Crazy U

In my work as an independent educational consultant I frequently make use of multiple resource guides, databases, education blogs and publications. This past weekend I added an entry to my list of favorite non-traditional books about college planning: Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, by Andrew Ferguson.

Ferguson applies humor and plenty of ironic commentary to his tale of helping his son with the college planning process. One of my favorite chapters recounts the author’s attendance at a presentation led by the most expensive east coast college consultant, whose fees are in the neighborhood of $40K for comprehensive services, typically targeting the Ivy League and other elite east coast colleges.  Ferguson skewers her readily, along with the parents who are gullible enough to fork over the funds for her tactics of intimidation and snobbery.

Ferguson also takes colleges to task for their arcane and obscure norms in vetting applications, as well as the obscene extent of inflation in costs of attendance.

His points are well taken; in fact, I am considering emailing him to share something I’m sure he already knows: that there are highly qualified, ethical college consultants who work hard (at reasonable rates) on behalf of students and families to demystify the process and expand options.

This is a fun and illuminating read, and will be savored by professionals and digested by parents.  I recommend it highly.

Lisa Ransdell is an independent educational consultant in Denver, Colorado with an extensive background in college teaching and administration. She helps students and families nationwide with all aspects of college planning.


Worthwhile Models: 3+2 Programs

I’ve been excited to see that quite a number of colleges have made special arrangements with other institutions that permit flexibility and cost savings for students.

One great model is the 3+2. This type of set-up can permit a student to attend, for example, a favored liberal arts college for completion of prescribed general education requirements (for a period of three years), and then transfer to another institution for a final two years of intensive, specialized study in the major.  Many liberal arts colleges have established a relationship with larger schools with engineering programs.

Some examples include Beloit College in Wisconsin, which has arrangements with Columbia University and Washington University, St Louis, as well as Kalamazoo College in Michigan, which features arrangements with the University of Michigan and Wash U. There are many more of these to explore and consider. At the end of the prescribed program the student has two degrees: one from the liberal arts college, and one from the engineering program school.

My favorite 3+2 is offered by Stephens College, in Columbia, MO, a historic women’s college. They now offer a partnership with Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA leading to completion of the MPA (physician’s assistant) graduate degree. This program affords a quality experience at two fine institutions in interesting areas of the country as well as two valuable degrees, with the graduate ready to begin working in her field at the end of five years. What a super concept!


Some Nuances of Comparing Colleges

Last spring I was hired by a family with a singular purpose in mind: comparing the relative merits of the four colleges where their son had been accepted and offered varying amounts of scholarship money.  I was delighted with the assignment, for my specialization as a university administrator was student retention/success; hence the only thing I love more than working closely with students and families on the college planning process is digging deeply for institutional information and parsing the meaning of all manner of numbers and rankings – including some that aren’t widely known or reported. College-bound students and their parents are smart to examine and ask questions about standard institutional “outcome” statistics, such as retention and graduation rates. However, it is important to know that the numbers don’t always tell a simple and straightforward story.

As an exemplar of the most that possibly could be hoped for in this realm, Harvard University boasts a 97% retention rate for freshmen students, and a 98% six-year graduation rate. (When did reporting norms shift from four to six year grad rates, anyway?) The Ivy League and other colleges in the highly selective tier are SO selective in the admissions process that they can be ultra-choosy among the strong pool of students who apply, guaranteeing not just across-the-board academic strengths, but additional personal characteristics that bode well for success in their particular environment.

The only college in the state of Colorado that is regarded as most selective (although not exactly comparable to the NE Ivys) is Colorado College.  CC features a 94% freshman retention rate and an 85% six-year grad rate, and doesn’t cost all that much less than Harvard with a total estimated COA of about $46K.  Two of Colorado’s more selective institutions are the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Denver, once again mixing apples and oranges in terms of institutional types and sizes.  CU claims 84% freshman retention and 67% six-year graduation rates, while at DU the numbers are 87% and 74% respectively, just a shade better.  However, the comparative total costs of these two institutions are radically different: nearly $47K for DU and around $19K for CU Boulder at the in-state rate.  For those for whom cost is an issue, this is serious food for thought.

Now at Metropolitan State College of Denver  (soon to be renamed Denver State University, btw) the numbers look pretty darn miserable: 66% freshman retention and 21% six-year graduation. With numbers like these, college shoppers can’t be blamed for “dissing” the extreme bargain to be found in the yearly COA of just over $4000 at the still predominantly commuter school (most students arrange for and pay their own housing costs, so this is not included in the quoted amount).  To be sure, MSCD is ranked as a less selective college, and yet the numbers can be explained in part by the school’s special mission, which is as a college of opportunity serving large numbers of adults, low income students, and students of color.  The fact that 70% of Metro students have a job, and 30% of these a full-time job, explains more about both statistics, as does that fact that many students treat the college as a stepping stone en route to another college down the road. There is a lot of excellent instruction that goes on at Metro State (I know, as I’ve taught there since 1998), and if the school could eliminate those who don’t intend to stick around from the analysis, both retention and grad rates would look a whole lot better.

There is more to be shared about the college comparison game, but I’ve written the War and Peace of college planning blogs already, sorry! BTW, the student for whom I did the analysis ended up picking a fine school, but the least of the bargains in his mix of four schools (for reasons that I completely understood), and is now a proud University of Oregon Duck: quack!

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is a comprehensive educational consultant and college planning professional with 27 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration forming the foundation of her practice:

RECENTLY VISITED: Introducing a Blog “Column,” If You Will

Something I particularly love about my profession of independent educational consulting is the chance to tour many schools over the course of the year in order to be able to give my clients first-hand reports and up-to-date info.  The expectation and necessity of touring and attending campus information sessions is no burden for me; it has long been true in my case, even before I became an IEC, that one of my favorite settings/places to hang in the world is a college campus.

I believe it is very important, although not absolutely essential, for students to conceptually and experientially connect with a college. To my mind, a felt connection with an institution isn’t unlike the “chemistry” of a one-on-one love match.  Social science data show that arranged marriages appear to work, and have statistically better success rates than the passionate “love matches” favored in western nations. Being a social scientist myself, but also being a somewhat typical westerner, I will advocate for both: a college that fits on paper, but also in the heart.

How many students have I known who said something like, “From the moment I set foot on campus, I knew this was the place for me”? And yet I’ve known some, like my friend Seth, who applied as a resident of northern California to Denison University, in rural Ohio (where I then worked), site unseen. Seth’s interest was based solely on the avid recommendation of a fellow employee at the video shop where he worked as a high school student. It proved to be a beautiful match-up, and by the time he graduated with his degree in philosophy, Seth was distinguished as a Denison Presidential Scholar. He followed his success at Denison by becoming a personal assistant to the playwright Tony Kushner in New York City, and eventually became an employee of the New York Times. At present he is completing his MBA at Tuck, the Dartmouth College School of Business.

I digress. Competitive colleges fall all over themselves to make an impression on prospective students. Some even suck up to folks like me, with some degree of IEC “bling” – like the lovely bag of stuff I received from Washington University-St. Louis last November. It even included an oversized pennant … how did they know I collect pennants from the colleges I visit??

Most all colleges offer regular tours and information sessions that profile key institutional factoids. Really enterprising and/or classy colleges offer additional opportunities, like the chance to sit in on a class, stay overnight in a dorm, or meet with a professor or admission staff member one-on-one.

Whatever route you choose, tour as much as possible, and make sure your visits are “official” (noted by the Admissions Office): many colleges view a campus visit as a sign of sincere interest on the part of applicants, and count a visit as a positive element of an application package.

Next Recently Visited: University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS

Lisa Ransdell, Ph.D., is an independent educational consultant in Denver, CO, a 27-year higher education professional, and head of Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC:

Stalking the Admission Essay

What’s the best way to approach the admission essay required by most selective colleges? First, directly address the prompt, whatever it may be; second, be yourself.

If you’re a wit, be witty; if you’re artistic, be creative; if you’re a deep thinker, go deep. If you’re serious about environmentalism and the prompt permits such a discussion, by all means share your passion for the subject. Also visualize in your mind’s eye the poor admissions’ counselor sitting at her or his desk with a stack of perhaps 60 applications to read, and imagine yours in the number 57 position.  Will your essay capture the attention of this beleaguered soul, or will it lead to a deeper glazing of the eyes?

What you should NOT do is compose an essay in which you tell the college why they would be lucky to have you, or submit an essay that reads like an application for employment, where you reel off accomplishment after accomplishment.

Here is an excerpt from a funny one-time college essay that has acquired iconic status over the years. Enough folks have read it that you shouldn’t remotely consider using it as a model, but it’s good for a chuckle. I found it again recently in the Answer Sheet Blog in the Washington Post. Apparently the author was a fellow named Hugh Gallagher, now a professional writer (naturally!).


“I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

“I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

“Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

“I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.

“I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.

“I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

“But I have not yet gone to college.”

Sequencing College Planning Part I

In order to be optimally prepared when it’s time to begin applying to prospective colleges (fall-winter of your senior year), it helps to know that you’ve been thorough in your planning. The following is a list of things to be stressed in each year of high school in order to have that assurance:

Summer before freshman year: If there are any deficiency areas – for example struggles with math, fears of foreign language study or lagging some in reading level – this is the perfect time to address such issues. Enrollment in summer school or in a tutoring program for weak subjects is a great idea for a strong start in high school. Costs can be controlled if you have a neighbor or friend who is a strong upper level high school student who might welcome work as a tutor.

Freshman Year:

  • Enroll in core classes that meet the Colorado HEAR requirements for graduation and college eligibility (;
  • Explore several extracurricular activities for fun and to develop and expand yourself;
  • Visit a college campus with your family or through a program at your school – begin thinking about college as an aspect of your future, and the type of school you might wish to attend.
  • Again, hit any deficiency areas during summer months before 10th grade when you have the time to really dig deep and improve academic skills.

Sophomore Year:

  • Continue core classes following HEAR guidelines;
  • Identify one or two extracurriculars (clubs, sports, volunteer programs) that you will maintain throughout your remaining high school enrollment. Colleges are more impressed by depth of involvement over a wide breadth of dabbling in random activities;
  • Prepare for and take the PSAT as a trial run for future testing, and to qualify for National Merit scholarships.