Wednesday, May 17, 2017

College Admissions Isn’t Fair. It Also Isn’t Simple.

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

A new article about college admission is gaining a great deal of attention among college counselors. Posted on Georgia Tech’s admissions website, the goal of the article is to admit what many students have long felt—that college admissions isn’t fair.

After acknowledging that all colleges look at test scores and grades, the article goes on to suggest the real driving factor behind admissions is the school’s mission, or the reason the college says it exists. Yes, you could be a great student with high grades in AP Everything who was president of every club in your high school. Still, if your essays and teacher letters don’t indicate that you understand the college’s reason for existence, the Georgia Tech piece suggests that would be reason enough for them not to take you, since their review process would likely reveal that there isn’t a “fit” between what the college is looking for, and what you have to offer.

The piece certainly offers a great explanation for why Joey in the locker next to you got into your dream college and you didn’t, even though your grades and scores were higher than his. In connecting admissions decisions to the school’s mission, the article even offers a strongly-principled reason for why they took your sister five years ago with her lower grades and lack of extracurriculars, but didn’t take you this year. The school has a different sense of purpose now.

So, the article puts together a nice argument, with only one small problem. Admission at most colleges doesn’t work like this at all. Instead, it depends on other factors that are a little more basic, but somehow more complicated—like:

How many people apply. The article tries to emphasize the role of mission at highly selective colleges. This suggests that if these same colleges only had 600 applicants for 500 seats, they’d likely take everybody, no matter what their essays said. That doesn’t make their decisions based on mission; it makes them based on numbers. Simply put, they don’t take everyone who applies, because they don’t have to.

What the college is looking for. It’s certainly true a college is looking for certain qualities in a student, but that search is a little more pragmatic than the article suggests. An admission officer from an Ivy League college once told me “If we’re graduating three hockey goalies this year, and you’re a high school senior applying as a hockey goalie, your chances of admission just went way up.” So what happens if the essays in the hockey goalie’s application don’t reveal a deep understanding of the school’s mission? Is this still a fit?

This has less to do with mission than it does institutional priorities—the particular need the college has that year for Philosophy majors, a bassoonist, or someone who wants to do Neuroscience research. These priorities may have something to do with the mission of the college, but they aren’t as closely related as the article suggests, once numbers come into play. The virtues of athletics may be integral to the college’s existence, but they aren’t going to admit every one of the 18 hockey goalies that apply; they’re only going to take as many as they need in any given year—and this year, that may be none.

Rankings. The last ten years of college admissions have seen an increase in all kinds of devices used to get more students to apply. Snap apps, on-site decisions, and the rise in early application programs all point to a desire on the college’s part to attract more applicants, even though very few colleges are actually enrolling more students than they were ten years ago.

What’s behind the need to do that, if admissions decisions are driven by mission, and not by rankings? Is it impossible to be a solid B+ student and have a better understanding of a school’s mission than your National Honor Society counterpart? If not, why are so many highly selective colleges now denying so many—in fact, nearly all-- the B+ students who used to fulfill the college’s mission with distinction?

When most families start looking at colleges, they think the admission process is simple—take strong classes, get good grades, make sure your test scores are strong, join a few clubs, and you’re good to go. That perception works at an incredible number of colleges, but the highly selective colleges have a process that’s less clear, because they don’t have to take everyone who applies. It would be easy to assign this cause to the college’s mission, but that doesn’t reflect reality—and it also doesn’t explain why all kinds of schools say no to some B students and say yes to C students who average 21 points a game.

It would be great if mission was the only reason college admissions doesn’t seem fair, but it isn’t. Like life, it’s more complicated than that, and our students deserve an explanation more representative of that complexity.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Is Free Test Prep Worth It?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The world of SAT test prep was thrown for a bit of a loop last year, when College Board partnered with Khan Academy to offer free SAT prep through the well-known online tutorial website.  The idea was simple; students with PSAT or SAT scores could plug in their test results, and Khan Academy would point the student to a series of test preparation exercises designed to strengthen skills in the areas where the student most needed improvement.

This kind of approach to test prep isn’t new, but offering it online, for free, was unheard of.  Still, many questions persisted, as observers wondered if students would take full advantage of the service, and if the idea of improvement through free test prep was just too good to be true.

The results of a recent study suggest that College Board and Khan may be on to something.  A study of nearly 250,000 test takers showed that those who plug a test result into Khan Academy, then complete 20 hours of online test prep, gain an average of 115 points when they take the SAT.  This is nearly twice the gain made by students who don’t use Khan; more important, the results are applicable to students regardless of GPA, race, gender, or income.

It’s easy to understand why these numbers are cause for celebration among advocates of universal access to test prep.  In the past, these kinds of gains mostly belonged to students who paid impressive sums of money to private test prep companies or tutors, and often involved students attending regularly scheduled classes they had to fit into schedules that were already full.  The Khan results suggest some students can realize strong test improvement for free, working on their own, and on their own schedule, all while learning more about the role of self-discipline in academic improvement.  That’s a win all around.

At the same time, these findings come with the usual limitations and cautions of any study.  More than one statistician has pointed out that correlation (two things that seem to be related to each other) isn’t always causation (meaning one thing doesn’t cause the other to occur).  In addition, it’s important to note that students not using Khan for test prep realized a 60 point increase when taking the SAT anyway.  Finally, 20 hours is a lot of time for a student to devote to anything, and not all students have that kind of time, or focus.

Since most of these limitations can also be applied to fee-based test prep, the Khan results are worth keeping an eye on in subsequent studies.  Meanwhile, many high schools are using Khan to form after-school test prep groups, where all that’s needed for students to get test ready is access to the computer lab.  The results also give high schools reason to find ways to offer some kind of PSAT, so students will have scores to plug into Khan and begin the process of customized test prep with time, and room, to spare.

Test scores continue to be the focus of many discussions about college readiness, with recent changes to the SAT leading a large number of colleges to become test optional in their admissions policies, and causing policy makers to wonder if testing outcomes have replaced quality learning experiences as the primary purpose of education.  As those discussions continue, the results of the Khan study offer hope to low income students looking for a chance to be taken seriously by colleges that value test scores—students who didn’t historically have access to quality test prep.  That qualifies as a game changer.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Improve College Readiness by Creating a Class

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

If you’re helping kids find ways to pay for college, there’s brand new data to help your efforts. A study spearheaded by The Common Application, in conjunction with researchers at University of Virginia, Harvard, and University of Pittsburgh, shows that more students are inclined to complete the government-based FAFSA financial aid form if they receive a series of systematically designed texts urging them to do so.

The study finds that the most important part of the texts is the message. Rather than focusing on how much money the student can receive for college, the texts are most effective when they tell the student what they should specifically do, and when they should do it. Supported with a message that urges students to set up their own set of reminders on their phones or planners, these step-by-step texts lead to increased FAFSA completion. (Full disclosure: I sit on Common App’s board of directors.)

These results support a long-standing string of discoveries about college access that date back to the original Know How2Go campaign. Low income students are well aware of the importance of college, and most have a desire to attend. Study after study reveals the help they really need is understanding the concrete steps required to prepare, apply, and pay for college, and what to do to avoid summer melt.

This is an awful lot of information for counselors to pass along to students through newsletters, parent meetings, and informal conversations in the hallway. That’s why a growing number of high schools are offering an elective class in getting ready for college. They still create the Websites, assemblies, and reminders needed to keep students focused on the college selection process, but they take all of the vital college information and put it in a semester course that helps students stay focused, organized, and on task.

There isn’t a lot of data available on the effectiveness of these classes, but counselors know they are making a difference. By putting college access information into one course, counselors are able to introduce ideas with a consistency and sequence they often can’t achieve through newsletters, or even as guest presenters in academic classes. This sequencing reinforces the ability to tell students what they should do, and when they should do it, the success that’s reported in The Common Application study.

In addition to being a consistent source of information, a college readiness class gives students two other commodities they seem to be lacking—the time to apply to college, and a focused space to do so. This allows students to use the counselor’s expertise at the right moment, when they get stuck on a college application question. They don’t have to put the application off; instead, they ask the question, get the answer, and move forward.

This also creates a space for students to craft well thought-out essays, instead of trying to find time to cobble them together between work, studying, and other after-school commitments. And if they need to talk to a teacher about a letter of recommendation, the teacher is right down the hall.

Students from all walks of life have benefited from the organized, supportive atmosphere a college readiness class offers them, and school counselors appreciate the opportunity focusing part of their day on college application conversations that are sometimes hard to develop in the midst of other duties. In a time when it seems to be getting harder to get student’s attention, the structure of the classroom is proving to be a tremendous ally in the campaign for increased college readiness.