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.

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.

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

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.

The Beginning of Your Academic Journey

No matter where you are in your pursuit of higher education, this is a new beginning. Maybe you are a high school senior trying to sift through the vast number of higher education options, trying to understand the difference between public and private schools; regional and national accreditation; or maybe even community colleges and four-year universities. Maybe you are asking yourself: what is liberal arts, anyway? How do I pay for this? What major should I be going into?

Or, maybe you are already in college, in debt, and have changed your major three times – you may be surprised to know that this is the average number of major changes and that I am part of this statistic. Maybe you are struggling in classes and need guidance studying. Maybe you are wondering: do they just know when I am finished with classes and hand me my degree?

Better yet, maybe you have made it through college (congrats!) and, being the glutton for punishment that you are, you have decided to go to back for your graduate or professional degree! You’re a pro at this, right? How is any of this different from undergrad? But did you know that graduate students are not eligible to receive federal grant money? Now, how are you planning on paying for this?

Hi, my name is Sara, and I am here to help demystify all this and more. You can learn more about my background on my About page, but to summarize: with over 5 years of Academic Advising experience at the community college level, university level, and both undergraduate and graduate advising, I feel confident that I can help guide you in ways that most students are not afforded. I am also working on my M.A. in Philosophy and Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, so I have a unique inside student perspective as well.

I look forward to our journey together!