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How Some Colleges Deceive Students, Parents

By Marty Nemko

As fall begins, two million students and their families start to make one of life’s most critical decisions: picking a college.

Alas some colleges, even some reputable ones, don’t make the process easy.

DECEPTION: BURIED INFORMATION. Some colleges hide such information as their full published cost of attendance or their four-year graduation rate. The unfortunate truth is that the median four-year graduation rate at four-year colleges is just 37 percent. The rate at many colleges, including some well-known public universities is under 10 percent!

SOLUTION: Every college’s 4- and 6-year graduation rate and other key information are at

DECEPTION: OFFER MAJORS THAT APPEAR TO LEAD TO A COOL CAREER. For example, some colleges offer enticing majors such as journalism, but fail to mention

that may only enter the major after their sophomore year and, even then, competition may prohibit some students from being admitted to the major. Or a college withholds the fact that most of that college’s graduates never earn enough from journalism to even pay back their student loans.

SOLUTION: Contact the college’s career center and ask, “If I am admitted to the college, am I admitted to the major?” Also ask, “What percentage of graduates in (Insert major) are professionally employed within six months of graduation?”

DECEPTION: LIE WITH STATISTICS. For example, the University of California trumpets that half its classes have 20 or fewer students. The problem is that few students take those small classes, for example, Advanced Greek. The commonly taken classes typically have 100 to 500 students.

SOLUTION: Don’t sign on the dotted line until you’ve asked students or at least the admissions office, “How many students are in commonly taken classes such as calculus or 20th century literature?”

DECEPTION: LIE WITH STATISTICS #2: A college reports a freshman-sophomore return rate of X% of those eligible to return. (emphasis mine) most people don’t notice that italicized phrase, but it’s crucial. The actual rate would be much lower.

SOLUTION: Ask the admissions office for the retention rate for the full cohort of freshmen.

DECEPTION: LIE WITH STATISTICS #3: Be wary of colleges that say things like, "Ninety eight percent of qualified pre-med students get into medical school." A college may well only “qualify” those students who are a sure bet for admission, with the vast majority of pre-meds being deemed “unqualified.”

SOLUTION: Ask the program’s department chair: “Of every 100 students who start out pre-med (or pre-law) what percent end up actually attending medical (or law) school?”

DECEPTION: THE GLOSSY BROCHURE: Beware of colleges that have fancy brochures or web pages touting their, say, pre-med program. A slick presentation does not a good department make.

SOLUTION: Sit in on an advanced class in that program. After class, ask the students how they liked the program.

DECEPTION: HIDE BIAS. Some colleges claim to celebrate diversity of ideas, yet most of their classes are biased in one direction, with other ideas presented mainly to be denigrated. The best education fairly examines a wide range of perspectives.

SOLUTION: Before signing on the dotted line, look at the college’s social science syllabi online and see if they’re truly diverse. Or visit the campus bookstore and see what books are assigned.

DECEPTION: THE SCHOLARSHIP SCAM: A college gives you a scholarship. You say, "Wow, I'll go there; they want me." In actuality, most or all freshmen may have received the same scholarship. Many colleges reduce the sticker price of attendance for most students in hopes that students are lured to the college by the "honor" of receiving a scholarship.

SOLUTION: When you receive your financial aid packages, compare the cash dollars you’ll have to come up with and the amount of loan you’ll have to repay. Those are the only numbers that count.

DECEPTION: THE DRUG-DEALER APPROACH TO FINANCIAL AID. A college gives a student a big discount in the first year, but thereafter, knowing the student is hooked, raises the price. A college may even guarantee “the same amount of aid for four years,” but fail to mention that more of the aid will be loan not grant, or that the aid won’t be increased to reflect the inevitable cost increases during the four years. Not to mention what would happen in years five or six?

SOLUTION: Before agreeing to send your child to a college, ask the college's financial aid officer, “If our family’s financial situation stays the same, in years two through four, and if necessary year five, can we count on getting the same percentage of our unmet need met and in the same ratio of grant to loan?” Get it in writing.

DECEPTION: THE WAITLIST SCAM. A college deliberately admits too few students and puts many students on the waitlist. It's human nature to want what you don't yet have, so waitlisted students who are subsequently offered admission are more likely to accept a weak financial aid package. Colleges with insufficient on-campus housing use the same technique, offering admission to waitlisted students who would be willing to live in substandard housing such as a local motel or YMCA.

SOLUTION: Don’t accept a too-low financial aid package. And before signing on the dotted line, ask what housing you will be guaranteed, and for how long. Get it in writing.

We tend to view colleges in awe, as beneficent nonprofit icons. Alas, too many of them act like sleazy businesses. Caveat emptor.

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