5 Warning Signs to Look for When College Shopping

By Al Dickenson
February 22, 2023

When school shopping, there are many considerations to consider, not least of which include questions like class size, a safe and engaging environment, and cost. However, there are other questions that need to be addressed to ensure the long-term financial health and personal well-being of any prospective student. Consider the following questions before attending any school and making a decision that can considerably impact your future.

Is the School Accredited?
One of the biggest questions to ask when school shopping is if the college or university is accredited. Accreditation means that the school upholds education standards as laid out by a larger governing body of higher education professionals. The United States Department of Education's website has an extensive list of recognized accrediting agencies that is available to the public. Before deciding which school to attend, be sure to consult this list and your institution(s) of choice accreditation. The point of accreditation is to ensure that all schools across a country or region, or in a specific discipline or major have the same basic standards regarding ethics, curriculum, teaching, and professional development.

Going to an unaccredited school can lead to some costly mistakes later. If attending graduate school is part of your career or life plan, having graduated from a school that is not formally recognized will not be helpful. Likewise, employers may experience hesitation when hiring you, due to there being no assurances of your learned knowledge from the institution of higher learning you chose to attend. So, while attending an unaccredited school may open doors for certain learning opportunities or may be a cheaper option in the short term, the risks may never pay off in the long run. Consider if these are risks you are willing to take.

Is the School a For-Profit Institution?
First, it is important to understand the difference between for-and non-profit organizations. A for-profit institution has a different financial model than non-profit organizations. At a for-profit company, the revenue generated is distributed across the higher levels of the administration and given to shareholders and investors. This is in direct contrast to non-profits, where any profits are reinvested back into the organization (after things like salaries and expenses are accounted for). While all companies look to earn a profit, for-profit institutions have a drive to earn more, as they have a vested interest in the success of the organization. In an education setting, this drive can lead to practices that may be beneficial to the company, but not the students.

For-profit schools are the bane of college students' existence. Months before the Biden administration began forgiving student loan debt for all students, the federal government offered students who had fallen prey to for-profit institutions restitution from their student loans, citing predatory financial ruin from the schools.

The Importance of School Rankings:
Though a fair amount has been said regarding school rankings within other Newsroom articles, they still remain a factor to consider when school shopping. If the school has poor rankings from a large percentage of its students, that could be a red flag to look out for. There is no point in spending thousands of dollars in your first semester only to turn around and drop out in a month due to the school's toxic environment. Likewise, while the school itself may be alright in terms of culture and rankings, another consideration, on a smaller scale, would be program rankings. If you have your heart set on attaining a certain degree to enter a particular profession, program rankings, faculty, and major environment can all be important factors. While school rankings may not be the most important factor in deciding where you go to school or how much you spend, it should not be disregarded altogether.
What are the School's Graduation Rates and Graduate Outcomes?
Most often talked about regarding much younger learners in say, grade or middle school, a school's graduation rate is also very important to high schoolers and college students. If the school has a low graduation rate, that may indicate something about their policies, culture, or environment, similar to how one must examine a prospective employer's employee turnover rate. Thankfully, however, most schools that have a high graduation rate often boast about it — they are proud of their students, and that is a good sign for anyone looking to attend.

Likewise, most schools will also seek to illustrate how successful their students are after graduation. A good source of information can be from alumni groups, as they lived through the experiences you are hoping to as well. Additionally, like having high graduation rates, most colleges will also have statistics on how many students attend graduate school after degree completion, how many have jobs within their fields, how many have full time jobs, and so forth. This can also be a good source of information to ensure your long term financial and professional success.

Does the School Follow the Clery Act Reporting Policy?
Another consideration for attending any school is more focused on your physical safety, that being does the school report on-campus crimes, as required by the Clery Act of 1990? The Clery Act requires that all institutions of higher learning which receive federal financial aid keep and disclose all information about crimes that have happened on or near their campuses. While you may not need to directly ask the college for information about the Clery Act, it may also be a good idea to refer to police precincts' information. Like the points earlier in this article about school rankings, there is no point in going into a hostile environment, spending countless dollars, only to turn around later in the year, especially when the environment was transparent all along.

There are so many considerations for choosing the school that is right for you, it is easy to lose yourself in the moment and cut down on your number of choices. From choosing the right program of study to considering distance from home and everything in between, it is vital, however, that you do not lose sight of your long-term success, both in college and beyond, and in every situation-financially, emotionally, physically, and everything else. Hopefully these other considerations can help you decide what is best for your successful future.

Al Dickenson

Al Dickenson graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran College with bachelor’s degrees in history, communication, and English. He currently serves as an editor for an international equine practitioners’ magazine in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, his hometown, where he lives with his wife. He also works as a freelance journalist, photographer, archivist, and historian, and he enjoys hiking and reading, particularly about history.
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