College Admissions

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

College Costs Outpace Inflation Rates

New York Times
Published: October 23, 2007

Tuition and fees at public and private universities have risen this year at more than double the rate of inflation, with prices increasing faster at public institutions, the College Board said in reports released yesterday.
These increases in the cost of higher education continue to drive up the amount that students and families borrow, with the fastest growth in private loans, the reports found.
Tuition and other costs, not including room and board, rose on average to $6,185 at public four-year colleges this year, up 6.6 percent from last year, while tuition at private colleges hit $23,712, an increase of 6.3 percent. At public two-year institutions, average tuition and fees rose 4.2 percent to $2,361.
Last year, tuition and fees at public institutions rose 5.7 percent; at private ones, 6.3 percent and at public two-year institutions, 3.8 percent.
“The average price of college is continuing to rise more rapidly than the consumer price index, more rapidly than prices in the economy,” Sandy Baum, a co-author of the report who is a senior policy analyst for the College Board and a professor at Skidmore College, told reporters at a news conference yesterday.
Ms. Baum added that the prices “are probably higher than most of us want.”
Those price increases reflect increases in the sticker price that colleges advertise, though, Ms. Baum said, the average student does not pay that full amount. At public universities, the average student gets about $3,600 in grants and tax benefits, lowering the actual cost to around $2,600. At private institutions, aid totals about $9,300, bringing the cost to $14,400.
But even the net price, after taking into account grants and other forms of aid, is rising more quickly than prices of other goods and than family incomes. In recent years, consumer prices have risen less than 3 percent a year, while net tuition at public colleges has risen by 8.8 percent and at private ones, 6.7 percent.
The changes in tuition at public institutions closely track changes in financing they receive from state governments and other public sources, the report found. When state and local support for public colleges declined over the last seven years, tuition and fees rose more quickly, and as state support has grown of late, the pace of increases fell, it said.
“We hope that state governments — which really set tuition prices at most public colleges and universities — will do their part to reinvest in higher education,” David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said in a statement released by the College Board.
Private loans, those not guaranteed by the federal government, continued to be the fastest-growing form of borrowing, totaling more than $17 billion in the 2006-7 academic year. In the same period, students and their families borrowed $59.6 billion in federally guaranteed loans.
The report also included data on loans by full-time students at for-profit institutions, finding that in 2003-4, they took out an average of $6,750 in loans, approaching the $7,320 borrowed by students at private colleges and exceeding the $5,390 borrowed by those at public four-year institutions and $3,180 at public two-year ones.
“College officials tell us not to worry because there’s plenty of financial aid,” said Robert Shireman, executive director of the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit organization financed largely by the Pew Charitable Trusts. “But that aid is clearly not going where it’s needed, because student debt is up by an even greater margin than tuition — an 8 percent increase from 2005 to 2006, by our accounting.”
The report prompted Representative George Miller, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, to pledge to try to “rein in” tuition increases. Mr. Miller added, “Making college more affordable and accessible for all qualified students is a top priority.”
Last year the average Pell grant, the federal government’s grant to the neediest students, declined for the second year in a row, after taking into account the effects of inflation. Ms. Baum, the economist, said she expected that decline to stop because Congress recently enacted increases in the maximum amount of the grant, which held constant at $4,050 for four years but will rise to $5,400 over the next five years.
The College Board’s study drew on responses from 2,976 institutions to questionnaires sent out last October, as well as government agencies and organizations like the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
According to the study, the cost of room and board has also continued to rise and at many public colleges dwarfs actual tuition. At four-year public institutions, tuition, room and board on average now total $13,589; at private colleges, $32,307.
Ms. Baum emphasized that while the College Board reports provided information on the general cost of higher education, costs varied around the country as well as at different kinds of colleges.
“The average numbers don’t tell the story for any individual student,” Ms. Baum said.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Essay Is Not About Poetry

Jack Scheidell
Wired Counselor
Oct 8, 2007

There are few things more misunderstood in the college process than the essay. The truth is that it matters. A lot. But schools aren't looking for New Yorker-level prose. "It's not a literary exercise," says Keith Todd, director of undergraduate admissions at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "I've read many lyrical, beautiful essays that don't say anything. I'd rather have a science geek talking about his love of science."
Todd also says admissions officers realize most 17-year-olds don't have dramatic stories to tell, and that's OK. Richard Nesbitt, director of admissions at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., says schools assume most students run their essays past an English teacher or parent for editing help. That's fine as long as they don't remove the student's voice. "Usually the best essays are the ones that are personal," Nesbitt says.
Make a connection
Again, a school wants to see that you have more than a passing interest in attending. Keith Todd, dean of admissions at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., recommends that students visit the campus or at least go to a regional Q&A session with a local alum.
Kelly Tanabe, author of "Get Into Any College," advises students not to miss the brown-bag lunch forums their admissions officers hold at your high school. In fact, make sure you ask questions and even stay afterward to talk about how you see yourself fitting into the school.
Try to get business cards and follow up with a polite e-mail, thanking them for their time. More often than not, it's that very person who will review applications from your school. If he or she remembers you, you're no longer just a piece of paper.
Cancel the trip to Costa Rica
Notes Anna Ivey, a former admissions officer who now coaches students on getting into college through her Cambridge, Mass.-based company, Anna Ivey Consulting: "A lot of parents overestimate how much it will help to send their kids on a fancy trip to build huts in Guatemala. Admissions officers are savvy. They know that these things cost a lot of money and they don't want to appear to be rewarding expensive trips for rich kids."
Same goes for those expensive summer programs on college campuses, adds Chappaqua's Lisa Jacobson, founder of Inspirica, a tutoring and SAT prep program. A better use of a student's summer downtime is to get a job. "Admissions officers like regular jobs," Jacobson says. "Especially for affluent kids."
Recommendations of teaches matter
Anna Ivey of Anna Ivey Consulting, based in Cambridge, Mass., says teacher recommendations are something students should think about when they start high school: Cultivate a relationship with a few teachers over time. Deans of admissions say it is one of the most important things they look at on the application, since it offers insight into how intellectually curious an applicant is. And while we're on the topic, no need asking an alum to write one for you. They bear no weight in the admissions office.
Stay in touch ... to a point
Exactly how much contact should you have with the admissions office? Christof Guttentag, the head of admissions at Duke University in Durham, N.C., says you should not be afraid to call them. "We like hearing from students. We're in admissions because we like students. It's not a bad thing to update us on how things are going." However, with thousands of applications each year, admissions officers are busy. "Staying in touch means our hearing from them a couple of times, not weekly e-mails," he says.

The Truth About College Admissions

Jack Scheidell
Lower Hudson Online
September 29, 2007

Early Decision Does Work
A college wants to see that it's your No. 1 choice, and this is the best way of showing that. But there's an advantage for you, too: Applying early decision (considered binding; early action is considered non-binding) can give you a leg up at your most favored school. How big of an advantage? Consider that at Rye High School last year, 66 percent of the seniors applied early decision or early action, according to Director of Guidance Patricia Taylor. Of those, 74 percent were admitted.
At Duke University in Durham, N.C., one of the most competitive schools in the country, only 18 percent of students who applied regular decision were accepted. However, 40 percent of the early decision applicants got in.
Harvard recently did away with its early decision program altogether, saying it favors wealthier applicants, and Jeremy Hyman, co-author of "The Professor's Guide to Getting Good Grades in College," says more schools may soon follow its lead.

Melissa Dzenis was devastated when she found out she hadn't been accepted early action to Yale, where she applied last year. The Pelham High School honor student cried for two nights straight, says her mother, Estrellita Dzenis. "It was a very stressful time for the whole family."
Granted, Yale has a long history of breaking the hearts of bright Lower Hudson Valley teens, but even by its own standards, Melissa would appear to be a worthy candidate.
There's the five AP courses she took, her stellar test scores (she was a National Merit Honors-commended student), the three sports she played, the hours she spent tutoring her peers after school, the slew of other honors she received and the weekends spent coaching Girls CYO basketball teams ("I didn't sleep very much," she jokes).
There's also the summer job at her grandfather's woodworking factory in Latvia, in Eastern Europe, her Model UN experience, and the fact that she's played the flute and piano since grade school.
Beyond all that, when she speaks, Melissa comes across as intellectually curious and genuinely passionate about learning. And, after all, isn't that what colleges are looking for?
The problem is that there are thousands of Melissa Dzenises and not enough freshman spots at top universities like Yale. In the past few years, seniors from around the region have come face to face with a troubling reality: The college admissions process is stacked against them.
Historic numbers of applicants have flooded the nation's most competitive schools (an elite group of a couple dozen colleges that, rightly or wrongly, has come to dominate the focus of many of our communities' brightest students).
Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass., for example, saw an increase of 1,000 applicants in the last year, while the applicant pool at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., grew by 19 percent (largely due to its decision to accept the Common Application). Meanwhile, Harvard had 23,000 students vying for 1,662 spots.
Making matters worse, schools that were once considered "safeties" by top students - like Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., - are "basically Ivy League now" in terms of the competition to get in, says Chappaqua's Lisa Jacobson, founder of Inspirica, a tutoring and SAT prep program.
"I went to Yale in the early '80s, but there is no way I would have gotten in if I was applying now," says Bruce Hammond, co-author of "The Fiske Guide to Getting into the Right College." The reason, he says: supply and demand.
Factors include a larger pool of international students, an easier application process (thanks to the Internet and the one-size-fits-all Common Application, which allows you to fill out one application for multiple schools), more students willing to travel farther, more information about colleges (hundreds of books and Web sites) and simple demographics. The baby boomers are seeing their own offspring - another generational boom - ready to leave the nest, a phenomenon that experts predict will peak sometime in the next two to five years. Until then, what we have is the perfect storm for an admissions logjam.
That means students who choose to pursue admissions at the most elite colleges face a daunting application process. Melissa Dzenis says she began looking at schools during her sophomore year. "It's such a competitive enterprise," she says. "Nowadays, kids are aiming their entire lives to get into these schools. I don't even know how many revisions to the essay I went through. It's a horrible experience. There were so many late nights. You worked hard and [then] to hear someone telling you you're not good enough is hard."
What's in a name?
Many young people face their first taste of rejection when it comes to the college admissions process, a rite of passage current high school seniors are now going through. But especially in this region, where students tend to apply to the same 30 to 40 schools.
"What's happened in our society, especially in these kinds of suburban communities, is that the highly selective schools have become kind of a status symbol for families," says Paul Martin, a former coordinator of counseling at Mamaroneck High School. "You get the feeling there's a competition about which bumper sticker you have on your car."
It may be a moot point for students intent on whichever school has captured their interest, but colleges are businesses. And they rely on building and maintaining their brands. At the moment, the admissions process favors the schools in what may be the most massively unfair supply-and-demand equation on the market today.
"The market is broken," says Hammond. "These colleges are just relying on their brands to charge any price. What other product are people going to fall over themselves to pay $50,000 for? Is that the kind of climate that fosters academic success?"
Hammond says there are certain benefits to going the Ivy route, but not as many as people think. Which is why, he says, when you measure the cost-benefit ratio just based on education, the elite schools are ridiculously overpriced.
And yet, try as they might, many guidance counselors in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam have a hard time convincing their students that this is the case.
"I tell them - I'm not sure they listen, but I honestly believe this - you're going to end up where you're supposed to be," says Dr. Rose Guberman, who recently retired as the director of counseling services at Pelham High School. "And I tell them you're going to come back and tell me you love it. I've been doing this for 31 years."
What do schools want?
As the glut of applications hits admissions offices, the people who do the sorting are more and more in the position of seeking reasons to reject students, rather than accept them.
"When they look at a transcript and see there are four B's, in previous years that might have been OK, but not any longer," says Patricia Taylor, Rye High School's director of guidance. "It's a difficult situation because we encourage students to take the most rigorous courses and to stretch themselves academically. But we also have to tell them now that they should make sure they can perform in these courses."
According to Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, Harvard's dean of admissions, combing through the applicants to her school can be "a daunting task. It's not a science. There is a large committee that listens to every single case," she says. "Most students who apply here are very well-qualified."
In fact, she says, it would almost be possible to dump a stack of applicants onto a table and randomly choose a qualified student body ... which is probably not a comforting thought for potential applicants and their parents.
"It's a humbling experience," says Janine Heitner, a guidance counselor at John Jay High School in Cross River. "Years ago, if you called admissions people about this or that student, they could have given you a reason why they were or weren't accepted. Most of the time now, they really can't tell you."
So what is Harvard looking for? "Students who already have a record of developing whatever talents they have, and students who will do something great with their lives," says McGrath-Lewis.
Find a hook
Assuming your child still wants to enter the elite college sweepstakes what does he or she need to do to stand a better chance of winning acceptance? Steve Roy Goodman, an educational consultant, likens it - only half jokingly - to a first date. You have to make a good impression, you have to make it fast, and you have to make sure you don't have any spinach in your teeth.
"This is big business for universities," Goodman says. "A lot of students apply and they forget the admissions process is designed to benefit the colleges. Their job is to satisfy what the colleges want."
So how do you become a desirable candidate in the eyes of admissions officers? In general, the goal is to stand out from the other applicants and offer something the college may need that other equally talented students can't give, such as playing an obscure instrument for the school's orchestra or being one of the best athletes in a sport.
In a similar vein, schools respond to passion and focus. The notion that a student who joins every extracurricular activity has an advantage is false. Admissions officers say they prefer a student who has devoted considerable time pursuing one or two genuine interests.
Keith Todd, the director of admissions at Northwestern, says he's looking for students who show passion and dedication to certain things, especially things that resonate with that individual. In other words, don't just volunteer because you think it will help you get into college.
"It has greater resonance for us when we can tell it's part of a greater sense of engagement in some arena," says Christof Guttentag, the head of admissions at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "When colleges admit students, it's not that they are also rewarding academic accomplishment, but they are building a community," he says. "We want our graduates to be active participants in the communities they're involved in as alums."
Of course, identifying the achievements someone makes as a 17-year-old as indicators of future greatness is a heady task. But admissions officers consider it their responsibility to find the signs of raw talent. And those signs often go beyond the classroom.
Jacobson, of Inspirica, says, "It's a myth that good grades and good SATs are enough. It gets you into the 'maybe pile.' Once you're there, it's all about who you are and what you bring."
What a student offers is sometimes referred to as a "hook." According to Hammond, there are certain hooks, which - sorry to say - are a dime a dozen: The student with a great GPA and great test scores who edited the yearbook falls into this category. Compare this student to one with more unusual achievements (a national equestrian champion, for example, or someone who began a Big Brothers/Big Sisters chapter or demonstrated entrepreneurial skills), and the former will not leap out at admissions officers. The least-crowded category (and therefore the applicants who tend to go to the front of the line) is the star athlete who also happens to be a superb student.
Still, Hammond cautions, it's not productive to try to sell yourself into a category in which you don't fit. Schools can tell when an applicant isn't being genuine. It's just a reality that when you go the route of applying to the most selective schools in the country, there's only so much you can do.
For example, Goodman says, "Schools are trying to fill their classes with the largest number of students possible that satisfy diversity criteria and max out the number of students who can afford to pay." That's right, according to Goodman, need-blind admissions is a myth. "It's the same as on the first date when you say, 'It doesn't matter what you look like.' A person who's paying full fare at the University of Pennsylvania versus someone who's not means a $400,000 difference. That's a lot of money for a university to ignore."
With all that working against you, perhaps the best advice can be summed up by Inspirica's Jacobson: "Figure out what you love to do. If you like fashion and old movies, pursue those things. It's OK to be the fashion kid who likes old movies."
Senior-year blues
Maybe then the most important lesson about the college admissions process is learning to put rejection behind you. "If you don't get in," Jacobson says, "it has nothing to do with intelligence."
Emily Chen certainly proves that. The Tuckahoe High School grad admits she probably didn't start thinking about college early enough. In her senior year she decided Columbia University in New York City was her first-choice school, but applied regular admissions.
She had plenty going for her. She took five AP courses, was a member of the Science Olympiad team, the National Honor Society, the school's drama club, and the chorus. And in her spare time, she happened to earn high enough grades to be her school's valedictorian.
And yet, last April, when she went online to check whether Columbia had admitted her, she learned she was placed on the wait list. The blow was slightly softened by the fact that her best friend, who also applied to Columbia (and who happened to be the salutatorian), was also waitlisted.
Chen, however, was accepted at the other five schools to which she applied, and this fall she matriculated at New York University, also in New York City, a choice she says she's happy with.
Melissa Dzenis, the Pelham senior deferred from Yale, also got into her second-choice school - Brown University in Providence, R.I. She plans on studying International Relations. "I'm ecstatic," she says. Still, Melissa says, "When you think about all the time and energy you put into looking perfect for someone else, you can't help but think, was it worth it?"