TRIPWIRES (And How To Avoid Them) This page goes beyond the twin themes of college generosity and college affordability. It's based on my own experiences helping my children with their college searches, my professional experience in law enforcement - especially as my experience related to white collar crime, and my employment in regulated industries. The issues I raise here are serious, they directly impact the success or failure of your child's education, and I've never seen them raised anywhere else. So, think of it this way, it takes way less than an hour to read and understand this page, but it might save your kid's college education.
You've seen in this website that Net Price Calculator programs, if used efficiently, can dramatically improve the effectiveness of your college search by eliminating the risk of excessive college costs and loans. The NPC requirement for colleges resulted from federal governmental action, and - once NPC's become part of the college application consciousness - that requirement will probably result in a healthy competition among colleges that will benefit all students and parents. The same has not occurred - there has been no positive action by our national government - in a number of areas that are just as important to your college search as affordability. You need to be alert to them, because an ill-informed decision in one of them can nullify the entire purpose of your college search. We've been talking a lot about costs so far, and these bring another cost into our discussion, i.e. what is the cost of a broken dream? Phrased another way, to avoid the cost of a broken dream, how can we conveniently and reliably sift dream-breaking schools and programs from dream-making schools and programs? The only answer I have now is for students and families to be alert to the issues involved and to work hard to get the data one school at a time. I think that the ultimate solution will require federal government action, but up till then we're on our own.
II. Consumer Protection and the College Search
American families benefit from an array of consumer protections in almost all facets of their economic lives. Some of these protections began in court cases, and some began with legislative action, but all of them share the goal of protecting consumers from economic abuse or discrimination at minimal cost and in real time. The idea is for the wrong suffered by the citizen to be resolved at as low a cost to the citizen as possible and as close to right then as possible. These protections arose from the national realization that the economic playing field is not naturally level, that businesses have a natural advantage over most consumers, that the laissez-faire concept of "let the buyer beware" frequently leaves pain and suffering in its wake, and that economic justice works for everyone - consumers and business people alike. However, if you think that the enlightened consumerism you have grown used to on Main Street extends to college admissions departments, you will be disappointed. Although I have found information provided by college academic departments to be reasonably reliable, not so admission departments, not so. Additionally, in terms of enforceable business norms and the legal protections readily available to consumers in America today, you are in a much more advantageous position on a used car lot than you are in a college admission office. That doesn't mean that there aren't honest and ethical college admission departments in America. There are. It means that I have seen no evidence that standards of business ethics are imposed upon college admission departments by government agencies, nor have I found that colleges enforce ethical standards among themselves. So, what you are likely to find in your college search is the full spectrum of unregulated business behavior. You will find college admission departments that are marvelously honest and ethical, you will find those whose managers and staffers ought to be arrested for fraud, and you will find everything in between. Given this lack of regulation, if you rely on key information from an admission department that proves to be false, you will probably find no convenient and effective remedy for your problem. College power structures don't help either because, although the heads of the admission departments may be called the "Deans of Admission", they typically don't carry the same clout as academic deans; and what admission officers might tell you will usually not bind the academic departments of the school. There are also no agencies outside the school that will come to your assistance. But you can set yourself up for ultimate success, for surviving those kinds of problems, by realizing the risks that are involved and by being extremely thorough and careful throughout your college search.
III. General College Search Tips for High School Juniors, First Semester Seniors. and Their Families
A. Put Together an Effective Team Good high school students are working harder today than they have ever worked before, so families should share the burden of the college search with their students, while calling on their high schools' counselors and other knowledgeable adults for assistance. But your team members should be people who are ready to abandon all their preconceived notions before they join your team. Yesterday's college facts were true yesterday, but today's college facts are what matter, and you need people who are willing to work hard and to dig deep to find those facts for you. B. Start Early The college search process is all about sifting. You will be sifting colleges with programs you want from all the others, you will be sifting colleges where you will be accepted from all the others, you will be sifting colleges you can afford from all the others, et cetera. As you sift through colleges you will also be refining your wants and needs, and you will probably be getting new ideas and new search criteria along the way. For your search to be effective, you can't wait till January 1 of your senior year. So, start now. Develop general goals and objectives for your search, and get to work on them. Your goals will focus, coalesce, and get more specific as time goes on. C. Use a Big Net America is a big place with about 2,500 four-year colleges and universities, and I'm certain you can find plenty of them that meet your financial and academic needs. But in the early stage of your search, you should relax, keep an open mind, enjoy the process, and learn as much as you can. And, please, don't sweat the small stuff. You will read and hear a lot of names you can't even pronounce today. For instance, almost no high school students in America can pronounce Bowdoin, and almost all of them think Wellesley has three syllables. So, don't worry about it. You can learn those details later - like BO-dun and WELZ-lee for instance - which are both great schools. D. Visit Colleges in Your Area I'm amazed at how few college applicants have visited any colleges at all, so start now by visiting the colleges in your area. Visit them even if you're not interested in them. Why? Because after you've visited four or five colleges, you'll stop being surprised by what you see. You'll discover two little known facts: they all do a lot of the same stuff; and - other than differences in architectural style - they all have similar layouts. This will be especially comforting to you if you're accepted by desirable schools outside your region, ones you've never visited in person, where you've taken your college tours via Google Maps. Bowdoin and Wellesley might again be good examples. E. Find Accredited Programs Just because a college has overall accreditation doesn't mean that all the programs it offers are accredited. Many specialized college programs require special accreditation. A short video on the topic can be seen here: http://www.aspa-usa.org/ And here is the list of all the member organizations covered by ASPA by their fields with links to their websites: http://www.aspa-usa.org/our-members/ If you click on the subject area, you will be given a more complete description of the organization with a link to its website. Then click on whatever that organization calls its list of accredited college programs. F. For Future Engineers, Computer Scientists, and Applied Technologists The Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology, which now goes by "ABET", maintains a very important and informative site for engineering, computer science, and applied technology programs, and here's its URL: http://abet.org/ Click on the orange box labeled "ABET-Accredited Programs" on the left side of the homepage, and follow the instructions. You'll probably need to learn some new terms. For instance, there is a big difference between "Electrical Engineering" programs and "Electrical Engineering Technology" programs. Additionally, be alert to whether the schools you're investigating have ABET accreditation for the specific program you want. For instance, some small schools have engineering departments with only what I call "umbrella accreditation", where ABET has generally accredited the department, but not the specific programs within the department. You'll want to investigate those departments further, especially as to their job placements for their recent graduates. G. Trust but Verify This is an old Russian saying that we should modify to, "Trust first, and verify later." Your team will be sifting through a lot of information early, and you won't have enough time to check each fact right then. So, rely on what you are told by the schools early, and confirm it all later - with one exception... H. Focus on Affordability Early Zero-in on colleges you can really afford, and ignore the rest. You'll find that all colleges claim to have generous financial aid programs, and about a third of them really do. Remember that unaffordable colleges gather students through easily-accessible-but-actually-unaffordable loans. Be especially suspicious of published data on financial aid. It will usually be based on the average aid available at each school, making it just about meaningless to you. Assign a member of your team, probably a parent, to do Net Price Calculator analyses on all your interesting colleges. NPC's are easy to do, they're regulated by the government, and - as long as you use the techniques you just learned in this site - I have found them to be accurate and reliable. Be sure to record your results, and my "Apples-to-Apples Template" at the bottom of this page is a handy tool. And remember, LOANS AREN'T AID! I. Use Your Time Wisely Concentrate on things that matter, and don't waste time on small-time stuff. For instance, if your NPC results show that you will qualify for need-based aid at your favorite colleges, don't waste your time applying for minor, merit-based scholarships from outside organizations. It can take a week to complete their applications, gather the recommendations, and attend the interviews for each of those scholarships, but it will all be for naught. Why? Because outside scholarships increase your available resources, and they reduce your need by the same amount. So, your favorite schools will probably deduct the amount of your outside aid from the amount of aid they offer you, making that whole application process a complete waste of time. J. Don't Get Mad You can think of American colleges and universities as 2,500 islands in a huge archipelago, each with its distinct population, and each with its unique government. In your search will find that many of these islands are governed by reasonable people applying reasonable rules for the betterment of their applicants and their students. But you will also find that many of these islands are governed unreasonable people applying incomprehensible or even cruel rules that could not help anyone. Don't worry about it. Remember, it's not your island, it's their island, and... K. Get to "Next!" Think of your college search as a "Gong Show" where you have the mallet, or a talent show where you have the hook. Give the colleges you review an honest opportunity to show their worth to you on your terms, but don't be bashful about hitting the gong, saying "Next!", and moving forward with your search. In fact, that's one of the fun parts of the search process. L. Talk to the Area Officers Early College admission departments usually divide our country among their admission officers, assigning specific areas to specific people. After your team has thoroughly reviewed the school's website, make a preliminary list that combines what you think you know about the school with your remaining questions, identify your area officer at the school's admission department, call that person on the phone, and start a conversation. Phone calls are way better than e-mails in this regard because of their flexibility. Top quality admission officers will frequently have alternate - and often easier - methods for you to accomplish your educational goals at that school, and phone calls allow a flexible exploration of what that school can really do for you. Be sure to make those calls as early in the year as you can, because admission officers get busier as the school year progresses. Also, be sure to take notes during the conversation and follow up with a thank you e-mail that evening. M. Apply Where You Will Be Accepted Be realistic where you actually apply. For instance, three out of four applicants with perfect scores on the ACT aren't accepted at Stanford, and - unless you're a "legacy" or the President's daughter or son - you probably won't be accepted there either. Instead, look for colleges where students like you are likely to be accepted. Colleges usually publish GPA and test score data for the middle fifty percent of their entering classes on their websites. Concentrate on schools where your grades and scores place you near the top - or even above the top - of the schools' Middle Fifties. Do your best to sift down to eight or so schools that have the programs you need, that you can afford, and that are likely to accept you. Then concentrate on putting together eight great applications. N. Beat Stanford Stanford is a fine school with a great reputation, but what really sets Stanford apart in my opinion is that it allows advanced students to start from where they are when they matriculate, with no lost ground and no lost momentum. Incoming Stanford students can import up to a full year of credit earned during their high school years via AP, IB, and DE classes with even more course forgiveness available to really advanced students. The net effect is that the typical Stanford student graduates in four years with either two majors in different academic areas or a major and a master's degree in the same area. For comparison, just try that at Harvard or Yale. So, Stanford's advantage is its focus. Stanford doesn't see itself as selling courses to its students but as enhancing opportunities for its students. That's a true virtue, but the value of that virtue is diminished by the well known fact that Stanford accepts very, very few of its many great applicants.But careful applicants can often beat Stanford in this regard, finding the many schools that offer even better opportunities for students like them, by doing their own research. O. Always Have Backups Let's say it's March 31, 2020, you've been accepted by four of your Great Eight schools, and two of your yes's came from your top two picks. Keep your Final Four going anyway, meaning don't tell any of them "No, thank you", until you have confirmed every detail about all the schools and every aspect of their offers before Decision Day. P. Focus on April Your students' offers of admission and all of their financial aid offers will be in hand by the second week of April, and your students must commit to only one of those schools by the first of May. At that point your students will have told one school "yes" and all the other schools "no", and they will be locked into that choice. So, plan a College Acceptance Party for early April, but get serious for the rest of the month. You don't want to be like the line in the old song, "You're riding high in April, shot down in May." Also, remember that the schools are still competing for students like you until you commit to a school, so April is the month to reconfirm everything you've been told by the school, everything you relied on in making your decision to apply. But in April you need to reconfirm that information at a higher level. You will be more likely to hear "yes" as the answer to your questions in April rather than in May or later. After your commitment to the school on the first of May, you are at your peril on any issues which you have not completely resolved.
IV. Dominant College Search Issues
A. Throughput I borrowed the term "throughput" from computer science, where it means the percentage of signal sent through a transmission medium that actually arrives at its destination, but equivalent terms in the college context would be "net success rate" or "program specific success rate." Some schools and programs use a negative term for the same concept, calling it their "attrition rate." In our discussion, the throughput of a college program is the percentage of students entering the program as freshmen who successfully complete the program. As examples, the throughput of a pre-med program is the percentage of freshman pre-meds who are ultimately accepted by medical schools, the throughput of a nursing school is the percentage of entering students who graduate as registered nurses, and the throughput of an engineering program is the percentage of freshman engineering students who graduate as engineers. I was alert to this issue because I spent my undergraduate years - long, long ago - at Johns Hopkins, which then had a wonderful reputation among pre-meds, when it was really a pre-med slaughterhouse. My entering class had some of the top pre-med students in America, but only about 1 in 5 was ultimately accepted into medical school. Since then, Hopkins has improved a lot in this regard, but I was alert to the problem, and we made the throughput concept a focus of our efforts during our son Greg's college search. Greg was interested in electrical engineering, and he graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering and a minor in Music Engineering from the Tufts University School of Engineering two years ago. As the result of our research, we knew that the throughput for the Tufts School of Engineering back then was high and that maintaining their throughput was a focus of the school. As a result of our close contact with two other electrical engineering departments where Greg was accepted, we were expecting similar success rates for students like Greg at the University of Idaho and Seattle Pacific University. But at the other extreme, we knew - because we made the calls to the departments - that another school where Greg was accepted, the University of Washington, had an electrical engineering throughput that was under 50%, meaning that less than half of qualified entering students graduated having achieved their initial academic dreams. And, after a little research, I learned that undergraduate engineering throughputs under 50% were not unusual at all. In fact, low throughputs in engineering schools were regarded as a significant issue in that field nationwide. Pre-meds should be highly alert to this issue also. You aren't going to college to not get into medical school, so ask the hard questions. Does the school have a real pre-med program? Does the pre-med program have a phone number? Do they answer the phone? Does the pre-med program officer return voice mails? And be especially interested in how they count. You aren't as interested in the percentage of their graduates who are accepted into medical school as you are in the percentage of their entering pre-meds who are accepted into medical school. So, throughput numbers are incredibly important, they are rarely published, and careful students and parents should not assume that any statistics offered by the admission departments of colleges are accurate in this regard. Instead, I recommend calling the academic dean, or at least the academic counselor, of the school or program where your student intends to major. Don't assume anything; and ask plenty of direct, open-ended questions to learn as much as you can in advance. It will be worth it.
B. Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Dual Enrollment Issues Today's better high school students are learning more, advancing further, and working harder than ever before. The three methods commonly used are Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Dual Enrollment courses. Students take AP, IB, and DE courses for four reasons: to learn more, to demonstrate their worth as students to selective colleges, to potentially graduate from college early, and to cover enough ground before high school graduation to allow dual majors - or even dual degrees - in four years of college. AP and IB programs have similar issues for college applicants, and I will consider them together. Dual Enrollment programs have unique issues, and I will consider DE programs separately.
1. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Issues AP and IB courses are taught in the high school by high school teachers, but they have broader and deeper content than normal high school courses, and they are meant to approximate college courses. Nationwide, the quality of instruction in these courses varies widely from school to school, but that variance is damped out by the national examinations administered at the end of each course. Thus, colleges can confidently gauge a student's performance against a national standard to determine the student's competence in that subject. It's usually pretty easy for students to find out whether a school will grant credit for AP and IB courses. Just type "AP Credit" in the search box on the homepage of the school's website, and you will be directed to a page showing the amount of credit offered - if any - and the standards used by that school for all classes under both programs. But there is a second aspect to AP and IB classes that goes beyond the amount of credit offered. That is what the offered credit counts as, and this is where applicants need to be especially alert. Schools can offer full worth for AP and IB credits, or no worth, or anything in between. By "full worth" I mean that those credits can be used to satisfy the so-called "general education requirements" of the college as well as the course requirements of any major within any department in the school with no advanced course substitution requirement. By the way, an "advanced course substitution requirement" means that the college grants full credit for the specific AP or IB course, but it requires that the student take an additional upper level course to get a major in that area. These requirements are rare but painful, and applicants should be alert for them. Another painful but much more common problem is the concept of "undifferentiated elective credit." This is credit granted by a school for an AP or IB course that does not count toward the school's general education requirements or toward any major requirement within any department, meaning that undifferentiated elective credit can only be used by the student as filler. Again, applicants, be alert.
2. Dual Enrollment Issues Typically, Dual Enrollment classes are actual college classes taught by college faculty on a college campus where the students are competing for their grades with other college students. DE programs are the newest and the most efficient way for students to gain college credit during their high school years. DE students can typically earn twice as much college credit in their junior and senior years as students in AP and IB programs. But, even though DE students may earn a college associates degree at the same time as their high school diploma, they still apply to their follow-on colleges as freshmen, not as transfer students, and are eligible for full financial assistance. The quality of DE courses vary just like AP and IB courses, but DE courses have no national exams, so colleges have more difficulty gauging the students' competence in the subject area of each course. Some colleges, both public and private, solve this problem in advance with what are called "course equivalency tables", and links to these tables can be found on their websites. Other colleges grant credit on a course by course basis, usually through a three step process. Typically, this process begins in the admission department where admission officers collect your college transcript and all the course syllabi you've sent them. Then admission forwards the package to their registrar's office for preliminary review. Finally, an assigned professor from the cognizant academic department reviews the package for the equivalency of your courses with those offered by the school. This involves a lot of work for your new colleges, but you will be surprised by how many of them will conduct reviews like this for you before Decision Day. Remembering that the purpose of this review is to assure your new college of the content and quality of the courses you've already taken along with your competence in those subject areas, it's essential that your course packages be as complete as possible. Obviously, you need to include a syllabus for each course, but ask around your old college to see if they don't have what you could call a "super syllabus" from a statewide regulatory organization or from that college itself for each course. Remember that DE programs began as feeder programs for major state universities, so your courses probably dovetail nicely with the courses offered at those schools, and it's smart to include a list of your home state's colleges and universities that offer credit for each of your courses. I know this involves some work, but it beats retaking all your college courses. Dual enrollment courses have the same credit issues as the ones I listed for AP and IB courses above, but DE courses have a few more issues of their own, and you can avoid each of these potential train wrecks by careful research and by keeping your backups active till close to Decision Day: a. Many colleges discriminate against DE students and courses by not allowing credit at their schools for any college course completed by the students that was taught at their high schools, whether or not those courses were actually taught by college faculty and without regard to the quality of the course. But those schools would never discriminate against AP or IB students and courses in this way. b. Many private colleges discriminate against DE students by not allowing credit at their institutions for courses the students used to satisfy graduation requirements at their high schools, also a rule those schools never apply to AP or IB courses. This requirement is discriminatory and illogical, but its damage is lessened by two facts: DE students are usually well advanced in relation to their high schools' requirements when they enter DE programs, and they earn college credit in their DE programs very quickly, limiting the potential damage of this rule. c. Some colleges - Dartmouth was an example for us - have a policy denying pre-matriculation credit for all community college courses, no matter what their quality, even though they grant credit to their own students who take the same courses taught by the same professors at the same community colleges during summer school. d. Some professors reviewing DE courses discriminate against community college courses, no matter what their quality, even though their universities don't. Vanderbilt's review of math classes was an example for us. e. Occasionally you will find colleges that have an incomprehensible rule barring credit for any college course that appears on the student's high school transcript. Since some states require that all DE courses taken by high school students appear on both their community college transcripts and their high school transcripts, students from those states can be barred from gaining any credit for any college work completed during their high school years at the colleges that apply this rule. Obviously, this rule is ill-conceived, counter-productive, discriminatory, and cruel in application; but some schools enforce it anyway. Middlebury's math department was an example for us. f. Even less sensible are the schools that allow no credit for any course used by incoming freshmen to satisfy a community college's degree requirements, if those students were granted a community college degree during their high school years. So, DE students can get credit at these colleges for their college courses if they don't complete an AA, but if they go the extra mile and earn an AA while still in high school, these schools won't grant credit for any course the students used to achieve that degree. I know that rule sounds counter-productive and even crazy, and I hope they've already changed their policies since Maria applied, but be very alert to Lehigh and Tufts on this one. g. Finally, and on a much happier note, while helping my kids with their college searches I came upon a large number of schools that beat Stanford's policies on dual enrollment credit, even schools that were twice as liberal as Stanford in this regard. First, I will include most state universities, and I'll leave listing them to you. But several of the private schools whose financial aid I analyze in this site were twice as liberal as Stanford on DE credit while also being very generous schools. So, from east to west, hats off to Connecticut College in New London; Trinity College in Hartford; Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA; Guilford College in Greensboro, NC; and Occidental College in Los Angeles. Nicely done!
V. College Search Tips - The Last Details
A. Do Your Math Financial aid offers can be extremely misleading. Remember that loans really aren't aid, and for a college to list loans in its "financial aid award" or even to call loans "other aid" is a deceptive business practice that would be illegal if consumer protections were in place. So, be on guard, and resolve any potential confusion in your financial aid offers by plugging the data into a strict template like this, using the directions provided at the top of the form: 2016 Apples-to-Apples Cost Comparison for Admitted Students This document is a modified version of my Apples-to-Apples Template that you've seen - and used - throughout this site. As always, I start with standard values for common costs, but I make the fair assumptions that, since you've already completed your FAFSA, you know your Expected Family Contribution, and you will probably need to borrow any amount of Net Cost that exceeds your EFC. This will all make sense as you use the form. And - as always - it's in Word, so you can download it and modify your version in any way you would like. You can add and subtract rows and columns, and you can substitute criteria to your heart's content. And then, if you make complete hash out of it, you can come back here and start over. It won't have gone away. B. Microscope Your "Merits" If you were offered a merit scholarship by any of your colleges, take a close look at its terms. The merits at some schools are good for only one or two years, meaning they are just "come-on's" to get you to commit to that school. I do my best to not include come-on's in the aid I report in this site, but you should confirm that any merit-based aid you're offered is intended to continue for four years, and you should clarify its continuation terms. One potential pitfall in merit scholarships might be the school's GPA requirement for the continuation of the scholarship. Continuing merits at all schools will have a GPA requirement for their continuation. Some schools have reasonable GPA requirements, but some are unreasonably high, so look closely and be careful. C. Beat Stanford As I said above, Stanford is a fine school with a great reputation, but what really sets Stanford apart in my opinion is that it allows advanced students to start from where they are when they matriculate, with no lost ground and no lost momentum. Applicants, however, can often beat Stanford in this regard, finding schools that offer even better opportunities for students like them, by doing careful research, and April is your last chance to do it. So, look closely at the schools who accepted you to find your best opportunity. Ask yourself, which school will be the most likely to help you actualize your dreams? Check the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Dual Enrollment section above for common issues, techniques, and pitfalls. D. Accepted, But As What? This is a "biggee." Check your acceptances to make sure exactly where you have been accepted in each university. If you applied for a particular school or program at that university, were you accepted directly into that school or program, or were you placed in a sort of "waiting room" in that school for that program? Or, worse yet, were you just accepted into the general population of freshmen at that university? Then, if you weren't accepted directly into the program you really applied for, what are the hurdles you will need to jump over to get there, and what's the success rate for students like you who are trying to do that? Let me give you an example. A friend of mine has a son who was a remarkable high school student, athlete, and musician and who had the goal of becoming a biomedical engineer. He applied to about ten great universities in 2016, and he specified biomedical engineering as his intended major. He was accepted by four of those schools, and they seemed to be equally competitive until he and his father carefully reviewed his acceptances and found a glaring difference. Two of his "acceptances" came from major state universities where he had not been accepted into their biomedical engineering programs. In fact, those universities hadn't accepted him into their engineering schools at all. So, his dreams were on track at two of his schools, but he was effectively off-the-rails at the other two. And, interestingly, his acceptance letters from all four schools - the dream-makers and the dream-breakers - began with the same word: "Congratulations." E. Delivering the Goods I think that most students and families assume that college acceptances include an implicit guarantee from the accepting colleges that, if incoming students do their parts by doing good work in their courses, the colleges will do their parts by offering the courses - and the seats in those courses - that are necessary for the students to complete their intended degrees on time. And I think that most people would assume that, if colleges can't perform in that fashion, they would be at least ethically, if not legally, required to disclose that defect with their acceptances. Well, once again, there is no consistency among colleges in this regard. Some colleges act in that minimally ethical manner, but some don't, and students caught in that predicament are faced with either abandoning their educational goals or transferring schools later on. The lesson here is to be thorough, read the fine print, ask the hard questions, and maintain your backups.
Copyright 2019, Mark Warns, All Rights Reserved
Here again are a Word version of my Apple-to-Apples template for your own college cost comparisons along with a Word version of my data input pages that you can use for your own family: