What Causes Summer Melt In College Admissions?

The middle to end of July is usually a great time for a college admissions officer to take a vacation. High schools are typically out of session. Too few students are on campus to make campus events as worthwhile as they might be during the school year. But too many college admissions offices face a situation called “summer melt,” where students who had signaled their intentions to enroll in the fall do not enroll at all. They may choose to enroll at another college, or not attend college at all.

Why does summer melt happen in college admissions?

Parents and students fail to anticipate all of the costs of attending a particular college, including the direct charges that appear on a their first term bill as well as the indirect charges such as books, supplies and transportation that they had not expected.

Parents and students receive official documents and paperwork that is written in a “language” that they cannot understand. The college compounds the problem by not explaining the language or making the letters and forms visually friendly to the readers.

There is a misunderstanding the academic requirements of the college and/or the degree program, including remedial coursework that carries no credit. This happens as early as summer orientations where future students take placement tests and found that they scored too low to take credit bearing Writing or Mathematics courses.

Students are offered a spot off the wait list for a college that they had preferred during the admissions process.  They want to attend that school so badly that they are willing to lose a deposit to another school.

I am writing this post on a very hot summer day not so much to advise recent high school graduates who are on their way to college, but to help high school students who are about to begin their senior year as well as the college admissions process. Summer melt can be avoided next summer when college bound students and their families follow some helpful tips.

Know your academic strengths and weaknesses and how they might relate to a possible college major. Most college majors require a Mathematics or Statistics course that features material beyond the high school level. Other colleges have general education requirements that include competency in writing or a foreign language. Be sure to take the courses during the senior year that will best prepare you to take the required credit-bearing courses in the freshman year of college, or allow you to waive them. It is also helpful to take Honors or Advanced Placement courses in the subjects that you are most excited about or relate directly to a possible college major.

Know where you might need help from a teacher. There are high school students who can walk into large-lecture classes and master the material. But there are also students who needed an experienced teacher to motivate and help them along. The larger public university, while having a lower sticker price, might not be best place for a student who needs a teacher’s help.

Know your finances. Colleges have Net Price Calculators on their Web site. The College Board and the US Department of Education also have calculators that can help you to find out what your Expected Family Contribution could be. Note that I stated “could be” and not “will be.” Most colleges do not meet the full financial need for their students and parents. If you have any questions, no matter how foolish they might appear, contact the financial aid office at your target schools. One way to judge the “quality” of a school is to learn how well this office will help you to understand what your family needs to do to cover the costs of a college education as well as the best ways to do it. A good financial aid office will go out of its way to help, as long as you’re not shy to ask. This is especially true after award letters have been sent and the college has money “on the street,” not knowing who will accept offers of aid until they have actually been accepted.

Know your college community. Sometimes the best resources for assistance will be others who are going through the college search themselves. If you are undecided between two or three schools where you have been offered admission, join their online communities on Facebook and other sites. Interact with other students and parents to learn why they are interested in the school and how they plan to get settled if they come. You might find friends who are willing to share more than advice after the school year begins.

I have frequently stated that a “good college” is one that is honest with students and their families about its costs and assets. College admissions or financial officers are not in the business of deliberately trying to deceive parents and students. However, they are also rarely in the business of volunteering large volumes of information, unless they are asked to provide it. The college search is a personal process for every student as well as their parents. Family finances are even more personal.

A good college admissions office as well as a good financial aid office respects this and tries to help privately as best they can. Information needs to be personalized as well as interpreted. The better that college-bound students and their parents understand their college options at the beginning of the admissions process, and learn to ask questions until the very first day of college classes, the more likely they will choose a school that will be awarding their degree.



What Is Diversity Supposed To Mean For A College Campus?

Since starting Educated Quest, I have visited well over 100 colleges. Each time I discuss diversity with a college admissions officer or anyone associated with student success on a college campus, I get different opinions about what diversity is. None are wrong.

The most obvious definitions of diversity are the same as those covered under employment discrimination laws: economic background, ethnicity race, sex, sexual orientation and religion (when a school does not require students to sign a declaration of faith).

However, a school’s obligation to not discriminate is not enough. Any student should be made to feel welcome on a college campus and encouraged towards academic success. People who work in student affairs or academic advising should not appear to be judgmental when prospective students and their families come to visit a college campus. At the same time, a college campus is a community where students are represented in groups of significant size, and sometimes they are part of more than one group. Those groups are supported by student fees.

If a prospective student has a serious interest in becoming involved in groups that reinforce their identity, those groups should be there, or the school should appear open to allowing students to start them. In addition, while students should support the groups they personally want, they should respect the opportunity for others to have the groups that they want.

There are less obvious definitions of diversity on a college campus. One is geography.

Few flagship state universities, for example, draw more than a third of their undergraduate student bodies from other states. Yet admissions offices at several of these schools seek geographic diversity, usually for the sake of revenues and enrollment. This strategy works at schools that have had a long history of attracting students from other states such as the University of Delaware, the University of Michigan or the University of Virginia or are located in places where college students want to be, such as University of California-Berkeley. It will not work as well at schools that are less known for having a residential student population. The housing, as well as the local housing market, becomes more important when a student is coming from further away.

Private colleges have to be more aggressive at seeking geographic diversity than the state-supported schools, especially if they are located in states such as Pennsylvania where there are so many colleges competing for students from in state as well as from neighboring states or if they are located in states such as New Jersey or Ohio where the numbers of high school graduates who might qualify for admission are expected to decline. 

Another less obvious definition of diversity on a college campus is academic diversity.

College admissions officers do not want to admit a class that is “all of one mind” when it comes to academic direction. They want to attract students of different interests and talents, whether they are in leadership (including opinion leadership) or special gifts in areas such as the arts or athletics. While college administrators run the day to day business of the college, they need the students to help fulfill the cultural, intellectual and social needs of the student body. Look at any event board on a college campus. Nearly every event is either run by a student organization or is run as a partnership between student organizations and either faculty or staff. With the possible exception of a popular employer or entertainer or a successful football or basketball team, a college needs to rely heavily on students to draw students to events and programs.

The last area to cover here for diversity on a college campus is political diversity. 

Political diversity has to be touched upon because of this election year. I do not know of another time when the US has faced a choice between two candidates who drew such volatile reactions in favor as well as in opposition to their candidacies. Negative comments about both candidates dominate the media coverage, and the candidates deserve some of the blame. However, the more interesting college campus communities are going to be the ones that have strong voices on all sides, provided that the voices do not turn into violence. A college campus community that can provide its students with open forums and maintain the peaceful right to assemble without violent incident will offer its students an educational experience beyond what they receive in a classroom. A college campus community where students lean strongly towards one side or another should take some responsibility for exposing the community to other viewpoints, as faculty are expected to do in the classroom.

As you have seen, there are several considerations for diversity within a college campus community. A good admissions considers these as well as others that I have not thought of.





The Case For And Against The Economics Major

Having worked around career development centers in my “earlier life” I learned a great deal about what makes a college graduate more “marketable” to prospective employers. Quite often students are drawn to an Economics major or a business program depending on the school.

However, aside from Accounting and Information Systems, a specific undergraduate business major is not necessary at the start of most business careers. The Economics major can do quite nicely. In some ways it could be the better choice. Here’s why:

  • Flexibility beyond a traditional business setting. An economics major who is comfortable with numbers can use their skills to analyze public policy or to deliver public services. Mastery of the required courses in accounting, micro (the firm) and macro (the economy) economic theory as well as first and second-year calculus and statistics can also be preparation for graduate programs in business, public administration and public policy. These core courses are part of all of these programs.
  • Easier to double major. The school and major requirements at a business school make it very difficult for undergraduates to double major. Colleges of business as well as accredited business programs within a liberal arts school require a set of core courses beyond those mentioned above. These include Marketing Management, Corporate Finance, Organizational Behavior and Operations or Production Management. In addition, the accounting major requires its own set of courses towards professional certification. However, an Economics major usually requires only ten courses, including required courses and electives.
  • The electives, or a second major, build your skill set. A double major in Economics with either Mathematics or Statistics is very attractive to employers who need a quantitative analyst who is curious about business. More and more business problems require deep dives into data as well as creative mathematical reasoning. A double major in Economics and an area study such as Asian Studies is good preparation for careers in foreign service or work in non-governmental organizations. A double major in Economics and Psychology can make a recent graduate with internship experience a very competitive candidate for jobs in consumer market research.

Then what are the downsides?

This depends on the college you choose as well as the selection of courses within the Economics major. A larger school will offer a broader selection of courses not only the business-related and highly quantitative disciplines within economics but also in areas such as economic theory, international economics and public policy. A smaller school will not offer as many classes, though the classes that you take will be smaller. It will be easier to learn the material in the early going and be better prepared for the more advanced courses later.

How you succeed depends on how well you choose the college that best fits the way that you learn. When I was in college I took large-lecture introductory micro and macro economics courses. I really struggled with the material, even when I asked for help. I chose to major in Political Science instead for this and other reasons. Had I gone to a smaller college I believe that I could have graduated with a double major in Economics and Political Science.

The downsides also depend on the career resources as well as the alumni base of the college. Economics is treated as a liberal arts major at many schools, although some put the major in the business school. In either case the faculty are often less involved in helping undergraduates to secure anything other than an academically-related research position or to gain admission to graduate school. Business faculty are more likely to have industry contacts.

The career center will likely own the internship program for the Economics major, though there are exceptions. Ohio Wesleyan University, for example, has the Bigelow-Reed House, a business and economics living-learning community, as well as the Woltemade Center for Economics, Business and Entrepreneurship. Success in the Economics major, as in any other major, depends in part on the college’s commitment to the major.


Money Magazine Does Thorough Job On College Rankings–But They Cannot Be Your ‘Be-All, End-All’ For College Choices

Last week Money Magazine released its value-based college rankings. These relied on 24 measures in three statistical categories. I am not a statistician. But I do have some understanding of how to read and interpret statistics. I also know that, for example, a car magazine would not rank brand new small and inexpensive cars against brand new very expensive cars with more luxury, power or size. They might all be cars, but they are not the same type of car, and they don’t all fit the same type of car buyer. The same will be true of colleges. That’s why colleges that are quite different should not be ranked together, but Money did. Liberal arts colleges that offer only undergraduate degrees appear in the very same ranking as large public universities that grant doctoral and professional degrees.

The first category in these college rankings was “Educational Quality.” This was based on the six-year graduation rate (the maximum number of years that students may receive Federal financial aid); the incoming freshman class (who had not yet taken classes at the school) and a proprietary “comparable value” analysis of graduation rates vs. schools that have similar student populations. In other words, the magazine’s consideration of comparable value in college rankings came before they ranked all schools of all types together in one ranking.

The second category in these college rankings was “Affordability” which considers debt, the average net price (in state for a state university), affordability for low-income students (should consider percentage of need fulfilled, Pell Eligibility, state scholarships in the state where the school is located) and student loan default and repayment rates for the school. From the perspective of a family shopping for a college affordability is the ability of a college to meet their price, even if that price is zero. The school’s default rate, however, is contingent on a school’s failure to guide students towards a degree, not on the price of the school. Generally, the default rate will be higher at schools that have poor freshman retention and graduation rates. If these students default on their debt it is quite likely that they were not allowed to transfer to another college. The college that has the defaulted student would refuse to release transcripts if that student earned grades.

The third category was “Outcomes,” based on salary data reported to PayScale, the “market value” of skills as posted on LinkedIn and estimated by the Brookings Institution and the earnings of financial aid recipients (including those who have student loans) as reported on the Federal College Scorecard. They also considered the economic backgrounds of the students, the resources of the career centers and the percentage of alumni who told PayScale that their job “makes the world a better place.”  This category is considering the short term of a recent graduate. In other words: Did s/he find work and graduate with as little debt as possible? It is also considering a longer term impact of their education. In other words: did the degree help for future income, whether or not the graduate went on for further education? However, this is different for different types of colleges. A school that grants most of its degrees in business and STEM will likely have higher incomes from its graduates than one that grants mainly liberal arts degrees for two reasons: the graduates of the first school are more likely to be hired by firms that can pay higher entry-level salaries; years later those graduates will earn more because they have more work experience.

What type of schools come out the winners in college rankings like these?

  • Exceptionally selective and well-endowed private colleges;
  • Top-performing state universities that have either reasonable in-state tuition and fees or good financial aid budgets or are based in states with generous scholarship programs; and,
  • Public and private schools that have a business or STEM focus for most of their undergraduate degrees.

If I were looking at public schools that were located in the same state I might find this useful when working with a school counselor. For example, the College of New Jersey, the most selective public college in the state, ranked 94th while Rutgers-New Brunswick, the flagship state university, ranked 105th. I might look at the data between the schools closely if I were considering a major offered by both schools. If I was interested in engineering I might not even scroll down to 178 to find out that a graduate of the New Jersey Institute of Technology had higher Early Career Earnings than graduates of these two schools.

What are the consequences of over-relying on college rankings such as these?

It’s quite possible to sell your home state university short if you believe that the non-resident charges at a “higher ranked” school are worth the money. 

Suppose, for example, you live in Maine and qualify for the most generous resident award for the University of Maine (ranked 185th). You can also get into the University of Connecticut (ranked 38th), the highest ranked New England-based state university, but you will not qualify for any scholarship assistance. You will need to pay out-of-state tuition. The difference between the Early Career Earnings for graduates of the two schools is only $4,000 in favor of Connecticut. If money is an issue for your family, why would you even consider Connecticut?

You’re more likely to look down on a liberal arts college, even if you want a liberal arts major. 

However, a good career development office at a liberal arts college will have more expertise and time to work with students who have liberal arts majors than one that must also devote attention to majors in areas such as education, engineering and the health sciences. That could lead to a better entry-level position for a liberal arts graduate, and possibly a slightly higher starting salary.

It would be too easy to interpret salary information to mean that you “earn more money” or can find a “more meaningful job” if you choose one school over other similar schools. 

For example, within Pennsylvania it is not unusual to find students choosing between Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall and Gettysburg. The Gettysburg graduate earns $2,500 more than graduates of the other two schools, and all three have excellent career centers. But is that $2,500 a reflection on the school and its career center and alumni? Maybe, but you can’t tell that from a published ranking alone. You have to investigate the academic programs you want more closely.

I know that people are looking for value in a college education and that college rankings always sell magazines. However, they should not be the “be-all, end-all” for any final college decision. The people who did the ranking did not need to live on campus or commute there on a daily basis. Real college students do.


The Bad College Essay

Last week I listened to a Webinar conducted by Ethan Sawyer, who calls himself “The College Essay Guy.” Sawyer is quite a performer, but he is also a very good writer and marketer. His advice is sound as well as entertaining. However, while he went to great lengths to discuss how to write a good college essay, he shied away from talking about how to write a bad one. This is a good time to raise this issue. Many college-bound rising high school seniors are working on their college essays.

In my view a college essay has one major purpose: to get an admissions officer who reads it to check off “yes” and advance an application to the next stage of approval, whether it be another reader or an admissions committee.

Getting to yes is less likely for applicants who:

  • Cannot put grammatical sentences together;
  • Cannot spell words that a college admissions office would expect a high school senior to spell correctly;
  • Do not answer the question asked of them in the essay;
  • Use the essay to make excuses for declines in academic performance that were not due to life-threatening events;
  • Cannot put their accomplishments in the right perspective;
  • Write an essay that does not have a “voice” or grammar that is consistent with the personal statement;
  • Try to show sincere interest in a less-popular major but appear insincere in the writing;
  • Put the name of the wrong school on the essay (really happens); and
  • Do not know why they are applying to a school.

These are the more obvious reasons that essays fail to lead to a positive outcome. There are less obvious ones. These are:

  • Writing that shows a lack of self-confidence or self-esteem in the applicant. If I worked as an admissions officer at a school that had some selectivity, I want to help craft a class where each student believes that s/he can succeed.
  • Essays where bragging reaches standards for obnoxiousness. Most high school seniors are not Oscar-nominated actors, concert-level musicians, Olympic athletes or certifiable geniuses in academic fields. The college admissions offices know who the real ones are. They’re usually smart enough to let the media or a coach speak for them. It’s the ones who don’t, and brag too much, that cause admissions officers to become concerned.

In trying to get an admissions officer to yes at a school that can turn applicants away, a college-bound student needs to either show that s/he has challenged themselves, preferably towards a cause or a career direction or that s/he has been through some extraordinary circumstances and come out of them successfully, at least towards showing that s/he is capable of doing academic work on a higher level. The college essay is not a place to make excuses for why you could not perform at a better level in high school when nothing was stopping you from doing so.