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New Book Takes on Graduation Rates at State Colleges

September 10, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

A new book is shedding light on graduation rates at state colleges, and also causing a stir with its findings and recommendations. The book, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities, was written by William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, Michael S. McPherson, a former president of Macalester College, and Matthew M. Chingos, a graduate student at Harvard University. It shows many of the nation's top public schools are coming up short when it comes to graduating students in four years, especially low-income and minority students.

The book analyzes the four-year and six-year graduation rates of students at 21 flagship universities and 47 four-year public universities in Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia.  Among the findings, the authors reveal that flagship universities, typically the most competitive and prestigious in their state university systems, graduate only 49 percent of their students in four years, with other state colleges having even less success.  The six-year graduation rates for both sets of schools are better, but vary widely based on several factors discussed in the book.

Disparities by common demographic factors, namely race and socioeconomic status, were found in the research for the book, and were most pronounced among male students. However, the most striking differences come in terms of schools' selectivity. Some of these disparities include:

  • Graduation rates of 82-89% for the most selective and second most selective categories of schools and most competitive category of students (3.5+ high school GPA and 1200+ SAT score), but graduation rates of only 59% for the same category of students at the least selective schools.
  • Graduation rates of above 70% for all students at the most selective schools, regardless of GPA or test scores.
  • The disparity between the graduation rates of the most and least competitive students at the least selective schools was only 11 percentage points, while the disparity between students of similar ability at schools of different selectivity ranged 21 to 30 percentage points.
  • The least competitive group of students (GPA of less than 3.0 and/or SAT of less than 1000) did better at the most selective schools (71% graduation rate) than the most competitive students did at the least selective schools (59% graduation rate).

These results have many questioning the effectiveness of academic scholarships and other merit-based aid, especially in light of the University of Texas at Austin's recent decision to stop sponsoring the National Merit Scholarship Program. More so, though, they have experts, including the book's authors, wondering what is causing this disparity in graduation rates.

Price plays a huge role for students of low socioeconomic status, pushing them to attend the least expensive (and often least selective) schools or to opt out of four-year colleges entirely. Rising costs also could play a role in dropout rates among poorer students, so the availability of financial aid for all four years is crucial to graduation.

One of the biggest problems identified in the book is a phenomenon dubbed "under-matching." Highly qualified students are aiming low in the college application process, attending less selective schools with lower graduation rates when they could easily be accepted to and graduate from more selective schools with higher graduation rates. Students most likely to under-match are low socioeconomic status students whose parents did not attend or did not graduate from college. The higher a student's income and parents' level of education, the less likely the student is to under-match.

Based on this information, the authors suggest that schools focus their efforts on encouraging students to graduate in four years and to remain in school until they graduate. Keeping tuition low is a part of this, as are readjusting requirements to make graduating in four years more doable and, above all else, making it clear that students are expected to graduate in four years.

Graduation rates are gaining attention from other corners, as well. Washington Monthly included graduation rates in their recently released college rankings, and another study published this summer by the American Enterprise Institute compared graduation rates at colleges.The Education Department is also doing its part to make information on graduation rates available to students who complete the FAFSA on the Web.

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Student Loan Default Rates Continue to Rise

September 15, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

According to newly released data, default rates on federal student loans continued to climb in 2008, reaching a nine-year high of 6.7 percent, most likely as a result of the recession. The annual cohort default rate, released by the Department of Education on Monday, covers federal student loans that went into repayment between October 2006 and September 2007 and had gone into default by September 2008.

The 2007 cohort default rate was 1.5 percentage points higher than the rate for the previous year, as significant increases took place across the board. Defaults were higher in the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program than in the Federal Direct Loans Program, which is typically the case, but the discrepancy between the two grew this year. A total of 7.2 percent of loans in the bank-based system were in default, compared to 4.8 percent of the loans in the Direct Loans program.  he numbers for 2006 were 5.3 and 4.7 percent, respectively.

Much of this discrepancy can be attributed to a higher percentage of students at proprietary schools participating in the FFEL Program, as these schools carried a default rate of 11.1 percent, compared to rates of 6.0 percent and 3.8 percent at public and private colleges. Still, the lower default rate in the direct lending program is likely to be brought up as Congress debates moving all lending from FFEL into Direct Loans.

Default is defined as failure to make payments on a student loan according to the terms of the master promissory note the borrower signed, and federal student loans are considered in default only after several months of missed payments. This means that 6.7 percent of students in this cohort had stopped making payments for 270 days or more within 1-2 years of their first loan payment coming due. It's likely that the cohort default rate numbers released paint an optimistic picture of the number of borrowers currently having trouble making payments on student loans.

New repayment options may help troubled borrowers, though, and several have been introduced in recent months. One is the federal Income-Based Repayment Plan, which allows students to make payments they can afford and forgives all remaining debt after 25 years. Borrowers worried about repayment can also look into loan forgiveness programs offered in exchange for public service, which have been expanded under the Higher Education Act and national service legislation.

The best way for students to avoid the prospect of defaulting on loans is to limit borrowing as much as possible. Put some serious effort into a scholarship search, and consider affordability when doing your college search, as well. Practices such as keeping your options open and landing a scholarship can go a long way towards reducing your loan debt and your risk of being unable to pay once you graduate.

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More Scrutiny of Career Colleges Recommended

September 22, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

For-profit career colleges have had a rocky history, being met with skepticism and criticism from traditional academic institutions, as well as undergoing a great degree of government scrutiny over the years, as some institutions have been revealed to engage in a variety of questionable practices. So, when the Government Accountability Office announced an investigation of proprietary institutions that participate in federal student financial aid programs, few in the education industry were surprised. The results of these investigations were released on Monday, and they indicate that in at least some cases, distrust towards career colleges may still be warranted.

For-profit colleges have higher student loan default rates than any other sector of higher education, with two-year cohort default rates topping 11 percent according to recently released annual Department of Education data, and four-year default rates clearing 23 percent according to the GAO report. By comparison, state colleges have two-year default rates of 6 percent and 9.5 percent respectively, with the default rates for private colleges falling even lower.

While acknowledging that much of this discrepancy is likely due to the different student populations these institutions serve, the GAO found that part of this high default rate could be connected to questionable admission and aid application practices at for-profit colleges. Under current federal law, in order for students to qualify for financial aid, they need to demonstrate "ability to benefit" from higher education. This means that they must have either earned a high school diploma or GED or passed a test indicating they are prepared for college-level instruction. Some of the proprietary colleges investigated by the GAO encouraged students to purchase high school diplomas from diploma mills to circumvent the testing process.

It appears that in at least one case, employees of a career college helped prospective students cheat on an ability to benefit test, even changing their answers after the fact to ensure their scores were high enough. GAO investigators posed as sudents at a school in the Washington, DC area and attempted to deliberately fail this test.  According to the report, they were given some of the answers to the test and also saw evidence of the school tampering with their scores to ensure that they passed and qualified for aid.

These practices allow students who wouldn't otherwise qualify for federal aid access to college instruction and money for school, but also can saddle students who are likely to be unable to complete and benefit from college coursework with large amounts of student loan debt. The Career College Association, which represents proprietary colleges, assures that these practices are not widespread and that strict standards are in place. However, the GAO still urges the federal government to provide more oversight of ability to benefit testing and financial aid disbursement at for-profit colleges.

If you're considering attending a career college, be sure to make sure its practices are legitimate and you are likely to enhance your earning potential by completing a degree or certificate there. Do your research about the school's reputation, the program's reputation and job and salary prospects for graduates of your prospective program.  Also, be wary about borrowing and make sure you don't get into a position where you've taken out too many federal or private loans to be able to pay them back. Attending a career college can help you land a better job or a higher salary, but this report indicates that there are still schools with dodgy practices out there, so diligence is still required when choosing a college.

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Colleges Request Shorter, Less Formal Application Essays

September 23, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

For students beginning to pen those college application essays, some good news appeared in today's Inside Higher Education: several competitive colleges are shortening length requirements for the essays they ask their applicants to submit.  Along with the request for briefer essay responses, colleges are increasingly looking for informal and honest responses from students, welcome news to anyone who doesn't view formal writing as their greatest academic strength.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has replaced a long-form essay (500 words) with several shorter and less formal essay responses of 200 words or less. The University of Pennsylvania has taken an opposite tack, combining two separate essay questions into one, but reducing the overall amount of writing students need to do for their application. Other schools that use the Common Application are also increasingly favoring shorter essay responses in their supplemental materials.

Whether universities ask for long essays or short ones, their admission officials seem to want similar things from applicants. Rather than a carefully crafted application meant to highlight an applicant's scholastic and extracurricular abilities, along with his or her impeccable grammar and excellent writing style, colleges are asking to actually get to know the student behind the application. A number of application questions adopt an informal tone to solicit a less stilted and more informative response, even using humor (or the closest thing to humor one can expect to find in college admissions). Some application questions go so far as to plead with the student to answer honestly and reveal some of their personality. This represents a change from what most students have been told to expect when it comes to college admissions, and it also represents a conscious move by admissions into a system that can less easily be gamed by students willing to invest in coaching.

After a months long college search filled with research, campus visits, and correspondence, students already have a lot invested in each application they complete. The intensity of the college application process often prompts students to stifle creativity and rely too heavily on outside help, in some cases employing college admissions consultants or intensive writing coaches (perhaps even ghostwriters) to help craft an application that reflects less what the student brings to the table than what those around the student understand colleges to want.  By requiring more informal responses and fewer formal essays, colleges hope to circumvent this problem, while getting a better sense of whether each applicant is a fit for their institution, which is what the application process is supposed to determine in the first place.

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Washington, D.C. and Seattle Named Next Youth-Magnet Cities

October 2, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Whether you're applying for college, considering a transfer, or nearing graduation, chances are moving somewhere new has crossed your mind. Any number of factors can come into play in such a big personal decision: closeness to family, availability of jobs in your field, the cost of living, the quality of education, and more. But regardless of their other criteria, few people want to feel like one of the only people under 40 living in their town. This week, The Wall Street Journal came out with a list of ten cities that have the potential to be post-recession "youth magnets." If you're undecided as to where to head for college or after graduation, their list may be worth a perusal.

While the Wall Street Journal is not exactly known as the authority on hip, this list is the product of a panel of six experts on geography, demographics and economics assembled for this purpose. Panelists each provided their top 10, giving reasons for their choices, then the cities with the highest total rank were chosen for the list.

First place, somewhat surprisingly, went to Washington, D.C. (in a tie with Seattle), which doesn't have much of an established reputation as a hot destination for young people. The recent explosion in federal hiring and President Obama's cool are drawing young job seekers, and the museums and live music, as well as the large number of universities in the area also help attract young people beyond just political science majors. The down sides of D.C., though, are its high cost of living and the potential for government to drastically scale back hiring next year.

Seattle, on the other hand, has a diverse economy and a relatively low unemployment rate (currently 7.7%). Its music and media scenes and employment prospects in these areas are strong and well-known, and other high-tech job opportunities for computer science or medical students abound. Like many of the other cities in the list, Seattle also has a strong university presence, providing more incentive for college students and graduate students to place it at the top of their lists as well. The best part: the only negative listed in the article is the weather.

The rest of the top 10, in order, were New York City; Portland, OR; Austin, TX; San Jose, CA; Denver, CO; Raleigh, NC; Dallas, TX; Boston; and Chicago. Several of the cities in the list struggle with high unemployment or high costs of living. Most feature excellent colleges and universities and may already be focal points for your college search. A number also have an excellent variety of things for young people to do; for example, Portland and Austin are well-known cultural outposts and Chicago also has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment and night life, though sports fans may be disappointed that Chicago didn't land the 2016 Olympics.

What do you think? Are any of these places you'd consider heading for college or after?

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University of Florida Prepared for Zombie Outbreak

October 5, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

It's nice to know that in the event of a disaster, your school will be prepared. Colleges and universities nationwide already have contingency plans for situations such as fires, floods, and other on-campus emergencies. In anticipation of on-campus outbreaks of the H1N1 swine flu virus, colleges are also reviewing and tweaking their plans for dealing smoothly with infectious diseases on campus. While undergoing this process, one official on the University of Florida campus decided to do one better and prepare his college for another type of outbreak-a zombie attack.

The zombie attack disaster preparedness plan was initially posted on the University of Florida's e-Learning website along with response plans for other, more likely, disaster scenarios. The plan's author, e-Learning Support Services Manager Doug Johnson, composed it as a joke one night during a bout of insomnia while his office was working on strategies for handling a campus closure, then posted it to provide a bit of levity for fellow e-Learning staff members.

Highlights of the plan include humorous definitions of "zombieism" and "zombie behavior spectrum disorder," as well as a form for university employees to complete if they need to deal with undead coworkers. While it was removed from the University of Florida website shortly after discovery and publication by local media, The Gainesville Sun still has a copy available online.

While the University of Florida zombie attack plan was humorous in nature, zombies have been used to model disease outbreaks in serious contexts. Earlier this year, a group of Canadian graduate students modeled a zombie attack as a classroom exercise that is now slated for publication in the upcoming book Infections Disease Modeling Research Progress. Their zombie attack model could have useful implications for modeling and understanding the spread of other infectious diseases, including swine flu.

One of the jokes in Johnson's paper was an allusion to the field of Zombie Studies (which, sadly, is not yet a viable college major), but given the recent uptick in interest in zombies on college campuses, can it be long before zombies find their way into more standardized parts of the college curriculum? Perhaps we will soon see more eye-catching titles for college classes dealing with the undead.

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Sustainability Report Card Helps Students Find Green Colleges

October 8, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

From best dorm food to greatest contributions to the social good, regardless of the criteria you're using in your college search, there are likely lists available to help you find the best colleges to fit your needs. The latest college scorecard to emerge this college application season is the College Sustainability Report Card, an annual publication that grades public and private colleges and universities nationwide on eco-friendliness. For students who are passionate about the environment and want to attend a college that shares their concerns, this may be a useful list to check out.

The Report Card has been in existence since 2007, when it began grading the schools with the largest endowments on sustainability efforts. This year, it opened up its survey to other schools, promising to include any institution willing to pay $700 to offset the additional costs of research and reporting. The 2010 Report Card graded 332 schools, ranging from small private colleges to flagship state universities, with 26 schools earning the highest grade of A-. Over half of the schools surveyed earned a higher grade this year than last, despite budget cuts brought about by losses in endowments and state funding due to the recession.

In addition to the overall grade, report cards for each institution also feature grades in the following categories: administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building, student involvement, transportation, endowment transparency, investment priorities, and shareholder engagement. Some of these individual scores may be especially useful elements of the college search for students interested in becoming engaged in their campus communities and contributing to the greening of their colleges. Low scores can point to things students can help improve (such as implementing recycling programs on campus), and high scores in student involvement can indicate a community of like-minded individuals willing to collaborate to bring about change.

Beyond incorporating sustainability into the criteria you use in choosing a college, eco-minded students may also want to look into the opportunities for green scholarships available. These awards may point to additional ways to help the planet, and they can also help you pay for school at your green college of choice.

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Survey Ranks "Best Neighbor" Colleges

October 13, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Most of you know what a college town looks like - a community dominated by the students, faculty and staff of the school that occupies the community there. While many students prefer to apply to the more insulated school environment that comes with a college town, others seek out educations in cities where there's more to the community than the college housed there. Something those students may not consider when filing their applications is whether that intended school has been a good neighbor or a stranger to that surrounding community.

A survey presented yesterday by Dr. Evan S. Dobelle, the president of Westfield State College, ranked 25 colleges based on just that. The survey, called "Saviors of Our Cities: A Survey of Best College and University Civic Partnerships", looked at schools' contributions to the towns and cities they're found in, and which had the best relationships with the residential and business communities in those locations. The top 25 schools were picked based on their positive impacts on their communities, including community service involvement. Another 100 schools were recognized on the survey's "Honor Roll" of friendly neighbors.

The best neighbors according to Dobelle's survey were the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California, tied for number one. Neither Westfield nor the two other schools Dobelle was once president at - Trinity College and the University of Hawaii - made the list. Dobelle, a researcher specializing in public/private partnerships, collected his data by sending the survey he composed to schools across the country for distribution in their communities. Some schools were then contacted for on-campus visits or interviews. The University of Pennsylvania was chosen based on its work with schools in West Philadelphia; the University of Southern California got high marks for working on a program that revitalized businesses in Los Angeles.

Other schools that ranked in the top 25 on Dobelle's list included Tulane University, Portland State University, and the University of Dayton. His specific criteria included real dollars invested, a quantifiable increase in positive recognition of the institution and the length of involvement with the community, among others. Dobelle first came up with the survey in 2006. As colleges are obviously closely linked to their communities in college towns, those schools weren't considered in the survey in favor of looking at urban universities' relationships with their towns and cities.

So what do you think? Should the "good neighbor" factor be included in a student's college search? Do you attend a particularly  neighborly institution? Let us know your thoughts.

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College Budget Cuts Jeopardize Graduation Plans

October 13, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Colleges across the country have had to make sweeping budget cuts to cope with substantial endowment losses and reductions in state funding sustained as a result of the recession. In many places, these cuts have led to fewer instructors, larger class sizes, and fewer course offerings. In addition to potentially reducing the quality of instruction students receive (even as they see their tuition continuing to rise dramatically), these factors are also making it harder for students to graduate on time.

An Associated Press article details the struggles some students at state colleges are facing trying to finish their educational careers. Despite the limits placed on freshmen and transfer enrollment this year, upperclassmen in California, as well as other states facing large-scale financial difficulties, are finding it nearly impossible to get into the classes they need to complete their plans of study.

Some students are able to only enroll part-time, jeopardizing their financial aid eligibility, while others are spending money on classes that basically amount to filler, at least as far as education requirements are concerned. Still other students may be choosing to take a semester or more off from school when faced with the prospect of being unable to enroll in any of the classes they want or need to take. Even more frustrating for students who need to take specific courses to graduate is that along with overstuffing sections of popular classes, universities are more likely to cut sections and courses (and even departments) with low enrollments to conserve resources, potentially leaving even more students high and dry.

Aside from analyzing every possible approach to fulfilling their degree requirements; petitioning professors, colleges, and department heads to grant exceptions in the wake of overflowing classrooms; and being sure to register as early as possible for next semester, there are few other options available to undergraduate students caught in this situation. However, students who are in the midst of their college searches can take steps to protect themselves against canceled classes and prolonged stays in college. A growing number of schools offer four-year graduation guarantees and accelerated degree programs, allowing students who can make the commitments required to avoid frustrations and minimize their time to degree.

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Best Jobs in America Ranking Released

October 15, 2009

by Scholarships.com Staff

Still trying to choose a college, or perhaps a college major? Now, more than ever, quality job prospects are likely to figure into that decision. Work opportunities that come with a generous salary and great potential for growth, yet allow you to have the quality of life you want are the holy grail of employment and it's understandable to want to tailor your college goals towards obtaining such a job. To help make your decision a little easier, Money Magazine and PayScale.com put together a list of 50 lines of work that come with all of the features mentioned above, entitled Best Jobs in America.

CNNMoney.com has the results online already, with the print version appearing in the November issue of Money. The full top 50 are listed in order (along with another 50 high-ranking jobs), with detailed descriptions available for the top ten, and additional lists of top paying, most job growth, and best quality of life also posted online. This year's top ten are Systems Engineer, Physician Assistant, College Professor, Nurse Practitioner, Information Technology Project Manager, Certified Public Accountant, Physical Therapist, Network Security Consultant, Intelligence Analyst, and Sales Director. The top ten best jobs primarily consist of careers that may appeal to students pursuing medical or technology degrees, but students with virtually any academic interest are likely to find something in the list appealing.

To arrive at their selections, Money and PayScale started with career fields in which the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates growth 10% or more over the next decade and that require a college degree. They focused on jobs with median pay above $65,000 for workers with 2-7 years of experience and more than 10,000 positions nationwide and weeded out jobs that did poorly during the recession to arrive at a list of top 100 jobs. To arrive at the top 50 and top 10, data from a survey asking 35,000 workers to rate their jobs on quality of life (flexibility, stress, personal satisfaction, etc.) was used, along with data on current employment, long-term growth, pay, security, and projected openings. Finally, industry experts were interviewed to determine top 10.

Top jobs require different levels of training and candidates face different levels of competition. Many require additional training beyond a bachelor's degree, ranging from one-year certification programs to PhD and possibly post-doctoral experience. These top jobs are also not entry-level positions, so workers starting out in these industries may not see high pay or low stress immediately. So don't get discouraged if the career you want to pursue isn't on this list. Ultimately, the best job for you will be one you like to do and are able to do well.  That's also good advice for choosing a college major.

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