The Coalition for Access and Affordability is a new group of 80-plus colleges and universities, all with six-year grad rates of 70 percent and higher, and all apparently committed to transforming the admissions process at high-profile institutions. Among the members are all Ivy League schools, top liberal arts colleges, and many leading public universities. So far, the UC System and the UT System are not listed as members.
Note: A link showing coalition members is at the end of this post.
What exactly all of this means for the Common App is uncertain. For now, it appears that coalition members will use it.
“What the emergence of a new rival might mean for the Common Application could become an intriguing storyline over the next few years,” the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports. The standardized admissions form used by more than 600 colleges worldwide has long dominated the college-admissions realm.
“But it’s raising the college-access flag, too. Recently, the organization bolstered the college-planning resources for students on its website, including information specifically for middle-school students and ninth graders. ‘It’s planning to roll out ‘virtual counselor’ materials, including articles and videos that answer specific questions about the application process,” said Aba G. Blankson, director of communications for the Common Application.”
Questions remain about the mission and intentions of the coalition. One dean of admissions told the Chronicle of HigherEd that “I’m not convinced about the true intentions of the coalition. The schools participating in this effort should not mask their intentions on the guise of ‘access.’ It’s a deceiving marketing ploy… ”
As usual, Nancy Griesemer, writing for the Washington Examiner, has written an excellent post on the hot topic.
“In a nutshell,” she writes, “the Coalition is developing a free platform of online college planning and application tools. The tools will include a digital portfolio, a collaboration platform, and an application portal.
“High school students will be encouraged to add to their online portfolios beginning in the ninth grade examples of their best work, short essays, descriptions of extracurricular activities, videos, etc. Students could opt to share or not share all or part of their portfolios with college admissions or counseling staff and ‘community mentors.'” [Emphasis added.]
The planning site and portfolio portals are supposed to be open to high school students in January 2016, and the supposition is that coalition members will be using the data then.
“Billed as a system designed to have students think more deeply about what they are learning or accomplishing in high school by the development of online portfolios, the new endeavor will actually create efficient ways for college admissions officers to access more detailed information about prospective applicants earlier in the game,” Griesemer writes.
“The coalition application is an interesting concept, but begs the question of who will benefit more from the information-sharing plan—high school students or colleges. And while the plan is promoted as helping students—particularly disadvantaged students—to present themselves to colleges in a more robust manner, it seems likely that students able to afford early college coaching may actually benefit quite a bit from being able to post their accomplishments on a platform viewed and commented on by admissions staff.” [Emphasis added.]
Editor’s note: This post updated on October 1, 2016, after release of Times Higher Ed Rankings for 2016.
It is likely that Philip G. Altbach, a research professor and the founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, has the sharpest eye of anyone in America when it comes to seeing how well U.S. universities compare with rapidly improving institutions throughout the world. What he sees is not good.
U.S. public universities are losing ground to foreign institutions, most notably in Europe and Scandinavia.
(Below the following text are three tables. The first compares the Times Higher Ed world rankings of U.S. universities and those throughout the world for the years 2011 and 2016. The second shows the decline in rankings for U.S. public universities for the same years. The third and final table shows the rise in rankings for U.S. private universities.
Altbach cites the work of colleague Jamil Salmi, who found that there are at least 36 “excellence initiatives” around the world “that have pumped billions of dollars into the top universities in these countries — with resulting improvements in quality, research productivity, and emerging improvements in the rankings of these universities. Even in cash-strapped Russia, the ‘5-100’ initiative is providing $70 million into each of 15 selected universities to help them improve and compete globally. [Emphasis added.]
“At the same time, American higher education is significantly damaging its top universities through continuous budget cuts by state governments. One might call this an American “unExcellence initiative” as the world’s leading higher education systematically damages its top research universities. Current developments are bad enough in a national context, but in a globalized world, policies in one country will inevitably have implications elsewhere. Thus, American disinvestment, coming at the same time as significant investment elsewhere, will magnify the decline of a great higher education system.”
One reason: All the bad publicity about cuts in funding, along with high-profile political grandstanding that has received far too much attention throughout the world academic community. For example, UT Austin endured years of highly publicized attacks by former Governor Perry during his second term, and UW Madison has been hurt by similar actions on the part of Governor Scott Walker.
Unless state legislatures move toward excellence and restore pre-Great Recession funding levels, there will be “a revolution in global higher education and create space for others at the top of the rankings. It would also be extraordinarily damaging for American higher education and for America’s competitiveness in the world.”
The average ranking for the 23 U.S. publics among the top 100 in the world in 2011 was 39th, while in 2016 it was 49th–and only 15 publics were among the top 100. Meanwhile, leading U.S. private universities have seen both their average reputation rankings and overall rankings rise since 2011.
To illustrate Professor Altbach’s point, we have generated the tables below.
This table compares the Times Higher Ed world rankings of U.S. universities and those throughout the world for the years 2011 and 2016.
[table id=46 /]
The following table shows the decline in rankings for U.S. public universities for the years 2011 and 2016. UC Davis is the only school to rise, while most dropped significantly.
[table id=50 /]
This last table shows the rise in rankings for leading U.S. private universities for the years 2011 and 2016.
Two major grants from the foundation of UW-Madison engineering alumnus David W. Grainger will boost research and hands-on teaching capacity and provide additional support in the form of tutoring and mentoring for undergrads.
A grant of $25 million is for the establishment of the Grainger Institute for Engineering Research. The Institute ” will serve as an incubator for trans-disciplinary research conducted in the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering. Such research will enable the College to lead discoveries in targeted technological areas important to society and to our nation’s economy.”
The enhancement of hands-on training and research facilities has become a major feature of leading engineering programs in the nation.
“Currently, researchers in the Institute are focusing on advanced manufacturing and materials discovery and sustainability—areas that build in existing strengths within the College of Engineering and at UW-Madison. These three areas share commonalities and each benefit from close interaction with the others. Together, they provide opportunities to accelerate the process of materials discovery to application or use in a product, and to engage in this process in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner.”
At a time when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has led successful efforts to cut funding for the UW System, the grant for the Institute “will create an endowment for professorships, faculty scholar awards and postdoctoral fellowships, with additional support for new faculty from UW-Madison, the UW-Madison Vilas Trust, and the College. In total, the funding will enable the College to hire 25 new faculty. This commitment will enable the College to attract clusters of top engineering faculty to define new research directions through the Grainger Institute for Engineering.”
Another $22 million grant from the foundation “will be aimed at helping undergraduate students by supporting a tutoring center and giving them more opportunities for hands-on learning,” officials announced recently.
The donation endows the engineering school’s undergraduate learning center, “which provides tutoring and peer-to-peer learning services — assistance officials said is key for students as they work through tough introductory courses
The donation will help to expand engineering college facilities will as well, including a new ‘design innovation makerspace,’ where students will be able to use equipment such as laser cutters and 3-D printers to experiment and build prototypes.”
The foundation has also funded the building and expansion of Grainger Hall, home of the UW-Madison business school.
The New York Times, in its “Upshot” feature, has analyzed for the second consecutive year data for some 179 colleges and universities to determine the “economic diversity” of the institutions. What this boils down to is a scoring mechanism that ranks the schools according to the percentage of freshmen who receive Pell Grants and graduate. The grants typically go to students with a family income of $70,000 or less.
Note: Two tables are listed below, the first for public universities and the second for private schools.
The review of access data is also useful for families whose income is greater than 70k. To be included in the analysis and ranking, each school had to have a 2014 five-year grad rate of 75% or more. This information in itself is a handy way to group these schools by grad rate.
Other data elements stand out: only 32 public institutions made the list because of the grad rate threshold, while 147 private schools are on the list. This, too, is useful, but the story is more involved that these figures suggest. The 32 public schools actually have more Pell Grant recipient/graduates (26,690) than the 147 private schools (20,192). The average percentage of freshmen with Pell Grants in the public universities is 17%; for the private schools, 14% of freshmen are recipients.
Publics have lower average net cost for Pell Grant recipients, $16,250 versus $19,986.
One more interesting element is that the amount of endowment per student is far less for public universities. UC Irvine, ranked number 1 in the analysis, has an endowment per student of $11,000; for Princeton, ranked number 18 in economic access, the endowment per student is $2,320,000. It is common for the per student endowment for publics to be only 5-15 percent of that for wealthy private colleges. Nevertheless, the publics do somewhat better relative to private schools in providing economic access. The link to the New York Times report lists the endowment figures for each school.
Other leading honors colleges and programs involve professors in the honors advising process, sometimes as co-advisors with full-time honors staff professionals. At Clark Honors College (CHC) at the University of Oregon, honors advising is one of the responsibilities of about two dozen resident CHC faculty, many of whom have offices in Chapman Hall, home of the college.
Now, in addition to resident faculty advisors, the college has a Director of Undergraduate Advising, Elizabeth Raisanen, Ph.D. Dr. Raisanen works as a liaison with academic departments and their advisors, coordinates the peer advisors from the college, plans programming for the Global Scholars Hall, and centralizes information about prestigious scholarships, fellowships, and internships.
Global Scholars Hall
All of this adds up to a lot of individual attention for CHC students.
“The Global Scholars Hall is home to students in the Robert D. Clark Honors College who can attend lectures, discussions, film screenings, and academic advising offered right where they live. Students in the five language immersive communities in Spanish, German, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and French share a section of rooms with other people studying the same language so that they can become more fluent through everyday communication,” according to the university.
“Whether chatting in German while eating lunch in the Fresh Market cafe or learning to make sushi in the demonstration kitchen, students in these programs will create and participate in a global academic experience.”
The CHC is a “small liberal arts college of approximately 800 students within a renowned research university. The Clark Honors College features small classes and close interaction between students and faculty. It emphasizes interdisciplinary scholarship and independent research in a tight-knit, dynamic community of students and faculty,” according to the CHC.
“The Clark Honors College is made up of students from every department and school at the University of Oregon—from architects and musicians to biology and business majors—with classes designed to foster intense and creative exchange among different approaches and viewpoints. This diversity of viewpoints is one of our greatest strengths. The CHC offers a broad, innovative, and rigorous curriculum in the arts and sciences, fulfilling all University of Oregon general education requirements.”
Some honors classes meet in Chapman Hall; the average class size for sections offered directly by the CHC is 16.9 students.
Classroom in Chapman Hall, before quarter begins
The Hall is undergoing renovations now, and will feature additional classroom space.
Admission is competitive. For Fall 2014, the median SAT score was 1320, and the median high school GPA was 3.91 on a 4.0 scale. The honors admission director is Paula Braswell. Editor’s note: Paula was our genial and knowledgeable “tour guide” during a recent visit to the CHC.
The annual U.S. News Best Colleges rankings are extremely useful and interesting, but not exactly because of the rankings themselves.
The rankings do not so much answer questions as raise them. Why did a college or university with a strong academic reputation and grad rates not do better? Why did another college with a weak academic reputation and so-so grad rates do so well? How much does class size matter?
Of course the rankings also provide great and useful stats about the questions raised above and about the test score ranges and high school GPA’s of enrolled students.
But when it comes to the rankings, what should matter most are grad and retention rates, class sizes, academic reputation, and, most problematically, the financial resources of colleges. The last should not be counted because it is the “input” factor for the other things measured as “outputs” and therefore only magnifies the impact of money.
The table below shows how the impact of “financial resources” can have such an impact on rankings. Only the College of William and Mary seems invulnerable to the typically damaging impact of low financial resources. The main reason is high grad rates, the 4th highest percentage (among top publics) of classes with 20 or fewer students, and the lowest percentage of classes with 50 or more students. Of course, William and Mary is, by far, the smallest of the leading publics.
The University of Washington has the most puzzling combination: a financial resources ranking significantly higher than the ranking of the school. For a while now, the numbers for UW have looked odd to us, although the school itself is at least on a par with Wisconsin, Illinois, and UT Austin.
UT Austin is a more typical case. The university is penalized not only for having relatively low financial resources (per student) but also because the resulting outputs (especially class sizes) are well below the mean. That UT Austin is too large to be ranked in proportion to its academic reputation may be the fault of the powers that be in Texas; but that it is penalized as well because of the low score in financial resources is, in effect, a double whammy.
The other side of the coin, so to speak, is that magnifying the wealth metric is a built-in boost to many private universities. Most public universities, however, do relatively well only in spite of the magnification of the wealth factor.
Because of the width of the table, readers will need to scroll horizontally to see the last one or two columns. If you want to track a single school while scrolling, just select the entire row and then scroll.
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two detailed articles that describe the complex and often confusing process of becoming a National Merit Scholar. You can read the first segment here.
Author Jane Mueller Fly isan attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Downtown Campus. Here is a sentence from part two:
“I know you don’t like to be annoying, but get over it. Remember, a full ride to college hangs in the balance.” The full article, below, tells you why.
In Part One, I discussed the steps in the National Merit Scholarship competition. Of course, it is the student who must ace the PSAT and have the impressive high school resume required to progress all the way to National Merit Scholar. But parents have a role to play as well, ensuring that their students have the best possible chance to grab the golden National Merit ring.
As parents, we walk a fine line between appropriately guiding our children, and stunting their growth with the wind from our helicopter blades. When do you step back and let them learn from their failures? When do you step in to help?
The National Merit Scholarship competition is one place where parent involvement may be vital to the student’s success. If the thought of too much involvement makes you cringe, however, consider this: should your student become a National Merit Finalist, he or she will be able to choose from a long list of colleges and universities offering generous scholarships, including many 4-year full rides. Let the hovering begin.
Many critics of the National Merit Scholarship competition believe it is based entirely on the PSAT, a short test administered by College Board and taken during the junior year of high school. The truth, however, is that students who ultimately progress to National Merit Scholar have cleared many more hurdles than just a high PSAT score. For example, the student must have stellar grades throughout high school. One D, or a couple of Cs, is enough to eliminate students from the competition. If your student is already a senior, then this advice comes a bit too late. But if you have younger students, or an older student with early-onset senioritis, you now have one more reason to encourage your student to keep up the grades.
As junior year approaches, many students begin preparing for the PSAT and other standardized tests. Prep courses, in person or online, may improve your student’s scores, but there is no reason to shell out the big bucks. Free online help is available from sources such as Khan Academy, and PSAT/SAT study guides are another inexpensive alternative. The parent’s role is to encourage your student to study for the PSAT. In particular, be sure they complete at least a couple of timed PSATs for practice. It will help them with pacing during the one that counts.
Of course, once test day is over, you and your student will be eager to see the scores. College Board sends PSAT scores to principals in December, but many schools wait until after winter break to distribute the scores and the code needed by students to view test results online. Keep track of the dates. When PSAT scores are due, don’t be shy about asking the school when scores will be distributed. Better yet, have your student ask.
Once you’ve seen the score, you may wonder whether your student is still in the running for National Merit Scholar. Many online forums have state-by-state lists showing the PSAT cutoff scores required in past years, so while you won’t know for certain for many months whether your student’s PSAT score will qualify him or her for Semifinalist, you can at least get some indication of where your student stands.
Of course every student should now be gearing up for the SAT and ACT. The PSAT score should give you an idea of areas requiring more focus. Your math genius may need to hone her Critical Reading skills. Your future writer may need to review the quadratic formula. For kids whose PSAT scores indicate they may qualify as National Merit Semifinalists, the SAT takes on new meaning. Be sure your student signs up and takes the SAT junior year, preferably while the PSAT material is still fresh. The goal for the National Merit competition is to reach at least a 1960 on the SAT, as this has historically been the score deemed to “confirm” the student’s PSAT score. (See Part One of this article for the method of calculating the SAT score for purposes of the National Merit Scholarship competition).
By taking the SAT during junior year, your student will have ample opportunities to retake the test if necessary to earn of score of 1960. Don’t forget that College Board must send the SAT score to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. This is a great use of one of your free SAT score reports. If it turns out that the SAT score does not meet or exceed 1960, no harm done. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation will accept the highest score, so your student can retake the SAT and submit the new scores.
This is a good time to stress three important points. First, the PSAT and SAT are products of College Board. The National Merit program, however, is run by a private non-profit called the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, or NMSC. College Board and NMSC are two different entities. Second, as many frustrated parents have learned, most communication related to the PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship competition is sent to students via their high school principals.Third, many school administrators are unaware that the correspondence they receive has not also been sent to the student. One parent was told flat out by the principal that students know their PSAT scores well before the school is notified. While this would certainly make sense, it just is not true.
Another parent was advised by a guidance counselor that NMSC mails Semifinalist letters to students’ home addresses. Again, not true, unless your student is home-schooled, in which case the school and home address are the same. But it is completely understandable that the principal and guidance counselor would believe the information had already been sent to you. And while, for many parents and students, news from NMSC is of highest priority, your high school administrators must also deal with matters such as new education legislation and a sophomore smoking weed in the parking lot. So cut them some slack.
Sometime in April, principals will be notified which, if any, of their students have scored in the top 50,000 nationwide. The principal is asked to verify data submitted by the student that confirms the student’s eligibility for the competition. As usual, this notification is not sent to parents or students, and very often the school does not pass the information on to parents, so don’t be surprised if you are never notified that your student is on the list. By now you should already know your student’s PSAT score and the online forums will be buzzing with news of the nationwide score needed to place in the top 50,000. If you think your student’s name should be on the list, but you cannot relax without knowing for sure, by all means contact the school or, better yet, have your student do so.
While parents and students are eager for this news, the more significant notification from NMSC arrives in September and, as usual, is sent to the principal. This notification provides a letter for each student who has qualified, by virtue of the PSAT score, as one of 16,000 Semifinalists. The letter includes the login information needed so that the student may begin the online application for Finalist. The letter also, unfortunately, advises the principal that the information is not to be made public until a later date. While the letter does in fact permit the principal to notify parents and students of Semifinalist standing, the policy at many schools is to not release the information to anyone, not even to students and parents, until the moratorium on publicity is lifted.If your student is not one of the lucky ones called immediately to the principal’s office for the good news, then keep an eye on the online forums where a state-by-state cutoff list will begin to materialize as qualifying students post their scores.
Eventually, though, your student must gain access to the letter sent to the principal. Parents, don’t be timid. By now you’ve been somewhat assured, by complete strangers who posted state cutoff scores online, that your student has qualified as a Semifinalist. Have your student talk to his guidance counselor, and if that doesn’t work, send an email or place a call yourself. Remember, the good people at the school probably believe that NMSC sent you an identical letter. And they have that stoned sophomore to deal with. They won’t mind a friendly email from you:
“Dear Ms. Jones, We are eagerly awaiting news as to whether our son has qualified as a National Merit Semifinalist, and I just learned that notification letters have been sent to the high schools. I know you’re busy, but could you please let me know if my son is a Semifinalist? If so, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation says he has to have the login information from the letter in order to complete an online application, so would you please also give him a copy of the letter?“
There. That was easy.
So now you have the letter containing the secret code, and your student can log in to the NMSC website to begin the application. Be sure your student takes the application, including the essay, seriously. An anecdote has circled for years about a permanent Semifinalist (a student who did not progress to Finalist) whose essay lambasted the National Merit program. This is not a time for your child to become an anecdote. The essay matters. Once complete, be sure your student’s part of the application, and confirming SAT score, are submitted on time.
The other half of the application is to be completed by someone at the high school, and while it seems this is out of your control, it behooves you to stay on top of the process. It is also in the best interest of the school for your student, and all the school’s Semifinalists, to advance in the competition.
This part of the application requires that the principal “endorse” the student–a no brainer unless your kid was once that stoned sophomore or had other behavioral transgressions. The school must also list each course your student completed and grades (semester or quarter grades, depending upon which grades are used in your school’s GPA calculations). If your student has even one D or one or two Cs during high school, that may be enough to disqualify him or her from the competition. Be sure the guidance counselor realizes this and ask that it be addressed in the application. An explanation may make the difference. For example, the guidance counselor can address facts such as if the grade was in 9th grade and the student has matured since then, the student had a major illness that semester, etc. The school must also evaluate the student’s academic achievement, extracurricular accomplishments and personal character and qualities, along with rigor of courses. If your school has more than one Semifinalist, all can be ranked at the highest level, so be sure your guidance counselor understands this.
Finally, the guidance counselor must submit a recommendation for the student. Perhaps your student is well known in the counselor’s office. But for many students, particularly in large schools, the guidance counselor has never had an opportunity to really get to know them. Writing a recommendation letter may be a challenge. So help your student put together a short resume listing things he or she may wish to have included in the recommendation letter: favorite courses, extracurricular activities, leadership positions, awards, community service commitments, employment, etc. Then have your student deliver the resume in person (preferably) or by email to the guidance counselor (or whomever is going to write the recommendation letter) with a short note.
“Dear Ms. Jones, Thank you for writing the National Merit recommendation letter for me. Here is a short resume I put together for you, just in case you need details about my activities in high school.”
If the guidance counselor needs the information, it will be readily available.
Parents are always worried that a deadline will be missed. In this regard, let me assure you of two things. First, you have a phone. Shortly before the deadline, pick up the phone and call NMSC. They will confirm whether the school has submitted the online application, and whether the SAT score requirement has been met. If the application has not yet been submitted, you have time to send a friendly reminder to the school. Then check back with NMSC. Then remind the school again. Lather, rinse, repeat. I know you don’t like to be annoying, but get over it. Remember, a full ride to college hangs in the balance. Your school administrators would prefer a friendly reminder as the deadline approaches rather than an irate phone call after the deadline has passed. Second, the NMSC makes great efforts to ensure that no student falls through the cracks, particularly over something out of the student’s control. Rest assured that even if the school fails to submit the application on time, or the SAT score is not received, or any number of other items is missing, a reminder will be sent.
Finally, there is an appeal process through NMSC available for students who do not progress to Finalist. But, as 15 out of 16 Semifinalists do progress to Finalist, I certainly hope you won’t need to appeal.
In summary, your student is busy being a senior, and could easily miss an important deadline. And your school’s administrators are busy dealing with more issues than you can imagine. So while you may not wish to be a helicopter parent, this is one time when you need to hover just a bit.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of two detailed articles that describe the complex and often confusing process of becoming a National Merit Scholar. If you are already familiar with the PSAT qualifying test itself and the preliminary steps, you can scroll down to where you are in the process. At the end of the article is a discussion of the special terminology used by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The next installment will focus on the parent’s role in the process.
Author Jane Mueller Fly isan attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Downtown Campus.
In October of each year, 1.5 million high school juniors will sit for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT. For many, the test is just what the name implies: a preliminary SAT. But for others it is the opening bell for two years of anxiety also known as the National Merit Scholarship competition.
The Competition Begins with the PSAT. The PSAT/NMSQT (let’s just call it the PSAT) is the initial hurdle students must clear on the way to becoming National Merit Scholars. Scores are sent in December to the student’s high school. As you will see, notification through the high school is a continuing National Merit theme. The policy at many schools is to wait until after winter break to distribute the scores. So students and parents wait. Update: Students who took the October 2017 test should be able to get their scores in mid-December from the College Board.
The Top 50,000 Scores Nationwide. In April, high school principals are notified which, if any, of their students are among the top scoring 50,000 juniors nationwide. The principals are asked to confirm that those students are eligible for the National Merit Scholarship competition. These 50,000 students will continue in the competition. The remaining 1.45 million juniors are out.
The score required to rank in the top 50,000 fluctuates year to year. For students in the class of 2016, who took the PSAT as juniors in the fall of 2014, a score of 202 placed them in the top 50,000 scorers. Update: Students who took the PSAT in October 2017 will receive two scores, one a total test score ranging from 320 to 1520, and the other a selection index score from 48 to 228. Please see this recent post for qualifying selection index scores for the NMS Class of 2017.
Students in the top 50,000 scorers are guaranteed to be at least Commended Students, but all students are hoping to progress to National Merit Semi-Finalist. At this point in the competition, students and parents alike should hunker down for the long wait, because Semifinalists will not be notified until September of their senior year.
Semifinalists: The Top Scores by State. The lone criterion for progressing to Semifinalist is the PSAT score. Like the score required for Commended Students, the Semifinalist cutoff fluctuates year to year. But unlike the Commended Student cutoff score (209 for the class of 2017), which is the same for all students nationwide, the score required to progress to Semifinalist depends on the state in which the student attends high school. For example, students in the class of 2017 in North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming progressed to Semifinalist with a score of 209, while New Jersey seniors needed a stellar 222.
Perhaps you noticed that the class of 2017 Semifinalist cutoff score in the four lowest scoring states is the same as the nationwide Commended Student cutoff score. This means that there are no Commended Students in the class of 2017 in those four states, but don’t expect complaints from those students, as they have all progressed to Semifinalist.
Approximately 16,000 students will meet or exceed their state’s cutoff score, and will therefore be named Semifinalists. In early September of their senior year, they will be notified by, you guessed it, their high school principals. At this point, of the top scoring 50,000 students, the 34,000 students who are not named Semifinalists are officially National Merit Commended Students. This is of course a great honor, but a disappointment to many students, particularly to students who scored 221 in New Jersey, knowing that they would be Semifinalists in the other 49 states.
While the score required to progress to semifinalist varies from state to state, it is important to note that the NMSC does not publicize the state cutoff scores. This is a cause of great frustration to students eagerly awaiting a congratulatory call to the principal’s office. The letter sent by NMSC to high school principals in early September names the Semifinalists, and provides important login information Semifinalists need in order to complete the online application for Finalist. The letter advises principals the news may be shared only with the students and their families, not anyone else, including media sources, until a later date.
Many principals choose to withhold the information from the anxious students, however, until the date the information may be made public. Other principals reasonably but erroneously believe that students have already received the news at their home addresses. Not true, as every Semifinalist knows. In this age of Internet forums and homeschoolers, however, the state-by-state cutoff scores tend to leak out. Homeschool “principals” who received the Semifinalist letters at their homes, and those seniors whose principals already shared the news, post their qualifying scores, or their heartbreaking just-misses, to online forums. A Texas student excitedly posts that she made Semifinalist with her score of 221, but her best friend did not with a score of 219, and later a homeschool parent posts that her son made the cut with a 220. And so it goes, state by state, until a complete state cutoff list materializes.
At this point in the National Merit Competition, it has been eleven months since the students sat for the PSAT exam in the fall of their junior year. Anxiety builds.
Finalists. The next step for the 16,000 Semifinalists is to submit an application to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, or NMSC. The application is done entirely online, and may be accessed only by using the code included in the letter to the high school principal. Students and parents alike agonize over delays in gaining access to the secret code and hence the application. Once the student finally obtains the login details from the high school principal, the application is quite straightforward. The student is required to write a short essay about, perhaps, a person or experience that influenced him or her. The student must also list extracurricular activities, honors, employment, etc.
One additional requirement is that the student submit a “confirming” SAT score.The confirming score is not the student’s actual SAT score, however. It is based on a unique calculation of the student’s Math section score plus the Evidence Based Reading/Writing score. (Please see this post for a detailed discussion of PSAT and confirming SAT scores and calculations.)
Meanwhile, the student’s guidance counselor should be hard at work completing his or her half of the application requiring the principal’s endorsement of the student, a recommendation letter for the student, courses and grades for the first three years of high school, and an evaluation of the student’s course rigor, academic achievement, extracurricular accomplishments and personal character and qualities. The completed applications are due in October.
After the application is submitted, the waiting game begins again. Sometime in February, 1000 students will receive letters at their home addresses advising them that they are not advancing to Finalist. Their high school principal is also notified. Throughout February, checking the mailbox is a stressful ordeal, not only for students whose high school grades leave much to be desired, but also for the 4.0 student who worries that his course load was too light, or wonders if his guidance counselor might have written a not-so-good recommendation. Anxious mailbox stalking continues until good news arrives for the 15,000 students who will become Finalists.
The 1000 who do not advance in the competition are now “Permanent Semifinalists.”Anecdotal evidence from online forums indicates that these 1000 students often had low grades in high school. One D or a couple of Cs, even if those grades were earned freshman year, is enough to knock a student out of the competition. Other students with such grades, however, do progress to Finalist. Perhaps a compelling essay, an unusually rigorous course load, or a convincing recommendation from the guidance counselor, tips the scales.
Naming Your First Choice College. Once the 15,000 Semifinalists have been selected, decisions must be made as to which students will receive official Merit Scholarship awards. Students may log on to the NMSC website and enter the name of their first choice college or may choose “undecided.” By the deadline, however, at the end of May (or earlier for some colleges), students should have named their first choice college. Otherwise, they will not be eligible for a college-sponsored Merit Scholarship award.
National Merit Scholars. Of the 15,000 Finalists, approximately 7,600 will become National Merit Scholars. It is perhaps this moniker that is most confusing, as often the term National Merit Scholar is used for all students earning Commended Student, Semifinalist or Finalist status. In fact, National Merit Scholar is a specific designation reserved for only those Finalists who are awarded an official Merit Scholarship award. The great news, however, is that this recognition is in the hands of the student.
Official Merit Scholarship awards derive from three sources. The first source, the NMSC itself, awards $2500 scholarships. The second source is corporations, which award approximately 1000 scholarships, usually to children of employees. Currently there are about 240 corporate sponsors. The third source, and the one that is in the hands of the students, is colleges and universities. Approximately 200 colleges and universities, eager to enroll National Merit Finalists, offer official Merit Scholarship awards to 4000 students each year.
National Competition? What Do You Think? Each year, as the online forums buzz with news of the PSAT cutoff scores needed to progress to Semifinalist in each state, the National Merit naysayers complain about the broad range of qualifying scores. It does not seem fair that a 202 in Wyoming can become a National Merit Scholar, earning a 4-year full ride to college, while a 224 in New Jersey is out of the competition at the Commended Student level. The competition is not, say the naysayers, “national”.
As a parent myself, in a state with a traditionally high PSAT cutoff score, I understand the frustration. The NMSC, however, is a private non-profit corporation, and is free to set rules as it sees fit. It is, after all, giving away money to lots of students, which is much better than not giving away money, right? The competition is “national” in that each state is awarded a number of Semifinalists based on that state’s share of graduating seniors. The more graduating seniors in a state, the more Semifinalists that state will have. When all PSATs are graded, and listed from highest to lowest scores, a line is drawn at the score that will most nearly result in the correct number of Semifinalists from each individual state. Each state is equally represented on a per capita basis.
Many believe a more fair process would provide one nationwide Semifinalist cutoff score, but that would result in a greater number of Semifinalists from the high-scoring states. New Jersey, California and Massachusetts would be brimming with Semifinalists, and ultimately, therefore, National Merit Scholars, while certain other states would have few. And that, in my mind, would not result in a truly “national” competition.
The Parent’s Role in the National Merit Scholarship Competition. While hand-wringing is an excellent place to start, I have some other ideas. Stay tuned for the next installment.
Vocabulary: Still Confused? If you are gearing up for the National Merit Scholarship competition, you might as well learn the lingo.
NMSC. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a private non-profit entity that runs the National Merit Scholarship competition.
College Board. Administers the PSAT/NMSQT. Don’t confuse College Board with NMSC. They are separate entities.
PSAT/NMSQT. The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Those in the know just call it the PSAT.
Commended Students. Students who score above the national cutoff score for Commended status, but below the state score needed to advance to Semifinalist.
National Merit Semifinalists. 16,000 students who meet the cutoff scores needed in their states to advance in the competition. In other words, the top scoring students in each state..
Permanent Semifinalists. Approximately 1000 Semifinalists who do not progress to Finalist.
National Merit Finalists. 15,000 students who advance from Semifinalist in their senior year.
National Merit Scholar. Any Finalist who receives an official Merit Scholarship award from the NMSC, a corporate sponsor, or a college sponsor.
Merit Scholarship award. One of the three types of official Merit scholarships awarded as part of the National Merit Scholarship competition. The three types are the National Merit $2500 scholarship awarded from the NMSC, corporate-sponsored awards, and college-sponsored awards. These awards should not be confused with the additional scholarship packages offered to National Merit Finalists by many colleges. When a large package is offered by a college or university, it usually consists of a small official Merit Scholarship award, for example $2500 over 4 years, as well as additional scholarship funds available to Finalists.
The U.S. News rankings for 2016 are something of a tribute to major University of California universities. For 2016, six UC institutions are among the top 41 national universities, though none is higher than 20th (Berkeley). But if one looks closely at the UC scores in major output categories and in the financial resources category, there are some interesting differences. Academic reputation, though not a “pure” output category, is also discussed below.
As we have noted several times on this site, by assigning weight for the amount of financial resources and for the outputs related to those resources (class size, ratios of students to faculty), the U.S. News rankings magnify wealth. The outputs alone are what should be included.
UC Berkeley and UCLA, ranked 20th and 23rd overall, are strong across the board. At both schools the majority of class sections have 20 students or fewer. Both have strong academic reputations along with high grad and retention rates. What most people might not guess is that UCLA is ranked 20th among all national universities in financial resources, and Berkeley 39th.
UC San Diego and UC Davis, ranked 39th and 41st overall in 2016, score well below average among top 20 public universities in the class size metrics. But along with solid grad/retention rates they also rank 21st and 32nd in financial resources, providing them with a boost more typical of private universities. UC San Diego and UC Davis both score 3.8 in the rep metric.
UC Irvine, ranked 39th, is well-balanced overall except that its academic reputation is a relatively modest 3.6 out of 5. This compares to UC Berkeley’s 4.7 and UCLA’s 4.2.
UC Santa Barbara, meanwhile, has the second lowest academic rep score among the top 20 public schools, 3.5., and ranks only 67th in financial resources. But UCSB gets it done by having more smaller classes and strong grad/retention rates.
Except for some slight dropoffs in scores for academic reputation and the larger classes at Davis and San Diego, the UC campuses prosper in the rankings because they don’t have shortcomings in more than one or two metrics. And only one–UCSB–ranks worse than 60th in the questionable category of financial resources.
Two other factors that help the UC campuses in the rankings is that first-year entrants are highly qualified, both in test scores and class standing. Applicants who are not accepted as freshmen often attend community colleges and Cal State universities, and when they transfer with high GPA’s, they have a proven record that contributes to the high average grad rates at the six UC’s discussed above: 88%.
The UC approach is preferable by far to the automatic admission rules at the University of Texas at Austin, at least from the standpoint of rankings and graduation rates. The legislatively-imposed “top 10% rule” at UT (actually top 8% in 2016) leads to the admission of students whose class standing at a poor high school carries the same weight as the class standing at the most rigorous high schools.
If these students attended less demanding state universities for their first year or two and did extremely well (the California model), their chances of succeeding would likely improve. Many would not be admitted at all as freshmen to a major UC campus regardless of high school class rank because of low test scores or insufficiently demanding high school classes.
Even if UT Austin maintained its (too large) enrollment levels demanded by the legislature, having better qualified freshmen and transfers would kick up the graduation rate (now 81%). The academic reputation of UT (4.0) and, indeed the real strength of its academic departments, should place the university in the top five or six among public research institutions.
The problem in Austin is not UT; the problem is the state legislature a few blocks away.
Note: UT Austin has outstanding honors programs that concentrate the academic excellence at the university and feature much smaller classes: Plan II, Liberal Arts Honors, Business Honors, Engineering Honors, and multiple Natural Science honors programs.
Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted. In fairness to UT Austin, of which I am an alum, the multiple honors programs there are outstanding and offset the issues with class size and graduation rates by concentrating the excellence of the university.
Although the Lee Honors College at Western Michigan University offers more than 40 sections of all-honors classes, with an average class size of fewer than 16 students, perhaps the most impressive feature of the college is the range of inventive co-curricular learning options available to the college’s 1,785 students.
As a reminder, the term co-curricular refers to learning experiences that complement classroom learning, whether for credit or not. Increasingly, co-curricular activities provide credits for participants.
Dr. Carla Koretsky, Dean of the college, tells us that one of the co-curricular options is the Study in the States “placed-based” learning series. Offered for three credit hours, mostly in the summer, the courses are capped at 8-10 honors students.
“Students, a faculty member and an honors college staff member travel for 7-10 days to study something outside of the state of Michigan,” Dean Koretsky says. “Students receive honors, and typically also general education credit for these courses. Students pay the regular tuition rate and the honors college pays all expenses associated with the travel for every student in the course (airfares, ground transportation, lodging, meals, incidentals).”
Recent courses include:
Garbage in Gotham: Anthropology/environmental studies course in New York City.
Texas Tour: Business course in Austin, San Antonio and Houston, TX.
Entrepreneurship: Business course in Austin, TX and Boulder, CO with additional travel to Detroit, Grand Rapids, Chicago and Cincinnati.
Vue d’Afrique: French film course to the African Film festival in Montreal.
Disney Pilgrimage: Interdisciplinary course traveling from Chicago, IL to Los Angeles, CA
The college also offers a weekly Lyceum Lecture series, featuring a weekly talk by a faculty, staff or community expert. Recent themes include Climate Change, Race Matters, Living with Uncertainty, Globally Engaged Citizenship and Sustainable Energy Future.
A Metropolitan series takes small groups of students to museums and cultural events. “Recent groups have visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Art Prize Competition in Grand Rapids and the Arab American Museum in Dearborn,” Dean Koretsky says.
A Peer Student Success Team, comprised of upperclassmen who serve as mentors to incoming freshmen, “hold office hours in the honors residence hall, help with our events and organize at least four volunteer group events for honors students each semester.
“The honors college has a Common Read book for freshmen, who are given a hard copy of the book during summer orientation. We begin fall welcome week with a facilitated discussion of our book and invite the author to campus in the fall semester to discuss the book and meet with honors students. Recent books include The Events of October, the Life of Pi, Tell the Wolves I’m Home and Unbroken.”
The honors college has also spear-headed a major lecture series, Raise Your Voice, open to all students and the public, but especially promoted to honors students. “The series theme is understanding and preventing gender-based violence and hostility. Speakers include Anita Hill, Jackson Katz, Wagatwe Wanjuki, Soraya Chemaly, Tatayana Fazlalizadeh and Gloria Steinem.”
The presence of extensive co-curricular offerings is no indication that classroom learning has been slighted at the college. It is unusual for honors colleges and programs to offer only all-honors classes–sections that are not “mixed” or “contract” courses where honors students may been the minority of those enrolled. All the honors sections at the college are all-honors sections.
Even better news: all of the major disciplines are included. English, history, math, chemistry, philosophy, business, psychology, economics, political science, and health-related classes are all a part of the course schedule.
In addition, the college has an honors residential hall (Ackley) and includes priority registration for honors students during all four years of study. Prospective honors students often succeed in the Medallion Scholarship competition. “All competitors receive a 1-year $3000 scholarship and automatic admission to the honors college. Semi-finalists receive $6000 over 2 years and approximately 20 finalists receive $60,000 over 4 years. Finalists who complete an undergraduate degree in less than four years may use remaining funds for graduate study.
“We also offer honors scholarships for study abroad (up to $3000) and to pursue research and creative activities (up to $3000). These are awarded through a competitive application process.”
Prospective students should know that the minimum admissions requirements are a high school GPA of 3.6 and ACT score of 26. The six-year graduation rate for honors entrants is 81 percent.
Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted.