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May 21
A New Player in the Rankings Game – And Some New Rules

​Hello once again, and thank you for checking in to see what has been happening in the areas of college rankings, admissions and counseling. The content for this post will be presented in two segments. The first will briefly discuss a variation of the “pushy parent scenario,” with an administrator in the lead role. This will serve as an introduction to the second segment, a look at the research and findings published recently by the Brookings Institution. And so we begin...

Last week, while fully immersed in enjoyment of the wonderful spring weather, the grass greening up, and allowing thoughts of baseball and a hot dog in the sun to envelope me in a sense of peace and comfort, the following e-mail appeared in my in-box,

A principal comes to you in your role as school counselor and instructs you to focus on getting students into the most highly ranked colleges possible. How do you respond?

Truly shaken by what I read, my first thought was, “Is this a joke (and if so, a rather nasty one) or, has this actually happened somewhere?”

Turns out, to my considerable relief, this was posed strictly as a hypothetical question. But I couldn’t help thinking, what if this had in fact, occurred somewhere. 

Questions and concerns swirled. Would this be a case of a principal seeking to make a name for himself within his district, his region or the state by sending more of his students to “highly ranked” institutions? Would a Board of Education direct this principal to elevate the image of the school by “improving” the colleges at which graduates enrolled? Would a principal respond this way to an appeal from parents who wanted to see their students apply to “better” or the “best” colleges outside the range or types of schools to which they had historically applied?

Imagining myself in the shoes of the poor college counselor, I realized there would probably not be much time to come up with a response other than what the principal had in mind; i.e., “I think you are absolutely right. We’ll use rankings publications as a final check of our students’ list of schools from now on.” However, in a perfect world where my district’s tenure policy was iron-clad and I had a reasonably good relationship with the principal, I would smile and say, “That is a proposition you have obviously given much thought to. I’d like to hear all the details at length. Can we set up a meeting for that?

In the interim, resources would be gathered and organized for diplomatic introduction to the principal, in hopes of benignly enlightening her (or him) on the priorities of college counseling. Though I might very cautiously agree in principle (pun intended) to the idea that a college’s rank might be a pleasant add-on in the consideration of the school, such would be tempered by noting how far down it places on the list of what really matters.  All along the way, mention would be made of the regard parents have for the principal’s emphasis on doing what is best for students, and particularly with college selection. Stroke, stroke, stroke.

Continuing gently with what has appeared in the Counselor’s Corner; i.e., all the various elements that determine an optimal student/institutional fit, and especially, the students’ emotional well-being throughout the college selection and application processes (“Applying to College in the State of Anxiety,” Journal of College Admission, Fall, 2013), the hope would be for an open mind on the part of the principal.

The next step in dismantling and then rebuilding the principal’s perspective would be relating the story of Alexander Roman, a student at Harding Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. As Peter Jacobs, writing for Business Insider (May 4, 2015), related from his interview with Alexander in, “Kid who got into every Ivy League university is turning them all down,”

"The biggest part [of choosing MIT] was the atmosphere ... everyone seems connected on campus, like they all knew each other….[Roman added] he liked MIT's comparatively small size and how everyone seems focused in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields … It was definitely extremely difficult to choose MIT considering I got accepted to every Ivy League school, [but] being at MIT is just like going to an 'Ivy League' school for me. The thing about choosing a college is choosing the place that you feel you can become the best person you can be at the end of your four-year journey, and I definitely think that MIT will do that for me."

A natural extension of Alexander’s threshold belief could be presented to the principal next in, “A high US News ranking doesn’t mean a college is actually good,” by Libby Nelson, and published in VOX, April 23, 2015.   Ms. Nelson centered her commentary on the research done by Indiana University’s John Zilvinskis and Louis Rocconi. She began with a nicely succinct summary of rankings produced by U.S. News and World Report, Forbes and Washington Monthly, respectively. Intentionally or not, Ms. Nelson also identified the confusion created in the minds of students and parents (and, the occasional administrator) by inherent differences in the findings of these publications. As she wrote,

“The three ranking systems try to measure different aspects of the college experience. U.S. News, which measures prestige, says the best college in America is Princeton University. Forbes, which measures student satisfaction and earnings after college, says the best is Williams College. Washington Monthly measures how colleges contribute to the public good, and the University of California San Diego comes out on top.”

Ms. Nelson then outlined how Zilvinskis and Rocconi, 

“…. compared college rankings for 64 colleges from Forbes, US News, and Washington Monthly with results on the National Survey of Student Engagement. The survey measures students' study skills, how often they interact with faculty members, and how often they're asked to use critical thinking skills, as well as other factors thought to contribute to how much they learn.

They found almost no [sic] relationship between the rankings and the engagement scores. In some cases, going to a higher-ranked college seemed to put students at a disadvantage.”

Ms. Nelson also concurred what is commonly held by critics of college rankings – that a fundamental flaw in all such enterprises is that publishers decide what has value and then develop a methodology to measure and quantify it.  And, until someone devises a way to assess and measure that which is actually good for students; i.e. an education that serves as a catalyst for inspired action and growth throughout the entirety of a student’s life, students and parents will remain vulnerable to the annual parade of ordinal smoke and mirrors.

Under such circumstances, what continues to be at risk are those taken in by the siren call of elite colleges, and a belief that all things good in life are reachable through attendance at only those institutions. Should the principal see the latter point as true, the next article to be advanced as a counterpoint would be, “Elite colleges don’t buy happiness for graduates,” written by Douglas Belkin, and which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on May 7, 2014.

Mr. Belkin’s remarks were based on a survey conducted by Gallup Education this spring. It entailed interviewing 30,000 college graduates from every state and of all ages.  After synthesizing and analyzing the totality of responses, the researchers concluded that, 

“…. highly selective schools don't produce better workers or happier people, but inspiring professors—no matter where they teach—just might …. The poll didn't measure graduates' earnings. Rather, it was rooted in 30 years of Gallup research that shows that people who feel happy and engaged in their jobs are the most productive. That relatively small group at the top didn't disproportionately attend the prestigious schools that Americans have long believed provided a golden ticket to success. Instead, they forged meaningful connections with professors or mentors, and made significant investments in long-term academic projects and extracurricular activities."

Speaking to the findings, Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education observed,

"It matters very little where you go; it's how you do it that counts …. Having a teacher who believes in a student makes a lifetime of difference."

At this point, even if the principal would remain unmoved, I would (thankfully) not be out of ammunition. Another recent report, entitled “Beyond College Rankings,” and issued by the Brookings Institution has also drawn a bead on U.S. News and World Report. Lynn O’Shaughnessy, writing for CBS Moneywatch (May1, 2015), agreed with Gallup Education, in pointing out how U.S. News misses the mark entirely by emphasizing form over function. More specifically, the selectivity of schools and their criteria for granting admission wholly displace any mention of their effectiveness in preparing their students to not only make a living, but make a life. 

Ms. O’Shaughnessy then noted the advantages that students who attend elite schools have going for them; i.e., wealth, high-powered high school backgrounds and nearly off-the-grid test scores, all of which make post-graduate financial success highly predictable. 

In contrast, the goal of the “new college rankings system,” devised by Brookings Institution, was to find which colleges provided the best “value-added” boost to the mid-career earnings of their graduates. This would be achieved through a methodology that adjusts for the caliber of students and their majors and how much money they could expect to earn. As Ms. O’Shaughnessy further explained,

“In measuring a school's occupational earnings power, Brookings used data from LinkedIn and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to generate the percentage increase or decrease in the average salary of the occupations in which alumni work above or below what would have been predicted based on student and school characteristics.”

Jillian Berman, also reporting on the Brookings Institution’s work in, “A college ranking where Harvard doesn’t make the top of the list,” (Marketwatch, May 2, 2015) synthesized Ms. O’Shaughnessy’s summary of the Brookings methodology with,

“Beyond College Rankings, [which] looks at factors like alumni salaries, federal student loan repayment rates and student characteristics, to determine the schools that most affect their graduates’ level of economic success. Many of the usual suspects such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale don’t make the top of Brookings’ rankings…..The Brookings model compares graduates’ actual outcomes after college versus their predicted outcomes when they came in as undergraduates. That means it doesn’t reward extremely selective schools or those that admit students with the highest likelihood of success.”

The intriguing results, fully available through a link within the body of Ms. Berman’s article, included schools such as Colgate, Carleton, Washington and Lee, SUNY Maritime College, Clarkson, Marietta College, St. Mary’s University (Texas) and Bradley. They were right there among the traditional powerhouses of Cal Tech, MIT and Stanford listed in Brookings Institution’s table of, “Four-Year or Higher Colleges With the Highest Value-Added With Respect To Mid-Career Earnings”. 

What remains to be seen, and will likely be just as interesting, is seeing how the groundwork laid by “Beyond College Rankings,” and its outcome-centered orientation, will meld with the Obama administration’s attempt to revamp the manner in which the efficacy of college’s are measured.

Well, that would exhaust the stratagems available to divert the principal’s misplaced emphasis on rankings as an overriding factor in our student’s college selection and application processes. Success in this regard would certainly be a pleasure and a considerable measure of relief to enjoy. If not, while disappointing, it would merely call for another smile of feigned agreement, and carrying on with serving my students by following my heart. After all, that is the one immutable, guiding light that leads the way for all good counselors.

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.​​

April 16
Distinguishing Between Veneer and Hardwood

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

“I really want to go to college ____, but my parents are pushing me to attend a different college because it is ranked more highly. Please advise." 

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a guidance professional has been overseeing students as they start and progress through the college selection process. This is not meant to imply however, that the experience is without drama. More specifically, and as shown in the request shown above, divergent viewpoints among the student and parents/guardians, on what is the “best” choice for the student, surface as often as not. At this point, figurative battle lines are drawn and the “pushing” (and “pulling”) begins. Approaches I have used to resolve this type of familial impasse will be presented in this post.

At first instance, a parent’s rationale for “pushing” may be based on the presumed higher quality of a particular college based on a ranking differential put forth as “authoritative” by an independent source. In this, they would argue, as every loving parent would, that they only want the best for their student.

While no one can dispute this reasoning or sentiment, there is nevertheless plenty by which the accuracy of this line of thinking may be challenged. The modified adage that neither one size nor one type of college fits all is especially appropriate to this discussion. It brings to mind the time I invited several students to join me for dinner at a place on which many agreed, served the “best pizza around.” One food critic after another ranked it as number one, as did local and even national travel guides. Afterwards, I asked everyone what they thought of the pizza.

“It looked good and smelled good when they brought it out, but the taste didn’t measure up, for some reason.”

“The sauce was too salty.

“The garlic and basil overpowered the other ingredients.”

“The crust was tough and chewy.”

“I thought the pizza was great. Hey, I ate seven pieces.”

As for myself, while I thought the pizza was excellent, I was more intent on having my students experience something that so many “experts” regarded as “the best.” 

So too, it often is with parents and their undue emphasis on college rankings. In the anxiety-driven atmosphere of college admissions, they are vulnerable to the high-powered hype of the smoke and mirrors specialists, otherwise known as rankings publications. Turning to these, they mistakenly reach out to the ordinal cloud for an answer as to what is “better and best”.

The reality to be recognized by parents, pushy and otherwise, is that there is no plausible or infallible means of aligning more than two thousand colleges and universities side-by-side, down to the last course offering and climbing wall, to see what order they fall in. It is not reducible to comparing “apples to apples” or “oranges to oranges,” and it certainly is not pizza to pizza. As put forth previously in this blog, it is understanding and accepting that data on teaching quality, character-developing student involvement and effective avenues to job and career readiness are not amenable to any publication-ready format.

This state of affairs begs for a resource that takes an evaluative position on the collective features, strengths and outcomes of individual degree programs rather than institutions as a whole. While Rugg’s Recommendations on Colleges attempts to approximate this, in recent memory, the Gourman Report was the only other publication to produce this type of work. Unfortunately, it was bought out by a competitor and then disappeared.

Nonetheless, as I stress to parents and guardians, this is an opportunity to reorient their thinking away from college rankings and re-direct their efforts toward discovering what really matters to the future success of their student. Facts and details which indicate that students at a particular institution fully engage the curriculum, the faculty and the campus community at large are uncovered not just by asking questions, but by questioning answers.

For example, in discussing a prominent, highly selective university, a writer noted that the economics department at his alma mater had seven Nobel Prize winners.  Taking this as an invitational cue, one might ask, ”Do any of them teach undergraduates?” In another instance, the chemistry department chair at a science and technology-centered institution proudly announced that, “Our faculty engage in innovative research and publish regularly on their findings.” To this one might ask, “Do these faculty members have a teaching load or set of advisees and, do they involve students in any phase of their research and writing?”

This line of inquiry may also be extended to resources outside the classroom. Most schools promote the range and number of student organizations active on campus. What needs to be investigated is how many of them either mirror that in which the student was involved in during high school, or if any present new avenues toward  expanded self-discovery and personal growth. Internships, paid or otherwise, and their having timely availability are additional valuable enhancements to textual learning. 

Similarly, proactive and well-structured support services that help students through crisis episodes can make all the difference in their ability to persist and press on.  Deciding on an academic major, an appropriate career path, or assistance with study skills and time management, are equally critical resources and hallmarks of every truly student-centered institution.

In summary, under ideal circumstances there may be any number of positive outcomes from the willingness of “pushy” parents and their students to see each other’s respective opinions. It is hoped that by both applying the same qualitative standards of inquiry to all schools, and not only those they prefer, they will realize they all seek the same things for the right reasons. Under such circumstances, the issue of rank diminishes, and a recognition that personal institutional relevance based on the student’s needs trumps all else.

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.​

April 15
Research Finds World University Rankings "Misleading"

A research article published this month in Higher Education Quarterly, points out several statistical measurement issues with the Times Higher Education world university rankings (2013-2014). Using multiple regression analyses, the author ultimately calls into question the validity of the overall rankings due to the use of overlapping and non-contributing indicators to calculate the overall ranking scores.

Without going too far in the details- here’s a brief overview of what Kaycheng found:

As with other world university rankings, most namely, the Academic Ranking of World Universities and the QS World University Rankings, the Times Higher Education (THE) uses a weight-and-sum approach*, “that assumes that the indicators all independently contribute to the overall score in the specified proportions [emphases added].” The issue with the THE calculation arises because a multicolinearity problem exists, where indicators overlap or correlate with each other, and some highly so, which throws off the original weights assigned to the five subcategories that make up the overall score. (Note: The author only looked at the Times Higher Education rankings and did not assess other international rankings at this time). 


With the analysis, Kaycheng finds that Citation- originally give the weight of 30 percent- ends up comprising 22 percent of the overall score (and further, Reseach comprises 34 instead of 30 percent; Teaching- 31 instead of 30 percent; Internationalism- 9 instead of 7.5 percent; and Industry Income is 4 instead of 2.5 percent). Therefore, Kaycheng determines, “the overall score is not made up of the indicator scores as intended and… to think of an overall score as comprising indicator scores in the ranker-stipulated proportions is misleading.”

In addition, Kaycheng finds that Internationalism and Industry Income made very little contribution to the overall score, and that their presence “just clouds the clarity of what ‘overall’ measures.” 

Using only the Research and Citation indicators to comprise the overall score, would make the model free from multicolinearity, and yield rankings that are 91.4% correlated with the rankings in the old model, however THE might lose the impression of being comprehensive. ("...the critical issue is which of the two Overalls represents academic excellence more truthfully and which misinforms and misguides.")

On a broader level, Kaycheng argues that many rankings take reliability and validity for granted. After presenting several more statistical considerations, the author concludes that, “rank-users are advised to be cautious when reading a set of [World University Ranking] results and not to be oblivious to possible interpretation problems that may lead to unwarranted decisions and misguided actions.”

*Weight-and-sum: An approach commonly used for social and education ranking systems whereby a ranking agent first chooses a set of indicators, decides on the weight for each indicator as the coefficient of its score, with the weight supposedly reflecting its relative importance. After weighting, the scores for the several indicators are summed to form the overall score.

​Citation: Kaycheng, S. (2015). Multicolinearity and indicator redundancy problem in world university rankings: An example using times higher education world university 2013-2014 data. Higher Education Quarterly, 69, 158-174. 
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.

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