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.