Be Glad College Life Is Not What It Used to Be

Two weeks ago I saw Indignation, a movie based on a Philip Roth novel of the same name. Set in 1950’s Newark, New Jersey as well as a 1950’s version of a small-town Midwestern college campus, Indignation is the story of Marcus Messner, a Jewish college freshman who attends a small Ohio college where Jewish students are a very small minority. The movie, as well as the novel, provide an interesting reflection on college life in the past. Anyone who desires that college life return to a time when “America was great,” should see this movie.

Marcus seeks a college life experience far from home. He sees how his mother and father live and does not want that for himself. Nor does he want to go to war in Korea, as some of his friends do, with reluctance. But his choice of college turns out to be the wrong place at wrong time. Marcus has chosen a conservative college community where chapel is semi-mandatory, though Jewish students are “encouraged” to join the only Jewish fraternity on campus. However, this is not the college experience (circa 1951) that Marcus wants. He wants to study, work at his part-time job in the library and meet a girl if he can. Yet a judgmental college dean finds all of this to be “strange.”

The judgmental dean, played by Tracy Letts, is a tall, somewhat intimating man who has his own ideas about what a “college man” should be. In his major dialogue with Marcus, he “worries” about why his freshman scholar has requested a change in rooms–he moves out of a triple room where he lived with the only two Jewish students the Jewish fraternity would not pledge–refuses to join the Jewish fraternity and does not appear to be “having fun.” My mind flashed back to Animal House (circa 1960) when Dean Vernon Wormer put the Delta Tau Chi fraternity on “double secret probation” for having too much fun. While Indignation is a drama and Animal House is a comedy, the character of the judgmental dean is similar. In the college life of the past, the “all powerful” deans had the power, and support from trustees and the community, to impose their personal values on students who are at least a generation younger. I must also add that all of the students who attended the conservative college in Indignation, male and female, were White, as were all of the men and women who attended Faber College (‘Knowlege is Good’) in Animal House.

College life was not necessarily “better” in a past where colleges spent less on “creature comforts” for the their students while their administrators imposed their own values without considering those among different groups on campus. Men who attended college from the conclusion of World War II through the early 1970s could not afford to leave college. Those who got kicked out were sent to war. The judgmental dean had the authority to notify Selective Service of the dismissal. I doubt that many parents of today’s college-bound students would want to send their son or daughter to a college if they had heard that one person in power had that kind of power.

College life was far less democratic than it is on campuses today. In recent years college administrators have tried to accommodate unique interests, often taking criticism for providing counseling, housing and student services towards helping students of different ethnicities and sexual orientations as well as those who have previous military service. I’ve heard the arguments in support of these services and programs and those against. I keep going back to this: colleges are communities that have individuals who organize themselves into different groups for different reasons. Aside from a “bond” around a major event such as a sports rivalry, colleges are more successful when they try to accommodate and respect diversity, just as a responsible mayor of a city must do. I understand parents pay for that, so do the students. The same parents and students live in communities where they pay for services that other groups of citizens use–for instance a senior center or summer recreation programs for children–because that helps their community to be more welcoming.

It takes more attention and time, not to mention more money, to be a less judgmental college administrator. Today’s college students are better off for that.




How to Consider Very Small Colleges

Next week I will be reporting about a visit to Chatham University (PA), formerly a very small college, that had just over 500 students two decades ago. Today, this school has approximately 950 undergraduates, with room to accommodate up to 1,200. Chatham was formerly an all-female liberal arts college. Today it is co-ed, though there are programs focused on women in leadership and the sciences. The school also has more graduate students (approximately 1,200) than undergraduates. Chatham is one of the smallest universities, now organized with separate schools, in the US. Had Chatham University not attempted to develop graduate programs, as well as some unique undergraduate degrees, it might have gone the way of other very small colleges. It could have closed its doors.

For the sake of this post I’ll consider a very small college to have fewer than 1,000 students total. This excludes schools such as Harvey Mudd College (CA) that are part of a group of federated liberal arts colleges that share academic courses and many student resources. Such colleges are more likely to have very few graduate programs; the undergraduate gets the greater share of the faculty’s attention.

Are there good things about choosing a very small college?

It depends on the school.

If it is an institution like the Webb Institute in Long Island, a free, but well-endowed school focused on naval architecture and engineering, then the choice is good for those who are committed to the field. If it is a school with a science and technology focus such as the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering (MA), also well endowed, the same is true. In both cases the graduate enters a lucrative field—employers actively support the school—as well as a tight knit network.

But not all very small colleges are academically niched as these are. They have tried to maintain a commitment to the liberal arts, even as there has been less demand for a liberal arts education. This works fine when the school has a long history to back up the quality of the education—and the history has helped the school to become respected by educators. St. John’s College in Maryland is one example. Founded in 1785, this college has a core curriculum based on the Great Books, a mix of philosophical, religious, historical, mathematical, scientific, and literary works, and only one major, call Liberal Arts. While the college transitioned from all-male to co-ed enrollment in 1954, and added a second campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1963, it has stuck to this curriculum since 1937. Those who succeed at this curriculum gain admission to graduate and professional schools; approximately 70 percent will continue their education. Employers also regard the education to be challenging.

It is best for families to ask how a very small college is supported because it is collecting tuition from so few students. The Cooper Union, a very small college focused on architecture, the arts and engineering has drawn much of its endowment through the value of the land beneath the Chrysler Building in New York City. This enabled the school to be tuition free until 2013. Olin received funding through grants; it’s first students received free tuition. Antioch College (OH), which reopened in 2011 after being closed in 2008, supported its incoming class of 35 students with four-year fellowships. Other schools may benefit from either generous donors or support from religious organizations.

It is also a good idea to ask about the alumni network at a very small college. This is not so much a concern at a school such as Cooper Union, Olin or Webb, as it is at one like Chatham. At Chatham the alumni who attended the school before the middle 90s attended a very small all-female liberal arts college. As the graduating classes were small, there were very few alumni to organize into a network and very few who were employed in the same occupations as many of the more recent graduates. The strongest alumni networks include the young and old—organizing the young will be less of a problem for any college, including Chatham—to be organizers, leaders as well as potential mentors to current students.

Chatham put a structure to career development, which you will learn about shortly. The more specialized schools such as Cooper Union, Olin or Webb do as well. However, the smaller the school’s student body, the smaller the numbers of people to support them. A high school guidance counselor at a larger New Jersey suburban public school might support 400 students. The career development center at a very small college is likely to operate at a similar ratio, quite possibly with a larger caseload. The difference however, is that the student and their parents are paying tuition.

Ask lots of questions about how these professionals help their students to find internships, fellowships and jobs. The good ones work with alumni, friends of the college (including employers) and faculty to put a network behind every student. You also want to know how long they have worked for the college and how much they have accomplished in the position. Career advisors tend to come and go at all but the better-endowed small schools unless they have made a strong commitment to the college or the community.

Attending a very small college college could be a rewarding experience. It’s quite exciting to be a pioneer taking a chance on a good, but unproven educational idea. It is also possible to make some very strong connections for life if the faculty, classmates and staff are commuted to the college’s success, stronger than one might make at a larger school. However, there are too many very small colleges that are underfunded or understaffed to provide the education and support their students will need.


My Time on Campus: Wesleyan University

Wesleyan University was the last school that I visited in the spring. Located in Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan is considered to be one of the “Little Three” among the leading liberal arts colleges that compete in the New England School College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) along with Amherst College (MA) and Williams College (MA), one of the smartest athletic conferences in the US. I have also collected pictures for a Pinterest page.

These three schools are also among the older and better-endowed liberal arts schools in the nation. They all have impressive lists of “who’s-who” among their alumni bases. They all have resources for liberal arts majors that you wish that your home state university would have. Wesleyan’s most notable athletic alumni include New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Marvel film producer Josh Weeden, and actor, composer, rapper and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, most recently creator and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton.

While these three colleges compete against each other in athletics and they are often cross-shopped against each other, there are differences between them.

  • Wesleyan has approximately 2,900 undergraduates, about 900 more than Williams and 1,100 more than Amherst. Amherst compensates for its smaller student body by being part of a Five College Consortium that includes three other liberal arts colleges (Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith) as well as the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. However, while Wesleyan is the largest of the three schools, the student-faculty ratio is only 8 to 1. Student-faculty ratios mean something at liberal arts colleges where most of the faculty are full time and they all teach undergraduates. Only seven percent of the classes at Wesleyan had 40 or more students. Seventy-two percent had fewer than 20.
  • Wesleyan is test optional. Amherst and Williams are test mandatory. However, Wesleyan expects every student to have successfully (meaning with excellence) completed four years each of English, History/Social Studies, Mathematics, Foreign Language and Science in the most rigorous courses their high school can offer. Even if a student does not submit test scores, s/he will still need to have a transcript that would draw positive attention at Amherst or Williams, which are more selective schools. But if that student has it, as well as a passion that they can communicate well to the admissions officers, they should not be discouraged if they get below 700 on a section of the SAT. Less than half of the students who entered in 2015 cracked 700 on the Math and Critical Reading sections of the test. However, the New SAT might show higher scores in the years to come.
  • Because Wesleyan is called a university it has organized its disciplines: Social Studies, the Environment, Letters (Arts and Humanities) and Integrative Sciences within their own colleges. Each college expects certain competencies of its students that form core requirements. Wesleyan, like Amherst and Smith, has an open-curriculum. There are no distribution requirements that students must complete to attain a degree, only suggested guidelines for students who have intentions towards careers or further education as well as the guidelines of the individual colleges.
  • Wesleyan grants masters degrees and doctorates. Amherst and Williams do not. This is an advantage for students who want a taste of graduate-level work while undergraduates or want to enhance their prospects for further education by taking on a graduate program at a challenging school they already know well. The downside is that undergraduates in the majors that grant the advanced degrees must compete with graduate students for the attention of the faculty.
  • Amherst and Williams are located in communities reputed to be destination cities.  Wesleyan  University is not. While Wesleyan students are actively engaged in service in the surrounding community, they rely more on the campus community for social life. Wesleyan is less than an hour from either Hartford or New Haven, but there’s little mass transit to get to either city. By comparison, Amherst is truly a college town, at the very least for being home to Amherst, Hampshire and a flagship state university. Williams is located in a region that has three art museums, including the world-renown Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) and a Tony-award winning summer theatre festival. Williamstown, home to the college, is also a very short drive from the Vermont border.
  • Wesleyan students will owe more money at graduation. Amherst has a policy of attempting to avoid including student loans in financial aid packages. Only 31 percent of its Class of 2014 had to borrow at all; those borrowers owed, on average, less than $15,000. Williams was similarly generous. Only 35 percent of its Class of 2014 had to take out student loans; those borrowers owed, on average, just over $14,000. Nearly 40 percent of Wesleyan’s 2014 graduates needed to borrow; these graduates owed, on average, just under $23,000. The debt expected of a Wesleyan graduate is not unreasonable. It was $4,000 less than the maximum that a graduate may borrow to cover costs of a bachelor’s degree under the Federal Stafford Student Loan program, and about $2,000 less than graduates of the University of Connecticut, where 70 percent of the students are residents, borrowed if they had to take out loans. But any student who had the opportunity to choose among the Little Three, a school such as Haverford or an Ivy could have used an extra $8,000 to get on with their life after college. This might mean nothing to a family that is prepared to pay a premium for a premium experience, but it means a lot to someone who might struggle to pay down debt within a year after earning a non-science liberal arts degree.

There is a lot to like about Wesleyan University. Wesleyan does an excellent job of housing all of its students, advancing them from traditional (double rooms along a corridor with shared bathrooms) residence halls to suites to apartments or special interest houses. The university is a member of the Liberal Arts Career Network along with 38 other liberal arts colleges whose names you will also recognize. Wesleyan also participates in the Twelve College Exchange Program with Amherst as well as Dartmouth. That gives a Wesleyan student a possible opportunity to spend a year at a school that s/he might have considered before s/he decided to commit to Wesleyan.

I’m inclined to give Wesleyan University A’s on a Report Card for Graduation Rates, Freshman Retention, Costs, Comforts, Curriculum and Connections, but only a B+ for Community.

While the students who choose Wesleyan might want a campus-based experience, they have few opportunities to go elsewhere unless they spend their junior year abroad, at another school in the 12 College Exchange or at Columbia or Cal Tech if they are part of the 3-2 engineering program. Wesleyan University is one of the best liberal arts colleges around. However, it is not one of the best located.

Check out my Wesleyan University Pinterest page!


So You Want To Be A College-Bound Olympic Athlete?

This is the week of the Summer Olympics, a good time to write a post on how a college-bound future Olympic athlete should consider colleges with Olympic-level competition in their future. This post will consider the individual medal sport athletes as opposed to team sports.

It’s far from usual for an Olympian to be “made” before s/he goes to college. Many of the best gymnasts in the world in their day, for example, earned medals before they ever set foot on a college campus. However, most potential Olympic athletes benefit greatly from college coaching. Olympic wrestlers, for example, have come out of schools such as the University of Iowa, Iowa State, Penn State and the University of Oklahoma. Another prominent example, track star Jesse Owens, was coached at Ohio State.

A prospective Olympic athlete is not like a college football or basketball player who is developing at their craft with an eye towards a professional contract three or four years down the road. S/he might be attending college during their window to qualify for the Olympic Games, and return to school after the Games are over. S/he might also want to compete for several years after earning a college degree, and want to work with a college coach who will be there for them when s/he needs help. S/he might also want to compete for a home country other than the United States–for example, a current Rutgers undergraduate is competing for Macedonia in the 2016 Olympics–and need to know a coach who is familiar with that country’s coaches.

A potential college-bound Olympic athlete in an individual sport has likely been well coached through high school and could continue to be coached by that coach. If that is a college student’s main interest, s/he should attend a school close to that coach and forgo college-level competition. It would be the student’s responsibility to juggle classes, workouts, practices and competitions. It might also mean that college will take longer to complete, if this student needs to devote more time to training as the major Olympic-level competitions draw closer. Another suggestion: Have a good insurance policy in case of injury. A college’s health plan will likely do little to help a student-athlete who is injured in a practice or event that their school is not a participant.

But what if a college degree is a serious goal, along with the satisfaction of helping a college team win a conference championship or tournaments at a higher level?

Then the college-bound potential Olympic athlete needs to consider:

  • The coach. Has this coach worked with student-athletes who had similar potential? What successes did their achieve? How is s/he regarded in their sport? What do the current members of the team say about the coach? Is the coach on committees that handle the rules for the sport or been selected to coach Olympic teams? Has the coach supported athletes who wanted to compete outside of college-sanctioned events or allowed prospective Olympic athletes to train on their own?
  • The team. College coaches who coach Olympic athletes are usually winning coaches. Their goal is to have their team members contribute to a victory; their best one or two athletes cannot bring home a win by themselves. Prospective college-bound athletes who are going to compete in Olympic sports should meet their prospective teammates. Are they going to cheer for each other? Be friends outside of practices and events? Are they encouraged to succeed academically?
  • The facilities. Some schools are more invested in Olympic sports than others. If you visit Georgia Tech, for example, the swimming facilities are among the best on a US college campus. They were used in the 1996 Olympics that took place in Atlanta. Other schools have built a history of success in Olympic sports. They have alumni communities that are well invested in their success. Ivy League schools, for example, that have long histories of Olympians in sports such as crew, are one example. The condition of the facilities gives a prospective college-bound Olympic athlete an impression of a college’s commitment to a sport, especially one that the student body and the neighboring community does not turn out in great numbers to watch.
  • The student body. Campus cultures are different from school to school. Universities in major college towns have many distractions that can deter a student-athlete from managing academic and athletic expectations. So do schools that are located in larger cities. However, a more isolated campus is not always the answer. With too few diversions from practice and study, a student-athlete is more likely to become bored, possibly homesick. While these feelings are not unique to athletes, they are more serious for them. Athletes have a more structured college life than most of their classmates. They have fewer opportunities to meet people who do not compete in sports. Balancing distractions with the work in school and sport takes discipline. Student-athletes who fail to earn a degree either get too wrapped up in the distractions or too wrapped up in the sport.

A college-bound potential Olympic athlete has many more choices than other college-bound athletes. Given than an Olympic athlete’s career is further along in their sport, it is important for that athlete to choose a college wisely, even if s/he decides to put college on hold until after their perceived window to compete has closed.



What Is The Story Behind College Acceptance Rates?

If you’re a regular visitor to Educated Quest, you have probably heard the phrase “acceptance snob” to explain the desire for the best and brightest college-bound students to attend the most selective of colleges. But there are stories behind the numbers with college acceptance rates that you might like to know.

But first, a quick quiz.

Which of these colleges is more selective?

  1. Ramapo College of New Jersey, a mid-sized public liberal arts college OR
  2. Rutgers-New Brunswick, New Jersey’s flagship state university?
  1. Mississippi Valley State University, a public historically black university OR
  2. The University of Mississippi?
  1. Oregon Institute of Technology, a public STEM-focused school OR
  2. The University of Oregon?

If you guessed ‘1’ to each, you were right. But why?

Admissions policies and practices

College acceptance rates take on different meanings at different colleges. Colleges might admit by major with admissions being limited to the most qualified candidates for the major.  More and more business programs, for example, admit freshmen directly into an accounting major or a pre-business core. The same is true for engineering, health professions and the arts. It is quite common, for example, that a college of nursing or pharmacy will have more competitive admissions than a college of arts and sciences.

Colleges might also admit to the college as a whole, regardless of the chosen major. This will be true of liberal arts schools where everyone must take a common core of classes.  It is also true of the most selective colleges that offer a large selection of majors, liberal arts or pre-professional. For the most part the more selective colleges do a good job of communicating their expectations: four years of excellence in all of the traditional college-prep disciplines: English, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and a foreign language. Those who apply with less should have a very special talent to offset “below excellence” performance in one or two academic subjects.

Some schools also practice “second choice” admissions. Students who are denied admission to the major that they wanted can be offered an opportunity to enroll if they choose another major. “Second choice” offers have an impact on college acceptance rates because they are still considered acceptances. Virginia Tech is one school that uses this practice. It is likely responsible for the university having an acceptance rate of over 70 percent.

The ways in which colleges manage a wait list also impact college acceptance rates. Some colleges have no need to maintain a wait list. The admissions office is quite confident that it will fill the freshman class as well as their target number for transfer students. This is especially true of colleges that over-enrolled their freshmen classes, as Penn State did this year. Other schools need to work the wait list to replace students who deposited then decided to go elsewhere. Two questions that families might want to ask when visiting a school where they believe admissions are uncertain. Did you go to the wait list last year, and how many admits came off the wait list? A very large number, say over 100 at a state college or university, is a cause for concern. It leads to a third question: is this a first-choice school for those who apply?

Admissions cycles

Colleges have different admissions cycles. Many use “rolling” admissions. Admissions decisions begin early, usually within four to six week after receiving all materials. The college will admit students until the class is filled for the fall, even if deadlines need to be extended into the summer.

A school that practices rolling admissions is likely to have a higher college acceptance rates than one that does not. Admissions offices that practice rolling admissions want to fill their class as early as they can but they know that their bread and butter applicants are going to shop around. If they admit a student early, they can follow up with her through the rest of the admissions cycle. The admissions office can invite that student to accepted student events as well as upgrade a financial aid offer after it receives more positive senior-year information.

Other schools, specially the more selective, can afford to wait until they have enough applications on file before they need to make any decisions on who is “in,” who is “out,” and who might have to wait. These schools practice Early Decision and Early Action with well-qualified Early Decision applicants being more desired. Athletes who have been strongly recommended by the college’s coaches are urged to apply Early Decision as are likely full-pay and merit scholarship candidates who have a first-choice school. The acceptance rates for schools that make greater use of Early Decision are likely to be lower through the regular decision review process as well as the complete admissions cycle..

Self selection

Many colleges are more selective because their markets are narrower than other colleges that are cross-shopped against them. Historically black colleges, for example, are more likely to attract and enroll African American students over all other races. Women’s colleges are more likely to focus on women. Specialized schools such as those with “institute of technology” in their names are more likely to focus on students who can succeed in the academic program. If you are not part of the target market, you are less likely to consider the school.

Religiously-affiliated colleges that have done a very good to excellent job of retaining and graduating their students, but also have high acceptance rates, are also likely to receive many applications through self selection. While most of these colleges do not limit their markets to students who are of the same religion as the school was founded and is government, students who were raised under that religion represent the largest group within the applicant pool. The applicants might have been encouraged by their parents or their church to apply, or have a strong religious identity.

Because different colleges manage admissions in different ways it may be difficult for college-bound students and their families to compare acceptance rates. College acceptance rates are not only a measure of demand for what a college offers. They are also a reflection of the ways in which the admissions office does business. It can be quite tempting to choose one school over another because it turned away more students. It can also be tempting to go to a first-choice school that offered to admit to a second-choice program.

But college-bound students and their families need to consider how a school must help them, and which of the schools on their list will do the best at providing that help. The euphoria of getting into a selective or dream school will wear away during the summer after a high school graduation. Ideally, that school, if you choose to enroll, will give you the help that you hope for.