Case Western Reserve University

I was impressed on a recent visit to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. In fact, my first sense was that the school has a decided Ivy League feel to it with its size, architecture, and urban location. Case is a private university with 4016 undergraduates and 5620 graduates. It is ranked as more selective by U.S. News, and attracts students with SATs averaging 1336 and an ACT cumulative average of 30. One of the few universities in the U.S. with more males enrolled (56%) than females (44%), this is no doubt due to the popularity of its engineering programs – although biology, nursing and psychology are also found on the list of top majors.

Case has some impressive institutional stats, including a 92% freshman retention rate. The school meets 91% of undergraduate student financial need, although I was less impressed by the average debt of recent graduates: $39,886. In athletics the school plays at the Division III level.

I loved the campus and its mix of traditional and modern buildings. A standout is definitely the Peter B. Lewis building, which houses the internal School of Management. Architect Frank Gehry may be known for the undulating forms and curves of his major buildings, but to my untrained eye it also looked as if a very unfortunate explosion may have occurred inside. My photo of the building is at the top of the blog. I am very sorry that our tour didn’t include a peek inside. I also popped in a picture from the lovely main library at the bottom, which was featuring therapy dogs as a relaxation antidote to final exams during my visit—which I loved.

Finally, an observation or two about Case’s location in Cleveland: the city is far from the joke it once was, shades of urban blight and the Cuyahoga River in flames. Cleveland is now known as a hip metropolitan center with much happening in the arts and sports, and I am aware that it is also a major foodie destination. Any student looking for a standout education in an interesting urban setting should consider Case Western. 

Santa Fe University of Art and Design

Until recently I have been snootily dismissive of for-profit colleges, but I must eat my words, for now I know Santa Fe University of Art and Design. I spent two amazing days on campus in late April and was beyond impressed. For the right student—likely one who is passionate about creativity, and ready for an intense hands-on learning experience—this could well be nirvana.

I was fortunate to be one of forty-some educational consultants, high school guidance counselors, and art teachers invited for an in-depth introduction to the college, and I dare say that every person in the group was quite amazed at all that we saw and experienced. SFUAD is the former College of Santa Fe, reborn from the ashes of the former school, which fell on hard times and closed for a while. Following a commitment from state and local stakeholders, a new partnership with the Laureate International University system, and a rebirth in its new university guise, this is now a thriving and truly exciting school.

Programs at SFUAD include art, contemporary music, creative writing and literature, dance, graphic design, moving image arts (film/video), performing arts, and photography.  We got up close and personal with the students and their work and were treated to musical performances, a dance number, a theatre piece (from The Book of Mormon), and toured every building, where we saw students at work on all manner of interesting projects. The final evening of our time there included a chance to attend a theatrical production (Once On This Island), a student BFA show, and an exciting tradition in its third year, called Outdoor Vision Fest, where student multimedia work is projected at night on the walls of the Visual Arts Center, an architecturally intriguing campus building. All of Santa Fe is invited to this increasingly popular event, which this year featured live music and food trucks as well as the visual extravaganza.

SFUAD is a happening place, and fits well into the arts milieu of Santa Fe. The film school is the jewel in the crown of campus as it also hosts major professional productions, including acclaimed films like True Grit and No Country For Old Men, as well as the A&E TV series Longmire (we were allowed on the Longmire set during our visit). What this means is that film students have a chance to intern and be exposed to fully professional industry connections and experiences, even as beginning undergraduates.  Amazingly, film students are given a Canon T4i DSLR camera with a zoom lens at the start of their enrollment, free of charge!

Three things in particular stand out to me about this school. One is that faculty members are working creative professionals who are well known and respected in their fields. I noted from the school website that Creative Writing and Literature Department Chair Dana Levin was a member of the jury pool for the National Book Awards in Poetry last year. Vice President for Academic Affairs Gerry Snyder is a painter who has exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC, the Museum Gallery of Modern Art in Sophia, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. This sort of distinction seems to be true of all the faculty chairs.

Another standout feature stems from the school’s connection with Laureate, which provides for study abroad opportunities at other Laureate institutions worldwide, including Domas Academy in Milan, Italy, where Santa Fe students can get a taste of fashion design, interior design, car design (!), and urban architectural design. Media Design School in Auckland, New Zealand, which specializes in digital design and 3D animation, is yet another option.

A final standout feature is the remarkably collaborative and interactive way in which the whole place works, involving both students and faculty members. We repeatedly heard from students and our tour guides that the average student makes connections across campus with fellow students in other disciplines and majors, and they develop working relationships, contributing to one another’s projects just as professionals do in real life. What a novel concept!

To see images of last year’s OVF, click or copy here:


Recently Visited: The University of Wyoming

Last Thursday I drove one of my clients up to Laramie for a tour of the University of Wyoming, and we were both impressed. The campus is lovely in the late spring with its historic red sandstone buildings and attractive grounds. Rated as the fifth best college buy in the U.S., U-WY is an incredible deal for Wyoming residents, who pay a $4125 tuition bill, and also a deal for out-of-state students, whose tab is $12,855. Room and board is $8732.  This brings the total cost of attendance for an out-of-state student into a range comparable to Colorado public institutions on an in-state basis – pretty remarkable.

The university is rated by U.S. News as selective, and admission statistics are as follows: 95% of applicants are admitted; the average high school gpa is 3.4; the average SAT-critical reading score is 538 and math 541; the average ACT cumulative score is 24. Freshman retention is 73%, and the 6-year graduation rate is 53%; both of these numbers are regarded as average.

With 12,911 students the college is a nice size for a public university: large enough to avoid seeming claustrophobic and in-bred, but small enough to feel like a true academic community. Particular strengths include highly regarded education and engineering programs, a wide range of outdoor activities, amazing local scenery, and multiple building renovations that are either in-progress or planned for the near future.

Both Alex and I thought this would be a pleasant place to spend four years, and the kind of institution that students would be proud to identify with after graduating. Laramie is 2.5-hours from Denver, so a good distance for Colorado students who want to be away from home but still within reasonable driving distance.  Check it out!

Choosing A College: Some Suggestions

If you applied to more than one school, and if you did your homework and chose places that fit you and where you have a reasonable chance of being admitted, you may soon be in a position to select from multiple offers of admission. Should you be this lucky, how do you go about choosing a college, a momentous decision? Here are some variables that I recommend students consider in order to make a sound choice.

Academic Fit

First, which of the schools that accepted you comes closest to offering the academic experience you hope to have?  Consider which schools offer majors that interest you, or THE major that interests you if you’ve made a choice. Consider also the strength of those programs, something you can root out by consulting databases, or doing simple online searches (e.g. top U.S. college business programs). What is the average class size at the school, do faculty invite students to participate in research efforts, and what is the predominant teaching style of the faculty? Does the school conduct research on student experiences (for example do they participate in the National Survey on Student Engagement), and if so, do they publish outcomes for prospective students to read?

Know that you don’t necessarily need to attend the most prestigious, selective or expensive college in order to have a great experience and a great future. Ask about what recent graduates are doing, including their employment and acceptance rates in graduate and professional programs. See if there are local alums of the college near where you live that you might get in touch with to hear about their experience.

Social Fit

Second, did the cultural and social atmosphere of the school fit you?  Do you feel you could be happy on the campus given its location, its range of activities, and the sort of students who attend there? What about the size of the school, and its distance from where you live?  All of this and more can be weighed as an additional aspect of fit.

Monetary Fit

Third, which of the schools offers the best monetary value in terms of the balance between total cost of attendance and offers of aid? In an era when college costs have spiraled beyond any other significant life investment, this is likely to loom large unless your family is quite wealthy. Remember that the cost of college may well haunt you long after graduation in the form of loan payments.  Who is giving you the best deal? Inquire also about the status of financial aid over time. Does the college consistently support continuing students?

One Last Visit

Finally, if you haven’t visited, or if your earlier visit was somewhat brief, make another if possible. This time spend a full day or more and schedule appointments with a professor or two, sit in on a class, hang out in the campus center, and see if it is possible to spend the night with a current student. Plan as broad an experience as possible to help you make your decision.

Weigh the Pros and Cons

Finally, consider making a pro and con list about each school in consideration, featuring the above variables as well as others that are important to you.  Talk with your parents, teachers and counselors. Then go with your best judgment. You are less likely to make a bad decision with this degree of consideration, but if you do, you can recover and move on after a semester or a year as a transfer student.

Idyllic Mirror Lake at Ohio State U

Comparing Colleges: Asking The Hard Questions

There is plenty of information out there about comparing colleges based on data points, much of it useful. Obvious factoids include total cost of attendance, average amount of student need covered, retention and graduation rates, and so on. Colleges and universities prospecting for good students are masters at showcasing themselves in the best light possible, and families are at times overly impressed at what they hear during admissions visits.

As a former higher education administrator who both conducted studies and utilized data to build and enhance student support programs, I appreciate ways in which statistics can both illuminate and obscure reality. A recent case in point is the ongoing scandal implicating Claremont McKenna College of CA in the falsification of SAT scores of newly admitted students.

More so than misrepresentation by colleges, my bigger concern as an independent educational consultant is that families don’t always know what to ask of an institution, and secondarily, how to interpret the answers. For example, I suggest to my clients that they ask not just about the employment rate of recent graduates, but the percentage of recent graduates who are employed in their field of study.

I recommend especially that the parents of girls ask about the number of reported sexual assaults on campus over time, and suggest that they not be mollified by the number of blue-light emergency phones located near dorms and on the quad, but by prevention programs targeting student attitudes and risk factors – since the majority of sexual assaults on college campuses involve acquaintances and alcohol consumption, and don’t occur out of doors.

Similarly, while schools are delighted to report on their most popular majors and award-winning faculty members, few parents have heard of NSSE, the National Survey on Student Engagement, a research project that digs deeply into the quality and type of learning that occurs at many schools.  In their latest report on 2.1 million students at 750 U.S. institutions, NSSE reports on wide-ranging practices and experiences associated with high levels of learning and development, from the number of hours spent studying each week, classes requiring research papers, conversations with faculty members outside of class, and percent of first-year students doing service learning in conjunction with freshman classes. Not every school participates in NSSE, and among those that do, outcomes may not be fully reported unless they are positive. (See

Educational consultants and college planners are among those in the know about some of the nuances of comparing colleges, and this likely accounts for the increase in the utilization of such professionals. Whether you work with a seasoned professional or not, do your homework and ask some hard questions when considering college choices!

Undergraduate Research Opportunities at The College of Wooster

The College of Wooster is one of many first-rate private liberal arts colleges in the Midwestern U.S.  Located in Wooster, Ohio, about an hour south of Cleveland, it boasts an attractive campus, and solid educational outcomes for students. On average two thousand students attend Wooster, and they get a lot of close faculty attention with the 11 to 1 student-faculty ratio.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of academics at the school is the Independent Study Program that requires each student to submit a major research paper or project during senior year. The program, which is in its sixth decade, is widely known and esteemed. U.S. News and World Report has cited the school’s outstanding undergraduate research opportunities and stellar senior capstone projects each year for 10 years (along with Princeton, the only other school named in both categories all ten years). Fiske commends Wooster’s focus on teaching students how, rather than what to think, and Wooster was prominently featured in Lauren Pope’s book Colleges That Change Lives.

The total cost of attendance for 2011-12 is $45,668, but 95% of students receive some form of financial aid, with an average award of $24,820. My client Emma and I toured the campus one day in early October, and we both thought it would be a great place to attend: small enough to have a tight community and large enough to have many academic options and opportunities. See my photo above of Emma and our tour guide Brenna in the library.

Is College Tuition Overpriced?

Two days ago I returned to Denver from having toured several selective midwestern private liberal arts colleges with one of my student clients. Each school is on the small side (averaging 2000 students or less), each has a reputation as a fine institution, with multiple factoids of distinction, such as freshman retention rates, graduation rates, percent employed after graduation, etc., and three were even profiled in that overly-touted 2006 tome Colleges That Change Lives.

Two of the four institutions charged students in the current (2010-11) first-year class just under $50,000 for tuition, room, board and fees, and two charged about $52,000. Are these charges worth it in terms of quality of experience and value of degree? Are they worth generating debt that will trail behind graduates and their families for years, perhaps decades to come? I think not, and I’m far from being the only college commentator who thinks so.

Many higher education journalists and bloggers observe that college costs have exceeded the inflationary spiral of health care costs in the U.S., and some forecast a course reversal that will rival what followed after the recent mortgage-bank crisis and consequent recession. So what will stop the craziness? Families that refuse the hype and demand accountability for fees, and students who agree to attend the best college that their parents (and they themselves) can reasonably afford.

I wholeheartedly agree with the advice given by one financial aid expert whom I recently heard at a public forum. He suggested that parents and students have an open talk about what is affordable well before a college list is assembled. Students can apply wherever they wish, within reason, but attendance is predicated on the total cost of attendance quoted by colleges after all discounting from grants, awards, and scholarships is reviewed.

The smart and talented student-client (a junior) who accompanied me on the trip hales from a regular middleclass Colorado family, and she has a sibling who will likely begin college during her third year of attendance. If costs continue to increase I am certain that she will be facing $60,000 in fees at the kind of college she hopes at attend, and her parents will have a dual burden for at least two years. I plan to advise her to apply widely, both in-state and out, and to seriously consider her best offers only. If this posture becomes the norm, colleges will need to take note, and adjust their pricing accordingly.

Recently Visited: Swarthmore College

There are so many great colleges in the eastern U.S. A beautiful, highly respected and historic one is Swarthmore, near Philadelphia. Swat, as insiders affectionately know it (students are “Swatties”), dates from 1864, and was founded by the Society of Friends.

These days Swarthmore is a highly selective liberal arts college of just over 1500 students known for challenging academics, activism, and civic engagement. Beyond the usual liberal arts disciplines, Swat also offers Peace and Conflict Studies, Education Studies, Film and Media Studies, and Engineering.

Remarkably, Swarthmore boasts an 8-1 faculty-student ratio, and fully meets the financial need of accepted students, thanks to its vast endowment.

Swarthmore has a strong sense of tradition, and symbolic rituals for entering and exiting students underscore this. The ceremony for entering students is called First Collection, and involves a candlelit gathering of new students, faculty and staff at the outdoor amphitheater on campus.

Finally, Swat has a stunningly beautiful 425-acre campus that is also an arboretum. On the day of my visit there were groups of nature lovers also touring the campus, savoring the magnificent towering trees and other vegetation. Studying in such an atmosphere would definitely be inspirational, in more ways than one.


Recently Visited: Dartmouth College

In early June I spent a very enjoyable day at Dartmouth, smallest of the Ivies with an undergraduate enrollment of 4196. Hanover, NH, where Dartmouth is located is green, leafy, small and seemingly quiet (at least when I was there, which was during summer term, and possibly uncharacteristic).

Besides the power and cachet of its Ivy League membership, Dartmouth has many progressive and attractive features.  Foremost among academic innovations is the D-Plan, which gives students incredible latitude to plan the sequencing of much of their enrollment. Built around Dartmouth’s four ten-week terms, the plan requires students to be present on campus for 12 of 16 terms, including during fall, winter, and spring terms of freshman year; summer term of sophomore year; and fall, winter, and spring terms of senior year. Apart from this, provided that requirements have been met, students are free to participate extensively in study abroad, pursue internships, and engage in other pursuits that enhance their educational experience. The Dartmouth website showcases multiple ways that students have taken advantage of the D-Plan: I also really appreciated learning about the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric (so cool to address writing AND speaking in an academic enhancement center), and the Big Green (vegetable oil-powered) Bus, a student-run sustainability initiative. According to the website, the BGB is currently spreading the word in Las Vegas, of all places.

Campus buildings are lovely and impressive, especially the libraries. In the main library I sneaked away from the tour group in order to see the “Hogwarts Room” on an upper floor once I learned that it wasn’t a part of the tour. It would make an inspiring study site. I also slipped into the Rauner Special Collections Library, also not on the tour, and was impressed by its precious holdings, including the papers of Daniel Webster, an 1801 grad, and oversized first edition of Audubon’s Birds of America.

Dartmouth isn’t cheap, with a tuition charge for the class of ’14 of $40, 437, and is ultra selective as are all Ivies. Just 11.7% of applicants were accepted in the last season. In addition to its undergraduate programs in the arts & sciences and engineering, Dartmouth has noteworthy graduate programs: the Thayer School of Engineering, the Dartmouth Medical School, and the Tuck School of Business. The photo is of my Denison friend Seth, then just a week away from graduating with his MBA from Tuck, and his dog Harry.


Early Fall College Planning

What should high school students and their families be doing in the late summer/early fall to be ahead of the college planning game? Here is what I would suggest:

Seniors: Do as much as you can before senior year starts. You will be distracted, you will be busy, and besides applying to colleges your main job will be keeping your grades up. Start your college essays; you can have them well underway if not finished before your classmates — one less stress during crunch time come November-December, which is prime application-time. Check the essay prompts for the Common Application, which are pretty typical.  Even if you are asked to write a different kind of essay by a particular school, cutting and pasting sections is often possible.

Also, do some initial scholarship research to see what you might qualify for (also a time-saver later), and visit any schools you have a clear interest in that you haven’t visited. Many colleges regard an official visit as an indication of sincere interest, so don’t miss out on communicating this.

Juniors: Do some serious prep for the ACT/SAT (see my blog of Feb 21, ‘11) and take each exam.  If your results aren’t stellar determine which was your strongest test, do more prep and re-take it.  Schools will only consider your highest scores, so there is no downside to repeating these tests.

Make this a standout academic year, as junior year grades are what you will be showcasing in the majority of your applications come fall of senior year. Maintain one or two of your past extracurriculars, as these will be scrutinized as well.

Begin building a college list and touring colleges in earnest to identify what kinds of schools match you, and to establish your interest.  Participate in some of the college fairs that happen locally in the fall. This is a great chance to learn more about all kinds of colleges, collect information, and meet admissions reps.

By all means, consider working with an independent educational consultant!:)

I made additional recommendations for high school sophomores and freshmen in my past blog of Sept 28, ‘09; check it out!