January 20, 2014

A Professor's Secret Advice for Getting into College: Don't panic, Don't go into heavy debt.

Another college application season is coming to an end as we wind down the winter term. This tradition has changed in the last few years, because many colleges and universities take applications all year long. You can also start your classes in any term at many colleges, depending on the degree program. Are you a student, worried that you won't get into a good University? Are you the parents of your eldest child, about to enter their last year of high school? Maybe you home school, and you are worried you have messed up and ruined your Kid's chance to get into college? Well, don't panic. The real "SECRET" about college admission, is that the overwhelming majority of Universities and Colleges are eager to have your child come and register for classes at their institution. Here are some "secrets" that are not secrets at all. While there are many companies, especially in North America, which make money selling you college entrance prep services, it is actually very straight forward to gain acceptance into most universities. Furthermore, just going to the most expensive prestigious university does not really predict success after college. Ultimately, how well you do post-graduate will depend mostly on your own drive.

Do not panic. Most Universities post their minimal entrance requirements on their website. As an applicant, you need to meet their minimal grade point average. If you are considering college in the United States, you will commonly also need to meet their minimal ACT or SAT score.

SECRET 1: For many B.Sc. and B.A. programs, if your Kid has the minimal GPA and ACT score, they will get an offer letter from most institutions they apply to.

Yes, that is correct: colleges typically accept everyone who meets their criteria. The big secret is out. At least > 90% of colleges do just that. A college wants to fill all their intake slots, and maybe have a small amount of student population growth each year. Why? Imagine a college takes 2000 new students each year. That College may get 5000-6000 applicants. If they offer all 6000 applicants admission, they can only expect 2000 will choose to come. Those 6000 students have also applied to other colleges, are likely considering their top three choices, and in the end they won't all choose the same one. Maybe, you can get 1/3 of them to choose your college. Thus, there is a very real competition between institutions to get students. Now, if you want to get into Harvard or Princeton (with far fewer slots than they get applicants), they wont accept everyone who meets their minimal criteria.

SECRET 2: The other thing you need to know: once your undergraduate degree is completed, no one really cares where you went to college. Life is tough, jobs have many applicants, companies need sales and good bottom lines. We all like to work with and hire people who show up, are reliable and who care about delivering quality work. Where did you get your undergraduate degree? Who cares? If you are a person that just delivers a minimal effort, you can be ivy league and get yourself fired regardless.

Even in a university department, most department chair-persons cant recall where their own faculty obtained their PhD degrees. We were hired as new Assistant Professors after a job competition, based on our publishing, our research, our scholarship, and our potential for teaching, service, and research. In the end, things need to get done. You either get it done, or you don't. Where your college degree is from is not that important.

Therefore, avoid taking on enormous student debt just to attend a particular college because you think the college name will pave your way to success. If you are American, I would guess you have never heard of the University of Waterloo in Waterloo Ontario, Canada. Yet, for the last 25 years, Microsoft has hired more computer science graduates from Waterloo than any other single University. Waterloo was always big on computer science, before it was fashionable, and they turn out programmers who have the magic and experience from co-op programs. Microsoft needs to get their stuff done, period. Waterloo is not ivy league, and most Americans never heard of the University of Waterloo. Who cares? Apparently not Microsoft. They want your skills, not your pretty diploma.

There is absolutely nothing to be gained by taking on $80 to $100-thousand of debt to get a BA or go to culinary school. That amount of debt makes more sense if you are going to graduate with an MD and have a future income that can pay down that loan. So, make use of your community colleges or less well-known universities closer to home. Make use of a public university where your State contributes some of your education cost. States tend to cover far less than half the cost/student in 2013. States covered well over 50% 20-years ago, but your tuition will still be far less than at a private college. At my university (Oakland University) you can get your first 1 or 2 years of a four year degree completed at community colleges in our region. You are already certified as an OU degree program student when you start on the community college campus. Our Faculty even go to those campuses to teach courses. This increases the time flexibility for students of any age, working more hours these days to pay for college, and helps to keep costs down for the student. These kinds of programs are developing all over the country. Contact admission offices and ask them. They will love to help you, and love to get your business.

What about class size? Private institutions often advertise that they have smaller class sizes and that is supposed to be important. Actually, I don't recommend you only choose based on the student/teacher ratio. Many private colleges also use part-time or non-tenure track faculty that they hired year to year. They are not necessarily faculty that are also publishing reference books or papers in journals in their field of study, nor they working to run actual research programs or applying for external research funding. Those efforts are all things that tenure-track professors must do, because they cannot get tenure in 5-6 years without them. Failure to get tenure in a tenure-track process means the professor's career at that college is over. So, if you are looking for small class size, also find out if the professors at a college are also publishing books and journal articles in their specialty. Those kinds of professors are familiar with the leading edge of their field and they may not even use a text book. They generate their own curriculum as respected scholars who contribute to new knowledge in their field. I would put far more emphasis on who is teaching than I would on how big classes are. I can recall excellent classes where I was only 1 of 100 students in a large lecture theatre, or of 10 students in a small class with mostly empty seats. My own lectures (gene expression, genomics) include information that comes right out of my own lab. They are not in any text book. They may be in a scientific journal, or maybe not even published yet. Active scholars and researchers can teach undergraduate students HOW to be a scholar and HOW to do research. Instructors who just choose a text book can teach you about facts and figures, but maybe they can't really teach you how to do research, because they have not done so since their own PhD Thesis. They may not even have a PhD.

SECRET 3: Official certified transcripts- no such thing. What about transcripts? Are you home educating? Or maybe you are in a public school system but you are missing some optional credit that prevents you from getting a diploma issued from your high school? Well, here is another secret you should know about, the "official transcripts" secret. Public and private high-schools would like you to keep thinking you NEED a diploma from them to get into a college, but you don't. The "official transcript", "certified transcript" or "accredited transcript". What are they? Who knows? I do not care, because there are no such things.

In my State, as for most other States, there is no law that says you need an official "approved" high school transcript to apply to college. Colleges have very basic requirements in the minimal equivalent credit hours they want a student to have in Mathematics, in English/Language arts, History/Social Sciences, Sciences, Chemistry, Biology, and Physics. That is about it. In the United States, students in high school don't even have to take biology, chemistry and physics every year as they do in many other countries.

Your transcript is simply a record of effort and hours spent in various subjects over several years of high school. A high-school diploma is simply a document given by a school to students who completed their particular list of courses. No official office or entity above the high-school blesses their diploma or makes it an official document required for college. It can be important for you and for your parents to appreciate and record the time and effort of your high school years. Don't get me wrong, I was public school educated all the way myself, and I seem to have done fine. But, I used to think that the only mandatory way to get to college was to have a transcript from a public or private school. Turns out, I was incorrect.

Please understand this: the high-school transcript and diploma are not "blessed" by any government office, nor agency, nor is it essential to go to college. If you have the subject hours for a core curriculum completed, if you can read and write, if you can get the required score on the ACT/SAT, then you can go to college. Even if you have a high-school diploma, most colleges and universities will still make you take their math placement test and sometimes a reading/writing placement test. These are usually mandatory unless you are excused from them based on some other demonstrated skill.

If you home school, you just make your own transcript. Surprised? There are several websites, or programs to buy, that help you record information and calculate GPAs. You can find spread sheets for this as well. Just use Google and search for one. At my own university (Oakland University), the admissions office provides an online form for home educators to enter and create a transcript for the application. A transcript is simply a document to show the hours and effort over a period of some years. Most home educators use Math and English text books that you will often find used in traditional schools. My wife makes our kids do ALL the practice math questions in their books, not just even or odd questions as they do in brick schools. If they do not understand some concept and are making mistakes, they have to back up and find out what they got incorrect and why, so they won't continue to flounder with errors piling upon errors as they advance. Just like a real job after college!

Yes, my own Kids are home schooled. After our local public school system started laying off librarians, decreasing time to eat lunch to about 15 real minutes, and stopped having enough teachers to watch the play ground at recess. My brave wife decided to pull the kids out to home school. She was already volunteering in the school twice a week and it was apparent that the public school was actually so understaffed with teachers that they had to have at least one parental volunteer per day per class just to operate. For the last decade, my wife and kids track hours and courses on a card system, and then she produces a transcript each year. Our kids also wrote the California (CAT) exams, used by California and many other States, for the purpose of evaluating their strengths and weaknesses as they entered the equivalent of grade 9-10. Then their Mother can adjust their efforts accordingly to focus on the subjects that are hardest for them. One kid is good in math, another loves to write, another loves history, facts, and they are totally different from each other. (That is the only use of a standard test by the way, they are not for evaluating your kid's teachers, they are for helping you tailor lessons to a student's specific educational needs.)

So how does the home education work out? Our first child is "out the door" and wrote the ACT in "grade 11" and managed a score of 32/36. That mark is higher than 98% of all US ACT scores from the year previous. Needless to say, your kid starts to get hundreds of college adverts in the mail. Over this school year, he did two college courses in dual-enrolment status, in his senior high school year, getting 4.0 grade in both. His full time college application was just accepted for admission just days after its submission online. So, what your child can DO is far more important than any "diploma" from a brick and mortar school. There are plenty of high school graduates who cant read or write well. Trust me, I work with them. I get to spend hours editing their lab and research reports for not only the science, but also grammar and spelling. Many students come to college having written only a few essays all throughout their entire high school education! They are smart kids. They seem smarter than I was at their age, yet they have not had enough PRACTICE writing. Communication is absolutely the most important thing you can learn in college.

To sum up: 
Colleges need you to pick them. Colleges WANT you. However, they don't exist just to provide you with more courses after high-school, but also to turn you into an independent and thinking person. What you, or your student, get out of college will depend on the student. College is a place to train your brain to think and memorize facts, but also a place to learn how to motivate yourself to continue learning whenever you need to do so in the future. This continues long after you graduate. Like most other activities, becoming a good self-learner takes time and practice. There will be plenty to worry about in the future, so do not worry too much about getting into college, or getting your kid into a particular college. You do not have to go into $80,000 of debt unless you really want to, and there will always be a college that will accept you if you meet their GPA and ACT score criteria and can demonstrate some level of maturity. You can become successful out of any college as well.

So do not panic.

Ken Mitton, PhD
Associate Professor of Biomedical Science
Eye Research Institute
Oakland University

1 comment:

kpmitton said...

PS. Private Colleges can change very quickly in the middle of your education. If you are a science student at National Louis University, your program just vanished and many experienced tenured faculty were just quickly replaced with adjuncts who do not make very much salary. Especially for where they live.

All that for an $18,000/year Tuition. Yummy.

Read all about it: