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The Other Side

Listen to the audio version here!

Rewind

Sunday we were on our way home from the mountains and the song “The Other Side” from The Greatest Showman came on our playlist. Before I knew it, my wife and kids were singing every word. If you have not seen the movie, I highly, highly recommend it. Inspired by the story of P.T. Barnum’s creation of the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the late 1800s, it is a musical with several big stars (including Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron). We saw it in the theater, twice, and immediately bought it on Amazon when it became available.

What I love and appreciate about the movie is Barnum’s (Jackman) incredible imagination to dream up a circus; his creativity and perseverance in bringing his vision to life; and his ability to disregard his naysayers who told him it would not be successful. In addition to finding and recruiting interesting acts and attractions and securing extensive funding for the show, one of his biggest challenges was bringing credibility to the circus. Barnum was obsessed with convincing the upper class in New York, who normally spent their money on theatre or opera, that this too was worthy of their attention and investment.

“The Other Side” is a fast-paced negotiation between Barnum and Phillip Carlyle (Efron), a wealthy New York aristocrat and playwright. In the song, Barnum is attempting to convince the young, popular, conventionally established Carlyle to take a risk and become his business partner. The song, like the movie itself, is about having the vision to see something new and different, but also the faith and courage to act on it.

Pause

Many colleges open their applications on August 1. If you are a senior, I am guessing you already created at least one application account and may have also started writing your college essays. It is also likely you are scheduled to take or re-take the SAT or ACT in the fall. I would not doubt you took time this summer to visit a college… or 18, and questions from family, friends, coaches, and neighbors like “where are you applying to college?” have become ubiquitous. I have bad news for you: it gets worse. Thanks for reading and have a great day. Kidding!

Understandably, there are some elements of the college admission process many students do not find enjoyable: keeping track of the dates and deadlines for applications, scholarships and financial aid; looking deep into your soul to introspectively articulate your passion (in 300 words or less!); taking seemingly endless standardized tests in sterile environments (some beginning at a God-forsaken hour on Saturday); reading blogs that simply won’t come to the point… the list goes on.  Lest (no longer a word on the SAT) we forget, all of that is just getting to the point of submitting your applications. We have not even delved into some of the stress around waiting endless months for decisions, or the frustration of being deferred admission, or the dismay of being denied by your dream school. And don’t even get me started on the vortex that is the waitlist. Feeling better yet?

I get it. There is nothing I can say, write, or sing that is going to eradicate moments of uncertainty or consternation in the year ahead. What I can offer you is perspective. I can offer you a vision. I can help you see “The Other Side.”

Right here, right now 
I put the offer out
I don’t want to chase you down 

I know you see it
You run with me
And I can cut you free
Out of the treachery and walls you keep in
So trade that typical for something colorful
And if it’s crazy, live a little crazy
You can play it sensible, a king of conventional
Or you can risk it all and see

Track 1- The Other Side

Monday, in an effort to memorize the lyrics, I was listening to “The Other Side” as I walked from the train station. It was a perfectly clear day with low humidity and temperatures around 70. In late July in Atlanta, you cannot ask for better conditions. Just as I got onto campus, I saw a couple of first-year summer students walking into the dining hall together. They were laughing and smiling.  I recognized one of the guys in the group because I met with him at an admitted student program in the spring. At the time he told me Tech was not his first choice, but he would come here if he did not get admitted to…. names aren’t important, right? In late April, he emailed me to say he had not been offered admission to the other place and had decided to become a Yellow Jacket. Three months later (basically to the day) here he was on campus with a smile on his face, a few new friends around him, and enjoying a perfect summer morning.

Don’t you wanna get away from the same old part you gotta play
‘Cause I got what you need
So come with me and take the ride
It’ll take you to the other side

Track 2- The Other Side, Remix

A few years ago I was helping students move into residence halls. As I entered the building I saw a father out of the corner of my eye I had met before. I remembered him clearly because a few years earlier he had been in the office yelling at me for denying his son’s admission. I put the box down in the room of the student I was helping, wished her a good year, and then wiped the sweat from my brow. While the box was heavy and I had just basically sprinted up two flights of stairs, the perspiration was from that memory. Heading back out the front door (side door was locked) I scanned the lawn. Whew! He was gone. Then… a hand on my shoulder. “Oh… Hi. How are you?” I managed to say in feigned surprise. After talking for a few minutes, his wife came up with their two sons. Unbeknownst (also no longer on SAT) to me, the younger brother had been admitted to Tech and was starting his first year. The older son explained he had chosen a smaller school and was now a rising senior majoring in business. “Could not have been a better choice,” the father added, and then went on to proudly describe his son’s summer internship and added he already had a job offer waiting upon graduation.

‘Cause you can do like you do
Or you can do like me
Stay in the cage, or you’ll finally take the key
Oh, damn! Suddenly you’re free to fly
It’ll take you to the other side

Track 3- The Other Side, Re-remix

Each summer we have orientation for new students. This year we’ve already held six and still have two more to go. I love these days on campus because they are filled with balloons, loud music, skits, banners, cheering orientation leaders, smiling students, and proud parents. Go check out the social media accounts of a few college and university orientations or new student programs. You’ll love seeing the pictures, images, and videos that demonstrate a real sense of community, belonging, and excitement.

In all that happiness, remember that three, six, and nine months prior, none of that excitement was there. Those same smiling faces were grimaces as they attempted to “craft an essay” or remember which password they had selected for the Common Application. Was it “12^gold!!”or “emojisRpasswords2~@?”

You would finally live a little, finally laugh a little
Just let me give you the freedom to dream and it’ll
Wake you up and cure your aching
Take your walls and start ’em breaking
Now that’s a deal that seems worth taking
But I guess I’ll leave that up to you

Play

So here you sit. Senior year is about to start. After nearly 20 years of watching this cycle repeat itself, here is what I know: there are no guarantees in college admission and financial aid.  Where you will end up is absolutely uncertain. Unsettling? It shouldn’t be. The mystery of where is the adventure of the college admission experience (and some would say it’s the adventure of life in general).

Bottom line: there is no “dream” college. Instead, there is just a dream…a vision. It is one of smiles, balloons, friends, celebration, a new home, excitement, aka “The Other Side.” Don’t forget that as you are applying to colleges. When you get deferred admission, remember the students I described walking into the dining hall. When you don’t get a scholarship, envision the older son who went elsewhere and ended up exactly where he was meant to be. When you don’t get into your first choice school, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the first step to The Other Side.  Balloons, smiles, exuberance. That is what awaits you. A year from now you’ll be there. Trust me.

Forget the cage, ’cause we know how to make the key
Oh, damn! Suddenly we’re free to fly
We’re going to the other side

Bonus Track

I still may not know all the lyrics but I do know the truth. There are many times in life that we need to be reminded to slow down, remain calm, and dream of The Other Side.  I hope you’ll strive to recognize those moments not only in your own life but in those of your friends and family members too. Take the time to encourage them; to come around them; to describe with optimism and confidence the better days that lie ahead.  Like Barnum and Carlyle, it will make the celebration when you arrive there together that much sweeter.

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That’s Not How It Works, Part 2 (#TNHIW)

Attempting round two or part two of anything comes with risks. Clearly there are some shining examples of building on a story that went exceedingly well–Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, to name a few. Sci-fi and superheroes seem to have the advantage in the film space (pun moderately intended). Just look at Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, and Spiderman 2.

Kids’ movies are spottier. For every Home Alone 2 you have Chipmunks 2- The Squeakquel. Feel free to Google for best and worst in this category—I’m sure you can add some of these to your Netflix queue (or Nutflix Squeakque as the case may be).

After last week’s post I had some good suggestions from both my staff and colleagues at other schools. So, at the risk of an epic fail like Dumb and Dumber To, here are a few more #TNHIW:

Deposits and Canceling

 “I was admitted to several schools but I can’t decide, so I’m going to deposit at ALL of them.” No!!! #TNHIW. If you can’t decide on a college, don’t put down multiple deposits at $200-$1,000 a pop while you make up your mind. If you want to spend money, send me half that amount—I’ll put it towards a new dartboard and a popcorn machine (the way we make admission decisions) and mail you a quarter to flip.

Colleges and universities are part of a national organization, the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC). NACAC has established a specific timeline to help you through the college admission process—that’s why you don’t see application deadlines before October 15; it’s why you can wait on financial aid and housing details before committing to a school; and it’s why May 1 is the established national deposit deadline. (NACAC is also why schools at college fairs are not doing raffles or cheap parlor tricks, but that’s a post for a different day.)

We often hear of students “sitting on admits” without canceling because it makes them (or their parents) feel proud. If you need an ego boost, DM us on Twitter—we’ll show you some love. Look–if you decided a school is too far away, too expensive, too cold (or the opposite of any of those), or there’s another reason why it’s not a good match for you, cancel your application. At Tech, in all of our emails to admitted students and in our admission portal, we include a cancel link. If schools you’ve been admitted to are not making this process obvious, email or call them and find out how to do it.

Canceling allows colleges to re-distribute financial aid dollars and to take students off their waitlist. Good for the goose and good for the gander. Not big into the common good? Then think of canceling like breaking up with someone. It doesn’t take long and eliminates irrelevant calls, texts, and letters.

In-State Tuition

“We used to live in Georgia.” “Her grandparents have a lake house in state.” “The Falcons loss in the Super Bowls still burns…” This one may fall under the “it never hurts to ask” category, but ultimately the bigger umbrella is #TNHIW. Each state has its own rules on in-state tuition rates, but as a rule you’ll find it necessary to have lived in the state for a year prior to starting classes, and claimed it as your primary residence on your tax records. It’s helpful to know public universities operate as a part of a state system, and must adhere to the policies they set forth. So when you’re on the phone with an admission or financial aid representative and they’re saying you do not qualify for in-state tuition, it’s not because you’re the unlucky fifteenth caller of the day. They are simply conveying their state’s law, and they have to uphold it. (See policy 4.3.2)

Comparative Decisions

“My classmate/neighbor/cousin got in and I’m a better student.” “We both know my son’s smarter than…” “Last year you took a girl who is exactly like her.” Again, #TNHIW. First, we will never discuss another student with you. When applicants submit their application, they do so under the assurance their information will be used solely for the purpose of admission review and continued individual communication. A student’s application is not to be used to influence elections or talk to their “friend’s” uncle (who happens to be an alum) about how they compare to other students from their school–specifically said uncle’s nephew.  So if your lead question in an email or phone call is comparative, we will politely but consistently redirect the conversation.

And be honest—do you really know all the details about the other student? Grades, classes, testing, life circumstances, content of essay and short answer questions, major, interview dynamics, recommendation letters? In a holistic, selective review where institutional priorities and goals for the class are at play, there are infinite nuances making applicants unique and decisions less predictable and consistent from one year to the next.

Scholarships and Financial Aid Awards

“Awesome University gave my son a merit scholarship worth $10,000, and Congratulations College named him a Dean’s Disciple, which is worth $22,000 over four years. You must not really want him or you would do the same.” Well…#TNHIW. Every school has its own overall cost, endowment level, and enrollment strategy. Some colleges keep their rates as low as possible from the outset, while others publish prices and then discount tuition using terms like “scholarship” as a tool for enrolling students. Some put all of their discretionary funds into need-based aid, while others grant merit aid based on clear and defined parameters like GPA or testing.

Tuition at public schools is set by their governing system, and in many states colleges are prohibited from using tuition funds toward meeting the need of other students—a fundamental practice in the case of many schools nationally. I won’t belabor this point. You’ve seen enough variance in the admission process to know schools have extremely different missions, cultures, and recruitment approaches—the same is true with financial aid awards and packages. Money is emotional and it’s not easy to keep your emotions in check when analyzing costs of this significance. Plus, we all want a deal, right? There is great satisfaction in feeling like you’ve gotten something exclusive or special. Hey, I like catching the t-shirt tossed from courtside too. But don’t let pride or frustration or the ability to brag about a scholarship be the sole reason you make a college choice.

Don’t misunderstand me—cost matters. But ironically, each year students will select one university over another because of the difference in aid awarded, rather than the difference in actual cost. At the end of the day, if relative costs are similar and you have either the financial means to pay or the confidence in your financial investment in a particular college, I’d urge you to not let another university’s award keep you from choosing your best fit.

There won’t be a three-peat or trilogy for #TNHIW, but if you want to peel back more admission myths and misconceptions, check out this layered Onion piece.

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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.