Recently Visited: The College of Idaho

Who knew that there is a fine, historic liberal arts college in the state of Idaho? I didn’t until a few years back when my research into affordable private colleges kept turning up the College of Idaho as a strong example of this elusive beast. Recently I had a chance to visit in person courtesy of the school along with some 30 fellow independent and high school counselors.

C of I is located in the town of Caldwell in southeastern Idaho, 25 miles west of Boise. It proved to be a lovely campus in a breathtaking region with 1100 students attending. As one would expect, the college features the curricular breadth seen at most liberal arts schools: numerous majors in the arts, sciences, humanities and social sciences, but with the addition of applied programs in business, education, environmental studies, and kinesiology. Additionally, C of I offers three post-graduate programs: two masters level degrees in education plus a brand new physician assistant program.

A recent innovation that intrigued me and that the college is obviously proud of is its PEAK curriculum, a new take on the general studies-academic major nexus that requires C of I students to complete one major and no fewer than three minors. The rationale is that with just 28% of college grads nationwide actually doing work that directly relates to their degree program, why not give students multiple credentials and skill sets with which to confront the work world – not a bad thought!

The following are a few of the interesting factoids that were shared with us along with some of my favorite experiences and observations:

A large proportion of students combine athletics with their studies, and the school fields some strong teams with winning records under the NAIA umbrella. Among the teams with scholarship money for both female and male participants is skiing, perhaps no surprise given that some nice slopes are in close proximity to the campus. The nearness of the slopes and the fact that they are lighted at night means that skiing is something that numerous students can take advantage of for recreation, whether teams members or not.

Our one meal in the dining commons, lunch, was some of the best cafeteria food that I’ve sampled anywhere in quality, variety, and flavor. I would definitely experience the “Freshman Fifteen” if I were attending this school.

We were invited to sit in on a class and we were dispersed across a wide range of courses on a Friday afternoon following lunch. The bioethics class that I visited was excellent. They were discussing an excerpt from the recently published Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, a great book that I happen to have read. I must add how pleased I was that so many classes were actually meeting on a Friday, given the seeming capitulation of so many institutions to student expectations of long weekends.

We were also treated to a play, a series of improvised vignettes from a student comedy troupe, and a truly exquisite choral performance, which convinced me that students who enjoy the arts would be happy here, and not just the athletes.

Laundry facilities in the residence halls were free!! I saw the machines without the slots for quarters with my own eyes; how many schools can boast that?

Parents and alums especially might appreciate the proximity of Caldwell to Idaho wine country, which yields some respectable vintages and charming vistas. The first night of our visit involved stops at two wineries and a gourmet meal at the second.

Finally, and perhaps best of all is that this nice school with so much going for it is imminently affordable compared with many of the same type. The total cost of attendance for 2014-15 was $37,906, and nearly 18% of students received merit aid averaging $13,304. Also the school meets 94% of the need of students qualifying for need-based aid.


Upcoming Changes to the ACT and SAT Tests

While not every college requires the submission of entrance exam outcomes from the ACT or SAT these days (see for a list of test optional colleges), at many schools it is still the case that test scores are a highly scrutinized component of a student’s application. Significantly, testing outcomes also serve as a leading factor in the awarding of non-need based aid at many institutions.

Last year the ACT outpaced the SAT and became the more frequently taken test for the first time in the history of the competition between the two. Predictably, the SAT folks responded by announcing sweeping changes to their exam that will take effect in 2016. Guess what? The new test will look a whole lot like the ACT. Here is a summary of what this year’s sophomores have in store when they take the test in 2016 as juniors:

  • A return to the old 1600 scoring system
  • The essay will become optional
  • There will be less emphasis on higher-level vocabulary
  • The one-quarter penalty for each wrong answer will be gone, so as with the ACT students can possibly gain some points from guessing

The ACT will be making more minor changes to their test at some point in 2015. One is that in some locations it will be possible to take the test on a computer. The other is that section outcomes will be presented in new ways. A STEM score will combine the science and math scores, and a language arts score will present combined English, reading, and essay scores.

Pinnacle helps students prepare for both the ACT and SAT tests, as well as assess which is their stronger test. Two eight-week ACT classes start in February 2015 for Colorado students testing in April. Click the test prep tab at the top for more detailed information. One-on-one tutoring is also available. No SAT classes are being offered at present, but individual tutoring can be scheduled for this test as well.

The Impact of 529 Accounts on Financial Aid

I’m in the midst of a wonderful online course on Cutting the Cost of College, created and led by college financial aid expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy and her associate Michelle Kretzschmar. The majority of independent college counselors constantly tour and complete continuing education credits in order to better help their families, and I take this responsibility very seriously. Today I learned more about something I’ve wondered about, and that I know families fret about: the impact of 529 college savings accounts on qualifying for need-based financial aid.

The answer is that 529 accounts exert minimal impact on dampening aid as they are classified as a parental asset (not a student asset, interestingly enough), AND because the Parents’ Education Savings and Asset Protection Allowance shields a fair portion of parental assets. The way this works is the higher the age of the older parent, the higher the amount that is shielded. Unfairly and unsportingly, single parents can shelter quite a bit less. A married couple with an older parent aged 50 can shelter $34,600 under current rules; a single parent at this age can shelter just $8000.

Beyond this, the degree to which assets above these amounts are assessed isn’t exactly punitive under the present rules: FAFSA assesses these amounts at $5.64 and PROFILE at $5 per $100 in savings. Therefore, as Lynn shows, a couple with $50,000 in assets would experience a drop of only $2820 in financial aid eligibility. That is far below what many folks fear, so that is truly good news. The bad news is that the government continues to reduce the size of the asset protection allowance, so the current allowance isn’t as generous as before. The figures above reflect the current allowance, so for now it’s still a good deal and therefore a good reason to keep socking away funds in a 529 plan!

A Learning Effectiveness Program for Everyone

I have had the pleasure of hearing about the Learning Effectiveness Program at the University of Denver twice in three months time: in August while checking things out for a client of my education consulting practice, and two weeks ago with fellow members of the College Consultants of CO group. Both times the source of information was Jimmie Smith, the quietly competent director of the program.

The LEP is located in impressive Ruffato Hall, also the home of the DU College of Education and the Office of Disability Services. Seated with all of us CCCers in a fourth floor conference room that featured breathtaking views of the mountains, Ms. Smith did a great job describing this well-conceived program that supports students who need help learning how to navigate the rigors of college.

While initially created for students with learning differences, the LEP isn’t strictly limited to students with a specific diagnosis. The program is fee-based, costing $1100 per quarter, or $3300 for a full year. For their fees, participating students receive in-depth, personalized academic counseling on a weekly basis from staff members who are student success specialists. Among the services provided by counselors are study strategies linked with the student’s identified learning style, time and organizational management assistance, referrals to the program’s stable of subject tutors as needed, and help managing academic crises (should they occur). At the start of a quarter one of the first things counselors do is to guide students in plotting out all the key dates from course syllabi into their calendars.

The LEP works closely with the Office of Disability Services, which handles the formal arrangement of accommodations for those with diagnosed learning disabilities. One of my favorite things about the program as described by Ms. Smith is its focus on student accountability and self-advocacy. Many students in the present generation would profit from this sort of coaching.

As a student success specialist during my days as a college administrator, my regret is that every school doesn’t have a LEP-type program that is free of charge to all students. While the cost of creating and sustaining such programs would undoubtedly be prohibitive, institutions might recoup some of the expense in a reduction of the average 30% freshmen attrition that plagues U.S. colleges. While the DU-LEP certainly isn’t cheap at $3300 per year, Smith did share that some scholarships are available to those in the program to help with fees.

The University of Denver isn’t the college or university in the U.S. with this type of program. Others that are well known include the University of Arizona SALT program, the Curry College PAL program, and the Muskingum University PLUS program. Additionally, there are numerous institutions that are known to offer more robust support for students than is typical through their disability services programs and learning centers. Depending on a particular student’s needs and strengths, reviewing the extent of learning support provided by a school makes sense in many cases.

Final notes: At DU seeking to affiliate with the LEP does not alter admission standards; all applicants compete on the same basis to get in. This is something that should be queried at each school with such a program. Enrollment in the LEP is at an all-time high this fall with some 250 participating students. My memory is that the caseload of counselors averages around 26.

Apologies to my CCC colleagues for the backlighting. When I adjusted for it we lost the mountains, and, well, the mountains won! The 2nd pic is of several of us (with our amiable guide John) on a campus tour of the remodeled DU library with the floating classroom in the background.

David and Goliath: Why Elite Isn’t Always Best

I preach this line to my clients all the time, usually without much success. The other variation in my practice is “Why Big Isn’t Always Best.” The following is a review by Alison Griswold from Business Insider of a college-related segment from Malcolm Gladwell’s latest tome David and Goliath, which I just purchased yesterday:

Malcolm Gladwell seems to think attending an elite college or working for a famous company could kill your dreams.

The popular author lays out his argument for being a big fish in a little pond in his latest book, “David and Goliath,” a work that aims to overturn conventional notions about what makes for a disadvantage and who should be considered an underdog.

Gladwell’s basically against anyone attending a famous university just for the name, or really doing anything for the sake of prestige. To choose something elite is, more often than not, to choose being a little fish in a big pond, he says, since only a select few will shine among the best. He believes people are generally better off choosing to be part of a lesser known organization where they have a greater chance of standing out.

The concept Gladwell draws on is called “relative deprivation.” It was coined by Samuel Stouffer, a sociologist, during World War II to describe how we measure ourselves against the people immediately around us. Our successes are always compared to their successes, as are our failures.

Relative deprivation is why Gladwell takes issue with the belief that elite schools are automatically better. He cites the example of one student, under the pseudonym “Caroline Sacks,” who was determined to go into science until attending Brown University. There, she earned mediocre grades and felt generally stupid compared to her straight-A classmates, though according to Gladwell she was likely still in the 99th percentile worldwide. She eventually quit science.

Gladwell chalks this up to relative deprivation. The worst STEM students at Harvard, he claims, may be as smart as the top third at a lower ranked college. But Harvard students compare themselves to their Harvard peers, and that’s bound to make those in the bottom third feel stupid and unsuccessful. Better to have gone to a non-elite institution, he says — to have been a big fish in a little pond — than have had your dreams and confidence crushed.

Gladwell focuses his analysis on higher education, but his claims have obvious implications for career as well. If you’re a programmer, for example, is it better to take a chance on a small startup or to take that job with Google? Should aspiring bankers aim for Goldman Sachs or start at a boutique municipal bond company?

Based on his logic in “David and Goliath,” Gladwell’s answer would almost definitely be to go small. “Rarely do we stop and consider,” he writes, “whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest.” In academia particularly, he says, “The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them.”

Gladwell’s claims are striking and, as he frames them, compelling. Yet they also radically oversimplify the issue. In the case of Caroline Sacks, for example, there’s no way to prove that she would still be in science had she attended a less prestigious university. She might have simply staked her future hopes on a subject she wasn’t cut out for, switched her field of study, and graduated without the benefit of an Ivy League reputation.

And in career terms, is fear of being mediocre at Google sufficient reason to turn down an offer from the Internet giant? Should getting lost in the scramble at Goldman Sachs push you toward a smaller firm? You might not shine at either, but you can use your solid experience to get a higher-level job at a smaller company later on.

Read more:

Financial Fit and the College Search

Smart students with smart parents don’t stop the search process once they’ve identified numerous schools of interest. Unless they are wealthy and the sky is the limit for college costs, they also examine institutions for their generosity and pattern of distributing financial aid. How is this examination of financial fit accomplished? Here is a simple 4-step process:

1 – Calculate whether you might qualify for need-based aid by using the College Board EFC (estimated family contribution) Calculator. The calculator requests information similar to what you report to the IRS, your income and deductions:

Your EFC is the amount of $$ colleges and the government believe your family should be able to pay for school.

2 – Now determine your “need” by subtracting your EFC from the total cost of attendance at the college. A quick way to see total cost is to use the College Data website. You can make this search super fast by typing in the name of the college in question in a search bar, followed by the words college data (e.g. University of Colorado college data). When I did this for CU I learned that for in-state students total cost is $29,429; for out of state students it is $51,197 (yikes!). Let’s say you are a Colorado resident, and your EFC was $23,095. Do the calculation, and you do have some degree of need:

$29,429 minus $23,095 = NEED of $6334

3 – The above step yielded need of over $6000, but lets say you had no need; then you might hope for a merit aid award if you have some credentials (like excellent grades and test scores) that the college wants to reward, as they would welcome an application from you. Once again, use college data to examine a college’s generosity with both distribution of need-based and/or merit aid. Click on the Money Matters tab within the College Data profile of the school in question and carefully examine the number of students who receive both kinds of aid — plus the average amounts awarded. These numbers can be used to compare one college to another in terms of generosity. You will quickly see that some schools are far more generous than others. Unless money is not an issue you will probably want to consider the generous colleges much more seriously. There is one final step that makes all of this more definite….

4 – Now go on the websites of a few of the schools and enter your IRS-type info on their Net Price Calculator. A fast way to locate a school’s calculator is to type the relevant info into a search bar (University of Colorado net price calculator). Schools have discretion as to how they address need and merit, so this will be your best estimate ahead of applying as to what you may be offered.

A final opinion: If more families engaged in this process and responded by applying only to the more generous schools, we might see some adjustments on the part of colleges in pricing and aid awards.  Happy hunting!!

Expanding Your College List

If you’re like many students that I know, your college list is populated with schools not far from home and others that you’ve heard about from someone who knows someone who attended there and loved it. If you’ve been a strong student and you’re feeling lucky, perhaps you’re focused on high prestige/high selectivity schools that include Ivy League colleges and others in this tier that reject 90 percent or so of their applicants. Maybe you’ve been influenced by one of the popular best college books, like Colleges That Change Lives, or the Best 377 Colleges.

Whatever your method, it’s very likely that you’ve only scratched the surface of the nearly 2300 bachelor’s degree granting institutions available for your consideration in the U.S. It’s also likely that you’ve missed some of the best bargains to be had, and many of the schools where you could get a great education and be sublimely happy. Such schools have been labeled by some college experts  as “the best schools you’ve never heard of.”

So how do you find these schools? A beginning step is to cull the playing field in a purely objective manner by using the search function available on a few websites like Naviance or the College Board. Since Naviance is only available through the high schools that subscribe, I will use the College Board in the following illustration. Use this URL to directly enter the CB matching feature:

Now proceed to make some choices, which will progressively reduce the number of schools you will be presented with at the end. Don’t be too limiting or too hasty in your choices or you may end up with fewer than you would like. You might also miss a hidden gem if you dismiss colleges that have fewer than 2000 students, or single sex colleges, for example. Experiment with ways of limiting your choices, and only make a clear choice if feel strongly and have good reason. By making certain choices I reduced the playing field from 3959 to 101 as follows:

  • Right up front I chose 4-year colleges; I would suggest that you make this choice unless you are considering attending a community college for the start of your college career. This selection gets us down to 2291 schools; let’s keep going….
  • For location I selected Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Southwest, and West–now we’re at 1532 schools.
  • For major, I imagined a student who is absolutely set on athletic training. Only pick majors if you feel 98% sure that this is what you wish to study; otherwise leave the item blank. This got us to 254 schools.
  • I’m also imagining a student who is male and wishes to continue his high school activity of men’s swimming. This leaves us with 153 schools.
  • Finally, I’ve made our student average to above average in his academics, so he checked somewhat selective and less selective to identify schools that accept from 50-75% of applicants. He also adds in his top ACT score of 25. Now we’re at 124 schools–we’re really getting somewhere.
  • As a last step let’s say that our student has a mild learning disability, but wants to make sure that his future college will support him in his learning needs, so under Services he checks the LD box. This brings us out to 101 colleges.

At this point I would print the list and start checking into some of the schools. The CB website makes it easy to click on the name of any of these colleges, at which point you are given a description of the school, a photo, some pertinent quick facts, and their website URL, which you may then click on if you are still interested.

You’ve just added 101 colleges to your prospective school list, but you’re not done yet. What about the cost of these colleges and the likelihood of you receiving financial aid or scholarships? That is the focus of next week’s blog: Financial Aid and Your College Choices. For now, Happy Hunting!


Recently Visited: Colorado Mesa University

Formerly Mesa State College, Colorado Mesa University seems to be on its way to greatness with newly added graduate programs, a new name, and an ever-increasing enrollment. I was in Grand Junction last weekend touring CMU with a client family, and we all came away with a positive impression.

The campus architecture has really ascended since the last time I was on campus more than ten years ago. From its modern buildings and smart classrooms to the new student center and the state of the art fitness center (with some equipment none of us had ever seen before – bowed treadmills that are higher on the ends than in the center), PLUS nice looking new dorms (which we didn’t actually tour), this campus creates a superb visual impression.

It also had an active and chummy feel to it: we saw multiple small groups of freshmen heading together in chatty clumps to the dining commons (I learned that these were students going through orientation together in their first year seminar groups, an excellent programmatic feature associated with student success and sound transitions from high school), and some great performers were doing a sound check for an open air concert scheduled that evening.

At present CMU has some 9000 undergraduates, and the most popular majors include business, nursing, kinesiology/exercise science, psychology, and biology. It is ranked in the U.S. News system as “less selective,” with entering students averaging between 2.6 and 3.5 in high school GPAs, and with averages of 20 on the ACT and 969 on the SAT combined critical reading and math sections. I fervently hope that the school doesn’t jump into the selectivity madness competition, and that it maintains its commitment to the average student, since good 4-year colleges for average students are desperately needed. Schools like this can inspire and sustain students who will be among the leaders of our society in the near future.

A final huge plus for this institution is its very reasonable cost. In 2012-13 the total cost of attendance for residents of Colorado was $15,973, and for out of state students $26,152.

It was a pleasure to meet up with a past client of mine who is now a sophomore at Mesa, and we narrowly missed seeing another past client who is a brand new freshman, busy completing her orientation program. B, the sophomore, was one of our (unofficial) tour guides, with the other being Dr. Robin Calland, a delightful professor in the English department and my friend and former neighbor. I particularly liked what B had to say about Mesa after a highly successful and enjoyable first year: “I underestimated this place until I got here, mostly thinking of it as a four-year college where I could get in. But I love it here, and everything about it: the kids, the professors, and the things there are to do on campus and in Grand Junction…. I especially appreciate that classes are on the small side and faculty really seem to care; they won’t let you fail and will push you until you succeed.” There is no stronger endorsement than that!

I left Denver in a rush and forgot my camera, so am borrowing an image from the school website for a visual – thanks CMU!

Extracurricular Activities and College Admission

Admission decisions are typically based on your academic record (GPA, rigor of courses taken, etc.), your test scores on the ACT/SAT (with the exception of test optional schools), an essay (typically required by more selective schools), recommendations from teachers, in some cases an interview, and your record of extracurricular activities.

While not the weightiest component of your application, extracurricular involvement is used to help determine your fit at a school, and the sort of community member you might be expected to become. It isn’t the first thing that an admissions committee looks at, but it helps to seal the deal if they have decided you are admissible and of interest. So what are colleges looking for in the non-academic aspects of a student’s high school career? Several things, including the following:

  • A history of involvement beyond the classroom, which can show that you are a multidimensional person engaged in the world around you;
  • Evidence of commitment to one or more activities – showing that you can balance multiple interests and involvements and go the distance with follow-through;
  • Evidence of leadership potential, which demonstrates that you take responsibility and handle it well;
  • Involvement in worthwhile pursuits for the betterment of your school or community, speaking to your sense of responsibility and citizenship.

It isn’t necessary to have a list of activities as long as your arm, and depth counts for more than breadth — so avoid appearing to be a dabbler by making sure that you have one or more activities that you’ve pursued for two or more years. It isn’t necessary to appear to be the most well rounded person at your school, but some diversity in activities looks good. Therefore if you have mainly been involved in one arena, like athletics, add something in a clearly different realm to show the scope of your interests. The following shows how some of my current clients are demonstrating breadth:

Soccer team captain/DECA member/volunteer at an animal shelter

Marching Band (section leader)/paid employment/Boy Scouts

Track team/student government position

Theatre (acting, writing, directing)/community volunteer through a local religious youth group

Some final thoughts: paid employment is less commonly seen these days, but is definitely valued by admissions staff members as evidence of discipline and responsibility. Also, aim to show evidence of assuming increased responsibility over time in at least one of your activities and you can demonstrate leadership that way. If you’ve been on the school paper or yearbook staff for a while, emerging as editor by senior year will say a lot about you.  You might also take charge of an event on behalf of one of your clubs, such as a fundraiser. Finally, compose your extracurricular resume during the summer before senior year and you will have one component of college applications done in advance – always a helpful thing!

Net Price Calculators – College Financial Aid Planning Bonus

One truly helpful newer federal regulation (effective 2011) requires that any institution participating in Title IV federal student aid programs (the majority of schools) must post a net price calculator on its website.  NPCs allow students and families to see what they would likely receive in financial assistance from the school and from the government, therefore yielding a pretty realistic net cost.

To navigate quickly to a NPC do an online search like “Boston University Net Price Calculator,” and you should quickly be connected to the correct part of the school website and not need to hunt for it. You input your personal data points, which will include some basic demographic questions, standard family tax filing information, family size/parental marital status, and student information, especially grade point average, and at the end you will be told what you would likely receive in gift aid and self-help aid. The calculator will warn you that information is an illustration and not a promise of a particular award, but I hear from families that college offers are usually close to the NPC estimate unless substantive family info changes during the application process.

Nearly 300 U.S. colleges use the College Board’s net price calculator, enabling students to easily compare outcomes among the participating colleges. To do this you should create a student account, which is free and private, and save your personal data in the system. The following is the link to this planning tool on the College Board site:

Whether you utilize a school’s own NPC or the College Board calculator or some other, this tool is a great bonus to college financial aid planning. It will also go a long way to counteracting the false assumptions that many make about the true cost of college and the availability of aid. Check them out!