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2013 November 28

First college application sent

Last night my son got his first set of college applications sent off: University of California, which has its own idiosyncratic deadline and application form. UC does not ask for transcripts and does not want letters of recommendation—students have to enter all their transcript information into web forms.  The lack of letters of recommendation may be a blessing in disguise, as one of his recommenders has still not been able to get the Common App to accept her letter for him. The UC web forms are set up to be fairly easy (though tedious) for students at California high schools, since UC has a list of all UC-approved courses at each high school, but they are really a pain for a home school student.  We were lucky in that his home-schooling was done under a public-school umbrella (Alternative Family Education) that appeared on the drop-down list.  Otherwise, it would have been difficult even to say where he did his high school education.  The instructions for home-schoolers seem to be non-existent and figuring out where to tuck various bits of information was tough.

He ended up applying to 3 of the UCs (UCB, UCSB, and UCSD), though the only campuses he has visited are UCB, UCLA, and UCSC. Why the change?  Well, UCSC is too close to home—he needs to move to more independent living.  Our visit to UCLA made it very clear that undergrads in computer science there got almost no attention from faculty (unless the students were very strong at self-promotion) and acting was mostly restricted to theater arts majors. UCB was better—much better on the acting opportunities, with an attractive acting minor, but undergrads in computer science still had little research opportunity or interaction with the faculty.

We added UCSB primarily because of the College of Creative Studies (CCS) there, an honors college of about 300 students that (the website claims) has close faculty advising and is expected to do graduate-level research as undergrads. The computer science major within CCS looks quite interesting, and (if it lives up to its advertising) may represent a good compromise between the resources of a large university and the attention and nurturing of a small college. Unfortunately, we don’t have an equivalent of the Common Data Set numbers to know how selective CCS is nor does their web site really tell us what they are looking for.

One interesting point is that CCS has a supplementary application that is circulated among the faculty—we regard it as a good sign when the faculty care enough about their program to be involved in choosing who gets in, and when a university allows the faculty to have some say (most UC admissions keep the faculty completely out of freshman admissions—except for coaches at the sports-mad campuses, who seem able to get jocks in even when they don’t come close to being UC-eligible).  Note: transfer admissions at least at UCSC is different, with faculty in the intended department having final say about whether students can be admitted to the major.

UCSD was added as an afterthought, as having a reasonable engineering program while being easier to get into than UCB (38% instead of 17% for male freshmen—UCSB is even higher at 43%).  It is more of a safety school than a careful choice, but the marginal effort of doing an application to it was small—mainly trying to rank the six colleges there based on the very scanty information on the UCSD web site. If he gets in at UCSB or UCSD, but not one of his top three choices, we’ll probably end up doing another visit to southern California, to see how these two campuses feel to him.

The UC applications cost $70 per campus plus another $11.25 each to send SAT scores for a total of $243.75.  He’ll be applying to another 3–7 colleges, so I expect that application fees will end up costing around $1000.  When the cost of college visits and taking the SAT and AP tests in the first place is included, the cost of the application process rises to around $4000–5000.  That seems like a lot, but is dwarfed by the cost of college itself, which for us will be $120,000 to $240,000, depending on which college he goes to—the amount of financial aid that we qualify for seems to vary enormously from school to school.

UPDATE 2013 Dec 1: A reader just pointed out “You can have your official score report sent to one UC campus, and all campuses you apply to will receive it.” http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/freshman/requirements/examination-requirement/ I wish I’d noticed that buried in the instructions.  (I’d looked for it, but must have skipped over the line that said it.)

My son, like many high school seniors, has been struggling with the college application essays.  The two he produced for UC seem pretty good to me—one concentrates on the data logger project and is an adaptation of the essay he wrote for the Common Application prompt, while the other talks about why he chose to home school and what that has done for him.  Both essays managed to pack in a lot of information about him and his education, without sounding like laundry lists.

But it took him two weeks to write these essays whose combined length was just shy of the 1000-word limit.  He still has a large number of essays to write (1–3 per college application), and his writer’s block seems to get worse the more important the thing he is writing, so he’s been struggling most with the colleges he cares most about. I have the same problem—I can knock off a blog post like this one in an hour or two, but I have research papers still unfinished that should have been published a decade ago.

The huge amount of time each application takes means that there’s no way that he’ll be applying to the 100s of colleges who send brochures and postcards (most of which are getting recycled unread these days).  Occasionally one of the colleges will send a letter to “the parents of …”, and I sometimes read those for the amusement value, as most of them are so far off target as to be ludicrous.

The main limitation on how many colleges he applies to will probably be how many essays he can get done. I suppose that is why each selective college adds a bunch of essay questions to their application—not so much to find out more about the student as to reduce the flood of applicants to just those who are somewhat serious about attending. This selection process may be counterproductive though, as it would be much easier to churn out acceptable essays for schools he cared nothing about than to try to get a really good essay for a school he cares a lot about.

This weekend, I’m hoping he’ll get the essays done for one of his high-priority colleges (Harvey Mudd or Stanford, for example).

2013 September 7

Meeting UC a–g requirements

Filed under: home school,Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:23
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Back in March, I wrote a post Admission by exam at UC, in which I listed how my son was meeting UC a–g requirements, which I had originally talked about a couple of years ago,  when we started home schooling. This post updates that information:

  1. 1 year World History, 1 year US history  (world history at home in 10th grade, US history at AFE in 11th)
  2. 4 years English (9th grade English didn’t happen, so we had to overload in 10th and 11th grade)
  3. 3 years Math (Art of Problem Solving Precalculus, Calculus, and Group Theory; Mathematical Problem Solving at UCSC, Applied Discrete Math at UCSC)
  4. 2–3 years science (Physiology in 9th, calculus-based physics in 10th and 11th, chemistry in 12th)
  5. 2 years foreign language (Spanish, through Spanish 3 at Cabrillo College, possibly through Spanish 4 next year)
  6. 1 year visual and performing arts (9th grade drama class, continuing theater classes at WEST performing arts)
  7. 1 year elective (various computer science and robotics projects, including the Art of Problem Solving Java course)

I managed to talk him into doing the SAT 2 tests in US and World History, which means that he can now validate all the UC a–g requirements by standard exams.  He does not expect to do any more SAT tests, though he’ll probably do the AP Chem test at the end of his current AP chem class, just to validate that the level of the course was real.

The history requirements (requirement a) are validated by SAT 2 scores, English (requirement b) is validated by his SAT score on the reading section, math (requirement c) is validated by his SAT 2 and AP Calculus BC scores, the science (requirement d) is validated by his AP Physics C scores and the UC-approved physiology course (and probably by the AP chem as well), the foreign language (requirement e) by his community college Spanish courses, the arts (requirement f) by his high school drama course, and the elective (requirement g) by the AP Comp Sci exam, the math courses at UCSC, or his video editing course in 9th grade.

Of course, he could also qualify for Admission by exam, based on his SAT scores and 2 SAT 2 scores, even if we used his 2 lowest SAT 2 scores, rather than his 2 highest, so it doesn’t really matter whether he has completed the a–g requirements.  But the a–g requirements to represent a fairly typical college-prep curriculum, so it is good that we can show that he’s covered all the standard courses—even the material that did not thrill him—for colleges other than UC, who may not have the admission-by-exam work-around.

2013 August 3

University of California faculty commit to open access

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:06
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According to the press release, The University of California faculty have just endorsed an open-access publication policy.  The policy does not require publication in open-access journals, but deposit of articles in  eScholarship (UC’s open access repository).  There are supposedly opt-out mechanisms, which will undoubtedly see heavy use, both because many major journal still don’t allow deposit in university repositories, and because depositing in the UC repository will probably be a bureaucratic hassle that is easier to opt out of than to comply with.

Of course, I haven’t seen the details of the policy—it has not been distributed to the faculty yet.  Once again, I find out UC changes of policies first from the news media, not from any internal communication with the faculty.

I’m basically in favor of open-access publishing, but not in favor of author-pays funding of it (as an unfunded researcher, I can’t afford $2000–3000 per article).  Having a UC-based respository is basically a good idea, as long as it isn’t as much hassle to deal with as the NIH repository was (and maybe still is—I’ve not had NIH funding for a while).  I don’t know how good the indexing is going to be, either—whether people will be able to go from a standard journal citation to the UC copy of the article easily, without having to go to the eScholarship site explicitly looking for the article.

2013 July 21

Questions for UC President-Elect Napolitano

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:30
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Chris Newfield, like many of the faculty at the University of California, was surprised by the appointment of a UC president with no academic experience.  Getting a purely political appointee for the top post at UC seems like a really bad idea to many faculty at a time when we need a president who understands the problems that the University faces (internal and external). Having seen the results of deans and chancellors imported to UCSC, compared with ones promoted from within, I really doubt the wisdom of bringing in an outsider as President of UC.

We need someone who can defend the University against those in government who would starve public universities into nonexistence (a defense that our Regents and prior president showed little interest in mounting, preferring to praise the legislators and governors for reductions in funding that were marginally less bad than they might have been).

Internally, we need someone who can guide the University in both its teaching and its research missions, understanding both the synergy and the competition for resources of the dual mission.  For the past decade the University of California has been sacrificing the teaching mission more and more, in order to grow the research enterprise.  And I use the word “enterprise” deliberately here, because the goal has clearly been to increase research funding, not to increase research.  We need a president who understands the delicate balance of the dual mission, and seeks to right the balance gently when it tips too far in one direction.  Given the rather heavy-handed imbalance of the Homeland Security apparatus, I have serious doubt that Ms. Napolitano’s experience there is going to be of much use to her in helping UC steer a clear course.

The UC faculty are rather tired of having political presidents forced on them from the outside.  Having one whose experience is more at running a top-down police agency than shared governance structure is particularly concerning.  What were the Regents thinking? (Probably that the faculty don’t matter and that they can practice mushroom management on us: keep us in the dark and feed us horseshit.)

Here are some questions that Chris Newfield posted on his blog  Remaking the University (Some Unanswered Questions for UC President-Elect Napolitano) that Ms. Napolitano will have to address as UC President:

Can Ms. Napolitano do better with major questions that the public and politicians are asking, day in day out? Just having more clout and connections than Mr. Yudof isn’t going to do the trick.

  1. Why should public universities have public funding restored? Why can’t they just do more with less–perhaps by using more technology like everybody else?
  2. Why should public universities and not just wealthy privates like Stanford and Harvard conduct expensive scientific research? What are the public purposes, or huge scale, or something, that requires lots of public support in the public sector?
  3. What specific types of undergraduate educational improvements would result from restored funding? How would students benefit, exactly, from public reinvestment?
  4. What are the limits of online education for public university students? Why shouldn’t UC students spend, say, two of twelve quarters studying off site and online to make better use of resources? What exactly is the harm in that?
  5. What are the limits of competency-based education? Why shouldn’t we disaggregate our public colleges into skill-oriented units with semi-routinized instructors and an emphasis on peer-to-peer instruction? Why isn’t a collection of “badges” as good as a college degree?
  6. Do we really need as many PhD trained faculty teaching 20 year olds as we have? What do they do that technicians running MOOCs can’t do?
  7. Do we really need so much academic research? What are we really learning from political science? Or art history? Or environmental biology?
  8. What is wrong with using post-graduate salary data to grow and shrink majors by statistical evaluation and administrative decree?
  9. Why should the state pay more money when so much is just going into employee pensions, which most Americans no longer have?
  10. What are the educational, intellectual, or social benefits of allowing students to protest? Why should taxpayers support institutions that disgruntled young people use to launch attacks on society? On the other hand, why can’t UC keep non-UC police off campus and create a safe space for political speech?
  11. What is the payoff of academic freedom, beyond giving professors protection that few Americans have in their own workplaces?

I think that these questions are an excellent start at some of the key issues facing a new UC President, and I really hope that some miracle occurs and that Ms. Napolitano turns out to have good thoughts and good advisers on these issues. I suspect, though, that she is going to be confused by accomplished middle managers in the Office of the President into increasing the power and numbers of middle managers and  that she’ll be manipulated by the Regents into privatizing the University.

I wish I had more confidence that the Regents had the best interest of the University at heart, but their actions over the past decade give me no reason to believe it.

I wish I had confidence that the managers populating UCOP (the University of California Office of the President) understood and supported the mission of the University, but like middle managers everywhere, they seem to believe that UC exists primarily to provide good-paying jobs to middle managers.

With no understanding of the University from either the Regents or UCOP, we desperately need a president who does understand and who also has the administrative and political skills to guide the University.  We ended up with someone who apparently has strong administrative and political skills, but no record of understanding the University.  She is likely to push UC strongly in a new direction, but whether this is a positive or a negative direction is left entirely to chance.  Given the strong support she is getting from the Regents, I’m betting on it being a really negative direction (near total privatization of UC, gutting of employee and faculty benefits, reduction of resources for teaching, replacing retiring faculty with underpaid “instructors”, outsourcing of teaching, …).

 

2013 May 31

Cramming for the SAT2

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 01:48
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My son does not usually do test prep before taking a standardized test, nor does he usually cram for exams in classes.  As a general rule, our educational philosophy is to learn the material as one goes along, and let the tests reflect what was retained.  For previous exams (SAT, SAT2 Math Level 2, AP Physics C, AP Calculus AB, AP Computer Science, …), the amount of prep has usually consisted of going through one practice exam and looking to see if there is anything on that test he has forgotten or never learned.  If so, he did a little reading and maybe an exercise or two to cover the hole.

The one exception in the past has been the SAT writing section. Because of his problems with writer’s block, we did have his writing therapist work with him on timed essays similar to the SAT essays.  He believes that this did help him on the SAT, as he did not shut down for the essay as he might otherwise have done.

This weekend he plans to take 3 SAT2 exams: Physics, World History, and US History.  The Physics SAT2 is mainly for college entrance, as many admissions departments require at least 2 SAT2 tests, and pay no attention to the AP exams that test the same subjects deeper. The SAT2 tests in history are to satisfy the University of California a–g requirements, since the ways he learned (a course at home for World History and an unaccredited school course for US History) do not have the UC seal of approval.  If he gets at least a 540 in World History and a 550 in US History, he’ll satisfy UC that he has completed the “a” requirement in Social Sciences/History.  With what he has already done (in terms of tests and courses), this will complete his a–g requirements.  The SAT2 tests this weekend will also provide him with an alternative way to meet the UC entrance requirements: admission by exam, which he will meet if he gets a 580 or better on any of the 3 SAT2 tests—something he should be able to do very easily in physics.

He followed his usually practice for the physics test (looking over a practice test), found a couple of topics that we had not covered yet, and read the textbook or Wikipedia on those subjects.  For World History and US History, topics he has learned a little but not really cared much about, he is cramming—by reading (or re-rereading) Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the United States, Cartoon History of the Universe II, and Cartoon History of the Universe III.  Together with what he remembers from his courses, those should be enough to get him in the 600s or 700s—probably not an 800, but he doesn’t need that for the history SATs.

The SAT and AP tests are somewhat expensive—though much less so than most of the courses we’ve been paying for, adding only about 5% to the cost of his education.  Although some people justify the AP costs by the college tuition one can avoid with AP credit, most of the schools where my son would fit in give little or no credit for AP—they expect everyone to have had courses at that level and still need 4 years to complete the program at the college.  We’ve been justifying the expense of the courses as external validation for our home schooling, not as tuition avoidance.

On one of the home-school e-mail lists I’ve been on, the standardized tests have been characterized as “hoop jumping”: doing meaningless tasks simply to amuse those with the power to compel obedience.  While I feel that way to some extent about the Common Application and FAFSA paperwork (which I am dreading), I don’t have the same reaction to the standardized testing. The tests have a clear correspondence with what the colleges need to know about students when choosing whom to admit, and so are not meaningless tasks.  For home schoolers, they provide an external validation for the content and level of the courses that students have taken that is not otherwise available. They also represent one of the lowest stress ways to validate the courses—certainly much less effort than putting together a portfolio or taking a busywork-heavy accredited course.  Note: kids with test anxiety may not find our approach to be low stress—home schoolers have to match their educational strategies to the kids involved.

We have found that the UC a–g requirements and the California high school graduation requirements do involve a certain amount of arbitrariness—curricular choices that we would have made somewhat differently if we had had free rein.  For example, we would probably have reduced the English and social science requirements, replacing them with more science, math, computer science, robotics, engineering, linguistics, theater, technical writing, and foreign language.  Instead we sacrificed some of the useful stuff (foreign language, linguistics, engineering, and technical writing) in order to meet the letter of the requirements.  Even the physics course this year suffered from the lack of time imposed by trying to meet the high school unit requirements for English and history.  Next year will again waste a lot of time on not-very enjoyable English and social studies, just to meet the bureaucratic high school graduation requirements—time that would be better spent reading, writing, and studying university-level subjects.

 

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