Updated on May 25, 2016
At the beginning of this month I went on one of the very best campus tours that I have ever taken at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. Interestingly, I did not need to sign up in advance, just show up at the reception desk where the tour guides were working. That usually does not leave much of an impression with me, so I was not expecting much when I showed up. However, the tour guides, one junior, one senior made me forget all about that.
What did they do right that I wish other colleges, or even schools within larger schools would do on their campus tours?
They gave me an overview–and had answers to all of my questions
Before we started to tour the engineering campus, which is a set of connected buildings, we sat in a classroom where the tour guides explained the academic programs as well as cooperative education (aka “co-op”), an option chosen by nearly half of Pitt’s undergraduate engineering students. Both tour guides had chosen to be co-op students and throughly explained how they were matched with employers, how they were evaluated on the job and the work that they were asked to do. They also told me about the Pittsburgh area in terms of co-op employment opportunities as well as summer employment. Most relevant, they also told me their stories as to why they chose Pitt. One of the more interesting points that they made was that Pitt did not “cap” engineering majors. As long as you maintained good academic standing in the freshman year, you could choose any one of the undergraduate programs. The personal stories were important, since neither of my tour guides was from Pennsylvania and they had enviable choices among schools in other cities.
They knew the facilities and had stories to tell
This was one of the few campus tours where I truly learned how hard it was to study engineering, especially at a fairly large (around 18,000 undergraduates) university. I was told how labs were actually used. One, for example, funded by the Eaton Corporation, simulates operations at a public utility power station. I was told that students, as one project, simulated how a power outage happened after Beyonce’ performed center stage at Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, then simulated how to bring the lights back on. I was also told how engineering students had designed their own cubby spaces to sleep in the building during finals and projects and saw the Autosport Club’s “garage” and race car. I could write a full post on various classrooms and projects, but I think you get the idea.
They had appreciation for the school
I was fortunate that the guides for my campus tour were excellent students who had built good relationships with the faculty in their major (both had chosen Mechanical Engineering). While I would not expect them to fawn over the school and their professors, and they did not, they told me where faculty had mattered in their choice of the major and successes in the classroom. I was left with a sense that good things would happen to a Pitt engineering student as long as s/he did the work that was asked of them.
They asked me to write an evaluation
This was the first school where a tour guide handed me an evaluation form to complete along with more literature about a college of engineering than I have ever received before. Both tour guides gave me business cards so that I could write their names on the evaluation form. Since they had done an excellent job, I mainly used the form to describe what they had done well. I could not see how they could have improved upon the tour. The major point: the admissions office actually wanted to know my opinion. I am seldom asked to give much detail about the tour guide’s performances on campus tours.
I do realize that the tour guides at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering might have had an advantage over other tour guides. They were engineers who were only asked to show prospective students, among others, around the schools where they were enrolled. They were not the student ambassadors who took me on a tour of the academic center of the Pitt campus who have to speak to prospective students who might be interested in any major the university offers. I happened to have an engineering student as the tour guide on my campus tour of Pitt though he did not take our group inside Swanson. We only walked by it. While our student ambassador did not know, for example, about pre-law at Pitt, he did know the university’s history as well as all of the landmarks on campus. He also had his own stories to share about living in Litchfield Towers, a tall and (I believe) ugly monstrosity of a residence hall complex that houses more than a third of the freshmen. He also gave our group an honest picture about why he chose Pitt.
I came to Pitt knowing very little about the university other than pictures and statistics. I had believed the university to be a “very good” school given numbers such as the freshman retention rate and the four-year graduation rate. I live near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, so I frequently hear that Penn State is the “elite” school in Pennsylvania. However, a freshman class at Pitt typically has higher high school grades and test scores–a 1450 (out of 1600) SAT is probably the minimum to get into the Honors College as well as a merit scholarship. Pitt’s founding pre-dates Penn State’s by 83 years. Its endowment is about the same ($3.6 billion) although Penn State has over twice as many undergraduates on its main campus (around 38,000 vs. just under 18,000). Pitt has also won or claimed nine national championships in football versus Penn State’s two. Finally, Pitt is located in one of the nicer neighborhoods of a city that has transitioned from an economy based on oil and steel to one based on financial services, health care and technology. Penn State is at least an hour and a half of anyplace that can be called a city. I have spent time at Penn State. The tour guides–I had two then as well–were also very good, and I talked with several others. I generally have a positive impression of the university for those who want a very large school. But I have to admit that Pitt left me with a larger number of positive impressions, even though their football program is not as strong as it was during the late 70’s and early 80’s when I was in college and graduate school.
You cannot rely too much on numbers and virtual tours when you consider a college. You have to visit a school to get the best impressions, and you must take the campus tours. Pitt pleasantly surprised the tour guides who showed me the Swanson School when they took their campus tours. I have to say that it pleasantly surprised me.
Updated on May 25, 2016
Recently, you might have seen several stories about record tuition discounts, especially among private liberal arts colleges. Tuition discounts have become a serious issue at many colleges. I have read of some where an average discount could be more than half of direct charges (tuition and fees, room and board). Another risk of tuition discounts is that future applicants may believe that they are entitled to them, even though a college’s financial picture is not the same from year to year.
It is quite confusing for prospective college students and their parents to estimate what they might actually pay from the first year of college through the very last. Colleges offer net price calculators to help. These are useful, but they are based on the college’s current charges and financial aid practices. These are subject to change–and prospective customers will not know when or why. Worse, most colleges will not be able to fulfill a family’s total financial need. If your family has a college-bound high school senior, you are not likely to know what the gap between need and a financial award will be until after college applications have been submitted and admissions decisions have been rendered.
But some schools, including Ashland University (OH), Utica College (NY), Converse College (SC) and Rosemont College (PA) went in a different direction. They “reset” their tuition and fees to a lower base rate while offering smaller merit or need-based scholarships. Instead of considering discounts on an individual basis, the college went to an every day low price that the majority of its students and their families would be expected to pay. The college would still offer need-based grants aka “gift aid” to supplement state and Federal grants. However, the gift aid would be less per student and would be awarded to fewer students. That should make it less costly for a college to administer financial aid.
When I read of resets that cut tuition and fees by more than 40 percent, I have to wonder what college costs truly are from school to school. Rosemont, as one example, will cut tuition and fees from approximately $32,600 in 2015-16 to $18,500 for next year. The college is also reducing room and board charges from $13,400 to $11,500. The college is located in a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia near seven other small private colleges that charge more. A family will need to be confident that Rosemont can maintain its pricing, or at least limit tuition and fee increases over the next four years, or that other colleges will be capable of maintaining their discounts. Both business practices carry risks. Discounting puts more of the risk on the family.
Lets say that our family is considering Rosemont as well as the neighboring schools. All of the colleges offer the major we want. Rosemont will charge us $30,000 in direct charges for the coming academic year. We get no scholarship dollars. The other schools start at $45,000 in direct charges. One offers a $15,000 discount. Half of the discount is in merit aid; renewal is contingent on grades. The other half is gift aid; renewal, and possibly increases in aid, are contingent on need. Which school is the better value, all non-financial things being equal? Rosemont. You pay what the school asks you to pay, regardless of grades or changes in financial circumstances. You will still need to pay more each year. Most colleges increase their direct charges by more than $1,000 each year. But student loan borrowing limits rise only $1,000 from freshman to sophomore year and from sophomore to junior year. And they do not increase from the junior to senior year.
But while the college is reducing your risk through a reset, they might be taking on greater risk that might impact the education you receive. Suppose your school was getting, on average, $30,000 per family for tuition and fees as well as room and board. The school resets the charges to reflect this and charges everyone $30,000. If the college is capable of attracting a larger freshman class, and it can make room for them without overcrowding the facilities and classrooms, the decision to reset is a win. The win becomes a bigger win if the college thinks conservatively about new and renovated buildings as well as hiring new faculty. If the college attracts a smaller class–and price is not everything in choosing a college, there’s also issues of academics and fit, among others–the reset only adds to the college’s financial woes. Asking students, faculty and staff to make do with less is not a good direction for a troubled college to take if it wants to continue to attract students.
If you are shopping between similar colleges, considering one that has reset tuition and fees versus another that may offer a significant amount of gift and merit aid, then check out the freshman retention rates and four-year graduation rates for both schools. Tuition resets have had positive results in terms of enrollment increases, but have they made it easier for students to remain at the school, presuming that they are in good academic standing? Are graduation rates better or worse than they are for a state-supported school that is likely to charge you even less? When a private college bring their charges in line with the costs of a state school, shoppers are more likely to shop that college against a state school, hoping to find a more personal experience, and hopefully a “better value.” When a private college that resets is found wanting in that comparison, the state school is more likely to win.
If the school offers an accredited degree program leading to employment, visit the career center and ask about the successes of students who have earned that degree. Will you receive the same assistance for a lower price, or will you receive less? All colleges, regardless of what they charge, provide a package of services performed by people. You want to be sure that the school that will charge you less will be there for you while your student is in school and after s/he has completed their degree.
Posted on May 24, 2016
College-bound juniors who are about to enter their senior year have often started to make their first college lists, often with “reach schools” that they have yet to visit. The summer might be the best time to do some homework before selecting which reach schools will receive an application.
What is a reach school? If quantified, a reach school is a college where a student’s high school grades and test scores are not likely to be in the top quarter of the previous year’s applicant pool. If you buy a copy of U.S. News Best Colleges, for example, you will see an average GPA for most colleges as well as a range for the middle 50 percent of SAT or ACT scores. If your GPA is below the average for a particular college, and not likely to rise above it, even with near perfect grades in the first half of the senior year, and your scores are below the 25th percentile, then the school is a reach.
But it can also be argued that schools that turn away the vast majority of applicants are also reach schools. These schools frequently turn away students who have achieved excellence in the classroom and have scored extremely high on standardized tests. Those who were accepted had something extra, a talent that the college valued (athletics is the most conspicuous example) or that the applicant had proven to a national or global audience. Actors such as Jodie Foster, Brooke Shields and Emma Watson are among the clearest examples of Ivy Leaguers who had proven their talents before they started college.
Suppose you fall into the first category: your grades and test scores fall short and are not likely to improve enough to vault you into the middle of the applicant pool at your reach school. Should you still try to get in? It depends. Suppose you are interested in a specific major offered by that school. Your academic strengths and extracurricular achievements, maybe a part-time job, point you towards that program. Your grades in other subjects, while not “all A’s” are at least B’s. If it is clear that you can excel against the best students in that major, then why not try for the reach school and choose that major?
My suggestion if you are one of these applicants: choose the “intellectual problem” essay for the Common Application. Talk about how you would solve a “big problem” being studied by academics and professionals within that major. Send that essay to a faculty member in that departments and let him or her know that you would like to be one of their students one day. As long as you can improve your grades and test scores, you might fare better in getting into your reach school than you might expect.
Another strategy for those who fall in the first category: look for a reach school that is test optional, and don’t submit the test scores. If you will need financial aid, you must choose a school where aid will be need-based or, if aid is merit based, it is not tied to test scores. Again, choose the intellectual problem essay and state your case about your interests.
But suppose you fall in the second category: you have attained excellence in the classroom and in test taking, but you have no special talents that make you known at a global or national level. Should you forget about your reach school?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. One way to answer is: you don’t know how you will fare in admissions unless you apply. In this case, it also helps if you have a specific major in mind and your interests point you in that direction. Choosing the “intellectual problem” essay is also a good idea in these circumstances. Your motivation and direction to solve that problem is what will separate you from the other applicants.
I have also heard and read comments that students should choose an obscure major, one that few who are already undergraduates at your reach school have chosen. The thought is that the college will be desperate for students to enroll in that major. However, admissions officers at the most selective schools are savvy readers. If nothing on the transcript or the essays points an applicant towards, for example, a commitment related to a major in Jewish Studies, that applicant will more likely than not be denied admission. If the applicant has excelled in Hebrew school over 13 years, has tutored seventh graders for Bar and Bat Mitzvah since the eighth grade, directed several religious services with the rabbi at their synagogue and leads the local Jewish youth group, then it is a very different story.
The vast majority of colleges, fortunately, are not reach schools for the majority of their applicants, unless the reach is for financial reasons. While it is a major achievement to gain admission to a reach school, it is more important that the college you choose be one that is likely to be affordable to your family and committed to helping its students to succeed. The euphoria of getting into a reach school lasts only until a college student walks into their first college class. Then its time for the real work to begin.
Posted on May 23, 2016
About two weeks ago I visited Grove City College, a Christian-affiliated institution. Most recently, the college retained 92 percent of the freshmen who entered in 2014 and graduated 76 percent of the freshmen who entered in 2010. This is an excellent performance for any school of any size. The visit also led me to think about how families might want to consider and compare religiously affiliated colleges. While Grove City College does an excellent job at providing a college education so do many other religiously affiliated colleges such as Holy Cross (MA), Siena (NY) and St. Michael’s (VT), among others
There are many schools that are not religiously affiliated colleges that also support campus ministry programs, among other opportunities to practice or honor and serve their faith. However, these schools can only go as far with these programs as their students and contributors are willing to fund them. Religiously affiliated colleges are more likely to place faith at the center of their mission. In this post I would like to highlight four important questions about religiously affiliated colleges.
How is faith part of the academic program?
Depending on the school most religiously affiliated colleges will require between nine and 12 credits in religion and/or philosophy in addition to general education requirements, the college requirements within a university (for example, the school of business, the college of engineering or the school of education) and the requirements for a major.
In most cases the religion requirement is not in the faith under which the school is chartered. For example, Siena College (NY), a Franciscan college, does not require a course in Catholicism. Students can study religions of the world or learn about a faith other than their own. Grove City College has a Bible course and students also conduct their own Bible studies outside of the classroom.
In any case, students and families should decide if they want to have this instruction be part of their college education. Those who want to discuss, and possibly question, their religious identity might want to take these courses. Others might want to dedicate the credits to other things. It is best to know before you commit to a religiously affiliated school.
Does the college require students to sign a declaration of faith in order to begin a college education?
In my past working life I visited religiously affiliated colleges including Cedarville University (OH) and Taylor University (IN) that ask students to sign a declaration of faith before they enroll. Request and thoroughly read such documents before applying to such schools. Students who waiver on a commitment to faith could be dismissed, even if they are experiencing no academic difficulties. This will depend on the language of the document as well as the laws of the state where the college is located. If you have any questions or doubts about whether the declaration in enforceable, consult an attorney in the state where the college is located. If you are concerned about any obligations specified in the declaration of faith, mandatory chapel attendance, for example, address them before you sign.
Do the college’s leaders espouse philosophy beyond religion, and how might that philosophy impact your college education?
It is common to see presidents of religiously affiliated colleges become engaged in local, state and sometimes national politics. While a college president cannot force their views on students, s/he sets the tone for the campus culture. It is fair to ask whether a school welcomes students as well as guest speakers or lecturers of various viewpoints or of a singular view. Grove City College, as one example, welcomes numerous speakers, not all of the same viewpoint, to address their students, faculty and staff. So have religiously affiliated research universities such as Fordham, Georgetown, Notre Dame and the University of Denver, among others.
Will you be comfortable with the housing arrangements at a religiously affiliated college?
To date the religiously affiliated colleges that I have visited have either single-sex floors or single-sex residence halls, excluding apartments. Grove City College, as one example, imposes stricter visitation rules in single-sex residence halls than most secular schools I have visited. Students of the opposite sex are allowed to visit, but cannot stay overnight. Ask about residence life policies when you visit. They will not be the same from school to school. Also ask if the school will guarantee housing and for how long. Fordham, as one example, has nearly half of its students living off campus.
Different schools also have their own policies regarding fraternities and sororities. Grove City College has fraternities, but they are local and unique to the college. They must present their case for recognition to a review board every other year. Other schools such as Fordham and the University of Scranton have no Greek life at all.
In my reports on colleges I hold religiously affiliated colleges to performance standards as I would hold other schools. So should your family. Ask about retention and graduation rates as well as a school’s financial aid policies, if money is a factor. Ask about the school’s relationships with potential employers as well as success in helping students to continue their education. But also get the answers to the four questions discussed.