Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Reason 2: College Teaches Ways of Thinking

In the second edition of my 100 reasons to go to college, I am offering another rebuttal post of sorts. In this post, I am exploring the reasoning offered in the 100 Reasons Not to go to College blog, where the author cites various reasons why colleges can’t really teach you how to think.

As always, I want to offer an olive branch before I even begin my rebuttal: I do not think the author of this post is necessarily entirely wrong. There is no doubt that many professors, myself included, have a habit of not necessarily teaching critical thinking in a direct manner, but instead teach students how we ourselves think and attack problems, about areas of interest, and our ideas for research and fixing said problems.  I, as I am assuming others do, also try to teach my students how to interpret news, opinion pieces, and scholarly articles in a way that is beyond looking at the superficial read and regurgitate level, more so by trying to push my students to connect ideas both from their own frame of reference and also between various pieces that they are reading.

In short, both myself and the author of the post linked above are “right”, just in different ways.


Firstly, the author notes an NYU study, which Richard Arum ultimately used to write the seminal book, Academically Adrift, (you can get a good idea about that book/article by reading about the study written about in this article) which found that students did not improve upon their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills as one would expect of a college graduate.  While I know this book has been somewhat controversial since its publication, since the findings are so reliant on the CLA test, I also have found it interesting in that also helps to make the inverse argument of what the blog post author was aiming to make. For example, let’s review this quote below:

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called "higher order" thinking skills.

In the above quote, we see that 55% of students are going to make some form of improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning and/or writing skills during their first few years in college, and that roughly two thirds of college students will make improvements as they continue through college. What does this point too? Simple, as you spend more time in university, you’ll continue to improve upon critical thinking, writing, and reasoning skills.

Another area the blog post author explores is the issue of time. How can students improve their thinking skills if they are only going through the motions to get a good grade, get a degree, and go on to the workforce? Ultimately, I think this moves the goalposts away from skill development, towards a motivation for one’s education. However, even then, a study by Lin and McKeachie found that students who are both intrinsically motivated and extrinsically motivated to succeed in a course were more likely to get a higher grade and to actually learn the content found within the course of study (1999).

The author closes with an analogy that one is more likely to improve upon thinking skills through solving puzzles or crosswords. While I certainly understand that this was offered for comedic purposes, I do feel the post glosses over the many ways one will learn to assess ideas and to think deeply about what they are learning.

By going to college you will most likely do all of the following found below:

  1. Work with experts in your field of study (i.e. your professors).
  2. Read, dissect, and discuss seminal works in your field of study. By building this foundation, you will be able to shape your ideas through developing a framework grounded in a deeper theoretical (and hopefully practical implications of said theory) understanding of your field.
  3. Learn how to assess bias of the authors you are reading.
  4. Connect theory to practice and connect theories to other theories.
  5. Learn for the background of your peers and their life experiences.
  6. Hopefully have your ideas scrutinized by others, so that you can reformulate your thinking and learn how to address weak spots in your overall knowledge of your field.
Opportunities for this in the real world are tough to find, quite frankly. More importantly, to reasonably address any of the above items, you would need to think critically, learn from others, and be able to synthesize a variety of forms of information. What does that take? Critical thinking skills

Consequently, I’ll close this post by noting that I believe that colleges teach you various ways of thinking. These include being able to dissect ideas, but also being able to understand ideas from a variety of perspectives, to understand what makes for a strong argument, and also to better judge the veracity of the argument of others. These are invaluable skills that one will need to succeed in life, regardless of the profession they choose to enter.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Reason 1: College is the Best Way to Stimulate your Intellectual Curiosity

Our first reason for going to college is to develop upon one’s own intellectual curiosity. In the first post on the 100 Reasons not to go to College blog, the author recommends that universities aren’t necessarily the best way to satisfy one’s own thirst for knowledge.  

The first argument provided by the author is the idea that during general education, one will be unlikely to actually learn (primarily due to the stress of taking on varying assignments, some of which will fall out of the scope of one’s own major of study). However, and this is a point the author makes somewhat inadvertently, universities provide a mixture of courses that one would be very unlikely to attempt on their own, stifling their ability to a) learn new things that they wouldn’t have taken the chance too, b) can inform their major of study in a novel way, and c) without learning a broader form of general education, would keep the student from acquiring a more diverse set of knowledge.

For example, the author notes that a history major would gain greatly in their development of their historical knowledge, but would then be forced to study for STEM classes that would distract them from their actual interests. While I see the author’s points, there is also a great potential here for the student to potentially find new interests or be able to explore their interest in history in new ways. If anything, at least the student will develop problem-solving skills that will assist them in the study of their field of interest, thereby better grasping the theories, content, vocabulary, and the ability to critically dissect the field of history they wish to study.

The better argument against general education is the fact that it costs the student an exorbitant amount of money. A great article, by Zachary Jack in Inside Higher Ed, notes that general education gives students a more well-rounded education that will assist them in their future careers or further studies. However, as tuition continues to rise, so too does the conversation around if reducing general education requirements might be one way of addressing student costs and completion rates. These are tough questions to answer, as one commenter on the article notes that the reduction in general education could thereby reduce what students get out of their undergraduate experience.

Another argument about this point is that as one matriculates through college, they’ll spend more time on their direct interests.  At the minimum, most students will take 60 units, or roughly 15-20, classes directly related to their field of study at the upper-division level. Naturally, a general education provides the students the education that will help them to best succeed at the upper-division level. Furthermore, and I concede that this may be a semi-faulty argument, the student is going to spend 2 years learning about their field of study. By having a general education that supports this, students who wish to study at the graduate level (which the author’s hypothetical student would likely do, given they are a history major) and will be better prepared to perform deeper forms of research, past just those that are qualitative in nature.

Next, the author transitions into the idea that MOOCs are available to study topics from top universities for free. This is certainly true, and is actually an incredibly important argument for two main reasons. Firstly, I am of the believe that MOOCs are one way that we can further democratize and break down access issues to higher education. Secondly, some of these companies, such as Coursera, are partnering with universities to offer degree programs and certifications that a student could obtain through them for a relatively good price.

But, the issue with MOOCs currently is that they can’t provide the student an ability to work with people who know the subject better than oneself or who can guide (or be a mentor for) one’s learning in a way that promotes the most important foundational topics to build upon (at least in an interpersonal and more meaningful way).  In certain fields, and especially for students who plan to go onto graduate study, a MOOC course cannot provide this more individualized opportunity to go past what is offered in the course. In my own studies, my professors were available to offer additional opportunities to learn, either by offering additional readings, field trips to off-site locations, or by having discussions during their office hours where my learning could be taken to the next level.

Lastly, the author of the post assumes that people are able to direct their own learning at a level that is equivalent to a college education. Most students just simply aren’t self-directed or self-motivated enough to succeed on their own.  A dissertation cited in a study by Papia Bawa found that 40 to 80% of online students drop out of their courses. And the on-ground percentage is not much better, with roughly 50% of students not completing their on-ground programs, according to the Washington Post. Now, arguably this is somewhat shifting away from the primary issue raised by the author, however, I would argue that one cannot satisfy their intellectual curiosity if they aren’t in a structured setting that promotes their interest in learning (unless they are one of the rarer students who is strongly self-motivated).

As such, it is my belief that a university program, its faculty, and support staff will always give students the best opportunity to learn. An area that is often overlooked is how much non-class learning can take place at a college campus. A student can join a club, go to on-campus guest lectures, meet people from around the world and have access to library materials right at the palm of their hands. Will the internet continue to change our learning landscape moving forward? Certainly!
Will it do a better job than a strong academic program, with motivated faculty who care about their students? At this point in time, most certainly not.  

If you have a distinct interest in a subject, your local university is likely the best place to push yourself intellectually to gain a deeper knowledge about that field.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Is Hiring a College Admissions Consultant Worth it?

One of the primary reasons I began this blog/website and YouTube/Podcasting project was that I used to be a college application consultant. I was fortunate in that I had a good career in this field and was able to help students get into Stanford, NYU, every UC, and many other top colleges.

I started off doing working as an admissions consultant back in late 2014 and continued to work in the field until 2017. While I was successful, over time I began to feel somewhat uneasy about the work I was doing.

In the above YouTube video I describe what it is like working as an admissions consultant and the benefits and drawbacks of working with one.

While it is my belief that hiring a consultant can be a great thing, it can also be a huge waste of time and money depending on the expertise of the person you decide to work with.

For example, I note in the video that many of the consultants that I worked with had no professional expertise in either higher education and/or admissions at any academic level. Many times these were fresh graduates who were learning how to apply to these schools, just as much as the student and the student's family was.

Consequently, this experience led me to formulate this website for a few reasons. Firstly, what students were getting charged for a consultant's expertise was astronomical. Secondly, many parents felt pressured into buying these services and information, information that quite frankly can be found for free on the internet. Lastly, these companies (of which there are many) aren't really out to educate students, they are out to turn a profit. There is nothing inherently wrong with that in reality, but it was something that always made me feel uncomfortable.

So, to close out this post -  I will lay out the pros and cons of hiring a consultant to help you with your application.

  1. Depending on the timeframe in which you work with a consultant, you can develop a good working relationship allowing the consultant to guide your essay responses towards experiences that highlight your unique qualities in a way that helps you most on your applications.
  2. Many of these consulting firms also provide SAT/ACT, and subject matter tutoring. This can help you with other critical aspects of your college application.
  3. If you hire a consultant when you or your child is younger, they can help guide you towards building an extracurricular profile that can better benefit your application.
  4. Having someone who can help you select a colleges and your major is not always feasible at many high schools. Even at the small public high school I attended, I met my guidance counselor once and she didn't spend nearly any time helping me to explore my interests.
  5. Much of the work you do with a consultant will be interchangeable. For example, many essay prompts are similar among different universities, so having 4-5 good quality essays will go miles in terms of having a strong foundation from which to tailor essays specifically to each institution you're applying at.
  1. Generally speaking, consultants are incredibly expensive. The national average for an admissions consultant hourly rate is $250.
  2. As noted above, consultants have a variety of expertise. If you are going to a bigger, chain-like, tutoring entity you very well may end up working with a consultant who is fresh to the field.
  3. Working with larger consulting firms may give you more options in selecting a consultant, but many also have "hidden charges", that while they aren't necessarily hidden in the truest sense off the word, these charges aren't always discussed up front. For example, many firms will push tutoring services, SAT/ACT boot camps, and other supplemental services on students and their families in an attempt to make more money.
  4. Consultant burn out is a real issue. If a consultant has a large stable of students, how much mental energy is going to be realistically placed on your college application?
  5. If for some reason a college found out you were using a consultant to help you write your essays, it could be used against you in an admissions selection scenario.
Do you have questions about your college application? Leave a comment and I'll be happy to give you free advice to the best of my ability!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Your GPA Probably Isn't Below Average

Are you worried about your GPA? Most students would say that they are and naturally so. It is an important indicator of potential college choices, and is also an important indicator of academic success and academic self-efficacy once a student ultimately gets to college.

According to Prep Scholar, the average GPA for an American high school student in core academic subjects is a 2.79 GPA.  I recently pulled up my high school transcripts and get ready to be blown away by my academic prowess:
  • My high school GPA was a 2.52 unweighted (as a junior) and when adding in the 4 semesters of AP coursework, my weighted GPA jumped to a 2.65.
  • My SAT (old version) was a whopping 1500, which translates to a 1090 SAT or a 21 ACT using current scales.
  •  I took no subject tests and ultimately took 3 AP tests, passing both the US Gov and US History AP tests with a 4, and scoring a strong 1 on the AP Bio test.
Using Prep Scholar again, I scored slightly above the average ACT test score (which is a 20.8 nationwide), however I did take a wide swath of AP classes, taking AP Bio, Gov, Spanish, and History. 

Here is a picture of my transcripts:

*One thing to note is that I did improve my GPA quite a bit during my senior year. Not that it mattered greatly, but I was trending positively when I entered college.

I ranked in the bottom third of my class for overall GPA at graduation, and only applied to three schools as a history/humanities major :
  • CSU Monterey Bay
  • Cal Poly SLO
  • Cuesta College
Ultimately, in many ways I was very lucky to be admitted at CSUMB, as I wasn’t an outstanding high school student. Primarily this was due to effort, if I am being completely honest.

But where the story takes a turn is when I went to college. I was able to graduate from CSUMB with a 3.8 GPA in Human Communication (with an emphasis in history), and went straight into a graduate program where I also graduated with a 3.8.

So how did that change happen?
  1. I stopped being lazy. Look, I know that some people work their behinds off and struggle in school. But, I wasn’t one of those people. I frankly just never did my homework after my first semester of high school. How I even got a 2.5 GPA shocks me sometimes.
  2. As such, I actually started to study. The problem was I had really no idea where to start and would basically perform a form of rote memorization, where I would read and re-read chapters until I knew vocabulary, formulas, theories, etc. inside and out. I don’t think this was a strong method for my quality of life, but I guess it worked!
  3. I stopped worrying about failure. In many ways, I had nowhere to go but up. I had seen what academic failure felt like it and wanted to do better. It needed to start with me if I was going to actually do well.
  4. I stopped being afraid of subjects. I used to hate math, and I still do, but I didn’t let that stop me from taking these classes and trying to learn the material. After rarely getting an A in math in high school, I passed stats both in undergraduate and graduate studies with As and can generally understand the material.
  5. I also stopped putting my energy towards doing as little as possible, and put it towards learning. Instead of thinking of how to do the bare minimum, I just did my homework the best I could all the time. It is surprisingly easier to do well when you aren’t trying to calculate how you can do the least amount of possible to pass. Seriously, it is a ton of work to scheme how to barely pass a class!
  6. I asked for help. Being willing to ask a professor for help made me learn the content better and let me get to know my professors. This applies just as much to a high school student, your teachers will ultimately be your recommenders.

I wanted to write this because I think that many times I see students comparing themselves to hypothetical students that are generally rarer than people often assume. Most students are getting sub 3.0 GPAs and not crushing standardized tests.
Now, I’m not saying to aim to low, you should always aim high. But realizing that past mistakes won’t necessarily hurt you is important to making changes that will help you succeed in the future.

I can’t tell you how many times I heard from teachers, counselors, etc. that I wasn’t going to be able to go to college. I always thought they were being rude to me or just trying to use me as an example in front of my peers. But in reality, they were right. I barely snuck into college and once I realized I could succeed if my put my energy towards that, versus blaming my teachers or the subjects for my shortcomings, I became more successful. 

I know that I am overlooking a portion of the student body that gives their all, but just won’t reach a certain GPA threshold or struggle with test-taking. I get that those students do exist and you may be one of them. I would say that I don’t think I’m the most intellectually gifted human being out there (hell, the writing on this site likely proves that theory). Effort got me through most of my academic studies, not shear brilliance. Using some of the above steps I outlined will likely still help you, and if not, support exists at your high school (and your future college) that will help you to succeed. Don’t let fear keep you from being successful.

But, I also write this as a cautionary tale. I barely met the requirements to apply to the CSU system, and would have zero chance at any decent private school or UC. My college options were extremely limited, but I made the best of a "bad" situation. If I were to do it over again, I'd be the Ryan that understood that I could succeed in most subjects, even if I wasn't naturally good at them. I'd also know that my own self-image controlled my success and that I was in control of where I wanted to go in my life. It might sound silly, but taking agency in your studies will make you that above average student you think that you aren't.

Reason 2: College Teaches Ways of Thinking

In the second edition of my 100 reasons to go to college, I am offering another rebuttal post of sorts. In this post, I am exploring the...