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Forms of Toxicity in Higher Education, Part II: Pressure to Pursue a Degree

At the end of 2020, the student loan debt in the United States reached 1.7 trillion dollars according to the Federal Reserve. The recent responses have primarily been concerning student loan forgiveness, the most popular proposals of immediate forgiveness being between 10k and 50k of federal student loan debt per borrower. (And yet no forgiveness amount has made the White House annual budget this year.) Even with some form of federal student loan forgiveness, this does not address the issue of private student loans or of the problem of necessitating borrowed money in order to obtain a higher educational degree in the first place.

While our administrative leadership attempts to determine a solution to this serious national crisis, students are continuing to take out loans in order to attend college with little to no guidance concerning, for example: determining personal and career goals as well as what college major would be best suited toward those goals; and/or if college is even a necessary requirement in order to achieve those goals.

The above, however, is merely a symptom of a greater overarching issue: the United States Educational System has normalized student debt in order to obtain tertiary education.

Dare I say, 18 year old young adults are not ready to make that kind of career commitment, let alone financial commitment. And yet high school teaches kids to continue their education, but not how to determine what education is necessary to pursue their career goals – there is little to no career advising in high school OR college for that matter.

And why would there be when it is in the best financial interest of the college for students not to know what they want out of their education?

Roughly 30% of undergraduate students change their major at least once, according to the US Department of Education’s brief Data Point report. Depending on what point in their program the major change occurs, this often necessitates that students extend their prospective date of graduation out by at least a semester, which means more tuition dollars will be spent in order to complete a degree.

On top of the toxic aspect of normalizing student loans for degrees that may or may not benefit a student’s career goals, there’s the added element of parental influence.

When I was an Undergraduate Academic Advisor, I cannot tell you the number of students I spoke with whose parents pressured them into a specific degree. One example that comes to mind is a student who wanted to transfer to liberal arts from business. She met with me to discuss her options, but she was in her final year and would have had to complete four semesters of a foreign language, so transferring was not in her best interest. She told me that her parents would not pay for college unless she pursued business, but she hated the field. She was nearly finished with her degree, but realized that her passion was for the liberal arts and decided she would rather go into debt and pay for her own degree than finish with a business degree that her parents paid for. I told her it would be better (and more cost effective) to finish her bachelor’s in business and pursue graduate work in the specific field she wanted at a later date, because it otherwise would have taken her at least an additional four semesters to complete her bachelor’s.

This should never happen.

Colleges and universities should have more supports available to parents. Due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), college faculty, staff, and administrators cannot discuss a student’s academic progress with their parents if the student is over 18 years old, unless they sign a consent waiver. That said, parents are often helping to pay for college and are just as invested (if not more so) in their child’s education. Yet there are little to no supports or resources available for parents at the college level. My thought is with more parental resources available through the institution itself, we may see fewer parents who try to control their adult children’s educational pursuits and experiences.

If any parents are reading this: please for the love of all things let your children find their own passions and pursue the degree that makes the most sense for them based on their interests and career goals. If your kid hates math and science, please don’t force them into a pre-med program. If your kid has a passion of creative writing, please do not force them into business. Have open communication with your child about why they are wanting to pursue the degree they are interested in. And if they do not express an interest in any field by the time they are a senior in high school – do not force college on them.

Which leads to my final point: there are other things you can do besides following the trend of entering college right out of high school that can help you narrow your academic interests and career trajectory.

(1) Work.

Take a year off to work in various areas that interest you. Depending on the credentialing required for the jobs you are thinking about, you may have to intern or volunteer your time, but this is a great way to gain experience and to get stellar recommendations for your college application, should you later decide that college is the best route for you.

(2) Along the same line, you may want to consider the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or even the military.

Each of these options provide wonderful experience as well as tuition benefits that you can use toward your degree if you decide to attend college at a later date.

(3) Consider Community College.

If you still feel pressured to attend college, but you aren’t entirely sure what you want to major in, consider attending Community College for your core coursework. Community Colleges are usually cheaper, offer funding opportunities, and have articulation agreements with four year colleges and universities, meaning you can later transfer in all of the coursework you have taken (usually up to around 60 hours) toward a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Moral of the story: don’t allow yourself to be pressured by your peers, your parents, or even society to go into debt for a degree that you aren’t sure about. Do what makes the most sense for you.

– Your Academic Advisor

Forms of Toxicity in Higher Education, Part I: The Lack of Transparency regarding Accreditation Standards

As I sit in beautiful Fort Lauderdale, Florida attempting to partake in some self-care, I am compelled to write on something that has been weighing on my heart for some time now: the little discussed, but often prevalent issue of an underlying toxicity found in higher education.

Of course, the term toxicity is broad and there are a variety of forms that can be found within any organization, including higher education.

Because each example is so self-contained, I have decided to write a series of articles. For this series, I want to delve into a variety of examples of toxicity found within higher education that I think is important for both prospective and current students to be aware of.

Toxic Example 1: The Lack of Transparency regarding Accreditation Standards

Few prospective students ever think to inquire about things such as accreditation standards of the institutions(s) they are thinking about attending. And very few if any recruiters are going to discuss the importance of accreditation standards.

There are cases where accreditation might not matter. For example, if you are interested in pursuing a career right after college that does not require graduate work or state certification or licensure, the organization you apply to may not have knowledge of or care about your college’s accreditation, so long as you have a degree. Or, if you are an international student and/or plan to work abroad, the accreditation at the college or university you are or plan to attend in the United States may have a different accreditation equivalency in your country/the country you plan to work in.

Even with the above examples in mind, I would never encourage a student to attend any college or university in the United States that does not hold a regional accreditation. Generally speaking, public colleges and universities that are federally and/or state funded will have regional accreditation. Reputable private colleges and universities are also likely to have regional accreditation. That said, there are a number of private institutions, which may not have regional accreditation. Likewise, many for-profit institutions are not regionally accredited.

You may be looking at a school that is nationally accredited and think, Well, national accreditation is surely better than regional accreditation, so this is fine – better than fine, it’s likely preferable.

Not. True.

I cannot stress to you enough the importance of choosing a regionally accredited institution for your pursuit of any degree. If you decide to attend graduate school, reputable schools will not accept bachelor’s degrees from non-accredited, religiously accredited, or even nationally accredited institutions. State certifications and licensures also have accreditation standard requirements that depend on the field you are entering into and the career goals you have in mind. Please be sure to check with the licensing board in the field you wish to work in to see what their specific education requirements are so that you are not wasting your valuable time and money.

I will delve more into accreditation standards in another article, but for the purpose of this article, please know that there are higher educational institutions that are basically cash cows – they are not interested in the student or even the pedagogy or curriculum of their programs, but in your tuition dollars. This is especially true in regard to for-profit institutions and while it is true that most of the more heinous examples of these institutions have been shut down, there are still some non-reputable colleges and universities that exist. Please be vigilant and do your research to be sure you are selecting a college or university that has your best interest at heart and will provide you with a degree that will be in alignment with your future career goals and aspirations.

Questions to ask you Recruiter/Admissions Officer/Advisor:

(1) Is this university/college/program regionally accredited?

(2) Does the program I am interested in have any additional accreditation(s)?

If you are pursuing a practitioner based degree that requires state licensure/certification, contact the state board you plan to work/practice in and ask: does the program I am interested in meet your certification/licensure requirements?

Takeaway: Make sure the college/university you are attending is regionally accredited and, if applicable, holds the appropriate additional accreditation standards necessary for your particular field of study.

How to Apply for College – Undergraduate Admissions

So you are interested in applying for college and have no idea where to start? This guide is meant to be general, as all programs have different admissions requirements. As this is not an exhaustive list, please be sure to check the specifics of your university/college/program to be sure that you have covered all the required components of their specific application.

(1) Figure out the best time to apply

Before you go any further, you should consider what semester you should apply for. Most programs traditionally start their admissions cycles in the fall. The fall is considered the beginning of the academic calendar year – a calendar year goes from fall to summer, so for example, fall 2021 to summer 2022 is the 2021-2022 academic year. While many colleges now have fall, spring, and summer admissions, oftentimes it is still advisable to consider waiting for the traditional fall start. The reason for this? If you are interested in scholarships or other financial aid opportunities, most are dispersed with the traditional fall start in mind. So, while you may be able to start your program sooner by entering into spring or summer semesters, you may be limiting your financial aid opportunities.

(2) Prepare for and take the ACT/SAT

Most universities still require the oft considered by those of us who work in higher education archaic form of standardized testing. If you are considering multiple universities/colleges/programs, then it is advisable to take the ACT and/or SAT test as soon as possible and have it sent to all institutions you are considering applying for. It is free to send your scores on the day you test, but will cost you money to forward those scores at a later date. Note that due to COVID-19, many institutions are waving the ACT/SAT requirement, so be sure to check with your particular school to see whether they are following suit.

For more information on the ACT: https://www.act.org/

For more information on the SAT: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat

(3) Find suitable recommenders and ask them if they can give you a good recommendation

Recommendation letters are so important and often the portion of the application that is most overlooked by the student. Every university/college/program has different requirements for how many recommendations you should have and whether they be purely academic and/or supervisory or another type of professional reference. But, regardless of how many you need (if recommendations are needed, it’s usually around 2 or 3) and of what type (i.e., academic, supervisory, etc.), it is important to find someone who can write you a good recommendation lettergood being the key term here.

There are some rules of etiquette when asking if someone can provide you with a recommendation letter. Note that most universities have an online application portal that you will need to input your recommenders’ information into. Once you save/submit that portion of your application, the recommenders will be sent a notification of your request via email. It is important that you give them a head’s up prior to sending off this automatically generated link. The reason for this? (1) Your recommender may not send in a recommendation without a request directly from the student. (2) Those links are often sent to spam, so the recommender may have to search for them. (3) Most programs will want the recommendation letter tailored to them, so it’s important for you to reach out to your recommenders to let them know the program you are applying for, why you think you would be a good fit, and also to remind them of who you are. If your recommender is an instructor whom you had five years ago, for example, he or she may need reminded as to who you are and how you did in his/her class. So, send them a copy of your transcript to remind them of the class(es) you were in with them.

Finally, and most importantly: make sure to ask the recommender whether he/she can give you a good letter of recommendation. Usually recommenders will discard recommendation requests if they do not feel they can provide a good recommendation, or they will just tell the applicant, “No.” However, there are those who will write bad letters of recommendation and you will likely never know, unless you did not waive your right to view your recommendation.

A note on waiving your right to view recommendations, or Waiver of Access (FERPA): always, always, always waive your write to view your recommendation letter. This is one of the first rules of etiquette when it comes to recommendation letters. Many recommenders will not submit a recommendation without your doing so and many universities will disregard your application otherwise, as your recommendations may not be considered to be candid and truthful.

This is why it is so important for the student to be discerning when choosing recommenders and how they approach the recommendation letter all together. A bad recommendation letter is perhaps the biggest red flag in an application and grounds for immediate rejection.

(4) Transcripts

You will need to send in your high school transcripts as well as any college transcripts if you are a transfer student or if you took dual-enrollment classes as a high school student at a different college than those you are applying for. Many applications will allow you to submit and have conditional consideration based off of an unofficial copy of your transcripts. For full admission, however, you will eventually need to send in your final official high school transcripts. Make sure you wait until after you graduate to send in a copy of your official transcript with the date the degree was conferred listed.

(5) Grades and Grade Point Average (GPA)

Depending on when you are applying for college, you may or may not have ample time to get your Grade Point Average (GPA) up. Make sure to focus on your grades, particularly your cumulative GPA, throughout the entirety of high school and in every semester that you are in college. The GPA is probably the number one consideration when it comes to a general understanding of the student’s academic capabilities and potential for college success. I would recommend aiming for a GPA of at the very least a 3.0 (which is a B average), but the closer to a 4.0 (A average) the better. That said, more colleges are admitting students with lower GPA’s due to a push for higher enrollment numbers. That said, if your cumulative GPA is below a 2.5 (C average), you may have difficulty being admitted into a traditional 4 year program.

If you are determined to go to college, however, don’t let your GPA be a deterrent! There are ways around the GPA requirement. For example, make sure the rest of your application is glowing. Ask the universities/colleges/programs you are interested in if they allow for exceptions or conditional admission. Finally, don’t rule out attending a community college and then transferring at a later date. Many of the best college students I have worked with had low high school GPA’s. It is just one marker – and not always an accurate one – of college success.

(6) Writing Sample – College Essay

Most all universities/colleges/programs require at least one writing sample – generally, a college essay. This is your chance to speak directly to the Admissions Committee as to why you want to go to college; what makes you a good candidate; and why you are interested in the university/college/program. As such, you want to be sure you tailor your essay to each specific college you are applying for, noting why that program is the ideal program for you and why you are the ideal student for the program. This essay will likely have a page limit as well as formatting specifications that you will want to be sure to follow. If you want to really impress the university/college/program you are applying for: if there are not specifications for formatting, try to follow either MLA, APA, or Chicago Style. Most high schools do not teach appropriate styles of writing, so if you are wanting to be an English major, try writing your essay in MLA; or if you want to be in the sciences, try your hand at APA. Not all Admissions Committees are considering writing styles, but some might and that could give you an edge over other applicants.

No matter what: be sure to write from the heart in a reflective way to really gain the attention of the committee and follow all prompts required by your specific program.

(7) Resume

Not all universities/colleges/programs require a resume, but it may still be optional. I would recommend uploading your resume if optional. Be sure it is up-to-date and that you have listed all of your extracurricular activities as well, including any academic clubs or organizations you may be a part of.

(8) The Common Application

Depending on where you are planning on applying, you may find completing a common application like the Common App or Coalition Application beneficial. These application services allow you to submit one application that can then be sent to multiple programs. Not all schools accept this form of application, however. You will want to check what programs accept common applications such as the two popular aforementioned options – you can also check their websites for a list of affiliated schools.

(9) Application Fees

Most applications have an associated submission fee, the price of which varies by program. However, there are many situations in which you can get this fee waived: (1) the program itself may have a code that they provide to try to encourage submission at various times throughout the year. Check with your program to see if they have a waiver code. You may also get such a code for visiting the school or applying online versus through a paper application. Also, consider submitting your information to receive special notifications – if you are on the mailing list, you will be one of the first to be notified about possible waivers. (2) If you are active military, you may be eligible for a waiver code. (3) If you are over 65 years old, you may be eligible for not only an application waiver, but reduced or waived tuition – check with your individual program. (4) If you have financial need, you may be eligible for a waiver. (5) The ACT, SAT, and the NACAC National College Fairs can also grant application fee waivers. For the ACT waiver, you will need a high school official to sign the form indicating financial hardship as outlined in ACT guidelines. Talk with your High School Guidance Counselor about this option.

ACT Application Fee Waiver Form: https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/RequestForWaiverForm.pdf

(The ACT Application Fee Waiver Information is not easily found on their website, so I suggest checking this independent site of which I have no affiliation: https://blog.prepscholar.com/act-fee-waiver-complete-guide)

SAT Application Fee Waiver Information: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/about/benefits/college-application-fee-waivers

NACAC Application Fee Waiver Information: https://www.nacacfairs.org/learn/fee-waiver/

I know applying for college can be stressful, but I hope this guide helps demystify the process for you. Though there are many components, if you break them down into manageable pieces and start the process early – ideally, you should start working on this mid- to late-junior year – you can absolutely complete the process with ease. Work with your high school Guidance Counselor and with college Admissions Officers to help you through this process.

You can do it! I believe in you.

As always, if you have any questions/concerns related to higher education that I can help with, please feel free to contact me!

-Your Academic Advisor

Financial Aid: Tips for Paying for College

So, you’ve applied for college and been accepted? Or maybe you’ve made the decision to apply, but you aren’t sure as to first steps? Either way, unless you have an athletic or academic scholarship that was predetermined prior to your admission or as part of your admission package, your parents are helping you to pay, or you are independently wealthy, you are likely wondering how you are going to pay for your tuition and other college related expenses. I hope to help demystify the process for you in this article. Most of these tips apply regardless as to whether you are applying for an undergraduate or graduate program, but I have made note of those that are degree specific.

1. Fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The application is available online, HERE. Regardless as to whether you plan to take out student loans, I highly encourage you to still complete the FAFSA. The FAFSA not only allows students who are eligible to receive federal loan money, but also is required to apply for Federal Work Study positions. Federal loan money as well as Work Study positions are available for both undergraduate and graduate students, but you must submit a FAFSA for the academic year in which you plan to attend and you must be at least half-time status (i.e., 9 hours for undergraduate students and 6 hours for graduate students). An academic year runs from fall to summer and you will need to file a FAFSA for every academic year you plan on attending a degree program in college. For example, if you have applied for a program that has a fall 2021 start date, you will want to be sure to fill out the FAFSA for the 2021-2022 academic year and every subsequent academic year you plan on being enrolled in a degree program. I say degree program, because you can only receive federal aid through the FAFSA for degree programs, not certificate programs. That said, if you are in a degree program and pursuing a certificate program concurrently at the same institution, you should be able to utilize the federal aid you are receiving for your degree program toward your certificate program as well. Every university has a Financial Aid Office, so it is important that you reach out to the Financial Aid Office to inquire about specific questions related to your program and the FAFSA. (Note that some universities request prospective students reach out to the Admission’s Office for Financial Aid information, while current students can reach out to the Financial Aid Office – check with your individual school/program.)

If you are applying to an undergraduate program: you may also be eligible for Federal or State Grant funding that is determinable through completing the FAFSA. (Graduate and professional degree students are, unfortunately, not eligible for grant funding.) Grants awarded are determined through need as well as meeting eligibility requirements, including enrollment status. I mentioned half-time status above, but full-time status is 12 hours for undergraduate students and 9 hours for graduate students. The FAFSA website is a good place to start in answering any questions you may have, including those related to grant eligibility. Also, be sure to work with your Financial Aid Office to determine exactly how much aid you will be awarded.

If you are considered a dependent: you will need your parents financial information and tax returns to be able to fill out the FAFSA. Check your dependency status HERE.

Even if you do not plan to use any of the financial opportunities available to you through the FAFSA, I still HIGHLY ENCOURAGE you to apply. Many scholarships available to you through your college/university depend on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which is determined through the information you provide on your FAFSA. For more information on EFC, click HERE.

2. Apply for University/College Scholarships. Nearly all universities have funding opportunities available to students, but most students don’t realize how limited/competitive these are. Also, scholarship deadlines are often well in-advance to the semester starting that you plan to enroll and most are determined prior to the fall semester. Though academic programs are becoming more and more flexible regarding when students start – many allow fall, spring, and summer starts – scholarships are generally determined for the academic year, meaning most have spring deadlines and are dispersed for the next academic year, starting in fall. For example, if you want to apply for a scholarship for fall 2021, you will need to submit a separate application for the scholarship you are interested in the spring prior. My particular college, for example, has scholarships open in December and close in January of the following year and the scholarships granted are for the fall start of that year, starting in August. That is why I would recommend if you are looking for the best funding opportunities, to apply for school in the fall, regardless as to whether your particular college allows for spring or summer starts. Most funds are dispersed for fall starts.

Check ALL university and college scholarships available. Most universities – especially larger ones – have multiple funding sources available. First start with your Financial Aid Office. They will have information regarding university specific funding for all students. Then look to your individual college for additional funding. For example, if you are attending the Ohio State University’s Max M. Fisher College of Business, check with the Financial Aid Office regarding university scholarships available (example HERE), but then check with the College of Business for college specific scholarships (example HERE). (Note that I am not affiliated with the Ohio State University – I only use them to illustrate an example – but in looking at their Financial Aid pages, it looks like prospective students go to the Admissions page for scholarship information, while currently enrolled students go to the Financial Aid Office.)

If you are applying to a graduate program: many colleges and universities have a Graduate School that graduate programs are housed under. (Professional programs, such as the College of Business’ MBA, for example, are likely housed under the individual college, not the Graduate School – check with your individual school on details.) If your graduate program is housed under a Graduate School, you may be eligible for additional funding opportunities through them, such as Fellowships and/or Graduate/Research/Teaching Assistantships (example HERE). Assistantships are unique opportunities for graduate students to get college paid for while working for the university and usually also earning a stipend. Generally, you need to be full-time (i.e., 9 hours and above) and will only grant tuition remission for the fall and spring semesters – check with your individual program for more information. You may have to do some research regarding your eligibility and deadlines vary.

3. Income Share Agreements (ISA) and Tuition Deferral. Some universities now will allow you to defer your tuition until you are able to find a job that makes a specific annual income. This is a great alternative to taking out loans, if it is available at your particular university/college. You can read more about these programs HERE. This CNBC article published in 2018 is a little outdated, but ISA’s have just recently become available and are not federally regulated, but a financial agreement with the student and the institution he/she is attending. Basically, rather than the government or a private financial institution acting as your lender, the university is your lender. I would argue ISA and tuition deferral is a better alternative than private student loans but not necessarily a better alternative to federal student loans. That said, I am not well versed on this option, but if you are thinking of attending or are currently attending a university that offers this option, do check with your Financial Aid Office about the stipulations of the repayment plan agreement.

4. Employer-Based Scholarships/Funding. Depending on where you work, you may have employer-based scholarship and/or funding opportunities available to you. If you work for a university/college, you will likely have tuition remission available to you and/or your family, for example. But employer-based scholarships and funding opportunities are not only available to those of us who work at universities. Many employers offer educational benefits, so check with your Human Resources department to see if they offer any educational benefits and what you will need in order to apply.

5. National Service Education Benefits. If you are in the military or are a vet, you may have educational benefits available to you. The same applies for a number of national service opportunities, including the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. Check on your specific national service webpage/portal for more information – Peace Corps HERE and Americorps HERE. If you are active military or a vet, and you are not sure where to start, check your university’s Veterans Resource Center (VRC) or local Veterans Affairs (VA) Office – you can start your search HERE.

6. External Funding Opportunities. There are a ton of websites where you can search for external funding opportunities, but few students know that their university/college also generally has a list of external funding opportunities available. To go back to the Ohio State University, for example, both their Financial Aid and their Graduate School pages list external funding sources available.

My number one personal suggestion for external funding searches is: FastWeb.com. I have been a member since the early 2000’s when I was an undergraduate student. It’s a free service, so there is no charge to sign-up and they will notify you of potential scholarship opportunities that fit your specified criteria. They also have a sister site for military students, Military.com, and are affiliated with another free financial aid service, FinAid.org. (Note that I am not an affiliate, but recommend them based on my personal experience.)

7. Private Student Loans. I want to be very clear in that I do NOT recommend taking out private student loans. I have had really negative personal experiences with private student loans and would encourage you to only utilize private loans as an option if you have exhausted every other option available to you and you are not able/willing to wait for alternative funding opportunities. That said, if you are interested in private student loans, you will want to check to be sure you are getting the best interest rates available through your lender and check to see what their deferment and forbearance policies are. Do your research! Private student loan lenders are NOT interested in your wellbeing and are not as flexible in regard to repayment options as the federal government is in regard to federal student loans. As a for-profit business, they are out to make money. A number of private lenders have recently been scrutinized for their questionable business practices – NAVIENT, for example, which was formerly Sallie Mae, has had a number of lawsuits filed against them, the most recent as of today can be found in this Forbes.com article, HERE.

My final piece of advice is to be smart. Taking out loans may seem like a quick and easy solution, but, according to Forbes.com, our national student loan debt in the United States is $1.56 trillion in 2020 – you can read the article HERE. You can get your education for free, or at the very least vastly discounted, by taking advantage of all the opportunities available to you.

If you would like a step-by-step walkthrough of the financial aid process for a totally random college and program (viz. University of Utah, Eccles School of Business), please check out my (admittedly long) video HERE.

As always, I wish you luck in your academic endeavors and let me know if you have any specific questions/concerns I can help address by visiting my Contact page!

– Your Academic Advisor

Update – November 26, 2020

Happy Thanksgiving and soon to be end of the fall 2020 semester!

I am excited to announce that I have started a YouTube channel, the first video of which you can access, HERE! At this point, I am not certain how often I will be posting, but I am going to try to update blogs once every other week and YouTube videos once a month.

The next blog and video will be on financial aid, so stay tuned!

As always, if you have any suggestions for topics to cover or questions about navigating higher education, please contact me by visiting my Contact Page, HERE.

Stay safe and healthy.

Your Academic Advisor

Fall 2020 College Return: Navigating the “New Normal”

Fall 2020 has arrived and it is likely nothing that you expected your college experience to be.

After months of uncertainty, universities are returning to campus, converting to online, or some hybrid blend of the two. If you keep up with Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education, or just the general news, you know that for those colleges attempting an in-person or hybrid format, there is still uncertainty about how to move forward with COVID-19 testing, liability waivers, classroom layouts and instruction, dorm life, cafeteria layouts, etc. And even if your college or university is confident in their approach to the campus reopening plan, students returning are still adjusting to wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet distance from their peers.

I cannot even begin to claim any sort of expertise in regard to what you should expect moving forward, but I can tell you that it is highly likely that classes will again be moved fully-online within the next month, if your particular college or university has not yet done so. Even with testing, following health standards and regulations by wearing masks and maintaining distance, we are (perhaps unsurprisingly) seeing what is being referred to as “clusters” of COVID-19 cases popping up at universities that just recently reopened – particularly in dorms, fraternity/sorority houses, and other student housing on- and off-campus.

The most recent and reported example of this is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which will be moving to remote learning starting tomorrow.

(Note that Notre Dame just suspended in-person class as I am writing this.)

Of course, the general response from all sides has been one of frustration. It is pretty safe to assume at this point that no university reopening plan was going to be well-received by everyone, but in this author’s humble opinion: though it is understandably disappointing, especially for students, a remote classroom learning model is the safest option for everyone (faculty, student, staff, and administrators alike). I also think it’s equally safe to say that no one is surprised that these COVID-19 clusters are occurring. It seems a bit naive to think that young people away from home in close proximity to other young people are not going to attend gatherings and have a good time with a disregard for health and safety regulations. The social aspect of higher education is just as relevant to the in-person college experience as attending class. If students are going to be allowed to return to campus then it is inevitable that those students are going to interact with one another and, in all likelihood, be in contact with at least one student who is infected with COVID-19, thus initiating the spread.

(If anyone is uncertain as to how infectious diseases spread and would like an accurate visual depiction, I suggest watching the movie Contagion.)

But since I am not here to implement scare-tactics to encourage you to consider moving to fully online classes, which is my personal and profession recommendation, I will give you some advice for how to move forward with in-person learning and on-campus living that will minimize your risk of catching and/or spreading the virus:

(1) Wear a mask. For your safety and for the safety of others, when you are outside of your dorm room or the cafeteria, wear your mask. Most universities are mandating this, but have limited ways of enforcing it. That said, just because you may be able to get away with not wearing a mask without negative repercussions, it is the safe, smart, and responsible thing to do for yourself and others.

(2) Maintain 6 Feet Distance. This is a hard one even for me. When I walk to Starbucks with my coworkers, I rarely think twice about being next to them. I understand that when you are with your friends the last concern is whether you or they are infected. But try to maintain distance for your and their safety.

(3) Sanitize/Wash Your Hands. According to healthline.com, we touch our face an average of 16 times per hour. That equates a lot of opportunity for you to spread infection from contaminated surfaces to yourself – so wash your hands for at least 20 seconds and/or use an at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

(4) Sanitize your space. Most colleges and universities are disinfecting classrooms daily, but in my opinion, it is important to keep your desk space clean. If you have them, bring antibacterial wipes with you to class and wipe down your desk area. (Note that many colleges are also providing wipes.) In a pinch, use your hand sanitizer.

(5) If you or someone you have been in contact with has been diagnosed with COVID-19: Quarantine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should quarantine at home for 14 days and avoid contact with others.

(6) If you cough or sneeze, try to do so in a tissue and throw it away.

For more information on these tips, please check out the CDC website.

Additional suggestions to the more common ones listed above are:

(7) If you are not feeling well or around anyone not feeling well: Quarantine. Work with your college and/or individual instructors to see if you can utilize remote learning for a week or two while you quarantine as a safety precaution. Trust me, if you tell a faculty member that you are not feeling well and do not want to chance coming to class, he/she will most likely appreciate your concern for him/her as well as your fellow peers, and will accommodate you as much as possible.

(8) If available to you, get tested frequently. A baseline test is a good starting place, but ultimately not very helpful if you are in constant contact with people on- or off-campus. I would personally suggest testing every couple of weeks at least, but some colleges have implemented required testing every two days, which I think is preferable. Even if it is not a requirement of your particular college, I personally recommend testing often.

(9) Avoid traveling. Many colleges are implementing travel restrictions, but I personally suggest you avoid going back home to visit your family and friends with any amount of frequency. Stay on campus or around campus for the duration of your semester. This helps not only protect your family/friends from possible exposure, but also helps prevent you potentially returning to campus and infecting your roommates, friends, professors, etc.

I realize it is not realistic to expect you to not engage with your peers or not occasionally visit home, but please do so safely and responsibly for yourself, for them, and for your faculty and college staff.

Be safe. Be smart. Be responsible. And try to make the most of your college experience, despite this unfortunate circumstance.

Regardless, I wish you a successful, happy, and healthy semester!

Your Academic Advisor

Higher Education Options for Fall 2020: Community College, Online Learning, or On-Campus Learning

With so much uncertainty around whether the economy will be reopened to the extent that students will be able to return to campus in the fall, many are wondering if they should take a semester or year off, move to a fully online option, go to a community college, or chance returning to campus (should it be open).

In my opinion: it depends.

Your options, as I see them, are three-fold and as follows:

(1) Take a semester (or year) off. This option is available to current students (as a Leave of Absence) and most newly admited, perspective students (as a Deferment).

If you are a perspective student and you just need more time to think about your options for whatever reason, ask your Admissions Officer/Counselor about the possibility of deferring for a semester or a year – generally, deferments can not be granted for more than one year from the semester of the request.

A Deferment will allow you to keep your admittance into the program without being enrolled in classes and without giving up your place in the program. If you decide not to attend the university, but contact admissions a semester later asking if you can now enroll without requesting a deferment, they will likely request that you reapply to the program. Skip the potential for a reapplication process and defer. There are generally no obligations to doing so, but you will want to check with your individual college.

If you are a current student and you need a semester or longer off, talk with your Academic Advisor about the possibility of taking a Leave of Absence.

A Leave of Absence will allow you to take off a semester or more (like deferments, they generally go up to one year) and return without having to reapply. Even as a currently enrolled student, you are not immune to being required to reapply to the program if you go MIA for a semester. (Note that the summer term is generally not counted against you, if you do not enroll, so you will likely not have to request a Leave of Absence in order to remain in the program should you sit summer out.)

(2) Take classes at your local community college. If you are a perspective student or enrolled in your first two years of a four-year university, consider taking some of your core classes at your local community college and later transferring them in. This is an especially good option if your university has decided to move fully online for the summer and fall semesters, as the tuition rates are usually considerably cheaper and you will be able to transfer these classes at a later date.

If you are interested in transferring community college classes to your current (or future) four-year university, it is imperative you speak with your advisor about the logistics of doing so. Most accredited colleges and universities have a maximum number of classes that you can transfer toward your degree and the number varies by institution. Do your homework and talk with your advisor and admissions counselor about how many classes you can transfer in. Once you are enrolled in classes, check with your institution about how those specific classes you are registered for will transfer in. Most universities have a page on the Registrar’s website or within your student portal that will allow you to see how classes will transfer. If not, or if you are not sure where to find this information, talk with your academic advisor/admissions counselor.

If you are a current student, you will want to apply to the community college as a transient student, meaning you are planning on taking classes there to later transfer to your current institution. Talk with the community college admissions counselor about how to apply as a transient student.

(3) Chance going or returning to campus. No matter what you are hearing from your university administration, faculty, family and/or friends, even if your university decides to reopen, chances are there will be some kind of “new normal” established. In other words, do not expect that things will resume as per usual, no matter what your university administration may be telling you.

Let me here make a point very clear: universities are worried about losing students if they move to a fully-online format. No matter whether the quality of education is comparable (or even in some instances better) than an in-person format, many parents and students take issue with paying full-tuition prices for online learning, because they see it as less of a quality education than in-person. University administrators know this. They also know that online tuition is very generally much cheaper at the community college and that many students will opt to take community college classes to later transfer (as described above in option 2).

The college I work for is one of the few that has been extremely forthcoming about the fall semester not returning to “normal.” They have numerous work-groups that have been considering a variety of options from full-online, to hybrid, to in-person finishing after Thanksgiving. And I have seen the responses from students and parents alike, most of which express extreme disappointment at the lack of normalcy for the on-campus students returning or starting this fall. There will be loss of student tuition dollars, regardless.

Knowing that on-campus students are especially vulnerable to spreading illness, if you attend a university that promises on-campus instruction and a return to normalcy by August: be suspicious. It is much more likely that many of these universities are going to bait and switch you, whether or not it’s intentional. They will tell you that they plan to be on-campus, but are preparing contingencies behind the scenes for a full-online or hybrid option, and will at the last possible minute, once you are already enrolled in classes and excited to attend, move to the contingency plan.

We are facing a potential collapse of higher education due to the ramifications of COVID-19. Universities are afraid of losing students. Period. Even if universities want to reopen in fall, it is very likely that the Governors, especially of those states that have already suspended all K-12 in-person class sessions for the rest of the year, are going to make the decision to continue remote learning in higher education as well. The Governor of your state, not the President of the university, has the final say on the matter. Keep that in mind.

That said, assuming your university is promising a return to campus and you are packed and ready to go: you are a brave individual! Know that more likely than not, students will not be coming back to campus after Thanksgiving break. You will likely have hybrid type sessions, six feet distance, masks – the whole shebang. Football stadiums will likely not be packed. Many of your favorite older faculty may simply refuse to teach in-person sessions, so though you are on campus, you may still be taking classes online. And if you are living on campus, know that all diseases (whether the flu or COVID-19) spread more readily in communal living. Prepare for sickness. You may think you are young, healthy, and immune, but until there is a vaccine, no one is. If you want to risk it, that is up to you. But know many of your fellow students, faculty, and staff do not and are going to be working remotely if and when at all possible.

There are options available to you. My personal suggestion is to continue your education, even if it is in a full-online format. I can tell you that online learning has come a long way and the quality of the online format, just like in-person, depends more on your instructors and what effort you put into the class. The format does not make or break your learning experience, especially in a day and age where we are all already plugged-in.

My advice is to educate yourself about the latest news in Higher Education (e.g., Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education are two of my favorites) and make the decision that is best for you. Good luck!

Your Academic Advisor

Preparing for College in the 2020-2021 Academic Year

So you want to go to college starting fall 2020? That’s great news – congratulations! You have picked a perfect time to make this very important decision, which is the first step. That said, know that, academically speaking, you’re a little late to the game. You may find that most scholarships have been dispersed. If you are applying to graduate programs, most Graduate Assistantships (GAs), Teaching Assistantships (TAs) and Research Assistantships (RAs) have been determined. There are also a number of programs that are no longer accepting applications, as the deadlines have passed. If you decided on attending an in-person or hybrid (i.e., partly in-person, partly online) program, you may find that there are more online components than you expect this fall, due to COVID-19 – we’re still not sure.

But fret not! I am here to help break down next steps for you:

(1) Apply to the college/university/program

If you haven’t completed this first step, it is essential that you do so ASAP. Most colleges/universities have set deadlines. Depending on the program and the college/university, you may find them to be flexible. This is especially true now, as most administrators are anticipating lower enrollment numbers for this academic year. There are also usually a number of necessary components to the application, such as the required informational forms, personal statement, writing sample(s), resume, and letters of recommendation. These all take time to complete, so it is important to use this time in self-isolation to focus on writing and completing the application.

Helpful Tip #1: If the application deadline has already passed, be sure to contact the college/university/department you are wanting to apply to in order to see if they are still accepting applications. This year especially, I suspect that application deadlines are going to be flexible.

Helpful Tip #2: Be sure to line up your recommenders in advance! During these uncertain times especially, be sure to give your recommenders plenty of time to submit their letters of recommendation. Also, make sure that you ask appropriate people to be your recommenders – this includes faculty, supervisors, and other professional references. Do NOT ask family, friends, counselors, or pastoral references (unless you are applying for a degree that is in relation to seminary/theology and you have volunteer experience, or something of that nature, at your church).

(2) Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

It is not required that you accept any loan money that is offered, but I think it is extremely important to at least have your FAFSA on file for the academic years that you plan on being enrolled, regardless as to whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student. Remember, an academic year is from fall to summer, so the 2019-2020 academic year started in fall 2019 and will end after the summer 2020 term. Yes, it is a tedious process, but well worth it, as you will not be considered for grant money (if you are an undergraduate student – graduate students are not eligible), cannot apply for Federal Work Study positions, some scholarships, etc. without it.

Helpful Tip #3: If you are also under 24 years of age, you may also need to have your parents’ financial information to submit the FAFSA. (Some exceptions to this include being married, orphaned, a vet, having children, or if you are emancipated from your parents.)

Helpful Tip #4: Make sure to have all of your (and your parents’) financial and personal information ready – this includes items such as Social Security numbers, birthdays, W-2 information, and bank account information.

(3) Check for available scholarships

Unless you (or your parents) are independently wealthy or you have a full-ride from athletics, academics, etc., you are likely in need of some college funds. Keep in mind, most scholarship applications open and close well in advance of the application deadline. Scholarship applications are usually also separate from the application. That said, never be too proud to inquire whether you can still submit your application. Know that scholarships are often dependent on qualifying factors, such as your grade point average (GPA); Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is determined by the FAFSA; your gender, nationality, race, sexuality, etc.; talents, including musical, athletic, theatrical etc.; area of interest – you get the idea.

Helpful Tip #5: Consider ALL sources. This includes your place of employment, your parents’ place of employment, and other sources within your college. For example, don’t just look at the program’s scholarship page, but the college/university as well. If you are applying for a graduate program, check to see if it is housed in a Graduate School at the college/university. If so, check the Graduate School’s funding page.

Helpful Tip #6: Contact the college/university’s Financial Aid Office for assistance. They can also help inform you as to any available funding.

Helpful Tip #7: Check external scholarship websites. These are usually free databases (some have paid services) with a variety of scholarship opportunities available, that are complied from a variety of sources. Some good starting places would be:

www.fastweb.com

www.edvisors.com

www.cappex.com

globalscholarshipadvisor.com

Helpful Tip #8: Do NOT take out private loans unless absolutely necessary! My biggest piece of advice is stay away from private lenders. The interest rates are higher than federal student loans and they are far less forgiving or open to forbearance, deferments, income-based repayment, etc. Learn from my mistake and avoid private loans at all costs.

(4) Make sure you have a place to live and/or a stable internet connection

Again, with COVID-19, it is hard to predict how Resident Life will be impacted. It might not be, but I always say hope for the best, prepare for the worst. If you have chosen to attend an in-person program, make sure you have your living situation figured out (i.e., whether you plan to live on- or off-campus). If you have decided to live on-campus, check to see whether you need a meal plan and, if so, what plan options best suit you. Also, be considering items you will need to purchase for your dorm – I plan to publish a separate post on this in the future.

If you are in a hybrid or online program, be sure you have a stable internet connection as well as access to (and capability of using) the appropriate programs/software. Most hybrid/online programs utilize programs like Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, etc. as well as video conferencing software such as skype or zoom. Your success in the program will be dependent upon your having the technology to access these interfaces.

Regardless as to whether you are in-person, hybrid, or online, you will be expected to use the Microsoft Office Suite, such as Word and Excel. So, be prepared to utilize technology.

(5) Once you have been admitted (Congratulations!), you will need to register for classes.

Check to see first whether you have been assigned an academic or faculty advisor. If so, they should be reaching out to you to schedule your courses and/or sending communications on how to do so. If not, you will want to check the Registrar’s webpage for instructions. In order to receive a GA, TA, RA, or work-study position, you will need to be registered for classes. Do not be afraid to ask your department/college/university for help!

(6) Lastly, make sure to know who you will be working with

Find out who your advisors/counselors (i.e., academic, financial aid, etc.) are. Also, know who the Chair, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students/Graduate Students, and Dean of your department/college are. It is also good to know who your Dean of Student Success, Registrar, Provost, and President are – it is unlikely you will ever be contacting the Provost or President, but you are about to be part of an institution, with a culture all its own. Don’t be afraid to show some school spirit and pride by knowing some history of your department/college/university, including who all the important players are.

Congratulations and good luck! Be sure to subscribe for more insider information.

Your Academic Advisor

Patience During COVID-19: An Open Letter to College Students

Dear Current or Prospective Student,

At this point, it is safe to assume that you know the impact of COVID-19 on your academic life: if you lived on campus, you were very likely asked to move out during/after spring break; classes have been moved to an online format; graduations, hooding ceremonies, and other end of semester award events have been cancelled or put online; and zoom meetings with your faculty, classmates, advisors, etc. are the “new normal.”

You may notice that even with staff and faculty working online remotely, communications are not as timely as you would hope.

As a staff member, I ask on behalf of all faculty and staff to please be patient with us. We, like everyone else, are doing our best during these unprecedented times. Your faculty and advisors are trying to think of new, innovate ways to keep you engaged, happy, and successful in your education, while also being afraid of losing our jobs, like everyone else. (This maybe is not a concern for tenured faculty, but I assure you that it is a concern for your part-time instructors and all staff.)

Please know we are all scrambling, having emergency meetings, and stressing about our own lives as well as yours. Know that we are here for you and we will respond as soon as we can to all of your requests and concerns. You are our first priority and the reason we have a job.

Most of us have a 24 hour policy – that is, we try to respond to inquiries within 24 hours. That said, we get swamped and things occasionally get lost in our inbox, sent to spam, etc.

So, you may be wondering: what can I do to encourage a reply if my [insert here] hasn’t responded? The question of etiquette regarding how to approach faculty or staff when needing immediate assistance is one that deserves its own subsection. But, for some quick tips, I would encourage the following:

(1) If you have not received a response within 24 hours and the issue is pressing: do not be afraid to send us gentle reminders. I promise you that this is not a bother to us. (So many of my students apologize for reaching out – never apologize! That is what we are here for!)

(2) After a gentle reminder, if you have still not received a response in another 24 hours, check to see if you can schedule an appointment. Most all faculty and advisors have a scheduler that is either part of your student account or external, such as my preferred scheduler, Setmore.

(If you are a faculty member, advisor, or anyone who schedules appointments for any reason and do NOT have internal access to an appointment scheduler, I highly recommend Setmore. A faculty member in my Ph.D. program encouraged me to try it, after I complained about how much time it was taking to go back and forth via email in order to schedule. I am highly grateful to her! The interface looks great, connects to your outlook, and saves so much time.)

I encourage you to schedule appointments whenever you can. This ensures that we have designated time set aside in our day to adequately address your concerns.

(3) If you are unable to schedule an appointment, I would recommend one last attempt to directly engage with your faculty or advisor. In this reminder, make sure to articulate that this is your third attempt and either ask for an appointment, or whether there is someone else whom you can speak with to help address your concern(s).

(4) If you are trying to reach your advisor, after another 24 hours, try to contact another advisor in your department/college. If there are no other advisors, try to contact the chair or director of your department.

(5) If you are trying to reach a faculty member, contact the chair of the department where the faculty member is housed. For example, if you are an English student, taking Math 110, contact the chair of the math department NOT the English department.

(6) No matter who you contact, please make sure to be professional and respectful. Use the appropriate title for whomever you are addressing (i.e., Dr., Prof., Mr., Ms., etc.).

(7) Please do NOT exaggerate. If you only tried calling one time and did not leave a message: do not go straight to the Dean of the College saying, “I have tried contacting Dr. X multiple times, and have not had a response.” Throwing your faculty and/or staff under the bus will eventually be brought to their attention and will be remembered.

At this point, I feel fairly certain you will receive a response. If not, however, remember that there is a hierarchy in academia – it is important that you go through the correct motions, even if it is time-consuming. Please do not go straight to the Dean of the College, or the Provost, or the President of the University. Yes, your issue will likely be addressed, but you will forever be remembered as “that” student.

Keep in mind: these are the people that are going to be writing your recommendations for graduate school and employment later on.

In essence, I recommend that you try to follow the Golden Rule and treat others as you would want to be treated.

We know this time is a struggle. Know we are here to help and appreciate your patience as well as your gentle reminders.

Stay safe and and well!

Your Academic Advisor

COVID-19’s Impact on Higher Education

Just google, “COVID-19’s Impact on Higher Education,” and a slew of pages will bombard you with information regarding how this unprecedented situation will negatively affect enrollment numbers for colleges and universities around the world. Of course, from a domestic student perspective, this is probably not much cause for alarm – if anything, you may see it as an opportunity to be more likely considered for your top choice universities and have first pick of the classes you planned to register for with no fear of being waitlisted, due to this national projection toward less competition.

As a university employee, however, I have a myriad of thoughts regarding the situation. On the one hand, colleges (including mine) are buckling down, streamlining budgets, and preparing for the worst. (I have been saddened to see so many universities already discussing furloughing their employees.) To be honest, I would have to do more research regarding the data that is being pulled to make these decisions; but, from experience, and assuming that federal financial aid remains an option, I have a few of my own (more instinctual, less data driven) predictions:

(1) I expect enrollment numbers to increase, not decrease. This is especially true for technical and professional degrees. From experience, I saw the surge of enrollment at the community and technical college I worked for soon after the crash of 2008. A well-paying company that employed a large number of locals in mostly blue-collar positions performed massive layoffs. This, in turn, caused an influx of students to the community and technical college in order for those who were laid off to become trained/certified in other fields. Many also decided to pursue a two- or four-year degree, so enrolled to either complete their associate’s degree or to transfer their first two years of core classes to a bachelor’s program.

(2) I am in no way promoting this as a possible solution to unemployment, but the fact remains: with roughly 1 in 4 Americans losing their job or source of income due to COVID-19, many are going to be turning to federal student aid to supplement lost income.

(Speaking of which: if you are a new or returning student, please be sure to go ahead and fill out the FAFSA. It is not required that you accept any loan money that is offered, but I think it is extremely important to at least have your FAFSA on file for the academic years that you plan on being enrolled, regardless as to whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student. Remember, an academic year is from fall to summer, so the 2019-2020 academic year started in fall 2019 and will end after the summer 2020 term. With that in mind, if you plan on taking summer classes, you will need to have your 2019-2020 FAFSA completed and if you will be returning for the 2020-2021 academic year, you will need to fill out that FAFSA as well. I won’t lie: it is a tedious process, but well worth it, as you will not be considered for grant money (if you are an undergraduate student – graduate students are not eligible), cannot apply for Federal Work Study positions, some scholarships, etc. without it.)

(3) Now is the best time to have student debt – assuming there is every really a “good” time. Federal Student Aid repayment options are more affordable than ever (i.e., not required and not incurring interest) with the recent enactment of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security (CARES) Act. (To find out more about how CARES affects students, check out this Forbes article.)

(4) With so many online program options available and nothing else to do while social distancing: why wouldn’t both prospective and current students enroll in classes?

I will end this by saying that I am by no means intending to trivialize the concerns regarding COVID-19’s impact on higher education – many employees, such as those in customer service roles (e.g., custodial workers, cafeteria workers, etc.) will absolutely be negatively impacted if there are no students, faculty, and/or staff on campus. And I cannot even fathom how this is going to impact international student enrollment. However, I do think the majority of colleges and universities are jumping the gun in regard to the presumed negative financial impact of COVID-19.