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Guest Follow-Up to Personal Statements

I often get emails from students with college questions, and teachers who want to use the program with their students. Every now and then, though, I'm fortunate enough to get an email from another 20-something trying to help out in the space.

Here are some fantastic tips from Mackenzie Barton-Rowledge, a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins University. Thanks, Mackenzie!


The Personal Statement

When looking at an application, the admissions committee is bombarded with numbers (SAT score, GPA, the hours worked per week, etc.). The personal statement is your chance to let the admissions committee know who you are and what you believe in. It’s the only part of your application that is qualitative—meaning that you get to showcase your qualities.

DOs & DON’Ts:

* DO write a logical, polished essay. Make sure that you answer the prompt, make a main argument in each paragraph, have some sort of conclusion at the end of each paragraph, use transitions between paragraphs, have something to draw the reader in at the beginning of the essay, and include a conclusion at the end.

* DO cite specific examples. There are few college applicants who aren’t friendly, creative, or smart—you’re the same as everyone else here. But nobody has had your exact experiences, those are what make you a unique individual. Share the experiences that show off your good qualities or, better, show times when you grew as a person (these reveal your character more than you at your best).

* DO emphasize your point of view. You aren’t just describing things you’ve done, but how you see the world. If you don’t have health insurance, but instead of working you are applying to college, let them know! If you think that challenges are fun, go into detail! If you’re an immigrant, highlight how your multiculturalism makes you more sophisticated and how you’ll add a unique perspective to a college campus.

* DON’T list. You will have submitted a resume—don’t say those things without adding any new information! If you want to talk about your experiences, explain what you did in detail and, more importantly, explain how it changed you.

* DON’T talk about other people/events/ideas without tying the concepts back to you (your goals, hopes, dreams, experiences, beliefs, where you find meaning in life, etc.). The point of the essay, no matter what the prompt, is you (though the prompt may tell you to only talk about a certain side of you).

* DO show rather than tell. Instead of giving the admissions committee a list of your qualities and expecting them to trust you, show them how/when you’ve acted that way. Anecdotes (stories) are often very useful in doing this.

* DON’T make broad generalizations. I call these statements ‘Grand and Bland’ because they sound like something really meaningful, but if you think about it from the perspective of the admissions committee, you actually are saying very little.

Example 1: I learned that truth always prevails.

Example 2: I am a very compassionate person.

In Example 1, this is just blatantly false. This sort of statement makes you sound idealistic and naïve; instead, try to describe exactly what you learned. A better statement is “I learned that my hope of truth prevailing, while optimistic, has a chance to be satisfied. And if there is the possibility of justice, I cannot ignore injustices…”

In Example 2, the problem is that there is no objective scale for ‘compassion.’ You might be more compassionate than Mother Teresa, but somebody who thinks that puppies are cute can also call herself compassionate. When your meaning is unclear, SPECIFY. Include a concrete example, like “When I visited my grandparents’ assisted living home, I was struck by the fact that every person there was once a fully functioning adult, but most could no longer even be trusted to bathe themselves. The loss of dignity, however, did not darken their spirits…”

* DO make your ______ [quality] so obvious that you don’t actually have to say it. If you look at the previous Example 1, the corrected version don’t include the word ‘compassionate.’ In that case, though, I have shown my compassion in my observation of the elderly people (making it clear that I do have compassion).

* DO show them why they want you. Make a convincing argument for why they should give you a scholarship to convince you to choose them—if you make a good enough case, they will!

* DON’T use words like ‘interesting’ or ‘amazing’ or ‘excited,’ if you can help it. Word choice is one of your most powerful tools of communication; pick vibrant verbs and unusual adjectives. Don’t use words that you don’t know the definitions of, but try to use vocabulary words from 12th grade (not just 5th).

* DON’T use clichés (without purpose). This is true for both long clichés, like “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” and for short ones, like “withering scowl” or “mousy brown hair.” The committee is reading hundreds of essays—make yours the one that surprises them (“mousy purple”).

* DO quadruple check your grammar. Break grammatical rules only to make a point. If it helps your voice/fluency to write a fragment (a sentence without both a subject and a verb), go for it. Just make sure that you have no unintentional errors.

* DO ask for help. Ask as many people as possible to read your essays—teachers, parents, older siblings, a friend who’s good at writing. Your essay is your own, and should be written by you. However, getting help with grammar and checking that your point is clearly communicated is legit, and you will be the one with the final say as to what changes are/aren’t made.

* DO include explanations of academic crashes. If you got one B+ in AP Chemistry, don’t worry. But if your mother died of cancer your sophomore year and you flunked all your classes, here is the place to explain. Colleges like students who will graduate, so if you don’t have as solid an explanation as the death of a loved one, explain how you’ve learned from whatever mistake(s) you made that tanked your GPA. This should be about one paragraph.

Check out College Confidant for Admissions Advice

Here are some thoughts straight from the founders of College Confidant, a new company at Harvard aiming to provide more affordable college admissions advice:

"The Problem: Currently there is not a lot of transparency in the college process and as a result, students often make suboptimal decisions due to a lack of information. There just aren’t many good college advising sources out there. Guidance counselors are often overworked and detached from the admissions process at top schools. Private counselors are prohibitively expensive (generally $150/hour) and also know little about the unique identity of each school. This lack of information is particularly problematic since college is such an important and expensive part of a student’s life.

Our goal is to make high-quality, affordable college counseling available for all college bound students. At only around $10-20 an hour, our service is considerably more affordable than other private college admissions consulting options. Through partnerships with non-profits, donations, and College Confidants willing to provide pro bono services, we hope to reach out to groups underrepresented in the college admissions process. For quality insider tips that one won't get from a college counselor or an admissions tour, College Confidant is your source, from the source."

Brainyflix Vocab Contest!

This time, Brainyflix is starting out with their Brainypics flashcard contest, in which students create interesting sentences and pair them up with memorable pictures as a visual cue. Between now and Dec. 7, they will be selecting 5 Brainypics each week which will qualify for the Grand Prize of $200. They are also giving out iTunes songs for every 5 Brainypics created and gift cards to the runner ups of the finale. Full details here: http://brainyflix.com/main/contest_rules.

Personal Statements

The personal statement can be one of the most daunting components of the college application. We recently received an email from a concerned student wondering about how to construct a very compelling personal statement. Here are my thoughts:

Be thoughtful. Everyone is going to have amazing accomplishments in their resumes and standard forms. Recommendations will be stellar.

So the personal statement is your chance to thoughtfully reflect on who you are and how you will fit into the community your college offers. Demonstrate personal maturity here and the admissions committee will see that you are more than just an SAT score and several leadership titles.

Be interesting. Make sure to show how you are indeed unique here. One of the greatest challenges in personal statements is balancing humility with honesty - how can you impress them without sounding arrogant? But simply showing that you are a unique individual, be it through the way you think, behave, or dream, will go a long way.

These are just 2 brief thoughts on personal statements and what I would like to see if I looked at your application. Feel free to email me at JasonShah@INeedAPencil.com with thoughts.


ZOOMZ: A Community for 1st Generation College Students

Hey everybody!

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Kathryn and Carlos from ZOOMZ.net, a network for students striving to connect with others sharing the same goal of going to college and achieving success in higher education.

Check out the site - visit it, explore it, share it!



INeedAPencil is a Forbes Semi-Finalist!!!

It's official:

INeedAPencil.com is now one of only twenty semi-finalists in the 2009 Boost Your Business Contest on Forbes.com, competing for a chance to be a Finalist and go to New York to compete for the Grand Prize of $100,000!!!

And now it's your job:

INeedAPencil.com needs YOU to vote online at Forbes.com for INeedAPencil.com to advance to the next round of only five and be one step closer to the Grand Prize! The more votes we get, the better chance we have to compete in New York and be heard! Get your family, friends, or anyone that you know who would be willing to help our cause to vote! We need the INeedAPencil.com community to show Forbes what we're made of, so go online now and vote!!!

A New Ranking for Colleges and Universities

Yes, we are all well aware of the rankings put out by U.S. News every year for the "best" colleges and universities in the country, but what are those ranked on anyways? According to U.S. News, "data on up to 15 indicators of academic quality are gathered from each school and tabulated." So, these aren't necessarily the "best" schools if one was interested in becoming an engineer, or if one wanted a school with the nicest campus or most intriguing professors?

These types of rankings are pretty tough to find, but with a little effort on a search engine, they're certainly available. One that particularly piqued my interest was a ranking created by Forbes that derived a college ranking list from several categories. The breakdown provided with the rankings goes as follows:
25% from 4 million student evaluations of courses and professors (RateMyProfessor.com)
25% from post-grad success (Who's Who in America and Payscale.com)
20% from estimated student debt after 4 years
17% from the 4 year graduation rate
13% from the number of students and professors who have won Rhodes Scholarships or Nobel Prizes

Yes, one could make a case that a lot of the ranking could be skewed, but it would all depend on what one was looking for in a ranking of colleges. If these categories were acceptable, then I would say it is an invaluable list for a high school student looking for what college to attend. If not, then take the ranking with a grain of salt and enjoy what the Forbes machine spit out.

Interesting to note:
Ivy League: #2 Princeton, #5 Harvard, #9 Yale, #13 Columbia, #72 Brown, #83 UPenn, #98 Dartmouth, #105 Cornell

Evan Kendall
INeedAPencil Associate
Sharon High School 2010 (Sharon, MA)

Need Help with Financial Aid?

For most high school students, the primary concern is getting into college, thus making the subsequent issue paying for college. As getting in usually overshadows much of everything else, most students don't pay attention to what they need to do to get scholarships and the best financial aid packages until it is usually too late.

Many people who offer help in receiving financial aid and scholarships say that students should start searching as early as junior year to find what they need. Junior year? Yes, that seems a bit early to search for money when you haven't even applied to schools yet, but why not? Students are preparing the second they step into high school to get into college by taking the most difficult classes and preparing for standardized testing, whether on a state or national level.

Financial aid and scholarships are becoming more vital to high school students as the cost of college is steadily increasing and the economy is currently in a downturn. But where can a high school student find information on financial aid and scholarships? Why, just turn to the most talked about website behind Facebook for high school students: Collegeboard.com. Collegeboard is the head-honcho for standardized testing, admitting all SAT and AP tests that high school students take. Yet in addition to just admitting these tests, they also have many valuable resources on how to pay for college and advice for high school students who hope to go to college after their graduation.

Other resources for scholarships and financial aid:

Evan Kendall
INeedAPencil Associate
Sharon High School 2010 (Sharon, MA)

To SAT, or Not to SAT: That is the Question

Many higher education institutions have been debating whether or not they should keep the SAT as an admission requirement or if they should become "test-optional." Studies have shown that, despite the SAT being a slight determinant of future academic success, students who have withheld their SAT scores and gone to school have had nearly identical GPA's as students who showed their SAT scores, despite the immense score gap between the students.

Yes, the SAT does provide a semi-accurate depiction of a student's academic ability, but it surely should not be the sole assessor of brain capacity. Every student is different, yet the SAT is the same for everyone. Many high school students are future scientists or historians, yet the SAT only judges a student on math, critical reading, and writing. So how can colleges and universities determine a high school student's intelligence on one test taken in four hours?

On the other hand, the SAT is becoming more diverse and many institutions are requiring that students send subject tests in addition to the reasoning test to see how these students thrive in subjects taught in school. So why not make these standardized tests mandatory? They do provide more insight on what a student is capable of and step away from high school grades which may be affected through grade inflation.

Feel free to share you thoughts!

Articles referenced:

Evan Kendall
INeedAPencil Associate
Sharon High School 2010 (Sharon, MA)

Community Colleges: The Hottest Thing Since Sliced Bread?

A follow-up to "America's 'Best Kept Secrets' - Community Colleges"

Community colleges have been gaining recognition from coast-to-coast as a broader array of students are opting to take their first two years at a community college, then transferring to a university for their junior year. As this trend continues, community colleges have been granted the ability to expand their classes and programs, thus making the education level at those schools much higher.

The article states that if one were to go to a community college for the first two years and then transfer, one could save about $50,000 on tuition costs alone. With the economy in such turmoil, it's no wonder why so many more students are choosing this path.

With private university tuition on the rise and with Mrs. Biden's personal endorsement, community colleges have come a long way to become the best bang for your buck.

Articles referenced:

Evan Kendall
INeedAPencil Associate
Sharon High School 2010 (Sharon, MA)

Follow up: SAT and ACT Prep: A way to rip parents off?

Here is another article to add some info to the previous post "SAT and ACT Prep: A way to rip parents off?"


Evan Kendall
INeedAPencil Associate
Sharon High School 2010 (Sharon, MA)

SAT and ACT Prep: A way to rip parents off?

Unfortunately for the parents of America, the recent rise in standardized test prep has also meant that there is a rise of scams in the test prep world. The creators of the "SAT and ACT Prep Center Inc." are now being charged with fraudulent practice as they falsely advertised their services to parents.

The center claimed that parents' children had requested information from the company and offered parents a CD for $120 which would help prep their children for the important tests or a subscription to the website stating that there would be scholarship offers for the students to search through. As parents began to buy into this scam, the company sent out CD's that were not the same as what was advertised and the online subscription would not work for most users.

Unfortunately for the legitimate SAT prep companies out there who wish to offer suitable resources for students, scams like these might prevent parents from trusting companies with lesser known name recognition that offer valuable services. How will new start-ups in the industry compete when parents are scared by these fraudulent companies?

Articles referenced:


Evan Kendall
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Sharon High School 2010 (Sharon, MA)

Potential and Low-Income Students: Is It Enough?

There was an interesting article in The Washington Post today about the dearth of gifted low-income students who perform well. The author argued an important point: the question should not be how can we get high-achieving low-income students into college, but how can we get those ones that have the potential in?

It can be a bit idealistic to assume that low-income students will already be high-achieving students if they do not have the necessary resources. The author delineates this important point - students with potential need help to gain admittance into these institutions of higher education. INeedAPencil is based off this idea - with supplementary preparation, we can tap into those low-income students with potential and help them realize their dreams.

Article referenced:

Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard Class of 2011

Student Loans Going Public: Part 2

And I thought I was angry...

New York Times Editorial

(This post is in response to Student Loans Going Public?)

Evan Kendall
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Sharon High School 2010 (Sharon, MA)

Twilight: The Vampire's Guide to the SAT

Almost everyone is vampire crazy over the Twilight Saga that has become more of a high school student's necessity than a MySpace page. These novels, written by Stephenie Meyer, are the latest craze in the fad-happy society most call the 21st century. But now we have taken two trends and merged them together, creating "The Super Fad."

There is one thing that nearly every high school junior and senior stresses about: the SAT. Yes, the SAT Reasoning Test is something that most students take to better their chances for college admissions, as schools look at these numbers and put students on a national scale. With the test on such a high pedestal, students are looking for the best way to prepare themselves for this grueling test.

And now with SAT prep in such high demand, innovative ways to prepare for the SAT are appearing left and right. From video games (Technology: The New Way to Study?) to comic books, to online programs, it seems as if there is nothing more prep companies could concoct to help high school students.

Yet people seem to always find one more, thus the latest invention in SAT prep: Defining Twilight. Defining Twilight, the workbook edition of the Meyer's Twilight, allows students to read the book with the key SAT vocabulary words indexed. This gives students the chance to read the word in context, make a guess on what the definition of the word is, and then read the actual definition. There are also drills and quizzes in the book for students to practice the words they are learning and be able to put them to use.

Articles referenced:

Evan Kendall
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Sharon High School 2010 (Sharon, MA)

Student Loans Going Public?

President Barack Obama is currently trying to pass a plan through Congress to "end the role of private banks in the federal education lending system." Obama's plan aims to eliminate the private sector intermediaries on student loans in order to decrease fees for students.

The President's plan is beginning to gain public support, and the chairman of the Education Committee has backed the proposal. However, there is significant opposition from private sector officials, many of whom claim that the transfer will cause absolute turmoil for colleges and students.

According to President Obama, the current system takes advantage of students' financial need rather than trying to alleviate the burden of college loans. His plan would not only help support Pell grants for low-income students, but it would also decrease federal debt by $87 billion over the next 10 years.

The current system makes it easy for private lenders to profit as they take taxpayers' money to create loans and then sell them back to the treasury. As private lenders profit, students bear the brunt of the system by paying more for their loans.

Many Republicans have opposed the effort set forth by Obama, claiming that it is just a scheme for Democrats to increase the size of the government. If the plan were to be implemented, private lending jobs would certainly be cut. Thus the dilemma becomes: Should we decrease the cost of college loans if this means cutting jobs in the private sector?

Articles referenced:

Evan Kendall
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Sharon High School 2010 (Sharon, MA)

Technology: The New Way to Study?

The ongoing transformation from books to electronics is becoming viral, something more and more SAT prep companies are discovering. In the words of the director of pre-college programs at Kaplan Test Prep, "The reality is that for a lot of students, the way they study has changed." Kaplan has already begun its evolving stage into a bigger SAT prep company through its usage of technology inside and outside of the classroom.

From iTunes songs to comic books containing SAT vocabulary words, Kaplan is seeing more returns from its innovations than ever before. Their latest invention? SAT prep on the Nintendo DS. Yes, it sounds bizarre and even a bit eccentric, but Kaplan has a game in the works for kids who would rather play through their SAT prep than work in a book.

But what does this really mean for test prep services, specifically SAT prep services, that are now going to have to compete with Kaplan's rise in the e-world? Prep services will need to get creative - more user friendly ways to get kids to WANT to prepare for the SAT. Many of the SAT prep companies have migrated to the internet (or even started there, like INAP) in hopes to capture the tech-friendly youth that has become the ideal SAT demographic.

Yet now, with the rise of computers and technology and the demise of the classic, paper-filled books, SAT prep services may begin to see a rise in profits. As prep companies' physical materials slowly fade away and the ability to add small "cash-per-click" advertisements in corners of the webpages prove to be beneficial, outputs go down and inputs go up. No more printing pages or four inch thick books, just a simple URL for a student to enter to begin studying for the SAT. But with all of these changes occurring in the market of SAT prep, what are the real setbacks?

Articles referenced:

Evan Kendall
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Sharon High School 2010 (Sharon, MA)

NYT: Regional Shift in Education Gap

Here's the opening excerpt...

Historically, the achievement gap between America’s black and white students was widest in Southern states, where the legacies of slavery and segregation were reflected in extremely low math and reading scores among poor African-American children.

But black students have made important gains in several Southern states over two decades, while in some Northern states, black achievement has improved more slowly than white achievement, or has even declined, according to a study of the black-white achievement gap released by the Department of Education this morning.

As a result, the nation’s most dramatic black-white gaps are no longer seen in Southern states like Alabama or Mississippi, but rather in Northern and Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Nebraska, Connecticut and Illinois, according to the federal data.

Dreams of College Deferred?

Many schools districts have recently cut funding for summer activities or schooling that are deemed essential in helping close the achievement gap. The Los Angeles school district, for instance, eliminated summer school except for special education students or ones who need credits to graduate, saving $34 million. Yet an ABC News article notes that 65 percent of the academic gaps between low-income ninth graders and their peers can be attributed to unequal summer learning opportunities.While districts continue to cut funding, low-income students will be further disadvantaged in educational opportunities. 

An article in The Kansas City Star, though, claims that there is a panacea to this growing problem. The author argues that community colleges and universities can offer summer programs that not only help low-income students close the academic gap, but can even inspire students to matriculate to colleges or universities - something they may never have considered. This is in light of recent Department of Labor statistics that cite that 72 percent of new jobs and 90 percent of high-growth, high wage jobs require some form of post-high school education.

Summer programs not only help low-income students stay on par with their academic learning, but also enlighten them to new career interests and help them realize the feasibility of a college education. The Kansas City Star notes that one girl, Keitha Boston, wished to enroll in a culinary arts school, but after a summer program at University of Missouri - Kansas City Campus, she will instead likely pursue a four-year university education. Another student, Ryan Benjamin, felt that in a college environment he would be unable to compete with the other students, but after attending a math and science camp at Northwest Missouri State University, he understood his own abilities and no longer felt intimidated. The secondary benefits of these early college programs are innumerable for students who do not at first consider college education a future goal.

The question remains, however, as to how these partnerships between school districts and local community colleges and universities can be funded. Private organizations such as the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation or the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation have pledged money to support such programs in Kansas City. To expand such early college programs nationally, though, funding opportunities and partnerships with organizations such as those aforementioned will need to be solicited and sought after; the strides made towards closing the achievement gap, however, would be vast and the secondary benefits invaluable.

Articles referenced: 

Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard College 2011

The Student Loan Crisis

An independent education policy think tank called Education Sector recently released a report on student debt that analyzed 15 years of data, up until the 2007-2008 school year. The report, called "Drowning in Debt: The Emerging Student Loan Crisis", found that the costs of higher education have doubled over the 15 year period, with family income and financial aid not on par. It found that in 1993 only 32% of students who attended public universities borrowed in the form of loans, yet that number as of 2008 is now up to more than 50%. More important, the crisis is disproportionately burdening African Americans - in fact, the percentage of African American students taking on loans had tripled from 2004 to 2008.

The risings costs of higher education have led students to take on risky private loans with high interest rates. In a recent Huffington Post article, authors Manisha Thakor and Sharon Kedar offer those looking to pay for college a few tips. One guideline of note that they propose, is that students should not take out a total amount of student loans that would exceed their income within 10 years of graduation - or, in simple terms, if you expect to make an average annual income of $50,000, you should not take out more than $50,000 in student loans. Thakor and Kedar even account for taxes and savings, but note that this is not a strict formula to follow, and is flexible at one's own discretion.

Schools must continue to make financial aid a priority as well as streamlining budgetary costs so that tuition payments can more realistically be met. Further, they must consider the implications this crisis has on minority and low-income students in their pursuit to make college more affordable. These loans students are paying with represent a risky investment, and as we have learned, risky investments can have disastrous consequences.

Articles referenced:

Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard College 2011

America's "Best Kept Secrets" - Community Colleges

Jill Biden spoke in Paris a few days ago, according to The New York Times, about the viability of American higher education largely resulting from the success of community colleges. She noted that community colleges, a growing source of higher education in the U.S., were the "way of the future" and a means for those unemployed to seek out new job training opportunities.  The article further notes that community colleges, most with open admission policies, allow for students to transfer to universities for full degrees. 

Community colleges serve 12 million students a year, or about 44% of all undergraduate students in the U.S. These students are largely low-income and of black or Hispanic backgrounds. Community colleges foster educational opportunities that are locally-accessible and allow for flexible learning schedules for those without the resources to attend the large universities. The Obama administration realizes the social impact these schools engender and seek to increase their enrollment by five million students, most who have recently lost their jobs. 

Even the Gates Foundation earlier this week donated $5 million towards research at Columbia University on increasing community college retention rates. In this economic recession, these schools will be an integral source of education for the non-traditional and/or low-income students who seek to attain higher levels of education and ultimately enter or re-enter the workforce.

Articles referenced:

Evan Kendall & Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associates
Sharon High School 2010, Harvard College 2011

National Standards and Local Control - The Paradox of American Education

An interesting article in The Christian Science Monitor questioned federal standards set by lawmakers for students in light of the debate over the effectiveness of the SAT. The article posits that there is an issue in imposing a "one size fits all" testing standard when our school systems is rooted in local control. In fact, there is no set national curriculum for our schools. Is it fair, then, to impose national testing standards (a la No Child Left Behind) or a nationwide aptitude test for college admissions?

Looking at No Child Left Behind, the law calls for a national standard of 100% proficiency for all students by 2014; however, proficiency is measured differently by each state. A student who may fail to make proficiency in Massachusetts may otherwise be considered proficient in Indiana. The disparity in these standards reflects, though, the basic premise of our school system - local and state control. 

It is universally recognized that there need be a benchmark by which to compare students from different school systems; however, the SAT is often lambasted for its ability to measure students' aptitude on a national scale. Even large blocs of students in the midwest have turned to the ACT as their preferred test of choice. Much of the flak the SAT receives, though, stems from the apparent paradox of our educational system - national standards for locally-controlled schools. 

This left us wondering at INAP - what would our educational system look like if school districts set their own standards, much like states do for student proficiency already?

Article referenced:

Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard College 2011

Federal Funding - A Conflict of Interest?

A recent article from The Columbus Dispatch sheds light on a paradox of our education system - there are more low-income students than the late 90s, yet schools are profiting from offering more expansive reduced or free lunch programs. The article enlightens readers as to the financials - Columbus schools offer lunches at prices less than the federal government subsidizes for ($2.57) and thus make a profit from the difference of each lunch. This left us at INeedAPencil wondering if this was a conflict of interest - if education is an avenue for social mobility, why are schools incentivized to educate higher numbers of low-income students for their own profit?

This further reminded us of one of the faults of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). According to the act, school districts must independently notify parents of students who qualify for supplementary education subsidies. If these funds go unused, however, they are relegated back to the district for its own discretionary use. This leaves school districts disincentivized from clearly articulating the supplemental education options to parents, instead writing confusing and lengthy letters that parents will disregard due to lack of clarity. This conflict of interest in parental notification has left many policy makers pushing for reform in the bill's reauthorization as to be more accountable and transparent. 

Access to education and educational services the government provides should never be subject to a conflict of interest.

Articles referenced:

Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard College 2011

Press Release

Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard College 2011

Recession and College Choice

From The Dallas Morning News, personal anecdotes on how the recession is affecting high school students' choice of enrollment for higher education. Interesting and disturbing statistic: 70% of high schools reported that a great number of their students sacrificed "dream schools" for ones that were more economically viable.

Link: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/education/stories/DN-collegedreams_29met.ART.State.Edition2.4ba5b8a.html

Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard College 2011

College Affordability - A Zero Sum Game

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that a survey conducted by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities found that tuition will rise an average of 4.3% next year, the smallest increase in 37 years. This shows marked fiscal constraint on behalf of universities who have lost millions of dollars in endowment investments and have fewer liquid assets with which to pay normal operating costs.

Harvard, with the largest endowment of any university in the world, used about a third of endowment funding towards its operating costs in 2008. In March 2009, however, the university announced that it would diminish its dependence on the endowment by reducing the amount allocated to the operating budget to only 8%. This comes after a 22% loss in the endowment's nearly $37 billion value. Harvard has begun cutting jobs and budgets to make up for this loss as well as past reliance on the endowment for operating costs.

Harvard, however, is one of the more fortunate universities. President Faust has stood by her commitment to continue to offer financial aid as a priority despite the economic downturn, with one of the best programs in the country - even offering a full-ride for students whose families make under $60,000 in annual salary. More important, Harvard will continue its need-blind policy in evaluating applicants for admissions - that is, one's ability to pay tuition will not be taken into account when one's application is reviewed.

A recent New York Times article noted that many universities are now looking more favorably on applicants of wealthier means - even Morton Owen Schapiro, President of Williams College, remarked, "There’s going to be a cascading of talented lower-income kids down the social hierarchy of American higher education, and some cascading up of affluent kids." Colleges are even accepting transfer students or wait-listed students who they need not adhere to their usual policy of need-blind evaluation when reviewing. This creates a worrisome trend, one that universities such as Harvard may be isolated from in having large endowments as security nets, but others without such funding may continue to turn to.

The smaller-than-average tuition hike is certainly a good sign, but the economic downturn has left universities searching for ways to continue to fund themselves, especially after large endowment losses. Universities evaluating wealth as a factor of admissions is a new strategy which they will use to meet budgets while ostentatiously and publicly flaunting financial aid as a top priority. Universities cannot seek to solve their financial problems at the expense of those most financially burdened. Low-income students should not "cascade down the social hierarchy" solely because of the genetic lottery or socioeconomic situation which they were born into. We cannot defeat the age-old socioeconomic income gap alone - universities have to come together to attract the best talent and diversity regardless of financial need so that income does not determine educational opportunity.

Articles for Reference:







Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard College 2011

Ricci v. DeStefano

The Supreme Court's decision in Ricci v. DeStefano has become a topic of debate relative to equal opportunity of employment and Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination. There has been little focus, however, on the effects such a decision may have on college admissions and higher education in the future. This case, in fact, strayed from past precedent or stare decisis by rejecting race as a consideration for promotion over other candidates.

In 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Allan Bakke testified that he applied to University of California at Davis Medical School in 1973 and was rejected. He applied with higher scores in 1974 and again was rejected. Upon his realization that candidates of lower qualifications were admitted to the school under a special admissions program for minorities, he filed for mandatory, injunctive and declaratory relief, citing the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court ruled 5-4 that race could not be used for quotas in admissions, but could be considered holistically as a factor in admission.

In the case of Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, Barbara Grutter applied to University of Michigan Law School and was rejected. She filed a similar suit to Bakke, citing that she was discriminated against on the basis of race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In her case, however, the court upheld affirmative action policy and argued that considering race in a holistic context was allowed in admissions decisions. The majority argued in a 5-4 decision that eventually admissions should be "colorblind" and they estimated that in 25 years race should not be a key factor in admissions to higher institutions of learning.

Ricci v. DeStefano is quite possibly the beginning of a new era - were the 25 years in Grutter v. Bollinger an over-estimation? The question of affirmative action has always been a polarizing one, to the extent that all three of these court decisions have been primarily ideologically split and with only a one person majority. The question remains as to whether this recent decision will affect the affirmative action policies that justices have helped better define throughout these past three decades. Judge Sotomayor's probable nomination, though, conveys a sense of hope for advocates of affirmative action who see her background, experience, and ideology as enough evidence that she will protect this oft-divisive policy.

Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard College 2011

FAFSA Simplification

Last Wednesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by reducing 20% of the questions, mostly in redundancies. The Obama administration will also seek legislation to further winnow down the form to a simpler version. The streamlining of the FAFSA is a step in the right direction - it will incentivize disadvantaged students who had been intimidated by the red tape to apply for federal funding in the form of Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, Perkins Grants, and even work-study or state aid.

This is a significant stride towards equitable education, at a time when it is most needed. Scholarships, grants, and state aid are being cut back or eliminated in light of the economic downturn. The Davis United World College Scholars Program has cut its scholarship offering of $20,000 per winner in half, The Fulfillment Fund - offering scholarships to Los Angeles students - has cut its offerings in half over the past three years, and The New York Times Company has cut its offered scholarships to 12 from 20. Even state aid has been significantly effected - in Pennsylvania state grants have been reduced, and California is considering cutting its state scholarship program completely in formulating its budget.

The long-awaited simplification of the FAFSA is a watershed in the push for equitable access to education. However, the economic downturn, as well as other barriers - including the income-moderated SAT score gap - are apparent indicators that there is room for improvement. INeedAPencil seeks to offer SAT prep for free such that educational opportunity is not determined by one's socioeconomic status.

Articles for reference:



Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard College 2011

SAT Scores

The June 6 score results were posted online today for student test-takers. With the relatively new option of Score Choice (implemented last year), students can choose to send their better score from one date they took the test, rather than send worse scores from earlier tests. This allows students to not let a bad test day hurt their chances of admission to colleges. We highly recommend using the Score Choice option and taking the SAT multiple times until you get an optimal score.

Looking to raise your score for another test administration? INeedAPencil.com offers FREE SAT prep that includes 60 lessons, practice questions, two full-length tests, as well as progress tracking and mentor communication options. Why spend thousands of dollars on other SAT prep programs that offer "only four months access" or deceitfully guarantee score increases, when you have all the resources available for you FREE with unlimited access at INeedAPencil.com?

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SATs and State Exams

"Let's Add SATs Into the Mix When Holding High Schools Accountable" by Mike Piscal

Mike Piscal, founder of the Inner City Education Foundation, raises some interesting points in his blog on The Huffington Post's website. Piscal argues that public schools tailor their teaching to state exams (in this case, California's) and thus leave students, especially low-income ones, unprepared for the SAT. He also notes a disparity between public schools and private or charter schools, which devote more resources to preparing students for the SATs and dismiss the California state exam as having no bearing on future educational opportunity.

The state exams, though, do offer a means for measuring the standards of accountability set by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). SAT results are currently available only to individual test takers, so the government cannot use these to track NCLB metrics. Further, state exams are often administered to vocational school students, many of whom do not wish to attend college. Piscal is correct in emphasizing that schools should teach to state exams and SATs, as a large number of students do pursue higher education, yet his argument tends to overlook that not every student wishes to go to college. Piscal would likely argue, though, that focusing public school curricula on the SATs may actually encourage more low-income students to take the test and matriculate at institutions of higher education - an option that they may never have considered before.

Assuming we accept Piscal's argument, what would happen if public schools did focus more on SAT preparation? American high schools have one of the shortest academic years amongst all industrialized nations. The United States' 180 days, compared to Japan's 243, The Netherlands' 200, England's 192, or even France's 185, leaves comparatively little time for teaching a comprehensive high school curriculum (see: http://www.eduinreview.com/blog/2009/03/obama-proposes-longer-school-days-extended-school-year/). Add state exam preparation and a renewed focus on SAT preparation to the mix, and students in public schools may end up underprepared in all of these areas. The gap between public and private schools would then grow larger since private schools would remain exempt from state exam preparation completely.

Piscal does make a strong argument for SAT preparation in public schools, where most low-income students are concentrated, yet he fails to offer a feasible solution for adding one more thing to an already frenzied academic year. Teaching to two tests may actually leave students more confused and less prepared. Moreover, he does not address the simple fact that many students in public schools do not wish to attend college, but do wish to graduate, and thus it makes more sense for them to prepare for a single exam.

Should SAT preparation be a part of public school curriculum, and is this even feasible? What are your thoughts?

Kevin Prior
INeedAPencil Summer Associate
Harvard College 2011

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