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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Colleges Acknowledge SAT and ACT Score Cut-Offs in Admissions

New York Times
The Choice
May 20, 2009
A study released this morning seeks to weigh the benefits of SAT test preparation, and concludes that gains from such courses can be small, but that small gains often matter to admissions offices.

But the study, which will hardly be the last word on SAT test-prep, struck me as newsworthy for another reason.

As part of the report, which was commissioned by the National Association of College Admission Counseling, researchers asked nearly 250 colleges whether they used SAT or ACT scores as a cut-off for admission. Of those that accept the SAT, 1 in 5 said they used particular scores on the test as a “threshold” for admission, at least in some cases; among those using the ACT, 1 in 4 described similar cut-offs.

The good news for most applicants, or at least those whose scores are not stellar, is that more than three-quarters of the colleges report using such scores “holistically.” That usually means the tests are mixed into a stew of many factors being evaluated, including the rigor of applicants’ curriculums; their grades; their activities; their teacher recommendations, and their essays. In fact, when asked to rank the criteria for assessing applicants, most colleges said they give more priority to “strength of curriculum” and “grades in college prep courses.”

But what of those schools with cut-offs? The report does not identify them, or the scores they use. But their policies could put them at odds with the association’s “Principles of Good Practice,” to which most highly-selective colleges subscribe. Among the provisions in that document is a pledge by colleges that they “not use minimum test scores as the sole criterion for admission, advising or for the awarding of financial aid.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

This Year, 'Senioritis' May Have Dire Consequences


"Senioritis" — skipping class, missing tests, attending parties instead of athletic practice, and generally slacking off at the end of the last year of high school — is practically a rite of spring. But this year there may be serious consequences — including having college acceptance withdrawn — for those who don't finish with a strong academic record.

In the past, when students received the fat envelope, the suspense of the college application process was largely over. That's not necessarily so this year. Because in the 2009 college admission season — with the largest high school graduating classes in history, record numbers of applications and dwindling economic resources — colleges simply don't know how many students are going to be able to accept their offers.

To cope with that uncertainty, many colleges are admitting more students than in the past. If they find they have over-enrolled their incoming class, they may be more likely to revoke an offer of admission to those who haven't maintained top grades or fallen short in some other way. (Final grades were cited by 69% of colleges that revoked admission offers in 2007; disciplinary problems accounted for 25%, says the National Association for College Admission Counseling.) Other colleges are admitting fewer students and counting on pulling heavily from their wait-list. In deciding who should come off that list, a primary consideration will be a strong senior year. Those who slack off will find themselves last in line.

"The stakes have compounded exponentially this year because of the uncertainty we're facing," says Doug Christiansen, dean of admission at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Though colleges have always reviewed the final academic records of incoming classes, this year they will scrutinize them more thoroughly, officials say. Admission departments will double-check for drops in grades, absenteeism and situations in which, for example, a student's application said he was taking three advanced placement classes, but he later dropped two. They also will watch for red flags that arise from lapses in judgment or integrity, such as cheating, plagiarism, drinking or drug use.

How many students may have admission withdrawn this year? With their predictive models not working in this admission cycle, colleges just don't know yet. The University of California projects that about 50 admission offers may be withdrawn at each of nine campuses, says Sue Wilbur, director of undergraduate admissions. But some campuses could issue more. "All campuses are very carefully managing their numbers to come in on their enrollment targets," she says. When officials say in their admission letter that enrollment is contingent on maintaining senior-year grades, they mean it.

Being proactive can help

When admission is rescinded, the news probably will come at a difficult time. Though students commit to a school on May 1 and release other offers, colleges don't see final transcripts until after graduation and are at the mercy of high schools on when records arrive. Students may learn as late as August they have no place to go in the fall.

But there is something students can do — if they act before the letter revoking admission arrives. If there is a problem, a student should inform the college where he has been accepted or wait-listed. It is incumbent on the student — not the parent — to take the initiative, call the admission department, explain the problem as candidly as possible and describe what is being done to remedy it. A school often will look more kindly on such news when informed well before viewing the final transcript.

"Universities will find out," Christiansen says.

Colleges do consider extenuating circumstances such as family emergencies or illness, and, when appropriate, may suggest summer school or deferring enrollment for a year. "Colleges are in the business of education, not punishment," says Susan Dean, director of college counseling at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Calif., an elite secondary school for girls. "Anything they can do to assist a student, they are going to try to do."

If a student doesn't self-report and has admission rescinded, there is usually little he can do. Schools are loath to remake such decisions. Almost all schools include language in acceptance letters that makes admission contingent on performance through the end of the senior year.

That conditional language constitutes a fair warning — and officials advise high school seniors to take it seriously, particularly this year.

By Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde
Robin Mamlet is former Dean of Admissions at Stanford University, Swarthmore College and Sarah Lawrence College. Christine VanDeVelde is a journalist.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Top Colleges See Little Fall in Freshman Commitments

New York Times
May 10, 2009

In an early indication that the economic downturn may not have disrupted students’ college choices as much as schools had feared, more than a dozen top colleges said last week that accepted applicants had committed themselves to attending next fall at about the same rate as last year.

Among the private colleges reporting little variation in their admissions yields were Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Wesleyan, Smith, Kenyon and Whitman. Among public colleges, the Universities of Virginia and Wisconsin reported similar results.

But those yields came at a price: many of the colleges said they had increased their financial aid budgets, often significantly, over last year’s.

The dean of admissions at Pomona College in California, Bruce Poch, said, “For all the Chicken Little and Henny Penny hysteria and dire predictions, it seems to have worked out just fine here.” At Pomona, 384 applicants sent in their deposits, only 6 fewer than the goal the college had set. The class is “essentially full,” Mr. Poch added, though some students on the waiting list might be offered admission.

The dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, William R. Fitzsimmons, had anticipated a drop in the yield of as much as 5 percentage points because of the poor economy. But about 76 percent of those accepted to Harvard, or nearly 1,560 applicants, have signaled their intention to attend — “right where we were at the end of last year,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said.

As much as 65 percent of the incoming freshman class at Harvard could end up receiving direct, need-based scholarships, compared with 58 percent in the current freshman class, Mr. Fitzsimmons said. In response, Harvard expects to increase its undergraduate financial aid budget by $9 million, or 7 percent.

At Yale, nearly 70 percent of those accepted, or about 1,330 students, have signaled their intention to enroll, a percentage nearly identical to last year’s, said Jeffrey Brenzel, the dean of undergraduate admissions.

“Our yield so far has been significantly stronger than we expected,” Mr. Brenzel wrote in an e-mail message. “Given the economy, we thought that more students not eligible for need-based financial aid from Yale might accept merit scholarships offered by a number of excellent colleges.”

The next freshman class at Yale is oversubscribed by about 17, which does not bode well for the 468 applicants on the waiting list.

Princeton’s yield of 60 percent this year is a percentage point higher than last year’s, which is noteworthy given that the university is trying to increase its freshman class size by about 60, to 1,300.

Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said it too had received a response from accepted applicants at a rate similar to last year’s — about 35 percent, or 760, said they would attend. The senior associate dean of admissions, Greg Pyke, said he was surprised that the economy had not “really driven the yield down.” He credited Wesleyan’s increasing of its financial aid offers as a factor.

Another situation being closely monitored is whether public universities are being overrun with candidates, as some high school seniors seek a less expensive education than many private colleges offer.

At the University of Virginia, this year’s yield — 49 percent, representing 3,100 deposits — is only 1 percentage point higher than last year’s. The University of Wisconsin said its yield this year — 41 percent, or about 5,550 deposits — was a drop of 2 percentage points from last year’s. But the university said appeals of financial-aid decisions among accepted freshmen had increased 20 percent over last year.

The State University of New York at New Paltz said it had gotten the admissions yield it wanted: about 20 percent, compared with 24 percent last year. But to lower its yield, New Paltz had to close off applications at about 15,250 and offer several hundred fewer acceptances than it did a year earlier.

“The next question is whether the deposits are hard or soft,” said L. David Eaton, the vice president for enrollment. Mr. Eaton said he wondered whether some students had put in a $250 deposit to New Paltz, as well as deposits elsewhere, to hedge their bets.

Georgetown University, Providence College and Hartwick College were among those that said last week that they still had openings in their incoming freshman classes. Officials at the University of California, Los Angeles, said they would not have data before June 1.

All told, the institutions that have reported their yields are a fraction of the nation’s estimated 2,000 four-year colleges, which means it will probably be months before the full picture is known.

Tamar Lewin, Lisa W. Foderaro and Rebecca R. Ruiz contributed reporting.

Friday, May 01, 2009

529,Other Plans Offer Helping Hand For College Dreams

Augusta Chronicle
April 19, 2009

The economy has declined, but this hasn't changed your child's dream of attending college.
The price tag of a college education continues to grow each year, and families need to plan ahead. Though times are tough, families should continue to save, said Chuck Penuel, the director of the Path2College 529 Plan for Georgia.
If you're already saving, don't change your habits, college savings experts say.
"Obviously, this is something that is kind of unprecedented, so every type of savings has been affected. This market shouldn't cause people to quit saving," Mr. Penuel said.
It's also important to start saving early, said Scott Malyerck, the deputy state treasurer for South Carolina, whose office manages the Future Scholar 529 College Savings Plan.
"A lot of people don't think about saving until the child is applying for college. It's kind of late at that point," he said.
EACH STATE HAS A 529 plan, a federal tax code designation that offers tax advantages to encourage families to save for future education expenses, Mr. Penuel said.
"Your taxes are deferred as your account grows. When you withdraw the money for college expenses, those withdrawals are also tax free," he said. "You can use the dollars that you've saved and earned returns on over the years for any qualified college expenses: tuition, room and board, fees, computers."
Participants aren't locked into the account, so if they need to withdraw money for other expenses, they will simply pay taxes on the nonqualified withdrawal.
Anyone can enroll in the plan and select the beneficiary of choice. The funds also can be used for graduate school.
Mr. Malyerck recommends that families visit to compare each state's plan.
South Carolina's plan is among the top four in the nation, he said, and it doesn't require participants to be South Carolina residents. The money can be used at any college nationwide. Parents can start an account with as little as $250.
Parents can transfer the funds to another child or an adult who is going back to school. Participants can either have a financial advisor set up their account or they can do it themselves, Mr. Malyerck added.
There are other benefits to such a plan.
"If you're a South Carolina resident, you get a state tax deduction on money you put into the program," Mr. Malyerck said.
Georgia also offers a state income tax deduction up to $2,000 for each beneficiary for whom they have an account. Participants don't have to be Georgia residents, and enrollment in the plan is open all year, Mr. Penuel said.
There are many investment options for 529 plans, such as the age-based option, which manages investments based on the child's age. If the child is young, parents can invest more heavily in stocks, which earn more but are riskier investments.
As the child ages, the money is rolled over to more conservative investments, such as bonds or money market funds.
Other options range from pure stock market investments to guaranteed investments, which guarantee the principal and a minimum rate of interest, Mr. Penuel said.
When comparing the plans for each state, it's important to pay attention to fees, he said. Georgia's plan has low fees, as low as less than half of one percent per year of your account value.
"Some plans are considerably more," Mr. Penuel said.
PREPAID TUITION plans allow parents to purchase tuition at today's prices for later use.
Georgia and South Carolina have chosen to close enrollment for their plans. That's because prepaid plans have become burdens for states because investment earnings are down and college tuition rates keep increasing, Mr. Malyerck said.
"Our program is closed for new people, which many states have done. Some states have just done away with the program," he said.
There are only about 18 prepaid tuition plans nationwide, Mr. Penuel said. The 529 savings plan, however, is more flexible and provides "a wider range of use for your money and lets you control what you spend it on."
FAMILIES HAVE OTHER college savings options, said Richard Borin, a college financial planner with Los Angeles-based College Connections, which counsels students nationwide.
"Retirement accounts are a terrific way to save for college and make your children understand the value of money and work for some money," Mr. Borin said.
When a child turns 10, parents can give them a job around the house and pay them a reasonable amount. They should put the money in a retirement account in the child's name, such as a Roth IRA, which Mr. Borin considers to be the best option.
"A Roth IRA can basically do the same thing as a 529," he said.
They are beneficial because if parents take the money out for educational expenses, they will not be penalized, he said.
"Families that have their own businesses are the ones that can best come up with strategies to reduce the costs of college," he added.
They can have the child work for the business and pay them "what you normally would have received." The child won't have to pay taxes because he or she has a tax credit, he said.
Parents also could open trust accounts through the Uniform Gifts to Minors Act or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act, which they can control.
"There are bonds that are meant specifically for education, such as a series EE United States savings bond," Mr. Borin said.
The EE bond guarantees a certain amount over a period of time. There is also a series 1 U.S. Savings Bond, in which the interest rate keeps up with inflation.

By LaTina Emerson

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