Does the College Student Vote Make a Difference?

Today I am remembering the launch of my political consciousness as a second-year college student who for the first time was voting in a presidential election. It was a different era back then without today’s sophisticated and multiple layers of media: just television, newspapers, and magazines.

That year, 1976, the winner was an outlier who would only serve one term in office: Jimmy Carter. His election no doubt represented a repudiation of the excesses of a very intelligent but tragically flawed president, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, his VP who finished out Nixon’s second term following his resignation in disgrace. The Watergate scandal and its daily revelations of governmental abuse formed the backdrop of my political awakening starting in high school and on into college.

Students today have multiple ways to stay informed of political events and the college student vote is actively courted by candidates. Not all immerse themselves in politics although many register and vote. The last presidential election in 2008 was a watershed year in that the 62.5% of Americans who voted represented the largest voter turnout in 40 years, a number that is shockingly low in my book. 2008 also saw more young adults (18-29) voting than ever before in history: about 51% of this cohort voted, another number that we can applaud while still feeling embarrassed at the degree of political apathy in our nation. I haven’t seen statistics that separate out the impact of college students in recent elections, but it will be interesting to see this year’s voting trends and speculate about any shifts.

I was delighted in this campaign year that college campuses were the setting for the three presidential debates.  Colleges should definitely do all they can to embrace elections as a means of promoting citizenship and critical thinking about public issues.

University of Denver Volunteers for President Obama


The Worst College Majors?

Here We Go Again: The Worst College Majors

Kiplinger’s Financial Magazine has once again trotted out their list of the “worst” college majors, based (they say) on reports of median incomes and employment opportunities. Since they feature such a list periodically I’m not sure if they recycle the same list over and over or if they tweak it occasionally by adding breaking factoids. Either way, the info is fundamentally flawed in my opinion:

Worst college majors list from Kiplinger’s

Anthropology                                         Graphic Design

Drama & Theatre arts                           Liberal Arts

English                                                     Philosophy and Religion

Film & Photography                              Sociology

Fine Arts                                                  Studio Art

What majors such as these share in common is that 1) they are among typical liberal arts-type majors, and, 2) unlike other more applied programs of study such as nursing, engineering, or accounting, they are not directly linked to clearly identifiable occupational outcomes. We can reliably assume that nursing grads will likely work as nurses, that engineering majors will probably be employed as engineers, and that accountants will manage accounts somewhere. There are very few job ads where a sociologist is specifically sought, unless it is for a teaching sociology position, where the baseline credential is a Ph.D. However, this emphatically does not mean that these majors are a waste of time, for several reasons:

First, I personally believe that students should study and pursue what they are passionate about and good at rather than trying to squeeze into a box thought to lead to secure employment later. Not everyone would make a good engineer, nurse, or accountant.

Second, I know too many graduates in precisely these majors who are doing just fine–in fact, often more than fine. Here is just one example:

My friend B graduated two years behind me from Ohio State with a BFA in Photography.  While B is widely recognized for the excellence of her photographic work, she hasn’t made her living primarily in her field. For a time she was the director of a photographic gallery in California; for a number of years she was the co-owner of a historic inn on Cape Cod; and more recently, she has been a dynamic events promoter on the east coast.

In my opinion, what has enabled my friend to be so successful with one of the “worst” degrees is her ability to marry her artistic sensibilities with a flair for entrepreneurship. These are things she cultivated in the course of her studies at OSU and after. B is doing quite well, drives a BMW and owns a home in one of the priciest resort towns in America. She did NOT grow up with privilege, and has made her own way on her own terms. Her story is typical of liberal arts grads that strive and are willing to identify and utilize all of their talents.

Third, there is definitely a way to get these degrees to pay off, through careful planning and enhancement. By doing things like carefully choosing a complementary minor, taking courses that add marketable skills to a degree program, and seeking internships that provide real world experience, students can produce powerful outcomes for themselves with liberal arts-bachelors’ degrees. Here are some examples of what I mean:

Graphic design major/business minor/internship with an online-based company that utilizes creative advertising and visual effects;

Sociology major/health & wellness minor/internship with a health oriented non-profit organization or state agency;

Drama major/teaching certificate/volunteer work with an organization that boosts the self-esteem of troubled young people through theatrical productions;

English major/Environmental studies minor/internship with a green company looking for help with the generation of compelling prose that clearly states their objectives to the public.

Some of the kinds of courses that can add valuable skills to a degree program, whether in the form of a minor or not include things like foreign language proficiency, computer technology, research skills, etc. By uniting your liberal arts major with a secondary specialization in something that is clearly and obviously marketable, you have increased the value of your degree. Another avenue of course is to head for graduate or professional school, where liberal arts degrees have a very good reputation.



LD Friendly Colleges

Best U.S. Colleges For Students With Learning Disabilities

By law, every college in the U.S. must make suitable accommodations for students with diagnosed and documented learning disabilities. However, some address this requirement minimally, while others address it magnificently. I’ve been doing some research for clients lately on how schools serve those with learning disabilities, and there is much to be encouraged about for families who want to ensure solid support for their student; however, to rate schools on their degree of support you must do your homework!
Some of the kinds of accomodations that are potentially available include group or individual tutorial support, especially for writing and math; extended time on tests; note-takers; permission for the taping of lectures; oral testing options; coverage of time management, organizational skills and/or study skills; and also, psychological support (for example, support for students who experience test anxiety).

Beyond the bare minimum schools are colleges with sufficient staffing, a welcoming orientation, and the most recent technology to support the enrollment of students with learning disabilities. For families who are looking for a higher level of support and assistance are colleges with add-on programs (usually fee-based) that support students in all of their classes with extensive, individualized tutoring as well as appropriate accommodations. Finally, there are some U.S. colleges that outright specialize in educating students with learning disabilities. Here is a list of some of the institutions that are recognized as among the most LD friendly colleges in the U.S. in these three ways:

Colleges specializing in the education of students with learning disabilities:

Beacon College, FL

Landmark College, VT

Lynn University, FL (site of the final Presidential debate)

Colleges With Well-Developed Supplemental Programs:

Arizona U (SALT program)

Curry College, MA (PAL program)

Denver U, CO

Muskingum U, OH (Plus Program)

Northeastern U, MA

Other Colleges With Strong Programs:

American U, Washington D.C.

Augsberg College, MN (CLASS program)

Barry U, FL

U Colorado, Colorado Springs

Connecticut U (BOLD program)

Hofstra U, NY

So. Illinois U, Carbondale

Iowa U (REACH program)

Marist  NY

Marshall U

Nevada U

Syracuse U

Vermont U

I am not suggesting that these are the only excellent programs that are out there, and may well have missed some. So if you know of others please report back so my list can continue to grow!

The Student Loan Crisis

Today’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (October 8, 2012, The Parent Loan Trap) features an important article that sheds light on one of the reasons for the current crisis with student loan debt in the U.S. – a crisis that to me increasingly resembles the backdrop of the mortgage meltdown that launched the nation into the major recession that we still haven’t emerged from.

The piece begins by describing one family’s dilemma: a female student and her single Mom, who wanted to help her daughter pay for what is described as her dream college, in this case, NYU. As soon as I read that phrase, “dream college,” I got half of the picture. By not placing limits on what is affordable and reasonable, and by doing whatever it takes to satisfy the whims of a child who can’t possibly understand the implications of or perhaps even the reasons for the choices she is making, disasters can be made. With my clients, and in my blogs, and in the college-planning book that I am writing, my mantra has been for some time: first, determine what is affordable, and then set limits. Unfortunately, few families approach college planning this way.

Why is it that today’s parents are so inclined to shoulder any burden, make any unwise choice in order to finance the costly dreams of their offspring? I am reminded that this generation (my generation), ironically the offspring of the ultra frugal “greatest” generation are many of the same folks who pursued real estate beyond their means and loan terms and credit card offers that defied reason. You would think we might have learned a lesson….

A dangerous type of student loan for some….

The other half of the picture portrayed in the article are loans, especially Parent PLUS loans, often the last resort of families who want to please a child in love with a college, especially when said college has offered little aid. Here is how the authors describe the process of the awarding of PLUS Loans:

“When a parent applies for a PLUS loan, the government checks credit history, but it doesn’t assess whether the borrower has the ability to repay the loan. It doesn’t check income. It doesn’t check employment status. It doesn’t check how much other debt—like a mortgage or other student loans—the borrower is already on the hook for.”

Sound familiar?  Many of us are aware that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings, but many students, parents and even some grandparents are surprised when it proves to be difficult to keep up with loan payments during a recession, and there is little relief for them. I have even heard terrible stories about grandparent co-signers’ social security checks being garnished to keep the repayment stream flowing when the graduate and his or her family can’t keep current on monthly installments. So who is to blame for this mess? As with the mortgage crisis, plenty of people and institutions carry some of the burden.

Among them are colleges for their refusal to contain costs, banks and government agencies for their greed, and families, for their naiveté. Right now one of my biggest (and most unexpected) dilemmas is getting families to listen to my advice about not paying more than is necessary for higher education, and not getting trapped by loan offers that are bad choices. I am amused that one criticism of independent educational consultants is that we are expensive and not worth what we charge. Ironically, it may be the case that those of us who include an emphasis on fiscal soundness in our practices may be one of the few bargains to be had in the realm of college planning!

HBCUs and Hispanic Serving Institutions

Some colleges are either restricted to or predominantly serve students of a particular sex or racial/ethnic group. The majority of these schools are holdovers from the days when gender and racial segregation was the norm at U.S. colleges, when women and minority students were barred from attending most schools. In modern times colleges for women and for African Americans (the most historic types) have an honored and positive purpose that is highlighted in higher education research. Many studies affirm that members of subordinate groups (groups with less social power) tend to do better in an environment where only their group is represented, or where they are present beyond a certain threshold, or are in the majority. For racial and ethnic minority groups this can diminish racist comments and incidents, improve retention and graduation rates, and result in the cultivation of strong self-esteem and leadership qualities.

There are now 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the U.S. (some have closed), and 241 examples of a newer designation: Hispanic Serving Institutions. Hispanic Serving schools strive to boost the graduation rate of Latinos, one of the two racial or ethnic groups with the lowest percentage of college graduates (Native Americans are the other). A school with this designation must demonstrate that at least 25% of the student body is Hispanic, and meet additional requirements as well.

Examples of HBCUs and Hispanic Serving Institutions

Locally, Metropolitan State University of Denver is close to being designated a Hispanic Serving Institution, and this is a great development, since it also means that more federal funds will soon enrich the institution for the benefit of all students. Some noteworthy present-day examples of HBCUs are Howard University in Washington D.C.; Morehouse College and Spelman College in Atlanta, GA (a men’s college and a women’s college, respectively); Wilberforce University in OH; and Lincoln University, in PA.  As an Ohio native I take particular pride that two early Ohio liberal arts colleges were among the first in the U.S. to go coed and also to admit blacks: Oberlin University and Antioch College. All of the above institutions are still doing great things! Note: I received a reply from a reader that the 1st graduating class from Howard was actually in 1872, so the caption that came with the photo below is very possibly incorrect – make a note!

1st graduating class @ Howard University, 1900

Colleges Versus Universities: What is the Difference?

Some assume that a university is more prestigious and therefore better than a college, although this isn’t necessarily so. There are many individuals like myself with a lot of familiarity with higher education who prefer colleges, especially private liberal arts colleges, as the teaching there is frequently better than at a university, where classes (especially freshman level introductory classes) can be quite large, and depersonalized. It is also the case that many university classes are taught by graduate student teaching assistants, rather than professors. Finally, the quality of instruction is generally higher at small private colleges in particular because faculty members at these institutions are rewarded and valued more for their teaching, rather than their research. At many of the top universities undergraduates seldom encounter the most highly regarded faculty members, as they have course releases to be able to attend to their research, and focus more on graduate level instruction.

To confuse things, some schools use these labels pretty loosely. Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school, is actually a university as it offers multiple graduate programs. Presumably they retain the college label for reasons of tradition and name recognition. Denison University in Ohio is a private liberal arts college with no graduate programs at present, but they can legitimately use the university title as at one point in the past they did offer graduate degrees. Apart from a few outliers like these, for the most part the names indicate the presence or absence of graduate degree programs.

Institutional Selectivity

Both colleges and universities manifest varying degrees of selectivity: some are extremely choosy and only consider applicants with the highest grade point averages, highest test scores, most rigorous academic histories, and extensive extracurricular activities and accomplishments. Others are more on the open-admissions end of the spectrum. Metropolitan State University of Denver, where I teach, is now a university; however, it is not highly selective.

So, when considering colleges versus universities look more deeply at the statistical outcomes, cost, and character of a school to determine if it might be right for you — not so much at what it is called!

My client Emma R on the lower campus at Denison U last year

How to Build a Great College List

This blog is especially for seniors, and eager-beaver juniors: my simple three-step process for building a great college list that is tailored to you, your strengths, and your interests:

1First write down any and all schools that you are already interested in, with some notes about why each is of interest. Your initial list might look like this:

  • University of Colorado, Boulder: it isn’t far from home, many of my friends are applying; it has a good reputation.
  • Northwestern University: My Dad graduated from there. I visited the campus with him once and thought it seemed cool. Dad thinks they might give me special consideration as the daughter of an alumnus.
  • Mills College: My friend’s sister goes there and talks all the time about how great it is. I never thought I would be interested in a women’s college, but I would consider Mills.

2Second, identify as many of the features of schools that attract you as you can think of, like size, location, etc. The following are some of the institutional traits that I ask my clients to consider:


  • States (in/out of state; particular states of interest)
  • Regions (west coast, northeast, etc.)
  • Urban, suburban, rural


  • Small: <2000 students
  • Medium: 2000-15,000 students
  • Large: >15,000

I suggest to my clients that they visit schools of a variety of sizes before making a hard and fast decision about this factor, as misconceptions abound. My general observation is that large schools are overrated. Many wonderful educational opportunities are available at smaller colleges, along with smaller class sizes, more attention from faculty members, and long-lasting friends and institutional connections.

COST FACTORS: I strongly recommend that students and families identify a comfortable range for yearly college costs up front before applications go out, and stick with it. This prevents a student from falling in love with an expensive institution that is unlikely to offer much aid with the ensuing angst and conflict that will predictably follow. Estimated cost is a searchable variable, and thanks to increasing candor on college websites and the appearance of Net Price Calculators on the sites of most schools, it is information that is available, along with the bases for some merit scholarships.

AVAILABLE MAJORS/STRENGTH IN MAJORS: I do not feel that it is necessary that high school seniors or even college freshmen know their majors, and have long made the case that you may be better off enrolling as undeclared and initially focusing on general requirements and electives until you make a choice that feels right. However, if you DO know your major, this knowledge can help with listing building, as you can search for schools with a strength in your intended program of study. The following great sources can be very helpful with this:

  • The College Finder, by Steven R. Antonoff
  • Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges, by Frederick E. Rugg

AVAILABLE PROGRAMS AND SERVICES: One final means of shaping a list of colleges of interest is to identify your must-have programs and services that you expect to utilize on your future campus. These can vary widely and might include things like:

  • Study abroad opportunities
  • Internship opportunities
  • Division I (II or III) athletics (this may even be relevant to students who expect to be spectators at athletic events)
  • Greek system (fraternities and sororities present on campus)
  • GLBTQ organizations and activities
  • Religious services and organizations

3Third, make use of an interactive database that allows you to triangulate all of the above by inputting your data (high school GPA and test scores), and your preferences for location, size, majors, services, etc. The database should collapse all of your factors and produce a list of schools where you appear to be generally admissible and where your “must have” factors are available. The following are two excellent online sources you can use for this purpose:

  • Naviance, a program and database available through many school websites (your school or district must subscribe) that has many useful features. On the Naviance site, select Supermatch College Search and follow the prompts.
  • The College Board website (the site of the SAT folks) contains a nice search feature, and it is free and available for anyone to use. To utilize its college matching feature go on the site ( and select Students, then select Find Colleges and follow the directions.

If your list comes out seeming too short you may have been too restrictive in your wants; if it is ridiculously long you were likely too expansive. Adjust accordingly, and begin examining some of the schools. You can make multiple adjustments to the length of your list by running different requests with different variables.

You can check out your schools by visiting their websites, visiting their campus, and/or attending a college fair and chatting with their admissions representative. Then you can cull your list until you have your final set of schools to which you will actually apply.  Happy list building!

The photo at the top was taken on move-in day for first-year students at the University of Denver, Sept. 2, 2012. 

A Strong Foundation For College Success

There are two knowledge and skill areas that in my view are absolutely essential for both college admission and college success: reading comprehension (and its close partner writing) and mathematics, also called literacy and numeracy. One reason why I highlight these particular subject areas is that they hold the keys to success in getting accepted by a college and doing well once you’re there. Students who are behind in their grade level in one or both of these subjects are in a hole that may become deeper over time if not addressed. Persisting deficits in these areas translate into lower grades, lower test scores on the ACT and SAT, and they often predict academic struggle in college.

Of the two subjects, reading comprehension is the most critical in my view. An art major might be able to limit the emphasis on math in his curriculum, but he won’t be able to avoid reading and retaining information from his required textbooks for other classes. Similarly, a bright female student might gain acceptance to a college that doesn’t have set distribution requirements (a range of general education requirements including math, science, humanities, social studies, etc.), but she also will need to be able to process and think critically about what she is reading. Finally, given the technological focus of our society, math is becoming ever more important.

Whatever it takes, students should be encouraged and rewarded for increasing their reading and math skills, and the learning should be made fun, so as to inculcate a positive attitude. Tutoring, summer school, and summer academic camps are all ways in which parents can promote and encourage learning. Some board and card games can also help (I’m a huge fan of family game nights), as well as certain online games. I myself subscribe to a gaming website pitched at adults called Lumosity that helps me boost my memory, mental flexibility, and problem solving capabilities. An online search of “learning games” and “games to help students learn” reveals that there are multiple similar options for students of all ages.

So get ready for college, learn, and have fun at the same time — it’s a pretty good deal!

Consumerism and High College Costs

Last week media sources reported on the most recent internal research outcomes from student loan titan Sallie Mae. In this fifth year of findings on the habits of college students and their families, there are continuing signs that exorbitant costs are influencing behavior (finally!).

Among the shifts in response to high college costs:

  • Families are more likely to eliminate high-cost colleges that don’t offer much aid from consideration earlier in the college search process;
  • Half of all students now live at home for part of their college years as a way of cutting costs, including students from affluent families;
  • The average amount spent by families on college costs declined for a second year by five percent, to an average of $20,902;
  • Parent contributions to overall costs are diminishing slightly, with students themselves covering the shortfall

On the downside, it is still that case that fewer than half of families had a plan for paying for college before their student enrolled. Undoubtedly it will take a more pronounced and persistent consumerist trend to effect change on the part of colleges, and continued pressure to encourage the government to do its part. However, things are trending in the right direction on both fronts! 

Summer Vacation and College Readiness

It’s late May, and most students are looking forward with pleasant anticipation to summer vacation. Summertime is a point when high school students traditionally recharge and regroup; however, it is definitely possible to recharge and also engage in activities that will help with boosting college readiness.

The following are my top eight suggestions for the most productive ways to spend summer vacation with an eye to enhancing your college profile:

1 – Seek out a summer job. Work experience counts as something that demonstrates commitment and maturity to college admissions officials, and it is increasingly rare.

2 – Engage in some volunteer work, especially something that you might maintain beyond the summer months. As with work, this also demonstrates commitment, maturity, and also discipline.

3 – Seek out interesting, growth-enhancing experiences that will expand your perspective on life. This may involve travel, a service learning project, or a challenge that you set for yourself and meet (for example, hiking all the Colorado 14ers).

4 – Continue to stimulate your mind by engaging in intellectually engaging activities. If you have a weak academic area, this is the perfect time to review or work with a tutor, and a chance to start the school year ahead of the game in the fall.

5 – Related to the previous suggestion, if you struggled in a high school course and didn’t perform as well as you would like, and there is an opportunity to repeat the class in summer school, consider doing so. This demonstrates your seriousness as a student and may well improve your GPA.

6 – Launch or continue activities that are involved with applying to college. Tour schools of interest, contact colleges and request informational materials, review sample ACT and SAT tests to assess which is your better exam and so forth.

7 – Set out to learn a life skill that you haven’t yet mastered, whether it’s cooking, basic car maintenance, home repairs, etc. This will stand you in good stead later in life, and you never know when it might come in handy, even in your freshman dorm!

8 – Read, read, read, read. Read anything that’s interesting to you, and push yourself to expand your horizons here as well by delving into topics you know little about and genres that are less familiar to you. A key college success skill is reading comprehension. Readers have an edge on developing into good writers as well.