‘Holistic’ admissions at Berkeley

When California voters barred the use of racial or ethnic preferences in college admissions, the University of California vowed to use a “holistic” process that considers socioeconomic disadvantages, leadership and motivation, as well as grades and test scores. As a reader of applications for Berkeley’s engineering department, Ruth Starkman saw the holistic process at work, she writes in the New York Times.

A highly qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.

The applicant was a 2 on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being highest) because he didn’t have enough extracurricular activities and engineering awards, she learned in training.

Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2.5.

Readers were told to told to ignore minority background, but could consider whether a student came from a non-English-speaking household if it was a “stressor” that justified a special read looking for socioeconomic disadvantages.

To better understand stressors, I was trained to look for the “helpful” personal statement that elevates a candidate. Here I encountered through-the-looking-glass moments: an inspiring account of achievements may be less “helpful” than a report of the hardships that prevented the student from achieving better grades, test scores and honors.

Readers are supposed to look for “leadership,” a major criterion in the holistic process. That usually meant extracurricular activities. (Volunteer trips to exotic places were taken as a sign of  “privilege.”)

In my application pile, many students from immigrant households had excellent grades and test scores but few activities. I commented in my notes: “Good student, but not many interests or activities? Why? Busy working parents? And/or not able to afford, or get to, activities?”

Many essays “lucidly expressed a sense of self and character,” Starkman writes.  Others “betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable.”

She read innumerable hard-luck stories, not all of them credible. Kids figure out what sells.

Favoring “stressors” over academic success has costs:  92 percent of whites and Asians at Berkeley graduate within six years, compared with 81 percent of Hispanics and 71 percent of blacks. In the UC system, 17 percent of Hispanic and black students who express interest in the sciences graduate with a science degree within five years, compared with 31 percent of white students.

It’s ironic that colleges claim to be looking for  “leadership” potential, writes Walt K in the comments.

. . . their entire process is designed to select compliant followers: people who have bought into the whole game, and are happy to play along.

People who do well on tests. People who do well in class. People who follow instructions. People who join clubs. People who follow the conventional wisdom People who teachers like. People who do what they are told. People who do all the ‘right’ things.

. . .  leaders are the ones who say, ‘To heck with this, I’m picking myself.’ Which may often mean bailing out on college to actually DO something instead of sucking up.

I think Walt K has a point.

Many elite colleges enroll few low- and moderate-income students, reports the New York Times. Berkeley is much higher than the average, due affirmative action for disadvantaged students.

Not all degrees are created equal

For today’s college graduates, “what you make depends on what you take,” advises the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. ”Not all degrees are created equal.” Engineering graduates start at $54,000, compared to $30,000 for arts, psychology and social work grads.

Nursing graduates have the lowest unemployment rate, Georgetown reports, but new RNs say it’s hard to find a job without experience.

‘Flipped’ engineering raises pass rates

“Flipping” and “blending” a San Jose State engineering class raised pass rates dramatically. The university partnered with edX on the pilot.

Eighty randomly selected students in an entry-level engineering course watched online lectures from MIT (the flip), while solving problems in class, with the professor’s help (the blend).  Ninety-one percent of the flipped students passed the class. Only 55 and 59 percent of non-flipped students passed.

All-online classes tend to have low pass rates. Community college students say they feel “on their own” in all-online courses.

Robotics is on a roll in Minnesota

Minnesota has more high school robotics teams than boys’ hockey teams, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It’s “chic to be geek.”

“Varsity robotics” is treated like an athletic sport.

Robotics team members are getting varsity letters and patches, being paraded before school assemblies like other sports stars and seeing trophies in the same lobby display cases as their football, basketball or baseball counterparts.

At the state tournament, teams compete for the championship by building robots to perform a task set every year. Last year, the robots shot basketballs. This year, they throw Frisbees.

Majors that pay: STEM — and government

Payscale’s Majors That Pay You Back starts with engineering majors: Petroleum engineers start at $98,000 and earn a median mid-career salary of $163,000.  Then comes other STEM majors such as applied math, computer science, statistics and physics.

Government is the top-earning non-STEM major, as measured by mid-career pay, at the 14th spot. Government majors start at $42,000 and hit $95,600 by mid-career, according to Payscale.

Economics is 15th and international relations is 16th. Then it’s back to STEM majors till urban planning pops up at #40.

Education is #110 with a median starting salary of $37,200 and mid-career median of $55,000.

Some of the lowest-paying majors — special education, Biblical studies, social work and child and family studies — make the list of Majors That Change the World.

Most new jobs don’t require a college degree, notes Cost of College. However, most of the fastest growing jobs — retail sales, home health aide, personal care aide, clerical worker — pay poorly.

In search of STEM students

Universities are turning to community colleges in the search for potential STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students who are black, Hispanic and/or female.

Dual enrollment boosts college success

Texas students who completed even a single college class in high school were significantly more likely to attend college and eventually graduate, compared to similar students not in dual enrollment programs, reports a Jobs for the Future study.

New York City’s P-Tech is drawing students willing to spend six years in high school to earn a diploma and an associate degree in computer information systems or engineering technology. IBM worked with city colleges to develop the program.

What the Chinese are studying

University enrollment has soared by 30 percent in China in recent years, but graduates are having trouble finding jobs, reports Online Colleges. “It’s estimated that one-third of China’s 5.6 million 2008 graduates were unemployed during their first year after school.”

Information technology tops the list of The 10 Hottest College Majors in China. China produced half a million IT graduates in 2009, but  there are plenty of jobs for well-qualified IT grads.

In addition to electrical and mechanical engineering, medicine, accounting, architecture and business management, the top 10 include English (not many jobs, but it helps with study in the U.S.), journalism (way too many graduates for the jobs) and law (too many graduates.)

Character becomes destiny

Pushing black students to earn science and engineering degrees has been a priority for Freeman Hrabowski (black guy with Polish ancestor), who’s run University of Maryland Baltimore County for 20 years, reports the Baltimore Sun. I was struck by the account of Hrabowski’s talk to predominantly low-income, black and Hispanic eighth graders at a Maryland middle school.

For their part, the kids appear distracted or sleepy. So Hrabowski attacks. “How many of you are smart?” he begins. A few hands tentatively go up. “All right, tell me your name and tell me what you want to be when you grow up,” he says.

. . . Slowly but surely, his energy transfers to the students. Hands raise more quickly. Thoughts come out more forcefully. “How many of you study at home at night?” he asks. Only two hands go up. “Now there’s the issue,” he says. “I guarantee the people who study are going to be successful. Nothing can replace hard work.”

Only two students study at home? Is it uncool to admit to doing homework? Or are they really that lazy?

He offers $50 for the first person to solve a math problem, but threatens to charge $5 for a wrong answer. (Of 29 students, 20 have a dog and 15 a cat. How many have both?)

“You need to be pumped all the time,” Hrabowski tells the students.

When I go to South Africa or Asia, they say, ‘Bring it on.’ They’re focused. They’re hungry for it. How are you gonna be the best if you can’t match that?”

As a young black kid, he says, he yearned to show a dubious world he was as smart as anybody. To this day, he works 80 to 90 hours and reads three books in a typical week. “That’s what it takes to be the best,” he says.

Nobody gets the right answer, but Hrabowski forgives the $5 debts, reports the Sun. ( I think it’s a range from six to 15. Is that right?)

He gets them on their feet and leads them through one of his favorite refrains: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes destiny.”

Three students, all black boys, walk him to his car. He chastens them one more time about their study habits. “Rich kids work hard,” he says. “Most black kids aren’t working hard enough.”

Philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff “was struck by Hrabowski’s absolute faith that black men could thrive at the highest levels of academia if held to high enough standards from the start of college,” reports the Sun. With Meyerhoff’s money, UMBC  recruits students of all races aiming for doctoral studies in science or engineering.

The skills mismatch

“While jobs requiring STEM knowledge and skills are growing at nearly twice the rate of other occupations in the United States, just 13 percent of college students choose a STEM major, according to Investigating the Skills Mismatch on the Top of the Class blog. More than 40 percent of Chinese college graduates and nearly 50 percent in Singapore have STEM degrees, according to an Accenture report. Brazil will pass the U.S. in new engineering PhDs by 2016.

Source: Accenture. (2011).

Only 10 percent of Chinese engineers and 25 percent of Indian engineers are educated to a global standard, compared to 80 percent of U.S. engineers, a 2005 McKinsey report found. However, there are a lot of people in China and India. “Accenture calculates that even if just 20 percent of Chinese STEM graduates are qualified to a world standard, this would represent more than 700,000 graduates by 2015, as compared to just 460,000 in the United States.”