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Baylor Trying to Game U.S. News Rankings by Paying Freshmen to Retake SATs? 

Monday, October 20, 2008

The New York Times recently published a story about Baylor University paying incoming freshmen $300 to retake the SAT and awarding them a $1,000 merit scholarship if they raised their SAT score 50 points. Just to clarify, Baylor paid students who were already admitted to the school $300 to retake the SAT.

Why Was Baylor Paying Admitted Students to Retake the SAT?

While the university claimed that much of the motivation for letting incoming freshmen retake the SAT was to award additional merit aid (that is, the $1,000 merit scholarship if they raised their score 50 points), the tactics seem a little fishy. The initiative appears to be a veiled attempt to improve the school's standing in popular college ranking guides.

First, the offer was only open to incoming freshmen. No upperclassmen were offered the opportunity to do the same. Why is that significant? Well, because the test scores of upperclassmen have already been reported to organizations like U.S. News and World Report and Princeton Review in past years and won't have any affect on the school's current rankings.

Second, it was not as though they had pre-defined standards for merit aid and were encouraging students who fell just short of those standards to retake the SAT so they could qualify. That might seem compassionate, in some way, letting a kid who scored an 1220 on the SAT and fell just short of a 1250 cut-off for a scholarship give it another try. You could qualify for the merit aid whether you had a 1000 SAT score or a 1300 SAT score.

Finally, if it was mostly about giving out additional merit aid, aren't there better ways to give out scholarships rather than making a freshman retake the SAT? One quick idea could be to tie the merit scholarship to community service.

The Results of Paying Students and the Criticism that Followed

The program cost the school a reported $862,000, and the average SAT score of incoming freshmen climbed just 10 points from 1200 to 1210. When the news broke in the university's student newspaper, The Lariat, the school received criticism from all quarters of the university. The newspaper released a highly critical op-ed piece, the faculty senate condemned the practice, and many students on campus derided it as unfair and out of line with Baylor's institutional values. Criticism also came from the admission professionals around the country.

Baylor Stops the Program

In response to the mounting criticism, Baylor has stopped the program. It's unclear whether it was initially intended to be a one-year program or an ongoing offer to incoming freshmen.

The whole affair has stoked the fires for critics of published rankings and for critics of standardized tests.

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Are the SATs Days Numbered? 

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A panel of admission experts, assembled by the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC) and led by William Fitzsimmons, dean of admission and financial aid at Harvard, recently put out a report that raises questions about the use of SAT and ACT in college admissions decisions. The panel asked colleges to look critically at the correlation between SAT and ACT scores and performance in actual college classes and decide whether the use of these standardized admissions tests is appropriate.

So What Does This Mean?

Many colleges have already started a shift toward test optional policies, meaning students can submit SAT or ACT scores if they like, but are not required to do so. According to FairTest.org, the number of colleges and universities that have some form of test optional policy now approaches 800. This trend seems likely to continue. However, it's unlikely that college-bound students will be able to completely ignore the SAT and ACT any time soon.

If you're a high school or middle school student, you may not want to get too excited. The report does not advocate eliminating testing altogether. It proposes the consideration of alternative tests that are more curriculum-based, meaning they would test what you actually learn in high school. Some examples of curriculum-based tests are AP Exams and SAT Subject Tests. According to the report, these tests tend to be better predictors of success in college classrooms than the ACT and SAT.

The Test Prep Industry

The panel also pointed to the entire industry that has sprung up around test preparation for the ACT and SAT as an unfair advantage for some and an unnecessary distraction from actual learning. Not everyone can afford an SAT Prep Class from Kaplan or Princeton Review. Additionally, the panel believed that curriculum-based tests would send "a message to students that studying their course material in high school, not taking extracurricular test prep courses that tend to focus on test-taking skills, is the way to do well on admission tests and succeed in a rigorous college curriculum."

My guess is that the test prep industry would adapt their methods to the new curriculum-based tests. They may not be as easily "gamed", but there will likely be places where test prep will allow for improvement of scores. For example, the MCAT is largely based on specific subject matter and plenty of organizations offer test prep for it, including Kaplan and Princeton Review.

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Online Degrees: Are They Worth the Money? 

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

For many, getting a degree at a traditional 4-year college or 2-year community college is not an option. You may have kids to take care of so 9am classes aren't realistic. You may be holding down a job and need the flexibility of an online degree program. How do you decide if an online degree program is worth the money?

Here are a few steps that may help you determine if getting an online degree is a good way to spend your hard-earned dollars (or a good reason to take on some student loan debt).

1. Will the online degree give you access to new career opportunities?

Do you need a specific skill set to advance in your current job? Do you need training to transition to a new career path? Before you decide you want a degree for a degree's sake, you need to understand what doors an online degree will open.

A good way to do this is contact companies that are in your desired field and talk with someone involved in hiring. Ask them how they view candidates who have received a degree from an online program and which programs and schools they consider the strongest. Find out whether getting more formal training through an online degree program will improve your chances of breaking into the field or advancing in your job.

You may also want to talk with graduates who have received online degrees from the schools you are considering. Learn whether the program was a valuable experience for them and if it helped improve their marketability to potential employers.

2. Is the online degree program a reputable one?

If you've done some of the work answering question #1, you have probably already started the process of evaluating a specific online degree program.

Another good way to determine if an online degree program is legitimate and reputable is to research their accreditation status. The U.S. Department of Education provides a way for you to search for accredited postsecondary institutions. This is probably a good starting place. For specific programs, there may be other sources. For example, the AACSB and ACBSP provide accreditation for business programs.

3. Do they participate in federal financial aid programs?

Paying for your online degree program is likely going to be a concern. As we always say, you should do your best to find scholarships and grants first since they are essentially "free money" for college. After that, federal financial aid programs are typically your best, most affordable options. You should check whether you'll be able to get Stafford loans to pay for an online degree program. These are essentially schools that participate in the federal government's Title IV program.

We hope these tips help you determine whether an online degree program is worth the investment of time, effort, and money. Start your search for online degree programs now!

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College Admissions Officers May Be Checking Your Facebook Profile, But You Don't Need to Panic 

Friday, October 3, 2008

You may want to be more careful what you post on your Facebook or MySpace profile, it could come back to haunt you. According to a Kaplan survey of 320 admissions officers, 1 in 10 had visited the profile of an applicant on a social networking process as part of their evaluation process for admissions.

The trend is not only present at the undergraduate level. Admissions officers at some business, law, and medical schools have also taken a look at social networking profiles in their decision-making process.

What Can You Do

While some may say, don't use these sites or don't post anything that you wouldn't want on your admissions application, that's probably an unrealistic demand. These sites can be great tools for connecting with friends, meeting new people, posting photos, or just having fun. Some of you probably check Facebook more often than you check e-mail.

However, there are a few steps that you may want to consider so that your profile does not come back to bite you.

Set Your Profile to Private

Most of the social networking sites, including Facebook and MySpace, have a way for you to adjust your privacy settings. It's probably a good idea to give full access to your profile only to friends. This will help you avoid having to decide every time you upload a picture, add an application, or post on a wall whether it's something you'd want an admissions officer to see.

Don't Mix Business and Pleasure

For those of you who may be artists, directors, or musicians, Facebook and MySpace can often be great places to showcase your work and share it with friends, family, and others. However, you're probably using the site for social reasons as well and everything may not be intended for the eyes of admission officers. If you want to send links to your portfolio to admissions officers, you should think about posting your work elsewhere as well. You may want to create a Flickr or YouTube account solely for your work and share links to these accounts as part of your college application.

Use a Little Judgment

We know that your Facebook profile may not be intended for viewing by admissions officers, or even your parents for that matter, but a little judgment may help you avoid some heartache down the road. If you're under 21, you probably should think twice about setting the photo of you with a beer in each hand and drool on your face as your profile picture. Illegal activity is probably not something you want to be highlighting for all to see. In fact, even if you're over 21, this photo may not be your best choice as a profile picture.

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