Monthly Archives: April 2012

Perception Rules

I recently spent some time exploring the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings to get to the bottom of what it all means. Controversy is no stranger to these elusive rankings that many take as the final word in college prestige. In fact, all the “alternative” rankings are probably a result of people dissatisfied with U.S. News’ methodology, but why the dissatisfaction?

I’m going to break it down so we can all understand the strengths and limitations of these rankings I think most of us take seriously despite common misgivings. This is what you need to know*:

1. Schools are first categorized by type, in a logical and fair way. National universities offer Bachelor, Master and Ph.D degrees and focus on faculty research. National liberal arts colleges focus on undergraduate education.

2. Schools are ranked on Academic Quality – this is where it gets tricky. As defined by U.S. News, academic quality encompasses peer assessment, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving and high school counselor ratings.

3. Perception of institutional quality has the most weight. Administrators at other institutions rate the schools and high school counselors also provide ratings.

4. Student retention is also important, as are faculty resources.

5. Student selectivity is a little less important than the aforementioned, but still relevant. What is this student selectivity? It’s applicants’ SAT scores, percentage of students ranked in the top decile of their high school classes and the specific college acceptance rates.

6. The three remaining factors – financial resources, graduation rate performance and alumni giving, together make up one quarter of the formula.

There are is one extremely important factor in their formula, student retention. High retention rates suggest a lot about the overall quality of an institution – it shows student satisfaction with the experience and presumably it demonstrates that college resources and support programs are effective and meeting the needs of its student body.

Beyond this, the value of the other factors as it relates to academic quality is debatable. Peer assessment of any sort is risky business, as it’s neither objective nor based on actual experience at an institution. Certainly there is value to hearing the opinions of well-respected leaders in academia, but should their opinions factor into something as influential as U.S. News rankings? Maybe.

The same is true for the assessments by counselors. Having worked directly with hundreds of public school counselors, I can say with very little reservation, it’s unlikely they can fairly assess many of our nation’s top, but lesser known schools. This is not because of any deficiency, but simply because most don’t have the time to research or money to visit schools like Kalamazoo College or Knox College, extraordinary institutions whose rankings don’t make them as desirable as other institutions, yet their programs and student testimonials are some of the best out there. Thus, how can high school counselors rank schools they don’t know? They can’t. I’m sure there is a balancing measure, but I’m not sure several “not applicable, I don’t know this school” votes balance out all the “we love this school” votes more well known schools undoubtedly receive. And, many public school counselors are asked to do so many things with so little time already – advise and write hundreds of recommendations for students they don’t know, deal with truancy and registrar issues and then to ask them to do one more thing they may or may not have the time and expertise to execute seems unfair to them.

It’s ironic actually, that perception even plays such a concrete role in the U.S. New rankings, as it’s people’s perceptions of schools that are often the road block to the best college matches and potentially fulfilling experiences. “My friend said this” or “My mom wants that” or “I heard that” or “I read in” are all perceptions we create, not based on our experiences, but based on the experiences of others. Isn’t is fascinating how quick we are to trust others’ opinions about the quality of colleges?

My conclusion? Well, unfortunately, it’s not particularly enlightening, other than to empower college-bound students (and parents) to create their own opinions, not perceptions, based on their own experiences. What’s important to you? If it’s studying a foreign language to eventually become an interpreter or an international ambassador, look at that college, Kalamazoo, I mentioned earlier. Don’t automatically set your sights on Columbia just because everyone says it’s a good match or you have a chance of being admitted. Consider all factors, even rankings (all of the rankings out there) and use them within reason, but don’t let them determine your destiny.

* You can check out U.S. News’ own breakdown here.

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Consider Rigor

There are many important things to consider in a college, but I think the level of academic and intellectual rigor is near the top of the list. Though academic rigor might not be only important factor, I’m pretty sure most parents don’t want to pay the hefty price tag just for their children to have fun.

Check out Newsweek’s latest rankings of the Most Rigorous Colleges. I find most people haven’t heard of the top four, but they are all outstanding institutions to consider!

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Less May Get Some Students More

Take some time to read an important article about LAUSD, the nation’s second largest school district, proposing to reduce graduation requirements so more students will graduate. It’s a complicated issue at best in a district that is struggling beyond some people’s comprehension.

According to Howard Blume who wrote the L.A. Times Article LAUSD considers lowering the bar for graduation,

Only 15% [of students in the class of 2011] were eligible for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. Even among graduating seniors, close to half failed to complete what’s called the “A through G” curriculum, the college-prep classes. If those students suddenly were unable to earn a diploma, the graduation rate would plummet, officials said.

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“When I Start The Day”

The weekend is upon us and what better way to start it by watching this short video from Go Public: A Day In The Life of PUSD. Entitled “When I Start The Day“. It’s easy to point out all that’s wrong with education, but this clip highlights a teacher with genuine care and insight into his experience as an educator.

You can learn more about Go Public by clicking here.

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Is Higher Education The Real Problem?

Clearly I’m an advocate for college, but more frequently than not, I also find myself questioning the entire institution of higher education. It’s not a new concept – I’ve had many a conversation and found myself arguing that college is in fact a divisive institution that simply keeps the haves where they are and the have nots put as well.

We live in a country where only 25% of people actually have college degrees, which is an alarmingly low number given how much coverage college gets in the media. The power we hold, the 25%, if you will, is enormous. Whether we recognize it or not, we can be considered and even hired for jobs we are completely unqualified to execute just because of our degree, we are eligible to make more than our non-degree counterparts despite more limited experience and in general, we are considerably more respected because of that degree.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I worked hard for my degree and I’m still paying for it (literally) and so I welcome the opportunities I have and at the same time, I would be remiss not to recognize and openly acknowledge, I got to college because of other people. Yes, I showed promise, as do many (most of which don’t actually earn a college degree), but simply put, I had access. My parents speak English, they are educated, they understand the value society places on education, they always understood that a college degree was the bridge for me professionally, financially and socially and so they pushed me, advocated for me, sent me to great schools, made sacrifices and ultimately made not going to college an impossibility. Teachers believed in me, but if I’m honest, it wasn’t just me, it was the potential my parents helped instill – it was because they spent more money than I can imagine on music and dance and sports, tutoring and the list goes on.

This is all to say, to gain access to the 25% takes significant resources. It’s a no brainer really. If you start out with resources it’s a whole lot easier than if you don’t. And while, I firmly believe in the American Dream (for some), I think we underestimate the barriers people face everyday on their paths to the 25% and these barriers are almost always based on class and/or race. I’ve heard the argument over and over again – work hard and you can succeed – someone always knows someone who did it. In fact, I know hundreds who have done it, but it’s neither easy nor realistic for many. And it’s for this simple reality, I constantly wonder if higher education is the problem. Despite matching or exceeding the intellectual capacity of those in the 25%, many qualified, bright and capable people will never join the club because of lack of resources, thus how can we in essence make a degree mandatory to earn a good living?

I would venture to argue it is primarily academia that says academia is the only way to achieve the qualities one develops earning a college degree, but I wonder if that’s a self-serving perspective. I strongly believe there are multiple paths for people to achieve what a college degree develops in people – some area of expertise in a particular field, ability to apply knowledge, ability to effectively communicate in writing and verbally, basic skills to navigate the professional world and self-confidence.

I’m of course interested in the solutions to close the educational gap. As a thriving member of the 25% club, I can vouch for the value of a college education both as an academic and social experience and in my utopia, everyone who wants to earn a college degree can do so. But, we are in no utopia. Perhaps some of the solutions are already right in front of us. Could completion of a City Year program or programs ever carry the same weight as a college degree? Or could the intelligence training some serviceman/woman receive earn them a degree? Or for people who must work full-time (and there are many), could the scope of their job include relevant coursework or training that mirrors college coursework? Or, will online degrees, which carry very little weight in some circles, ever gain the notoriety of traditional college degrees?

And believe it or not, it’s not just those without college degrees asking these questions. Despite how few people have bachelors degrees, many jobs now require masters degrees, leaving perfectly qualified people with years of work experience and college degrees unable to get positions because they lack yet another degree. Like many things in life, we have to invest to get a return, but at what cost?

I know many will argue these potential solutions make the college degree less elusive. That said, isn’t it true sometimes our success is based on another’s deficit? After all, that’s how people stand out from the crowd. But if we are ever going to break the cycle of lack of access to educational opportunities, we need to begin to think more creatively. Our current educational system is not only overloaded, but financially strapped and neither are sustainable to support the growing number of college bound students.

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“Listen Up Adults” (said the students)

As parents and adults, we can talk and talk about what’s right and wrong with our schools, propose solutions and take action, but often, I think it’s the voice of students, that is most poignant. Certainly they are influenced by our involvement and advocacy, but it’s their perception of their own experience that may influence them the most.

Take a group of students in Monrovia, CA who have initiated a campaign dubbed Hernandez 2012 that seeks to save the job of their high school (career and college) counselor who may be laid off due to budget cuts. According to the students, Ms. Hernandez’s impact has been invaluable and they are advocating in huge part, it seems, to ensure younger students in their community can benefit from the expertise and care of this exemplary educator.

What a message it sends when young people take a risk and use their voices especially around a sensitive issue like public school layoffs. It further highlights the importance of parents and mentors and our duty to empower students to embrace their voices and opinions and do something with them. After all, this is what makes students stand out in college admissions because they demonstrate something extremely important – they care about something. It’s actually amazing talking to college bound students and though there are obviously things they care about, it’s often hard for them to articulate exactly what it is. So, creating opportunities for students to identify causes they connect with and then do something, is a great exercise in college preparation and an even better way to prepare them to be successful in the jungle that is college.

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Do College Students Need To Understand Poverty Before Earning Their Degrees?

Check out this piece by Donna Beegle, president and founder of Communication Across Barriers.

Opinion: All students should take ‘Poverty 101’

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