Reporter’s notebook: Why we created the College Welcome Guide

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Higher Education newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Thursday with trends and top stories about higher education. 

Choosing a college has always been an excruciating, time-consuming process for prospective students and their families. But it seems to be getting even more difficult.

These days, after prospective students have figured out how to pay, how close to home they want to be, which schools offer majors they’re interested in studying, and whether the sports teams are ones they’d be proud to cheer for, there are about a zillion other things to consider. Among them: Will there be other students like them in race, gender and sexuality or political orientation? Are there laws in the state that might affect their life and education? Will there be guest speakers or outspoken professors who are shouted down on campus or banned from speaking altogether? Are they going to feel comfortable and safe walking to the nearest grocery store for instant ramen and Red Bull during finals week?

Amid the flurry of questions, one thing is clear: The culture wars are starting to affect where students choose to go for college.

Until now, when planning for college, students and families have been left to do a zillion Google searches on their own, especially if they want to learn what factors influence the social climate of any given campus. Until now, there hasn’t been an easy, one-stop-shop way to assess where a student might feel welcome.

This week, The Hechinger Report launched the College Welcome Guide, an interactive tool that allows you to search by state or any college in the nation for factors such as the racial diversity of students and faculty, freedom of speech, whether the college has an LGBTQ+ resource center, local regulations on abortion access and whether the state has enacted any legislation that might affect the way certain topics are taught.

The College Welcome Guide can also tell you the percentage of students who get Pell Grants (federal aid for students from low-income families); graduation rates by race; whether a state offers in-state tuition to undocumented students; state-level policies on tuition benefits for student veterans, and other campus data.  

The idea behind putting these various elements together in one place was to make the increasingly long and daunting process of choosing a college a bit easier and less intimidating. We don’t purport to know what college is best for anyone, but we hope that with so much information in one place, people will be able to compare options and make the best choices. 

I was one of the Hechinger journalists who worked on this guide, and I’d like to tell you a little bit about the herculean lift by our higher education team that brought it to life.  

My colleagues Jon Marcus and Fazil Khan got the idea in June, while many of us were at the Education Writers Association’s national conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

When they came back with the proposal, many of us thought it was admirable but might be impossible. If it could be done, why hadn’t someone already done it?

We started by compiling a list of all the questions we’d like the then-hypothetical tool to be able to answer, and split up the data-scavenging duties among our staff. Most of what we set out to collect, we collected. (Not everything, though! More on that in an upcoming newsletter.) And, like everything we publish, it’s all been rigorously fact-checked.

Related: Culture wars on campus start to affect students’ choices for college

Much of the data on student outcomes and diversity comes from the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). For cultural climate and local policy data, we relied on the work of researchers and nonprofits. For example, the Mapping Advancement Project calculates an “equality score” for each state how welcoming or hostile it is to queer and transgender people. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression rates the state of free speech on college campuses with scores from “abysmal” to “exceptional,” based on student surveys. And we got information on state abortion laws from the Center for Reproductive Rights. (You can read more about our methodology here.) 

As the idea started to feel more like a reality, we began to argue over what to call it. We spent what felt like hours on Zoom debating whether it was a tool or an index or a tracker or a guide. It definitely would not be a ranking. We wanted to accurately describe it without being prescriptive or biased. While tedious, the back-and-forth helped us drill down even more specifically toward defining the tool’s purpose. 

We don’t purport to know what college is best for anyone, but we hope that with so much information in one place, people will be able to compare options and make the best choices. 

We had to go back to what was driving this project from the beginning. We wanted to help prospective college students answer the question: Will I feel welcome on that campus? 

The name “The College Welcome Guide” seems so obvious now, but even the word “welcome” was contested. As journalists, we do our best to remain neutral, and we worried that the word “welcome” might turn off prospective students and families who didn’t necessarily want a college that would be welcoming to everyone. 

Ultimately, we decided that every student, regardless of identity or political affiliation, wants to feel welcome on campus. What might make them feel welcome is different, but this tool measures a wide array of issues that might be important to students, regardless of what side of an issue they’re on.

For background, Jon Marcus’s story tells  more about what factors are influencing college applicants today, We hope his story, in combination with our College Welcome Guide, will be helpful to anyone who is thinking about enrolling – or re-enrolling – in college.

This story about choosing colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

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