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The Rankings, meh….

Fall has arrived (well, almost). And with it comes college football. I have a friend who used to pick the best Saturday each year (in terms of match-ups) and invite a bunch of guys to his house. This was proudly coined the “Sit A–athon.” You accrued points by consuming food and drinks, but lost points by getting out of your seat. Points were deducted at higher rates based on the purpose of your absence, as well as the duration. It made for a day filled with cheering, heckling, and creative ways to win, which is appropriate for football itself, right?

I share this with you not to encourage duplication but simply to illustrate that I am a fan. A big fan. Someone who is often surrounded by others who have adamant opinions about which team is the best. And while I don’t always agree 100% with college football rankings from week to week, I do understand the basis for them: points scored, points allowed, home win vs. win on the road, strength of opponent, and obviously what else happens around the country– all basically valid when deciding on top talent and a comparison of talent. By about week five I’m willing to concede that there is a fundamental difference between number 20 and number 10.

College Rankings

Yesterday, US News and World Report released their annual rankings. Feel free to check out the link but the Clark’s Notes are: not much changed. Still have a bunch of Ivies and schools with old brick and stone ranked highly; no school with an undergraduate population above 10,000 until Cornell at #15; no public school until UC-Berkeley at #20.  A complete methodology is here, but quickly here is how it breaks down:

22.5% – Graduation and Retention rates –  How good of a job is the school doing a good job retaining, supporting, and graduating students?

22.5% –  Academic Reputation –  What do academic professionals from other colleges (Presidents, Provosts, Deans, etc.) and counselors on the high school level think about that school?

20.0% –  Faculty Resources –  How do faculty salaries and the number of students in the classroom compare to other universities nationally?

12.5% –  Student Selectivity –  What were the school’s admit rate, test score averages, and number coming from the Top 10% out of high school?

10.0% –  Financial Resources –   What is the average per-student spending on instruction, research, student services, etc?

7.5% –  Graduation rate –  Did a school’s graduation rate outperform or underperform as it relates to how the US News would have expected?

5.0% –  Alumni Giving –  At what rate are alumni giving back to their alma mater?

Each year we hear stories from students who say they were not allowed to apply to schools ranked below the Top 25; or thought they could only apply to schools within the Top 10 in a particular field; or were pressured to ultimately choose the highest ranked school to which they were admitted.  That being said, I wanted to be sure you know how these rankings are formulated.

If you or someone advising you on the college admission process is pointing to the rankings as a source for differentiation, I encourage you to ask these questions:

  • Does it matter to me that a President from one college looks favorably upon another (especially accounting for what we know about competition)?
  • Is a school’s ability to pay a faculty member $2,000 more annually ($244/month or $8/day) of consequence to my college search and decision?
  • Do I really think there is a difference in prestige/quality/experience between The (note definite article) University of Virginia and University of Michigan because of the three slot difference putting one inside and the other outside the Top 25?

Here’s Your Job

Your job as a student in the college admission process is to figure out what is most important for YOUR college experience. Admittedly, that job becomes more difficult with every glossy, shiny brochure that shows up essentially saying, “Look. We are all the same. We have happy, smiling students here who bask in the sunshine both on campus and while studying abroad.” So ask this first: why are you going to college? If you start by answering that, you come up with answers like: to explore more deeply inside and outside the classroom, to meet more people passionate about the things I care about, to get a job doing X, to learn more about a certain subject, to have fun, to go to grad school in Y, to spend time in a different part of the country, and so on.  That then leads you to narrow down your list because while School Z is highly ranked and despite the fact that they did send you a very clever email (or 12 perhaps), it is in the Midwest, or doesn’t have your major, or has an overabundance of students who looked frustrated and pale on the tour.

It’s important you keep that in mind too, because pretty soon you will start getting an entirely new round of marketing materials from schools touting their rankings. And your parents will be getting emails with press releases and solicitations to buy books or magazines (or more likely online subscriptions or logins to both) with these lists and seemingly infinite subgroupings. Before you use (or are pressured to use) rankings to make a college list or draw some draconian line, and especially when you are sitting on offers of admission and considering where to attend next year, I implore you to consider:

  1. If a college is perfect in a great location, has a dynamic student body, is a good academic fit, but ranks ten spots below another, should a rank (based on the factors above) matter?
  2. If the school is outside the Top 100 but is offering me a scholarship and has graduates thriving in the field I want to pursue, should I turn it down for a higher ranked but less affordable option?

You want colleges to understand that a test score does not define you. And you would not want 50 points difference to be the reason one student is chosen over another. Similarly, I’d assert that selecting a school on a number is equally myopic.  But most importantly I challenge anyone answering “Yes” to those last questions to debate me in the First Annual Sit Admi–ionsathon.

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The Welcome Manual: Part 1 of 3

I woke up to the sound of rain on the windows and roof. Not a completely uncommon noise but somehow this seemed different. Then the water started hitting my arm and face and I forced my eyes open.

I was sleeping on a porch at the beach. My family took a vacation last week to Cape Cod, MA. Beautiful area and great to escape the Georgia heat at this time of year. But after a long night of stories by the fire, I had decided to sleep on a porch bed to enjoy the cool evening.  Looking around me at the wet sill and blanket it was clear that it had been raining a while. I went back into the house and began closing the windows in my wife and kids’ rooms. Then I went into the bathroom. Oddly, it was here that it felt like rain was falling directly on my head… and it was.

I looked up and realized there was an open sunroof that I had not noticed during the beautiful, clear days before.  Not wanting to turn on the light or wake anyone else up I stared up at the skylight. Rain was coming directly into my face at this point.

This house was built in 1920. The ceiling was a good 12 feet high and there was a precariously archaic looking crank to close this hatch. I searched the wall hoping perhaps it has been modernized and one of the switches would control it. Flip, lights. Flip, fan. Flip, not sure what that does but it does not control the sunroof.

Finding The Solution

Do I put down towels and go back to sleep? Appealing but irresponsible. Do I wake my wife up and ask for help? No. It’s 3 a.m. and she was buried under 2 pillows and taking up the entire bed at this point. Plus, she’d much prefer a wet bathroom than being woken up with questions I should be able to answer.

So… the only solution: climb. I’m not saying I’m Spiderman or anything, but having young kids has renewed my playground acumen, which as this point was looking to prove necessary. I step up onto to toilet. Put a foot into the wall and my hand on the window sill and pulled myself onto that and the top of the door frame.  I was 6-7 feet off the ground and could reach to 11 or so. Almost there. I stretched further and could almost touch the crank now. But it was slick and rain was picking up. I jammed my back into wall and reluctantly reached to the crank and closed the sunroof. At this point I was dripping from both sweat and rain.  I eased back down to the top of the toilet careful not to make the final step the one that sent me to the Cape Cod hospital. And that’s when I saw it. Sitting in the corner, right next to the plunger was a 2 foot silver rod.  I picked it up. What the…?!  Expanding it out to a good 6 feet like a tent pole, there was a perfect aperture for the crank.

That would have been good to know! I’m so glad the welcome manual for the house included directions to the beach and restaurant recommendations, instead of helpful nuggets like this one. Yelp and Google Maps have got me covered in 2016, but so far there is no “crank” app that I’m aware of.

The Admission Welcome Manual

Part of what creates anxiety in the admission process is what brings about stress in all of life: uncertainty.  When we don’t feel like we have all of the details or good information on something, it shakes us. And then questions start swirling: Should I apply or is this school too far out of reach? Will they like my essay and find it compelling? Have I done enough outside the classroom to complement my good grades? How much will they look at test scores, and will that be the only factor they care about? Will the fact that 10 other students are applying from my high school hurt my chances?

As we head toward August and the opening of applications around the country, it’s clear we need to go back to the basics. Today, we’ll cover the first step in our three-part series, the“welcome manual” to college admission.

Step 1 – Separate yourself

The other day I was talking with a student who just finished his freshman year at Tech. Crazy talented when it comes to film and media. He’s going to have a very successful career, and he’s majoring in business to complement his creative skills. We started talking about the admission process, and I fired off a few questions I love to ask: where else did you apply? Why did you choose Tech? What would you tell a high school student now that you wish you would have known?

And his answer to that surprised me– he said he did not highlight his passion for film because he thought Tech admissions would question if he were a good fit. He didn’t want to “look too different from others I knew were applying.” He actually wrote different supplemental essays for Tech than he did for University of Chicago and Stanford. At this point, my mouth was agape. “What?! Wait… what?!”   I know we talk about “voice” in every presentation. We write about “conveying individualism” in blogs and in publications. We have made videos speaking to this very point. It’s one of those moments that makes me want to throw up my hands.

The entire purpose of the supplemental essay is to separate you from other applicants. This is your interview. This is the one time in the app that you get to convey your voice. That voice is precious to us because it does not come out in test scores, course choice or performance, or even in the activities you choose to participate in. We need your authentic, passionate, individual voice and content there. His desire to combine business and film is PRECISELY what makes him an attractive candidate for us. We saw that he had his own film company when reading his activities and noted he had worked in that capacity within school and the community.

Like many applicants, we Googled him and checked out some of his work during file review. We want to know these things you care about. Shaping and building a class means finding many distinct pieces and combining them to create a beautiful puzzle.

So repeat after me, “Step 1: Write to separate yourself.”  When we read essays and make comments, we use a rubric. On our scale the mid-range is “dime a dozen” or “not a separator.” Basically this means that the essay does not hurt but does not help. It’s neutral. It’s effectively mediocre. Reaching the higher end of the rubric is achieved by augmenting your application with writing that helps us hear you, helps us remember you, understand you. Think about going out on a first date. You want your answers and conversation to be interesting, elaborative, insightful, creative. One word answers that you give your parents about where you went, who you were with, and how your day was are mediocre. (Try stepping that up too– they love you.) You know the difference. Now show us that!

We’ll hit Step 2 next week. In the meantime, don’t go climbing up wet walls in the night groping for a rusty crank.

Ice Cream is the answer!

If you’ve been reading much surrounding the world of college admission this year, you’ve heard about the report out of Harvard called Turning the Tide. In this report, there is a call for colleges to attempt to minimize the stress in the process by not putting as much emphasis on test scores, redefining achievement and promoting meaningful contributions to the public good, rather than perpetuating the resume padding and gamesmanship that draws such angst and frustration. I am a signee on this report, so I’m not contesting or detracting from its noble intentions or merits. However, I also firmly believe that as long as American universities have single digit admit rates, there will always be frenzy that cannot be solved by asking different essay questions or telling students not to spend thousands of dollars to go on a mission trip. We can “turn the tide” slightly. Colleges can make efforts, many of which are outlined in the report, so that after riding the proverbial waves of the admission cycle you can still see your umbrella and beach blanket, but we’re not talking about bringing six feet waves down to a still pool by any means.  The only place that can happen is at home.

Let me tell you a story. A few weeks ago, I was walking across campus and bumped into Derrick Moore. “D. Mo” as he’s known on campus is the chaplain to our football team, a former NFL player, and one of the most passionate, inspirational, gracious people you will ever meet. If you’ve not seen one of his pre-game speeches on YouTube, you have unknowingly been leading an incomplete life. His messages typically surround the concept of being “all in” and fully committed to the team, believing in yourself, and family. When you hear these, you know he believes them with every fiber of his being.

d moAnd what I’ve come to appreciate about Derrick is he lives these messages every day at home with his wife and daughters. Over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of watching him navigate the admission process twice now with his girls. His older is in college and another is a high school senior.

On the day we saw each other recently, he said it was ironic because that night his daughter would be finding out if she’d been admitted to her top choice school. He told me she’d been deferred in EA and had been understandably dismayed, but thankfully he explained, she also had a few other acceptances to some great universities. I asked him how he was doing and how she was feeling about everything.

He kind of shook his head and looked down, shuffled his feet a little and said, “Man, Rick. I’m nervous. I’m really nervous. She really wants to get into this school. It’s her first choice, and we are really hoping it’s going to work out.”

Then he looked up and said with striking confidence and conviction, “But here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going down to practice now to be with the team. Then I’ll leave a little early and stop by the store. I’m picking up some of my favorite ice cream and some of hers. Then we’ll sit down around our table, open up her laptop, and check her admission decision as a family. And I’ll tell you what– if she gets in, we’re going high five, hug, dig into that ice cream and enjoy every spoonful. But if she doesn’t get admitted, there are going to be some tears. Some tears from her and some from me and my wife too because we just love her so much. Then we’re going to eat our ice cream, give each other some big hugs, and then cry a little more. But tomorrow morning we’ll get up and we’ll get really excited about her going to X College, because it’s a great school and she loved her visit there.”

Behold the power of ice cream. It’s like the duct tape of foods. It repairs, it reinforces, it supports, it covers up, and it endures. Big break up– ice cream. Stressed about an exam– ice cream. Pregnant (not in high school. This is an illustration of ice cream’s longevity as a cure all) — ice cream. Celebrating a raise or a new house or a retirement— ice cream is the answer! In fact, when people tell me they don’t believe in God, I lean not on theology but rather on– ice cream. They quickly point to our current political climate to refute the existence of a higher loving deity. I pause, eat ice cream, and renew my faith. And frankly, in that moment with D. Mo, I also realized it’s also the way to best navigate the admission process. From searching for a college to applying to dealing with admission decisions to ultimately choosing a college– ice cream. Because ultimately it’s just love in a frozen state.

ice creamDo colleges have a responsibility to attempt to de-stress the process, to be more transparent, to think deeply about how to make applying to school more simple? Yes, of course. But the way students will feel good about their options at the point of application; the way they’ll process and deal with denials and admits with a healthy perspective; and the way they’ll best make a final decision does not hinge on semantics in an application or on a college’s website, but rather on a family sitting together around their kitchen table with spoons enjoying the same tub of ice cream. Unified, confident, committed to support and excitement, regardless of the outcome. That doesn’t turn the tide, it eradicates it altogether.

May 1 is nearly upon us. I’m sure there are still a lot of you who are coming down to the wire on deciding the best school for you and your family. What makes financial sense? Where will I thrive, grow, enjoy, be challenged and succeed? Before you make that decision, I point you to ice cream. When you grab your spoon remember this– you are not walking on a tight rope. This choice is like strolling on a very wide, smooth promenade. At the end of the day, the decision you make on where to go to college is not going to determine the rest of your life, contrary to what someone has inevitably told you or what the press will often purport. Instead, it will be the decisions you make in college: the grades you make, the internships you pursue, the network of friends, professors, advisors you create. Those will dictate your trajectory, your success, and your options, and ultimately your contentment in college and life beyond.

Whether you are a parent or a student reading this, it’s time to commit. It’s time to be all in. It’s time for family. And that means it’s time for ice cream! So donate or burn the other schools’ t-shirts, recycle all the literature colleges have sent you, go grab a few spoons and crack open a tub of your favorite ice cream with your family this week—and notice how smooth the waters are around you.

The Coalition Application, perspective for professionals

Since the Coalition Application was announced in September, it has spurred significant press, healthy debate, and at times, heated criticism.  Let me be clear: I do not work for The Coalition Application.  So just as much as we tell students not to take one tour guide’s voice as gospel, please know this is not intended to be inclusive of all members, nor is it the “party line.”

What It Is (always wanted to be able to use that phrase in an article, so we’re off to a good start):

1) The Coalition Application is an alternative to The Common Application. It is not meant to replace The Common App, nor will it. It is another application option which provides relief for some schools that previously had a “single point of failure with only one application (which, as you may recall, created difficulty in 2013 when Common App struggled in initial launch).

2) It is a platform that brings together a significant number of colleges and universities, rather than proliferating disparate applications for individual institutions. That union is positive because it creates a larger college landscape for students and encourages breadth of consideration. Whether you work at a private or a public school, whether urban or rural, whether elite or Title I, we all want our students to look beyond the places they’ve always known. Isn’t that partially what college is all about: vision, options, and expanding horizons?

3) It is a group of schools that have had success on many levels in the landscape of American higher education. These places have some of our nation’s best support networks, internship programs, and retention rates. In the South specifically, it includes schools like Clemson, NC State, and UGA (who previously were not members of the Common Application); all schools that have made phenomenal commitments to student access, diversity, support, and success consistently throughout their histories.

My high school alma mater, like many urban public schools, had an abysmal counselor: student ratio. Counselors had a only a few minutes during a student’s entire high school career to discuss post-secondary options. Talented low SES students were often told to look at the local community college or the military, and perhaps college later. Today that’s still happening. It takes approximately 10 seconds to tell a student: “If you apply to one of these schools, you may not get in, but if you do, you will have access to the help you need, likely graduate on time, and will not be burdened by debt when you finish.” I realize a myriad of societal forces encroach between that advice and college matriculation, but the “elevator speech” is practical.

What It is Not:

1) I wrote this upon the initial announcement:  “The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is not a panacea. Not all low SES students will even hear of this platform and option, let alone successfully use it to be admitted to a top tier school.” Some of the most passionate ire surrounds incorporating the word “access.” This is a goal. It is aspirational. And it’s very public. That’s all positive, because it motivates member schools to produce classes that reflect their participation.

2) It is not going to completely transform our nation’s socio-economic strata. However, what if, between adjustments The Common Application makes due to increased pressure, and the gravity, influence, and investment of Coalition Schools in this new platform, more Pell-eligible students graduate with lower average debt? What if more students from rural communities apply to and ultimately attend schools where they’re now noticeably absent? That would be a successful shift. That would be a step toward transforming the demographic picture of higher education in America. And that is a step worth attempting.

3) It is not going to going to ruin a student’s high school experience. I’ve read hyperbolic phrases like “landmine,” “catastrophic” or “tossing a grenade.” The ability for a student to save some of their best work during high school in a central place that can be pulled into a college application is potentially fatal? Many feel that informing freshman (and their parents) they can do these things will elongate the admission process; that it will “strip” them of their high school career; that it will overwhelm counselors in schools who have high demand parents and communities.  I don’t doubt some of those scenarios could play out.  But those manifestations are due to culture. In “college preparatory schools” and “college going cultures,” educators educate. You put parameters in place that help your community navigate and thrive in the college admission process. Continue to set the rules, provide the insight, and be the expert. Tell your headmaster or principal or superintendent what you need to succeed. Sound hopeless? Sound impossible? Sound unlikely?  Culture is big. Shifting it takes leadership and unified community commitment… and time. But who has a better chance of doing that: A school focused almost exclusively on sending students to college or one with a 450:1 counselor to student ratio where most parents did not attend college and things are the same way now as they were 20 years ago? If creating a platform, rather than merely an application, can help move the needle on college awareness, yet creates some turbulence, I’d contend we’re all better off.

What I Don’t Know:  Lots. Seriously, lots. Not sure how Donald Trump can still be viable in election discussion; not sure how to respond when my four year-old daughter tells me she is going to move to California if I keep saying I love her; not sure about a lot acronyms I see on Twitter; so, again…lots.

What I Know: Students take their cues from us. We owe them sound advice, vision, and an example that is worth following. We owe them a commitment to trying new things, to not being content with the status quo, and to finding solutions to problems that are worth solving. None of that happens alone.  There has been far too much negative dialogue in our profession over the last year. Admit rates at selective schools are down, tuition rates nationally are up, and caseloads for everyone continue to escalate, so certainly there are quantitative factors. I implore everyone to consider how we interact in online forums; examine how the implications of phrases we use fan the flames of anxiety; and minimize common terms like “other side of the desk,” which, wrongly construed, can be unnecessarily divisive. Ultimately, we control the tone, the narrative, and the relationships. Let’s recommit to modeling for students, families, and the press that our field is committed to serving students with authenticity through professionalism.