Dr. Wiley authors articles for both print and electronic media on a regular basis. Listed below, by date, are articles that may be of interest to current and prospective clients. Citations have been added if the article appeared in a magazine, newspaper, or other print publication.

 

Winter 2007

Introduction to College Admissions

Will Attending One College Rather than another Really Make a Difference in Your Teen’s Life?
   

Fall 2006

College Rankings: Should You Believe Them?
   

 

Introduction to College Admissions

In recent years, a combination of social, economic, and demographic forces have intensified the pressure on students and parents to make good decisions about college admissions. College costs have risen exponentially since 2000 -- by more than 40% at public institutions, and nearly 20% at private four-year colleges. Average tuition at private institutions, adjusted for inflation, rose nearly 100% between 1985 and 2005. Greater numbers of students are applying to more of the same schools at the top of the scale, too, making it even tougher to get into the “best” schools. In 2006, Yale College (the most selective of the Ivies) admitted only 8.7% of the 22,000 students who applied.

Too frequently lost in the frenzy about college admissions is the fact that attending college is still, at its best, a life-changing experience. The hopes and dreams of generations of students and parents for a more fulfilling life have revolved around higher education since its inception in America more than three hundred years ago. Here are a few key things to know about the process:

  1. Think about college admissions as a sequential, three-step process involving (a) college planning, (b) college selection, and (c) college applications.
  2. Understand that the process of getting into college is both more complex and more strategic than most people realize. Things have changed in the past 20 years.
  3. Getting admitted to college is not as devious a process as most people think, however. The college admissions process has specific goals and objectives, all of which make sense from the point of view of colleges.
  4. Start early. When it comes to college admissions, the earlier you prepare, the more options your son or daughter will have when they’re ready to focus on the process.
  5. Remember that most of the hype and discussion about college admissions focuses on a limited number of schools at the top of the admissions food chain – those that accept fewer than 50% of the students who apply. This amounts to less than 100 colleges.
  6. The most overlooked and underrated part of the college admissions process has nothing to do with grades, test scores, essays, or family connections, but with identifying the right list of colleges to which to apply. That takes work.
  7. Remember that the college experience is, ultimately, about student learning. Community service, athletic prowess, artistic accomplishments, and leadership activities add depth to a college application, but they’re no substitute for a desire to learn.
  8. The more you understand about how colleges work, the greater your likelihood of getting admitted to the right school for you.

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Will Attending One College Rather than Another Really Make a Difference in Your Teen’s Life?

As if figuring out how to pay for your teen’s college education were not worrisome enough, the hype and frenzy associated with getting into a “good” college has never been greater. College participation rates have soared during the past quarter century. So, too, has the message fueled by U.S. News & World Report and a host of college guides that your teen should attend the “best” college out there. The success or failure of their entire adult life seems to rest on their ability to get into the right college. Will attending one college rather than another really make a difference in your teen’s life?

A word about college rankings

It’s useful at the outset to clarify the difference between rankings and other forms of college reviews. Most of the college guides out there – Peterson’s, the Fiske Guide, the Princeton Review, etc. – don’t rank colleges; they present a set of information about the colleges they’re describing, including, in some cases, rating various elements of the college experience, and then let the reader interpret the data in any way he or she wants. Unlike U.S. News, these guides don’t attempt to say that College A is “better” than College B.

U.S. News ranks similar colleges against one another and reduces all of that information to a single number. This number, or rank, translates into a position in a hierarchy, much like a college football poll. This “scorecard” approach to evaluating colleges is why U.S. News gets a lot of press. It’s also why its rankings are assailed by educators, who argue that U.S. News doesn’t measure the things that really count in a student’s college experience: student engagement in learning, student/faculty relations, classroom experiences, peer relations, and so forth. In fact, 60% of a U.S. News college ranking is based on only two criteria: reputation and financial resources.

Attending a highly ranked college

Suspect methodology aside, U.S. News has focused public attention on the idea that some schools are “better” than others by calling its ranked analysis “America’s Best Colleges”. The question naturally follows whether it would make a difference in your teen’s life to attend a college that is ranked highly on a U.S. News’ list (assuming he or she could be admitted), rather than one ranked toward the middle or lower end (note: U.S. News divides and ranks colleges within categories, such as “national universities” and “liberal arts colleges”).

Like most institutions in society, colleges compete with one another for clients (students) and resources, based on a number of factors, including the prestige of their faculty, amount of their endowment, variety of their course offerings, success of their athletic teams, size of their classes, success of their graduates, and so forth. Colleges at the top of their ranking categories generally have found a way to do what they do -- educate students, and prepare them for future roles in society – quite well. Because wealth factors in so strongly to the U.S. News rankings, schools at the top of the rankings can generally afford to offer students more of the things that are typically considered keys to a successful college experience, including access to influential alumni networks upon graduation.

So, yes, if your teen can get into a highly ranked college, it might potentially make a difference in his or her life. The question is, will it?

Finding the right college for your teen

One of the problems with published rankings and college guides is that few, if any, measure student learning. Most parents would like to believe that one of the things – quite possibly the main thing – that distinguishes a college from its competitors is its ability to enhance student learning. Scholars have reported that what happens to students after they enroll is far more important to their success than the characteristics they bring with them at admission. Unfortunately, college guides have resorted to reporting suspect proxies for student learning, such as reputation and admissions selectivity, because most college faculties can’t agree how to measure learning. The National Survey of Student Engagement is the most highly-regarded survey of student learning in the country, but most of the “top” universities, and some of the “top” colleges, don’t administer it – preferring instead to let their reputations and wealth speak for them.

Beyond this problem, it is important to emphasize that all of the rankings, ratings, and guidebook descriptions are generic. These guidebooks don’t pertain to individual students. Your son or daughter might have what it takes to be successful wherever he or she goes to college, but end up performing poorly at either a highly ranked or lower ranked school for reasons unrelated to the school’s reputation and finances. Far more important to your teen’s academic success and happiness than college rankings is the issue of “fit”: if your teen does not achieve a good fit between his/her choice of college and what that college has to offer – academically, socially, and culturally – the quality of his or her college experience will diminish. The good news is that there are many, many institutions where your teen will thrive.

Assessing quality in education

How, then, should you determine which set of colleges promises to offer your teen a rewarding undergraduate experience? One of the best guides to this process was written by the late Ernest L. Boyer, then President of the Carnegie foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2001). Boyer states that while there is no single model of “the good college,” colleges of high quality share seven common characteristics:

  1. A Clear Mission. The college should have a well-defined focus, a clear and vital mission, and should embody its goals in “a living purpose” for the campus.
  2. Attention to Students. Students should be recruited with their best interests in mind. The college should regard the freshman year as something special, and should work as hard at holding students as it does at getting them to campus in the first place.
  3. A Planned, Flexible Curriculum. Academic majors should broaden rather than restrict the student’s perspective. General education and specialized education should be combined in an integrated core (rather than a loosely connected distribution arrangement).
  4. The Classroom Climate. The college should encourage students to be active learners and to pursue independent, self-directed study. Undergraduate classes should be taught by the most respected teachers on campus. Teaching should be valued equally with research; faculty members should be available to students.
  5. Devoting Resources to Learning. The college should support its mission of learning both financially and philosophically. Libraries and technology should have ample funds.
  6. The Campus Culture. The college should work to make the time spent outside of the classroom as meaningful as the time spent in class. Campus-wide activities and residence halls should encourage a sense of community, sustain traditions, and stimulate social interaction.
  7. Outcomes. A high-quality college should be concerned with outcomes. It should focus on being sure that students can think clearly, are well-informed, able to integrate their knowledge, and able to apply what they have learned.

By keeping these characteristics in mind as you and your teen begin to investigate colleges, you’ll help ensure that the college he or she chooses to attend will indeed make a positive difference in his or her life.

Note: A version of this article, entitled “Finding the right fit: does attending a highly ranked college really make that much of a difference in your teen’s life?” appeared in Next Step Magazine’s January/February 2007 Parent Guide.

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College Rankings: Should You Believe Them?

US News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” issue hit the newsstands this week. Probably the most widely recognized college ranking guide in the country, U.S. News’ annual issue always excites a lot of notice. If you’re a college president, you count the days until the results are released. If you’re a parent or a high school student, you wonder how to interpret this data in light of the various guides already out there.

By the time U.S. News goes on sale, colleges and a few other institutions already know where they rank. Colleges get early access to the data – so , University of Rochester President Joel Seligman knew last week that his institution came out fairly well in the rankings (staying at the same rank of 37 it held last year), while Hobart & William Smith President Mark Gearan knew that his did not, dropping 6 places to a rank of 67.

Should Seligman be happy? Should Gearan be circling the wagons? If you’re a Hobart & William Smith (HWS) student, should you expect that the quality of education you’ll receive this coming year will be inferior to that which you received last year? In fact, what should you make of 67, or 37, or any other number? What do college rankings really tell you? Should you believe them?

Rankings are lists that compare similar things and assign them a numerical value – so, just like a college football poll, US News ranks similar colleges against one another and reduces all that information to a single number. This number, or rank, supposedly reflects where an institution stands in comparison to its peers on “widely accepted indicators of excellence.”

Most of the college guides out there – Peterson’s, the Fiske Guide, the Princeton Review, etc. – don’t rank colleges; they present a set of information about the colleges they’re describing, including, in some cases, rating various elements of the college experience, and then let the reader interpret the data in any way he or she wants. Unlike U.S. News, these guides don’t attempt to say that College A is “better” than College B because it ranks higher on an overall scale.

That’s why U.S. News gets a lot of press. It’s also why its rankings are assailed by educators, who argue that U.S. News doesn’t measure the things that really count in a student’s college experience: student engagement in learning, student/faculty relations, classroom experiences, peer relations, and so forth.

What the U.S. News & World Report rankings tell you is where an institution stands on two main criteria: reputation and resources. A single indicator – reputation – accounts for 25% of the overall ranking. 35% of the ranking is financially-based (faculty resources, finances, and alumni giving). The remaining 40% is split between student retention, admissions selectivity, and students’ rate of graduation.

The influence of reputation and resources on the U.S. News rankings means that the rankings largely measure wealth and visibility. Schools that are highly ranked tend to stay highly ranked, and schools that are farther down the list can’t do much about it – causing some to engage in questionable practices like encouraging large numbers of applicants so that they can accept fewer, and thus increase selectivity. The bottom line is that if you’re a well-known school, you’re bound to be near the top of the U.S. News rankings every year. If you’re a school with a large endowment, the same holds. If you’re the president of an institution that happens to have both prestige and money, you probably love U.S. News & World Report. If you don’t have lots of either, you spend most of your time scrambling to get them, while tinkering with admissions and retention criteria in hopes of moving up the list.

So, should you believe the U.S. News rankings? Yes, as far as they go. U.S. News reliably reports what most educators and members of the public would consider the best-known, well-regarded, and best-financed colleges and universities in the United States. And, while the notion that there’s a direct relationship between reputation, resources, and quality of education is suspect, the more money an institution has, the greater the variety of experiences it can offer students.

What you should not believe about the U.S. News & World Report rankings is that only the schools at the top of any category are worth attending. Hobart & William Smith, for example, still has the talent it had last year, and still offers a superb education. The key fact to keep in mind when evaluating potential colleges is not how they’re ranked by external evaluators, but how their strengths and weaknesses match up with your skills and interests. “The best” college for you is the one where you’ll flourish – and U.S. News has no measure for “fit.”

Note: A version of this article, entitled “What college rankings mean – and don’t mean” appeared in the August 27, 2006 edition of the Messenger Post newspapers.

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