How to find the hottest…school?


Everybody in Hollywood understands that reviews are a matter of opinion, and that efforts to get people to watch your movie/show will often include activities that have nothing to do with making the show better. As a result, armies of publicists seek to get stars on covers of magazines and included in the various “hot” lists.

The education equivalent of that is THE RANKINGS. Colleges and university officials whine and cry about the rankings each year, moaning that they have little or nothing to contribute to students’ understanding of their educational options. Meanwhile meetings take place across the country where those same officials plot and scheme to raise their placement on these same lists.

This schizophrenic behavior isn’t really all that hard to understand. 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.”

With all due respect to Bob Morse, my longtime acquaintance that runs the U.S. News rankings, his very well-known list is a great example. It starts with a massive survey of college presidents and deans of admission. This is like starting a ranking of the best new cars with a survey of auto company CEO’s. Fortunately, I genuinely feel that Mason is the best university – ever – and I have no hesitation indicating that on the survey…which should give you some idea of how these things work.

The USNWR surveys are “balanced” by statistical data that is completely accurate, impossible to manipulate, and corresponds exactly to the quality of each institution. No. Wait. I mean the opposite of that.

One of the biggest factors, for instance, is how much money each school spends and earns. “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.

I doubt, however, anyone really cares whether or not the rankings are accurate. Does anyone really believe that People magazine REALLY knows who the hottest people are in the world?

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.

Shameless Plug: among the efforts to provide new and different ways to look at the rankings, three years ago USNWR added a list for the hot “up and coming schools to watch.” I’m not above bragging that Mason has been in the top ten for all three years. What does that mean? No more than the other lists. But, if your college decision is going to come down to just a ranking, I suggest that you might as well use the USNWR “up and coming schools to watch list.” I’m just saying…

Speaking of useless top ten lists, this very amusing list of educational screw ups showed up in my twitter feed courtesy of the Huffington Post.

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.

Faith, Admissions and the Internet


URGENT NEWS: The internet is not always entirely correct.

Shocking, I know. What’s more startling is that many of the websites that you rely on to get your information on college admissions are actually not all that reliable.
In fact, I had a student (who I dearly hope will enroll at Mason next year) confess that she relies on one of these sites as her “college admissions bible.”

Holy inappropriate religious reference!

Here are some of the many reasons why it’s a bad idea to rely entirely on college advice websites:

1. Most sites are trying to sell something (usually college loans) and care much more about the sale than about presenting accurate information. These sites will post just about anything to get you to their homepage where they can inundate you with their own advertisements for the best student loan ever or the most gimmicky product on the planet. HINT-if the first few pages keep redirecting you to loan offers, that’s a bad sign.
2. Many of these college websites are only trying to make money. Period. Here’s how it works–The people that build the site focus on featuring the most popular schools so that their link pops up on your eager google search. However, when you enter the site, you also see attractive features on schools you’ve never heard of (often for-profit schools). Don’t be fooled. These sites earn a lot of money in exchange for presenting these schools to you (whether they are quality institutions or not). HINT-if you can’t even get to any information without being bombarded by ads first for some totally irrelevant service or school, that’s a really bad sign.
3. Those that do care about accurate information and don’t manipulate the data are still often post misinformed and dated information. However, they might not be entirely to blame for this one. Colleges and universities are notorious for providing very little useful information that would tell them apart from one another. As a result, sites like these try to fill in the gaps caused by a persistent lack of transparency. HINT-if the site praises a campus as, “really modern; indoor plumbing newly installed,” that’s a truly and spectacularly bad sign.

On the other hand, I totally get why so many of you worship these sites. Face it, we all love and crave ratings, scores, and lists of any kind (regardless of accuracy).

This obsession starts at an early age. For example, my eight year old son insists that I score him each time he jumps in the pool. He does not, however, appear to care a bit about the scale on which he is scored, only that his score increases each time. His last jump received a score of 365,492. It was an awesome jump.

However, if you aren’t just on a quest for random numbers and genuinely want some good information, there are some decent sites out there. I’m particularly partial to http://mycollegeoptions.org. In fairness, that should be labeled “Shameless Plug,” as they feature this blog on their site; but, I do think they have solid information and their free college match test is more than a few steps ahead of most of its competitors.

I hope your summer is going well. Whether you’re surfing the information super highway or just jumping into the pool, I hope you receive ratings of biblical proportions.

Be seeing you.

Tattoos, vacations, and high school quality


I made it back safely from my “vacay” in Wildwood, NJ where I narrowly resisted the urge to join the crowd and get a tattoo. Sadly, my wife vetoed the massive Mason logo I planned to go across my back.

Before I left last week, I spoke at Mason’s Washington Youth Summit on the Environment and gave my incredibly entertaining rant that gives the inside scoop on college admissions. Once again, I got the usual question: “how does my high school influence the admission process?”

This age-old question is normally prefaced by some of the following excuses:
• “My school is so huge, and so incredibly good, and it’s nearly impossible to rank in the top because everyone is above average.”
• “My school has a tough grading policy, so that makes me look worse than kids in easier schools.”
• “My school is lousy. I have bad teachers, awful facilities, and no challenging courses. I can’t get a challenging course load, and had rotten preparation for high school. Few students even graduate, so just getting through my school is harder than getting perfect grades at schools with more support.”
• “I know university ‘X’ hates my school and/or loves other schools way more.”
• “My school is so small, just being ranked number 2 in the class keeps me out of the top 10 percent; in fact, I have to duck just to get through the tiny, wee doors…”

Remember all those times nice teachers told you there are no stupid questions? They were wrong. Even with all the explanations above, the question remains fairly idiotic because…
• Admissions officers know schools pretty well, and even if we don’t know your school (we probably do), we get a profile that explains the context of your school. Admissions officers understand how to balance the impact of different schools – largely by looking to see if you challenged yourself given what was offered and are competitive in the wider context of the admissions pool as a result.
• …and even if we didn’t balance different schools, you’d never know its significance– we might like bigger schools, smaller schools, or even average-sized schools that happen to have great curling teams.
• …and even if we didn’t balance schools, and you knew its significance, admissions officers wouldn’t be any more consistent with evaluating you in the context of your school’s status than they are with any other admissions factors. Therefore, it would always differ from year to year and from reader to reader.
• …and even if we didn’t balance schools, and you knew its significance, and we were 100% consistent, you still wouldn’t know how your school was viewed by any particular admissions officer and how that affected you in the long-run.

DISCLAIMER: There is one exception: if everyone from your high school applies to the same college or university, that institution will often be tougher on admissions. Not fair, but that’s the reality.

And the biggest reason that this is PRETTY MUCH A NUTTY QUESTION (drum roll, please…) you probably can’t do anything about it!!!! Are you really going to move schools on that chance that you could possibly get into some specific college or university? Of course not. How about just stay in your school, do the best you can, and remember that you don’t need to settle on just one college or university. If some institution doesn’t want you because of your school (however unlikely that is) you’ll find plenty more that DO – and there are probably WAY better things to stress over…like how much it will cost to have a large Mason tattoo removed…
Be seeing you.

What is the admissions mission?


Do you trust college admissions officers? Do you view us as dedicated public servants working tirelessly to help you achieve your dreams in the most time and cost-efficient manner? Or do you, perhaps, consider us the aggressive sales force behind education, about as welcome as those people in the mall who NEED you stop and try their face cream/hair extension/perfume combination?

I trust that most of my colleagues fall closer to the former than the latter. The reality is, however, that a massive portion of our jobs is to convince a particular group of students that they should enroll at our school – and in many cases, enroll for a particular price.

For numerous years, the federal government has been concerned that the motivation to enroll students surpasses the duty that college admissions officers have to appropriately guide students. As a result, there is a set of laws and policies that preclude colleges and universities from paying bonuses or incentives to recruiters based on numbers of students recruited and from basing salaries on enrollment numbers.

Since recruiting is a big portion of the admissions job, it is not surprising that these laws are nearly impossible to enforce. While few institutions, if any, will officially say that their admissions officers’ salaries or jobs are based on enrollment, there are any number of incidents where admissions officers have been “exited” when targets weren’t achieved. At the other end of the spectrum, those of us that have enjoyed remarkable enrollments tend to be offered jobs at other institutions that are coincidentally packed with raises and promotions.

At the moment, there is a noisy discussion about the use of enrollment incentives at for-profit institutions. The traditional non-profit universities play the part of innocent angels, saying they are shocked at the blatant conflict of interest created by the clear bonuses and incentives that some for-profit institutions use to try to motivate their “sales force.”

Of course, unethical marketing doesn’t require incentives. Many admissions officers are hyper-competitive regardless of their pay scales. Often alumni of the institutions, they have enormous passion for the school’s success. While there is no doubting the sincerity of their loyalty, there is also little doubt that some go over the top in claims of student financial support, academic quality, and graduate job availability.

So, how does this issue impact you?
When the system leans so far towards awarding incentives for enrollment success, many admissions officers reach a point of saying anything – I mean ANYTHING – to get you to enroll.

While I am not a fan of the direct, overt, and excessive incentives and bonuses that some institutions are using, I’m also a realist. My job is, in no small part, to make sure that Mason has an amazing incoming class of students that both reaches targets of quantity, quality and diversity. At some level, no matter how ethical, honest and just generally wonderful my conduct, I am still a partisan for my institution, which, if I haven’t mentioned lately, is clearly the BEST UNIVERSITY IN THE WORLD. This leads me to another…

Shameless Plug: I’m incredibly excited about this Sunday’s start of Mason’s first annual Washington Youth Summit on the Environment. Outstanding high school student leaders are coming from across the country to meet at Mason and at our partner organizations, the Smithsonian National Zoo and the National Geographic Society, for this monumental event. This program builds on the incredible relationship between Mason and the Smithsonian National Zoo, which includes the one-of-a-kind partnership with the Conservation Resource Center and the Smithsonian Mason semester program. With presentations from some of the leading scientists and activists in the field, as well as representatives from every side of the political spectrum, attendees will be exploring how to deal with the enormous challenges posed by current environmental issues.

See what I mean? It all comes down to being a smart consumer. Regardless of the great information/propaganda/shameless plugs you may get from any admissions officer, you should also do your own research on each institution. On the other hand, you are certainly welcome to just take MY word for it. Be seeing you.

Cheating Harvard and Lying on Your Application


Once upon a time, an illustrious student applied to Harvard claiming to be from one of the best prep schools and one of the best colleges in the country with amazing scores and great grades.  He lied.

While this has been widely reported in the media, most of the reports have been very easy on Harvard’s admission office.  One of the experts in the field went so far as to say that, given the thousands of applications schools receive, documents just can’t be verified.

Poor Harvard.  So many applications, so little time.

One the one hand, that’s just plain silly.  This guy faked transcripts.  Maybe I can see, given the right computers and blah blah, slipping that document past someone.  If, however, a school has at least a couple of nickels to rub together (and who has more nickels than Harvard?!), perhaps they could invest in a nice document imaging system.  Nearly every reputable college in the country (and the applicant was claiming to have attended MIT) uses really fancy transcript paper that shows all kinds of stuff when you scan the document.  This makes copying or scanning the document challenging – and lets us know it’s a real document.  Did the student go so far as to obtain that paper?  If not, how the heck did he get it past the office?

Let’s, however, give poor over-worked Harvard (cue violins) the benefit of the doubt on the transcripts.  They also accepted the applicant’s fraudulent SAT scores.  I can’t speak for every institution, but Mason downloads scores directly from CollegeBoard.  We go back and verify with CB data most that come in from the high school or the student directly. 

On the other hand, since the student was transferring, maybe the Harvard admissions office wasn’t that worried about his scores (which makes sense), and since those scores were REALLY GOOD (and whose wouldn’t be, if we were picking them ourselves), why check further?  Fine – I’ll consider letting Harvard off the hook.

Let’s move on to how this exposes the DIRTY SECRET OF COLLEGE ADMISSIONS. 

 Wait for it.

 Applicants lie. 

 The even dirtier secret is – admissions offices probably don’t catch most of those liars.  Applicants submit all kinds of recommendation letters, lists of extra-curriculars, and claims of awards and achievements.  For the most part, colleges make no effort to verify the authenticity of these submissions.  There are rare exceptions.  With the internet so readily accessible, an applicant claiming to have appeared on “Big Brother” and “America’s Got Talent” is easily referenced.  The applicant, however, falsely claiming to have won the “East Podunk Service Commitment to Youth that are Far Less Lucky Award” is unlikely to get caught.

In fairness, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, these factors are FAR less important to admission decisions than academic records (and, the recent Harvard debacle aside, false academic records are much harder to slip past our processes).  I should also note, for all those tempted by the knowledge of admissions offices lax verification, that the penalty for getting caught is generally steep.  Most admissions offices, if they believe that any – ANY – part of the application has been falsified, will deny the applicant.  You won’t get a reason – just the denial. 

 So we’re not that good at catching you, but we have a REALLY strong disincentive.  How many of you think that works?  Be seeing you.

Hurry up and waitlist


A long time ago, when the admissions process was young, colleges and universities realized that the sooner they could get a student to commit to absolutely, positively coming to their school, the sooner they could:

  1. Help the student make a smooth academic and social transition into the community of scholars, and
  2. Begin spending that student’s tuition.

There was a time, or so I’m told, when institutions would try to get students to commit earlier and earlier, sometimes using positive incentives (“commit now and you’ll get the best housing, the best classes, and we’ll give you a puppy!”) or even threats (“commit now or we’ll stick you in the worst housing on campus, give you the worst class schedule, and we’ll kick this puppy”).  This led to the GREAT TREATY OF ADMISSIONS where all the colleges and universities agreed to give students until May 1 to make their decisions and not use incentives or threats (except in cases where they can be sneaky enough to get away with it).

 Apart from there not actually being any such treaty*, giving admitted students time to make up their mind about which school to attend seems like a very reasonable and prudent thing for colleges and universities to do.  That all goes out the window, however, for students on a wait list.

 A high school counselor launched a heated online debate recently when she complained about a college admitting one of her students from waitlist and then requiring an IMMEDIATE commitment.  Factions quickly formed on the subject.

 Team A (motto: college would be a lot more fun for us if it wasn’t for all these pesky students) noted that most colleges and universities require students to respond to waitlist offers with an agreement that, should the applicant be admitted from the waitlist, he or she will celebrate joyously and immediately commit, so the requirement for immediate response shouldn’t be a surprise.

 Team B (motto: students rule, college drool) argued that even students with the best of intentions have to do some soul searching once admissions offers are received and that teenagers may have trouble making up their minds quickly (SHOCKING!).  Later, more savvy members of team B noted that most waitlisted students go ahead and confirm somewhere else while waiting to hear from the school(s) that waitlisted them and might be waitlisted by more than one school.  As a result, a well-meaning student can find him or herself committed to one school and admitted from waitlisted at one (or two or three) others. 

 From my seat (it’s a nice seat – lots of lumbar support), this is a tough call. On the one hand, if I’m going to make offers to students on our waitlist, I need to know about their commitments as soon as possible so that I can decide whether to offer the opportunity to others.  On the other hand, it seems terribly unrealistic to encourage students (by only offering waitlist) to commit to other institutions, give them time to accept that decision and even get excited about it, and then give them only hours or days to shift gears.

 While we’re on the subject, the growth of waitlists themselves is particularly troubling, with many schools keeping well over a thousand applicants on the hook until well into summer – more on that soon.  Be seeing you.

 *Note – the May 1 deadline, however it was decided, is part of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling Principals of Good Practice.  This bears a lot of similarities to modern treaties as it is really complicated and, since it’s pretty much unenforceable, relies on the goodwill of the colleges and universities that are members for compliance.

Colleges and Universities want YOU – part two


Time for even more TRENDY MARKETING EFFORTS FROM COLLEGES AND UNIVERISTIES FOR 2010-2011 (that probably won’t work).

VIDEOS Part I– Mason and three other schools led the way by introducing videos into the application process. Look for a bunch of other schools to follow and then lengthy, silly debates about whether this changes the whole admission process (it doesn’t).

VIDEOS Part II – Colleges and universities try to make their own versions of High School Musical as a way of getting you to notice them. Yes, Yale managed to create one that got some media attention, but that was YALE. Will “Ineverheardof” University be able to go viral with their similarly lame efforts? “Glee,” I think, has nothing to fear.

THIRD PARTY SERVICES – With match.com and others taking over the dating world, it’s no surprise that savvy companies would find a way to do something similar for the often even more stressful process of finding the right school. Some of these programs are just silly, but others may catch on as the new way to search schools. Personally, I like MyCollegeOptions’ service the best, but hey – they publish my posts so I’m entirely partial.

BLOGS – The success of a few blogs (not this one) leads many admissions officers to believe that if only they create their own, suddenly their schools will catapult to the top of the rankings. You’ll see blogs continue to proliferate – mostly admissions officers whining two or three times a year about how many applications they receive and bragging ineffectively about how perfect their schools are. Warning – these tend to be sickly sweet and should be avoided by anyone with a strong gag reflex.

Sad to say, all of the cool, flashy technology in the world won’t make much a difference. Mason is not successful because I blog, include videos in our application process, or tweet. Mason succeeds because:
1) SHAMELESS PLUG: Mason is a great school – great location just outside D.C., incredible faculty, gorgeous buildings and campus, and intensely globally diverse – and if those are things you want, you’ll like it.
2) We tell our story. Sharing the information above through e-mail, travel to your schools, postal mailings, and websites. At the core, the most important part of this process is having a chance to check out the information about schools to see which may fit you best.

This answer, however, is boring. Most schools still hope that they can get around giving you GOOD information by giving you information in some new, creative, and “cutting-edge” way.

So prepare yourselves for brochures, college fairs, phone calls, postcards, and text messages along with new blogs, apps, friend requests, and videos with virtually no entertainment value whatsoever. Maybe I’m wrong about what you want to see, in which case I’d love to hear from you. In any case, my advice is to ignore all the propaganda and gimmicks and just try to find some great schools – there are plenty out there, whether they tweet or not.

Be seeing you.

P.S. – A special Mason prize to the person who posts the most outrageous technological marketing effort a college or university makes this year…as judged solely by me. As George Carlin used to say, “They’re my rules – I make them up.”