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Educational Consulting, Understanding the Market

Latest Scandals in College Admissions

If you’ve been following the news lately, you may have heard about the latest scandal in college admissions. Fifty people were recently charged by the District Attorney in Massachusetts for illegal activities intended to guarantee their children admission to a number of elite colleges around the country. Some of these activities included illicit aid in college entrance exams such as the SAT, while others included bribing college coaches to guarantee a spot on their college team.

I think this recent scandal deserves the attention it’s been getting, but I think some of the commentary has been misguided. I’m going to offer a few thoughts here to help us think through the anxieties revealed by these scandals and better ways to think about them.

First, college admission is indeed a very stressful time for both parents and prospective students. It does matter which college you attend. It’s not true that education is the same across the country, and you do want to attend the best college that you can. Colleges with higher endowments do provide better education, hire top faculty and actually provide them support, provide better networking opportunities, and provide better facilities and other opportunities.

However, it’s not true that you or your child needs to get into any one particular college to have a good future. It’s not even true that Ivy League colleges are necessarily the best colleges in the country for any given area of study — your state’s public college may have excellent programs geared towards yours or your child’s interests. While some educational paths are certainly better than others, there isn’t just one right educational path for you or your child. There are many ways to do it right.

Next, there’s nothing wrong with doing every legal thing you can to improve test scores to help you get into a better college. Take SAT test prep classes. Get tutors if you’re weak in some areas. Take the test multiple times if your first score isn’t your best one. Hire services like ours to advise you, and seek out advice from guidance counselors as well. But you don’t have to be rich to get this help. There are a lot of free and inexpensive aids out there. You just need to know how to find them.

Finally, I would like to take a moment to distinguish Bright Futures Educational Consulting from other services out there. We are priced to help working and middle class families find their best paths into college. It’s not just about getting in, but about avoiding debt, finding the right colleges and majors for you or your child, and knowing where to find the information you need about all the decisions you have to make when choosing a college or major.

You might notice that many other services like ours are staffed by former college admissions workers. Bright Futures Educational Consulting has background in college admissions, but also in financial aid, course and curriculum design, instruction, and college administration. We’re not just thinking about getting you in to college, but about what you want to do while you’re there, the kinds of decisions that you need to make to avoid high debt (such as how to avoid switching majors, which can be very costly and time consuming), how your personality, personal strengths, passions, and interests can translate into a meaningful degree, and how that degree can translate into a living. We’re not just thinking about admissions, in other words, but about making your college education work for you in your life after graduation.

Check out our Contact Page for more information. We provide a range of consulting services. You only have to pay for the ones you need, and your initial consultation is free.

Majors and Areas of Study

What’s the Point of College Literature Classes?

If you’re going to college for a vocationally-oriented degree, you might wonder why you have to waste your time with a bunch of humanities classes. I’m going to answer that question here.

Big picture first: college degrees can very generally be divided into two types. Some degrees prepare students for a vocation, and other degrees develop student capacities, skills, or knowledge in a broader sense. The latter kind of degree falls under the designation of a “liberal arts degree.” Liberal arts study was developed in the current university system when all university education was designed to train priests or lawyers. But, it was still seen as valuable to people who did not wish to be ordained. Liberal arts study — originally grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — was then pursued to give free (liberalis) men the training they needed to conduct business in the world. Liberal arts study, therefore, was the original business degree.

An Associate of Science in Nursing is a vocational degree — it trains students to do a job. Paralegal degrees, other medical science degrees, criminal justice degrees, and other similar AS degrees do the same thing. They provide narrow, focused courses of study that provide job training in a specific field. Bachelor degrees, on the other hand, seek to produce more broadly developed graduates: people who have developed certain skills and attained more advanced levels of knowledge both within and outside of their vocational training.

Vocational degrees are great. In the right fields, they lead to decently paying jobs with a minimal of student debt or time to degree. They are limited, though. Because they aren’t portable to other fields, what happens if you hate your job? Or what happens if the tech changes, or your job goes away? Suddenly, your education is useless because it’s been so narrow, and you need to go back for retraining.

In a very broad sense, college classes designed to produce more advanced students tend to do two things: impart knowledge and develop skills. Almost all classes do at least a little of both, but some classes are very heavily weighted toward skills development (like writing, drawing, or painting classes), while other classes are very heavily weighted toward imparting knowledge, like a chemistry or anatomy class.

Classes that are weighted toward imparting knowledge teach students information they expect students to believe. An anatomy class, for example, expects students to name many (many) different parts of the human body, and students are expected to treat these names as facts. Sunday School classes or sermons are similar — we’re taught things there because we’re expected to believe them, because they are presented as truth.

Classes that are weighted toward skills could be seen as developing different kinds skills and, beyond that, literacy: drawing and painting classes increase your visual literacy, or in other words, not just your ability to see in more detail, but to critically interpret what you see. Classes that are reading intensive, such as history, English, and philosophy, develop a variety of cognitive skills, all of them involving the ability to process a lot of incoming and outgoing text quickly and to think in very different ways, to process different kinds of concepts. History tends to focus on concrete objects of study, philosophy on abstract, while the study of literature tends to combine the two: it teaches us to analyze concrete, creative products using abstract conceptual structures.

Based on this understanding of what a literature class does, I’d like to encourage students, and everyone else, really, not to think of literature classes as classes that teach students information they ought to believe. It’s misguided to think a literature class is there to brainwash students into being “liberals.” Literature classes aren’t anatomy classes, and they aren’t Sunday School classes. Literature classes are somewhat off the map in terms of either kind of thinking as they are usually designed to combine these two purposes. Literary study imparts knowledge for the purpose of developing skills.

The skills imparted by literary studies are partly cognitive, partly relational, and partly academic. For example, reading and writing skills are enhanced through literary study, and they are foundational cognitive skills that contribute to the development of more advanced ones. Literature classes regularly ask students to learn to think in very different ways by reading complex texts. Yes, that’s hard. Students who struggle and have to reread often aren’t at a disadvantage, though. Going through that process is a sign of student learning.

On the relational side, literature classes ask questions like, “How do other people think, what do other people think, why do they think that way, and why is it important, especially to them?” These “other people” may be fictional, real, or mythological, but the literature class doesn’t care: readers have to exercise their judgment, or interpretive skills, equally on all three without ever knowing what the right answer is.

That is one of the biggest benefits of a literature class: each work of literature is like a real life case study in that it presents characters whose words and actions must be interpreted without anyone ever being able to tell us that we got it right. The act of literary interpretation in this way mimics the kind of real life reasoning that we do on a daily basis as we try to understand other people. Literary interpretation just slows down the process and makes it more explicit and deliberate rather than on the spot.

In one narrow sense, literature classes do teach facts they expect students to believe, such as the approximate date of composition of a work, the geographic location in which it was composed, its authorship, etc. Even if we don’t know who the author of a literary work is, we might regard it as a fact that we don’t know who the author is. All of these facts fall under the category of “literary history” and make up the known facts about a literary work with the caveat that, as is the case with all historical artifacts, what we think we know now can change later with a new discovery, as in many of the sciences.

But most literature classes only pay minor attention to literary history. It’s background information. For the most part, literature classes do not teach anything they expect students to believe. They present interpretable material and ask students to interpret it, and to do so coherently, but they never claim that any one justified or coherent interpretation is the right one. Note my caveats, though: justified or coherent. In other words, any valid interpretation according to the range of possible meanings of the work is a right one, but there’s not just one. Meaning in complex literary works is of course not completely subjective, nor is it at all arbitrary: it is limited to the range of meanings made possible by the words on the page.

For example, the word “green” might refer to a color, to someone who is envious or ill, to someone who is new, or to someone who is pro-environment, which means that the word “green” can produce a number of different meanings in a single context, sometimes even more than one at the same time. This idea of a literary work, or even a single word, meaning multiple things at the same time is “polysemy.” It’s an idea found in Plato’s works and very strongly emphasized by the Medievals in Biblical interpretation from the time of Origen, continuing to the present in the current Catholic catechism. Despite the long-known polysemous quality of language, the word “green” can never be a direct lexical substitute for “tall,” so while literary interpretation isn’t fixed, simple, or singular, like the names of our different bones, it isn’t arbitrary. Learning to negotiate a field of information that is neither completely subjective, completely arbitrary, nor completely fixed is one of the several important cognitive skills developed by literary study, because that is most like real life. There are no easy answers.

So I’d like us all to avoid approaching literary works assigned in a class with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to believe something. I’d like us to approach these literary works with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to understand how other people think — people in different cultures or people who lived in past versions of our own culture. I developed a medical humanities-focused world literature class that uses world literature to seek to understand how people thought about their bodies, about health and sickness, and about caregiving in past cultures around the world. This study does involve a seeking after fact, but these facts are at least in part the product of interpretation. They aren’t just presented in a simple and straightforward way on the page, just waiting to be consumed and regurgitated.

As a result, yours or my own or anyone else’s agreement or disagreement with any of the ideas presented in any literary text are completely irrelevant to the purposes of most literature courses, because these courses are not really designed to get students to believe something in particular — aside from facts related to basic literary history described above. It’s asking students to interpret something that’s different from our usual way of thinking to help us better understand people who think in ways that are different from our own, and to help us in a general sense be more advanced thinkers — which is a skill that students can take with them into any profession.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Graduation Rates, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

Understanding Four vs. Six Year Graduation Rates

If you’ve been shopping for colleges you might have read about four and six year graduation rates. These rates are indicators of what percentage of entering freshmen finish college four years after starting and what percentage finish six years after starting. Graduation rates beyond six years aren’t followed very closely, as most students finish within six years or not at all, and from the numbers I’ve seen, five and six year graduation rates tend to be very similar.

Time-to-Graduation too Often Overlooked” by Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos addresses the issue of time to graduation as a significant concern for students considering a college. They are concerned about the added costs involved in graduating six years after starting rather than four. Akers and Chingos provide a lot of useful data indicating that four and six year graduation rates can vary widely among institutions regardless of the institution’s quality on other measures, including the strength of incoming students’ ACT or SAT scores. Apparently, there’s no clear correlation among student scores, institutional quality, and differences between four- and six-year graduation rates:

One might assume that general metrics of college quality are good proxies for all sorts of outcomes, including time-to-degree. For example, perhaps institutions with good six-year graduation rates also have good four-year graduation rates so it doesn’t really matter which one students use.  But it turns out that this is not the case.  The average time-to-degree varies widely, even within institutions that seem to be of similar quality based on other measures.

What I would like to do here is help students think through why graduation rates might differ from school to school and how to evaluate those differences.

First, I agree with the basic point of this article: students need to do all they can to graduate in four years, because by doing so they’re saving money. These cost savings take the form of not paying for two years of additional tuition, room, board, and fees, and also in the form of two fewer years of lost income. The sooner you start work after college, the sooner your investment in college starts paying you back.

But it’s very important that we understand the range of possible reasons for these differences. Time to graduation is always just a matter of basic math: any four-year college that requires 120 credit hours to graduate requires 30 credits per year, or 15 credits (typically five classes) per semester. If a student passes five classes per semester every semester they will graduate in four years, period. So if 15-20% of a college’s students need an additional two years to graduate that’s not because of the degree structure or the college itself, unless significantly more than 120 credits are required for graduation.

Typical reasons that cause students to take more than four years to graduate include:

1. Failing or dropping classes — do this four or five times and you’ve added a semester to your completion time.
2. Sports injuries, if they cause you to drop out of school for a semester or more.
3. Serious family issues or illnesses, if they cause you to drop out of school for a semester or more.
4. Switching majors during or after your third year.
5. Adding minors, especially multiple minors.
6. Double majors.

I have had students in the past who fit all of the above categories, often multiple ones at once.

Institutional reasons include for extended time to graduation include:

7. Credit-intensive majors. The college usually can’t do anything about these requirements, as they are field-specific and are usually designed to meet state or federal requirements. For example, secondary education majors are often required to do coursework about equivalent to a double major. Those requirements are imposed by the state. Just know what you’re getting into if you select one of these majors.

8. The school doesn’t accept many or any transfer credits or students (i.e., most students start as freshmen), which raises the likelihood of more than four years to graduation. Transfer students will finish in two or three years, and if they graduate in four, they may have done it in four years at that institution but have taken much more than four years to get their degree.

9. Time to graduation may be increased if an institution has a significant population of non-traditional students, such as working adults. Working adults are often unable to attend full time so take longer to complete. My own alma mater, Rollins College, has an undergraduate evening program called the Hamilton Holt School that is largely populated by non-traditional students along with graduate programs with a similar student population. I suspect this school contributes to the 15% increase in six year graduation rates over four year graduation rates at Rollins College. I was one of these students. It took me nine years to complete my B.A. at three different institutions. I just happened to finish at Rollins College.

10. A college with a high population of remedial students will have longer time to graduation, as these courses often do not count for credit toward graduation. If a student has to take four remedial classes in two or three different subjects, that’s a semester added to their time to graduation. This problem may not be a negative if the college serves its remedial students well.

11. Are the college’s general education courses filled to overflowing? Do they offer too few sections for the students who need them? This problem is institutional and can extend time to graduation.

12. Does the college serve many veterans or those in the military? They often have to take a semester or more off for service. It’s a good thing that the college does so, but serving this population will affect a college’s stats on time to graduation.

So even if you see that there’s a big disconnect between four- and six-year graduation rates, you still don’t know what that means. If it’s because many students fail their classes, that means the school has meaningful academic standards but a weak student population, which is a mixed signal (bad in that students are weak, good in that at least the school has academic standards). If there’s a big difference between four- and six-year graduation rates because many students take credit-intensive majors or double majors, that’s a sign that the school has a high population of very motivated students, or very strong programs in credit-intensive majors, so that’s a good sign. Schools with a high four-year graduation rates may have low academic standards, and faculty may be pressured to just pass everyone through, in which case a high four-year graduation rate can be a sign of a bad school. If the school has an evening program populated by working adults, then differences in four- and six-year graduation rates don’t tell you anything at all.

So finding out why these differences exist is what matters. The best thing to do is to consider this measure alongside many others, and compare your potential college’s graduation rates to national averages and other potential colleges. If they’re above the national average for their cohort, you’re on safe ground.

In general, four-year private non-profit institutions have the best four- to six-year graduation rates, and for-profit institutions have the worst, running at about half the rate of public and private non-profit institutions.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

How to Choose a College Major

 I’d like to encourage you to think about your choice of a college major in terms of three central questions:

  1. What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific major?
  2. What are the professional facets of that decision?
  3. What are the economic facets of that decision?

Let’s explore these one at a time.

  1. The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you?  Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
  2. The professional content of your decision to pursue a certain course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of business majors and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
  3. The economic content of your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
    1. Cost of the degree.
    2. Income potential for the degree.
    3. Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation.So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably 3-5% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university. Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.

What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. However, I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.

In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much. If you’d like personalized advising that can help you think through these factors, consider retaining the services of Bright Futures Educational Consulting. We’re here to help, and we’re experienced at it.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment, Understanding the Market

Understanding ROI and Education Degrees

ROI, or “Return on Investment,” is a term that media outlets like Forbes have begun using to describe the value of a college degree. These outlets started using this term to encourage prospective college students and their parents to think seriously of college as a financial investment alongside all of our other considerations about college. The idea behind ROI is that the value of a college degree is determined in part by the cost of the degree against the earning potential of the degree. A degree that costs a lot of money with low earning potential, so the thinking goes, has a bad ROI and is a bad investment overall. 

This way of thinking is I think good for future college students overall, and here at Bright Futures Educational Consulting we emphasize ROI in our advising for degree choices. Unfortunately, despite the wealth of reporting about the value of various college degrees, very little of it is of much value. It either groups together significantly different degrees into deceptively large categories, or it fails to consider how limited are the numbers of people who can pursue specific degrees, or how demand for certain degrees might be short term. 

For example, much reporting on higher education talks about the “humanities” as a group. That’s a mistake of the first kind, lumping together a large number of disparate degrees to create a false impression. English MAs, for example, 24 years after graduation make only about $7000 a year less than MBAs, but the same can’t be said for art history majors. There’s no meaningful data about “humanities” unless you’re majoring in “humanities.” You need to look at the ROI for your specific area of the humanities. 

Other reporting touts degrees in chemical engineering as having the highest earning potential, but seems to ignore the fact that maybe 3% of high school graduates have the math skills to pursue a degree in chemical engineering — and that’s why the degrees lead to such high paying jobs. The market is not yet saturated. That’s not useful information for most high school graduates, but if you’re a math wiz, it might be. 

What I’d like to do is apply ROI thinking to a specific degree to show you how it works. One of the most popular degrees is education, and these degrees are lumped into “humanities and social science” by some reporting. Here’s what you need to know about a degree in K-12 education: 

  • First, a degree in K-12 education is a lot of work. In many states, an education degree is almost a double major, as you have to major in education and in a subject matter (at least if you’re pursing high school teaching). It’s very likely this degree will be expensive as it may take you more than four years to graduate. 
  • Next, it’s a tough field. Most K-12 educators quit teaching after five years. Our system isn’t geared to support teachers and, for that reason, isn’t really supporting students well either. Teachers across the country who want to serve their students feel very frustrated in their ability to do so. 
  • Finally, in most places, it’s a low paying field. Starting salaries for K-12 instructors with bachelor’s degrees range from the high $20s to the low $40s depending on the school district. 

Does this mean no one should go into K-12 education? If you think you’ll love teaching regardless of the challenges, then pursue that career, but I do think everyone who wants to teach needs to go in with eyes open. And, they need to prepare. My recommendations for anyone going into K-12 education, considering ROI, are as follows:

  • First, declare your education major your freshman year. That will cut your time to graduation by allowing you to better plan your classes across four years rather than just two or three. 
  • Next, avoid private colleges. While costs vary by state, most public universities are much cheaper than most private colleges, especially small private colleges. Since the ROI on a degree in K-12 education will be low, you want to avoid debt by keeping costs down.
  • Finally, ask the right questions. When you’re visiting a college and checking out their education programs, ask what percentage of students pass the Praxis test the first time and what percentage are placed in jobs before the end of their senior year. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if an admissions officer doesn’t know the answer to these questions, it may well be because the answers are bad. Get that information before you enroll, and if you can’t, go elsewhere. 

Did you find this information useful? Bright Futures Educational Consulting can provide you guidance on the return on investment for any degree that you might want to pursue and your best college and university options for that degree. Best of all, that information will be personalized for your specific state and circumstances. Contact us by phone or email for a free initial consultation. It’s a small investment now that can save you tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt later.