Here Are 23 Reasons for College Choice–and a Note on the Honors Option

Editor’s note: The following list comes from a post by college consultant Nancy Griesemer, who writes regular for the Washington Examiner. Read the full post, and consult the always fascinating UCLA Freshman Report for more information.

Griesemer notes in her post that while 73% of applicants are accepted by their first choice college, only 55% end up enrolling at that institution. Clearly, cost is a big factor behind these stats, and points to an issue of concern to us: finding a place for students smart enough to get into elite private colleges but cannot attend the private school of their choice for financial reasons.

In addition, with the current emphasis on selectivity as a major metric in the U.S. News rankings, highly talented students are being ever more widely recruited by elite universities and, at the same time, finding their odds of acceptance significantly reduced. For these students, the relatively high first choice acceptance cited above does not obtain.

So…insufficient merit aid to offset costly private tuition and expenses, plus capricious selectivity designed to make schools look better by  rejecting smart applicants, have helped boost public honors programs where students can find quality at a lower cost, along with a better overall mix of students.

The arrows below indicate whether the response percentage has increased or decreased since the previous year’s survey.

1. College has a very good academic reputation (65.4 percent)↑
2. This college’s graduates get good jobs (53.4 percent)↑
3. I was offered financial assistance (46.9 percent)↓
4. The cost of attending this college (44.9 percent)↓
5. College has a good reputation for social activities (42.8 percent)↓
6. A visit to the campus (42.4 percent)↓
7. Wanted to go to a college about this size (36.6 percent)↓
8. Grads get into good grad/professional schools (32.9 percent)↓
9. Percent of students that graduate from this college (31.1 percent)↑
10. Wanted to live near home (20.7 percent)↑
11. Information from a website (18.8 percent)↑
12. Rankings in national magazines (18 percent)↑
13. Parents wanted me to go to this school (17.2 percent)↓
14. Admitted early decision and/or early action (15.7 percent)↑
15. Could not afford first choice (14.1 percent)↓
16. Not offered aid by first choice (10.6 percent)↓
17. High school counselor advised me (10.4 percent)↑
18. Athletic department recruited me (9.1 percent)↓
19. My relatives wanted me to come here (8 percent)↑
20. Attracted by religious affiliation/orientation of college (7.3 percent)↓
21. My teacher advised me (7.2 percent)↑
22. Private college counselor advised me (4.6 percent)↑
23. Ability to take online courses (4.1 percent)↑



National Science Foundation Fellowships 2015: Publics vs. Private Elites

Keeping up with the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program grants is an annual project we undertake because the grant stipend, valued currently at $32,000 a year for three years of graduate work plus a separate $12,000 a year paid directly to the university for costs, are so generous that prospective undergrads might want to know graduates of their college of choice perform in the NSF GRFP competition.

The grants go to students with very high college gpa’s (around 3.70 and above) along with outstanding GRE test scores. Grantees must submit proposals to do research in one of the STEM disciplines or social sciences. Most grants are for STEM students.

This year we will list the top 30 universities, both public and private, whose students were named as NSF GRFP fellows in 2015. It is true that many public universities have much larger overall undergraduate enrollments, so one might expect that those schools would have the most NSF fellows; on the other hand, the private elites are far more selective, and one would think that a far higher percentage of their undergraduates should be competitive for the awards. We write primarily for prospective honors students and their parents, so our perspective is that the best students in leading public universities can compete with those coming from private elites, and the NSF awards are one indication that this is the case.

One indication of a rough parity is that the top two universities are far and away the best this year–MIT and UC Berkeley–one private, the other public. Both are perennial leaders in this category.

Below are the leading universities for NSF fellowships in 2015. All the schools had at least 15 NSF fellows.

MIT 63
UC Berkeley 60
Harvard 37
Florida 29
UT Austin 29
Washington 29
Cornell 28
UC San Diego 27
Columbia 26
Caltech 25
Penn 23
Chicago 22
Brown 21
Princeton 21
Georgia Tech 20
Northwestern 20
Michigan 19
Wisconsin 19
Yale 19
Illinois 18
Maryland 18
Minnesota 18
UC Irvine 18
Stanford 18
Texas A&M 17
Rice 17
Arizona State 16
Penn State 16
Washington Univ 15




Note to Parents: Changes in Major, Uncertainty about Careers Are Common

In this age of anxiety about finding a good job after college, many parents are understandably concerned if their sons and daughters haven’t settled on a major in their first year of study, or if they have changed their major from a lucrative field such as engineering to, say, a social science field.

The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA is renowned for its insightful reports on the characteristics and attitudes of college students, especially during the freshman and senior years.  The latest HERI survey report on Your First College Year has revealing data about the career focus (or lack thereof) and the frequency with which majors are changed during the extremely important first year.  The survey is based on responses of more than 10,000 students at 47 colleges and universities.

Here’s a quick summary:

  • 90% of first-year students found that college had “frequently” or “occasionally” inspired them to think in new ways;
  • partly as a result, 34% changed their majors;
  • 32% changed their career choices;
  • 59% thought it was important to be focused on their career path after college;
  • but only 25% had a clear idea of how to achieve career goals.

Even though many first-year students were not clear about majors and careers, their ability to sort all of this out, along with other problems they will encounter, grew dramatically during that critical year:

  • 31% of students reported at the beginning of the year that they were only “average” at critical thinking skills, but of these, 43% reported their skills as “somewhat of a strength” at year’s end;
  • and of the 27% of students who felt at the beginning of the year that they were only average in problem-solving skills, 43% thought their problem-solving skills were somewhat of a strength at the end of the year.

So parents, if your son or daughter doesn’t have it all figured out after that first year, take heart.  The very complexity that they are dealing with is teaching them at the same time how to figure things out, including their eventual majors and career paths.

Gallup and Purdue Study: Well-being for Grads Requires More than Income

What is most important about the “college experience”?  Good grades, of course.  But a recent report finds that the most important elements can be more difficult to measure.

Most parents and prospective students place an understandable emphasis on the employment and graduate school placement prospects for the graduates of a particular institution, but The Gallup Purdue Index of Well-Being makes a powerful argument that the long-term well-being for college grads is largely the result of the degree of engagement they have in the workplace, and not just the amount of money they earn.

Given the high cost of college, the Report assumes that the benefits of graduation should go beyond high starting pay and include the enjoyment of a well-lived life.  Gallup and Purdue do not discount the value of financial rewards but place them in a broader qualitative context.

The Report measures and describes the college experiences that lead to more fulfilling workplace engagement and a greater sense of well-being in the following areas:

  • Purpose–enjoying work and being motivated to do your best.
  • Social Well-Being–having love and support in your life.
  • Financial Well-Being–having sufficient financial resources to reduce stress and enhance security.
  • Community Well-Being–working within the local community, enjoying where you live, pride in the community.
  • Physical Well-Being–feeling well enough to do good work and enjoy life.

So what are the college experiences that promote engagement in the workplace and a sense of well-being in the above areas?

Students who believed that their college was a great fit for them (regardless of size and selectivity), who had professors who showed interest and made their subjects exciting, and who believed that their school prepared them well for life after college had the greatest degree of workplace engagement.

The Report demonstrates that the type of college makes little difference in workplace engagement and overall well-being, except that for-profit colleges do not promote a high degree of well-being and engagement.  The differences between public and private not-for-profit colleges, and between highly selective and less selective colleges, were minimal.  The most important elements were what students were doing in college and how they were experiencing their activities, rather than the elite or non-elite status of the school.  This finding seems to enforce what most college admissions counselors say: the most important thing for the student is finding the best fit.

More specifically, college experiences that promote engagement and prepare students for life after college are these:

  • Professors and mentors who provide inspiration, excitement, encouragement, and commitment.
  • Internships, preferably paid at some point, that directly connect university learning with the outside world.
  • Extracurricular activities, including social and special interest clubs, that directly connect learning with social engagement.
  • Long-term projects of a semester or more, including theses and capstone projects, which associate education with “deep learning” and not merely with rushed preparation for exams.
  • On-campus residence.
  • Minimal student loan debt, which is directly related to financial well-being.

The Report suggests that parents and prospective students should make direct inquiries about the best professors in the student’s proposed field of study and their availability; undergrad research programs and the means of gaining mentors; the availability of internships, including some that are paid; the presence of clubs or social groups that align with the student’s interests; and the opportunities for “deep learning” and the ways students can be aware of them and seize the opportunities.

One further implication of the Report is that a dramatic increase in online instruction would seriously diminish the advantages and a residential college experience can have for future workplace engagement and well-being.

In conclusion, we will note that many public honors colleges and programs make all of these elements more accessible, or even a part of their completion requirements.  Many require an honors thesis; they all provide opportunities for social engagement with serious students; most have connections to undergrad researchers and mentors; and most connect their students with small classes and top professors.  In addition, most have special honors residence halls and enhanced opportunities for financial aid, including non-need-based merit aid.


Princeton Review: Indiana, Iowa State, Michigan, UT Austin “Great Schools” for Business Majors

The 2015 edition of the Princeton Review takes the most popular college majors and then matches them with the 20 leading universities for those majors, as determined by student surveys and by advisers that the Review uses to assist with the rankings.

Four public universities–Indiana, Iowa State, Michigan, and UT Austin–made the top 20 lists for all three business-related majors covered by the Review: Accounting, Business/Finance, and Marketing.

In addition, James Madison University, the University of Houston, Michigan State, and Miami University made the top 20 lists in at least two of the business-related fields:

James Madison and the University of Houston–accounting and marketing; Michigan State–accounting and business/finance; and Miami University–business/finance and marketing.

Fifteen additional public universities made one of the top 20 lists:

Clemson, College of Charleston, Penn State, Temple, Texas A&M, Illinois, and UT Dallas–accounting.

Arizona State, Christopher Newport, CUNY Baruch, CUNY Brooklyn, Florida State, Portland State, Ohio University, and UC Berkeley–business/finance.

Central Florida, South Florida, and Mississippi–marketing.






So Just How Big Are Those Honors Classes, Anyway?

In another post, Honors College, Honors Program–What’s the Difference?, we noted among other things that the average honors class size in public honors colleges is about 19 students per section, and in public honors programs it is about 22 students per section.  These averages are for all honors courses only, not for all courses an honors student might take on the way to graduation.

The averages above include data for the many smaller honors seminars, often interdisciplinary rather than discipline-focused.  The average class size for seminars is in the 14-19 student range.  Please bear in mind that seminars often count for gen ed requirements, and their small size is a big advantage, aside from the advantages of their interdisciplinary approach.

But what about honors class size averages for sections in the major academic disciplines?   Partly in preparation for our new book, we took took the honors sections from 16 of the public universities we will review in the book and then calculated the actual enrollment averages in each section.  The academic disciplines we included were biology and biochemistry; chemistry; computer science and engineering; economics; English; history; math; physics; political science; and psychology.  The honors colleges and programs included three of the largest in the nation, along with several smaller programs.

Given the perilous state of the humanities, it is no surprise that the smallest classes are in English and history, while the largest are in computer science, chemistry, biology, and political science.

Here are the results of our recent analysis:

Biology–63 sections, average of 38.6 students.  (Bear in mind that many intro biology classes are not all-honors and are generally much larger, 100 or more, with separate weekly honors discussion sections, each with 10-20 students.  Same for into chemistry.)

Chemistry–33 sections, average of 40.3 students.

Computer Science/Computer Engineering–18 sections, average 54.3 students.

Economics–49 sections, average of 31.2 students.  (This is in most cases a significant improvement over enrollment in non-honors class sections.)

English–110 sections, average of 19.4 students.  This does not include many even smaller honors seminars that have a humanities focus.

History–58 sections, average of 16.2 students.  This likewise does not include many even smaller honors seminars with a humanities/history emphasis.

Math–44 sections, average of 24.7 students.  Most of the math sections are in calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, topology, vector analysis.

Physics–30 sections, average of 25.5 students.  Again, many honors programs do not offer honors classes in intro physics, so a student could still have large non-honors classes in that course.

Political Science–19 sections, average 34.4 students.  The striking point here is the small number of polysci sections offered–just over 1 per program, per semester on average.  The major has become extremely popular, so many sections outside of honors could be quite large.

Psychology–60 sections, average 28.9 students.  Another popular major, but more class availability in general.

A Methodology Change: We Will Have More Expansive Data for Prestigious Scholarships

All college ranking “systems” receive criticism based on the criteria they use, and our own efforts to evaluate honors colleges and programs have received a fair share of that criticism.

One component of our rating system is a measure of each university’s attainment of prestigious awards, such as Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, and Goldwater scholarships.  The criticism of this metric is based on the indisputable fact that not all of these awards are won by honors students.  But our view is that probably most of them are won by students who have either been in a core honors program at some point or who have at least been involved in departmental honors.  In addition, we believe that prospective honors students need to know what their prospects might be for winning one of these awards for themselves.  (We also will continue to have a second major ranking section that excludes the metric for prestigious scholarships and emphasizes only honors-specific factors.)

With that said, we agree that we have been too narrow in the scholarships we measure, and we have come to believe, based on our updated analysis, that in the first edition of our book the honors programs at a few institutions, most notably at the University of Maryland, Illinois, UCLA, and Rutgers were underrated, in part because of the scholarships we emphasized at that time. Accordingly, after months of research, we will expand the awards we use in calculations for the next edition of our book.  Awards in bold will be new additions.

Rhodes, Marshall, Gates Cambridge, Churchill, Truman, Udall, Goldwater, Fulbright*,
National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Grants, Boren, and Gilman. 

*Fulbright Student awards will now be counted for the three most recent years, as will Boren awards.  Fulbrights will not be adjusted for the size of the institution as was the case in the first edition.  Gilman scholars will be counted on a percentage basis.

The fact is that we have come to realize that only a very few public universities–or private universities, for that matter–excel in the attainment of all the awards listed above.  To maintain that the awards most familiar to the public, such as Rhodes, Marshall, and Truman scholarships, should trump lesser known awards would be to discount the strong impact of undergraduate awards (Goldwater, Udall, Boren, Gilman) and their important relation, in some cases, to undergraduate research.   Expanding the awards will also broaden the field of competition for our expanded list of programs, now 75 versus only 50 covered in the first edition.


Michigan, ASU, Rutgers, UT Austin Lead in 2013-2014 Fulbright Student Awards

The major research universities with the most Fulbright Student Award winners for 2013-2014 have been announced, and Michigan, Arizona State, Rutgers, and UT Austin are the leaders among public institutions.

Over the last four years, Michigan, Arizona State, and Rutgers lead all public universities, followed by North Carolina, Maryland, Washington, and UT Austin.

Fulbright scholarships are for work in foreign countries and cover a broad range of disciplines.  They, along with National Science Foundation Research Grants, are among the most prestigious awards for graduating seniors and beginning graduate students.

Below are the leading universities, public and private, for Fulbright Student Awards for 2013-2014.   We will list the university name, number of awards, and the number of applicants this year for awards.  Note that there is little correlation between the size of a university and the total number of applicants or the number of awards.

Harvard: 39 awards/234 applicants

Michigan: 32 awards/151 applicants

Arizona State: 26 awards/60 applicants

Princeton: 26 awards/82 applicants

Northwestern: 23 awards/106 applicants

UT Austin: 22 awards/70 applicants

Columbia: 21 awards/107 applicants

Yale: 21 awards/106 applicants

Cornell: 20 awards/67 applicants

Chicago: 20 awards/98 applicants

Boston College: 19 awards/85 applicants

UC Berkeley: 18 awards/62 applicants

Duke: 16 awards/54 applicants

Ohio State: 16 awards/72 applicants

Stanford: 16 awards/75 applicants

Penn: 16 awards/81 applicants

Maryland: 15 awards/41 applicants

Rochester: 15 awards/32 applicants

William & Mary: 14 awards/53 applicants

North Carolina: 14 awards/91 applicants

Georgetown: 13 awards/50 applicants

Tulane: 13 awards/52 applicants

Colorado: 13 awards/42 applicants

Pitt: 13 awards/51 applicants

Fordham: 12 awards/44 applicants

UC San Diego: 12 awards/25 applicants

Washington U: 12 awards/43 applicants

Johns Hopkins: 11 awards/54 applicants

NYU: 11 awards/49 applicants

Penn State: 11 awards/54 applicants

San Diego State: 11 awards/47 applicants

Washington: 11 awards/77 applicants




U.S. News 2014 Rankings: Lots of Changes for Public Universities

The U.S. News Best Colleges edition for 2014 is out, and the somewhat obscure changes in the magazine’s methodology this year have wrought many changes in the rankings of major public universities.

The 2013 rankings were especially unkind to public universities; the new rankings show gains by 23 of the 50 schools we follow most closely, while 19 declined and 8 remained the same.

Colorado, Penn State, Stony Brook, Vermont, and Indiana made the most dramatic gains.   The new rankings mark the second year in a row that Stony Brook has made a big leap, now ranking 82, versus 111 only two years ago.

What we do know about the changes in methodology probably explain the perhaps surprising fall of two public elites, UT Austin and Washington.  The new methodology places more emphasis on grad and retention rates, and these two schools likely did not better the expectations set by the magazine in these categories or actually fell below projected levels.  It is also possible, though less likely, that other schools performed much better in these categories than they did in 2013.

The magazine has not been forthcoming about possible changes in the weight given to academic reputation.  Both these schools have scored extremely well in that category in recent years, so a reduction in the weight of that category would hurt their rankings.

Alabama, Binghamton, Arizona State, and UC Irvine also fell by at least five places in the 2014 rankings.  It is important to keep in mind that very small statistical changes can result in a ranking difference of 4-6 places.

Below are the 50 universities we follow, showing by the symbols (-, +, or +) whether they fell, stayed the same, or gained in the rankings.  We also list each school’s rankings for a three-year span: 2012, 2013, and 2014.  Schools with gains of five or more places are listed in caps.

-Alabama—2014 (86); 2013 (77); 2012 (75)

+Arizona—2014 (119); 2013 (120); 2012 (124)

-Arizona State—2014 (142); 2013 (139); 2012 (132)

+ARKANSAS—2014 (128); 2013 (134); 2012 (132)

-Auburn—2014 (91); 2013 (89); 2012 (82)

-Binghamton—2014 (97); 2013 (89); 2012 (90)

+CLEMSON—2014 (62); 2013 (68); 2012 (68)

+COLORADO—2014 (86); 2013 (97); 2012 (94)

+CONNECTICUT–2014 (57); 2013 (63); 2012 (58)

=Delaware—2014 (75); 2013 (75); 2012 (75)

+FLORIDA–2014 (49); 2013 (54); 2012 (58)

+Georgia—2014 (60); 2013 (63); 2012 (62)

=Georgia Tech—2014 (36); 2013 (36); 2012 (36)

+ILLINOIS—2014 (41); 2013 (46); 2012 (42)

+INDIANA—2014 (75); 2013 (83); 2012 (75)

-Iowa—2014 (73); 2013 (72); 2012 (71)

=Iowa State—2014 (101); 2013 (101); 2012 (97)

+KANSAS—2014 (101); 2013 (106); 2012 (101)

-Maryland—2014 (62); 2013 (58); 2012 (55)

+MASSACHUSETTS—2014 (91); 2012 (97); 2012 (94)

+Michigan—2014 (28); 2013 (29); 2012 (28)

-Michigan State—2014 (73); 2013 (72); 2012 (71)

-Minnesota—2014 (69); 2013 (68); 2012 (68)

+Mississippi—2014 (150); 2013 (151); 2012 (143)

=Missouri—2014 (97); 2013 (97); 2012 (90)

=Nebraska—2014 (101); 2013 (101); 2012 (101)

=North Carolina—2014 (30); 2013 (30); 2012 (29)

+NC STATE—2014 (101); 2013 (106); 2012 (101)

+Ohio State—2014 (52); 2013 (56); 2012 (55)

+OREGON—2014 (109); 2013 (115); 2012 (101)

+PENN STATE—2014 (37); 2013 (46); 2012 (45)

-Pitt—2014 (62); 2013 (58); 2012 (58)

-Purdue—2014 (68); 2013 (65); 2012 (62)

-Rutgers—2014 (69); 2013 (68); 2012 (68)

+South Carolina—2014 (112); 2013 (115); 2012 (111)

+STONY BROOK—2014 (82); 2013 (92); 2012 (111)

-Texas A&M—2014 (69); 2013 (65); 2012 (58)

-UC Davis—2014 (39); 2013 (38); 2012 (38)

-UC Irvine—2014 49); 2013 (44); 2012 (45)

+UCLa 2014 (23); 2013 (24); 2012 (25)

-UC San Diego—2014 (39); 2013 (37); 2012 (38)

=UC Santa Barbara-2014 (41); 2013 (41); 2012 (42)

-University at Buffalo—2014 (109); 2013 (106); 2012 (111)

-UT Austin—2014 (52); 2013 (46); 2012 (45)

+VERMONT—2014 (82); 2013 (92); 2012 (82)

+Virginia—2014 23); 2013 (24); 2012 (25)

+Virginia Tech—2014 (69); 2013 (72); 2012 (71)

-Washington–2014 (52); 2013 (46); 2012 (42)

-Washington State—2014 (128); 2013 (125); 2012 (115)

=Wisconsin—2014 (41); 2013 (41); 2012 (42)


U.S. Has 24 of Top 50 Engineering and Tech Universities in the World

According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the U.S. is home to 24 of the top 50 engineering and technology universities in the world.

It is also notable that 13 of the 24 U.S. institutions are public universities.  The United States also has the top four schools on the Times list.

“The 2012-2013 Times Higher Education World University Rankings’ Engineering and Technology table judges world class universities across all of their core missions – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. The ranking of the world’s top 50 universities for engineering and technology employs 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators to provide the most comprehensive and balanced comparisons available, which are trusted by students, academics, university leaders, industry and governments.”

Here are the U.S. universities on the list, along with their rank:

1. Caltech

2. Princeton

3. MIT

4. UC Berkeley

5. Stanford


9. Georgia Tech

13. UT Austin

15. Carnegie Mellon

16. Northwestern

17. UC Santa Barbara

18. Cornell

19. Michigan

20. Illinois

21. Columbia

26. Penn

30. Rice

34. Washington

36. UC San Diego

41. Wisconsin

42. Purdue

45. Minnesota

48. UC Davis

49. Duke