Thursday, December 15, 2005

Thinking about the next class of students 

It's that time as well when students are thinking about colleges they will go to. I just sent my niece, a high school junior interested in biomed and acting, a copy of Choosing the Right College. (It won't be her Christmas present, just a gift from a busybody uncle.) I also mailed to her a little while ago an article suggesting strategies for choosing colleges. I say this as someone who tried to send a kid to college when it didn't work out, both because he didn't want to be there and I didn't listen to what might have turned him on to college. Here's what the article suggests:
  1. Rank based on your own criteria. There's a homework assignment I used to give in principles of macroeconomics that would get each student to create his or her own price index. The point of the exercise is to show how things like CPI or GDP deflators are summary measures that don't necessarily tell us how inflation affects people differently situated. Likewise, rankings from US News and World Report or ISI or whatever aren't going to make up your mind. To me, the best use of those rankings is to see what people are counting. Do these matter to you? The niece wants a big city and both a biomed and theater department. Common rankings won't do that, so don't use those. The value of the ranking system is systematic evaluation.
  2. First year programs. These are becoming more common now, including ours at SCSU. When this was started here I thought it would be a money pit and not work at all. It will be hugely expensive, but from the evidence so far it works, and the university is committing to put this on for every new entering freshman at SCSU. This means as well checking retention and persistence rates for first year students -- how many of them go on to the second year? My son's university had a first-year program available to him, but it looked like (and was sold as) a place for at-risk students. That's a bad way to approach it; I believe it would have helped my son because it turned out he was at-risk ex post, but not known to be so ex ante. Creating cohorts of students who study and work together can lead to skillbuilding across the cohort.
  3. Steps up and helping hands. The CSM article recommends looking at "Nessie", the National Study of Student Engagement. This will give you a measure of how much faculty-student and student-student interaction is going on. I suggest looking at student-faculty joint research efforts, generally how much time faculty and students spend in office hours or other outside-the-classroom activities. What's the speakers programs like on campus? How many, and how intellectually diverse are they? I would check with Students for Academic Freedom or No Indoctrination for the last point.
  4. Probe preferred majors. Obviously, my niece has a good idea what she wants to do as of this time. So she can look at rankings of theater and biomed departments. CSM suggests looking for program accreditation if it's available, but in many cases that isn't. What we do in the department is find any student who remotely has interest in economics, and get them literature, a phone call (if they aren't decided whether to come here), etc. If you indicated to a university you are interested in their theater program, see if someone from that program tries to contact you. The ones who are inquiring about you are not necessarily desperate -- they may have a better commitment to their majors. And if you change programs, chances are the other programs have the same level of commitment.
If you had your child in AP or IB programs, you also need to ask about this. What can transfer and what can't? If you're in Minnesota and your child is a junior, have you plugged into the post-secondary education option (PSEO) program available around your school. (Though be sure to read this article from Jay Matthews before you do so. Not every kid really is ready for PSEO or AP. And your high school may not be putting the resources into making less-prepared students successful in those programs.)

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