By Vielka Hoy, Founder and CEO of Bridge to College
With more than four thousand institutions of higher learning in America offering four-year degrees, the journey to finding the college that’s best for you will need to begin with a sweeping process of elimination. Easily recognized attributes like geography, cost, and level of academic competitiveness will help to immediately pare down the list. But with so much to lose by choosing the wrong school, it’s important to listen to your gut and pay attention when danger signs — or as we call them, “Red Flags” — emerge in your research process. There are thousands of potential red flags and they can be noticed at any time. Every person identifies different things as red flags, and one of the benefits of the college research process is finding yours.
There are too many red flags to list in just one post. But to get the conversation started, these are three that we vigilantly watch out for here at Bridge to College:
1) Passive Approach to Violence and Lack of Consent Instruction
Much to our horror, some version of the following statement is regularly being uttered on campus tours across this country by guides when they point out the facility where victims of trauma go for support: “This is where you go when you get assaulted.” WHEN you get assaulted. Really? The use of the word “when” reveals a presumptiveness that has been enabled — and normalized — by complacency and a disregard for the safety of all people. For some colleges, acceptance of abusive behavior is a tacit part of their value proposition. Sexual and physical assault may be common, but it isn’t acceptable and it isn’t normal. As society evolves, sometimes education is needed to bring people up to date on new standards of human decency. In an environment largely populated by young people living without parental supervision for the first time in their lives, it stands to reason that personal boundaries need to be firmly established and communicated with clarity. Thankfully, there are many schools tackling the issue of consent head on with required classes and ongoing practices to foster prevention of assault. Asking a college representative what their school is doing to educate students, faculty and staff on the matter of consent is a very simple process. And a confusing, awkward, or avoidant answer is a serious red flag.
2) Deceptive and Confusing Financial Assistance Practices
Is your financial aid package renewable? Is it tied to staying with a specific major or maintaining a certain grade point? Does your college only help students whose families make more than one hundred and ten thousand dollars a year? Yes, these are all legitimate questions. Financial aid can be a myriad of loopholes and shocking disappointments. Is the scholarship exclusively for tuition, leaving you on the hook for room, board, and books? It’s not uncommon for a “money first” scholarship to initially reward fifty thousand dollars and ultimately provide roughly half that amount in actual benefit. Some colleges opt for clarity while others insulate themselves from accountability and commitment with complex language and numerous out clauses. Reading the fine print is essential, and it’s crucial to have someone you trust and respect review the details as well. Just remember, if you don’t understand something, ask as many questions as you need to until you have a firm grasp of the financial assistance plan they are offering. And if that grasp proves to be unreachable, know that it’s not your fault, and move on to a school that’s making everything crystal clear.
3) Low Graduation Rate
There is a tendency, among smart and diligent students, to look past graduation rates when assessing potential colleges. At Bridge to College, we attribute this to the long-standing misperception that students who take more than four years to earn their degree — or never graduate — are lazy. Many well-intentioned students make the natural assumption that if they enter a four-year institution of higher learning and rigorously apply themselves, then they will have a willing and supportive partner in the college helping them to complete their studies within a four-year timeframe. What many students don’t realize, and what graduation rates hovering south of 50% indicate, is that certain colleges dilute their infrastructure by accepting too many students in order to maximize tuition revenue. This creates widespread barriers to required classes that have resulted in the six- and seven-year plans getting normalized, and financially over-extended students departing for the job market. A four-year degree is still the norm and many schools are making timely graduation a top priority. Finding an institution with a 70% graduation rate (or higher!) should be on your list of non-negotiable requirements.
As I stated earlier, this is only a small sample of the potential red flags from our perspective. And your perspective of the process is just beginning to form, so we look forward to hearing the issues and concerns that become foremost in YOUR mind as you enter this complex and expansive world. The Bridge to College survey asks questions that will help you identify unexpected options, narrow the field of needless distractions, and create new questions for you to address.
We are grateful to be part of your journey.
About the Author:
Vielka Hoy is founder and CEO of Bridge to College, an advanced search tool that uses dynamic data sources, research and machine learning to analyze a student’s unique circumstances and show them the colleges where they’ll thrive both before and after graduation. She is a long-time advocate of education, having taught in high-need schools and with under-resourced communities for over two decades. She has also taught and researched at the university-level at NYU, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, in the areas of race, educational technologies, college access, and teacher training.