’ve changed one of our supplemental questions on the Common Application to line up with the Institute’s motto of progress and service as it relates to how applicants are within their families. The new prompt is: Tech’s motto is Progress and Service. We find that students who ultimately have a broad impact first had a significant one at home. What is your role in your immediate or extended family? And have you seen evidence of your impact on them?

The idea is to communicate to students that impact is not only achieved through playing sports or involvement in clubs, etc. We care about your relationships, character, and who you are in your family. These are indicators of your fit for Georgia Tech.

Changes to the ACT and SAT

The two major college entrance exams – the ACT and SAT – have both gone through major changes, and students who are the first to take the revamped exams are stressed over how these new tests will impact admission decisions. Students, and their families, need to remember that colleges aren’t changing how they use these scores. The scores are just one of many factors considered during the holistic review of applications.

I know people don’t like change, and being the first to do something is scary. But I’m looking forward to getting an admission cycle under our belt with these changes so students will see they are being admitted and that this is not something they have to be worried about. Once colleges start releasing admission decisions in December, the tension and anxiety surrounding both entrance exams will begin to subside.

Statewide Tour

Part of Georgia Tech’s mission as a public university is to serve the state and help produce a more educated workforce and a stronger economy. Later this month, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and University of Georgia will kick off the annual Peach State Tour information sessions to meet with high school counselors, students and parents.

This year’s program is bigger than ever. Georgia State was added to the tour, and the three colleges will hold information sessions in 23 different towns and cities, nearly double what was done last year. This means Georgia Tech’s admission team will be within 50 miles of every Georgian.

I’m excited to travel across the state and meet with counselors, principals, students and families in communities to develop relationships that will last years. We want the best students in our state to strongly consider some of Georgia’s research institutions. We will not only talk about the opportunities at our three premier universities, but we will also answer questions in general about the college admission process.

Steph Curry and The Road Not Taken

CURRY-PROFIf you have been watching TV lately, or listening to the radio, or interacting with other humans, you know the NBA Playoffs are heating up. We’re not going to talk about the Hawks here, so don’t fear. (As an Atlanta native and longtime resident I’ve come to peace with the fact that all of our pro franchises are good enough to make the playoffs but lack the talent to advance from the first round. Literally all of them…for decades.) These days the hottest name in the NBA is Steph Curry. Curry is a uber-talented point guard for the Golden State Warriors, and he was recently unanimously named MVP of the league, which he also won along with the NBA Championship last year. To look at him now you’d think he has always lived a charmed life– beautiful wife and daughters, worldwide star, commercials with President Obama (himself a transfer student from Occidental to Columbia), and the list goes on. But interestingly when he was graduating from high school the big time college programs around the nation were not interested. He was crushed and ultimately decided to stay close to home in North Carolina and attend Davidson College.

Curry’s experience got me thinking about Robert Frost’s  poem “The Road Not Taken,” and the fact that our national consciousness is still largely focused on the traditional freshman entry process. Often news media and families do not look at the transfer route “as just as fair/ And having perhaps the better claim,” even though 1/3 of students graduating from a four year college began elsewhere, or that 1/2 of all undergraduates nationally are enrolled at a community college. At Georgia Tech, we annually enroll 850 transfer students (approx. 1/4 of our new undergraduate students). Thankfully, the press and perceived value of transfer options are improving, due to increasing political discussion surrounding college cost, value, and access, and Mrs. Obama’s Reach Higher initiative.

National Student Clearinghouse data shows that in 13 states over 50% of four-year university graduates began at a two-year school. Much of this is because public universities have established articulation agreements with colleges in their state or region geared toward enrolling transfer students. Florida is certainly a state with a strong history in this arena. The University of California system, which boasts five of the top 10 public universities also has a deep commitment to the transfers. In fact, UC-Berkeley brought in well over 2000 transfer students last year. As Tech has become more selective on the freshman side, we see more students going to another college or university for a year or two and then re-applying to earn a Tech degree. This year 1/3 of admitted transfer students applied as freshman. Five years ago that number was 1/5.   In an effort to provide students with a variety of avenues to all academic programs, we have developed a transfer pathways, including Dual Degree Engineering Program and our Arts and Sciences Pathway Program, which complement our regular transfer admission process. 

A Turning Tide?

On the private side, and particularly among elite institutions, transferring is less prevalent. Princeton recently announced they will begin enrolling transfer students for the first time since 1990 (a year when Wilson Phillips topped the charts) and Stanford and MIT enrolled a combined 30 via this route last year. While not all schools are as invested in this space, frankly that’s the beauty of a diverse system– and the importance of understanding particular institutional missions and philosophies on education. However, I do speculate that in the decade ahead, due to the increasing access to and promotion of college courses in high school; the proliferation of accredited, non-profit, credit-bearing online options; and the desire of colleges to augment geographic, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity, we’ll see more private school players in this space.

An Affordable Pathway

Type of College Average Published Yearly Tuition and Fees
Public Two-Year College (in-district students) $3,347
Public Four-Year College (in-state students) $9,139
Public Four-Year College (out-of-state students) $22,958
Private Four-Year College $31,231

This table is from BigFuture (an excellent resource for students researching colleges and looking into financial aid).

It is important to note that these figures are based on published tuition costs vs. ultimate net price. Financial aid and family need largely impact ultimate cost, but it’s clear that pursuing schools locally for the first year or two of college is often a viable financial route. We often hear from transfer students that will select a college close to home following high school, so that they can work, attend class, and live at home to save money and avoid debt. Increasingly, we are seeing  students who are offered freshman admission making these decisions in order to reduce debt upon graduation.

An Alternative Avenue

Each year we read recommendation letters and review student transcripts that describe “late bloomers” or students who did not get excited about academics until late in high school. It is also common to learn of students who had tough life circumstances: parent divorces, multiple school moves in high school, and serious health issues that diminished academic success inside and outside the classroom. If you are graduating high school and this has been your experience, I sincerely hope that you’ve been admitted to a college that you’re excited about attending. If you’re an underclassmen and this is your current experience, you should always be sure to include “special circumstances” into your applications, so that schools utilizing holistic admission processes can get a full picture of your background. Either way this is the beauty of the transfer option. It is a clean slate when you start college, because typically universities do not look back at test scores, course selection, or grades from high school when they are enrolling their transfer classes.

road less traveled

A Final Word

Whether transferring is an affordability strategy; a necessary path to your ultimate goal due to circumstances; or you wake up in a cold dorm room next November wondering “Why did I pick this place? I gotta get out of here!” think of Frost’s roads–“both that morning equally lay.” Unlike the poet who bemoans a permanent separation, the roads of transfer and freshman students converge and ultimately cross the same stage– same school name and credentials on your resume and diploma. Steph Curry held on to his  dream of playing in the NBA. He harnessed the initial setback to be his motivation at Davidson. It fueled him. It drove him to push harder and to prove himself. And ultimately, like many students who transfer colleges, it is that road “that has made all the difference.”

Key Resources: NACAC’s Transfer Knowledge Hub, College Affordability Guide, National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, Kid President on Robert Frost (notably Frost did not graduate from college but holds 40 honorary degrees).

 

Keep it simple. But not too simple…

My wife loves REAL SIMPLE magazine. Their tagline is: Life Made Easier. I think of it as the “EASY Button” of magazines. You’ll commonly see headlines like, “How Lemons Can Simultaneously Clean Your Shower and Shape Your Abs,” or “6 Ways to Get More Sleep without Sleeping.” Typically, I will flip one open, read the first paragraph, skim the second, glance at the picture of some helpful graphic or perfectly trimmed flower in an artisan glass, before I start thinking of the irony that these come so frequently they’re cluttering what is clearly supposed to be a straight-lined house (see page 28).

Unfortunately, in the admission process, especially due to the generalized media coverage surrounding our field, there are many “REAL SIMPLE-fied” subjects. Here are a few tips to help you avoid the temptation to start showering with lemons:

  • Don’t let the “sticker price” keep you from applying to a particular school. As of 2011, all colleges and universities receiving federal funds must post an online net price calculator to provide prospective students and their families estimated net price information based on your individual circumstances. While I’ve literally NEVER heard a family say, “Wow. We are getting that much in aid! That seems too generous,” most families report that the net price calculator serves as a helpful catalyst to gauge likely cost and discuss the reality of attending a particular college. Also, check out online message boards, and talk to friends from your community about their experience at certain schools. Many schools will “discount” or reduce a percentage of attendance in order to meet enrollment goals. You’ll especially see this happen at private schools in the mid to upper tier. As long as your family discusses what the ultimate package/cost of attendance will need to be for it to be affordable, don’t let the broadly published total keep you from applying.
  • Don’t believe the rankings hype. If you have been admitted to two schools and there is a significant disparity (a number for you to define) in ultimate costs, do not choose the one ranked higher based solely on that factor. Look at the current NCAA Basketball rankings. Can you really make a compelling argument that the team ranked number six is significantly better than number twelve? Would you put money on them finishing higher in final polling or that they’ll advance further in the tournament? Let’s say you had to put down $500 to align with number six and only $100 to ride the tide with number twelve? Both schools will prepare you well, they’ll support you academically and socially, and they’ll be broadly known to give you every opportunity during and after your college experience. Just as much as you expect a holistic admission process as an applicant, your selection of a school should incorporate far more than a number on a page (particularly a hotly contested and arguably arbitrary one). NACAC provides a healthy lens to view rankings through here.
  • Think more broadly than quantifiable ROI (return on investment). Thankfully, since about 2009, our nation has been more conscious of discussing ROI. The right questions are being asked about the value of a college degree and the employability of a particular major based on supply and demand. However, the metrics used for determining value and ROI, while helpful, only look at dollars invested vs. dollars earned in starting or mid- career situations. Is this college a place where you will be challenged in what you know, what you believe, how you live now, and how you will live in the future? Are the connections you make—both among classmates, professors, and alumni—the kind of people that you want to surround yourself with and be associated with in both the long and short term?

I know it’s a lot easier to throw in five ingredients that simultaneously make a gourmet meal AND leave your hair well-conditioned for life, but adding nuance to some of these otherwise overly simplified aspects of the admission process means you are doing your job and allocating due weight to the importance of this decision.