College Admissions

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Quintessential Questions: Wake Forest’s Admission Director Gives Insight into the Interview Process

August 18, 2009

During the winter months in the Admissions Office, Fridays are dedicated to “Committee.” We gather with stacks of applications, discuss them, argue about them, eat lunch over them, plead for them, and then eventually vote as to whether or not they should be offered invitations to join our academic community.

Summer Fridays are different. With the incoming class already set and next year’s applications yet to arrive (except for the most zealous of the early decision) we have time to plan, to look ahead and to discuss the activity which consumes the bulk of our summer days—interviewing. We share insights, interview questions that have proven effective and yes, I admit, stories that are shared with us by interviewees about alien abductions the ability to communicate with animals, or details of the plot of the Transformer movie.

Since the decision to make SAT scores optional at Wake Forest, we have strongly encouraged our applicants to interview with us, either on campus, via webcam through Skype or if all else fails, through an on-line interview format. The interviews have proven invaluable as we evaluate applicants and have sometimes been so revealing that we have questioned how we ever made admissions decisions before the interview!

It’s important to note that the Admissions Officers who conduct interviews are not all the same. Some of us are fresh from the commencement line while others have just sent our own children away to college. We are musicians, historians, science geeks and bibliophiles. Some of us are the first in our families to have graduated from college. Others have descended from generations of academics. Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, our faces resemble those of the community around us. It is our happy task to spend thirty minutes with prospective students and in that time to draw from them information to help us decide whether or no they are a “fit” for our institution.

Do we have a common set of questions that can be rehearsed and prepared for? No. Do we often delve into areas of current events, high school classes, reading, or extra-curricular talents? Yes. Are there expected responses that we hope each question will elicit? Absolutely not. We like to be surprised. What we hope for most of all with the interview is insight into who the applicant really is at age 17, what ideas interest her, what experiences have shaped him, what are her hopes for the future and his concerns about the present. How open is her mind, how curious is his spirit? Is there kindness and humanity somewhere in there?

We seek a class of debaters and dancers, African drummers, mathematicians, zoologists and poets. The questions that we ask of our prospective students are thus broad and provocative. “Who are you?” asked with a warm smile is often how I begin my interview. ‘How do you hope your college years will be different from high school?” “What’s the best class you’ve ever taken?” “If you had a ‘do over button’ when would you have used it?”” Do you think your life will be easier than your parents’?” “Tell me about a book that everyone should read.” “If you had a day all to yourself, how would you spend it?” “Where do you get your news and what news has been most concerning to you of late?” Depending on the student the conversation can drift into European politics, techno music, sustainability, or conflicted teenage vampires. I love the drift. Just in case I have missed something critical I always conclude with, “Is there something which you hoped I would ask you that I have not?” Well, yes, there was the alien abduction.

We are admissions officers because we love college , we love college aged people and we love conversation. We don’t expect interviewees to be professional conversationalists, or mini-50 year olds, we want to talk with fresh, edgy, interesting teenagers. Theirs is the energy that makes a college campus a crucible of ideas. Come as you are to the interview and be ready to share. That’s how the match is made.

By Martha Allman

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Adding Personality to the College Admissions Mix

Wall Street Journal
August 19, 2009
For years, colleges have asked applicants for their grade-point averages and standardized test scores.
Now, schools like Boston College, DePaul University and Tufts University also want to measure prospective students' personalities.
Using recently developed evaluation systems, these schools and others are aiming to quantify so-called noncognitive traits such as leadership, resilience and creativity. Colleges say such assessments are boosting the admissions chances for some students who might not have qualified based solely on grades and traditional test scores. The noncognitive assessments also are being used to screen out students believed to be at a higher risk of dropping out, and to identify newly admitted students who might need extra tutoring.
Big nonprofits that administer standardized admissions tests, including the College Board, the Educational Testing Service and ACT Inc., are also getting in on the trend. ETS, for instance, which administers the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, recently unveiled a "personal potential index" designed for schools that want to replace traditional letters of recommendation for prospective grad students with a standardized rating.
"There is quite a bit of demand for these [noncognitive] instruments," says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association of College Admissions Counseling. Educators say the use of such assessments is likely to grow as some schools search for new tools to recruit more minority and low-income students. At the same time, budget pressures are forcing public institutions in states like California and Florida to find new tools for selecting incoming students.
Critics contend that efforts to quantify noncognitive traits are often unreliable. And, they say, as the new systems of evaluation become widespread, prospective students will figure out how to game the answers to their advantage. Some legal advocates also say the assessments could stir affirmative-action controversy if they are used solely to give a boost to minorities' admissions chances.
Many colleges have asked personality-related questions for years as part of the admissions process, but the results were seldom scored in a standardized, numerical way, says William Sedlacek, a retired University of Maryland education professor whose "noncognitive questionnaire" has been used by various colleges and by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to award scholarships. He says such assessments are reliable and that if students and counselors figure out how to manipulate them they will have to be revised. "Right now, these things are useful," Dr. Sedlacek says.
Boston's Torch Scolars
Boston's Northeastern University uses noncognitive assessment for its Torch Scholars Program, which is designed to identify applicants who show leadership potential or have overcome adversity but probably wouldn't qualify for the university based solely on their high-school grades and test scores.
Torch scholars have average SAT scores about 200 points below the typical Northeastern student, says Philomena Mantella, senior vice president of enrollment management. Still, about 90% of them stay on from their freshman to sophomore years, roughly akin to the university-wide average of 92%. Nationwide, the so-called persistence rate for freshman at four-year schools is just under 70%.
Simona Vareikaite, 20, a Northeastern junior majoring in criminal justice, said her high-school grades were good but she didn't do well on the SAT. Although she found her college's personality assessment to be "weird," it gave her a boost in the competition for the Torch scholarship. "The whole process kind of opened a new opportunity for me," says Ms. Vareikaite, who after immigrating from Lithuania started cleaning offices as an 11-year-old to help support her family.
DePaul University, in Chicago, made one noncognitive assessment part of its application process for the first time for this fall's freshman class. Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment management, says it was mainly used to make decisions about students who were just over or just under DePaul's typical admission requirements.
Of the 8,500 freshman expected this year, he estimates about 150 got in because of how they answered four personality-assessment questions. But "lackadaisical responses" resulted in the rejection of about 50 applicants who were being considered for admission. Among the questions, to be answered in about 100 words each: "Describe a goal you have set for yourself and how you plan to accomplish it. How would you compare your educational interests and goals with other students in your high school?"
At Oregon State University, every would-be undergraduate must now provide 100-word answers to six questions that are part of what the school calls its "Insight Resume." One question, designed to measure applicants' capacity to deal with adversity, asks them to describe the most significant challenge they have faced and the steps they took to address it. Another asks them to describe their experiences facing or witnessing discrimination and how they responded. Every answer is reviewed by two admissions officers and scored on a 1-to-3-point scale.
Michele Sandlin, OSU's admissions director, says the university implemented the assessment in 2004 in part to help it attract and keep minority, low-income and other applicants who don't quite have the grades and test scores OSU generally looks for. Low scores on the Insight Resume aren't used to disqualify students with adequate grades and test scores, she says.
Nonprofits also are developing noncognitive evaluation systems. A "student readiness inventory" created by ACT is being used by Northern Arizona University, Chicago's Wilbur Wright College and more than two dozen other schools to identify admitted students with traits that might make them dropout risks, which could result in their getting extra help. The students are asked to respond to 108 statements and are rated by their level of agreement with items such as "I turn in my assignments on time," and "I'm a patient person."
The "personal potential index" recently unveiled by ETS has been piloted over the past three years in an Arizona State University effort to get more minority students to take the GRE and attend graduate school. Applicants are asked to identify past professors, supervisors and other recommenders. These people are sent a form asking them to rank applicants from "below average" to "truly exceptional" on items such as whether they support the efforts of others or accept feedback without getting defensive.
And the College Board, which administers the SAT, is working with researchers at Michigan State University to develop a questionnaire designed to measure applicants' judgment and behavior by asking them how they would respond to various situations, such as a group research project where one student doesn't contribute. A College Board spokeswoman says the company has not yet decided how the questionnaire would be administered or to whom.
Gaming the System
Not everyone thinks such assessments are a good idea. Relying on applicants' writing about themselves won't always result in reliable information, says Howard Gardner, a Harvard education professor and author who has studied human intelligence. "There is a real danger in [applicants] gaming questions like that," he says.
And legal-advocacy groups that have fought racial preferences in college admissions say the new assessment systems could face court challenges if white and minority students are measured differently. "They can't apply them in a discriminatory fashion or adopt them solely for the purpose of increasing minorities in their classes," says Michael Rosman, general counsel for the Center for Individual Rights. The group represented plaintiffs before the Supreme Court, which in a pair of 2003 decisions upheld the use of minority status to boost the chances of an applicant in college admissions decisions, but ruled against points-based admissions formulas and said applicants should be considered case-by-case.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Arts Programs in Academia Are Forced to Nip Here, Adjust There

New York Times
August 9, 2009

If you are looking for a sign of how strapped the University of California, Los Angeles, is for cash, consider that its arts and architecture school may resort to holding a bake sale to raise money. California’s severe financial crisis has left its higher-education system — which serves nearly a fifth of the nation’s college students — in particularly bad straits. But tens of thousands of students at public and private colleges and universities around the country will find arts programs, courses and teachers missing — victims of piercing budget cuts — when they descend on campuses this month and next.

At Washington State University the department of theater arts and dance has been eliminated. At Florida State University the undergraduate program in art education and two graduate theater programs are being phased out. The University of Arizona is cutting three-quarters of its funds, more than $500,000, for visiting classical music, dance and theater performers. Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts, which supports four departments — dance, music, theater and visual arts — is losing 14 percent of its $1.2 million budget over the next two years. The Louisiana State University Museum of Art, one of the largest university-affiliated collections in the South, saw 20 percent of its state financing disappear. Other private and state institutions warn of larger classes, trimmed offerings, higher tuition and fewer services, faculty and visitors.

The arts are of course not the only victims of the recent economic meltdown. Large reductions in budgets have stung pretty much every corner of academia, from philosophy to Chinese, from gymnastics to geology.

The University of California, for example, is raising student fees by 9 percent, reducing freshman enrollment by 6 percent and cutting at least $300 million across its 10 campuses. There are no nationwide statistics to reveal whether one discipline is suffering more cuts than others. But administrators at more than a dozen state and private campuses who were interviewed say that the way that arts programs are structured and operated may amplify the effect of reductions.

Since tenured faculty are generally insulated from layoffs, budget cuts fall on part-time and visiting staff, Christopher Waterman, dean of the School of the Arts and Architecture at U.C.L.A., explained. For teachers, “we want artists who are in the thick of their careers,” he said. The result is that a large proportion of the school’s instructors are not permanent members of the faculty. Every department across the board has been ordered to cut 5 percent — on top of a 10 percent cut last year — but that relatively small reduction could mean the elimination of a third of the art department’s staff, Mr. Waterman said. (Final decisions on specific cuts have not been made.)

Crowded classes may not be as harmful in lecture courses, but in creative and performing studios, increasing class size is not always an option, he added. “You can’t teach painting to 40 students or give that many students voice lessons in opera or jazz.”

Several other college arts administrators around the country also said programs that serve the surrounding community as well as the students — like museums and performing arts centers — are especially vulnerable.

In California figuring out which programs and positions will survive will take a few more weeks. In the meantime the School of the Arts and Architecture, like other sections of U.C.L.A., has been told it should search for more ways to raise money itself. “We’re looking at more summer classes for high school seniors and bake sales,” Mr. Waterman said.

Elsewhere on the campus the Film & Television Archive is paring back its foreign-film program “because we cannot afford shipping any more of those prints from foreign countries,” said Jan-Christopher Horak, the archives director. A smaller staff in the film studies center could translate into less academic research, he added. As public universities watch state legislators slice away their funds, private colleges have seen their endowments shrink. Both are having to rely more on private donations at the same time that the recession has left individual contributors less able to give.

Figuring out what or who faces the budgetary guillotine has been a harrowing process no matter how it was done. Few go quietly.

Officials at Washington State University held a dozen public forums, testified before state lawmakers, appeared before the student council, the Faculty Senate and the Board of Regents; they responded to thousands of electronic messages and spoke with every single student, legislator, faculty and staff member, alumnus and community member who requested a meeting before deciding where $54 million and 360 jobs over the next two years would come from. One result: Sports management got a reprieve; that program and major will continue, while theater arts and dance will be phased out.

Arizona State University’s four campuses lost 500 jobs, closed 48 programs and imposed 10-to-15-day furloughs this spring. The schools of music, theater, film and design were all incorporated into the existing art and architecture center. Virgil Renzulli, the university’s media spokesman, said that officials focused on slashing administrative costs to maintain the same number of courses and tenured faculty.
In Flagstaff, Northern Arizona University spread the $21.3 million in cuts across departments. “The only program that we eliminated was a B.A. in theater education,” said Tom Bauer, assistant director of public affairs. “It only had 15 students, and they will be allowed to finish.” He added that the university is still waiting to hear from the governor’s office how much federal stimulus money might be directed its way.

Like California, Louisiana has had a tough year, although the doomsday cuts that some administrators were forecasting have not come to pass. Laurence Kaptain, dean of the College of Music and Dramatic Arts at Louisiana State University, said, “We tried to save people and cut things in our operations.” The college, which took a 3 percent cut this year on top of a 10 percent reduction last year, is holding back on upgrading computers and production technology, spending less on costumes, scenery and special effects as well as travel and conferences. “It’s making us more dependent on private funds,” he said.

Over at Louisiana State’s College of Art & Design the dean, David Cronrath, said a 4 percent cut ate up the positions of three full-time tenure-track faculty members, eight adjunct faculty and two staff members. He hopes to offer the same number of courses by increasing the faculty members’ loads and by relying more on graduate-student teaching assistants and part-time faculty, he said. But he, like others around the country, expects more cuts despite federal stimulus money.

For some institutions many tough decisions are yet to come. Cornell University, for example, recently approved long-term capital projects, including a $20 million extension to its art museum and a $55 million building for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, said Simeon Moss, a university spokesman. But the university is also undertaking a top-to-bottom evaluation in the face of a projected operating deficit of approximately $150 million within five years.

Although some arts advocates, faculty and students have complained that their subjects are saddled with a disproportionate share of the cuts, Sally E. McRorie, the dean of visual arts, theater and dance at Florida State University, said that did not happen in her case.

“Florida State has a long history of dedication and investment in the arts,” she said. “Our cuts have not been greater than anybody else’s.” She said the university made a decision to use federal stimulus money “to keep people employed” but noted that after next year, when “those funds are gone, I’m not sure if we’ll be able to maintain those positions.”

by: Patricia Cohen