It's Time to Get 'Engaged'

The 2008 college admissions season witnessed, yet again, just how tough and competitive it has become to get into highly-selective colleges. The bad news is that next year will be even tougher. However, for now, let's stick with the class from California entering college this fall.  480,000 students will graduate from California high schools this spring (with public high schools accounting for 90% of the number). We can assume that the top 10% submitted their applications to the University of California system; that would explain 48,000 applications. But, the numbers of actual applicants this year to the UC system are: 70,328, UCLA; 60,709, Berkeley; 57,116, San Diego; 55,871, Santa Barbara; 51,935, Irvine (3 March 2008, The Orange County Register).

Assuming that UCLA accepted slightly more than 12,000 applicants, the number accepted last year-with the expectation that only about 4,500 will actually enroll-- then UCLA's admission's rate is 17%.  That's scary, but it gets scarier: Harvard, 7.1%, Yale, 8.2%, Princeton 9.3%, Stanford 9.6%. (Giving us these figures with decimals is supposed to make us feel it's not that bad; it's like finding the gas prices at $3.55.9)  We can safely conclude it's getting real hard to get in. That begs the question of once "in", what is it we're expecting the student to get? Sure getting in is tough, but in some colleges getting out is even tougher; and once out, what does the average student do with her life?

As you attempt to determine which school you'll be attending come fall, a choice you'll need to make between now and May 1st, the acceptance deadline for many schools, you might want to ask about the quality of the education each offers. Right now, especially if you were lucky enough to get into one (or several) of these highly selective schools, is a good time to do some hard-core evaluations. For once in your life you're in complete control and the admission's office is doing the sweating.  The schools themselves are measured in such venues as US News and World Report, by how many of the applicants they accept actually matriculate (this is called the school's yield).

So, if you've been accepted, the colleges really want you to attend.  Even simple questions such as how many students graduate in four years might provide some surprising responses: Cal Poly Pomona 10%; UCLA 59%; Stanford 76%; Yale 88%; Pomona College 92%. If you want to do your own research, go to the website "College Navigator," (, type in the college in question, and look at 'retention/graduation rate'; or, better still, call the school's admissions office and ask them directly. There are a lot of reasons for people taking more than four years to graduate, but with each year at a Stanford costing in excess of $50,000, it's not something to be taken lightly.

A good reason that students do well in college is because they become 'engaged' with their studies. Somewhere along the line their curiosity is sparked (one hopes this happens in high school-but college might be the time of enlightenment), they pick majors of interest, and they work hard. There, of course, are strong students that naturally migrate to such a course. Nevertheless, a lot of students, even the most talented, need assistance. A quality college will provide the resources and, most importantly, the environment to drive student achievement. There are a number of questions you might ask to determine how a college engages its students. An article written by an eminent psychologist who specializes in student engagement, Joseph Cuseo of Marymount College, covers a number of the questions you might ask to do your own due diligence:

  1. What is the college mission? In other words, what is the school's objective: research, teaching?-and how does it design programs to achieve the stated mission?

  2. Teaching and faculty behavior: does the teacher lecture or become actively involved with the students in class?

  3. Academic advising: is a student personally assigned an advisor who meets regularly and tracks performance?

  4. Does the school support 1st Year students: Freshman year is one of the most difficult transitions for many students: What is the average class size for introductory and general education classes? How much writing is done by freshmen? Does the campus guarantee on-campus housing for 1st year students?

  5. Other areas worth inquiring about are the college's curriculum, extracurricular activities, and support of seniors in their final year of college (placement, graduate school, career counseling...)

If all this is too much to do, or too difficult to remember, ask the admission's office if it has a NSSE (National Study of School Evaluation) assessment of the school for your review. Most schools perform these assessments and distribute them to promising prospects upon request (unless the findings are a bit unflattering).  I can't think of a more promising prospect than someone, like you, who has been accepted and is contemplating attending. This is your time to be a tough consumer. Don't slack off -get some hard facts to support your college decision.

Ralph Becker
Founder, Ivy College Prep LLC