College or Party Venue?

It worries me that our high school students feel as though they need to solve the mess that our U.S. college admissions process has gotten itself into, but it’s also remarkable. Recently, I read an interesting perspective on the problem in The Hechinger Report in an opinion piece written by Claire Schultz, a senior at Princeton High School in New Jersey. This fall, Claire will be off to University College London, a public research university in the U.K., founded in 1826 to serve students previously excluded from higher education and boasting alumni from Alexander Graham Bell to Francis Crick to all four members of Coldplay. In her piece, Claire talks about two issues: (1) the growing number of college applications being submitted by high school seniors and the consequent increased selectivity in admissions at many colleges; and (2) the perception of what colleges are looking for in applicants and, in turn, of what colleges are “selling” potential applicants.

College or Party Venue? on ParentChat with Regina | It worries me that our high school students feel as though they need to solve the mess that our U.S. college admissions process has gotten itself into, but it’s also remarkable. Recently, I read an interesting perspective on the problem in The Hechinger Report in an opinion piece written by Claire Schultz, a senior at Princeton High School in New Jersey.

To learn more about the first issue, listen to Episode 78 of USACollegeChat, the podcast that Marie Segares and I co-host (available free online at and on Google Play Music and iTunes). Find out why Claire said, “I took a step to remove myself from the system, and applied to schools in the U.K.” Her recommendation on how many college applications kids should be submitting these days turns out to be just about the same as Marie’s and mine. Great minds think alike. To learn more about the second issue, read on.

In our podcast episode, we quoted Claire, describing her applications to U.K. colleges:

As you apply to a specific subject, you write one single personal statement explaining why you are qualified for the course; you may have to complete a subsequent interview, again on academic merit. There is a set of grade-based entry requirements you will have to make at the end of your senior year, but that’s it.

There are no essays asking about ‘a journey’ or what celebrity you’d like to have to lunch, no extracurricular jumping through hoops. Plain and simple, are you good at what you do? . . . I’d want to see the focus of the college admissions process brought back to school, if only a little bit. (quoted from the article)

While some U.S. colleges also ask students to write an essay about what they plan to study in college and why they are well equipped to do that, the difference is that such an essay for U.S. colleges is typically one of the supplemental essays in an application. In the U.K., that is the essay. So, what about an admissions process that would be focused on academics—on “school,” as Claire says? That’s an interesting idea, parents.

Claire continues with these observations:

When I applied to U.S. schools, . . . I was sold student centers and dorm rooms and meal plans. Underneath all of the football games and paraphernalia, I was not being shown a school, I was being sold an experience. These colleges seemed to care less about me as a student than me as a well-rounded, ‘holistic’ individual. When I toured schools in England, I was shown classrooms and students studying in libraries rather than well-polished amenities (most students lived in private housing and cooked for themselves, anyway). (quoted from the article)

Or as my husband used to say when we were looking at colleges for our own kids, “Are we choosing a college or a country club?” He was reacting to the sales pitches that concentrated on what Claire calls “well-polished amenities.”

Of course, many of our U.S. colleges try to get prospective applicants into a classroom to observe a class firsthand as part of the grand tour—and they should, according to Claire. But that is the precise thing that makes visiting colleges in the summer not ideal, parents, though many of you are just about to set out to do that. Seeing colleges in the summer (when most campuses look great) is convenient for many families, but it doesn’t give prospective students much of a feel for the academic life of the college—for the lecture halls, for the labs, for the libraries, for the professors, and for the other full-time students.

Claire sums up her U.K. visits this way:

It was nice to see what I’d be paying huge amounts of money for—not a four-year party, but a school with actual classes and exams. (quoted from the article)

What a kid! Parents, I bet that you, too, would like to be paying for a school—for the professors, for the books, for the classrooms, for the computers, for the labs, for the guest speakers, for the art and music and dance and theater events, and even for the intellectual camaraderie of the students. While we all want our kids to be happy at college, we also hope that they discover some joy in their studies, some passion for an academic subject and/or a social cause, some desire to keep on learning for a long time.

As one parent, you can’t change the way that U.S. colleges recruit freshmen. But if lots of parents start asking the same questions, you all collectively might have an effect. Here are some questions you should ask your tour guide when you visit colleges, whether that’s this summer or next fall:

  • Would you show us some typical classrooms—maybe a few lecture halls and a few seminar rooms?
  • Might we see some of the science labs and computer labs?
  • How many different libraries are there on the campus? Would you take us to a couple of them? How do students usually use these libraries?
  • What about facilities for students in the arts? Where are the art and music and dance studios? Might we see the performance spaces for the theater and music and dance departments?
  • How many students does the college lose after their freshman year?
  • How many students graduate in four years?
  • How many students who graduate get a job in their field within six months or a year? How many students who graduate go directly to graduate school?
  • Which professors are the most popular or best known or most admired? What do they teach? What are they known for?
  • Which academic departments are the most popular or best known or most acclaimed? What majors do they offer? What are they known for?
  • What you are studying and how did you choose that? What your friends are studying?
  • How good were your freshman classes and what were they like? How good are your classes now that you are an upperclassman and what are they like?

College tour guides are carefully selected, highly trained students. They will certainly tell the admissions staff that parents are asking some new questions.

Surprises About College Remediation

Surprises About College Remediation on ParentChat with ReginaYou couldn’t know less about college remedial courses. That’s what I found out from a recent report just released by Education Reform Now. It was an eye-opening read for me and will be for you, too, parents. In case you think that remedial classes are where low-income kids from underfunded urban high schools hang out once they go to the local community college, you are wrong—at least about half the time anyway.

Here are just a few quotations that should make your head spin as you think both about your own children and about our nation’s children (see the excellent full report, co-authored by Mary Nguyen Barry and Michael Dannenberg, for more information):

  • “In 2011, over half a million rising college freshmen—approximately one in four students entering college the fall after high school graduation—had to enroll in remedial coursework during their first year of enrollment in an institution of higher education.”
  • “The aggregate additional, direct college expenses these half million students and families had to pay out of pocket for remedial coursework in the first year . . . was nearly $1.5 billion.”
  • “Of those half million students, nearly half—45 percent—came from middle, upper-middle, and high-income families.”
  • “Only 57 percent were enrolled in public community colleges.”
  • At private four-year colleges, “remedial students from the top 20 percent of national family incomes report taking one more developmental class than students from the bottom 20 percent of national family incomes: 2.7 vs. 1.6 classes.”
  • “Underprepared students from families in the top income quintile (incomes above $113,440) that attended private nonprofit four-year colleges spent on average over $12,000 extra to study content they should have learned in high school.”
  • “First-time full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students who take a developmental education course in the first year after high school graduation are 74 percent more likely to drop out of college than first-time full-time non-remedial students.”
  • “Even among those that do graduate, first-time full-time [bachelor’s degree-seeking] remedial students take 11 months longer . . . to complete [their degree] than non-remedial students.”

In reflecting on all this in our USACollegeChat podcast episode this week (“Episode 76: College Remedial Course Statistics You Didn’t Know”), my cohost Marie Segares and I simply say, “What is wrong with this picture and whose fault is it?” Because anybody can see that something is plainly wrong.

Is it that colleges have unreasonable standards? Is it that high schools are not doing the job they should be doing in preparing kids for college? Is it that high schools are inflating grades to get more kids to graduate and to get more kids into better colleges? Is it that more and more kids are going to college when some probably shouldn’t?

You can choose your own favorite explanation, but I am putting a healthy share of the blame on high schools. I don’t do that lightly (having co-founded a public high school in New York City not so long ago), but I do it, just the same. I have watched kids struggle with remedial English and math courses in college, sometimes having to take them more than once, condemned to a purgatory of remediation from which many never escape—a purgatory of lackluster courses, often taught by adjuncts who are not full-time employees of the college. Anyone can see that’s not going to end well.

And what about all the talk of making kids “college ready”—talk that has increasingly flooded the education world in the past five years, talk from researchers as well as from high school educators? If you believe the data in this report, high schools are failing to make one in four college freshmen “college ready”—and that’s not counting the kids who didn’t make it to college in the first place.

As a parent, you probably can’t solve this problem. But if you would like to go into your child’s high school years with your eyes open, here are a few ideas:

  • Ask your high school principal to tell you and your fellow parents what percent of graduates from the high school have to take remedial courses in their freshman year of college. If your principal does not know that statistic, he or she should find out. Immediately.
  • Ask your superintendent to tell you and your fellow parents what percent of graduates from the school district have to take remedial courses in their freshman year of college. If your superintendent does not know that statistic, he or she should find out. Immediately.
  • Make sure that your child’s English and math skills are improving every year of high school and that your child takes challenging courses in both fields.
  • Check to see that your child is reading nonfiction and fiction and writing coherent and analytical pieces every week (and not all in English class).
  • Read what your child is writing for school assignments before they are turned in to satisfy yourself about the quality of your child’s writing.
  • If you are thinking to spend money on an SAT prep course, consider whether that money would be better spent on making sure that your child is actually improving his or her English and math skills and not just learning how to take the test—get a tutor if your child needs help and enroll your child in an enrichment summer course at a nearby college if he or she doesn’t.

When your child complains about your increased attention to his or her English and math skills, say this: “College remedial courses are the last place you want to be, because you might never get out.” That should do it.