Campus Visits Dos and Don’ts

This article was submitted as part of the Carnival of College Admissions by Kat Cohen, Phd., Founder and CEO of ApplyWise.

Spring is a great time for high school juniors to visit college campuses. Here are some "Dos & Don'ts" that students and their parents need to know before visiting universities:

  1. Do visit campuses during your Junior year, but don't miss any classes. Holidays, spring break and weekends are a perfect time to plan those college road trips. Before you leave, check to see if there are tours or information sessions available on the dates you plan on visiting. Regardless, walking on campus while school is in session will give you a true sense of campus life. But don't skip school to visit a college. You need to keep up with your academic obligations. Many universities have open houses on weekends and holidays to work around your academic schedule.
  2. Do research the college before you visit and don't visit without knowing the school's basics. Research the school's academic programs and facilities before your campus visit. This will allow you to focus on elements of the campus that you are most interested in. You'll not only impress the admissions officer during the information session, but you'll also remember the visit. Bring a checklist of your expectations and questions you want answered. Keep in mind, though, that asking generic questions will not make a positive impression.
  3. Do explore the campus on your own, but don't leave a campus tour without informing the tour guide ahead of time. Tours are designed to show visitors different facets of campus life. However, if you need to leave early for any reason, know that you may miss some important details. Also, let the tour guide know before hand; leaving abruptly can be distracting to both guide and the group. When you do have time to explore on your own, make time to:
    • Have lunch in campus dining center to meet current students. They are a great resource regarding life on and off campus. Imagine yourself as a student on that campus by interacting with students as much as possible.
    • Check out the surrounding community. You’ll be living there for four years! Now’s the time to explore nearby restaurants, movie theatres, malls and places even for employment.
  4. Do introduce yourself to your admissions officer, but don't monopolize his time. When you meet your admissions officer, have a brief five-minute conversation about your interest. Ask one thoughtful, well-researched question; this will make a positive impression. Remember, this is not an interview, so don’t dominate the admissions officer’s time. Admissions officers are very busy and you don’t want to come off as a nuisance.
  5. Parents: Do listen to your child's opinions, but don't ask too many questions. Let your student do the talking. Overbearing parents are not only embarrassing, but they often prevent the tour guide from sharing some important information. Often, your questions will be addressed organically throughout the tour. Or course, if you still have personal questions, you can always ask your guide at the end of the tour or send an e-mail.
  6. Do send a thank you e-mail only if you are genuinely interested in a school and made a personal connection. Don't send thank you notes that your parents have written. A sincere e-mail leaves a positive impression. It may even turn into a great relationship as you start applying. Be mindful not to be insincere or over the top (like asking the tour guide to be your friend on FaceBook or MySpace) in your correspondence, as it may make you look desperate. Also, parents -- do not write any of these letters for your children. Remember, this is their college search process.

Thank you, Dr. Cohen, for your submission. Be sure to check out ApplyWise for more information. You may also read my article on entitled What should I do during a campus visit? for another perspective

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“College Is Harder than Ever to Get Into!” – Latest Misleading Shock Headline?

Stressed studentMany admissions blogs -- and, even more unfortunately, local news outlets -- are taking the following statistics and coming to the conclusion that "college is harder than ever to get into:"

Universities across the country are announcing record low admission rates this year. Yale University set the Ivy League record by accepting only 8.6 percent of its 21,099 hopeful applicants. Other record lows include Brown University (13.8%), Columbia University (9.6%), Dartmouth College (15.4%), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (13%), Stanford University (11%), and University of Pennsylvania (17.7%).

However, the leap from "record low admissions" to "college is harder to get into" is misleading. As I have previously discussed (with regard to Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale), while there has been a massive increase in 2008 applications, the selectivity of each college remains comparatively unchanged. The sudden drop in admissions statistics per college may be accounted for by the fact that students are applying to, on average, three times as many schools as students did just a few years ago.

However, there's no denying that there are more students than ever looking for college admission. Not only is a higher percentage of graduating high school seniors looking toward university life, but the number of graduating seniors is also increasing. With 3.2 million graduating in 2009, the largest in US history, it is undoubtable that the volume of applications will continue to rise.

I want to remind future applicants again, though, that the bar for a 'qualified student' has remained consistent at almost all schools. If your 3.9 GPA and 2340 SAT would have gotten you into Yale last year, it will probably still get you into Yale next year. That is also true, by the way, of smaller, local schools and state universities -- selectivity has remained steady. Application volume may have gone way up, but that does not mean that qualified students will suddenly be turned away.

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Is ‘Free College’ Just a Pointless Gimmick?

Stack of dollar billsI have been very excited over the past three weeks as college after college announces financial aid renovations that offer free tuition for students from low income families. In fact, Pennsylvania's Lehigh University and New York's Vassar College just joined the group this week. But another blogger is less enthusiastic, saying:

Recent news reports about Ivy League colleges offering "free education" to students from middle-class families paint a highly unrealistic picture of the challenges facing the majority of college-bound students.

His primary indictment is that "less than one-half of one percent of young people entering college next fall will actually benefit."

I disagree. While it is true that few students will benefit from the Ivy Leagues' financial aid changes -- simply because few students gain acceptance to Ivy League schools -- I think it is necessary to look at the bigger picture. Non-Ivy League universities like MIT, Stanford, and other well-respected colleges have mirrored the Ivy League approach to free tuition. The philosophy is spreading. To that point, a much larger percentage of students benefit from the Ivy League's financial aid programs -- even if only indirectly -- than he suggests.

He further contends that "[i]t is disingenuous to suggest that de facto merit scholarships at these institutions create more access and opportunity." Remember, though, that no one is suggesting that unqualified students can suddenly find a home at Harvard or Yale. Rather, it is the supremely talented and bright young adults who previously were barred from higher education simply because of an unaffordable tuition price tag have who benefit. While the number of these students is small, there are still several hundred who have gained access where previously they had none.

I do have to agree with his closing points, though, when he says:

[T]he formula for affording college expenses is fairly simple: find institutions that value the student for what s/he does well. Colleges that are good "fits" will invest in the student's success [...] [F]ocusing on "fit" instead of famous names will reveal that the "long overdue help" for middle class families has been within reach all along.

The new tread of Free College should not influence students and their families to reach beyond their realistic goals. Finding a university program which matches with a student is an important objective, and one that will ultimately pay greater dividends than pursuing a potentially unreachable Ivy League dream. "Famous names" are, indeed, not everything.

In closing, I believe that this Free College fad is beneficial in many ways, even if only because it encourages colleges across the nation to invest more of their substantial endowments in financing their students' educations. This is good for all students, even those that just save a few thousand dollars from a loan-to-grant conversation program. In the end, however, the strategy for college admissions remains the same: find a university that is a good fit first, and leave financial concerns for later consideration. The wave of Free College is good news, but it shouldn't override your other university objectives.

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Columbia Is Final Ivy League to Offer Free College

Joining its Ivy League brothers, Columbia University has announced its new financial aid plan starting in the 2008-2009 academic year which includes the Free College program I've discussed several times over the past few days.

Columbia currently leads the Ivy Leagues in the proportion of its students who receive Pell grants at roughly 15%. With the new changes, which increased its financial aid budget by 17%, Columbia University has become even more generous with aid. Already $260 million of the sought $440 million for the undergraduate financial aid endowment has been raised.

According to Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas B. Dirks, "[Columbia's] new financial aid policies reflect a more realistic view of the challenges that lower- and middle-income families face in paying for college." The changes include four main areas:

  • Students from families earning less than $60,000 a year will have no financial obligation for tuition, room, board, or other college fees.
  • Students from families earning between $60,000 and $100,000 a year will see a significant reduction in the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
  • All students, regardless of income, will have all loans replaced with University grants.
  • All aid recipients may receive exemptions work-study expectations if they participate in community service or accept unpaid research or internship opportunities. Students studying abroad will have work-study expectations replaced with grants.

All in all, Columbia's new financial aid program is phenomenal. With now every one of the Ivy League universities offering free college programs for students of low-income families, and also programs of substantially reduced or subsidized tuition for all students, access to education is more open than ever. I look forward to these philosophies trickling down to other colleges, as has already happened with MIT, Stanford, Washington, and others.

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MIT Becomes Newest Free College Pioneer

MIT SealJoining the ranks of Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Brown Universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has become the latest college to revise its financial aid package policies to offer free college to low income families. And though MIT's tuition is rising by 4% next year to $36,390, its financial aid budget, which will have increased by $74 million, will help to offset this. In fact, net tuition is expected to drop approximately 15%.

MIT, which does not offer any merit-based financial aid, plans to make three big changes to its need-based plans for the 2008-2009 academic year:

  • Families earning less than $75,000 a year will have all tuition covered through scholarships, federal and state grants, and outside scholarship funds. This means 0 student loan obligation. Almost 30% of MIT's students fall into this Free College category.
  • Families earning less than $100,000 will no longer have their home equity used to determine their financial need On average, this will reduce the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) by $1,600 for students in this category. Families who rent and do not have home equity will also see a comparable reduction.
  • All students will have work study requirements reduced. All financial aid recipients currently on a work study program will have their minimum expectations lowered by 10%.

Says MIT Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Daniel Hastings, "we will continue our long-standing financial commitment to students and their families in the years ahead. That we can welcome to our campus such extraordinary students, regardless of their economic background, is due to our historic dedication to need-based financial aid."

I welcome the latest entrant into the Free College empire. With yet another elite university riding this wave, I can only hope the trend will continue to spread and receive even wider participation.

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Perhaps Yale Is Not As Friendly to Low-Income Students As Previously Thought

Yale University freshman Sam Jackson blogged recently about his dissatisfaction with Yale's low-income financial aid practices. Quoting an article that calls Yale's new initiative a "mere public-relations gesture", Sam opines:

Yale needs to work harder and reach out more to low income students. This might not be the fault only of the admissions office, it could be that they are not able to effectively allocate their resources to do so without compromising other parts of their mission which are valued more. Luckily, here at Yale, they don't really have to choose! The university has the resources needed to make significant change, and if it isn't moving up the charts on this, it can't point at Harvard or anyone else and try to avoid blame.

Indeed, Yale commands the second largest endowment of all colleges in the nation ($22.5 billion) and certainly has the ability to help finance the tuition and expenses for low-income students. And though Yale hasn't risen to the 'free college' level that some other universities have, they are making big changes. So why is Sam unhappy with a 230% more financial aid spending (from $24 million to $80 million), a tuition-increase ceiling equal to the rate of inflation, a reduction in expected student contribution, and a slashed cost of attendance for families earning under $200,000? He writes:

Harvard beat them to it. Where is all the innovation? Jeremiah Quinlan, Director of Outreach and Recruitment [for Yale's Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel], could make an MIT-style blogging site if only someone would let him (and give him money, staff, and time). That would be a good transformative start -- a ton of transparency for an admissions office in the Ivy League.

While it is true that Yale saw a 14 percent drop in students receiving Pell grants in the same time period that Harvard saw a 53 percent increase, and while I do agree that more transparency is always good, I can't help but feel that a major source of discontent with Yale's new financial aid policy lies squarely in the fact that Harvard and other colleges -- Ivy League and otherwise -- are also doing it.

So I must disagree with Sam's conclusions. I believe Yale is taking a step in the right direction. Perhaps it has not come quite far enough yet, but it is one of the colleges currently pioneering relief for the skyrocketing costs of higher education. I applaud its efforts thus far. I do, however, share in Sam's hope that the future will bring even more in this area and look forward to the proliferation of the 'free college' ideal.

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