The Edge Our college admission blog

The Brookings Common Sense Ranking

by Katie Z, Ph.D October 5, 2015


By now, you’ve likely heard of the newly-released College Scorecard, which provides prospective college applicants and their families with information about schools’ annual net price for federal financial aid recipients, graduation rates, and earnings of former students (who received federal financial aid) 10 years after entering the school.  A recent article from The New York Times presents its readers with the idea that the College Scorecard, though not a college ranking system, “suffers from many of the same flaws that afflict nearly every other college ranking system: There is no way to know what, if any, impact a particular college has on its graduates’ earnings, or life for that matter.”  It’s the “or life for that matter” that is actually a very important distinction to consider!  It makes us stop and think about whether measuring a school’s strengths based primarily on graduates’ future earnings is too narrow an approach to college rankings OR if it is a crucial indicator of how well a college prepares its students for later success.  Prof Muller, from Catholic University of America, tackles this question and is quoted in the article as saying, “To rank the value of colleges based on the ultimate earnings of their graduates radically narrows the concept of what college is supposed to be for.”  This is definitely food for thought…

Which factors should be measured and scrutinized when thinking about how best to rank colleges? Some would suggest that colleges shouldn’t be ranked at all (after all, aren’t all rankings a bit arbitrary?), while others are considering interesting new attributes of schools and ways to measure and quantify their strength and weaknesses.  For instance, as was written in an earlier post, the Brookings Institution has developed a ranking system that incorporates a “value-added approach to assessing two and four-year schools”, essentially comparing expectations for students to how they actually fare in life post-graduation.  As was put forth by the Brookings Institution, “One goal of the value-added measures is to isolate the effect colleges themselves have on those outcomes, above and beyond what students’ backgrounds would predict.”  It’s an interesting concept.  Still, it’s difficult to truly separate the effects of attending a specific college from innate qualities and other influences and formative experiences in the lives of those making up a school’s student body (e.g. family background, socioeconomic status, personality and work ethic, grit, perseverance, drive, innate intelligence, etc) AND it’s important to mention that the outcomes being considered by the Brookings Institution are primarily measures of economic well-being.

Economic well-being is, to a great extent, correlated with whether schools have a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum or not, as these majors often lead to high-paying jobs.  This leads me to what I most appreciated about this particular New York Times article and what I want to share with you today.  Click on this link and then be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page – it’s there that you’ll find what the author calls The Brookings Common Sense Ranking, which is essentially the aforementioned “value-added assessment” of schools that takes away the curriculum component of the equation.  Colgate University tops the list, and the Ivies are nowhere to be seen!  A ranking system where no Ivy League schools break into the top 20?!  Wheels, start turning.


Pressure On All Sides

by Katie Z, Ph.D October 2, 2015


I was watching Modern Family last night, the Season 6 episode where Haley takes her sister Alex to a music festival to try to take Alex’s mind off the stress of college admissions.  Not too far into the episode, we learn that Alex has just been rejected from Harvard, and she snaps, yelling:

“Why do things the right way?  What’s the point?  Get straight As for ten years, spend your summers building houses, drag your cello to school every day, write the perfect essay – and for what?! No thank you, Alex! We don’t want you, Alex!  I don’t care anymore.”  

Haley, who never cared much for school or academics, responds saying:

“You know what?  I think that this is a good thing for you.  You’re obviously going to get into one of those snooty schools and sometimes you’re going to come in second, or fourth, or maybe even tenth.  But you’re going to dust yourself off, maybe put on some lipstick for once, and keep going!”  

She could have added that some schools are a reach for everyone and that, as much as we may hate to admit it, that college admissions are “an unpredictable crapshoot.”  Though it’s easier said than done, a rejection letter shouldn’t be taken personally.  Still, college admissions IS stressful, and applicants can do no more than try their best and then hope for the best.  Prospective students will never feel fully in control of the process for the simple reason that there is another group beyond applicants to consider in the tangled admissions web – college admissions officers.

I’ve written before on this blog about how it’s important to, every so often, stop and consider the process from the view of the college admissions side of the fence.  And guess what?  College admissions is stressful for them too!

final pressure

Inside Higher Ed just released the findings from the “2015 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors“, which they carried out in partnership with Gallup, and the results tell a very interesting story:

  • 2015 marked “the third straight year of a majority of admissions directors reporting high stress and uneven success at filling their classes.”
  • About 25% of the 268 admissions directors who were surveyed reported that they had “been pressured by senior administrators, trustees or development officials to admit certain applicants.”
  • There is a great deal of skepticism about some of the new approaches taking place in various admissions offices across the country, for instance, admitting a student without consideration of his/her high school transcript.
  • There is more pressure to admit international students and out-of-state students, who will likely pay a higher price tag than others to attend the school.

This is but a small sampling of the findings, but if you’re curious to read the report in its entirety, click here.  The point is that the college admissions process is often stressful for all of its players, both prospective students and the admissions officers who work hard to recruit them.  Hopefully some of the recent changes that are taking the admissions world by storm (for instance, the work of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, the College Scorecard, and a simplified FAFSA) will help to depressurize the admissions pressure cooker.  We’ll certainly be keeping our hand on the admissions pulse, hoping to find it beating along at a normal resting rate, and not overcome with pressure and stress, speeding its way off the charts!  As ever, dear readers, more to come…

Admissions Revamped

by Katie Z, Ph.D September 30, 2015


Oxford Dictionaries defines revamp as “An act of improving the form, structure, or appearance of something.”  So, what exactly does revamp look like in the context of college admissions?  We need wait no more, dear readers – the answer is upon us!  In an article entitled “Admissions Revolution“, Inside Higher Ed dives into the deep end of the recent news that over eighty leading institutions of higher learning, including ALL of the Ivies and their friends (click here for the full list of members, all of whom graduate at least 70% of their students within 6 years), have developed a new — and free — admissions application platform to rival the Common Application.  It’s a revolution!



These 80+ schools, together, make up the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, and they will be “working over the next few months to develop tools and processes that will help to address many of the barriers that prevent students from attending college or successfully earning a degree.” Very cool!

What do you need to know about The Coalition?  Read on…

  • Membership numbers in the coalition are dynamic, with additional schools expected to join – stay tuned!  Know also that, as was pointed out in the IHE article, those colleges “that engage in ‘gapping’, in which some admitted students are not provided enough aid to attend, will not be allowed to join.”
  • The Coalition’s work consists of three pillars: 1) A free, digital portfolio for all high school students, one that they can begin adding flair (i.e. things that they’re proud of) to as early as 9th grade.  2) A collaboration platform that students can use to communicate with those who can provide them with guidance and support, including prospective colleges.  3) A new application system through which students will add basic factual information to share with all the colleges to which they’re applying, but that will also have unique sections to complete for each individual school.  
  • If you are currently a senior in high school, none of this is applicable to you.  However, if you’re a junior, sophomore, or freshmen in high school, know that the portfolio feature and interactive tools will be rolled out in January and that the application system will be ready to go in the summer of 2016.
  • Coalition members will continue to offer prospective students the option of applying using the Common Application – click here for a recent PBS article that delves more deeply into this.
  • Finally, The Coalition’s own website informs us that, in terms of the driving forces spurring them on in their work:

“A growing amount of research has shown that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often do not participate effectively in the college application process, struggle with applying for financial aid, and often do not get awarded all the financial aid they qualify for. As a result, even some of the most highly qualified students do not attend college, attend colleges that do not engage their full potential, or do not complete their degrees. The Coalition is developing a platform of tools to help reduce these barriers and make progress in leveling the playing field for students from all backgrounds.”

Leveling the college admissions playing field is one of the goals that drives Admitster as well (see, for instance, herehere, and here), and any steps toward the goals of improving opportunities and increasing access to higher education are, in my opinion, positive developments!  This new initiative, however, is already meeting with some criticism.  For example, the Common Application’s Director of Development, Aba Blankson, makes the point that, “Many of these (first generation) students enroll at colleges that, in part because they serve many disadvantaged students, don’t have the graduation rates to be eligible for the coalition.”  It’s a point to consider.

It remains to be seen how this story will unfold, but we at Admitster are viewing this cup as half full and hope for great things from this admissions revolution.  Should these changes prove to improve the admissions process, thus qualifying it as a true revamping of the system, and should college truly become more “affordable and accessible for students from diverse backgrounds”, as was stated in The Coalition’s press release, we shall be very glad of it!  I get the feeling that this may be the first of many posts about the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success – wheels are turning, things are happening, change is in the air!


The Benefits of Change

by Ben Clark September 18, 2015


My Dear Readers, 

Today I’m pleased to introduce to you a new colleague of mine, Mr. Blaine Blontz, Admitster’s Financial Aid Consultant.  Blaine founded Financial Aid Coach, one of the country’s leading financial aid consulting firms, and has helped countless families to navigate the complex and oftentimes confusing financial aid process.  He earned his MBA in Finance from La Salle University and has also worked as a financial aid counselor at several colleges and universities.  We’re thrilled to have him on board, just as he’s thrilled to share his pearls of financial wisdom with you on this blog, where you’ll be privy to many posts he’s penned. If you have any specific questions relating to financial aid, please don’t hesitate to contact him at  Below you’ll find Blaine’s two cents on the changes that were recently made to the FAFSA – important information!

All the best,

Katie Z

The President recently unveiled significant changes to the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form. What do these changes mean for students and families preparing for college?

First of all, before families with a current senior in high school (Class of 2016) get too excited, know that these changes won’t go info effect until next year. This means that they will NOT impact students applying for aid for the 2016-17 school year, but rather for the 2017-18 school year. In other words, these changes impact families with teenagers who are high school juniors and younger.

Under the new system, the Federal government will allow aid applications based on reported income from two years prior to the application, rather than the current process of using information from only the previous year. That is, whereas the FAFSA can currently not be completed prior to January 1, the President’s office will change the process so families can submit the form as early as October of the student’s senior year of high school.  Overall, the changes to the FAFSA form match the preexisting advantage of the CSS (College Scholarship Service) Profile. For years, many schools have used the CSS Profile to provide families with financial aid award information earlier than FAFSA, but this will now change. FAFSA is on a new track!


Think of it this way. Many students apply to schools in the fall of their senior year, and perhaps even earlier to those institutions that utilize rolling admissions. Before this change to the FAFSA, these same students had to wait until at least January, with most deadlines falling between February and March, to complete the FAFSA. Without the FAFSA, schools were unable to provide financial aid award figures for families at the same time as admissions decisions. While admissions decisions play a vital role in determining where a family will choose to send their teenager to college, a family can’t make a fully informed decision until they know how much, if any, financial aid the school is going to offer. Pushing back the date that families can begin completing the FAFSA will allow for earlier financial aid award offers. This will help families to make better decisions earlier, when they still have time to change their mind or look into other college options.

While the CSS Profile currently offers families the ability to submit information earlier than January 1, it does so by requiring intricate estimates of a family’s income and assets. This is required because the financial aid offer is based off the current year’s income. For example, if you were completing the FAFSA or CSS Profile this winter, you would not be able to correctly submit this without either having detailed estimates of your 2015 income and assets or having filed your 2015 taxes. The President’s changes will cut out this step of estimating earnings by allowing families to use tax information from forms they already filed. Additionally, families will be able to easily complete a FAFSA using information from their previous year’s tax return, as the government now offers a way for families to auto-fill their tax information by linking to the IRS.

My first-hand experience as a financial aid counselor suggests that this change is much needed. For instance, I met with several families in the late spring that essentially had to take the offer received since it was too late to apply to additional schools. In all, these changes will both make the FAFSA easier to complete and allow families to learn of financial aid award offers sooner than they previously could. These changes will certainly benefit families on their journey to college!

From The White House To Your House

by Katie Z, Ph.D September 15, 2015


Social media has been buzzing over the last few days, sharing and commenting on news about the U.S. Department of Education’s new College Scorecard, “empowering students to choose the college that is right for them.”  This is a great initiative, and in case you haven’t yet delved into its details, here’s a quick run-down for you, in the form of the best quotes (in my humble opinion) from President Obama’s September 12th Weekly Address:

White House
  • “In an economy that’s increasingly based on knowledge and innovation, some higher education is the surest ticket to the middle class.”
  • “As college costs and student debt keep rising, the choices that Americans make when searching for and selecting a college have never been more important.  That’s why everyone should be able to find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value, like whether they’re likely to graduate, find good jobs, and pay off their loans.”
  • Many existing college rankings reward schools for spending more money and rejecting more students, at a time when America needs our colleges to focus on affordability and supporting all students who enroll.  That doesn’t make sense.  That has to change.”
  • “Americans will now have access to reliable data on every institution of higher education – you’ll be able to see how much each school’s graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with, and what percentage of a school’s students can pay back their loans.”
  • “There are colleges dedicated to helping students of all backgrounds learn without saddling them with debt.  We should hold everybody to that standard.”
  • “The goal is to help everybody who’s willing to work for a higher education search for and select a college that fits their goals.”

This increased transparency is definitely a good thing, and the launch of the new College Scorecard has resulted in many conversations and articles on the topic.  Among my favorite “food for thought” articles is this piece from The New York Times, which considers the data from the point-of-view of post-graduation earnings.  I don’t want to give it away, but suffice it to say that there are significant differences on this measure between schools – “The deeper that you delve into the data, the more clear it becomes how perilous the higher education market can be for students making expensive, important choices that don’t always pay off.”

These questions and decisions surrounding the college admissions process (in particular, the “where should I study?” question) can have ramifications long after you move into your dorm room, and I applaud the new College Scorecard initiative in helping to make the decision-making process less convoluted and more straight-forward for everyone.  Making an informed decision is, after all, far better than simply making a decision.

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