For Many Families, College Search Now Includes Questions about Campus Politics

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It’s hard to avoid conversations about politics these days. This new reality has trickled down to the college admission process where counselors on both sides of the desk are now commonly asked to field tricky questions about political reputations and perceived leanings of a college campus.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported on a group of counselors at the annual meeting of the Higher Education Consultants Association who said that parents were rejecting their children’s college choices based on the schools’ politics.

But while parents might be hesitant about the political climate on campus, it seems to be something students want out of their college experience. UCLA’s 50th annual CIRP Freshman Survey, which surveyed 141,189 full-time, first-year students from around the US, found that student interest in political and civic activity had reached its highest level in the history of the survey.

According to the 2015 survey, nearly 1 in 10 incoming first-year students expects to participate in student protests while in college — an increase of nearly 3 percent over the previous year.

So how do NACAC members deal with questions from students and families about campus politics and the changing political climate?

“I talk to students and families about choosing a college where they can feel comfortable and safe, but also where they can grow and learn. Not just from their professors, but also from their peers,” said Lisa Sohmer, an independent counselor in New York. “The object of college is not, nor has it ever been, to leave as the same person you were when you arrived.”

Trey Moore, the associate director of Diversity Enrichment Programs at The University of Oklahoma, said that you have to approach questions about campus climate with honesty.

He knows about the pressure of these types of questions firsthand. The University of Oklahoma faced unwanted nationwide attention when a video of members of its Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chanting racial slurs surfaced online. The student body rose up in protest and University President David L. Boren stood with the protesting students. He expelled the students on the video and severed university ties with the fraternity.

“When prospective students and families asked us about campus climate and the incident, we could point to our students and administration, we told them that that type of behavior will not be tolerated,” Moore said. “OU is welcoming to all students and we will not tolerate any students or organizations that demean our students in any way, period.”

Kathleen Schultz, a high school counselor in an international school in Bangkok, Thailand, said she has started to hear more concerns about campus climate since the 2016 election, particularly from the Sikh students she works with.

“I don’t think the question comes up about politics, but more about how people are acting out their political beliefs or speaking about their differences. Students are worried about how they will be treated because they ‘look’ different,” Schultz told NACAC.

“It has been a challenge to know what to say. Politics seems especially challenging at the moment…University campuses have been some of the places where students have been welcomed and encouraged to think for themselves and question beliefs,” Schultz noted. “I don’t know if the student experience will be different, but I am more concerned by the actions I hear being taken off-campus and I am not so sure they will be completely immune from personal attacks because of their appearance. There seems to be a lack of civility.”

The challenges faced at St. Louis University as a result of civil unrest in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, and the Occupy SLU movement will be discussed at NACAC’s upcoming national conference. Panelists from SLU will discuss how they handled discussing campus climate with current and potential students and parents in the “Cutting through a Crisis: Guiding Prospective Students and Families During Times of Unrest” conference session.

Ashley Dobson is NACAC’s communications manager for content and social media. You can reach her at adobson@nacacnet.org.

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