Entering the World of Middle Class College Admissions

When I was working my way through the obstacles to getting my PhD, I had to sit for two written exams and one oral exam. I created binders of information that had to be crushed into my brain in preparation for any question that might come my way. Theories of property from Plato to Durkheim to Nozick. Competing models of federalism. How FDR expanded the powers of the presidency. Lincoln’s arguments about the federal government in the Lincoln/Douglas debates.

It took months to prepare these binders and to memorize all that material in order to pass the exams. I came away from that insanity with the awareness that my brain was a very finite instrument. If one piece of random information entered my brain, like the proper method of roasting chicken or the sale price of a pair of shoes at Macy’s, it might push out an essential fact that I might need for the upcoming exam.  So, in the few weeks leading up to the exam, I would keep myself in the exam bubble and keep any outside information to a minimum.

I have applied that wisdom to parenting. I only deal with the issues that are right in front of my face at that moment. That included all topics related to getting my kid into college.

I understand the internal dynamics of colleges, because I was a part of that world for many years. I did a lot of research on student loan debt for various articles. Student loan debt is also a personal topic, since we’re still repaying our graduate school for the torture involved in taking those pointless exams. But whenever neighbors and friends talked about getting their own kids into college, I tuned them out. I figured that I would learn more about that process when the time came.

Well, the time is here. I have a high school sophomore. He took the practice PSATs a couple of weeks ago. The morning of the exam, I couldn’t remember if kids were penalized for guessing on the test or not. I had to google it, five minutes before he left the house.

That moment of awesome parenting made me realize that it was time to figure out the college admissions game. So, I’ve been talking with other parents and reading articles on the topic.

Wow. It’s an entirely different game than when I applied.

When I applied to college, my parents did very little. My mom signed me for an SAT class, because other parents told her to do it, but that was about it. My parents, first generation college graduates,  ended up in college mostly because of accident and luck, so they couldn’t tell me what to do. I wrote my college essay on an electric typewriter in the basement. Nobody proofed my work. I chose the colleges on my own and filled out the applications. I visited colleges on a weekend trip to upstate New York with friends. I arranged for the interviews. They had very little input in the whole process, until it was time to figure out the finances at the very end.

Today, the parental involvement in the college application process is jaw dropping.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about colleges with a friend, who is more connected with the rich folks in town than I am. She said that a number of her friends were hiring college consultants. I went into a rant. “Why do people need college consultants? All that information is available in books and online. You just line up your kids’ GPA, SAT scores, and your ability to pay with the lists of colleges and then you pick ten or so. You apply and see what happens.”

My friend chuckled at my naivety and said, “no, no, no, Laura. People decide which college they want their child to attend and then they hire a college consultant to make that happen.”

What else have I learned in the past two weeks?

Kids don’t just take the SATs once, like I did. They take the SATs and the ACTs many times. One girl took both tests four times. Then you piece together the best scores. Some colleges let you take the verbal score from one test and the math score from another test.

A bad high school record? Well, you can go to a great state school as an out-of-state student and pay the equivalent of a private school tuition.

You can’t just show that you belonged to clubs anymore. You have to show LEADERSHIP. So, your child should create an exercise club for autistic kids or send money for clean drinking water to Africa. There are websites to keep track of all your child’s leadership activities.

High schools offer seminars for parents to help them navigate this process.

People pay consultants to work with the child to create the perfect admissions essay. There are very fuzzy lines on the authorship of the final essay.

The cost of college isn’t the only obstacle to getting working class and poor students into higher ed.

Schools As Social Service Providers

I called my bro yesterday to wish my niece a belated happy birthday. He was in the midst of the morning chaos — getting the kids packed off to school with homeworks and lunches, while getting himself ready for work. My SIL had left for work.

We chatted briefly. I told him that my kids had off from school for Thursday and Friday, because New Jersey has a bogus teachers’ union convention that no teacher actually attends. While he doesn’t have the bogus teachers’ union convention in New York State, his school district had its own annoying random holidays that made life extremely hard for working families.

My brother went into full rant mode about how hard it was for him and his wife to find coverage for their children, when schools closed. He said, “You should write a blog post about that!!” I have, my dear bro. I have. When the kids were very young, and I worked a lot, the random school closings sucked even more for us.  I had kids in two different school districts that each had their own random holidays. It’s extremely difficult to find anyone to watch a special needs kid. Also, Steve was not able to help out at all.

There is a growing demand for schools to stop this random holiday stuff. Parents expect that schools will conform to standard business hours. Schools do not want this responsibility. Who will win out?

I’ve got Ian in a standard public school in the standard special ed program. It’s not a great fit. His academics are better than the other classmates. They aren’t doing enought to deal with his weaknesses like pragmatic speech and social skills; a few old guard administrators say that their job is to just deal with academics. Since the school board wants to keep kids like Ian in the school district, change is happening quickly, and some people are less than pleased.

The mission for public schools is rapidly changing. (I can’t write a proper conclusion, because one of my kids who is home from school is bugging me to do a project on this computer. Ugh. Hitting “publish.” )

A GOOD Ranking of Colleges

Over the weekend, I was looking at college rankings. I pretty much hate most college ranking systems, because they include variables that I think aren’t useful. I’m looking at the U.S. News and World Report ranking methodology right now.

The US News ranking relies heavily on the academic reputation based on peer evaluations. How college faculty and administrations view other colleges is a weird thing. A professor at Harvard really doesn’t know anything about the classroom instruction at Columbia. They may know that some guys in the sociology department publish a lot in top tier journals and that it is hard to find a position at that school, but they don’t know if those guys show up to class on time, if they hold regular office hours, or if they farm out most of the instruction to adjuncts.

A small college may do a great job in job placement in certain fields. Faculty on the opposite side of the country would have no way of knowing that.

The U.S. World and News Report places 20 percent of their overall score on “faculty resources.” Higher scores go to schools with small class size and with well paid faculty. Of that 20 percent, 5 percent of that number goes to schools that have more full time faculty. The ratio of adjuncts to full time faculty is a really important number that should have a greater weight.

Five percent of the overall score goes towards alumni giving. Five percent isn’t a lot, but I’m not sure why it is relevant at all. Alumni who give are rich and/or care too much about sports. That’s a negative for me.

I would like a ranking system that includes some weight to peer evaluations. I think a good undergraduate professor publishes from time to time. However, it is equally important to me that the professor puts a lot of effort into classroom instruction. I would like some variable on a ranking system that gets to the issue of quality teaching.

Also, reputation of a school has to include more than feedback from college administrators. I would love to see a ranking that included surveys from local businesses and even from students.

I would deduct points from schools that had heavy Greek systems or major sports programs, but that’s just me.

I would deduct points from schools that relied heavily on low paid adjuncts. Because employing slave labor is just wrong.

I would deduct points from schools that had trouble getting students out in four years.

I would deduct points from schools that had no employment advisement.

I would deduct points from schools with too many rich kids. Because diversity is important.  Because we won’t be able to afford those schools. And because I’m in a commie mood.

College selectivity is super important. Weirdly, the US News ranking system only gives that variable a weight of 12.5 percent. It’s less important in their ranking system than faculty salaries. I miss the old Baron’s ranking system that relied heavily on the selectivity variable.

No matter what college ranking system that you employ, the top 25 colleges will probably remain on that list. The schools are super hard to get into. They have vast amounts of financial resources. Administrators are vigilant that their reputation is well earned. But after that top 25, there is a lot more room for movement.

My eldest kid is a good student, but not the best student. He will have his running trophies to demonstrate leadership and commitment. He will need a super generous private school or an excellent public college, since we don’t have a cent saved for his education. I want him within a five hour drive of my house. He needs a college in the 25-50 range. I’ve got about three colleges on my mental list, but we need more options.

The Haves and the Havenot of the Food Revolution


Flipping through the articles in the food issue of the New Yorker, I’m struck by the glaring gaps between the foodie world and the non-foodie world.

We live pretty close to Manhattan, so our idea of a fun time is go into the city on a Saturday night and eat weird food. We take the kids and go for German barbecue places in Williamsburg or  elevated English pub grub in the West Village. I research new restaurants. I follow them on Instagram. I like rustic places with large portions, energetic staff, and a relaxed atmosphere. There are really, really good restaurants in NYC and a few other cities right now.

I also cook a lot at home. Before my kids go trick or treating tonight, they’ll get a bowl of potato-leek soup.

This is not how most of America eats. That is not most of America how cooks. I like that the New Yorker is pointing out that there is this amazing world of food out there right now, but they should also mention that only a very small group of people is able to access it. This food revolution is elitist. I feel like a whole edition of a magazine devoted to food should have some discussion of the food habits of most Americans.

Street Harrassment

I wasn’t going to tackle the street harrassment documentary, because everyone else was talking about it. Also, “women are harrassed on the street” seemed like a “no duh” topic to me. But I’ve been driving around thinking about it. So, if you missed the video, check it out…

In the early 1980′s, I started taking the bus to Manhattan with my friends to shop in the Village or visit museums. I was sixteen. Until we moved back to the suburbs in my late 30s, I spent a lot of time walking around the city. And harrassment was a way of life.

The women in the video said she was harrassed 1oo times in 10 hours. I was harrassed more. Because I have red hair and often walking around with my best friend who also has red hair, this led to a lot of attention. I got all the cat calls in the video. I was followed by a guy who accused me of being a witch. Random people took pictures of me. Old dudes on the subway dropped their trousers. In bars, guys would grab my ass and then pretend it was someone else. Occasionally, guys on the street would try to kiss me.

I learned how to completely tune it out, so it didn’t really bother me unless they touched or followed me.  I only really became aware of my numbness when the street calls stopped. Nobody bothers you if you’re over 35 and carrying a diaper bag. Made me wonder if I was numb to other problems.

A Wednesday

Yesterday, I got the kids off to school, did some random clicking on vapid online magazines, and then took the car to Jimmy’s, our car mechanic. Last week, Steve noticed that the headlights were out on the Subaru and was rather annoyed.

“The headlights aren’t working! How long have they been out? I had to drive through town with the high beams on!”  Continue Reading →

Increasing Economic Diversity at College

Increasing college access and retention for lower income students is one my long standing, pet topics.

When I worked for a policy center in grad school, we did a study on why good students (a GPA of B- or better) dropped out of the CUNY colleges. We were hired by the CUNY administrators to do the study. They gave us a huge randomized list of these good dropout students. We tracked down as many as we could, and asked them why they left. Many said that they hadn’t really dropped out. They took time off. Others transferred. Many said they had a family or financial crisis. Others complained about advisors or the poor sequencing of classes.

For those who didn’t transfer to other schools, personal crisis and bad advisors were the biggest  issues.

The Upshot has a great article that lists some new programs aimed precisely at the students in my old study. There are efforts to create independent advisors for these students.

Leonhardt wonders what colleges will do if they start getting more students at their door who are prepared, but don’t have the income to pay for tuition. Will colleges start cutting corners to keep tuition affordable?


Social Media and Journalism

People are consuming news in a whole new way. They aren’t walking to the end of the driveway, unfolding the Times or the Wall Street Journal, and then flipping through the pages. (Well, one person still does that. That’s Steve.)  They aren’t even going to the webpage for the newspaper and trolling through their content. (I still do that.)

Mostly, people log onto Facebook or other social  media, and then read what they’re friends are recommending. (I also do that.)

The NYT has an article about the changing modes of news consumption. ( I found this article through a link on Facebook. Very meta.) About 30 percent of adults in the United States get their news on Facebook. At the Washington Post, more than half of its mobile readers, are millenials who consume news digitally and largely through social media sites like Facebook.

More stats — “Facebook now has a fifth of the world — about 1.3 billion people — logging on at least monthly. It drives up to 20 percent of traffic to news sites…”

How does this impact the way that news is created? The article doesn’t really answer that question. Let me try.

News sources now need more content than ever, because they don’t know what will stick and what won’t. They need more and more writers to produce this content, but have less resources to pay them. So, freelancers.

They hire SEO experts, who write clever headlines that will make Facebook and Google happy. These headlines sometimes don’t reflect the content of the article, because people don’t necessary read that far into an article.

They produce a lot of the same articles that they know will appeal to the Facebook linkers. I would love to see some content analysis how the article topics have changed in the past ten years.

The New Tastes of Millenials

Millenials aren’t buying cars or new houses. Derek Thompson and the Atlantic staff have written several articles on this topic in the past couple of years. In the latest article, they recount the stats on home and car ownership for the 20-something, early 30′s age group. “The homeownership rate among adults younger than 35 fell by 12 percent, and nearly 2 million more of them—the equivalent of Houston’s population—were living with their parents…” They eventually want to own a home, but in a smaller city with a walkable downtown. Same goes for cars.

Now, why are millenials not buying homes and cars? Is it about consumer preferences — they don’t want to live in suburban sprawl — or it is because they can’t afford those items? Thompson says it’s probably a mixture of both.

I’m not entirely sure that tastes have changed that much. Yesterday, I went to two birthday parties and ended up talking a nice subset of millenials.  One woman just moved out here to the suburbs from New York City, because she wanted a backyard and good schools for her very young children. Later in the day, I talked with four other young people who were firmly commited to urban living, but they didn’t have kids yet. Tastes change when children arrive.

I think that tastes in cars have changed over the decades. I hate spending money on transportation. One of our cars is 1997 Toyota Corolla, and we’ll keep driving it until the bottom rusts out. I would much rather spend money on travel and entertainment than a car.

Thompson and the guys for Vox have written a lot about their own preferences for walkable downtowns, bike paths, denser developments, and public transportation. Truthfully, I like those sorts of living arrangements, too. If you throw in good schools, I would live in that millenial utopia, too. The trouble is that they don’t really exist in this area. Local towns actively block the new construction of apartments and townhouses. Not that there is much space for those buildings anyway. There is no support for a massive investment in new public transportation systems, which are incredibly costly.

Local politics and fiscal realities will undermine the millenial utopia. It’s too bad, because I would like to ride my bike to the supermarket.