U.S. News & World Report's rankings are out today, and while the methodology hasn't changed, the way the rankings operation calculates "assessment of excellence" (widely known as the reputation survey) has changed, apparently in response to the participation rates of college presidents and high school guidance counselors. Survey responses for those two groups make up 22.5 percent of the formula (15 percent from the presidents survey and 7.5 percent from the counselors survey). This part of the rankings has long been criticized. Presidents have been known to rank only their own institutions highly, and many experts say that presidents and guidance counselors seem always to favor historically strong institutions, or the most prestigious colleges over time.
This year 50 percent of presidents in the national universities category responded to the survey, and 46 percent of the leaders of national liberal arts colleges responded. Only 7 percent of high school counselors responded to the survey. While the presidential response rate hasn't fallen dramatically in recent years, as recently as 2005, 67 percent of presidents responded. The drop has prompted some to question whether enough presidents were responding for the survey to be meaningful. So this year, U.S. News for the first time combined the last two years of surveys of presidents. And after several years of combining the past two years of high school counselors, U.S. News is combining the last three years for that survey. The rankings methodology allows those who responded in multiple years to be counted each year they participate.
Robert Morse, who heads the rankings operation at U.S. News, gave this reason via email for the changes: "In both cases, this was done to increase the number of ratings each college received from the academic raters and high school counselors and to reduce the year-to-year volatility in the average peer score and high school counselor score."
We'll let other publications (and college public relations offices) boast about scores. But we can tell you that those at top of the various lists are … those whom you'd expect to find there.
The University of California at Berkeley last week announced the African-American Initiative, which will aim to increase support for black students and to attract more black students to the campus. Berkeley is banned by a state constitutional amendment from considering race in admissions, and black undergraduate enrollment is about 3 percent, less than half the share of the black population in the state. Berkeley officials say that they need a critical mass of black students. A key part of the new plan will be a $20 million scholarship fund, to be administered privately to avoid violating the state ban on consideration of race. The fund will offer scholarships to black students who are admitted, hoping to attract more of them to enroll.
Swarthmore College announced Tuesday that it is keeping its requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores, but that the writing portions on both exams will not be required. "We value writing, and it is of critical importance in being a successful college student,” said a statement from Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions. “But the essay sections of both exams have now been made optional by the testing agencies and we believe there are other ways to determine success in college. These new requirements will better serve our holistic review of new student applications.”
Franklin Pierce University announced last week that it is ending a requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores. A statement from Andrew H. Card Jr., the president, said, “We are more concerned with who you are as a person. We believe in making higher education accessible to any student who has the desire to work hard and learn. By becoming test optional, Franklin Pierce has removed a barrier to education that is not indicative of college success.”
New research from the University of Chicago has found that many black and Latino college freshmen feel significant financial strain. Black and Latino freshmen at five universities in Illinois were surveyed three times during the year. At each point, about 35 percent reported having difficulty paying their bills, being upset that they did not have enough money and worrying that they would not be able to afford to complete their degree. The sample was of students who were well prepared for college. The results are the first part of a major effort to track these students and to look for approaches to improving minority student retention. More information on the research may be found here.
An organic chemist I know tells her doctors that she is a professor of Southern literature whenever she is in the hospital. That’s because organic chemistry has come to symbolize all the irrelevant science hoops that premedical and medical students jump through on the way to becoming physicians. Today, we are told, medical students should be learning “people skills,” placing medicine in the context of the community and learning how individuals make choices related to their health. These preferences are reflected in the revised medical admissions test rolled out earlier this year, with its newly added questions related to sociology, psychology and the humanities. This summer, as interviews begin at medical schools around the country, candidates who want to make the final cut are sometimes playing down their science credentials in favor of their relational skills.
This seems to me to be a false dichotomy. To be sure, I want my physician to understand how to deal with me as an individual and as a member of my social group. But I also want her to appreciate the underlying molecular nature of disease and to know how to evaluate scientific and statistical evidence about clinical trials and treatments.
The movement away from science springs from a misunderstanding that is not limited to the premed curriculum. Many people have the experience of science taught as a series of isolated facts to be memorized. All physicians recall memorizing biochemical pathways for which they have no use past the final exam in a given course. If there were ever a time when memorization had a place, that time is gone. Facts are cheap and readily available on every smartphone and computer.
The truth is that science is about so much more than memorizing a set of facts. Practitioners with a solid scientific grounding are able to analyze data and put that data in context, rely on what is known from previous studies and extrapolate to the future, and understand how changing environmental conditions are reflected in bodily conditions.
I have taught biochemistry to medical and undergraduate students for over 30 years. Premedical students usually come into my classes expecting to memorize structures, nomenclature, and pathways and are a bit taken aback at the idea that there is anything to learn other than that. By examining experimental data and case studies they become familiar with the core of biochemistry and are able to go far beyond rote learning. Unfortunately I hear back from them once they are in professional schools that, “it was great that you taught us about concepts, but you should have had us memorize more since that is what we have to do here.” As long as the health professions emphasize the acquisition of facts rather than their application, science will be seen as dry, uncreative and mostly irrelevant to the “real” world.
Along with colleagues at Wellesley -- Lee Cuba and Alexandra Day -- I recently published a study of science majors at liberal arts colleges. Our major finding was that science majors who took many courses outside of the sciences were better able to make connections among disciplines. Some medical schools -- Mount Sinai in New York is a prominent example -- have begun recruiting humanities majors to their classes, requiring fewer science courses than for the typical applicant because they are thought to bring different strengths to the profession. This move is well intended, but it misses the point.
Privileging humanities majors in medical school admissions may inadvertently reinforce the opposition between the “soft skills” associated with humanists and the technical capabilities associated with scientists. Long before the health sciences became deeply specialized, renowned physicians such as Hippocrates, Maimonides, John Locke and John Keats were as much philosophers and poets as scientists. Although that kind of Renaissance career may no longer be practical, today a strong liberal arts education in both the arts and sciences provides the most effective preparation for the medical profession.
Medical schools would do better to recruit broadly educated science students who bring the complementary strengths of integration among disciplines and a deep grounding in the process of scientific discovery and analysis to their study and practice of medicine. If we want knowledgeable and competent doctors who are also well-rounded and compassionate individuals, we must stop treating the arts and sciences as mutually exclusive. We must help our students see the connections between what they are learning in the classroom and what they will practice in the “real world,” to see that organic chemistry and Southern literature are not irreparably separate, but that each may have a role in a medical education.
Adele Wolfson is Nan Walsh Schow and Howard B. Schow Professor of Physical and Natural Sciences and interim dean of students at Wellesley College.
Employment and unemployment rates, much more than the number of high school graduates or other population trends -- which are important over time but very slow moving -- are the biggest factors driving enrollment for community colleges, for-profit colleges and some open-access four-year institutions.
Selective public and private colleges can control the size of their incoming classes by tinkering with admission criteria, and they tend to draw students whose decision is not whether to attend college but where. But community colleges accept anyone with a high school diploma who wants to enroll, and the size of that potential market varies depending on what the alternatives are.
For low-income students, especially at colleges where tuition is low and often covered by financial aid, the biggest cost of college is the opportunity cost -- the money a student could have earned by working instead of going to school.
In times of high unemployment, that cost for many is zero, and however hard someone might be struggling to make ends meet, going to college doesn't necessarily make it any harder. (Whether they can succeed in college without enough money for food or rent is the real question.)
But when unemployment is low and jobs are relatively plentiful, the choice to enroll is also the choice to leave money on the table, money students may need in the short term to cover basic necessities.
In that case, working in the short term also has its own long-term opportunity cost -- in the higher lifelong earnings available to college graduates.
For middle- and higher-income students, it is easy to choose the much greater long-term benefit over the short-term prospect of poor wages in a low-skill job. But for those with no savings or support from family members, and who may be supporting others with their income as well, work may seem like the only viable option.
So it is not surprising that when unemployment goes up, community college enrollments tend to spike, and when unemployment goes down, enrollments drop. (See image below.)
For every 1 percentage point change in the unemployment rate from May to May, community colleges can expect a 2.5 percent change (up or down) in fall full-time enrollment.
For this fall, if the past is any indication, the 0.8 percentage point drop in unemployment from 2014 to 2015 should translate into between a 1 and 3 percent enrollment decline. Regions hitting a rough patch -- say, the energy-producing areas of the country -- may see the opposite trend.
But with states, institutions, philanthropic organizations and the federal government all working to improve college access and attainment, perhaps one day this correlation will weaken, and low-income students will be able to make the kinds of long-term trade-offs and choices for the future that their better-off counterparts have always found so easy.
Nate Johnson is a higher education researcher and principal of Postsecondary Analytics, LLC.