Gas station without pumps

2013 October 31

More difficulties with the new Common Application

In Difficulties with the new Common Application I talked about how homeschool parents were supposed to become “counselors” to enter the school profile, counselor letter, and transcript.  (No homeschool supplement any more, so any content that would have gone in the supplement now needs to be in those three documents or the student essay.)  The methods described in that post did allow me to become a counselor (which is a special version of a recommender, and requires that the student designate you as such for at least one college).

This week I finally finished all three documents that need to be uploaded.  I had uploaded the school profile and the counselor letter with no difficulty, even replacing one counselor letter with an updated one that fixed some minor writing problems.  But I had enormous difficult with the transcript.  It is a fairly large pdf file (250kB), because it has course descriptions for all the courses my son took, and because I created it with Pages, which uses a very inefficient representation for formatted text (as bad as Microsoft Word’s).  Common App claims to take PDF files up to 500kB, but every time I tried to upload the transcript, I got a spinning wheel icon that lasted forever, and the upload never completed.  I got the same results with both Firefox and Chrome, so the problem was not browser-specific. In one test, I left the upload running and the Common App timed out after an hour, without having uploaded the transcript.

I contacted the Common App help desk, and they seem to have gotten some of the bugs out of that part of the system (it no longer claims that they don’t respond to their e-mail).  They sent me some boilerplate text that duplicated the workaround instructions on the web site, which I had already tried, but then concluded that if all else failed, I should e-mail them the transcript and where it should go, and they would manually upload it.  I sent them the transcript last night, and by this morning they had uploaded it.  I still can’t view it with Firefox, and they still have a bad message telling me to download the PDF, without giving me a button to download with, but I can confirm that it is there with Chrome.

Bottom line:  don’t get close to deadlines on submitting anything to the Common App—the software is still so buggy that manual intervention is needed even for routine tasks, and that takes time.

My son has started requesting letters of recommendation.  He has four people he is asking: two professors he took math classes from at the university, a theater teacher he has had acting classes with for about 12 years, and a history teacher he had last year.  So far, three have responded to his e-mail request agreeing to write the letters, and he has registered them with the Common App.  One has even managed to upload her letter already.

He’s decided to try for Early Decision at Harvey Mudd.  It is his first-choice school, and having an early deadline will help him get his essays for at least one college done.  He will have to apply the University of California before hearing from Harvey Mudd, because UC has an earlier regular application deadline than any school that participates in the Common Application (the UC application forms have to be submitted in the month of November, while the standard deadline for almost all other schools is Jan 1).  The UC schools are not as high on his list as Stanford and Brown, but he is almost certain to get into some of the UCs, and they are the only “safety” schools on his list.

I just looked up the most recent common data sets on the university web sites for admission rates for male freshmen: HMC 12.7%, Stanford 6.8%, Brown 11.3%, MIT 7.2%, CMU 23.8%, UCB 17.1%, Caltech 9.0%, Olin 8.6%, UCSD 38.0%, UCSB 43.2%, … . Gender matters, since most of the tech schools admit similar numbers of males and females, but have far more male applicants. Note: the MIT figure is from 2011–12, the rest are from 2012–13, but I guess MIT is slow about updating their web site.  I was a little surprised to see that CMU is less selective than UCB, since they are roughly in the same equivalence class for computer science (both great schools for grad students, but perhaps a bit impersonal for the undergrads).

My son’s chances of getting in to a school are a little bit higher than the overall admission rates at that school, as he has good test scores (National Merit Semifinalist), an impressive transcript (I’m impressed, and I wrote the transcript!), and good letters of recommendation (I hope—the only one I’ve seen is the counselor’s letter, which I wrote).  But even with all that, his probability of getting in to each of the really selective schools probably only goes up to 20–25%.  For the less selective UCs, it probably goes up to 90%—hence our considering them safety schools.  I think he’ll get into at least one of his top six choices, if the essay writing doesn’t drive him crazy.  I think he’ll also do well at any of the schools, but that they’ll shape him in different ways.  I’m hoping that one of Harvey Mudd, Stanford, or Brown accepts him (which I estimate as having a probability of 40–50%), as I think those three are the best fits of any colleges we’ve considered.

One consequence of his choosing to try for early decision at Harvey Mudd is that I have to fill out the CSS Financial Aid forms using 2012 data and estimates for 2013. To fill out the form, you need all your financial records in order, since they want to know all the information from your tax forms and every penny of your assets. I finally got around to doing my 2012 taxes last week (even later than usual for me), but the tax forms turned out to be easier than I expected.  For the first time in decades, I was able to fill out the 1040A form instead of needing a 1040 with Schedules A, B, C, and D.  Of course, part of this was because I didn’t have any interest income, business income, or capital gains—just my salary and my wife’s salary.  I didn’t even try to compute itemized deductions this year, since they have come out almost exactly the standard deduction for the past couple of years, and I’ve not substantially upped my charitable contributions.

Based on the Harvey Mudd net price calculator and all the data I collected for the CSS form, our net price there would be about $55k/year—it’s a good thing we’ve been saving for it since the day he was born.  The other private schools would be similar, though the real net price would be higher for the East Coast schools, since the net-price calculator does not include the price of getting to and from the colleges, which would add a few thousand a year—only Stanford and UCB are close enough for public transit to be a viable option for getting to and from the college.  One thing that irks me a little bit about the way that financial aid is computed is that saving for college is penalized—for every dollar you save for college you get almost a dollar less in financial aid, so which I think is a perverse incentive for people not to save for college.

2012 May 31

Merit scholarships

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:09
Tags: , , , , ,

My son is just finishing his sophomore year of high school, so I’m spending some of my time thinking about getting him into college.  The two main concerns at this point are finding a college that is a good fit for him and paying for it.  We’ve been saving for college since he was born, and he is an only child, so we’re in better shape financially than most.  Still, we had been counting on the public universities as a reasonably priced option, and that has been getting gradually less realistic as the state support for higher education collapses around the country. Because our savings mean that we are not likely to get much need-based aid (except at very expensive schools), we’ve been hoping that he could get some merit-based aid, which is gradually coming back into favor after a few decades of schools only providing need-based aid and athletic scholarships.

One blog that I’ve been reading recently is Cost of College, which collects news items about college finances and discusses them.  Sometimes the author (Grace) is a little too easily swayed by propaganda pieces (like the misleading statistics in ‘changes in tuition were not driven by changes in state appropriations’), but she often finds interesting news items and web pages.

One item she pointed to was a CBS news article from August 2011 about merit scholarships: University Reveals the Secrets of Winning Merit Scholarships, a report by Lynn O’Shaughnessy on analysis by the University of Rochester’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid of the merit aid given to the incoming class in Fall 2011.  This was not a policy statement or guidelines, but a post hoc analysis of what differences various factors made in the final award amounts.  Following journalistic tradition, Ms. O’Shaughnessy quoted her source as if she had done an interview, but did not point to the real source document that had more information.  It appears to have been from a blog post by Dean Jonathan Burdick: “What kind of scholarship can I get?” posted 1 June 2011.

There were a few surprises, like that having serious conversations with the admissions and financial aid counselors were worth about $3000 in financial aid, but each A on a report card was worth only $62 and each 10 points on total SAT was worth about $115, for a max of about $4100.   Note that the recommended pre-admissions interview was only worth about $250—so the $3000 comes from going well beyond the normal level of discussion. It seems that negotiation skills are as important as academic ability in getting merit aid.

Interestingly, challenging courses were more valuable than high grades (though this might be because only those students with high grades were considered for admission—if everyone has nearly all As, the small differences in grades might not have much predictive value for amount of merit aid).

Letters of recommendation were important (having excellent letters added $1800).  Timeliness in completing the application was worth $400.  Filling out both FAFSA and CSS/Financial Aid Profile was worth $2500 (it is not clear from the CBS reporting whether this was an average of all recipients or a regression coefficient, but the original blog post made it clear that there was $2500 more merit aid for those filling out the forms).  The FAFSA form is free, but the CSS/Financial Aid Profile costs $25 plus $16/college (though some colleges provide a “fee payment code” to cover the $16 reporting fee).  Still, if filling out the form ups the merit-based aid by $800 as Dean Burdick reports, it would be worthwhile (unless it also resulted in decreases in need-based aid).

Of course, Rochester is a high-price institution with a sticker price of $54k, so their typical merit aid of $10k–$12k still leaves the price at a high $42k–$44k.  It is not clear whether other universities have merit aid policies that favor the same students that Rochester favors, and lower-priced public universities generally have little merit-based aid.  I suspect that we should be planning on a minimum of $30k per year, after need-based and merit-based aid, and possibly as high as $45k.  So we’d need savings of $120k–$180k to avoid taking out loans. It seems that a bachelor’s degree now costs the student about a year or two of  faculty salary—it makes me wonder at what point it will become cheaper and more effective to cut out the university administration and hire top-notch tutors directly.

What is clear is that reference letters and direct contact with the admissions and financial aid officers are worth more than I would have expected, and grades worth less than I thought.  It may be worthwhile for my son to cultivate some adult contacts who could write him good recommendation letters (his theater teachers, science fair mentors, …).

%d bloggers like this: