Burger King, Viewbooks, and the Campus Visit

We’ve all had the experience.  It’s 5:30 p.m.  You’ve had a long, hard day at work.  You’ve gotten home and turned on the television.  It’s a Burger King ad.  And the burger is beautiful.  Perfection.  The lettuce and tomato are from God’s own garden.  The sesame seeds on the bun have clearly been individually placed with the utmost care.  There’s just a hint of steam rising, making it obvious that the burger is neither too hot nor too cold.  You can’t resist, so you run out to your nearest Burger King and order your burger.  When you get it, it’s smooshed, the lettuce is wilted, the tomato is definitely from a garden other than God’s, the bun is mangled, and it looks nothing like what you saw in the commercial.  Now, in all fairness, you may still love it.  It tastes great and totally hits the spot, and you are absolutely satisfied.  But it’s not quite like the picture.

 College viewbooks are like the Burger King ad.  Every campus is beautiful.  The weather is always good.  Students and professors are all uncommonly good looking…and always smiling.  (Clearly, no one ever fails an exam at that school.)  The residence halls resemble the Ritz.  The food looks like the fare at an upscale restaurant. 

 Let’s face it; all of us in higher education produce our viewbooks to show our best face.  It would be foolish to do otherwise.

 Which is why the campus visit is so important.  Until a prospective student actually visits a college campus, there’s no way to know what it’s really like.  Now, even if the experience of the campus visit shows a student that the weather isn’t always perfect, and the people aren’t all beautiful, and the food is mediocre, it may still be a perfect fit for that student – and it may cement the decision to go there.  In fact, the student might actually like it better because of the average-looking people and the reality of snow in the winter. 

 Or, the student might arrive at the campus to find that s/he simply does not feel comfortable there.  The reasons might be hard to define, but they are what they are.  It’s something that it’s better to know before enrolling.  We get calls all the time, one or two days into the semester, from frantic parents whose children have gone away to school and have found that they hate it there.  At that point it’s too late to start with us, and the student needs to decide whether to move home and sacrifice the semester of school, or tough it out and be unhappy.  (Or, best case scenario, the student might end up staying at the school and loving it.)  A campus visit doesn’t always pre-empt that sort of situation, but often it does.

 Today and tomorrow are Campus Preview Days at UW-Green Bay.  We’ll have close to 1,000 people here over the two days – it’s busy and crazy, but we couldn’t be happier.  We know that students who have visited are 1) more likely to enroll, and 2) more likely to stay.  It’s a win-win, if ever there was one. 

If you have students considering UW-Green Bay (or any other school, for that matter) who have not yet visited the campus, please encourage them to do so.  Encourage them to visit several campuses.  Students need a basis of comparison in order to make a good decision.  It’s OK to be a smart shopper when selecting a school.  Many years and much money are tied to the decision.  It’s never too early to learn a little Latin - caveat emptor – and to gain a little wisdom from a Burger King ad.

 [Credit goes to Dustin Thill, from the Admissions Office at St. Norbert College for the Burger King analogy.  Thanks Dustin for the brilliant idea!]

Balance

I don’t know about you, but there are some days I would rather not come to work.  I like my job and I’m reasonably good at it, but there are other things I like to do and am good at, too.  But the bottom line is this: my work has to be my priority.  It is what I have chosen to do, and it carries obligations.  Granted, it’s important to sometimes take time away and do that other stuff, but it just can’t be whenever I feel like it or just because I feel like it.  First things first, you know, and most days that means coming to work.

So, what’s the point? 

I got to thinking about this analogy because of a conversation I was having with a student.  It went something like this:

Me: “We like to see more rigor during senior year.”

Student: “But you said that extracurriculars were important.  I was in band (and went to state), three sports (and lettered in all of them), and I worked, too.  I didn’t want to load up too much with classes because I didn’t want my GPA to go down.”

Me: “Yes, we noticed your involvement, and actually your ‘engagement’ was a plus factor in our evaluation.  But that doesn’t make up for the fact that you could have – and should have – fit more college-prep classes into your senior schedule.  Lack of rigor was a ‘minus’ factor.”

Student:  “But I LIKE those other classes, and I’m good at them.  And I LIKE music and sports, and I’m good at them.  Why shouldn’t I be able to do those things?”

 Maybe you see my point.  The lesson this particular student had to learn was about priorities, making choices, and balance.  If you think of the primary “job” of a college-bound student as preparing for college-level course work, then the analogy falls into place.  We all have to make choices, and we all have to decide what is most important when making choices – it’s called “priorities.”  No one can do it all.  It’s a life lesson: the choices we have to make are not always the choices we want to make. 

Having said that, I would also acknowledge that the “other stuff” is important and worthy of some portion of available time.  That’s where the “balance” comes in.  It is true that we like to see engagement and leadership in high school – and we like to see it in college, too.  The things learned outside of the classroom are valuable life lessons, and can serve students well in the future.  It’s when the “other stuff” crowds out the primary responsibility – academics – that both high school and college students run into trouble.  Every student must find the point at which their academics and activities balance in such a way as to allow for excellence in both.

I won’t pretend that it’s an easy lesson to teach because so much depends upon the individual.  However, high school is a good time for students to start learning to recognize their skills and limitations, and to learn the life lessons of priorities, choices and balance.  When they learn this in high school, it will carry into their college years, hopefully leading to success there, and then into their career and family lives.

No, I didn’t particularly want to come to work today.  It’s cold, blustery, and rainy and I’d have preferred to stay home and can homemade applesauce (which I’m good at and I LIKE doing).  But I did come to work, and will fulfill my obligations here, and will plan to can applesauce on the weekend.  Priorities, choices and balance.  It’s real life.

It’s Less of a Formula Than You Might Imagine

I was meeting with a group of families today who had come to check out UW-Green Bay.  For our campus visits, families typically meet with an admissions representative for about an hour prior to going on tour.  One of the topics we cover is admission guidelines, and the admission decision-making process.  I commented to the group that it’s a very comprehensive process, and “less of a formula than you might imagine.”

 One very perceptive mom, who was viewing our “admissions grid,” raised her hand and challenged me on that statement.  She said it seemed that students within certain parameters were virtually automatic admits.  (Indeed, students with a combination of high ACT plus high GPA are admitted at a very high rate.)  That’s not the whole story, though.

 As I explain this farther, let me first list some of the different things we take into consideration when making an admission decision:

  • Grade Point Average: At UW-Green Bay, we use cumulative GPA (rather than rank) during our admission evaluations.  (See my previous post regarding rank.) 
  • Grade Trends: Has the applicant’s GPA gone up or down over the high school years?  Or has it been consistent?  (Consistent or up is what we’re looking for.)
  • Grade Distribution: In what subject areas does the student have the strongest grades?  Are they in core college-prep areas?  Elective areas?  Is the distribution even throughout?  If a student has all A’s in physical education and D’s in English, the GPA  might not be bad, but the GPA doesn’t reflect academic performance in that case.  That’s why the distribution is important.
  • Rigor (especially senior year):  See the blog post from October 13 for extensive coverage of the rigor issue.
  • Applicant Statement(s):  Can we tell from the statement(s) if the student will be a good “fit” at our campus?  Is the statement about choosing UW-Green Bay because if its outstanding Environmental Science major (which is true), or is it about choosing UW-Green Bay for its outstanding Interior Design major (which we don’t have at all)?  In other words, has the student done some homework to learn about us, and has the student chosen to apply here based on accurate information?  (For more about the applicant statement(s), see the blog entry from September 22.)
  • Letters of Recommendation: These are not required, but they can be helpful for students who are “on the bubble.”  We prefer letters from people who can address the applicant’s potential to do college-level academic work, but sometimes letters are helpful that tell us things about the student that may be relevant to the decision but that the student may not wish to write about.
  • “Engagement”: Because we know that students who are engaged in activities outside of the classroom tend to be most successful here at UW-Green Bay, we systematically evaluate the student’s level of engagement in high school.  If a student was active in high school, s/he is likely to be active in college.  We gather this information from both the application, and from information that comes in the ACT data file that contains student test scores.  (Which is one of the reasons that we require test scores directly from ACT or SAT.) 

So, the factors involved in the decision are many and varied.

Back to the mom’s question.

It is true that some combinations of credentials make admission seem virtually certain.  Think about this though:  Isn’t it true that the students with the highest GPA’s are often the ones who have chosen the most rigorous courses?  That the students with the most rigorous courses are often the ones with the highest ACT scores?  That the students with the best overall records are the ones most likely to have letters of recommendation to submit?  And, that those same students are also often the ones who are very engaged outside of the classroom?

I use words like “often” and “most likely” because these statements are generalizations that are not always true.  But frequently they are.  So while it may appear that decisions are formulaic, it’s likely that they simply reflect the reality of student characteristics and choices.

In another recent interaction with a parent, that person shared the perception that an applicant with an ACT of 28 (or other high score) would be virtually assured of admission.  That is not an accurate perception.  We do turn away students with high ACT scores if there are other elements (such as a low GPA) that cause us to think the student might not be successful in our environment.  In addition, although the number is too small to be reflected in the percentages, there are occasional applicants who have strong GPAs and/or ACTs, but do not meet minimal expectations regarding rigor – perhaps they took no math past geometry, for instance.  Those students may be turned away as well. 

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of a phone call.  If you have a student for whom you wish to advocate, give us a call so we can talk.  It’s possible that you, as a school counselor, may be able to provide information that we might not otherwise be able to consider. 

I hope you agree that “it’s less of a formula than you might imagine.”

“Reflections on Rigor” – What does it mean and why does it matter?

I’m continuing to reflect on the topics that were covered during the UW System School Counselors’ Workshops in September.  One recurring theme, at least among the messages that the UW Admissions Directors were delivering, was the concept of rigor.  I apologize in advance for the length of this post, which I know may be daunting to the reader, but this is a big topic worthy of a big entry.

 I believe the directors are in agreement that rigor is a factor when evaluating a student for admission.  “Rigor” can be defined in various ways, but I think it’s safe to say that there are elements common to most of our evaluations:

  1. the level of challenge of a given class – for instance, AP, IB, “advanced” and “honors” courses would generally be recognized as more rigorous, while courses that are remedial, basic in nature or meant to review/reinforce earlier studies would be recognized as less rigorous.  Naturally, there’s a continuum with many courses between the two extremes.  Course descriptions can be very instructive when we try to evaluate the rigor/challenge of any given course.
  2. the specific discipline of a course – there are five general disciplines that fall into commonly-accepted definitions of “college preparatory” – English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language.  These are the disciplines that most directly prepare students for the expectations that will face them in a competitive college environment.  College professors expect students (even freshmen) to be able to research and write essays and papers; to gather, synthesize, and present information; to have an understanding of national and international issues and social structures; to be able to use mathematics not only in respect to pure math, but also in relation to disciplines in natural sciences and the social sciences; to have knowledge in the natural sciences that prepare them for college laboratory science courses; and to communicate effectively verbally and in writing.  These skills will be necessary for all students, regardless of their eventual major, since all students will devote a significant proportion of their college degree to general education-type requirements. 

 At this point I think it’s very important to stress that this does NOT mean that we think courses outside of the “college-prep” disciplines are unimportant.  Indeed, studies in the fine arts, computers, family and consumer education, business, agriculture, technology, and the like are all very important in defining a well-rounded person, and a well-rounded education.  Courses that prepare students for life are important!  The UW System reinforces this in its overall admission policy which allows for the inclusion of these courses in campus admission evaluations.  Please understand: Students are not penalized for taking these courses!  Rather, it would be the absence of core college-prep courses that might reflect negatively in an evaluation.

 Rigor in the senior year is especially important.  We know that some students will satisfy most graduation requirements prior to their senior year.  It may be tempting for them to take a less-challenging schedule during the senior year in an effort to increase/maintain their GPA, or to simply “take a break” after working hard the previous years.  This strategy, however, can backfire.  Here is an analogy frequently cited by Alan Tuchtenhagen, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services at UW-River Falls: If you have a student who is a candidate for a college athletic scholarship, is it likely that the student would tell the coach that s/he wants as little challenge as possible during the senior season?  No!  The student will want to maintain or improve their skills in order to be better prepared for college-level competition.  This is exactly what should be happening academically during the senior year – academic conditioning!  Students need to be prepared for the academic competition inherent in the college environment, and this means taking a challenging senior schedule.

 ACT has also taken a strong stand on high school rigor – on its importance, that is.  Please see my October 1 entry, and the links to ACT research, for more details.

 A final note on rigor, as it applies to students who begin high school science, math, or foreign language in 8th grade.  The purpose (in our minds, at least) for starting high school work in 8th grade is so that the student can go farther in that discipline in high school, not so they can quit sooner.  If a student takes algebra in 8th grade, then quits math after algebra 2 in 10th grade, we would not view that as a good thing. 

 The bottom line is this, in regard to rigor:  We are trying to admit university graduates.  “Getting in” as a freshman really isn’t the point.  Graduating from college IS the point.  We’re not trying to make it harder to get into college; we’re trying to make it easier to graduate from college.  Expecting and enforcing rigorous high school preparation for college-level study simply makes sense.  It is in the student’s best interest to do so.  And, ultimately, I think that’s what we all have in mind:  the student’s best interest.

Affirmations:  Because of broad agreement about the importance of rigor among my UW System Admissions colleagues, I asked them to let me know if they were willing to affirm their agreement with this entry.  Those who affirmed this entry are:

UW-Eau Claire – Kris Anderson, Executive Director of Enrollment Services

UW-La Crosse – Kathy Kiefer, Director of Admissions

UW-Madison – Tom Reason, Interim Director of Admissions

UW-Milwaukee – Beth Weckmueller, Executive Director of Enrollment Services

UW-Oshkosh – Jill Endries, Director of Admissions

UW-Parkside – Matthew Jensen, Director of Admissions

UW-Platteville – Angela Udelhofen, Director of Admissions

UW-River Falls – Alan Tuchtenhagen, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services

UW-Stevens Point – Catherine Glennon, Director of Admissions

UW-Stout – Joel Helms, Assistant Director of Admissions

UW-Superior – Tonya Roth, Director of Admissions

UW-Whitewater – Jodi Hare-Paynter, Interim Director of Admissions/Registrar

ACT Research

If you were at the UW System School Counselor Workshops at during September, you may remember that I mentioned I would post a blog entry about some really good ACT research.  ACT has volumes of research, and you may not want to wade through their web site to try to figure out what is most useful to you.  Here are three suggestions that I think you might find really helpful.

  1.  “Crisis at the Core” – In my mind, this is the “gold standard” call to action for education in America.  There’s a lot of data here, and it takes time to really absorb it, but it’s worth doing.  Then, share it with anyone and everyone who will read it.  If you are alarmed and want someone to come speak to your school board, superintendant, teachers, whomever, ACT has been really good about providing these services. 
  2. “College Readiness Benchmarks” – For the class of 2009, only 23% of students who took the ACT met all four benchmark scores indicating readiness for college-level work.  Again, this is alarming (to me, at least).  This sort of information needs to be used to mobilize support for our schools.  
  3. “On Course for Success” – Builds a case for the thesis that preparation for the work force is virtually equivalent to preparation for college.  Rigor and performance are important for both venues.  Do you suppose we might be able to stop differential tracking for college-bound versus non-college-bound students?  Food for thought.

Please, take the time to read and share this research.  It’s too important to ignore.