10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a College or University

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There are currently 17,487,475 students currently enrolled in postsecondary education at one of our nation’s 4,140 higher learning institutions. In order to ensure the success of our higher ed. students, a safe and secure learning environment is critical. In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, many colleges and universities have made increased campus security a top priority. Although there is a push for increased on-campus security at most all learning institutions, it is critical for prospective students (and their families) to do their due diligence and consider a school’s safety and security policies before they enroll in that institution. Here are ten questions to help you understand whether a college/university is safe and secure:

  1. Does your prospective institution have a strategic plan in place? Strategic planning is a critically important instrument in preparing for a potential emergency. You should ask university officials if they have a strategic plan and if you may see it. Their strategic plan should be beyond IT-centric and should incorporate methods to identify gaps and vulnerabilities, including evaluation and prioritization of personnel, functions, facilities, equipment, operations, suppliers, and vendors.  
  2. Has the institution conducted a comprehensive risk and threat analysis in the past five years? If not, their emergency plans as well as campus safety and security efforts are inadequate. Current standards suggest that consultants should be hired every five years to assess potential hazards and threats that may affect the institution as well as students, faculty, staff and visitors.**
  3. Are the public safety and/or campus security officers professionals? Are the campuses security officers certified and trained? Are they retired state or local police officers? Do they meet state standards in terms of qualifications and training? Does the Office of Campus Security maintain relations with local law enforcement associations or regional security groups? Is campus security adequately funded? If the answer to any of these questions is no, it could point to ill-equipped officers that would be unable to successfully contain/react to a potentially dangerous event.
  4. Does the institution employ their own security staff or do they rely on local law enforcement entities? This question is important to consider in that if an institution employs their own security force, response times to emergencies may be much faster enabling the institution to respond quickly and efficiently.
  5. Does the institution conduct thorough background checks on faculty and staff? These days, all staff should be background-checked. No exceptions. If an institution does not background-check its faculty and staff, look elsewhere. The majority of postsecondary institutions understand the new obligations in regard to on-campus safety and thus enforce background checks of every employee. 
  6. How does the institution report crimes that occur on or near campus? The Clery Act requires all schools that receive federal student financial aid to:
    1. Publish an annual security report
    2. Have a public crime log
    3. Disclose crime statistics that occur on campus, in unobstructed public areas immediately adjacent to or running through the campus and at certain non-campus facilities. If the prospective institution does not adhere to these safety mandates, look elsewhere.
  7. Is campus security adequately funded? How much money is spent each year protecting students? Is adequate money spent? Are the security officers sufficiently trained? Do they have enough vehicles? Equipment? Weapons? The national norm of total budget spent on campus security is 2.5-3%.** Inadequate funding generally leads to ineffective and inefficient protective services. If you determine funding is lacking, look elsewhere.
  8. Does the institution employ blue lights? Do all campus facilities require swipe card access to enter? Blue lights and swipe card access are now common safety protocol on most U.S. college campuses. Blue lights are scattered about campus to dispatch security if a student feels threatened. Swipe card access requires students or faculty to swipe into all facilities. This curbs trespassing and also accounts for who may be in a building if an emergency arises. If these simple measures are not instituted to promote safety and security, look elsewhere.
  9. Does the institution require mandatory alcohol education? Students make unwise decisions after they’ve been drinking. General alcohol classes designed to teach students the effect of alcohol and also the laws regarding consumption and behavior while under the influence, may help to curb crime on campus. The majority of college campuses are mandating Alcohol Education for all incoming students.
  10. Are counselors available? This question is important to consider in the wake of such instances as Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Aurora Movie Theater, etc. If counselors are available, they may be able to prevent violence on campus. Another related question to ask may be, “Are students encouraged to police one another?” These basic premises, regarding mental wellness, may help to curb violence on college campuses.

Safety and security on college campuses are critical to postsecondary education success. Consider the above questions when weighing potential colleges and universities. Also, utilize The Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool, brought to you by the Office of Postsecondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education.