Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ash is our family's newest Rebel; he's taking his first Ole Miss course this semester

    Ash started college this week at Ole Miss. He got his student ID today.
    Okay, he's only taking one class. It's through a dual credit program offered by most Mississippi high schools whereby he can attend one or more college classes and earn both high school and college credit. Being able to actually attend classes at Ole Miss is one of the benefits of living in or near a college town.
    Any high school junior or senior with a 3.0 grade-point-average is eligible to take college courses for dual credit with the permission of his high school. Freshmen and sophomores have a minimum ACT score requirement. Ash retook the ACT in June with hopes of scoring high enough to dual enroll, and just made the cut.
    After his acceptance into the program we got a very welcome surprise. We had expected to pay about $400 in tuition to cover Ash's three-hour college course. When he got his acceptance email he also got a notice that all high school students in the Ole Miss dual credit program receive a tuition scholarship. So his cost to take the college course is limited to the price of the textbook.
    We're certainly grateful to Ole Miss for the help. It's not something that the university is required to do. Some states cover the tuition costs of dual enrollment, but Mississippi isn't one of these. There's not a mention of the scholarships at all on the Ole Miss website; perhaps it's something that the university doesn't want to promise in case there aren't enough funds to offer the free tuition every year.
    I frequently post things about trying to figure out ways to finance college. Dual credit/enrollment and Advanced Placement are the best routes to saving money I know of. If Ash takes two courses this year and four courses in subsequent years he'll have 42 dual-enrollment hours when he graduates. Add in six AP course credits and he's looking at the possibility of starting his freshman year with 60 semester hours. That's almost halfway to graduation with no tuition cost; or housing cost, board cost, or fraternity cost.
    Most college-bound students will have a 3.0 average and be eligible for at least two years of dual credit work. Courses can be taken both in the fall and springs as well as in the summer. For students wanting to save on college costs, dual enrollment is a must. In fact, it's a good deal even if you have to pay tuition out of pocket, as there are no housing, food, or other costs typically associated with college enrollment. Much to our surprise we were told that relatively few students take advantage of dual credit each year. Failure to participate in this program is both money and opportunity down the drain. One important note: While you can dual enroll in a junior college, many universities will not accept all junior college hours. So students need to dual enroll in a four-year college to make their hard work worthwhile.
    I took a pretty active role in helping Ash find a suitable course. He's taking Classical Mythology, a course that is harder than it might sound (I think I dropped it years ago when I saw it was going to require work). The professor teaching it is new to Ole Miss, but her student reviews from her prior university were about as glowing as an instructor or student could wish for. Some students described the instructor as one of the hardest they had had, but also as one of the very best. I thought it important for Ash to have a good-quality instructor for his first college course, and if the course is hard then he'll just have to work hard.
    After two class sessions Ash commented that he really liked the college format. It's just more straightforward and down to business, and the students are quieter and more attentive than middle school or high school students.
    Oxford High School records university grades on a 4.5 scale and AP classes on a 5.0 scale. So if Ash should make an "A" in his class it will go down as a 4.5. Ash is still going to take as many AP classes as he can. They get more of a g.p.a. boost, and Oxford reportedly does a good job with them. So Ash will continue to take nearly a full load at Oxford High until he graduates. He's still a member of the Class of '17, but now he's an Ole Miss student, too.


National Merit results are on the way

    The College Board has sent semi-finalist notifications to the schools of students who took the PSAT or National Merit Test last October. These letters may arrive today, and many high schools will immediately call the seniors in to the office to tell them the good news.
    Roughly 16,000 seniors across America will be named National Merit Semi-finalists. While the letters should arrive this week, the actual press release date is Sept. 11. Semi-finalists are required to have an SAT score that is in line with their PSAT, have reasonably good grades, a letter of recommendation from their principal, and to complete some paperwork to become Finalists. About 15,000 will go on to Finalist status, with 1,000 not making the cut due to failure to meet the above requirements.
    The College Confidential board has some pretty good information on what is going  on this year with test scores. They tend to fluctuate a little bit, but this year the score for a Commendation is 203 nationwide, the same as last year. Commendations offer little but a warm feeling inside, or perhaps a frustrated feeling in some states, such as Mississippi, where there is only a point or two of difference between being named a Commended Student and a Semi-finalist.
    While Commended status is based on a nationwide score of all students scoring in the top three percent, Semi-finalist cutoff scores vary by state. Last year in Mississippi the Semi-finalist cutoff was 204, so there were very few unlucky Commended students. On the other hand, Massachusetts has a cutoff score of 221, so there is a big gap between the two.
    As I've written before, the difference in cutoff scores means that it is much easier for a diligent student to earn National Merit status living in states like Mississippi, Wyoming, and West Virginia than it is in states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, or Maryland. A score that puts one in the top one percent in Mississippi might only put one in the top two or three percent nationally.
    My opinion is that it is far easier for a student who usually scores in say the 94th percentile to work hard and improve himself to reach the 98th percentile than it is for a student who usually scores in the 98th percentile to work hard and improve himself to the 99.7th national percentile. For the diligent student, there is an advantage to being schooled in Mississippi!
    Here's a test-taking tip. High school freshmen and sophomores are allowed to take the PSAT; only the junior-year score is used for National Merit purposes. If your child has reasonably good test scores, pay the $15 or so for him to take the test. You ought to get an idea from these scores as to whether or not your child has National Merit potential. With a couple of years to work on it, much of the PSAT math can be systematically mastered, and there can be some improvement in the reading and writing as well. A little bit of improvement can go a long way, so it's worth the effort.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Alabama makes its generous National Merit scholarships even better

    After cutting back on the value of its National Merit scholarship program, the University of Alabama has upped the ante. The school now offers what may be the most generous NM scholarship in the nation to the 15,000 students nationally who earn National Merit Finalist status.
    Alabama is one of a number of schools that offer automatic scholarships to National Merit Finalists or Semifinalists. Only about 1,000 Semi-Finalists each year fail to make the cut due to grades, a low SAT score, or failure to complete the process. And the 1,000 who don't make the cut still can get very generous offers.
    Earlier this year Alabama dropped four years of free housing from its NM scholarship, replacing it with a single year. On-campus housing can cost as much as $5,000 per year at Alabama, so it was a big cut in the scholarship's value.
    But now Alabama has tweaked its scholarship again. Finalists still only receive one year of housing, but the scholarship is good for 10 semesters of undergraduate or graduate tuition. It also includes a $3,500 per year stipend for four years, an iPad, and a one-time $2,000 grant for summer research or foreign study.
    The addition of graduate school tuition is a big deal. A really big deal. Many students will arrive at college with 50 or 60 college hours through high school Advanced Placement classes and dual enrollment. What this change means is that Alabama now gives National Merit Finalists a chance to go all the way through grad school or law school at no cost. I don't know if the medical school is included, but if it is the tuition cost is almost $60,000 per year for an out-of-state student, making this scholarship package worth up to nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
    The only other school I've read about that offers a NM scholarship for five years of both undergraduate and graduate is the University of Oklahoma; and I think that scholarship is for tuition only. Ole Miss offers a generous scholarship for NM Semi-Finalists, but I believe it is only good for undergraduate study.
    National Merit scholarships are awarded to roughly the top one percent of test-takers in each state. Last year almost 6,000 Mississippians took the PSAT and 136 were recognized as Semi-Finalists. So that's more than two percent of test-takers. The cut-off score for Mississippi is relatively relatively low each year, making it one of the easiest states in the nation to earn Semi-Finalist status. A score of 205, or roughly the 98th percentile nationally, is likely to earn a Mississippi student Semi-Finalist status, and a 204 or maybe even a 203 might squeak through. In most Northeastern states it takes a score of around 221 to make the cut. So unless you score in  the top three-tenths of one percent you're out of luck.
    Last year Oxford High School produced 12 National Merit Semi-Finalists. I have reason to believe that this year there will be roughly a dozen more. In my opinion dedicated effort could make this number go even higher. And given the value of these scholarships, it's worth the effort.