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March 27
Drawing A Blueprint For A First-Generation College-Bound

​This post is based on a response to the question below that was submitted to the Counselor’s Corner.

A student who is the first in her family to go to college enters your office and asks how to find "the best" college. How do you advise her?

NOTE: For purposes of this discussion, and to give this student a measure of humanity, she will be referred to herein as, “Amy”. 

Complying with the first part of Amy’s request, “how to find,” is rather easy, as it is largely methodical in nature. If she is a rising senior in one of the schools at which I have served, she has been introduced to a variety of web-based college search engines. Those made available by College Board, Peterson’s, Princeton Review and College Majors 101, among others, will help Amy understand that the investigation process is directed and driven primarily by her unique needs. She will also see that, although the process may be large in scope, electronic resources are tools that will greatly facilitate her efforts.  

In addition, Amy will also have been made aware of the more traditional array of print resources. Barron’s, Profiles of American Colleges, Fiske’s Guide to Colleges, the College Board College Handbook, Princeton Review’s - The Complete Book of Colleges, Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges, and Baccalaureate Origins of Doctoral Recipients, may not be technological in nature, but they can be very useful as sources of supplemental information and details on colleges. Amy can find them in the guidance center and perhaps her local library branch, as well.

Defining the term “best” in a context with which Amy agrees and thereby accepts is a very different proposition. True as it might be, it would be overly simplistic to tell her that for the right student, for the right reasons and for the right financial aid package, “College A” might be the “best.” What must be determined first however is, “What makes a college the ‘best’ in Amy’s eyes? Is her notion of such drawn from the inherently flawed content of a college rankings publication? Is it based on lunch-time discussions with friends? Is it an expression of her parents’ hopes? Or, is it a product of all three? 

The reality is that, in order to best advise Amy, her thinking must be diverted away from the term “best,” and reoriented around the concept and process, if you will, of “institutional fit.”  By definition, institutional fit is used to describe the degree to which a student’s “profile” matches-up with that of particular colleges or universities. The search then, for an appropriate “fit,” is directed by the student’s interests, abilities/academic credentials, goals and values. The stronger the correlation between these variables and the admission requirements, the degree programs available, opportunities for intellectual and personal growth and a college’s graduate placement record, the stronger the “fit” is considered to be.

Amy, has provided her portion of the institutional fit equation on the self-assessment form she, and all of her classmates, completed this past February. In it, Amy also looked at what she believed to be her strengths both as a person and as a student, and the type of learning environment she enjoyed. Adding the type of academic program she wants, the enrollment and geographic location of her preferred school, and characteristics of the students enrolled there, has given Amy a set of selection parameters, regardless of which search engine she uses.

Though she will now have a preliminary list of colleges, the results of Amy’s search need to be discussed in relation to other insights on her background. For example, in addition to being first generation college-bound, is she also newly emigrated to the United States? Is English her first language? Are Amy’s parents as interested in her attending college as she is? Are there any other cultural considerations that might influence Amy’s choice of school(s)? Does she have any siblings, and where does she fall in the birth order?

The relevance of such questions brings to mind a student I worked with as an admissions counselor. Though she was born in this country, her parents were not. They owned a small convenience store at which the student worked part-time when not watching over her six younger siblings. In spite of this, the student’s grades were strong and her test scores were considerably above-average. She was a viable candidate for every four-year college on her list. However, with being an integral part of the family’s economic structure and functioning, her parents would not support her going away to college. For this student, regardless of the options available, her personal circumstance made the “best college” for her the local community college. 

Once the preceding considerations have been addressed with Amy, our attention can turn to more specific components of institutional fit that at times fly under the proverbial radar, but are no less outcome-determinative in a student’s quest to find the optimum collegiate vehicle in which to pursue her dream.

My advisement to Amy will include calling attention to what may be inferred from institutional data on the percentage of freshmen that return for their sophomore year. More specifically, it is reasonably indicative of the college’s success in identifying students who are a great fit for the institution, and that an effective facilitative network is in place to meet the needs of freshmen; i.e. new student orientation and academic, social and emotional support services/organizations.

I will also direct Amy to extend this line of inquiry to include 4-year graduation rates for the institution(s) as a whole, but also narrow it to include, if possible, graduation rates for the department/major she is interested in and, if available, persistence and placement statistics for women – that is, the number who start and the number who complete their program of study. Aside from learning where she has the best chance to earn her degree “on schedule,” Amy will gain insights on the success rates of females. This would be especially relevant were Amy to choose a major under the STEM umbrella.

Due to college attendance being akin to a “leap of faith” for those who are the first of their families to consider it, the total cost is often viewed in highly pragmatic terms by the student’s families. “Leap of faith” also applies to the family being asked to invest in an intangible. As the father of the student whose story I related earlier observed, “You can’t wear it, live in it, eat it or ride in it.”

Accordingly, an extra measure of sensitivity, care, and thoroughness in introducing and familiarizing Amy’s family with the vernacular of college funding and financial aid, would be critical. This, to help prevent what Jonathan F. Foster noted in his recent commentary, “the risks of investing in a college education;”

​“The so-called American Dream has been traced to our country’s founding and the idea that every person has the freedom and opportunity to pursue and lead a better life. A college education is usually thought to be a critical step on the way to the American Dream. What is often left unsaid is that the pursuit of any significant good without a careful evaluation of its affordability and payback can result in damaging financial consequences. The purchase of a college education is no exception.” Jonathan F. Foster (March 25, 2015), Fortune Insider.

To summarize, there will be one recurring emphasis in guiding Amy through the college selection and discovery process – that her search for the “best” school will be governed by what her needs are and what she feels is important to her. It will not be determined by opinion or marketing influences. Therefore, as has been shown, a preliminary list of colleges that meet her minimum requirements are only a starting point. 

Considerations brought forth by first-generation status, ethnicity or nationality, whether she is of urban, suburban or rural background, single parent or traditional family structure, or those related to gender, will be factored into a subjective and personalized counseling plan. The goal is for Amy to ultimately take ownership of the process, thereby truly making it her own, as she steps into her future empowered by decision-making skills that will last far beyond the walls of the guidance center.  

February 25
News You Can Use: Part Three

The following is a continuation of previous posts where I catologed and weighed recent web content on college rankings. The purpose--to offer an abbreviated list of sources which I believe contain some information that can be factored rather safely into a student’s analysis of college data--remains the same. Again, acceptance of their content in its entirety is not the preferred end result. Rather, identifying and using what is most informative, is.

Block, Sandra (2015, February 2). 10 Best College Values Under $20K a YearKiplinger.

  • Comment: This can be a very useful resource far beyond the “10 Best” that are listed. The real value here is a link within the text that provides, “Kiplinger’s … combined list of 300 best college values where the net price tag per student (tuition, fees, room and board, and books) after financial aid is $20,000 a year or less.” 

Beyond a school’s “value/rank,” its location, admission rate, four-year graduation rate, average need-based aid award, average non-need-based aid award, and average debt at graduation are provided. Another plus is that if you click on the name of the school, you get a neat and fairly comprehensive profile of it.

Stanger, Melissa; Martin, Emmie; Kiersz, Andy. (2015, January 28). The 50 Most Underrated Colleges in AmericaBusiness Insider.

  • Comment: Although this list is derived in part from U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of  best universities and national liberal arts colleges, it receives added credibility from being juxtaposed with Payscale’s 2013-2014 College Salary Report, which “ranks colleges and universities based on their graduates’ mid-year career salaries.” This latter feature underscores the writers’ goal of identifying, “schools that had relatively low rankings on the US News list but high mid-career salaries.”

This makes the list replete with schools that “fly under the radar,” and makes it a useful “confirmation resource.” That is, if an institution in which you are interested happens to be among the fifty featured, it can be a positive point in favor of your looking at it more closely. A considerable added bonus is a link within the text that expands the list to include all 1,002 colleges and universities researched by Ms. Stanger, Ms. Martin and Mr. Kiersz.​

Uffalussy, Jennifer Gerson. (2015, January 28). What’s Really Behind College Rape Culture?. Yahoo Health.

  • Comment: Finding words to express the sadness I feel in realizing that an article such as this is necessitated by events today is simply beyond me. In the early years of my career I read of co-eds at Brown University inscribing the names of men who had raped them on bathroom walls. Around this same time, several male students at Cornell sent a lengthy list of incredibly derogatory statements about women via the campus computer network. One of my students shared disturbing stories of harassment at Georgetown University, and how her requests for help were either ignored or dismissed. And while touring Harvey Mudd, I saw a sign on a dormitory wall identifying that particular hallway as “ - - - - alley.”

These incidents led to the drafting and distribution of a list of questions dealing with multicultural issues, gender relations and gender equity that students could ask of appropriate campus representatives. Among them,

"With regard to sexual harassment and racial disharmony…

  • ​Is there a formal, institutional policy?
  • What are the procedural guidelines for investigating allegations/ violations of that policy?” And,

"Concerning campus security...

  • ​What is the gender and minority composition of the campus security force?
  • Are female officers involved in investigations of alleged violence against women?”

Ms. Ufflussy presents the current manifestations of these campus ills; i.e., rape culture, bystander culture, and the “brotherhood/guyland” mentality that enables and shields both, while calling for colleges to re-think sexual misconduct education. How about society, while we are at it? In this writer’s opinion, “What’s Really Behind Campus Rape Culture," is compulsory reading for all students, parents and guardians.

Owusu, Tony. (2014. November 12). 10 Most Conservative Colleges in AmericainShare.

  • Comment:  Liberal bias in higher education, i.e., the belief that there is a significantly higher presence of liberal professors, and that there are “options in the country for conservative students who would like to study under like-minded individuals,” is Mr. Owusu’s rationale for compiling this list.

As with other articles referenced in this post, the deeper value to this one is in the link within the text which expands to include 90 additional institutions that meet the writer’s criteria for being “conservative” and, whose profile can be accessed by clicking on their respective name. As such, this is what I classify as a “landscape” resource – not definitive in an absolute sense, but useful in seeing what is out there on the collegiate horizon.

Joe Prieto, a former college admissions officer, guidance counselor and past member of the Illinois and NACAC Admissions Practices Committees, has been a contributing writer to the NACAC Counselor's Corner since its inception in 2012.

February 23
Department of Education Publishes Comments On the Draft College Ratings System

​On February 20, the Education Department published comments received on the draft federal college ratings system. Over 700 pages of comments were collected between December 19, 2014 and February 18, 2015. The majority of which expressed significant concern about the proposal.

Learn more and read NACAC's comments​

February 20
News You Can Use- Part Two: Knowledge is Power

​A decision was made to add, “Knowledge is Power,” to the title of this post in order to re-emphasize the purpose for which this blog was established – to expand at every opportunity, an understanding of the college search, evaluation and selection processes. It is hoped that by presenting fundamental, time-tested viewpoints along with current information, students and their families will be empowered with improved decision-making skills. Such skills are based on knowledge. They are a catalyst for targeted and informed analysis. They allow students and their families to move forward with confidence.

Therefore it is a pleasure to report that everything that made the grade and appeared in, “News You Can Use-Part 1,” did not comprise an exhaustive list. First, there were articles that were not reviewed due to space considerations. Second, several new articles that would be useful in the college investigation process have emerged since that time. As stated previously, it is important to remember that acceptance of their content in its entirety is not the preferred end. Rather, identifying and using what is most informative, is. 

So, let us proceed anew. May you find much that suits your needs.

Devon, H. (2014, September 11). 10 Colleges and Universities Where Merit Aid is Most Common. U.S. News and World Report.

  • Comment: There are some pleasant surprises here. However, it is not so much that this highly abbreviated list contains schools whose collective average of merit aid awarded (based on U.S. News and World Report data) was 46.2 percent in 2013-2014. But rather, that researching or inquiring in this regard can be a helpful insight as you evaluate and compare institutions.

Adams, Caralee (2014, December 29). As College Deadlines Loom, Seniors Urged to Keep Perspective on Fit Over Selectivity. College Bound.
  • Comment: This is a very basic, but always timely, reminder that selectivity and rank do not necessarily translate into personal engagement. The collegiate learning experience is best stimulated when all the parts “fit” with you and your needs; i.e., program, resources, location, atmosphere (all the elements that comprise a positive campus culture), and a structure that prepares you for a lifetime of achievement and personal satisfaction. Keep Ms. Adams’ thoughts handy throughout your college selection process. 

O’Shaughnessy, Lynn. (2015, January 20). New College Grads: Who Employers Want to Hire. MoneyWatch 
  • Comment: Heavy-duty and refreshingly unabashed endorsement of benefits directly related to employability and how they are specifically derived from a liberal arts experience. Ms. O’Shaughnessy’s remarks are firmly grounded on a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities which concludes that employers “overwhelmingly” regard, 
​​​“…. broad learning as the best preparation for long-term career success. Employers who were surveyed for the study said that this broad learning should be an expected part of the course work for all students, regardless of their chosen major or field of study.

More than three out of four employers agreed that every college student should be exposed to the liberal arts and sciences, and employers were nearly unanimous (96 percent) in agreeing that all students should gain knowledge of our democratic institutions, which is done through liberal arts courses.”

Also highlighted in the report is that,

Ninety-four percent of employers, for instance, said they are more likely to consider hiring recent grads who had an internship or apprenticeship with a company or organization. Nearly as many employers said they would also be more inclined to hire a new grad if he/she had completed a senior project that demonstrated research, problem solving and communication skills. And 81 percent said they'd be more receptive to hiring applicants who had taken multiple courses involving significant writing.”

In light of these findings, it would be prudent to keep them in mind throughout all phases of inquiry on the features and benefits of colleges on your list. 

Mitchell, Travis. (2014, November 26). Top Colleges for Internship, Co-op Programs. U.S. News and World Report.

  • Comment: The greatest value to this very short list (thirteen) is not found in the schools listed per se, but rather in how their internship/co-op programs can be used as points of comparison with those offered at schools in which you are interested.

Leonhardt, David. (2014, September 8). Top Colleges That Enroll Rich, Middle Class and Poor. The Upshot. The New York Times.
  • Comment: This is a rather complex review of the efforts of top colleges (“top”, by the writer’s estimation) to improve the economic diversity of their student population. To identify those that have purportedly made advancements in this regard, a College Access Index was calculated which presents data that must be reviewed carefully. This worthwhile read would also fall into the category of “confirmation resources”, from which support for further consideration of a particular college by low and middle-income students would be derived.

Jacobs, Peter. (2014, January 14). How Washington University Became America’s Least Economically Diverse Top College​. Business Insider.
  • Comment: Mr. Jacobs uses the above-cited article by David Leonhardt as the framework for his remarks, quoting him as follows,

“David Leonhardt writes in The New York Times, WashU is ‘the nation's least economically diverse top college,’ meaning it has a particularly low number of students on financial aid. According to Leonhardt, only 6% of WashU undergraduates receive federal Pell grants, targeted at students whose families are usually in the bottom 40% of the income distribution.”  


“In 2013, The Times reported that WashU ‘has an endowment similar in size, per student, to those of Emory and Vassar — between $300,000 and $400,000 as of mid-2012, wealthier than all but a few dozen colleges in the country,’ but enrolls a much less economically diverse class.”

Whether you buy into the various rationales Wash U offers in its defense or not (and which Mr. Jacobs outlines well), this state-of-affairs is nonetheless a reality of which low and middle-income students ​​considering Wash U must be aware.


In closing I would like to encourage those who are kind enough to read this blog to submit questions or issues relative to either college rankings or admissions and which they would like to have discussed in future postings.

Joe Prieto, a former college admissions officer, guidance counselor and past member of the Illinois and NACAC Admissions Practices Committees, has been a contributing writer to the NACAC Counselor's Corner since its inception in 2012.

February 02
Image Trumps Fairness and Ethics

For this post I want to expand on an issue touched on previously, and highlighted in the recent article- “Colleges ratchet up recruiting of applicants – just to turn them down​," written by Laura M. Colarusso, for the January 12, 2015 edition of the Hechinger Report. As might be recalled, this topic of "recruit to deny" to make a school look more selective at students' expense, comprised a segment of the Counselor’s Corner post of December 1, 2014, titled, “The Games Continue, With No End in Sight.” It recalled a discussion among several admissions professionals on how one high-profile college sought to improve its place in the rankings through a significant expansion of its applicant pool, but without a corresponding increase in the number of students accepted.

The connection and reason for revisiting this was Ms. Colarusso’s describing such a stratagem as, “a little-known practice among colleges and universities called ‘recruit to deny,’ under which they try to make their admissions process look more selective by boosting their number of applicants — then turning many of them down — through hard-sell marketing techniques.” The sad reality is that this questionable tactic that was the focus of the discussion cited above began to take place more than twenty-five years ago.

In light of this, it is unlikely that such artificial enhancement of institutional selectivity (this writer’s descriptor) is as little known a practice as Ms. Colarusso suggests. On the contrary, it would be reasonable to conclude that in the ensuing two and a half decades, a growing number of colleges have adopted this image-improvement and rank-impacting initiative. Coupled with the increased ease students now have in submitting more applications though agencies such as the Common Application, the net result is an impression, however contrived, that candidate pools at these colleges are markedly more competitive than in the past. 

While such a marketing ploy may have been instrumental in helping these schools realize their goals, it has made it appreciably more difficult for students caught up in this numbers game, to reach theirs. But beyond this, it has unnecessarily heightened the disappointment of students who are on an institution’s recruitment/mailing list not because they are viable candidates (which they likely are not) but rather, because the school’s ulterior motive has placed them on it. As Ms. Colarusso added in her concluding remarks;

“Even the most elite colleges, including those in the Ivy League, send letters encouraging many students to apply although, high school counselors say, most of the students’ odds of getting in are infinitesimal.

‘I’ve had students come in with those letters,” said Jayne Fonash, guidance director at the Loudoun County, Virginia, Academy of Science, a public high school. “It’s terribly disrespectful for a student with a solid academic record but who still isn’t getting into an Ivy League school to be misled to think that one of those schools is a real possibility. That borders on being dishonest.’”

In light of the foregoing, venturing into the college admissions landscape bears an uncomfortable similarity to trying to cross a minefield while blindfolded.  Therefore, make special note of the helpful takeaways prompted by the foregoing passages. Ideally, a heightened awareness (wariness?) and understanding of the college investigation and evaluation process will result.

First – things are not always what they seem to be, especially with acceptance rates. The characteristics of students who were admitted will be more relevant to your investigation than the percentage alone. Whenever possible, research to determine how closely your credentials match those of successful candidates (also known as, the “admitted student profile”) to a school for the previous year. At the very least, this will provide some idea of your place within the applicant pool (should all factors remain the same) and what your chances for admission might be.

Second – it has been estimated that students receive on average, thirty to forty-plus pounds of mail from colleges and universities. If e-mail and social media could be placed on a scale, there would probably be an equivalent weigh-in. The fact that it is personalized makes it all the more enticing and persuasive. Unless you have actually met the sender, it is all technologically enabled and part of a complex, multi-faceted and meticulously devised marketing plan.

To take this a bit further, “more” does not necessarily mean, “better,” either.  Sheer volume and frequency of contact does not connote strength of interest in you.  As reported by Janet Lorin in “College Admissions Racket: They're Not Going to Let You In Anyway” (Bloomberg Business, January 28, 2015), a senior from a suburb of New York has received nearly thirty-five e-mails from Bates College since October. According to the student, who chose not to apply,

"I did find it a little bit creepy," he said. "I can admire their persistence, but after a while, it just got a little bit annoying."

Third – “more”, as in, “more time” should also be regarded with due caution. Application filing extensions capping off a stream of messages and mailings are not always in students’ best interests. There has been a trend among some colleges (Chicago, Dartmouth, Duke, Columbia, Penn and Vanderbilt this year) to stimulate additional applications by offering a “grace period” beyond presumably firm deadlines. In this writer’s opinion, the chances of a student actually being “fodder” and not “food” to a particular school increase considerably during such benign-looking “grace periods”.

Fourth - and lastly, (at least for now) – focus on the match or “fit” between yourself and the schools on your list; i.e., program of study, your strengths and goals, your reasonably estimated chances of being admitted, campus atmosphere, opportunities for growth outside the classroom, graduate placement, affordability, etc. No amount of marketing by a school that is patently unsuitable to you or your needs, will make it so.

January 12
News You Can Use

​First things first – a hearty Happy New Year to everyone and best wishes to all members of the Class of 2015 for confident management of their college admissions offers, a prudent final choice, and solid closure to their high school careers. The same sentiment is also extended to juniors who on January 1st became “rising seniors” and by virtue of which their college search process will begin shifting into a higher gear.

There are those in either of these two groups who (the juniors, especially) may feel this has come about with a discomforting sense of immediacy. Having always seen this as being understandable, it led to always remembering to share my empathy to juniors who, up to this point in their life been told to, “eat this, go there, wear that, go to bed now, walk this way, talk this way (sorry, I couldn’t resist)”, ad infinitum and for many, ad nauseam. But with becoming second-semester juniors, they are suddenly faced with an expectation that they know where they want to go to college, what to study and what career to pursue.

Years of experience in guidance has shown me that students’ (and parents’) feeling of urgency in this regard is often heightened further by the annual release of college rankings publications in mid-September. Since that time last fall, I have been cataloguing posts that appear on the Yahoo internet search portal on aspects of college characteristics, features and benefits. After sorting through such posts and weighing content, I believe some contain information that can be factored rather safely into a student’s analysis of college data. The list and sources of posts and articles deemed to be “Recommended” for reading follows. Remember, acceptance of their content in its entirety is not the preferred end result. Rather, identifying and using what is most informative, is.


Recommended (in no particular order or ranking, of course) 

​Devon, H. (2014, December 9). 10 colleges where applicants are least likely to get in. US News and World Report
  • ​Comments: A general and brief overview of where competition is the toughest.
Goldman, L. (2014, November 18). The 10 most expensive colleges in America. Business Insider.
  • ​Comments: A frame of reference and perspective-building report.
Snider, S. (2014, December 2). 10 most expensive universities for out-of-state students. US News and World Report
  • ​​Comments: A frame of reference and perspective-building report.
Mitchell, T. (2015, January 2). 10 public schools with the lowest in-state tuition. US New and World Report.
  • ​​Comments: A frame of reference and perspective-building report.

Bertrand, N. (2014, October 24). Average SAT score for every college major. Business Insider.

  • Comments: College Board-sourced data establishes credibility.

Martin, E. (2014, October 8). Best college majors for landing a job. Business Insider.

  • Comments: Express Employment Professionals-sourced data lends credibility to this report.

Nisen, M. (2014, October 1). These are the undergraduate schools that land you the best jobs. Quartz. 

  • Comments: LinkedIn-sourced data limits scope of report, but still provides one more bit of information to factor in.

Hefling, K. (2014, November 13). College Board: College prices continue to go up. AP.

  • Comments: Good, succinct overview.

Perez-Penadec, R. (2014, December 27). Colleges reinvent classes to keep more students in science. The New York Times.

  • Comments: Focus on a significant institutional trend.

Korn, M. (2014, December 30). Colleges’ new aid target: The middle class. The Wall Street Journal.

  • Comments: College Board-sourced data isolates trend in institutional aid.

Haynie, D. (2014, October 14). 10 colleges with the highest 4-year graduation rates. US News and World Report.

  • Comments: Highly abbreviated, but no less useful introduction to a critical consideration in evaluating colleges.

Stafford, K. (2014, November 8). Top 20 degrees with the highest starting salaries. Detroit Free Press.

  • Comments: Misleading title as data parameters localized and defined by Michigan State University's College Employment Research Institute, but still provides useful insights.

Zeveloff, J. (2014, December 16). Thousands of high school seniors are finding out whether they got into top colleges- here’s what we know so far. Business Insider.

  • Comments: Brief, but informative summary.

Nelson, L. (2014, October 16). Early admissions to colleges help kids who don't need it. Vox.

  • Comments: Commendably objective discussion of a perennially provocative topic.

Saney, L. (2014, December 11). Elite college admissions. New York Times.

  • Comments:  Criticism of NYT reporter’s article [K. Carey (2014, November29). For accomplished students, reaching a good college isn’t as hard as it seems. New York Times.], is validated by first-hand experience.

J. Weismann (2014, December 01). Do 80 percent of top students really get into an elite college? MoneyBox.

  • Comments: An interesting and well-done expansion on the discussion started by Saney, L. and Carey (above).

R. Bielby,  J.R. Posselt, O. Jaquette, M. Bastedo (2014, October 2). Why are women underrepresented in elite colleges and universities? A non-linear decomposition analysis. Springer Science and Business Media.

  • Comments: Yes, very scholarly, but an excellently structured analysis of a compelling issue in higher education that has been under the radar for far too long (this writer’s opinion).

C. Adams (2014, December 29). As college deadlines loom, seniors urged to keep perspective on fit over selectivity. Education Week’s blog, College Bound.

  • Comments: Abbreviated note due to required subscription for complete text. However, useful reminders and key links articles on post college earnings and keeping an open mind on college options (see next).

J. Mathews (2014, December 28). Those football powers may be good for you. Washington Post

  • Comments: Despite title, focus is on keeping realism and priorities at the forefront of college evaluation process.

S Snider (2014, September 15). Colleges and universities that claim to meet full financial need. US News and World Report.

  • Comment:  Beyond useful alphabetical listing of 50 schools that purport to meet full financial need, there are links to “Best Value” national universities, national liberal arts colleges, and regional universities and colleges, respectively. 

D. Leonhardt (2014, September 8). Behind ivy walls: top colleges that enroll rich, middle class and poor​. New York Times.

  • Comments: Encouraging report (with excellent supporting graphic/chart) that heightens awareness of schools that have incorporated a commendable spin on affirmative action into their enrollment strategy.

One last thought before you go:

This past summer, Forbes magazine sent its ranking of colleges it believed to be the best in the land, to newsstands in July. Apparently, it mattered not to U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) that this was nearly two months before its Best Colleges issue would come out, or that within the week of Forbes’ publication flashpoint, Business Insider, Money magazine and Princeton Review would follow suit. USNWR would release its Best Colleges issue about a week earlier than usual in September, but as it has demonstrated since, keeping students’ and their families’ attention on what it has to say beyond rankings per se, has followed a pattern not previously seen. More specifically, of the fifty-seven posts on the list I gathered since September 2014, and which I have catalogued in a separate file, eighteen have the USNWR link as their source. That’s almost one in three of all such posts.

January 09
The Department of Education's Proposal to Rate Institutions of Higher Education Continues to Stir Debate

​Since the Department of Education last month released a draft framework for how it would “rate” colleges, many stakeholders have weighed in on the conversation. The George Washington University held a conversation yesterday with Drs. Sandy Baum and Ron Ehrenberg, who offered many insights similar to NACAC’s views on how rankings or ratings schemes affect institutional behavior. Below is a summary of some of the major points discussed.

Dr. Ehrenberg argued that US News and World Report (USNWR) rankings have led to all sorts of perverse behaviors by institutions at all levels- a concern shared in NACAC’s 2011 report of the Ad Hoc Committee on USNWR rankings- and moreover, that any rankings or ratings system falls subject to similar problems when trying to “game the system.” Just some of these perverse behaviors by institutions that have been seen over the years include,

  • ​Using merit scholarships instead of need-based scholarships to “buy” top test-score students.
  • Encouraging students to apply who have no chance of being admitted to drive acceptance rates down, and selectivity rates up.
  • Expanding early admission (when yield was a variable in the rankings analyses), which had the effect of forcing many students to make decisions with relatively imperfect information earlier in their lives.
  • Increasing expenditures year after year so the institution will not fall in the rankings.
  • Presenting data in ways that are most favorable to the institution.
  • Focusing on first-time, full-time students admitted in the fall over transfer students and those admitted in the spring semester because only first-time, full-time freshman students are included in the graduation rate calculation.
  • Focusing very little on value added measures, or measures relating to social diversity.
  • Unintentional and often intentional falsification of the data sent to rankings publications. In fact, due to more reports of this behavior, USNWR has had to develop a procedure for what they can do to penalize people when they find out data has been falsified. 

Although the Department of Education has proposed improving existing measures to rate colleges, all of them remain imperfect and the fact still remains that whether an institution is right for a particular student depends upon the student and not the weight any ranking or ratings system uses. Furthermore, grouping institutions into rating categories instead of using ordinal rankings, Dr. Ehrenberg argues, is still concerning, specifically for those institutions on the margins. Dr. Baum agreed that just about any system that tries to give one label to every institution falls subject to these problems. 

Baum raised another important consideration specific to the Department of Education’s stated accountability purpose for rating colleges,

“There are schools that aren’t that great for anybody- that serve no students well… Why does the federal government give student aid to [these] institutions?... In a way I think this whole system is happening because we haven’t politically figured out how to push these schools out. And if we could do that, maybe we wouldn’t have to go to these complicated lengths.”

Expressed in a similar vein through comments to the Department of Education last year, NACAC suggested allowing time for program integrity regulations to clean up waste, fraud, and abuse before considering a move toward a ratings system for this purpose.

Dr. Baum also brought up the point that- hypothetically, even if the Department did the ratings system exactly "right"- would this mean that students would make better decisions? She argues that this would not occur and putting information out there isn’t enough to have the impact hoped for by the Department. In fact, a lot of good information already out there has not solved this problem for the students who need it the most- many require individualized guidance on how to interpret and use such information. It’s important to get better data out of the conversation and put it out there, Baum argued, but using a ratings system to do that isn’t necessary. 

NACAC similarly questioned whether such a system would benefit students more than existing resources, such as the College Scorecard, and recommended that the Administration focus on providing consumer information to allow students, families, and counselors to make decisions about best fit institutions rather than pursuing a ratings strategy. 

Read more about NACAC’s concerns about the Department of Education’s ratings proposal here​.

Dr. Ron Ehrenberg is the Irving M. Ives professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University. He’s also the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. 

Dr. Sandy Baum is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a research professor at The George Washington University in the graduate school of Education and Human Development.

December 18
Not a Question of Win Some, Lose Some – But Rather Should You Play At All (Part 2 of 2)

Ah, and now back to those teachable moments I promised in my post earlier this week:

One is for students who factor the opportunity to play an intercollegiate sport into their evaluation of a college or university. In such cases, a final decision to enroll should be made independent of whether or not the student will ever take an at-bat, shoot a jumper, take a snap or spring from a starting block. While great disappointment might ensue from a lost chance for athletic glory as in the case of UAB or if, heaven forbid you do not make the team, the true reason and purpose for getting a college education will not be derailed by unforeseen circumstances.

The second is to take the spurious notion of “happiest students” and transform it into something more personal and productive by tailoring it to your particular needs. Keep in mind that Princeton Review’s ranking of colleges with the “happiest students” only lists them one through twenty. If none of the schools on your list are among them, might you wonder whether that means their students are unhappy, or where they might rank on the happiness continuum among the other two thousand or so other colleges in the country?

For starters, dismiss the highly subjective and hopelessly vague use of “happiness” as a rating gradient. That is for Miss America contestants to define. Seriously though, what truly matters is whether your intuition or sensory apparatus picks up on any evidence of either a positive campus atmosphere or affirmative student interaction during a tour or extended visit. It is a pleasure to illustrate several approaches that may be taken to this investigatory process.

One is most easily implemented where you know an already enrolled student and are able to give advance notice that you will be visiting campus. If arrangements can be made to have a brief talk, it is possible to gain very useful insights through a few basic questions. For example, with former students I would ask some or all of the following:

  • ​“How are things going for you? Or, “How has your experience been so far?”
  • “Please refresh my memory - where else did you apply for admission?”
  • “If you feel comfortable telling me, at which of those schools were you admitted?”
  • “What factor(s) was most influential in your decision to enroll here?”
  • “Did you have any second thoughts about your decision after you had been here for a while?”
  • “If you were able to make the choice all over again, would it be the same?” and,
  • “Do you have any advice or insight to someone thinking about attending here?”

Of course, the questions can be adjusted according to the situation and timeframe. And even though it can be very different if you venture to approach a stranger, once a wholly understandable hesitation is overcome, it can turn out to be quite comfortable and satisfying. After all, you are making mental notes on how people react to a campus visitor who is reaching out to them.  In my many experiences, pleasant exchanges have actually been the norm rather than the exception.

To illustrate, during a visit to Clemson, I noticed students belonging to an organization for business majors holding a bake sale just outside the doors to the union. I smiled, introduced myself, and explained that I was touring the campus in my role as a guidance counselor.  This prelude to your questions is a must in order to avoid (in the popular vernacular) “creeping someone out”. At any rate, I asked if they would answer a few questions in exchange for my buying some cookies and donuts. Their eagerness to make a sale was far exceeded by their eagerness to talk about their school. I still recall how, walking away nearly twenty minutes later, I thought, “What a happy bunch of kids.”

Similarly, during a quick pass through the University of Florida, I stopped for an early lunch in one of the campus cafeterias. It was 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, so I was not surprised to see most of the tables empty. However, at one there were about ten students talking animatedly and laughing. After my requisite introduction was out of the way, they explained that they were working on a calculus problem set. They added that they preferred the cafeteria to the library because when someone came up with an answer, they could enjoy the moment without disturbing anyone. Even though I did not leave with cookies or donuts, I had some unquestionably good impressions of students at the flagship institution.

Lastly, when I visited Fordham, I joined students who waiting in line for the cafeteria to open. They too were equally happy to share their feelings about attending school in one of the most intensely urban and multi-cultural areas of New York. But of equal importance were the results of a slightly divergent approach I had taken to get there. More specifically, I went to several different places on campus and at each, asked for directions to the cafeteria. Everyone I approached broke from their purposeful stride (this was, after all, New York) and explained patiently how I could best reach my destination. In fact, the last student insisted that I follow him, as the way involved a number of turns. 

It is unlikely that anyone would regard the forgoing interactions as a “scientific” way of finding out if a campus has happy students. However, the outcomes, in my humble opinion, are at least as valid in seeing certain aspects of a given campus environment as the students themselves see them. Obviously, such episodes are more difficult to have within the context of a structured campus tour. Though led by an enthusiastic guide very skilled at walking backwards while reciting facts and figures, the sentient experience is unfortunately, absent. Nevertheless, if given “free time” to visit the bookstore or opportunity to enjoy lunch on your own, keep the questions outlined earlier in mind and “engage” the campus on your own terms. In other words, “Make it your number one.” You will find yourself all the happier for having done so.

Reference: Alter. M. and Reback, R. (2014). True for your school? How changing reputations alter demand for selective U.S. colleges.  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 36, 346-370.

Joe Prieto, a former college admissions officer, guidance counselor and past member of the Illinois and NACAC Admissions Practices Committees, has been a contributing writer to the NACAC Counselor's Corner since its inception in 2012.
December 16
Not a Question of Win Some, Lose Some – But Rather Should You Play At All (Part 1)

​Because the focus of this blog is customarily on some aspect of college rankings, some may at first see a discussion on a Division 1 football program as being an unrelated topic. However, at the risk of it being regarded as such, what follows will show that the connection is neither misplaced nor a stretch.          

Two weeks ago, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) revealed that it was closing down its football program. The stark headline in the December 10, 2014 edition of The Washington News read, “An Alabama University Drops Football - Hard numbers challenge the national hysteria over sport.”

In announcing that the decision was made after a campus-wide study conducted by a consulting firm over the past year, University President Ray Watts explained,

"The fiscal realities we face -- both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint -- are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the athletic department and UAB… As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the athletic department, football is simply not sustainable,” ( news services December 3, 2014).

It would not be difficult to imagine how widespread the pain associated with such action is across the UAB campus. It is probably most acute for team members, some of whom have issued public protests stating that they were drawn to the school for the chance to play football, and how they must now find a way to finance their education. Given the “fiscal realities” to which President Watts alluded - UAB projected losses of nearly $49 million to subsidize football for the next few years alone - it is highly unlikely that the university would honor athletic scholarships for a program which no longer exists.

However, this may only be the tip of the iceberg.  The preceding post to this blog centered on the vagaries and patent unreliability of rankings due to inconsistent, inaccurate or truly unquantifiable evaluative criteria. This in turn makes the potential impact of what has happened at UAB, at least with regard to its place in national rankings, even more problematic.

To expand on this, we refer once again to previously cited research done by Molly Alter and Randall Reback in, “True for your school? How changing reputations alter demand for selective U.S. colleges,” (2014).  Their findings indicate that poor academic and quality of life reputations of a college, as purportedly shown in “Happiest Students” and Best Quality of Life” rankings by The Princeton Review, negatively affect not only the number of applications received by the institution but also the academic competitiveness of its incoming class.

That the previous UAB administration acknowledged this linkage was reflected in a 2009 feature article on how Alabama universities fared in that year’s Princeton Review rankings. Stan Diel, writing for, reported, 

 “The University of Alabama at Birmingham is one of the nation's most racially inclusive colleges, and has some of the happiest students anywhere, according to the annual Princeton Review survey of students nationwide.

The survey, perhaps most well-known for picking the nation's biggest party school each year, ranked UAB No. 3 nationally for interaction between the races and social classes. It ranked 11th nationally for "happiest students."

UAB President Carol Garrison said the survey's results are widely used by parents and prospective students, and the inclusiveness ranking will help the school recruit students who might have dated perceptions about Birmingham.

"It says this is an institution where any student can come and feel comfortable," she said.

The high ranking in the happiness category likely was, in part, a result of efforts to improve the campus, including the recent addition of a campus green and a recreation center, she said.

"We're happy that they're happy," Garrison said of the students.”

But, as the saying goes, “that was then and this is now”. Translation? One can only hope that the student body at UAB continues to be happy for all the right reasons and that the absence of football will not result in a venting on the “quality of student life” or “student happiness”  questions of a Princeton Review survey they may be asked to complete. It is further hoped that then-President Garrison greatly overestimated the weight prospective students and their families give to any such ranking constructs. In a perfect world, these two wishes would hold true. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world.

Before bringing closure to this discussion, there are two teachable moments to be offered in Part 2 of this post- stay tuned!
Joe Prieto, a former college admissions officer, guidance counselor and past member of the Illinois and NACAC Admissions Practices Committees, has been a contributing writer to the NACAC Counselor's Corner since its inception in 2012.
December 01
The Games Continue, With No End in Sight

​As the holiday season gets into full swing I hope that most, if not all, seniors are preparing to bring closure to their college application efforts and that a good number of them have already received positive results from timely action on rolling admissions programs. I further hope that juniors, and especially the ones with whom I am currently working, are beginning to formulate preliminary lists of college in which they may have an interest. 

This latter point serves as an introduction to our topic for this blog post – two questions which, due to their contiguous nature, are well-suited to a blended response. They are,

“When a college promotes that they are, “nationally ranked”, how should students and their families interpret that?” and,

“What is your baseline advice for students and families about rankings?”

An initial response that may appear too fast and easy, but which will be developed more fully throughout this text, would encourage students and families to view a “national ranking” as nothing more than a publisher’s formulaic conclusion. It is based solely on a narrowly drawn methodology that cannot possibly take into account infinite variances in the needs of the entire college-bound population. 

Moreover, there is significant potential for confusion in the fact that there seems to be no limit to the number of publishing enterprises claiming to be an “authority” on higher education – a circumstance The Princeton Review takes to the extreme, ranking colleges in no fewer than 62 categories, including financial aid and campus food.

This state of affairs was the subject of an article by Kevin Carey of The New York Times who in, Building a Better College Ranking System. Wait, Babson Beats Harvard? (July 28, 2014), wrote,

“For a long time, U.S. News & World Report had a monopoly on the college rankings game. Every August, the magazine would announce that, once again, Harvard was America’s best college, or Princeton, or, to shake things up, a tie between Harvard and Princeton. But in recent years, there has been a profusion of rankings competitors, each with a different perspective on what “best colleges” really means.”

In spite of this, U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) appears to be holding on as the preferred association. Support for this can be found in what was appended to an e-mail sent out on the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) listserv last week. Appearing prominently below the sender’s name and contact information was the U.S. News and World Report “Best Colleges” logo and the statement, 

“USC Aiken is AGAIN ranked #1 Public College in the South by U.S. News and World Report. To find out more, visit”

This may be seen as another reminder that, as much as many counseling and admissions professionals wish college rankings would fade away, higher education’s desire to be connected to and included among them seems to be gaining strength. 

But, before proceeding, my oft-repeated disclaimer remains - that it is not the position of this writer to dispute the right and good business sense of any enterprise calling widespread attention to favorable critical review. However, as also noted in previous postings, we are not talking about espresso machines or lawnmowers in this blog. We are talking about the nature, purpose and efficacy of life-shaping, life-enriching and life-determining entities that are our nation’s colleges and universities. Therefore the orientation, lexicon of analysis and import must be grounded in humanistic considerations rather than data points and ordinal rankings. 

Imagine then, if you will, the possible implications of colleges incorporating their respective ranking throughout their marketing outreach. For those just beginning their college search, seeing both the USNWR logo and promotion of the school’s ranking (as referenced above), might well give rise to several assumptions, none of which would be wholly correct. To list a few, the student might:

  • ​Completely overlook or misunderstand the sub-category designation, and assume the school is among the best, even beyond the region/category to which it is assigned;
  • Conclude that the high rank verifies program excellence throughout the institution’s curriculum;
  • Interpret the high rank as indicative of the quality of life, the level of instruction, the campus setting and resources, the financial aid program and post-graduate placement; And/or,
  • Assume the college is more selective than other similar institutions and thereby more desirable.

Compounding such well-intentioned but no less mistaken thought, are factors that weigh heavily against the few certainties in college rankings as a whole, but which nonetheless are used to cement their accuracy. One prime example is the suggested “selectivity quotient” of a particular institution and the factors that can impact its respective ranking and image.

Institutional selectivity accounts for 12.5 percent of the ranking methodology used by U.S. News and World Report.  It is based on the acceptance rate, or the ratio of students admitted to the total number of applicants. The vulnerability, if you will, of this ratio to any number of influences was once the subject of a conference lunch discussion among several highly experienced colleagues of mine. Their observations are summarized as follows:

  • ​“Has anyone else heard that (highly selective, Midwestern university) has significantly increased the size of its applicant pool by buying more names from College Board and ACT in order to generate more applications, but with no plans to increase the number of acceptances? As I understand, it is part of a strategy to make themselves appear as even more selective and thereby, strengthen their ranking.” Which prompted someone to add,
  • “We (and others) achieved somewhat of the same by joining the Common Application. Streamlining the process made it much easier for students to send out more applications and we saw a sizeable jump in our numbers right away. We too, decided not to increase the number of accepted students – at least for the time being.” This prompted a third party to reflect,
  • “Things sure have changed since Hilary Clinton’s joining her husband Bill in the White House was said to have produced twenty percent more applications for Wellesley. It got more selective in one cycle. You still get that same benefit if your football team wins a national championship or your basketball team reaches the Final Four, but how many schools can do that on a regular basis?”

A corresponding view of the manipulation and maneuvering related to a critical component of ranking methodology, Princeton Review’s in particular, was presented by Molly Alter and Randall Reback in, “True for your school? How changing reputations alter demand for selective U.S. colleges.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 36, 346-370 (2014). As they reported,

“Our findings suggest that changes in academic and quality-of-life reputations affect the number of applications received by a college and the academic competitiveness and geographic diversity of the ensuing incoming freshman class. Colleges receive fewer applications when peer universities earn high academic ratings. However, unfavorable quality-of-life ratings for peers are followed by decreases in the college’s own application pool and the academic competitiveness of its incoming class. This suggests that potential applicants often begin their search process by shopping for groups of colleges where non-pecuniary benefits may be relatively high.”

In the final analysis, irrespective of the questionable legitimacy of academic ratings, the work of Ms. Alter and Mr. Reback leads them to conclude that, in some instances, they can be trumped by something as nebulous as unfavorable “quality of life” marks. More unfortunately, the net effect of this is inaccurate and unreliable information for students and families, which also continues to be troublesome and problematic for many guidance counselors as well.

In summary, the foregoing was intended to illustrate some of the more unsettling aspects of college rankings. They start with, but are certainly not limited to, misunderstandings stemming from being highlighted in college and university image initiatives, and extend to their inherent volatility and unreliability in the area of institutional selectivity. 

With this being the case, the most prudent baseline advice to students and their families would be to proceed with caution and understand college rankings of any sort and from any source for what they are – one tool among many to incorporate into their college search and evaluation efforts. And, just as with a hammer, being aware of its limitations along with proper, judicious and appropriate use minimizes the risk of mishaps.

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