A Scholarship in Need is a Scholarship Indeed!

We’ve talked a lot in our blog about the rising costs of college and deepening student debt. But we have not discussed ways in which students might avoid those debts through scholarships. I realized this as I read through this article earlier this week about a girl that applied for over 100 scholarships. Her lessons from the process – stay organized, apply early, and recycle essays and recommendation letters, among other tips.

scholarships, video games

Many unusual scholarship opportunities exist for those willing to put in the time to find them

After reading about this, I thought I’d look up a few scholarships, just to see what I might recommend to someone getting ready to attend college.  I found some cool stuff. For example, did you know that you can win scholarships for devising a zombie apocalypse plan, wearing Duck Tape to prom, or coming up with a new peanut butter sandwich recipe? Sound like fun scholarship applications. Maybe I should go back to school. And to prom.

Beyond these sorts of deals, though, I wanted to offer some serious advice. I found tips plastered all over the internet. The reoccurring themes were apply early, apply often, and apply for everything, whatever the award amounts. That all seems reasonable to me, but it also seems exhausting. I still recommend that you do it, of course.

But I want to recommend one big step first. Many students with good guidance counselors and involved parents will already know this step, but I am amazed by how often people misunderstand the types of scholarships that are available to attend more selective, high-priced schools. I am not talking about scholarships for the best essay, the best test scores, or the best apocalypse plan. I am talking about need-based scholarships.

I think many people don’t realize that once they get into a university, that university will very often offer free money for them to attend. Will they still have loans? Probably. Will they have to work while studying? Again, probably. Will they have to pay something? Yea, of course. Will it be much less than that $100,000+ price tag? Very often the answer is yes.

To qualify for this sort of aid, you need to fill out and submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) AND you may need to fill out a College Scholarship Service’s PROFILE form. I put that AND in capital letters because my high school guidance counselor did not even realize that a second form existed. Filling out these forms will require some effort from you and your parents. If you are financially independent, which will be very tough to prove, you can qualify for even more aid.

Is it worth doing all that, just to go to a better school? Absolutely. It will of course look better on your life-long resume, and you will likely have better teachers and smaller class sizes, though no guarantees. Equally important, though, a point often overlooked when choosing colleges, graduation rates are higher at more selective schools. Yea, those schools admit more serious students, but they also tend to offer more support for students in trouble and sometimes a little grade inflation to boot.

One more big point here. You do not have to be below the poverty line or even close to qualify for aid. Schools look at all sorts of factors and then make a determination on the abilities of you and your parents to pay tuition. They generally don’t expect your parents to be broke before OR after paying tuition. Different schools offer different amounts, so explore the options.

Definitely apply for all those crazy scholarships. Apply early, apply often, all that stuff. But first, sit down with your guidance counselor and figure out what forms you need (and double check online, because trust me, they don’t always know.) Then sit down with your parents and get them to fill them out. Those few hours could be the most economically well spent of your life.

As for universities, 61 in the US claim to meet 100% of student financial needs, according to US News. Theoretically, that means they do everything possible to make it financially viable for a student to attend once he or she is accepted. Beyond these, many other schools offer need-based scholarships, often very generous ones.

By giving need-based aid, the schools get some advantages, in terms of tax policies and media rankings, and they may get more advantages once the Obama administration’s new ranking system comes out. This doesn’t mean that universities don’t want or often prefer students that can pay full price. We’ll discuss a few of the strategies they employ on that front next week when we discuss the challenges facing need-based aid.

I Think, Therefore I Am…. Employable?

What should be the purpose of undergraduate education?

College costs are going up. We’ve written about that a lot here on our blog and so has everyone else anywhere that covers education. These skyrocketing costs have prompted much soul-searching and more number crunching for students, professors, administrators, and policymakers.  What is the value of college? And is it worth it?

educational cost, employmeny

What should be the goals of an undergraduate education? Who should decide them?

Undergraduate degree holders earn about $500,000 more over a lifetime compared to students with only a high school diploma, as we discussed last month in this post. Still a good deal overall. In this post, I want to put the numbers aside for a moment and ask the deeper question, what should a college education be about and how much freedom should the student have in determining that?

As an undergrad, I attended a special presentation by the philosophy department that was loosely themed, “Why it is not totally crazy to major in philosophy?” The primary speaker, a professor, offered several lofty goals for four years of higher education, finding oneself, thinking critically, that sort of stuff.

Then he added, as a final point, marketable skills. It was a bit of a buzzkill for us unrealistic, I mean idealistic, types. This professor had a simple solution, though. Take some computer science classes. Seriously, that was his advice, not a CS major or minor, just some classes. It seemed a strange point to hear from a philosophy prof, but looking back, gosh, I wish I had listened.

Last week, the New York Times Magazine offered some insight on the same topic in its article, “How to Get a Job With a Philosophy Degree.” The article, which I recommend reading, highlights some of the ways in which schools are trying to help undergraduate students, especially those in liberal arts majors, develop marketable skills for the post-graduation job search.

The article’s author, Susan Dominus, cites the example of group research and presentations incorporated into a Japanese history class, with the goal being the development of teamwork skills. She brings up an interesting point, though. What about students that simply want to learn, in the classic, academic sense, about Japanese history? Does group work contribute to or distract from their goals? And who makes that determination?

The question was less important when college was cheaper and data less plentiful. Even though recent reforms may bring college costs down, or at least slow the growth in prices, the success of graduates in finding jobs will be even more important. The government will measure it and potentially tie the universities’ eligibility for federal funds to that, among other measures. For these reasons, universities will care about employability even if students don’t.

So what happens to that classic, long-haired, knowledge-loving liberal arts guy that is a staple of freshman dorms everywhere? Well, he’ll probably still be there. But the question is, where will he be by senior year and where will that take him in the years that follow? The answer is not only important to him, who likely has debt related to his education, but to his university as well, which relies on his success in finding a job for its own federal funding.

Student Data and the Dark Side

Part 2: This will be on your permanent record.

As most people know, the deal with all this cool, new technology we get is often something like, you guys go ahead take this stuff for free and we’re going to keep track of what you do with it and where you are when you use it and who your friends are that you are using it with, and also your friends that you are not using it with, and oh yea, we may email you some ads or throw some ads along the side of your browser now and then. And we won’t share any info with the government unless they ask for it.

educational data, data mining, advertising

We don’t know yet the extent to which educational data will follow students into the future.

For some reason, that seems ok for most people. I include myself in that group, though I am still holding out on a few app updates because they’ve all starting asking for access to my contact list. Why do they need that for an app on bartending recipes? Maybe they just want to make sure I’m not drinking alone, but I suspect something more sinister. Still, I’ll probably give in before the end of next week. It’s annoying to be constantly reminded that the updates are available.

But our children, darn it. They are not old enough to be selling off their souls so easily. Imagine if companies find out that some students struggle with math. They may start advertising tutoring programs. Or they may start advertising video games with low monthly payments and high interest rates. Ok, they probably can’t do that, but being bad at math does make someone attractive to advertisers for all sorts of reasons.

Looking long term, there is that data set known ominously to students as “your permanent record.” Is there a chance of any of this stuff leaking out to colleges or potential employers or even the local gossip groups? No, never, educators and tech companies say. And I do my best to believe them. But it’s something of which we should be conscious.

Luckily, some people are. Lawmakers in Massachusetts, for example, introduced a bill early this year to prevent companies from data-mining student emails. Meanwhile, organizations like Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) are filing complaints with the FTC to protect kids from seeing too many advertisements in their educational apps.

Good work, guys. We’ll probably need more of that sort of work and soon, because the norms of privacy change quickly and rarely when we are ready.

Educational Data and its Discontents

Part 1: Personalize it.

Imagine this. Students fill a classroom, each one sitting at his or her desk with a tablet or small laptop, working away at the particular topic of the hour, whether it be mathematics or history. The computer gauges each of the student’s responses, recording their performance and re-calibrating the lesson to focus on the student’s weak points. The teacher walks around, monitoring progress, identifying difficult topics, answering questions.

A few students smile, enjoying the game-like qualities of the educational programs, more fun than the lectures and quizzes of past classes. Everyone wins. The students have more fun while working at their own pace, and teachers still serve in essential roles. With all that winning, why does that image make me uncomfortable then?

Date in education helps personalize education

Technology allows teachers to better understand the individualized needs of their students.

Much of the excitement surrounding technology and education centers on accessibility. Students in rural India can now take classes from Harvard professors by simply saving enough money for a few hours a week in an internet café. That is exciting stuff, and at Rukuku, we hope to further facilitate the opening of new educational channels around the globe. At the other end of the spectrum, though, technology is creating new opportunities to understand the specific strengths, weaknesses, and educational needs of individual students. In other words, technology is not only making education more global, but more personal as well.

The value of this should be clear for any student that’s gotten hung up on one aspect of the lesson and fallen behind on the rest of the material as a result. That value should also be clear to any student that’s daydreamed away a class period while the teacher reviewed and rehashed old material for the sake of a few students that are still struggling to understand.

Picturing it, though, is a little discomforting. I see a room full of kids absorbed in their computer screens in the same way many kids are absorbed in computer or TV screens once they get home. Automated programs sit on the other side of those screens, rather than real people. Teachers serve as facilitators and tutors, not as the foci of attention. Few educators are fully comfortable with that picture either, and most pilot programs utilizing such technology limit daily use and offer that information to help teachers in their traditional classrooms as well.

To me, using computers and limiting computer use are both great ideas, but it will be difficult to maintain the proper balance, especially if it turns out that letting the students work on the computer a little longer might be a little lighter on the teachers’ work load and a little better for the test scores. I know, I know. All the teachers reading this are gasping. I used to be a teacher, though, and I know the pleasure of making it a video day now and then. And yes, we still used videos when I was teaching. It was not that long ago.

The point is, these computer programmers are smart. And they will eventually figure out how to consistently make test scores higher through these programs, even if it takes five or ten years. Does that mean students should be interacting with automated computer programs all day? Some of time, yes. All of the time, no. Reaching the right balance will be the challenge.

I work for a tech company and obviously see computer screens as potentially positive in many, many aspects of education and of life. At Rukuku, we are trying to connect people all over the world to fully develop that potential. At the same time, the social aspect is an important element in education, especially for children. We do our best to maintain that aspect by using old-fashioned data collectors, also known as teachers, while still taking advantage of technology to expand the reach of those teachers.

Individualized student data can and should be an important tool for teachers, and we are always exploring ways in which we can offer more highly personalized options for our users. At the end of the day, though, nothing replaces the personal interactions that students have with their teachers and each other, even if those interactions take place across electronic networks stretching from Silicon Valley to Himalayan mountaintops.