Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why Statistics Matter

One of the best ways to evaluate a school is to do some real digging, or better yet, hire me to do it for you!  I am not talking about US News or Forbes rankings, which are actually quite useless, as more schools come forward and admit they fudged the numbers to boost their rankings (see: Bucknell, Claremont-McKenna, Baylor, and Villanova, to name a few) and market themselves like fast food joints. I am talking about looking at original data like the Common Data Set, 6-year graduation rates, Federal student loan default rates and the like. This information can tell you a lot more about the school you or your kid fell in love with than a tour, an info session or an overnight with the lax bros. If a Federal student loan default rate is over 2%, we can extrapolate that that school has too many kids who don't finish, but still have to service their debt- no loan forgiveness if they fail out, leave because they can't borrow any more to finish, or can't find any sort of job- or were urged to seek alternative (non-government, market rate) loans and carry so much debt that they can't possibly service it all! The higher the default rate, the more concern you should have about how this school is helping students pay for college or helping them through a tough time. This statistic is important even for students who don’t receive a dime of aid from the school. It speaks volumes about the controls in place for keeping students in school.

Another key statistic is the graduation rate. Schools report this for 4, 5 and 6 years, meaning how many graduate on time in four years, how many in five and how many in six. This number matters because a school that graduates less than 80% of its students in 6 years, to me, is a school that isn’t invested in helping kids get through. For private schools, this may mean an extra year of tuition in a worst-case scenario; at $50k a year, that could make anyone nauseated!

US News, the College Board and Peterson’s, as well as data providers in the higher education community, produce Common Data Sets through a coordinated effort to achieve consistency in critical information about a given school. They provide statistical data that is calculated the same way by all participating schools (the only two I have found that don’t participate in making their CDS data publicly available at this time are High Point U and Wash U. in St. Louis). It can tell you the academic profile of the last freshman class (class rank, median test scores, breakdown by race) the student/faculty ratio, if they award merit money and other juicy stuff like how many are waitlisted and how many actually get in from that waitlist each year. The data is arranged the same way for all schools so it’s easy to find in each report.

Freshman retention rates, how much demonstrated need is met, how many students receive Pell grants and more can be found with just a little digging. While it’s great to drool over a glossy marketing piece your kid got in the mail, be sure to look more closely at the numbers. They may tell a very different story and its a story you need to know before you write a tuition check or take out a PLUS loan.

Confused? Want a handy spreadsheet with this key data for all those dream schools to help with decision-making and to provide a reality check after being seduced by those beautiful pictures of great looking kids strolling across the campus green? Get in touch and I will whip one up for you ASAP. Email me at

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


At long last, I have finally found some free time to begin posting to my blog and sharing some insights and advice on the admissions process. Each time I post I will address a different topic in the admissions process. Without further ado, here is my first entry!

A popular question when I first meet with a student and his or her family is "How do we go about making a list of colleges we want to consider?". The list can be created through a series of questions the student needs to ask him or herself and answer as honestly as possible. Here are a few questions to help you get started.

  • How far away from home am I willing to travel? Some students have no qualms about flying all the way across the country, knowing that the opportunity to zip home for a little R and R may not be realistic. Some students think NYU in Abu Dhabi sounds like the most awesome collegiate setting possible.  Others don't want to be more than a few hours away by car or train and still others need to know they can zip home for dinner or laundry when they need to.  Some schools with a large commuter population may empty out on the weekends and depending on what a student wants, that can be a good thing or a bad thing.
  • Do I want to wear shorts to class all year? Do I want to ski on the weekends? Do I want access to mountains for hiking or the beach for surfing? Remember that college isn't all schoolwork all the time and being able to do the things that you love is also important. If you hate hate hate the cold, don't consider Macalester College in St. Paul MN! If you hate to sweat, UMiami is probably not the spot for you, but if you love the beach, it might be heaven. Hate snow? Skip UVM. Want access to a college ski hill? Check out Middlebury! Tennis outdoors all year long? College of Charleston sounds like a perfect fit
  • How important is a party scene to me? If you want a vibrant weekend scene, add some schools with Greek life or DI sports. If you are more the bookish sort and would rather hear a lecture or see a film with subtitles on a Saturday night, choose a school in or near a big city with a vibrant arts scene or a strong culture of intellectual engagement like UChicago or New College of Fl. 
  • Does religious affiliation matter to me? Its important to note that some schools affiliated with religious institutions may have different standards for student life. If you are Jewish or Muslim, Quaker or Buddhist, its important to find out if a school has a population of students who share your cultural heritage. 
  • How price sensitive am I? If you are sure you will need substantial aid, do NOT choose schools with limited institutional aid as you will end up with an aid package that includes a lot of loans and little grant money and be sure to include a few in-state publics in your list. If you are comfortable with paying the full sticker price for college, include a few schools that offer merit scholarships (not based on need) to desirable candidates. 
After you have gone through this list and have some direction, only then do you consider levels of competitiveness. For more help with the creation of a college list, check out or email me at!