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.

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