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 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.

Funny spoof of rankings

I tend to make fun of a lot of the rankings, and although I know the folks at US News and like most of them, the bottom line is that a huge amount of their ranking is based on a survey of the same people that rank high on the list, and then on how much money the school spends. In other words, you can spend your way to the top…but this website WHICH IS TOTALLY FAKE – made me laugh about how most of us might guess they set the rankings:

Admissions, grading scales, and happy holidays

Welcome back!  I’d like to say it’s been a restful holiday while the blog was on a brief seasonal hiatus, but we’ve been very busy processing the buckets of mail that come in during the holidays (note to self – discuss moving holidays to July when not as many colleges and universities have application deadlines – who would I see about that?). 

As soon as I got I found the questions the sitting in my in box: what else did we need to know about majors?  How do these deadlines work?  What really happens when you read applications?  Are you really the most entertaining dean of admissions, or is that all just an act?  When are you going to get stuff fixed around the house like you promised you would over the break? (that last one from my wife – she wasn’t crazy about the answer that I would get right on that once I got caught up on my blog…)

My plans for the next topic were detoured by a visit yesterday from the local news.  They were covering responses to an article in the Washington Post by my close personal acquaintance Jay Matthews about differences in grading scales for high schools in the D.C. area

The local ABC affiliate, WJLA, did a follow up story including a clip of a well informed expert (me).  Unfortunately they only had room for about 30 seconds of the 20 minute long answer I provided (I can’t imagine why).  ://  In that clip leaves you begging for more, a bit more detail:

Generally, grading scales don’t have a huge impact on admissions.  According to my colleagues in the area schools, they’ve done quite a bit on study on the grading topic.  Each time they have found the same thing- grade distribution doesn’t change much by grading scale.  In other words, whether you make an a start at 89, 90, 93, or 94, the same number of A’s, B’s and the rest end up being given out.  The assumption is that teachers tend to adjust grading to whatever scale they use – but it means that overall scales are unlikely to change outcomes too much. 

There’s also the issue of weighting grades, since a number of schools will give extra points for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Honors, etc.  This can get really out of hand – I have at least one school system from which I regularly review applications where students with a 3.6 on a 4.0 scale can be expected to have a fair number of C’s and D’s on their record.  Those same schools end up with students with higher than a 6.0 on a 4.0 school – ridiculous!!!  As I said in the report, most college and university admissions officers at schools as selective as Mason get to know grading and weighting scales very well.  Even if we don’t we usually get the details on a school profile with every transcript.  As a result, schools are able to put the grades into context and minimize the admissions impact of these differences.

That being said, there are exceptions. Some colleges and universities, especially those that are less competitive, may use less sophisticated admission review processes, and in those cases it’s possible that crazy weighted grades may work to a student’s advantage (or a lack of them to another student’s disadvantage), although in my experience that is not too common, and the greater the competition, the less likely to occur.

All of that information applies largely to admissions. The issues may change dramatically when it comes to scholarships.  At some schools the scholarships process is handled just like admissions, and the top students through that process get the awards.  At many schools, however, scholarships are viewed very differently.  Bear in mind that scholarships are, in essence, taking money away from one student (by charging full tuition) and giving it to another student (in a discount through a scholarship).  The justification for that may be based on an assessment of who is most qualified, but it is even more likely to be based on a calculation of which student is the most valuable to an institution, and these may not be the same things.  Of course, an applicant may be a highly ranked debater, a skilled player of a instrument vitally needed by the band director, or have a really sweet three-point shot.  Even just on academics, however, schools are often hoping that scholarships will help the school as much as they students.  This is often about raising “profile”.  Profile raising usually refers to a school trying to improve their placement on one ranking scale or another, or at least appear to be more competitive to prospective students (and therefore, presumably, more appealing).   As a result, high grades, rank-in-class, and GPA become more desirable, regardless of whether or not they are providing good information.

For instance: A university may know perfectly well that a student from one school has heavily weighted grades and that her 6.5 GPA is just plain silly, while another student did just as well at another school (that doesn’t weight) but has just a measly 4.0.  The scholarship may very well go to the 6.5, since that is of more use to the profile.  The same goes for rank, etc.

Of course, admission to college is a really bad way to make school policy.  The unfortunate perceived escalation of the importance of these issues on the college side (“we need a higher rank!” “they only care about a higher GPA/SAT/RANK!”) leads some to an arms rance in changing grading scales or ranking or weighting systems at the high school level. This makes for an awful situation for parents, students, and educators.

I can only offer slim comfort  – in most cases the influence of grading, ranking, and weighting systems is VERY small on the admissions process, and not too terribly large on the scholarship process.  Feel better?  No?  Go have some more of those leftover holiday cookies.  Then get back to finishing your essay.  Be seeing you.

What if you and your parents disagree about college?

I received this question from the folks at COLLEGEdata, asking for my comments.  The question (with answers) will appear in the next CollegeINSIGHT newsletter. You can check out the current version at

Researchers (and by that I mean a few articles I’ve read online recently) agree that high school students now get along with their parents better than ever before.  They use as evidence the high level of involvement and influence parents have in the college search process, in the admissions process (reminder – please don’t let mom or dad fill out your application for you!), and how often students continue to chat/email/text with mom and dad after heading to college (3-4 times per DAY!).

It seems likely with all that involvement that even the most solid familial dynamic is going to be strained if mom is seeking Ivy League U while junior wants Snowboarding with Awesome Parties College, and dad wants either his alma mater (that’s Latin for, “I want me and my kid to wear matching sweatshirts”) or Really Inexpensive And Possibly Illegitimate Online Program. 

This starts with the regular misconception that there is a RIGHT answer to the question of which college to attend.  My strong recommendation (and again, I am so often right it would amaze you) is that you should, with over 4,000 institutions from which to choose, be able to find multiple schools that the whole family could love.  Mom, dad and junior should all bear in mind that there is no perfect school (with the possible exception of Mason, of course, an institution on which all can agree!), and that there are always going to be some tradoffs in the things you want and what you will find (not at Mason – you will have it all here!).

I realize this may be easier said than done, but that’s why I’m the blogger and you’re the parent/applicant/surfer who thought you were going to find cool information about the latest Britney Spears episode.  The truth is that you can have a wonderful experience. make fantastic friends, and increase your chances of success at pretty much any school that feels like a good match to you, if you just get excited about it and make a solid effort.  And mom and dad should know it’s the same for them – they will find things to brag about at parties no matter where you go.  (Of course, at Mason you will have the best experience, make the best friends, and have the best chance of success, while your parents will have endless bragging potential…but that’s just if you want to make the RIGHT choice…).  Be seeing you.

College Admissions as seen (well, heard) by National Public Radio

Check out a whole bunch of college admissions stuff from the show Justice Talking at

Some of it feeds into the hype, especially the stuff about the “elite” colleges, but there’s some solid stuff as well.

Your high school in admissions: a new ranking

Those terrific people at U.S. News (and I mean that – I like the head of research Bob Morse a lot, and I’m not just saying that to suck up) have a new ranking.  I assume that’s becuase they realized we just don’t have enough ranking, and a list of best fire hydrants was already underway (in Dogs Quarterly Journal).  This time, they’ve ranked high schools –

Now, I pick on my closer personal passing acquaintance from the Washington Post, Jay Matthews, because he works with Newsweek to produce an annual ranking that’s based strictly on the percent of students taking Advanced Placement courses, which I think is a bizarre way to rank schools (Jay, in case your wondering, LOVES the AP program).  Now USNEWS has added a ton of statistics to the mix.  I like numbers.  They give me a warm fuzzy feeling.  Fortunately I took a Zantac, and that seems to have passed.

So what does it all mean – will the colleges be looking at these and saying – hey, your high school couldn’t even muster up a bronze medal. You are SO hosed!  Probably not – but for those lucky few in the Gold medal schools, maybe a little boost.  A special shout out to Yes Preparatory Academy in Houston for making the top ten (where my good friend and former student assistant, Donald Kamentz, is the incredible, amazing, and wonderful director of guidance.  Did I mention I really like that guy?).  And since I’m here in Fairfax County, right by George Mason University (clearly a gold medal in my book) I’m relieved that my son’s high school, Robinson, scored a silver.  Of course, we have the number one school in the ranking, Thomas Jefferson, right down the street.  It’s a magnet school, so I’m starting my son in prep courses now.  He’s five, but I think it’s about time he really got to work, don’t you?  Be seeing you.