Comments, questions, feedback? Let me hear it!

We’ve been getting quite a bit of email feedback and questions, which go to our central in-box then get forwarded.  Many of the questoins are off topic from my postings, so my staff members (tired, I suspect, of having to forward those emails) suggested we created a blog post for whatever random topics you might want to raise.

I’m still lounging at the shore, while my staff are busy answering those emails and over at President’s Park, one of our freshmen housing areas, helping our newest Patriots move into their rooms. Shameless Plug – Like most universities, Mason has a great Welcome Week I’m looking forward to when I get back in town this weekend.    In between vacation and campus events I’ll try to get around to posting some the comments and questions we’ve already received.  Feel free to use this post to put up whatever discussion topics you’d like to add, admissions or otherwise. Be seeing you.

Admissions Article as Teachable Moment

I was on vacation with my family this week when my seven-year-old son overheard one of his cousins calling another member of the family a “tool” and asked me what that meant. I tried to explain that the term “tool” can be used to suggest that a person is easily used or manipulated by others and that it’s another way of saying the person is a fool, or at least terribly mislead.

Since he still seemed confused, I used a recent example from admissions. I had just read an article in the Journal of College Admissions regarding score optional admissions, or admissions decisions in which SAT or ACT scores are not used as factors. the author also had a nearly identical article in Recruitment and Retention in Higher Education. Perhaps some may consider it questionable to have the same article under two different names in two different publications, but that’s not a reason to consider the author a “tool”.

In the article(s), the author raises ethical questions regarding colleges and universities that have implemented score optional admission policies. He asserts that the reasons for implementing such policies are entirely self-serving. He also notes that most institutions with these policies claim higher SAT/ACT averages when they only report averages of students who submitted scores.

I don’t doubt that some institutions have self-serving reasons for implementing such policies. I can speak for Mason, however. Mason, shameless plug here, may be the largest competitive institution in the nation to have implemented such a policy. We did it based on really solid data that standardized tests were not good predictors of success for our applicants with the strongest academic records. We allow students to substitute greater weighting on leadership experience in place of standardized test scores. So far, as with nearly every school that has implemented such a policy, we have found that students who we admit through our score optional policy do just as well as students with similar academic records admitted with scores. It appears, however, that the author never bothered to do a lick of research and has no idea of the data behind these decisions. Such sloppy and incompetent research could lead some to label the author a slacker, but not necessarily a tool.

His point on how colleges with score optional policies average their scores is even more ridiculous. He claims that not including scores from score optional applicants who are admitted in our admitted student averages is misleading. So, if I follow what the author is trying to pass off as logic, if I include scores in Mason’s averages that had nothing to do with students’ admission, I will somehow make my averages more accurate. These statistics, as a result of following his method, would be less likely to help future applicants understand their chances of admission. Such inept logic is most unfortunate, but again doesn’t brand the author a tool.

All of these issues were enough to get my attention and arouse my disdain for the articles. Imagine my delight, then, only a few days after I read the first of these wonderful articles to receive an email from the company that employs the author (official motto, “helping you get your future students to accept higher tuition and lower financial aid, no matter what kind of education you decide to provide”) inviting me to participate in a phone interview survey of higher education practices and the use of standardized testing, “on behalf of a client in the college admissions testing industry” (would that be SAT or ACT? So many choices!).

Fascinating. Let’s review. The author works for a company that consults for educational organizations, and his company has a contract with one of the standardized testing companies. Those companies seem to perceive (wrongly, I think) that score optional policies are a threat. Then he writes an article (twice!) condemning the policies that concern his company’s client.

Now I don’t mean to disparage the author, who I have never met and who I’m sure had very good intention in writing his article – both times. I will say, however, that by the time I was done explaining, my seven-year-old understood the use of these terms (or at least said he did, possibly in order to get me to stop explaining). The question is, do you? Be seeing you.

Love and Hypocrisy – August in Admissions

In the world of admissions officers, August is an incredibly stressful time. The source of this anxiety isn’t the students moving in, the recruitment travel restarting, or the summer ending. It’s THE RANKINGS.

Most of my colleagues describe their feelings towards THE RANKINGS as ambivalent. Ambivalent means they hate them, they really hate them. Even when their college or university is blessed by THE RANKINGS, they still hate them, even as they brag about them.

Shameless (clearly hypocritical!) plug: Mason again ranked in the top “schools to watch” in U.S. News and World Report. Last year we were number one in this category, also called, “Up and Coming national universities”, this year we are number two. My boss remarked that this makes us the “Up and Second-Coming” institution, but as a public university we have to steer clear of such religious overtones.

This passionate distaste for THE RANKINGS, in between bragging opportunities, always seems bizarre to me since clearly students, parents, and most of society find them at least moderately useful, as judged by massive internet traffic and magazine sales. On the other hand, I think it’s really important to put THE RANKINGS into some reasonable context.

With all due respect to Bob Morse, my longtime acquaintance that runs the U.S. News rankings, the rankings are, for the most part, hooey. That’s a technical term meaning, “a lots of statistical data that doesn’t actually mean a thing if you’re trying to determine the quality of a school.”

U.S. News, of course, starts with a massive survey of experts on college and university quality with no vested in interested in manipulating the survey results, and by that, of course, I mean exactly the opposite. In reality, university presidents, provosts, and admissions deans (that’s who fills out the survey) don’t have all that much time to brush up on everything going on at the several hundred other colleges and universities in the survey, and, as has been reported in recent articles, they have pretty strong motivations to adjust their responses to favor their own institutions. Fortunately, I genuinely feel that Mason is the best university – ever – so I have no ethical risk in how I respond…which should give you some idea of how these things work.

These surveys are the most influential part of the U.S. News ranking, but those surveys are balanced by statistical data that is completely accurate, impossible to manipulate, and corresponds exactly to the quality of each institution, and again by that I mean the exact opposite. THE RANKINGS, for instance, love the SAT and ACT. Even while you try to convince us that you are more than a test score, THE RANKINGS assume that an incoming class is just that – an average test score. The only thing more important than the incoming class is how much money each school spends and earns.

I can hear those logic gears turning in your head as you wonder, “What the heck does how much money a school earns and spends have to do with whether it’s the right school for me?” Good question. With money as a huge factor, of course, it guarantees that the rankings won’t change all that much from year to year, which is great if you’re, say, selling magazines to people who expect to see the same names at the top of the list each year.

Recognizing these tiny, wee flaws in their methodology, U.S. News also offers a bunch of other rankings, including a survey of guidance counselors and some specialty rankings (Did I mention, Mason again ranked in the top Schools To Watch?) based on the same entirely fair and unbiased survey of presidents, provosts and deans they use for the overall ranking. Princeton Review and Forbes (which ranked Mason the top public university in the D.C. area!) use student surveys. Of course, students have no bias and are a great source of statistically sound data, and by that I continue to mean the exact opposite.

Very slowly there are some better tools being developed. The National Survey of Student Engagement does some great work trying to look at outcomes, what actually happens to students while enrolled at colleges and universities, and U.S. News has been publishing some of their results as well. There are also some interesting specialty rankings being developed for green schools, religious institutions, and gay-friendly campuses, just to name a few, that are likely to be a lot more help as you try to navigate your college search.

The bottom line is that the rankings can be an interesting shortcut to developing your interest list, but don’t get sucked into thinking there’s a lot of substance behind them. My suggestion: build your own ranking based on the things you think are most important. Send me your suggestions for what should go on that list and I’ll post them in a future column. Who knows – maybe we can control THE RANKINGS of the future! Be seeing you.

Life goals at a discount? The manipulation of transfer students

Time, once again, to rant about how colleges and universities busy themselves trying to manipulate you.

Transfer students are a hot commodity in admissions. Since Mason is one of the most popular transfer destinations in the U.S., I may be even more disturbed by misinformation about transferring schools than I am about the usual admissions confusion. A recent article intended for college admissions officers reminded me of this pet peeve.

Jason Bakker is a most excellent college marketing guru. In a recent article on, however, he offers help with responding to the “increase” in potential transfer students, asserting that what transfer students want most is help achieving their “life goals,” and therefore, colleges should market themselves to that concept. Instead of trying to prove that point, Jason offers some examples of tuition discounts. He seems to feel the main reason students transfer is to get a cheaper education. This could lead colleges to believe that the best way to convince you to transfer schools is to offer you a better financial deal. No offense to Jason, but that seems like a big steaming pile of nonsense.
Community college or other transfer students are no more prone to respond to value or discount pitches than any other group of prospective students. In fact, claiming to be “cheaper” can just as easily translate to impressions of lower quality rather than higher value. This may seem insane, but there is far more evidence that raising cost increases perceived value and little evidence that lowering tuition provides comparable benefit. That’s how colleges and universities get into that whole dirty science of how little they can discount your tuition and still get you to enroll – otherwise they’d all just lower their price, and transfer students would be flocking to the least expensive schools.
As for Jason’s initial assertion that what transfer students want most is help with life goals (he means making more money), colleges have been trying lay stake to that claim for years. Of course, the data says that your income level after college has nothing to do with what college you attend, but don’t let that stop you savvy (evil) marketers!
What clearly works with transfers (and every other market segment) are assertions of quality. Strangely, we tie quality to exclusivity –schools that are hard to get into are more likely to be labeled as high quality. That impression (linked to hints of future income) is one successful way to reach out to recruit transfer students, and the cost issue can have an inverse relationship to that effort. In simple terms, colleges and universities have found that being more expensive makes it easier to claim higher quality. It even raises school standing in the rankings.
There is a better, even less evil, way to recruit transfer students. Far more than freshmen, transfer students are concerned with convenience and expedience. Access to online courses, evening and weekend classes, acceptance of credit, and general accommodation and assimilation of transfer students are HUGE issues, often far outweighing (although also influencing through time to degree) cost of attendance. Be seeing you.

The Myth of Complication

A couple of weeks ago, the ongoing drama at the University of Illinois (motto, “Will trade admissions for appointment to U.S. Senate.”) led me to post a note debunking one of the three great myths of college admissions. In case you’ve forgotten, the three great myths of college admissions are:
1) The college admissions process is fair.
2) The college admissions process is complicated.
3) The college admissions process is easy to predict.

I’ve already covered that the process is unfair, and I’ll cover more of that in the future since the general unfairness of the process is one of my favorite subjects. Today, however, a bit about how very simple admissions can be.

If you were able to get the resumes of the staff members in most admissions offices that review applications, you would find a HUGE number of them that are recent college graduates. I don’t mean, mind you, that they just finished their Nobel Prize-worthy dissertations for their Ph.D.’s and are taking time off from rocket science and quantum physics to read your application. Actually, most admissions file reviewers are the same admissions “officers” you see at college fairs and high school visits. By and large, those individuals recently (as in the past two years) finished their bachelor’s degrees, and this gig in admissions is their first full time job.

Speaking of first full time jobs, a giant SHAMLESS PLUG to one of my favorite George Mason University alumni, Kevin “BDK” McCarthy. Kevin took an internship with one of our local D.C. area radio stations as a student. He accepted HEAPS of abuse in return for opportunities at the microphone and has managed in just a couple of years to parlay that into being one of the hottest up and coming film critics in the country. Apart from creating a job/career for himself, he has also managed to make me INSANELY jealous by getting to sit down with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Check out his movie review site so you can share in my envy.

Before I get heaps of complaints from colleagues (or whining from my staff) I need clarify that I am NOT saying that admissions people aren’t every bit as smart and hard working as Kevin. Many are quite (ahem) brilliant. There is, however, no standardized test to become an admissions officer, and there are no sources (of which I am aware) for checking what scores those staff members received back when THEY were applying to college, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that there are some smart people working in this field. However, and I say this implying no ill will toward any of my colleagues at any institution anywhere, there are a fair share of knuckleheads who occupy desks in admissions offices across the country.

In other words, one does not need brilliance to perform the task of reviewing applications and selecting students for admissions. It also doesn’t take all that much training. I’ve experimented with this by taking a sample of applications, taking out all the names and personal information, and showing them to groups of teachers, guidance counselors, students, and parents, giving only about fifteen minutes of instruction each time. Amazingly, they will all pretty much make the same decisions. In fact, they will even make the same decisions my “experienced” and “highly trained” admissions staff made.

Why is it so easy? In another post I explained that the vast majority of decisions are decided on academic record more than anything else. Even at the most competitive institutions, there is enough difference in scores, grades, essays, and the rest to be able to sort students fairly well. Most admissions officers that I’ve met in my career tell me that reading applications is the least interesting part of their job, and usually by the second year in admissions I have staff members begging me for more of almost any other assignment.

Considering how very simple process this process can be and how decisions are very consistent no matter who is doing the reviewing, you may think that the outcomes are VERY predictable. WRONG. You’ve fallen prey to the third myth, but that’s a tale for another day. Be seeing you.”

Using campus visits to help pick a college

The Boston Globe had an article this week about how families are striving to visit colleges despite the state of economy, and it reminded me to update this post from last year:

I always encourage LOTS of campus visits. I don’t suggest this because I believe by going on a never ending series of walking tours you will suddenly find THE PERFECT SCHOOL. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the whole idea of one perfect school is mostly a marketing pitch we admissions officers have created to try to raise our profiles and your stress levels.

Shameless Plug: If you had been visiting Mason yesterday you would have gotten somewhat inconvenienced by our many VIP visitors for the kickoff event for the new G.I. Bill that was held on campus. You probably would have forgiven us, however, if you’d caught a glimpse of either President Obama or Vice President Biden, both on campus for the event (one of the few times both visited the same university at the same time since they’ve been off the campaign trail). A number of Mason students were able to attend in VIP seating, and an incoming student, Staff Sergeant Jim Miller, even got to introduce the President and Vice President.

As I was saying, instead of trying to find your “dream school”, think of college visits as a way to figure out what you want most out of college. That takes a lot of pressure off these visits, which can actually be a pretty good time if you handle them in the right way.

I realize you may be thinking, “It’s not like I don’t have every minute already over-scheduled, now you want me to add a bunch of visits to schools and not even try to find the perfect one? Clearly you have no idea what my time is like, and you are at best clueless and at worst an idiot.” In the interest of preserving your time and my reputation, consider ways to make this process less time consuming and more fun. You might bear in mind, for instance, that it can be helpful to visit colleges and universities in your own area before visiting any others to get an idea of what kind of questions to ask, and what kind of propaganda you’re likely to hear. Also know that you don’t have to go this alone, you can bring friends. You also CAN go this alone, and don’t have to have your parents with you at every visit.

Finally, I suggest making the visits into some kind of competition with your friends. A few years ago I started suggesting playing a game called, “make the admissions officer cry” during your visits. During one speech where I used this line an admissions officer from one of our rival schools was so offended she sent me a sternly worded email about how serious the admissions process is and how my ridiculous efforts trivialized the lofty role of admissions officers. I may or may not have suggested she seek medical advice for removing the stick that instiution seems to require that staff members…well, you get the idea.

In any event, and for the sake of preserving the sensibilities of additional admissions officers similarly over-obsessed with their own feelings of superiority, I note that I don’t REALLY want you to make anyone cry, and that you should bear in mind that the person conducting your information session during a campus visit may very well be the same person who will read your application, and they may just remember you. So no name calling, making fun of bad haircuts, etc. What the game really involves is asking incredibly difficult questions.

My favorite question to ask in this game is, “What’s the worst thing about your school?” Amazingly, even though I’ve been giving this advice for years, many admissions officers still totally freeze up at the site of this question. Many will give you their best salesperson smile and respond, “Nothing – I can’t think of one thing wrong with this school.” Riiiight. Be seeing you.