Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Touring Colleges in Pennsylvania and Discovering a Sense of Place

This summer I participated in my eighth College Counselor Bike Tour, cycling with eleven colleagues from college to college in central Pennsylvania.  If you aren’t familiar with this part of the state, you may not know that central PA is filled with rolling hills and even some small mountains, expansive farmland, and yes, colleges!  Over the course of the week, we covered 260 miles and visited seven schools: mostly small, private liberal arts colleges, but also the state flagship, Penn State. As an independent educational consultant, I visit colleges to see the campuses and surrounding area, learn about specific programs, feel the campus vibe and uncover other qualities that might appeal to students. Traveling to and experiencing a college on two wheels means slowing down the pace; the landscape no longer whizzes by. Mules pulling a farm tractor and a pint-size pony and buggy with equally pint-sized passengers were moments to relish while taking in the Amish country scenery.  My senses are often heightened when I am cycling. I am more keen to the scents, sights and sounds the region, local area and even colleges have to offer. These nuances are central to grasping that sense of place and distinguishing one college from another.

We started and finished our week at Dickinson, and in between rode to Susquehanna, Bucknell, Penn State, Juniata, Franklin & Marshall, Gettysburg and back to Carlisle, PA where we started. I did not coin the phrase sense of place in connection with the colleges we visited.  Rather, the term was emphasized at Gettysburg College, the last stop on our trip, where the battles and events that changed the course of the Civil War are very much a part of the campus mindset. Yet sense of place prompted my thinking about how all these colleges connect with and embrace their location or history, and how it drives mission, purpose and campus life. It comes from knowing and building upon who they are, and distinguishing themselves from other similarly sized colleges.

In this bucolic part of Pennsylvania, it is no wonder that several of the colleges are especially focused on sustainability, and seek ways to preserve the natural resources in their own backyards while conducting research in pursuit of that goal. Dickinson is one of only six colleges nationally in the EcoLeague Consortium and its sense of place is experienced in the many ways sustainability is practiced and woven into every part of the curriculum. Students take advantage of the college’s Organic Farm, a classroom, research facility, and also food source for the school dining services and local community. The connection to place ethos even extends to study abroad in the way students engage fully within their adopted global communities. All Dickinson programs involve homestay in locations far removed from capital cities so students can truly experience full language and cultural immersion.

Susquehanna University, the small liberal arts university 65 miles to the northeast, embraces its ties to the river that bears the same name. Two years ago the university opened its Freshwater Research Initiative to study the health of the neighboring Susquehanna River and the wildlife and surrounding tributaries. Even graduate researchers from Penn State travel north to take advantage of this unique freshwater laboratory. Susquehanna has also built upon its well-established strengths in music, theater, creative writing, and its most popular major, business administration. It is one of a small handful of colleges that requires all students to have a cross-cultural experience. A follow up course upon return to campus challenges students to reflect upon and discuss their experience, articulating how it may have altered their values and perspectives.

Don’t be fooled by the rolling hills and farmland on the way to Bucknell, the largest of the liberal arts colleges on our tour, with 3,600 students. The charming and historic town of Lewisburg is a short walk to a campus buzzing with the energy and enterprising spirit of its students. Bucknell’s sense of place and purpose is rooted in its three distinct colleges, each with its own admission entry to the university: Arts and Sciences, Engineering and the newest, Management, which was until recently housed within Arts and Sciences. Now with three separate schools, Bucknell can give proper gravitas to its two strong pre-professional programs without losing the liberal arts emphasis university wide.

There are only two land, sea, space and sun grant university in the U.S. and Penn State proudly wears the distinction of being one of them. It means the University has access to funding and research that not only benefit the residents of Pennsylvania by providing affordable education; it offers more than 160 majors across 12 academic colleges,  has 17 undergraduate programs in engineering alone, its largest college, and 50 life science majors, to cite just two areas where it is an academic powerhouse. It is also renowned for its Shreyer’s Honors College. As one of six sun grant universities, Penn State partners with the federal  government to develop sustainable and environmentally friendly bio-based energy alternatives. State College is the quintessential college town, nestled in a pastoral setting. No visit to campus is complete without a trip to Penn State’s on-campus Creamery, a favorite gathering spot best known for its homemade ice cream made with fresh locally sourced ingredients.

Just over 30 miles to the south of State College and on the other side of a mountain, lies Huntingdon, PA, home to Juniata College which is perhaps best known as one of the 40 plus Colleges that Change Lives. Like many of its Pennsylvania peers, Juniata enjoys a special connection to its location and surroundings. Haystown Lake, a 20 minute drive from campus, is home to a fully residential research field station where students can choose to study and live for a semester or even a year. With no majors, but instead 67 existing interdisciplinary Programs of Emphasis, like Peace Psychology and Behavioral Ecology of Religion, students can explore and even create new POEs that connect multiple interests in one course of study. The Sill Business Incubator encourages students to be young entrepreneurs while engaging with the community and exploring ways to promote economic development and opportunities in Huntingdon.

Inventor Ben Franklin and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall would likely be pleased with the college that now bears their names, following the merger of two eponymous institutions in 1853. Today Franklin & Marshall preserves that sense of a connection to history and practices its founders’ commitment to the arts and sciences, with emphasis on personalized and seminar style learning. The College House System creates living-learning communities to which students belong throughout their four years. F&M has been one of the leaders in promoting access and affordability, and is one of very few colleges today that fully meets demonstrated need, having jettisoned merit aid. The effect of this strategic objective can be seen in the campus’ ever increasing diversity and growing international population.

Sense of place and history are not lost on the students at Gettysburg College. That connection begins early in freshmen year with the First Year Walk; all first year students proceed together to the battlefield cemetery to recreate history and experience the reciting of the Gettysburg Address. No wonder history and political science are popular majors, though the college is one of very few small liberal arts colleges to have a music conservatory. A little more than an hour from D.C., Gettysburg students take advantage of the proximity to the nation’s capital. The legacy of former Gettysburg and US president Dwight Eisenhower lives on in his Eisenhower Institute where students enhance their undergraduate experience by studying leadership and public policy, and reflect on the lessons of history to become informed future leaders.

Whether students are seeking a liberal arts or pre-professional experience, they may very well find their own sense of place at one of the colleges in central Pennsylvania.  One does not have to be a student of the Revolutionary or Civil Wars to appreciate their profound impact in this region and its history. It’s also not necessary to be guided by a calling to preserve the environment to find a connection to the culture, philosophy or feel of these meccas for higher learning. The place to start is with a visit. Two wheels is enthusiastically recommended, though not required.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The New Reality of College Admissions

The downward trend in college acceptance rates at the most selective universities may not be a revelation or newsworthy, but it does beg the question: how much lower can admission rates realistically go? Getting into many highly selective colleges has indeed entered a new stage; admission to these lofty institutions is now more random than predictable. What was achievable for students even five years ago is essentially like playing the roulette wheel for applicants today.   

The class of 2020 saw the lowest acceptance rates in history at the most selective colleges and there are no signs of this trend reversing soon. The most recent admission data show that 12 colleges, including six non-Ivies, had acceptance rates under 10%.  Another 24 schools accepted fewer than 20% of the students who applied.  Putting these numbers into context and paraphrasing the words of one Ivy League admissions officer, the average high achieving student in the applicant pool faces discouraging odds for admission. According to this admission officer, the typical applicant has high test scores and is taking AP calculus, and usually the more rigorous BC course, has at least three years of language and will complete the science triad of biology, chemistry and physics, with at least one and probably more at the AP level. Possessing these things makes a student average in that university’s and presumably its peers’ applicant pools; even with such impressive academic accomplishments, the majority of these candidates will not be accepted. To be competitive a student must have something truly special in order to stand out. In the realm of college admissions today that can take many forms: national recognition for science research, an exceptional talent, adding diversity that is highly sought and under-represented or something less tangible like an insatiable curiosity that manifests itself in unique and compelling ways (vague…I know).  And even possessing those factors offers no guarantee. Being smart and gifted is no longer an admission ticket to the most selective colleges.

My reason for sharing this sobering news is not to instill panic. Rather, I hope it will help parents and students reorient their expectations, acknowledge the new reality of college admissions and re-evaluate their notion of value. Adjusting our thinking can actually be liberating. If we know the deck is stacked against us, recalibrating expectations might even reduce the anxiety that accompanies the long wait for potentially disappointing news. The reality of college admissions hopefully motivates us to redefine success so that it is no longer measured by acceptance rates that are akin to winning at the blackjack table.  The truth is that the selectivity of a college is not a reliable measure of quality; it says nothing about what happens over the next four years. Getting in should not be the endgame; at best it puts one on the launch pad. What a student is able to accomplish, wherever he or she enrolls, will have far more bearing on future success than the institution’s name embossed on the diploma.

If you don’t believe me, look at the undergraduate colleges and universities of the entering class at Harvard Business School. You’re probably surprised to see so many colleges you’ve never heard of or perhaps some you might have assumed were of lesser quality.  Apparently HBS did not think so.  I also highly recommend Frank Bruni's best-selling book, Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be. It’s not hype that students who excel, wherever they go, will have equally if not more promising futures than those who do not distinguish themselves at a more selective college. 

So if increasingly more students are turned away from the most selective colleges each year, where do they end up going?  The shifting landscape of college admission means that many institutions further down the selectivity chain have become more competitive too.  That school you once assumed was a safety may no longer be.  Take a look at it with fresh eyes and an open mind, and see it for what it is: an opportunity awaiting rather than a consolation prize. It has most likely raised its own bar, as those students who formerly saw it as a back-up college are now prominently represented among the student population. 

Acknowledging and accepting the new reality of college admissions will hopefully shift the focus so that the process feels less like buying a lottery ticket and becomes more about finding a great fit.  I’m not suggesting it’s easy to alter expectations, but I will guarantee that doing so will reduce anxiety and make the process less stressful, perhaps even fun. Once we can truly embrace the notion that success in life is not determined by the college name on the diploma, it’s easier to celebrate our children’s success should they end up at a college which accepts more than 20% of its students. Who knows. That student who finds the fit and stands out at the less selective college may be headed to Harvard Business School.