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.

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

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.