Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Raising the Bar

This piece appeared in the Commonwealth Times, a student paper at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The inspiration for this idea came from my own experience preparing to take the LSAT exam last year.

A New Vision of Test Preparation
By John S. Wilson

It is no wonder why more and more undergraduate students are attending graduate school these days. With a bachelors degree worth far less in the marketplace than it was 20 years ago, and the economy hemorrhaging jobs graduate school isn't only a safe option - it's the only option.

While it is true that GPA, class rank, college rank and community service play a pivotal role in the admissions process, admission test scores (e.g., LSAT, MCAT, PCAT, and GRE) can open and close doors and are key to scholarship offers - which are a necessity now that loan markets have frozen up.

The Problem
Test preparation companies like Kaplan, Princeton Review and Testmasters abound and are well-regarded for the results they've helped students to achieve. But at a cost of $1000 or more (my Testmasters LSAT course cost $1400) they are out of reach for far too many students. Moreover, it is also challenging for students to find time to coordinate a test prep class in their schedule (Testmasters; 8 hrs. a week for 10 weeks). So two problems exist - prohibitive cost and time constraints.

I have envisioned a new way for Virginia Commonwealth University to become a better incubator of success for its graduates. By implementing a plan I call GradPrep, VCU can make a profound difference in students' lives in this tremendous time of economic uncertainty. GradPrep would solve both major problems students face when attempting to enroll in a test preparation course - cost and time.

A Win-Win Situation
High graduate test admission scores benefit not only students but also will benefit VCU. Our school rank partly depends on our ability to act as (what is known in academia as a "feeder" school) feeding students into high caliber programs at graduate institutions. Such feeding increases our brand awareness, reputation and can be a dominant factor in raising money (which is no small feat in this economy). To be sure, VCU has been very successful at raising money in the past few years; due to both outgoing President Trani's leadership and our community's resourcefulness. But we still have not reached our apex or have fully marshaled our resources. And while it is true that "rankings" aren't everything, they are certainly indicative of a school's economic and capital resources, academic prestige, research funding, alumni giving, and size and breadth of incoming freshman class.

The Solution
GradPrep would call for VCU to do the following:
  • Poll students to find out which tests are taken the most;
  • Pinpoint the test preparation company that produces the most efficacious results for each; test;
  • Contract with such company to provide a 10-15% discount for each student and class materials fee paid to VCU per class;
  • Allow students to register for these classes throughout the school year with E-services (VCU's digital registration process) in a "summer class" model (i.e., if not enough students register for the class in a particular semester to exceed the operational cost, thereby creating a profit, then the class is not offered at that time);
  • Ensure financial aid covers these courses just like any other course;
  • Offer credit for these courses as electives in all majors;
  • Poll students every semester for efficacy and renegotiate contracts every 2 years.

Strengthening VCU
In the coming months, I will be further outlining the GradPrep plan and speaking with leaders throughout our campus, seeking input, cooperation and consensus from the Board of Visitors, President-elect Dr. Michael Rao, Dean of Students Dr. Rodriguez, other facets of the administration, faculty, SGA and the student population. Collectively, by implementing GradPrep, not only do we better prepare students but we also fortify the university. We can ensure more graduate school admissions, increase the likelihood of scholarship offers, grow a stronger VCU brand identity, and further empower our alumni network.

*Washington University in St. Louis (GPA & Entrance Exams section, pg. 1) offers a program that may be similar to GradPrep for MCAT review. I've contacted Dr. Koff, director of their Cornerstone Preparation program, for some insight. He has in turn forwarded me to Mr. Harvey Fields, head of the MCAT initiative. If anyone knows any other universities with similar programs, especially public, please let me know.

*Today I met with someone in the Provost's office that was extremely helpful in getting the ball rolling so this idea may be brought into fruition. It won't have a chance without broad consensus, so I look forward to more meetings and comments.

*I've also reached out to the test preparation companies themselves. Princeton Review and others have expressed interest.

*UCLA offers prep courses through an extension school focused on continuing education.

*SMU also offers test prep through their continuing education curriculum.

*Spoke with a member of VCU's Board of Visitors and they were excited about GradPrep. (The Board oversees the university and recently hired Dr. Michael Rao, president-elect of the university).

* Will be meeting with a representative from Princeton Review later this month to gauge their interest.

* Yesterday evening I spoke with Dr. Harvey Fields regarding the program at Washington University. He is extremely passionate about this program and what it can do for his students - and this is at an undergraduate institution that is ranked top 15, and has a top 5 ranked medical school. But the best continue to strive to get better. Our talk centered on the challenges to getting the program started, how it was and is currently funded, kind of training instructors receive, procurement of course materials and the program results thus far. The program is very successful and has the statistics to back it up. The only change I hope VCU is able to make is to be able to offer elective credit for the courses.