Friday, October 06, 2006

Weekly College Madness Links

Poison Ivy (The Economist, Sept. 21, 2006)
In a review of Daniel Golden's book, "The Price of Admission:How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges -- and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates," the British magazine The Economist challenges the notion that American universities are engines of social justice, thronging with "diversity." On the contrary, elite universities do everything in their power to admit the children of privilege. Two groups of people overwhelmingly bear the burden of these policies -- Asian-Americans and poor whites.

Harvard Committee Recommends Returning Religion to Curriculum (, October 4, 2006)
Harvard University, founded 370 years ago to train Puritan ministers, should again require all undergraduates to study religion, along with U.S. history and ethics, a faculty committee is recommending.

Deconstructing Harvard's Admissions Policy Change
A posting on a Williams College blog argues that in eliminating its early admissions program, Harvard is not just, or even primarily, interesting in improving its own policies. Rather, it wants to change the very structure of elite college admissions. Ending early admissions, however, will not necessarily make the process less pressured for applicants, as Harvard claims.

Oxbridge Closes on Harvard in Rankings (Times Educational Supplement, Oct. 5, 2006)
The Times Higher Education Supplement has published the 2006 world university rankings. American and British universities made up nearly half of the top 100 universities. The rankings were compiled by asking 3,703 academics worldwide to name the 30 best universities for research in their field of expertise, and also considering responses from 736 graduate employers globally, the ratio of faculty to students, and the university's ability to draw foreign students and world-renowned academics. The results were then weighted and transformed into a scale giving the top university a score of 100, with all subsequent institutions scoring a proportion of that score.

Below are the top 25 universities:

1) Harvard University (United States)
2) University of Cambridge (Britain)
3) University of Oxford (Britain)
4=) Massachusetts Institute of Technology (United States)
4=) Yale University (United States)
6) Stanford University (United States)
7) California Institute of Technology (United States)
8) University of California at Berkeley (United States)
9) Imperial College London (Britain)
10) Princeton University (United States)
11) University of Chicago (United States)
12) Columbia University (United States)
13) Duke University (United States)
14) Beijing University (China)
15) Cornell University (United States)
16) Australian National University (Australia)
17) London School of Economics (Britain)
18) Ecole Normale Superieure (France)
19) National University of Singapore (Singapore)
19) University of Tokyo (Japan)
21) McGill University (Canada)
22) University of Melbourne (Australia)
23) Johns Hopkins University (United States)
24) Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Switzerland)
25) University College London (United Kingdom)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Top of the Class

In a Talk of the Town piece in the October 2, 2006 edition of The New Yorker, Executive Editor Dorothy Wickenden discusses how "the competition to get into, or get one's kids into, the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities is unmatched for cutthroat ferocity. But it is echoed, however faintly, in the jousting among Ivy League administrators to be at the forefront of enlightened academic and social policy. A couple of weeks ago, Harvard announced that it was suspending its early-admissions program. A few days later, Princeton scrapped its program entirely. Although most schools aren't likely to follow that lead any time soon, it has sparked another round of welcome debate within academe about the need to reform college admissions."

Friday, September 29, 2006

Weekly College Madness Links

[Some of these links may require either free or paid registration to access]

Here's Your Syllabus, and Your Condom (NY Times, Sept. 24, 2006)
Americans generally think of back-to-school as a time for discounts on laptops and backpacks, a mad dash for textbooks and CliffsNotes, a chance to stock up on wool tights and warm socks. Few associate it with latex and lubricant. But fall is also back-to-school season for the condom industry.

States Tout "One-Stop" College Sites (, Sept. 26, 2006)
To make college more accessible by demystifying the daunting application process, a number of states have created "one-stop" centers of information online about the schools within their borders. Many of these sites allow students to apply to schools or for financial aid electronically from a single source -- and their supporters credit them with helping to boost college enrollment.

Higher Education Causing "Crisis in Citizenship," Study Shows (, Sept. 26, 2006)
Colleges and universities across the U.S. -- including some of the most expensive in the country -- are failing to educate students about the nation's history and essential institutions, which is leading to a "coming crisis in citizenship," a study of more than 14,000 randomly selected students shows.

University of Virginia to Drop Early Admissions (Fox News, Sept. 26, 2006)
The University of Virginia announced that it will drop its early-decision admissions process, becoming the third prominent university this month to cancel such a program.

U.S. Education Secretary Backs Ideas to Shake Up College (NY Times/AP, Sept. 26, 2006)
Handed a plan to shake up college life in America, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is endorsing some of its key ideas and promising to get moving on them. Her overarching theme is to make everything about college -- choosing one, affording one, succeeding in one -- easier for families. Parents should be able to shop for a college as simply as they shop for a car, she said, with a clear expectation of what they will get.

Applied Science (NY Times Op-Ed, Sept. 27, 2006)
Harvard's and Princeton's [and now the University of Virginia's] recent announcements that they will soon end the early admission programs they now use to choose part of their freshman classes have garnered a great deal of attention, including editorials urging other institutions to follow their lead. Stanford University's Provost argues that it is a shame that the publicity, so abundant in its praise, has been so short on facts and clearheaded analysis.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

College Names I Don't Understand

I recently discovered a very humorous blog entitled Confessions of a Community College Dean, "[i]n which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990's moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care."

His most recent post, "College Names I Don't Understand," includes, among others, the following college names: California University of Pennsylvania; Miami University (in Ohio); Washington University (in St. Louis); Hobart and William Smith (huh? shouldn't Hobart get his first name in there, too?); Bowling Green; and Community College of Vermont (huh? isn't Vermont a state?).

Pretty funny.

To this list I would add Transylvania University (why is this in Kentucky?) and Texas Woman's University (does only one woman attend this school)?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

How Lowering the Bar Helps Colleges Prosper

The Wall Street Journal chronicles how Duke and Brown transformed themselves and bolstered their reputations by targeting the children of the rich and famous.

I found this article very interesting, because in my day ("back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth," as my father used to say to me when I was a child), neither Brown nor Duke was any great shakes. Sure, Brown was (and is) part of the Ivy League, but it was definitely the stepchild. And I just thought of Duke as some big, mediocre, Southern, frat- and sports-oriented school. Today, both of them are considered to be among the finest (and most competitive) universities in the country: ironically, since they became more attractive (and therefore more competitive) by admitting the sons and daughters of celebrities who might not otherwise have qualified for admission.

Another school that has transformed itself in a different way is NYU, which was mostly a commuter school when I was applying to college in the late '70s. With lots of money, it's now a major research university, with its law school typically ranking in the top 10 (though I'm not sure where its undergraduate school fits in).

Anyway, it just goes to show what lots of money can do.

The Ultimate Mystery: Popular Sport Beats SATs at Ranking Universities Academically

A study released in early September of all private national universities shows that their ranking in Ultimate Frisbee edges out both SATs and grades as a predictor of academic performance.

If nothing else, this silly study shows how silly all those studies and rankings really are.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Baby Einstein vs. Barbie

"Overscheduled kids. Overprotective parents. They're hot-button media issues, but are they really the problems faced by most American families?"

In an article on, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue that they are not. Rather, the media is increasingly ignoring the typical American family, and instead putting the dramas of affluent families on Page One. "It would be okay if they delivered these portraits with a sardonic wink, so that we might laugh at the foibles of the well-off. But there is no wink. Instead, we are asked to sympathize with people's self-made problems, and these affluent-family issues are held up as representative of us all."

The authors discuss these issues further on their blog, in any entry labeled How Media Elitism Misrepresents the Problems of the Typical American Family, the title of which is essentially self-explanatory. Now, I'm not sure I agree with the characterization that these are "self-made problems." True, I have opted to live in this city, and to send Dear Daughter to Elite Private School. I certainly could have chosen a different lifestyle -- and as a late-70s-era, feminist graduate of a crunchy-granola liberal arts college, it's still a surprise to me sometimes that I didn't. But given where and how we live, these are real problems, experienced by real people.

Still, the authors' observations serve as a sobering reminder that these are the problems of the privileged few. And in launching my own blog, my purpose has essentially been to think aloud as I attempt to help DD recognize that there are more than 10 good colleges in America, that her life won't be ruined if she doesn't get into Harvard, and that life is about more than designer bags and designer schools. Luckily, she's got more sense than that already, and has indicated that she's more likely to opt for a school like Reed than a school like Harvard. Still, she's living in a madly competitive environment, and some of the stress can't help but rub off on her.

So thanks, Po and Ashley, for inserting some sanity into all of this madness.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

College Profiles: The Worst Colleges in America

"Happily, most of life's decisions are reversible. Shoplifting misdemeanors can be expunged, tribal tattoos erased, Joe Francis can be forced by a judge to remove your underaged breasts from public view. But your alma mater, alas, is forever. Take it from us: The decision you make as a goofy 17-year-old will haunt you for the rest of your life. Luckily, we're here to help."

So say Helen Pfeffer and Harold Goldberg in a humorous and only partly tongue-in-cheek article on By gathering statistics on academics, admissions, student life, and factoring in "criteria like low SAT scores, incompetent professors, rock-bottom admissions standards, unbridled alcohol and drug consumption, rampant criminal activity, and dubious alumni," they've come up with what they believe to be the nine worst colleges in America:

  • Worst Party Schools (Tie): California State University (Chico) and San Diego State University

  • Worst Trust-Fund-Baby College: Bennington College (VT)

  • Worst Ivy League University: Cornell University (NY)

  • Worst Christian University: Liberty University (VA)

  • Worst of the Big Ten: Michigan State University (East Lansing)

  • Worst Military Academy: Virginia Military Institute

  • Worst Women’s College: Texas Woman’s University

  • The Worst College in America: University of Bridgeport (CT)
Read more by clicking on the link below. I think it’s safe to say that DD will not be attending any of these schools.

College Profiles: Introduction

As Dear Daughter finds colleges that she is interested in, I am doing my own research in order to learn about the schools myself and I will post my impressions here. I probably won’t bother writing much about the Ivies, since (1) anyone reading this blog has already heard of Yale and the like, and (2) I think it’s unlikely that DD will end up at one of those schools anyway. Apart from the fact that even straight A students have no guarantee of being accepted, she seems to be more interested in attending a small liberal arts college. Recently, DD has begun saying that, much as she appreciates the phenomenal education she is getting at Elite Private School, she really thinks she wants to go to college somewhere that isn’t populated by the same type of student. What do I mean by “the same type of student?” Affluent; spoiled; sophisticated yet provincial in that Manhattan kind of way; groomed for a future in law or investment banking.

Some of DD’s best summer experiences have been on challenging outdoor programs with kids from other parts of the country. She also has a strong interest in art and art history, although she has not really been able to pursue this much in high school. She is also athletic, mildly political, studious but also very social. Though she’s popular and spends a lot of time as part of the Manhattan-private-school-teenager social scene, she does not want to go to a “party school.” For all of these reasons, she is intrigued by the idea of going to a small liberal arts school that attracts smart, studious kids who are also artsy or outdoorsy. Ideally, she would also like to go to school in or near a large city rather than a small town, though she recognizes that most liberal arts colleges are more remotely located. Though she is very much a city girl, and claims that she will end up back in New York City for the long term, she is hoping to find a school that will expose her to a broader demographic than the one in which she has grown up.

So what schools has she expressed an interest in so far? Reach Schools: Yale, Brown, Penn, Williams, Amherst. Good Match Schools: Bard, Oberlin, Macalester, Reed, Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, Middlebury, Wesleyan. Safety Schools: University of Vermont [we clearly need to expand this list]. Wild Card School: University of St. Andrews, Scotland. I will profile these and other schools in the weeks to come.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Weekly College Madness Links

Some of these links may require either free or paid registration to access.

More Small Women’s Colleges Opening Doors to Men (New York Times, Sept. 21, 2006)
Small liberal arts colleges for women are increasingly struggling against financial pressures to win applicants in an era of unbounded choice.

Unfair Advancement (New York Times, Sept. 21, 2006)
The Head of the Wilbraham & Monson Academy, a college preparatory school in Massachusetts, says that colleges and universities should return Advanced Placement courses to their original purpose, which was not college admission, but as the name says, advanced placement.

Too Few Overachievers (Washington Post, Sept. 21, 2006)
In an editorial, a Washington Post writer says that academically stressed students are not the country's norm.

Choosing A College, With Help From the Web (New York Times, Sept. 20, 2006)
As the college application process has become increasingly available through the Web, many companies are offering search engines that help students build a list of colleges to consider.

Columbia Plans to Shift Some Aid From Loans to Grants (New York Times, Sept. 20, 2006)
Columbia joined the growing number of universities that are improving financial aid for low- and middle-income students.

Six Reasons to Keep Early Admission (Washington Post, Sept. 19, 2006)
The greater problem in admissions is not the one Harvard addressed, too many students allowed to apply too early, but the one many people are still ignoring, too many students starting to pay attention too late in the process.

An Eerie Quiet at Duquesne After 5 Students Are Shot (New York Times, Sept. 19, 2006)
Just another recent example about violence and safety problems on colleges campuses.

Any College Will Do (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 18, 2006)
Nation's top chief executives find path to the corner office usually starts at state university.

A College Savings Plan With One Less Worry (New York Times, Sept. 17, 2006)
A new law eliminated the 2010 sunset provision for tax-free withdrawals from the popular Section 529 tuition savings plans.

Debate Grows as Colleges Slip in Graduations (New York Times, Sept. 15, 2006)
A debate is raging nationwide about who is to blame when college students fail to graduate in a reasonable period of time, or at all.

Princeton to End Early Admission
Link to press release on Princeton website.

Harvard to Eliminate Early Admission
Link to press release on Harvard website.

Swarthmore: Where Fun Goes to Die

DD's school has all Upper School students attend a weekly group advising session. In a recent meeting, someone in DD's group brought up Swarthmore College as a college with a similar profile to Elite Private School: small, private, full of driven, smart students but for all that not overly competitive. DD is definitely smart and driven, and enjoys being in an environment with other students who care about learning and have other passions to which they are dedicated. She also has a very active social life, and manages (though sometimes with difficulty) to balance the academic and the social.

"Don't be fooled," Advisor warned them. "Swarthmore is known as the Night of the Living Dead. It's where Fun Goes to Die."

Okay, then. Scratch that one off the list.

Choosing A College, With Help From The Web

An article in the September 20, 2006 issue of the New York Times, "Choosing A College, With Help From The Web" discussed search engines that students can use to figure out what kind of college would be right for them. I forwarded the article to DD, who immediately followed a link in the article to a site called Counselor-O-Matic, offered by Princeton Review. She was asked to enter information about the kind of school she was looking for, her interests, her grades, class rank, SAT scores, etc. The site came up with a list of "good match" schools, "reach" schools and "safety" schools, including Oberlin, Bard, Dartmouth and NYU. I'm not sure how useful lists like this are -- and this seems like a strange combination of schools -- but to the extent that they present names of schools she (and I) may not have considered otherwise, this kind of tool should be somewhat helpful.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Early Admissions

The big college-related news in recent days has been the announcement that Harvard College will eliminate early admissions beginning in the fall of 2007. A similar announcement from Princeton followed soon thereafter. Will all of the Ivies follow suit?

I must be honest and admit that I have mixed feelings about this. The reasons in favor of eliminating early admissions are clear and just: early admissions contribute to the incredible pressure college applicants are already under; they may compel some students to commit to a school too early in the applications process, when they would be better served by taking their time and considering (and visiting) more schools; earlly admissions do more to help colleges manipulate their yield rate (and thereby enhance their placement in the U.S. News & World Report rankings) than they do to help students; and most unjustly of all, students who need to be able to compare financial aid packages from multiple schools are essentially shut out of the process.

Despite all of the aforementioned evils, I think DD would probably benefit from early admissions, so for purely selfish reasons I'd be sorry to see the option completely disappear. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, happens to be a school she has identified as being of interest to her, and Penn openly admits that students who take advantage of early admissions have a much greater chance of admittance. Given that my not-so-dear ex-husband ("Evil Ex") and I will be paying full freight, the financial aid issues won't affect us. So it's a shame for DD's sake that early admissions are likely to disappear at most of the schools to which she will decide to apply precisely when she will be doing so (i.e., in the fall of 2007).


I am a divorced mother of a 16-year-old girl (hereinafter to be referred to as "Dear Daughter" or "DD") who is currently a junior at an elite private school ("Elite Private School" or "School") in Manhattan. With college admissions more competitive than ever before, it is my job to help DD navigate through the process with a minimum of stress and find a college that is right for her.

DD is being educated in an environment, and in an era, of ridiculous frenzy about getting into Harvard-Yale-Princeton, with parents pulling strings and even resorting to bribery to get their toddlers into the "right" pre-school or kindergarten, and spending fortunes on private college admissions counselors. In fact, it wasn't long ago that the news media chronicled the sad story of a Harvard undergraduate whose entire young life was specifically packaged to vault her into the Ivy League ... and who then experienced a very public meltdown when her much-publicized roman à clef was exposed as riddled with plagiarism. I do not believe that any of this -- the "name" schools, the packaging, the U.S. News & World Report rankings -- has anything to do with getting one's child a good education. But how can I shield DD from the madness, while at the same time forbearing from being a "helicopter parent" and allowing her the space and autonomy to make her own decisions?

While I will change certain details to protect DD's privacy, the substance of this blog will be altogether too true. I assume our experiences will resonate with other families whose children are in the process of applying to college -- not only those in private schools in Manhattan, but students in competitive public and private high schools nationwide. I will also provide links to articles, books, college guides and useful websites so that this can be a resource for other parents of college-bound high school students.

Let the journey begin!