Submitted by Paul Fain on September 25, 2012 - 3:00am
Bridgepoint Education Inc. announced Monday that its Ashford University has eliminated 450 positions in admissions and reassigned 400 other admissions employees, half to student services and half to a new department of "student inquiry." The moves are aimed at improving student success, the company said. Ashford is facing a two-pronged accreditation challenge. It is attempting to comply with compliance requests from its current regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, following a rejected bid for accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges senior college commission.
Ashford says the department of student inquiry will "work with prospective students to ensure they are sufficiently prepared for the demands of a university education."
Woe, woe is the college essay. For teenage applicants, it’s a perennial source of anxiety as they try desperately to figure out what tale of personal courage, generosity, resilience, or insight will get them into the college of their choice. For admissions officers, the essay is a recurrent source of tedium and dismay as they face thousands of folders each year containing essays that are mediocre at best and plagiarized or ghost-written at worst.
In fact, just about the only people with any affection for the college essay are those who make a living by doctoring young people’s personal statements or, in especially unscrupulous cases, inventing them out of whole cloth.
Many of the concerns about the current college essay can be traced to the popularity of the Common Application. The Common App makes it easy for students to apply to as many colleges as they like with the touch of a button and an authorized credit card. By enhancing the ease of application, colleges attract more applicants and thereby increase their selectivity -- and in the college ratings game, as we all know, selectivity is the Holy Grail. So it is no surprise that 456 institutions across the country, from small religious colleges to major research universities, are part of this one-click network.
Unfortunately, the vast differences in culture and mission among institutions that accept the Common Application mean that its essay topics appeal to the least common denominator. This fact makes for both bad writing and, often, a bad experience for the writer.
There are two fundamental problems with the essay questions on the Common App. First, the topics are extremely general, ranging from "Evaluate a significant experience you have faced and its impact on you" to "Describe a character in ﬁction that has had an inﬂuence on you," to that petrified chestnut, "Topic of your choice." Essay prompts are effectively empty of specific content -- and the essays themselves often follow suit.
A second problem is that the topics avoid controversy by focusing almost exclusively on the applicant's interior life rather than their ideas about the world outside them. Such questions invite applicants to write about what they know best – themselves. But in doing so, they also confirm precisely what all students fear; namely, that the admissions decision is more a judgment about them as people than their suitability for a particular college.
Is it any wonder, then, that even the best students perseverate over their essays and that many applicants submit either clichéd tales ("winning the big game" and "my grandfather, my hero") or content largely written by someone else? With anemic prompts that invite self-centered reflection, we should expect little more.
In fairness, many individual colleges that accept the Common Application require the completion of a supplemental essay that demands both substance and analytic rigor. (One of these is the traditional undergraduate campus of Bard College, of which my institution is a part). Yet the Common App, precisely because it is so widely used, largely sets the tone in the applications process. Indeed, at most colleges, brief supplemental essays – often capped at 250 words -- simply invite applicants to share any additional information they consider relevant to their candidacy.
Some critics have suggested that college essays are so unpopular, and the insight they offer into applicants so unreliable, that colleges should minimize their importance or eliminate them entirely. Such a view, however, is shortsighted. What the essay needs to become meaningful is not further dilution but greater rigor and specificity.
At Bard College at Simon’s Rock, intellectual engagement is a core element of the campus culture. So we don’t use the Common App at all. Rather, we ask students in their essays either to comment in a thoughtful way about an issue raised in a short passage by a significant thinker (last year it was an excerpt from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society) or to walk us through their solution to a complex mathematical problem. (Essay questions can be found on pp. 25-26 of the Simon’s Rock application here.) The topics are clear signals to students of what matters to us, and a wonderful way to gauge students’ willingness and ability to write cogently about a challenging issue. As a bonus, such prompts also invite thought-provoking essays that our admissions officers actually enjoy reading.
A specific essay topic is a boon to an institution: It communicates the college’s values and tests students’ inclination and aptitude to engage in the kind of thinking its academic program requires. But it’s also a boon for students, since it helps them understand what’s distinctive about a college and whether it’s the sort of place where they will thrive. Essays like ours do demand more of applicants, but that turns out to be a virtue, since we know that a student who has completed our application is truly interested in attending.
A more general essay topic, or an easier one, might increase the number of applications to an institution and enhance its selectivity in the published rankings. But in the admissions process, as in their classes, colleges ought to choose substance over appearance and intellectual challenge over glibness. Learning how to think well is at the very core of an education. That education should begin with the application essay.
Peter Laipson is provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.
Lees-McRae College, in North Carolina, has dropped a requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores. Ginger Hansen, vice president of enrollment management and communications at the college, explained the shift in an e-mail: "Our decision to go test optional is largely based on our institutional philosophy of giving all students, regardless of a singular standardized test score, an opportunity."
California State University is planning to send letters to hundreds of thousands of applicants to the system's campuses, warning them that if voters in November defeat the governor's proposal to raise taxes, far fewer slots will be available, The Los Angeles Times reported. To drive home the point, Cal State has decided not to make admissions decisions until after Election Day. Typically, the university system starts admitting students in October. Anti-tax advocates are accusing the university of inappropriately campaigning for the governor's plan. But a spokeswoman for Cal State said that "we are just laying out the facts of what the budget is and what impact this will have on our budget."
Submitted by Kevin Kiley on September 13, 2012 - 3:00am
Concordia University-St. Paul announced Wednesday that it was dropping its undergraduate tuition and fees by a third for next year, joining a handful of institutions including the University of the South and the University of Charleston to cut their sticker price in the face of increased price sensitivity in the market. The sticker price for tuition and fees, currently set at $29,700, will be $19,700 next fall for all students, including those currently enrolled.
Administrators at Concordia said they were becoming concerned that students their traditional demographic -- middle- and lower-income students in Minnesota -- were ruling out Concordia as an option based on its price, despite the fact that after aid few students actually ended up paying that much. According to federal data, 99 percent of students at Concordia received some form of institutional aid.
Much of the student population at Concordia currently pays less than the new sticker price. The college's discount rate was 48 percent, meaning that students paid just over 50 percent of the sticker price on average. Concordia administrators said some revenue is likely to be lost by lowering the price, but that they hope to offset that by increasing enrollment.
The annual college rankings of U.S. News & World Report are out today, with only one change in methodology. The two most recent years of guidance counselor surveys, rather than just one year of data, will be used to calculate the counselors' ratings. The participation of college presidents in the survey (by filling out reports on the reputations of other colleges) is up a bit this year, if still way behind the two-thirds participation levels of a decade ago. For the new edition, 44 percent of all presidents participated, up from 43 percent a year ago. Liberal arts college presidents have been particularly critical of the rankings, but their participation rate was also up this year -- 47 percent, up from 44 percent a year ago.