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.

Useful links for the college search process


To keep you busy, I thought I’d provide some quick links to sites with information on the college search process (even though their advice will obviously not be as good as what you find here).

Some places to search for colleges:
These crack me up because they’re almost always based on data that’s 1-2 years out of date. They also do some really dumb things, like if you search by state they don’t give you what’s really close by. If you search Washington, DC, for instance, few of the engines bring up Mason even though we’re in the suburbs because our address is Virginia, and the same goes for University of Maryland (guess where they are). You may want to search by distance from a city or by multiple states to help with that issue. There’s other quirks to these things (like if you don’t call a major what they call it, does it come up in your search?), but you’ll find those as you go. These are presented in no particular order. Have fun!

College Board

Collegenet

Collegeview

US News

Peterson’s

Happy searching! Be seeing you.

Educational content on YouTube


Happy New Year!  A bit off (ok, maybe way off) the admissions topic, here’s a great list of educational resources on YouTube, with credit to Anastasia Goodstein of Ypulse (http://ypulse.com) for tipping me to the list. 

http://www.oculture.com/2007/12/10_signs_of_intelligent_life_at_youtube_smart_video_collections.html

Also, if you get a chance to read Ypulse, you can check out the discussion of how all those evil marketers (your faithful author included) are trying to understand the mystery of communicating with (selling, manipulating) you…

Best wishes for a truly outstanding year, filled with thick admission packages, and even larger scholarship offers.  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 http://www.justicetalking.org/viewprogram.asp?progID=634

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

Daily Shameless Plug: masonmetro.com recognized


OK, even though there are tons of incredible things at Mason to brag about, I can’t help bragging about my own team.  The National Research Center for College and Univeristy Admissions claims Mason has one of the best admissions web sites in the nation.  I’m not sure whether they meant our ridiculously incredibly cool web site at www.masonmetro.com, or our more traditional university web site at http://admissions.gmu.edu. In either case, nice to have everyone else know about them.  You can read the article at  http://gazette.gmu.edu/articles/10931/.  If you get a chance, drop me a note and let me know whether you agree – and if you think you can find any other schools with a better site (because I’d love to see how I can make sure ours are even better).