Saturday, April 28, 2007

Marilee Jones: Shock, Sadness and Dispair

I have a hard time describing my emotions when I heard about Marilee Jones. I am saddened for her, the students of and applicants to MIT and her family. Each of them are suffering a great loss, for whatever the reason, from her leaving the position she has held for decades. Did she bring it upon herself? Absolutely, but that does not lessen the impact that she has had on the college admissions community nor the impact of the loss of her voice in the profession. She had a message that needed to be said and was able to be heard both because of the person she is, the position she held, the message she delivered and the consistency and firmness of her convictions. I honestly believe she moved the college admissions process in a more humane direction. I can't count how many times I have quoted her in presentations, writings and publications. Am I disappointed? Yes. Dissolusioned? No. Someone wrote to me comparing her dismissal as a Pete Rose moment, but for me it is more of a John Kennedy moment. I can hear the responses now: "She disgraced herself", "She showed a lack of integrity and honestly while preaching about ways of maintaining those qualities in the college admissions community." And, I can't disagree. But I can't help but feel sadness upon the loss of a leader with a message and a vision of sanity, compassion and concern. I truly fear that disillusionment with the person will translate into dismissal of the message and that would be a huge loss to our community. Certainly there are those, Lloyd Thacker the most vocal among them, who have dedicated their lives to changing how colleges act to recruit and select students. But Marilee's message was directed much more to the parents and students of how to live their lives. She went school to school (including ours) and town to town to deliver her message in a way that was engaging and effective. There is this true void now that I feel with a great amount of sorrow. There are a number of leaders who have shown poor judgment, (Gary Hart, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon), whose accomplishments were overshadowed by their errors in judgment. I hope that the disappointment I believe we all harbor to some extent or another does not cause us to minimize the extent of Marilee's contributions or power of her message.
On a Modular SAT: A discussion between Scott White, Director of Guidance at Montclair High School in NJ and Pamela T. Horne, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management and Dean of Admissions Purdue University
:
Original post by Scott White:

I was conversing via e-mail the other day with Brad Macgowen about the College Board's response to our proposal to allow students to take only one or two sections of the SAT at each testing (or at least, as the ACT does, make the essay section optional). I repeated my feeling that their reaction is like the Bush administration's response to global warning. They are studying it (interpretation: "ignoring something that they have total disregard for") and will only act on it if absolutely forced by circumstances.Well, we came up with a proposal: why not let the College Board know that we are serious about the need to serve students by withholding dues payments. Certainly, they do not need our money so this is a symbolic gesture. I see no advantage to College Board membership. What's the down side of stopping being a member? Not being able to vote? It does not seem as if they are bringing any substantive issues to the membership, thus our vote is meaningless. The College Board has moved so far from its original mission that it has ceased, in any meaningful way, to be a true membership organization.Save your school a few hundred dollars and make a statement at the same time. Let the College Board know that they need to be responsive to the needs of students and desires of its membership to earn our participation and membership.

Response from Pamela T. Horne:

Scott please let me assure you that the SAT modularity issue has been and continues to be thoroughly discussed by the Guidance and Admission Assembly National Council of which I am a member representing the Midwestern region. The SAT Committee has also been studying this issue for over a year. The College Board is not dragging its feet, but rather is working with the membership through the governance process. There is absolutely no consensus in GAAC or among the members whom I talk with in the Midwest around this issue. In fact, the sentiment among many members tends against test modularity for several reasons:

1) Access and gaming its very likely that it would be wealthier students who would have the time, resources, and access to advice from others to take advantage of modular testing“ already we know that low-income students frequently wait until the fall of senior year to test at all, and that they are much less likely to take multiple sittings of admissions tests we know that low-income and first-generation students are at schools with 600-1000 student to counselor ratios and would not have access to advice regarding taking the SAT in a modular fashion. I have already seen wealthy students who know that some scholarships use mix and match scores from multiple sittings as criteria blow off one part of the SAT in order to score well on others (700 math and 400 CR in one sitting and 600 math and 550 in an earlier one). And clearly, it is well-off students who have the time and resources to forgo multiple Saturday mornings work and family obligations and stack their test preparation for a single module at a time. Low income students don’t have those luxuries or privileges.
2) Concordance Admissions staff members are dependent upon the ACT Comp/SAT CR+Math concordance scale “ it is not appropriate nor would it be sound educational practice to compare candidates who have taken the SAT in a modular fashion with candidates who have taken the ACT in one sitting. In the interest of full disclosure, I can tell you that many of us in the admissions community (including all of the Big Ten) are advocating strongly with ACT that the writing exam be mandatory. You don’t have to deal with it being in an SAT-dominant part of the country but the optional writing exam has created serious confusion among students in the Midwest and the South with the high school counselors and admissions professionals holding the bag of communicating to students about whether or not they should opt for writing. I and others have told ACT that they have also sent a tacit message to high school students that writing skills are not important or at least optional (lets face it “ teens are not going to look at ACTs published reasons for not requiring it).
3) Whom would be protected by the availability of a modular SAT option and for what genuine purpose Millions of teenagers all over the world in other cultures sit for very high-stakes exams that last many hours over several days. These tests absolutely determine their fate and access to higher education (and in some places at ages much younger than 17 or 18). ALL US high school graduates have access to higher education, regardless of scores on standardized tests (no, not everyone has access to their top choices “ but neither will they throughout their lives always have access to first or top choices in jobs, location, etc that’s a part of being an adult and a human being). Are our American young people subject to more pressure than Chinese or German students? Of course not -- just the reverse is true. Are our American young people such hot house flowers that they cannot tolerate 4 hours (with several breaks) in one sitting? And honestly we all heard a lot of fuss from students and parents during the first year with writing there has been virtual silence on the issue of test length this year. I believe most students are pretty sturdy and accepting of change, especially when they know all of their peers are going through the same process.

The most common reason brought forward for modularity is fatigue if that is a disadvantaging factor (and the data so far do not support that it is) then it is a phenomenon that is experienced equitably and universally and is not a differentiating disadvantage among individual test-takers (yes, I understand that students with documented disabilities may be there for more than 4 hours). To allow or encourage modularity, however, would inevitably advantage those who are already advantaged and introduce an unsound psychometric variability in admissions assessments when SAT and ACT scores are compared.

The issue of whether or not there are benefits of College Board membership is another issue and another debate. Resigning membership due to opinion on this issue or any others is of course an option any educational institution can take. But if you post discussion around modularity issue (rather than College Board membership in general), I hope that you will include a full discussion of the issue and not just comments from those who agree with you.

I very much appreciate your passion and advocacy for your students -- but please remember that your students have access to you, a college-going culture throughout your school, and 25 AP courses. Your students would probably benefit from modularity, among the many other opportunities they have available. I don’t think the same can be said for a student from a farm in rural Indiana where there are 25 kids in his senior class, only 5 of whom aspire to a 4-year college, and maybe one part-time counselor for an entire school system. Nor could it be said for a neighborhood high school in inner city Detroit or the upper peninsula of Michigan were there isn’t an AP course (or the availability of even taking the SAT for that matter) within 200 miles. It’s a big country out there with very diverse needs. I believe that while we work to ensure a better education for all of our students that we should also preserve what little equity exists.

Scott White’s response with Pamela T. Horne’s’s comments (italicized)

Pam:

I appreciate your thoughtful and detailed response. You have obviously given this issue a lot of thought and reflection. Despite that, I disagree with virtually all your premises, whether on logistical, financial or educational grounds.

First to the argument that modular testing benefits the rich. Yes, in many communities students take the test only once. But we have a group of kids, quite a few in fact, who are lower income but not so low as to qualify for fee waivers. They do not take the test more than once not for logistical reasons but for financial ones. Two $45 fees are a real sacrifice. But if this kid had to re-take just the math portion, this would make a difference to this kid. Your example of kids who take the test only once is twisted logic...how do we not know that if there were modular testing that these students would not now re-test more often. Those students who test late and only once truly do not need modular testing but would not be disadvantaged by it. Most score very low and attend less selective or 2-year colleges.

You may be correct about potential benefits of modularity for those low-income students who have access to good counseling like yours; sadly, the vast majority do not Some of our differences in opinion may be regionally-based. It is not my experience (at 3 Big Ten universities in two states) that most students who test late end up attending 2-year colleges .Its not even necessarily true that they score very low “and I’ve reviewed hundreds of such files -- they just didn’t have access to college planning advice in their schools or homes that encouraged junior year testing. The Big Ten public universities enroll hundreds of fall-only testers each year as we do with all admissions factors; we review their test scores in a holistic manner, considering the context of their communities and their schools.

During my years in Michigan (at both UM and MSU), we worked very hard to try to convince urban (and rural for that matter) counselors that junior year testing was a good thing many were specifically advising their students to wait until senior year, under the assumption they would score higher later. But counseling staff at many urban schools move through a revolving door as hard as the universities committed to outreach worked, these messages were difficult to embed in schools that are not adequately or consistently staffed. This is one of the reasons that we started a free-of-charge one-day high school counselor conference funded by all the public universities in Michigan so we could continually help educate new counselors about these and other issues over 600 now attend this annual event. Most counselors in Midwest states have no funding or release time to attend ACAC meetings and the like. Its also why (more full disclosure) I personally lobbied hard with the Michigan State Board of Education and Legislature to replace the state junior-level assessment (which in my judgment as a parent and an educator did NOT serve any purpose other than complying with NCLB and giving some school districts bragging rights and higher real estate prices) with a college admissions test. I wanted every kid in Michigan to have the chance to test early, receive the helpful feedback that either ACT or College Board provides, get on college mailing lists, start to see themselves as college-bound, and test free (and have a re-test for free if they wish). I didn’t care which test I just wanted the kids to have the access I’m very proud that the Michigan Merit Exam, which includes a nationally portable ACT+writing, was administered to virtually every high school junior in Michigan for the first time this March. All Michigan kids also have the opportunity to re-test on a national testing date next fall for free. The test will also give the schools quicker feedback on their students that is nationally normed and relevant to their student’s futures not just a reflection of their pasts. The kids, knowing that they could have a personal stake in the outcome, are also taking the junior level assessment much more seriously. MI should see an immediate jump in the # of low-income and minority students attending college in 2008 it happened in IL and CO. Indiana is also considering a state-wide, state-funded admissions test in some ways I hope that it ends up being the SAT, because we are surrounded by states that have or are considering adopting the ACT for this purpose’s. The entire country benefits from having both tests and the competition keeps both testing services on their toes. I don’t want either College Board or ACT to have a national monopoly. But most importantly, it’s about the kids and access.

And just in case you might think I’ve been co-opted by the College Board, I also served on the Michigan ACT Council, chaired it a year ago, and was the keynote speaker at the Indiana ACT conference a few weeks ago. The Big Ten Admissions Directors and ACAOPU (directors from large publics all over the country) also meet very regularly with regional and national staff from both testing services. Leadership in both College Board and ACT will tell you that I’m a pretty vocal and healthy critic if I have concerns, opinions, or questions about their policies, programs, and services.

As for test integrity, that is another red herring. Certainly the subject tests are offered as stand alone tests without affecting test integrity. And let us not forget that the SAT Writing test is almost the same test as the old Achievement Test in English. How is it that the same test is no longer valid as a stand alone test?

I didn’t speak to test integrity, validity, or reliability different topics for another time. I spoke specifically to concordance with the ACT composite. If a student crams for and only takes the SAT Critical Reading at one sitting and then the same for Math a few months later I don’t think that that CR+M total score should be considered as concordant to an ACT Comp taken in one sitting. Again, this may be a regional issue Big Ten universities have to be very concerned with concordance we each have thousands of applicants from all over the country many with only SAT and many with only ACT. Some of my colleagues elsewhere around the country who accept the ACT in lieu of required SAT Subject tests might disagree with me on this psychometric point. (Very few Midwest institutions require Subject Tests, so the topic seldom comes up here.)

Perhaps the weakest and I would argue bordering on ridiculous, rationale for the status quo is that 4 and 1/2 hours is somehow good for the character and that it helps our kids somehow experience some kind of global norm by going through this rigorous exam experience multiple times. Testing is not an inherent good, and is in fact, in most cases, a necessary evil. To subject students unnecessarily to excessive testing for no good reason other than that is serves as an international educational boot camp is a notion that I do not, and probably never will, understand.

I also do not believe that testing is an inherent good it has many limitations; but given the current disparities in grading systems and scales, how class rank is computed, grade inflation (its REAL!), curriculum and course availability variability, and even disparate opportunities for extracurricular opportunities among American high schools, standardized tests are the only common yard stick that admissions professionals have to take into consideration in our holistic reviews. (And although I do not plan to follow suit, I can respect institutions that truly believe that not requiring standardized tests will expand access to their schools. Somehow, however, large publics that do require test scores have been educating thousands of Pell Grant recipients for years.) I’m only saying, relatively speaking, that the pressure and time for American kids involved with testing associated with their future education is far less than experienced in other countries. I don’t think a 3-part SAT is particularly character-building, but nor do I think that it is particularly useless or harmful. What I do strongly believe is that there are far more serious and important educational issues that we all need to be addressing.

Scott White’s response:

I have to say this last post is quite reasonable. I don't see the ACT switching to a modular test so there issues of concordance, but I would really like to see some independent data about whether having a modular SAT would affect that. I understand that it may be a concern for some institutions. Most colleges out East, even large instititutions like yours, use the highest individual subscores when looking at SAT scores and the same could be done for the ACT. This would not be a terribly difficult technical challenge.

You make the exact same point that I made about 5 years ago about testing. I have run our state testing for 16 years and have been an SAT administrator for 25 and I spend SO much time preparing for these tests, as do the students, teachers, administrators and parents. Not to mention the huge amount of money to develop, distribute, score, etc. each state test. This is money that could be put back into the schools! It is absurd to have so many resources devoted to different tests and even more absurd that there are different state tests to assess the same skills. Combining both the state test with the college admissions test makes perfect sense.

I don't believe that the kids you speak of who only test once and late will be at a disadvantage due to modular testing. The rich or well counseled kids will still have the advantage of multiple sittings. The difference will just be that those kids will have to go through more testing than they need or desire, resulting in literally millions of dollars of wasted fees and millions of hours of truly wasted time.

I also agree totally with your conclusion: What I do strongly believe is that there are far more serious and important educational issues that we all need to be addressing. Unfortunately, there are many parents, students, administrators and legislators who think otherwise. The NCLB is forcing schools to do more and more testing and there is a point, and we have reached it, where it truly takes away in a substantial way, from instructional time. I believe most states are like NJ where students only have to re-take the parts of their exit exam they do not pass. No one is arguing that there is a problem with this. In fact, most would consider making the kid retake all sections unnecessary, overly costly and a waste of the student's time. Though there is no "pass" in college admissions testing, there is not a plus side for students of having them have to re-take all sections of the test. If the strongest reason for not making the test modular is the concordance with the ACT, then that is something that should be addressed on the post-secondary side.

Whether I like it or not, my bosses, the state of NJ, central office at our district, etc., put a huge emphasis on state testing thus it becomes important, in a realistic, logistical way (not a philosophical one) to me. In addition, the SAT takes on almost mythical status in my community. We are unusual, with a 50% white population that is overwhelmingly rich and a 50% black population, 1/3 of who are on free/reduced lunch. We do not really have the blue collar, lunch bucket crowd, so I cannot speak with authority on this sub-group (which I think you are referring to in your post). But testing is a major part of the life, whether I like it or not or believe it should be or not, of my students. If modular testing is one way to lessen the time, energy, cost and focus of testing, then I'm all for it. If I was convinced (and I am not now, but accept the possibility) that this would lead to more testing, then I would be the first to oppose it.
Modular SAT and a College Board Boycott

I was conversing via e-mail the other day with Brad Macgowen about the College Board's response to our proposal to allow students to take only one or two sections of the SAT at each testing (or at least, as the ACT does, make the essay section optional). I repeated my feeling that their reaction is like the Bush administration's response to global warning. They are studying it (interpretation: "ignoring something that they have total disregard for") and will only act on it if absolutely forced by circumstances.Well, we came up with a proposal: why not let the College Board know that we are serious about the need to serve students by withholding dues payments. Certainly, they do not need our money so this is a symbolic gesture. I see no advantage to College Board membership. What's the down side of stopping being a member? Not being able to vote? It does not seem as if they are bringing any substantive issues to the membership, thus our vote is meaningless. The College Board has moved so far from its original mission that it has ceased, in any meaningful way, to be a true membership organization.Save your school a few hundred dollars and make a statement at the same time. Let the College Board know that they need to be responsive to the needs of students and desires of its membership to earn our participation and membership. Please e-mail me if you are willing to take this bold step.
Merit Aid and a REcent History of College Admissions

There are a few things that colleges could do that would make those things which we all like to rail against (need-aware admissions, gapping, merit aid, financial aid leveraging, preferential packaging, etc.):

1) Honesty and transparency: Do what you say you are going to do and say what you are going to do.
2) Predictability: Put on the table how you award financial aid. If you use formulas for aid, put a financial aid calculator on your web site. If you use the federal formula or a CSS formula or some formula of your own, state what it is. If you have some degree of need aware admissions, articulate your policy.

I think there is this mind set that when you are not proud of what you do, the reaction is to obsfucate. I see this certainly with isues of the admission of legacies and athletes and development cases but even more so in the awarding of financial aid.

The most common response when I suggest this is that there are variables that may affect financial aid that make this unrealistic. But is someone like me, who has been in the business 25 years and who is pretty well versed in financial aid has no idea what level of financial aid my children might get, think how the average family must feel. And the slide into need award admissions has the average family believing that simply applying for aid will hurt their child's chance of admission. Thus many families with need do not apply for it or families that would qualify for aid at private colleges do not apply there. Maybe this is what more people should be talking about, i.e. that this is exactly the purpose fo this obsfucation: more full pay kids and lower financial aid budgets. For a more detailed analysis of this, see below:

A Recent History of College Admissions
Up until the early 1980’s, the college admissions process was fairly straightforward. Almost all colleges promoted themselves through their publications primarily the “view book”, sent to students who had expressed interest in the college and through direct mail. Colleges would buy lists of names from the College Board of those students who took the PSAT or SAT and met some demographic or test score criteria. Admissions selection was usually based on academic factors with preference often given to children of alumni, athletes or those with other special talents, and, to a much more limited degree than today, to those from under-represented minority groups.
Financial aid was given to help families in need meet the cost of education. There was a single form that almost all colleges and the federal government used to analyze financial need and award financial aid, the FAF (Financial Aid Form). There was a standard formula that took into account a number of factors (income, cost of living, age of the parents, savings, equity, etc.) and that used a series of standard tables to determine what a family could afford to pay for college. This formula, the Standard Methodology, produced a figure, the Family Contribution, which was the same for every college to which a student applied. Financial Need was the cost of the college minus the Family Contribution. Most colleges, and virtually all highly selective colleges, agreed to meet 100% of financial need, meaning that they would, through a series of grants and loans, meet the full Financial Need of all applicants.
Thus if the FAF determined that a family could pay $5,000 for college and the college cost $15,000, almost all selective colleges would give students a financial aid package totaling $10,000. Colleges would use preferential packaging, giving financial aid packages with higher grants, which did not have to be repaid, and fewer loans to those students they most wanted.
The National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), the organization governing most of college admissions, prohibited colleges from using financial need to determine whether a student would be admitted. This policy, accepted by virtually all colleges, was called need-blind admissions. And the cost of college had risen less than the cost of living for the previous two decades and was affordable to the average upper middle class family.
A demographic shift occurred in the early 80’s with a marketable drop in the number of students graduating from high school. Even the most selective colleges began to scramble to maintain the quality and quantity of applications they received. A new beast emerged on the admissions front, the Enrollment Manager. Prior to that, Admissions Directors controlled the marketing of the colleges and the selection of students. Financial Aid Directors determined what financial aid was given to students, generally based on the figures from the FAF. Both generally reported to the College President or someone else not directly involved in admissions. In the most common Enrollment Management model to emerge, the Admissions Director and Director of Financial Aid reported to the Vice President of Enrollment Management.
At this point, you might be asking yourself how these demographic, financial and internal managerial and admissions practices might have any meaning to you. The decisions made by the colleges, the federal government, NACAC and the media over the last 25 years have increased the hype, manipulation, uncertainty and, in the end, the mania surrounding college [delete s] admissions and costs.
Colleges made a number of decisions that had a significant impact on students and parents. Several publications, most notably the US News and World Report, were starting to rank colleges, leading Enrollment Managers to put pressures on to get high rankings. These rankings usually were highly affected by the percentage of students accepted, the standardized test scores of those admitted and the numbers of students who accepted offers of admissions.
Thus colleges began aggressively seeking as many applicants as they could merely to seem more selective by rejecting more and more students. The harder it became to get into college, the more students wanted to apply. And as the number of applicants increased in the 90’s, the strategy to maintain the status quo became a frenzy of scarcity. The most selective colleges were beginning to have admissions in the teens, and the media jumped on the trends. The Grouch Marx phenomenon became the rule of college admissions. It seemed that no one wanted to apply to a college that would admit them. Students and parents began to hire their version of the colleges’ Enrollment Managers. SAT preparation has become a rite of passage for many communities and the growth of the use of private college counselors has grown exponentially. One consultant now charges over $30,000 for her college counseling services. Recently, Michelle Hernandez, a former admissions counselor at Dartmouth, has offered a three-day college admissions boot camp for $10,000.
It was on the financial front that even greater changes were taking place. As financial aid budgets continued to increase, college Presidents and Boards were putting increasing pressure to increase revenues and decrease costs. Beginning in the 80’s, college officials began to realize that there was a much greater elasticity of demand for college than they had assumed, i.e. that costs could continue to rise without causing parents to abandon attending prestigious colleges.
Thus years of increases below the cost of living were followed in the past two decades by tuition increases well beyond inflation. Colleges needed more and more money to be competitive: to build state-of- the- art science buildings, dorms, libraries and athletic complexes, to stay on the cutting edge of technology, to stay in the market for the best professors, to meet the needs of those on financial aid and to attract the best students with merit scholarships not tied to financial need. College tuition at the most expensive colleges (almost all college tuitions at these schools rose at nearly the same cost and rate) passed the $20,000 mark, then the $30,000 mark, and the then the $40,000 mark, with seemingly no end in sight. The cost of college every year was outpacing income year after year.
To increase revenue, every selective college began to market themselves aggressively both nationally and internationally. Colleges began to travel and directly market to areas where they had never previously sought students and started actively seeking international students, to whom they rarely offered any financial aid.
Then a shock wave went through the admissions world. One of the most selective colleges announced that though they were still need blind, they could not guarantee to continue to be so. This was soon followed by a pronouncement by one of the most prestigious women’s colleges of a specific policy to abandon need blind admissions: students who had very high need and were marginal in the pool would be denied. NACAC backed off, after a huge internal fight, from requiring colleges to be need blind in their admissions policies.
The colleges thought they had a fair solution to the problem of escalating financial aid budgets: promulgate a policy that only affected a very small number of applicants. The problem for parents was one of definition. What was a “marginal applicant?” Wasn’t admissions an inexact process where, at the most selective colleges, almost no one had a high assurance of admission? And what was “high need”? Parents began to become more and more anxious about not only whether they could afford college but also whether simply applying for aid would jeopardize admissions for their child. Need Blind Admissions was replaced by the cynically named Need Aware Admissions.

A decision by the federal government at around the same time had an equally negative effect on the ability of parents to predict college costs. The government has given special consideration in its tax code to those who own houses. Interest on mortgages and real estate taxes on one’s residence are deductions from one’s income. The government decided to make the same decision about housing equity in the awarding of federal financial aid: housing equity no longer was in the formula for determining financial need. A new form, the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid, was developed to reflect this new policy.

Unfortunately, high cost and high tuition colleges wanted housing equity data. Thus the College Board’s CSS Profile was born, where each college would have its own formula for determining need. Fewer and fewer colleges were meeting, with financial aid, even their own computations of what a family could afford to pay. The previous standard of meeting 100% of financial need was replaced with a policy of “gapping” where 90%, 80% or even 70% of financial need was met. In addition, more and more colleges were offering no-need merit scholarships to vie for the most talented students, often at the expense of need-based aid.

Thus we went from a relatively predictable system of admissions and financial aid to one of almost total unpredictability. At the most selective colleges, admission rates are in the single digits. In 2005, for instance, Stanford admitted less than 16% of students with straight A’s in high school or who were in the top 10% of their high school class and admitted only 20% with a perfect 800 math SAT score and 28% of those with a perfect 800 verbal score. Colleges have continued the aggressive marketing begun in a time of decreasing enrollment when the children of baby boomers have been swelling the number of students applying to college to record numbers.

Now one system with total uncertainty replaced a fully predictable one. Financial aid awards to the same students applying to similarly priced and endowed colleges began to differ by tens of thousands of dollars. More and more poor students were being denied simply because they were poor. Enrollment Management firms began to advise colleges on how to use financial aid to get students to enroll. “Financial aid leveraging” used complex demographic analysis to target financial aid. If it were discovered, for instance, that Asian students would more likely enroll if they were given automatic scholarships of $2000 that became policy.

Prior to the 90’s, a parent with a given income and assets could almost totally predict what level of financial aid they would receive. There were publicly available tables that determined the parental contribution from the FAF. Since most high priced colleges agreed
to use this figure to determine financial aid and agreed to meet 100% of need. Thus a student applying to five colleges could reasonably expect to get the same level of financial aid with only a small variation among them in the ratio of grants to loans. With the introduction of the CSS Profile, the abandoning of need blind admissions and meeting of 100% of financial need and the proliferation of merit scholarships and financial aid leveraging, all predictability of financial aid was lost.

At the same time, the cost increases at public colleges were far outstripping the increase in the financial aid from the federal and state governments for poor students. Except for public community colleges, even public colleges have become no longer affordable for the poor and middle class parents.
Finding Colleges with Strength in a Certain Major

There is probably not one source of information that will give you an answer to the quality of a particular major at a given school or a list of the colleges that are "best" at that major, but there are a number of tools you can use to get some clarity on the issue:

1) At the Reed College web site there is a list of colleges that send the most students on to PhD programs in each field: http://web.reed.edu/ir/phd.html. Using this measure, the top schools in history are Yale, Grace, Reed Swarthmore,Wesleyan, Carleton, Oberlin, Grinnell, Pomona and Chicago.

2) There are a number of subjective lists, such as Rugg's Recommendations, the Gourman Report (take this one with a grain of salt), etc.

3) Popularity of a major is not necessarily a measure of quality but there probably is a strong correlation. You can go to the IPEDS web site to get this information: http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/ (as well as a number of cool tools like the Executive Peer Tool: http://nces.ed.gov/ipedspas/ExPT/index.asp that lets you compare colleges across a number of measures).

You can also buy MCP Search (mcpdatabases.com) which is a tool I use pretty often to sort and select IPEDS data. It will give you data like what is the percentage of students in a school in a given major.

For instance, you can see the colleges where over 2% of the student body major in history include Yale (4.0), Holy Cross (2.3), VMI (3.85), Trinity (CT) (2.61), U. South (3.71), Columbia (3.09) Princeton (2.35), Colgate (2.66) Williams (2.94), Davidson (3.12), Washington and Lee (2.69), Hampden-Sydney (3.41) Haverfor (3.71), Centre College (2.78) Whitman College (2.0) Bryn Mawr (2.0) Earlham (2.01) Agnes Scott (2.55) Wabash (2.21).

I terms of raw numbers, the colleges with the greatest # of history majors are UCLA, Bringham Young, U. Texas, Yale, Wisconsin, Virginia, U. Penn, Florida, Washington, Michigan and Ohio State.

None of these are really difinitive, but together they do help find schools with strong programs.

These programs and lists are probably more useful for more obscure majors. For instance, you can find that the colleges with the most marine biology majors are UNC Wilmington and Coastal Carolina and those with the high percentage of marine bio majors are Eckerd College, the Florida Institute of Technology and LIU Southamton, information that may be hard to know off the top of your head.
Early Decision and Financial Aid

If there were some predictability and consistency (and one might argue fairness and decency) in the awarding of financial aid, then there would be little problem with ED.

For those who have been in the profession more than 20 or 25 years, you can remember a time when both institutional aid and federal and state aid was determined by the data from the Financial Aid Form. Most colleges were need blind and met 100% of need. "Need" was easy to determine. There were tables that one could use which would tell you how to compute financial need and expected family contribution.

Then the feds decided to mess with a good thing. Someone thought it would be a great idea to remove housing equity from the federal formula, thus the FAFSA and the CSS Profile were born, primarily because it provided one major piece of data that the FAFSA did not: housing equity. The College Board thought it was a great idea to give individualized financial profiles to each school using their own formulas, thus no one applying to a college that required the FAFSA had any idea what level of financial aid they might expect.

Around the same time, the rise of enrollment management, in a time of a declining college applicants, arose. The worst of EM techniques was and is financial aid leveraging, an insidious process of awarding aid not on need, or even on merit, but on the demographic characteristics of the student. One time I was pretty shocked when a classified and very weak (academically) student of mine was given a $2000 merit scholarship to a relatively selective place. Then I picked up that some EM guru must have let the school know that Asian students from our area were more likely to attend with this kind of incentive. Another college routinely underfunds students, holding back money to give only to those who appeal their FA awards. One admissions dean told me how his board told him to find more full pay kids, but gave no direction on how. One college I know admits they they want to admit at least 50% of their class ED and another tells legacies that this advantage will not "count" (wink, wink) if they don't go ED.

I am certainly sympathetic to those colleges that are not well endowed who truly need to meet bottom lines that other better endowed college do not. It is certainly easier to be pious about one's financial aid policy when the college has a multi-million or billion dollar endowment.

There is much that has been written about how ED hurts the disadvantaged, particularly minority students. I don't know if that is true. It does seem that many colleges use ED to not only nail down full pay kids, in many cases, but also institutional priorities (their "shopping list" so to say), which clearly, with other groups like athletes and development cases/legacies, clearly includes under-represented minorities. And they seem to be funding this group competitively. But ED does advantage the wealthy at the expense of, well, uh,....me (and those like me) who cannot afford full freight but have no idea what level of financial aid I might get. Sure I can guess, but my experience is that kids in my kids situation get awards that vary sometimes by tens of thousands of dollars.

So what do I recommend? That colleges, in respect to financial aid, say what they do and do what they say. Make it so students and parent can easily predict how much financial aid they will get with some degree of certainty. At least a range. Then the down side of ED is gone. No longer would students need to shop around for financial aid.

I just think this whole process is too opaque for students and parents. Its pretty predictable who is in the ball park in terms of admissions, but it seems that every college wants as many applications as possible, even though, in some cases, it is just to be able to deny as many as possible. Maybe part of my feeling is coming from that miserable spring I have each year, breaking dreams by the dozen by telling kid after kid that they are not going to get into their dream school. Maybe I should take the line of the colleges and just imply that it could happen (even though I know it won't). But my integrity prevents that. I dread that look, from both the parents and kids, when the realization happents that they have set their sights too high. I think to myself that its just not that big a deal where you go. That there are great teachers everywhere and that it really doesn't have much effect on ones life. It has this myth of opening doors, but that's almost always at the first job and that's it, which most people leave in a couple of years anyway. But there is this romantic notion about college and this vicarious thing with parents that I need to respect.

What's the point of all this. Let's keep things in perspective. It is really necessary for colleges to be more open about admissions, but even more so, about financial aid. Stop playing games and stop using financial aid as a marketing and leveraging tool. Then we can go aobut our business and ED will no longer be seen as an evil but as a productive tool to help match kids to schools.