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How To Navigate A Campus Tour

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The summer brings many familiar family rituals; barbecues, beach vacations, sleepover camp and college visits. The college visit almost always includes at least one parent (and requisite high school student.) Other configurations include; both parents & high school student, both parents & high school student & other sibling. The high school student is as likely to be wide-eyed and humbled as he/she is to be petulant and infuriating. (It is interesting to watch the sullen teen rise and fall in his/her fevered pitch of resentment according to the hard sold enthusiasm of his parents.) These potential customers are given the tour of the property, offered one or two logo emblazoned keepsakes & given a shiny reference sheet (either in heavy card stock or in app form). It’s really like any other open house, except the “agent” showing the property is usually a current student and nobody asks about the taxes, energy bill or condition of the roof. In fact, it’s rather fascinating to overhear what people don’t ask on a campus tour. Questions about meal plans, housing, and campus celebrity appearances are a sure thing. Less common, but still overheard are questions about majors, athletics, and faculty accessibility. These generalist questions are quite appropriate given the fact that the tour guide is in fact a student. But deciding where to spend the next four years and perhaps $200,000 necessitates more than broad strokes.

Some potential students (and their entourage) sit in on a class. This is probably mildly entertaining for the visitors, but not entirely relevant. Summer school classes bear little resemblance to regular classes; they are small, often taught by graduate students, and are more endurance test than educational experience. To make a decision that could possibly pave the way for a teenager’s professional and personal life warrants more than a show and tell. Most people (unless they have money to burn) would not purchase a home without having an inspection first. With any large expenditure or potentially life-altering endeavor, a little crawling through the basement and poking at the eaves is in order. Real questions about specific majors, research opportunities, job placement, lifetime alumni support, 3-year baccalaureate degrees, joint degrees, advanced degrees, graduate school admission rates (and more) need to be asked and answered. (A college or university committed to transparency will have a website that will clearly and visibly answer some of these questions.) Depending upon the size of the institution, a student (and entourage) should meet with a college dean, dean of students or vice president of enrollment. Admissions officers are very knowledgeable and helpful but their area of expertise is that of the front end, not the middle or back end. The President of an institution will be approachable and perhaps a compelling speaker, but rarely has full working knowledge of how the sausage is made. The people who can answer specific questions about educational opportunities and outcome are those who wrestle with and analyze those issues on a daily basis.

There is a lot to glean from visiting a campus and getting a feel for the environment. Sitting in a college town coffee shop can be a heady experience for a 17-year-old kid. Picturing your 17-year-old kid in one of those sweatshirts, traipsing off to class can be overwhelming for a parent. It can be a very emotional time for a family. Is this the little boy I carried, is this the little girl at play? For some families the road to the college tour was bumpy and relief is the primary emotion in play. That’s why it’s important to develop a strategy before leaving the house. What do you and your student want to get out of an undergraduate college experience? What are your investment expectations? These are hard issues to focus on if your primary concern is the acceptance letter. Try as hard as you can to let go of that. Shopping is always a two-way street. You can’t possibly know if an acceptance letter is meaningful until you know if the school is the right choice. Modeling this research and course of inquiry to your student (and his/her sibling) is priceless. A college student is a customer and he/she should navigate higher education as such. Setting the tone before freshman year may very well result in empowering that freshman to ask questions and pursue opportunities throughout his/her higher education experience.

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Posted by on August 1, 2013 in Education

 

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Equal (Higher Education) Opportunity

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Higher education is the launching pad for the American dream. No matter where you come from or what you’re parents have done, college holds the promise of the pathway to success. We take enormous pride in being a classless society in which anyone from any means can grab their piece of the pie. We love nothing more than stories that prove our beliefs right. Every year or two a new “homeless to Harvard” story populates lifestyle media. Colleges/universities love profiling their hard-knock life graduates come May. And why not? Who doesn’t want to be inspired by people who have Horatio Alger-ed their way to commencement? But beyond the headlines or sentimental stories is a less than cheery reality.

Higher education is much more democratic than it’s ever been in many real and meaningful ways. But institutions are rather limited in what they can do. They can throw their metaphorical doors open for any and all (who have academic potential) but they can’t make them come. There are many many truly academically gifted students who are accepted and never attend outstanding universities. These students come from homes in which they may be the first to attend college. The family may be very reluctant for a child to leave home or simply not have the resources to support the travel costs. The student often attends a local college and lives at home. There is nothing wrong with either of these two phenomenons, but when performed in concert they are seriously limiting. The point of higher education is to expand the knowledge base and worldview of students. College is most meaningful when it makes a student’s world bigger. Attending classes with people who are just like you and living with people just like you can render the higher education experience more vocational or technical than intellectual. Yes, great ideas can be explored in the classroom, but only to an extent. Lack of diversity limits the value on the exchange of ideas. Colleges and universities know this and work (to varying degrees) to rectify it. But by the time kids are filling out college applications it’s too late to impact a family’s will.

Kindergarten is the time to start exposing families to the idea of what higher education can mean to their child and how to embrace the most expansive experience possible. There is little point in preparing and urging children to soar if their parents are not on board. Over the course of 13 years (K-12) parent-teacher meetings, PTA, homework, and extra-curricular activities can have a higher-education component. School administrators, teachers and staff will no longer assume that all families are educated higher education consumers. Clinics can be held to help families navigate the (often opaque) terrain of colleges/universities. Topics such as financial aid, return on investment, defining degrees, career placement, and areas of study could be offered from middle school on. The more families are included in the conversations, from the earliest possible point, the more likely they will support the best choice possible for their child.

There are enough impediments to a truly equal opportunity for college students without this major hurdle. Some students, regardless of academic talent often have a first-class college experience while other students, of equal or greater talent, are stuck in coach. Some students are just go-getters, they will seek out and uncover any and all opportunities and not rest until they’ve squeezed every last drop out of the experience. Some students’ parents do that for them, and arrange (through personal contacts or friends of friends) network and resume building internships. Many students either need to work during the summer and/or don’t have their parents doing their work for them and graduate with a lesser experience. The same is said for many academic experiences as well. Studying anywhere off-campus cost money that is rarely covered by financial aid. Summer classes, remote campuses or study abroad programs are often not an option for students who must make every dollar count. Even on-campus these financial decisions must often be made. Most campus events and some courses of study cost additional monies. There are areas of study that necessitate equipment or fees that might not be covered in financial aid packages.

Creating a college student body that reflects the greater society is an admirable goal. However to do so in any meaningful way will take more than opening up the doors. Resources and attention are needed so that we don’t just democratizing education we also equalize it.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Education

 

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Education By Degrees

college

Higher education was once a luxury item for Americans. Families who had the means and/or men, who didn’t need to support their families of origin, went to college. There were no entrance exams or even much to speak of in the way of requirements. If you could find your way there, and were of the ‘right’ background, you could give it a go. There was no such thing as ‘student life’. Oh the students did live, but they did so under their own direction. Boarding houses, spare rooms, and inexpensive restaurants were the origin of the student life species. Slowly colleges and university became more accessible, less religious, and somewhat more diverse. The G.I. Bill may have been the greatest diversification of higher education. People (mostly men) from all backgrounds were now attending college for the first time. This phenomenon created an awareness and glimmer of opportunity for families across the country. College began to seem less of an elitist pursuit and more an intrinsic part of the American Dream.

Fast-forward and we are now experiencing the aftershock of a similar deluge of students. The baby boomers’ children attended college in large numbers. Colleges/universities competed for these tuition paying people by out positioning each other. Monies were spent to upgrade and to market a ‘student life’ experience that would appeal to a generation who lived larger than their ancestors. Concurrently, government spending in higher education ebbed and the stock market did that bad thing. Tuition and student debt rose. A few years before all this, employers began to view a baccalaureate degree as a minimum requirement for almost every job. At face value this would appear reactionary. Well of course a B.S. or B.A. is a requirement! Why wouldn’t it be? After all, everyone has one! But the truth is probably a bit more calculating than that. The fact is that as all this was happening in higher education, K-12 was changing as well. A high school diploma rarely delivers a workplace ready employee. A high school diploma was once an accomplishment in and of itself, and a ticket to secure employment. That 50% of incoming college freshman need remedial work, speaks to the state of a high school diploma. College work has not gotten more difficult, if anything there are curriculums so breezy they would make those boarding house dwellers of yesteryear spin in their graves.

Skyrocketing tuition plus the baccalaureate replacing a high school diploma as a requirement creates a perfect storm of sorts. We are beginning, and will continue to see the formation of two tracks of higher education. Some of us remember (or heard stories) of these tracks in K-12. Certainly we’ve heard of programs in foreign lands that still adhere to tracking. Students who were seen as being more practical than scholars, were steered into technical vocations. Those perceived as having scholarly potential were readied for higher education. There are many colleges across the country that cater to average students. (There is something to say for college being an experience for all learners.) Colleges, in these cases are charging and receiving extraordinary amounts of money to create workplace readiness. These colleges are private as well as public and diverse in their origins and how they deliver degrees. They are doing nothing but fulfilling a need and addressing a reality. Some of these schools have a great alumni network and/or stellar career placement. But what of those that don’t?

We’ve created a very expensive and time consuming way to obtain what we consider a minimum education. The ridiculousness of considering a baccalaureate a prerequisite for all kinds of work is equal to the state of many high school degrees. Public education should be producing young men and women who can write, speak, calculate and think. Colleges (with their enormous expense) should not be taking the place of K-12 public education. 50% of incoming freshman are paying (big bucks) to complete their high school education (via remedial work.) Employers need to rethink what skills are actually needed for each job. They need to beef up their Human Resources offices and return to placement testing. Certificate programs (offered in high schools or in community colleges) should be created in partnership with large-scale employers. It is simply not sustainable, this gerbil wheel we’ve created. There are young men and women spending years and money they may or may not have, because their public education is not all it should be and once was.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Education, Uncategorized

 

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Managing Binge Drinking

animal house

Not every college students spends 5 out of 7 days binge-drinking. But to look at Facebook photos (and videos!) you would certainly think that is the case. It’s simply not possible to be that intoxicated all the time and still pass your classes; even in the most remedial of college programs. But there are a fair share of schools at which it appears that the number one form of recreation is drunkenness (which is not the same as ‘drinking’.) This behavior, even if we were to ignore the immaturity of it, is not innocuous. It’s physically dangerous. People die, people are raped, bad things happen. (College students would be a lot further ahead if pot became the substance of choice. There’s no such thing as ‘pot poisoning’ and long before a user would consider a violent act, they’ve nodded out.)

For parents (and others) who are concerned about the excess it’s helpful to consider the root causes. For students aged 17-22 there are probably finite reasons for habitual binge-drinking. There is most likely some percentage who suffer from alcoholism (a condition which has no age limitation.) But for the rest of the students it could be issues of social maturity and/or boredom. For the socially immature, they may be best served in a community college (living at home) for a while, or at a very small school at which social interactions are less daunting and actively encouraged. The socially immature should be encouraged to step away from the keyboard and find people with like interests (e.g., clubs, religious groups, teams, performance groups.) Even if this was all encouraged and done in high school, some people are never quite comfortable socially. For them it might be best to talk about managing their intoxication. With enough coaxing and patience you might be able to come up with a plan that helps the student avoid dangerous levels of drunkenness. (i.e., “When I no longer can hear the music, it’s time to stop.” or “I will always eat and drink water while drinking booze.”) We may never love underage binge (or any other kind of) drinking, but we do want our children to learn to be responsible and to care for themselves.

Binge drinking out of boredom seems much simpler to manage. If the student is seasonally bored (ex. he/she is an athlete on their off-season) a job or heavier course-load every other semester could work wonders. If the student is continuously bored they might be at the wrong school. Perhaps they’re disinterested in academics all together? Perhaps the rigor of the institution is not challenging? Perhaps they’d be more suited to an urban university? It’s best to address the issue before serious time and money is wasted (pun intended.)

There’s nothing wrong with letting off steam, making a fool of oneself, and learning one’s limits. But there is something troubling about defining one’s college experience with a series of blurry drunken episodes. One of the simplest and time-tested methods to ensure that a person gets the most they can out of an experience is for them to have a financial interest in the endeavor. Working during every school break, or at school not only breaks up any boredom, it boosts social maturity and self-esteem. It also helps (anyone at any age) to consider the value of what they’re paying for when they are paying for it themselves.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2013 in Education

 

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With envelopes, size matters

Acceptance/Rejection: How to Make Sense of it all (and not take it too personally)

It is that magical time of year (for some,) the time of college application completion, and for a select few, the arrival of Early Acceptance letters.   There has never been a time (historically) in which more people were involved in a single applicant’s road to higher education.    While there is still an absurd inequality in K-12 and higher education opportunities in this country, there are few middle class teenagers  who are left to navigate the road to baccalaureate success alone.   We will not argue the merits of this phenomenon in and of itself, but acknowledge that having an audience alters the experience somewhat.
So (with the whole world watching) how does the average 17 year-old both process what it means to be “accepted” and “rejected” but also determine what next steps are best for them?
For some, the decision is a clear cut monetary one.  Which college offers the best financial package (through tuition, grant, scholarship, three-year options, work-study, etc.)  For some, the decision has been made for them by receiving only one acceptance letter (you’d be surprised how many people only apply to one school!)  But for most, the decision is a little more complicated and one adolescents might feel ill-equipped to make.
In my estimation, this may be the one decision that 17 year-olds are actually BEST equipped to make.  Our role as (caring) adults is to guide them through the process without influencing their decision.  The following steps might be helpful in that process:

  • “I’ve been rejected!”  No, actually it is your application that has been rejected, not you.  Being accepted or rejected from a college is not personal.  How could it be?  These people don’t know you!  Have you ever made a collage?  You know, those hodge-podge displays of imagery?  Well, all the photos do not make the cut.  That isn’t because they’re not great photos, but because in creating a collage you need to create (your) perfect artistic balance.  Well, college admissions officers do the same thing.  They are not pitting one student against another, they are creating their vision of a perfect collage of an incoming class.  The fact that you did or didn’t make the cut is not personal.
  • “I didn’t get into my first choice!”  You’re allowed to brood for a bit.  But not too long.  This whole thing is a process, you must remember that.  There is no one perfect choice.  There are millions of choices along the way that lead to wondrous possibilities.  So it’s now time to review your acceptance letters and pick your new first choice.
  • The Prestige Pressure.  There’s no escaping it, is there?  You know where your friends (and enemies) are going.  The college/university brands are being bandied about like designer labels.  Does the most famous school mean it is the best choice for you?  Maybe.  Maybe not.
  • “There are too many factors!”  You’re right, there are.  Get used to it.  No one’s life was ever made worse for too many options.  Choice is a privilege. Not helpful?  Okay, let’s eliminate the things that don’t matter:
    • My boy/girlfriend is going to school X.  (Go ask your parent’s friends and see if anyone who chose a school based on dating is now pleased with that decision)
    • The school has an awesome climbing wall.  (Unless you plan to study physical education, you may be making the wrong choice)
    • The school is close/far from home.  (The only time this should matter is if someone needs support.  If there are family members or you who need the support of home, by all means make this choice to stay close, all others are just being silly)
    • The school has an awesome ‘fill in the blank’ team. (Unless you are an athlete being scouted for said team, don’t be ridiculous)
  • Things that do matter:
    • What is the R.O.I. (return on investment) of the school.  This can be determined by calculating the following:
      • How strong is the department/major of my choice?
      • What are the research opportunities for undergraduates?
      • What is the alumni network like?
      • What is the career placement services?
      • Is there enough diversity (whatever that means to you) for me to expand my experience?
    • Is this a party school.  (Wasn’t expecting that, huh?)
      • Are there the right non-academic options for me (religious, artistic, athletic, Greek system, etc.)
    • How do I feel on campus
      • If you haven’t already, you must go and visit.  There is simply no substitute, virtual or otherwise.
    • Is it the right size for me
      • If you are considering a university, is the college of your choice the right size?  Are there internal transfer options?
      • If you are considering a college, does it feel just slightly too large (which is good?)

In the end, there is no one better equipped to make this choice.  It is important to remember that it is just that, a choice.  You can always change your mind (that’s why transfers were invented.)Wih

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Education

 

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