Thursday, April 28, 2011

When Good Majors Turn Bad

Remember the days when we thought we could follow our dreams, choose a major that gave us pleasure, stretched our minds. We knew we could figure out something to do with it -- or else were certain that some employer would perceive our brilliance and hire us. We might not get rich, but we'd be doing something we liked.


Those days are gone. And it pains me that kids need to start thinking about their majors in high school. But in order to identify prospective colleges, it sure helps to know which would have strong departments in the likely major. Now, more and more, high school kids are already thinking about finding majors that will pay the bills.

Here's a list of what the Daily Beast calls the 20 Most Useless Degrees. It looks at how many jobs will be available to majors in English, theater, music, and so on, and what mid-level pay might be. It's not pretty. These are useless majors because the recipient of a degree in them may have few employment options.

But as we turn pragmatic (a justified decision, of course), just think about what we will lose. Schools will suffer even more -- not enough English teachers. Opportunities to hear music will shrink -- no musicians. Fewer horticulturists might mean fewer public gardens. And with fewer psychology majors, we may have fewer therapists. Just when we really need them.

Friday, April 15, 2011


It's time for spring break, one of the last non-college related trips we'll be taking for a while. I'll be back the week of April 24. But here's one more take on the year's admissions news.

OK. Now it's time for the post-mortem on the 2011 admissions process.

Yes, the news seemed dismal and all over the place. As guidance counselor Sue Boer at Columbia High School in Maplewood, NJ, said, "We are having trouble making heads or tails of admissions. It is hard to see any rationale."

But she balanced the insanity with an admissions tidbit that was fascinating. She added, "What we have discovered, however, is that schools are noting interest on the part of students. They keep a log of when the students call with questions or information and those that show the most interest are more likely to be accepted. Please note that it is the student’s calls that are logged. They really do not want to hear from the parents."

This intrigues me because it is something in the process that is within the student's control. Now, of course, this doesn't mean that emailing, calling and touring can make up for mediocre grades. What this demonstrated interest, as it is called in the college trade, does show is that the student is going beyond the usual required communications, that the student really does care about getting in.

And it's a reminder that we -- the parents -- need to stay out of the process, other than completing the FAFSA forms.

Here's another take on the top trends this year. Please enjoy.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Can a Book Change Lives?

For several years I've heard about Loren Pope's Colleges that Change Lives, especially around this time of year when kids have found out they didn't get into the prestigious/well known college they'd hoped for. It's cold comfort for kids who sought the bright lights of the Ivies and got a cold shoulder.

But it's a good time for us as parents to remember why we want our kids to go to college -- and what we really hope they get out of it. Okay. To me that means that college should be a time of learning, discussing, challenging – all in pursuit of finding something that really matters to them and that also allows them to earn a living doing it.

Yesterday I read the used copy I'd ordered from Amazon -- complete with notes and underlines from, I'd guess, a high school student. Then I looked at the Colleges that Change Lives (CTCL) site. It's an up-to-date look at the 40 colleges that comprise the CTCL list. The mission of this non-profit organization? It's "dedicated to the advancement and support of a student-centered college search process. We support the goal of each student finding a college that develops a lifelong love of learning and provides the foundation for a successful and fulfilling life beyond college."

No one can argue with that premise. I confess, though, that as I read about the colleges, they seemed to blur. They are, for the most part, somewhat obscure, small colleges that seem to exist in their own universe. But they share admirable attributes: small classes taught by professors, not TAs; a strong and committed academic community; students who come in as average on paper and then are nurtured, worked hard and are transformed.

The innate goodness of these colleges sounds almost too good to be true. That said, I wouldn't mind if our teen wanted to visit some of them. Still,
In a way, the CTCL perspective is almost radical. Putting the student first! Gosh, I'd bet a lot of colleges might be forced to shut their doors if "students first" became a mandate.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Yet Another Path to Admission -- the Long Way

"We like you, don't have room for you now, but could sure use your help when our sophomore class shrinks due to drop outs, transfers, study abroad or internships."

How's that for a quasi-acceptance letter from the college of your choice?

That's not the actual wording, of course, but it captures the meaning. Some schools are offering guaranteed admission if the student attends another college for a year or so and earns at least a pre-set grade point average.

The advantages to the schools are clear. By not accepting (immediately) students with lower grades and scores, they keep their precious high rankings intact. Then they can fill empty slots -- and keep the cash flow strong -- after freshman year when there is always a loss of students.

I didn't know such an admittance category existed. Our source at a highly selective school said the deferred admission wasn't done there, except in rare cases. But she has seen firsthand that a world of options exists. Her teen was deferred early action by one school, then offered January admission and fall waitlist. Another deferred her early action, then offered her January admission with the chance to study abroad in the fall as part of a special program.

The schools who are getting the benefit of a student for just a year or so are crying foul, suggesting students should be committed to four years -- not two semesters as a holding pattern before moving on to greener campuses. One admissions officer said it was unethical of students to do this.

Oh please. When we see the acceptance rates, hear the tales of kids who did so much right and still didn't get into schools, why is it unethical if they try to make the most of a compromise situation?

Here's what I think. If a student believes admittance at a particular school is a long shot, even with a solid record embroidered with requisite extra-curricular/community activities, but really wants to attend, it would be nice if the application had a spot to declare interest in an unorthodox admittance option.

Who knows? It could happen yet. And maybe that's a path to giving students just a little more say in the process.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sleuth Before the Big Decision

Not to be annoying, but I have one more consideration to add as students and their families think through college options.

Are you absolutely sure of the health of the program or major you are pointing toward? Take the time for a little detective work before making your final decision.

Why? Some colleges may not be as committed to a program as you are. Penn State just announced cutbacks in its English department,home of a literature doctoral program ranked in the top 15 in the country by the National Research Council; the department is not taking any more students into its MFA in creative writing program. A subset is a nonfiction masters program ranked among the top five in the world.

You'd think Penn State would build on this strength, which, I am sure, attracts prospective English majors because of its stellar reputation. But no, that's not the case in this crazy, economics-driven world. According to a dean, the reason the cuts have been made is because the English department has a smaller enrollment of undergraduate students than other departments.

I get it, on the filthy lucre level. But for an institution to have worked so hard to build a significant, well thought of department, only to tear it down so quickly seems shortsighted, frightening and sudden.

So, before you sign, do a little digging. Make sure you check chat rooms, contact any majors in your chosen field that you may have met, and do a general search to see if the intended college has a history of cut backs in departments important to your teen.

Maybe there won't be any danger signs. Maybe the Penn State situation is an anomaly. But no harm in doing a little more homework before making this big decision.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Parents: We're to Blame in the Arms Race that Is Admissions

Every April, due to news coverage and real-life examples (your teens, their friends), you can't help but feel that the college admissions process has become an anxiety-inducing major industry, not a thoughtful matching of student and college.

But it's our own darn fault.

We can all list the parties responsible for the mess: US News & World Report for its acceptance-rate centric approach to rankings; colleges, for hyping everything from the Nobel laureates they've produced to fantastic food; prep providers; consultants; even the College Board which has never seen an expensive test it doesn't like to administer.

But, guess what? As parents we are aiding and abetting this craziness. We, the parents, who want only the best for our kids. We who say apply to as many schools as you like, who pay for endless tutoring and go on many, many campus visits.

I'm guilty as charged. I don't want to limit the number of schools applied to, and we'll provide whatever preparation seems worthwhile. Here's what is even more insidious. We may be unconsciously encouraging the wrong approach to choosing a college. Who hasn't thought that attending a so-called "good" school may make it easier to navigate career and life? And maybe some of us have even had the fleeting thought that if we're paying so much for the education, it ought to be at a school people have heard of.

Here are some short, to-the-point essays on why the process has gotten out of hand.

The essays' authors don't all blame the parents. Still, we all need to do a lttle self-evaluation. How can we lessen the pressure on our teens? How can we help them look beyond that sacred handful of colleges? How can we encourage them to think carefully about what they want out of college, and then help them work back from that point?

We need to be honest. I will start.

Hi, my name is Karen and I am a college addict.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Commencement Speeches: the Big Send Off or a Rip Off

Walter Cronkite spoke at my graduation. I don't remember a word. But that's okay because each graduation season the top speeches get circulated on the internet, so I can get my fill of clever lines that way -- without having to pay over $200,000 in tuition for the privilege.

I've always thought a high-profile commencement speaker is seen as a little gift to the parents who've footed the big bills. You know, they have bragging rights when they go home after graduation and can quote Bill Clinton or Malcolm Gladwell or even Toni Morrison.

There's an uproar in New Jersey because Rutgers is paying Ms. Morrison $30,000, the first time Rutgers has paid anyone to speak to graduates. The largest paper in New Jersey, the Star-Ledger, is appalled at Rutgers' choice, according to this editorial.

Why not have a student speak, or an impressive graduate who's willing to speak for free. Or somebody famous who so believes in the importance of education that the money isn't kept but is given to a scholarship fund.

But get this. Rutgers paid Snooki $32,000 to appear at a Q&A session about her reality show experience. At least Toni Morrison has won a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize.