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One Practical Benefit of a Liberal Arts Education: Knowing What You Know

Originally published at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/one-practical-benefit-of-liberal-arts_b_5951694.html

My bachelor’s degree — with majors in management and economics — was earned at a liberal arts college (then St. Andrews Presbyterian College, now St. Andrews University, a branch of Webber International University). And, there’s no disputing that the subject matter served me well… while, like every freshly minted college graduate, I was in for a rude awakening my first day on the job, I had a substantial and relevant foundation. But there was benefit beyond the degree — benefit available to any student irrespective of his or her major, by virtue of the educational philosophy. And, part of this benefit, and one that has served me well, is the ability to know what one knows.

I spend most of my time in Florida, where we have a very controversial amendment on the ballot for our upcoming election. Of the literally hundreds of people who have expressed an opinion to me, often an opinion that is going to drive how he or she votes, exactly one had actually read the amendment. Irrespective of how one feels about the issue, there is a distinct difference between knowing what the commercials say the amendment says and actually knowing what the amendment says. And, fun though it is to pick on Christians for believing this or Moslems for believing that, rare is the person on the soapbox who has actually read the text, even a translated version, much less the Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic versions. And, again, there is a definitive difference between knowing what someone has said the fundamental principles are and actually reading what the fundamental principles are. And, there’s even a bigger difference between knowing the fundamental principles and inferring the principles from the expressions and/or behavior of someone who might know them from having actually read them, or might just know what someone said they were. And, then, even worse, are the things we claim to just know a-priori.

Math and science are not my areas of expertise, but I do read articles in the popular press and, if something really interests me, the occasional abstract, and based on this, it appears to me that there are very few things we know a-priori. So, as long as mathematicians and quantum mechanics post-docs with great knowledge in the subject matter debate the possibility of factoring very large numbers, I’m going to remain skeptical that you actually know Bitcoin is absolutely uncrackable. And, having recently had a sleepless night preparing to say goodbye to our dog after not one but two veterinarians told us “he’s a boxer; he has a brain tumor,” don’t even get me started on the difference between stereotypes and actual knowledge of particular individual or situation (he does not — and I’m relatively sure I know this because I read the science behind the tests subsequently and know the probabilities of a false negative — have a brain tumor). Inference is, by definition, an imperfect way to approximate knowledge.

And that is one extraordinarily valuable practical benefit of a liberal arts education: knowing what you know (and, conversely, what you do not). Having been forced in college to read the English translation of The Communist Manifesto, I actually know what Marx and Engels had in mind. Having been forced to read portions of the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita doesn’t make me an expert on any of these religions, but it does give me a grasp of the key fundamental beliefs of the religions subscribed to by the majority of the world’s inhabitants. Conversely, having bothered to learn nothing of their beliefs, I know nothing about Druidism. And, beyond knowledge, even the framework of knowledge is important: Having learned the difference between “valid” and “sound” has been worth its weight in gold. Having had a couple of near misses in my own career by presenting someone else’s numbers as correct without actually knowing them to be so, I cannot help but think of the careers that might not have ended had someone known to preface what he or she was about to say with “assuming that the assumptions are correct…”

“Why doesn’t a philosophy professor need an umbrella?” went the old campus joke. “He can just presume it’s not raining.” Funny on campus; less so in the board room. And, knowing that the math behind public key cryptology and the biology behind recombinant cures for cancer are just beyond my technical ability are understandings of my own limitations which circumscribe my utterances of a-priori knowledge about things I just cannot understand, much less know, thereby saving me much embarrassment when amongst my friends who do actually know about such things.

Subject matter aside, teaching students to know what they know (and, conversely, what they do not know) is one of the great benefits of a liberal arts education. The continuum between what one knows, what one thinks he or she knows from inference, what one has been told by third parties, and what one thinks simply because it is what one thinks is even more important in the workplace than it is in the classroom. And, fun though the childhood game telephone is, in real life, the consequences of using an accounting of an interpretation of an accounting versus the actual source document can be severe.

Having hired a bunch of people, having fired a bunch of people, making decision about people’s careers on a daily basis, I’m here to tell you that knowing what you know is a valuable, valuable talent. And, having gotten a good foundation of it at a liberal arts college (with a bit of painful remediation in the real world), I’m here to tell you that college is a far cheaper place to learn this than is the workplace.

Five Tips for Moving to College You Probably Won’t Find in the Orientation Packets

Originally published at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/five-tips-for-moving-to-c_b_5637387.html

You’d think things would be pretty quiet on a college campus over the summer. But, they’re not. There are enough things that are just easier to do in summer that we stay pretty busy… it’s harder to paint around students than you might think, and they’ve always got stuff under their bed, so it’s our only chance to vacuum, much less shampoo, under there! We’re still taking care of getting students enrolled (yes, it’s late in the game and it’s a bit tougher to secure a spot, but some students change their mind about which college is right for them, so we’ll still talk to students in the summer and try to find them a place in the fall if it seems like a good fit). And, as we’ve been doing about this time of year since 1896, we’re putting together that much anticipated orientation packet for new students. Here are 5 important tips you probably won’t find in most orientation packets.

1) Talk to Your Roommate Before You Get to Campus. Roommates very frequently form lifetime friendships and can be handy in dealing with those first few days of not knowing anyone (interesting tidbit related to the “what if I don’t like my roommate” question: 10% of students come in during the first few hours requesting a roommate change; fewer than 1/10 of 1% come back after the “give it two weeks and if you still hate your roommate, come back and we’ll happily move you” period). And, they are often planning on bringing the same stuff you are. A little advanced coordination can make for more stuff and more space! I’ve seen dorms at dozens of colleges, and I’ve yet to see one with ample storage space, so one ironing board really is better than two. We’ve also seen students pool their money and buy some awesome stuff (best so far: 11 international students purchased a 1970’s van – which they dubbed The Frenchmobile and actually drove across country over spring break – complete with gray primer on the fenders and orange shag carpet on the walls and ceiling).

2) Postpone the Visit to the Store Until You Arrive. While our dorm rooms are comparatively large, space – especially storage space — is still at a premium. It’s worth looking around before going shopping. For example, we provide students with a microwave… rare is the student who needs two microwaves and, unlike the one you brought from home, if ours breaks we’ll just give you another. I drink the tap water (and I’m the guy who actually reads the annual reports water companies file)… you should at least taste it before lugging cases of bottled water from home. Your roommate might bring a shower curtain, a wireless router, or even the latest game console. And, if he or she doesn’t, we run free shuttles to Walmart every day during orientation and every Wednesday thereafter. Students often specially purchase, transport, and end up having to store things they just don’t need. We’ve got stores here… and daily UPS, USPS, and FedEx deliveries too. So does most every other school. And, if you arrive without transportation, most schools have some way to get you to the store, especially during the first few days.

3) Actually, You Might Want to Postpone a Few Things Until You Get Here. We treat student information as sacrosanct, so you’re not going to get the kind of mailings you might get if we sold your name (we get calls, and it’s a decent little moneymaker, but we simply are not going to sell students’ names, ever). But, just we haven’t bombarded you with junk mail or allowed other to do so doesn’t mean we’re unaware of the services you need. The four local banks who are willing to offer free checking accounts to our students will be set up in the lobby (and, they’ll probably have t-shirts, or at least pens and candy). Presuming they’re willing to offer a student discount again this year, AAA will be there too. We’ll have a stack of coupon books for you too… you won’t need pest control since we provide that, but the pizza and car service coupons tend to be pretty good. Most schools have local merchants who understand the value of catering to students (and that often means discounts).

4) Have an Emergency Plan (and be sure it corresponds with the school’s). Our main campus is in Central Florida, so we very rarely get tropical force winds. I have friends who run schools who get the occasional earthquake, or even volcano. Everywhere has some occasional natural weather issue to deal with. None of this stuff happens often, of course, but when it does, students are faced with an important decision… do they stay put? Go home? Go somewhere else? Probably worth a discussion before you leave home. We don’t ask students to leave campus in the event of severe weather. Our thought is we told them and their parents we’d take care of them, so we’re darned sure not going to ask them to leave if severe weather threatens. But that isn’t every school’s policy, and it’s one of those things worth checking. This also applies to those living off-campus (yes, it’s true… while you give up an awful lot of the college experience in return, assuming nothing goes wrong, and while I’ve never, ever heard anyone lament their 20th reunion “I sure wish I had lived off-campus”, you can sometimes save a little money by living off-campus). If our off-campus students don’t feel their homes are safe, we’ll find them a place to sleep on campus until severe weather passes. But, again, that’s not every school’s policy. Phone lines get busy during emergencies. Parents worry. Heck, while you’re having the discussion, why not sign yourself and your parent’s up for your school’s emergency text notification system?

5) Plan That First Visit Home (but not TOO soon!) I am not anti-waffle. You don’t get a body like mine without liking waffles. But, the fire marshal is going to do an inspection at some point (there’s a reason 94% of college fire fatalities actually happen in off-campus housing), and your waffle iron is going to get a ticket, so we’re just going to save everyone trouble and make you take it home. And, you almost certainly forgot something. And while we don’t make any money on the laundry, free washers and driers are still better. And, besides, your parents miss you. But, don’t go too soon or too often… part of the college experience involves “being there”. Even though schools plan a bunch of great activities, many others “just happen” spontaneously.

College is a great time. And, a little advanced work makes it even greater!

Top Five Tips for Parents Whose Students Are Off to College for the First Time

Originally published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/top-five-tips-for-parents_b_5629641.html

It’s that time of year… students are heading off to college, often for the first time. And, both they and their parents are nervous.

We’ve been around since 1896. So, quite literally, the first students were dropped off at our gates via horse and buggy. In the early 1900’s, the Webber Express train shuttled faculty, staff, and students from our summer campus in Boston to our winter campus in Babson Park, Florida. So, we’ve seen a lot of anxious parents over the decades. Take a deep breath — it will be okay, we’re going to take good care of them — and read these top five tips.

1) Give it time. Your son or daughter just got thrust into adulthood. It’s a big transition. They don’t yet have a lot of experience being an adult. Lots of things are going on. It’s stressful. They’ll adjust. Give it a little while. About 10 percent of our students come, within the first hour or two of meeting their roommate (often the first person with whom they have ever shared a room) asking to change roommates and are reminded of our “no matter how much you hate your roommate, you cannot change rooms for two weeks” policy. And, an amazing thing happens: fewer than ½ of 1 percent come back to actually change roommates. The vast majority, having had dozens of opportunities to switch accommodations and/or roommates, are still roommates at graduation. Many go to each other’s weddings — often a few states or even a few continents away — and other events years or decades after graduation.

2) Sometimes, it’s just venting. Few colleges are, in fact, evil. We’re a small school which actually makes faculty teach instead of shoving it off on graduate assistants. We insist that professors have office hours during which a student can walk in without an appointment and talk to their actual professor (imagine the indignity of students just being able to walk in and talk to their professor!) Yet, we get over 200 applications for any faculty position we post. I simply don’t need to hire bad faculty. And what do you really think is more likely… the entire kitchen staff forgot we were serving breakfast just like we did for the last 42,522 mornings in a row – including on rare occasions through a power outage — and not a single employee showed up, or your son or daughter slept through breakfast?

3) College is a full time job. The best thing about my job is graduation, when we see folks who walked in kids leaving as adults, more often than not with their first job already lined up. We have moderately selective admissions and incredibly high job placement rates. The only way to pull that off is by being intense. College is intense, and a lot of work. And, your son or daughter has a schedule to follow, and it can be pretty unforgiving (a couple of consecutive days of missed math class can sink you!) They simply cannot be missing a lot of class the 32 weeks a year we have them; they’ll be home 20 weeks (plus an occasional long weekend). You just don’t do them any favors by making them choose between attending a family event and taking their final exam.

4) Keep giving good advice. Amazingly, the downhill slide during high school reverses itself and parents start getting smarter during college! I’ve told them to go to class, even if they are sleepy. I’ve told them not to leave their phone lying around because we know folks who have had their phone stolen at church — church! I’ve told them that even on safe campuses bad things can happen so they need to sign up for the emergency messaging service, look both ways before crossing the street, and be aware of their surroundings, especially when they venture off campus to the big city.

And, I’ve told them that if they find themselves off campus not able to drive home, we’ll send someone to get them and bring them home, even if they are not of lawful drinking age (don’t fool yourself… there’s a bar near campus – every campus – which doesn’t card). And, I’ve told them if they have a fever they should go see the nurse, and, if she sends them to the doctor, they should go (that’s why we make them have good insurance). Hearing the same good advice from you surely cannot hurt. You just think they’re not listening to you.

5) Resist the urge to call the college or university. You’ll be tempted, but resist. Of course it would be more efficient than letting your student deal with it. You and I have had years and years of experience at it, so we are better at solving problems than is your son or daughter. But no good college is going to do anything for you they would not do for your son or daughter. Sure, you and I could almost certainly fix a problem — almost any problem — quicker than could your son or daughter, because we’ve learned all those social navigation skills and all those problem solving skills. But, we don’t really need to learn how to do these things, do we? Better for them to learn these skills at college, with a big safety net under them, than in the workplace. And, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “Oh, I am so embarrassed. I see you every day at lunch and would have come and talked to you if I needed to. I was just having a bad day and needed to talk to someone and had no idea they’d call.”

And, there you have it. It’s a tough transition, for all of you. But I walk through the campus every single day, and I see the weekend laundry runs (new popular item on campus: laundry hampers with wheels and handles). They’ll be back to visit, snack, do laundry, and stock up on supplies soon and you’ll doubtlessly be both saddened and filled with joy to note that they’ve grown a bit with every visit!

Friday Short: The Fine Art of Following Instructions

First published at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/friday-short-the-fine-art_b_5049631.html

I love this time of year at Webber International University. The smell of orange blossoms permeates the air. Students spend their relaxing hours enjoying the lakeshore: playing beach volleyball, hanging out by the pool (that’s what we do in Florida in March, you see), kayaking across the lake. And, there are the job interviews. The campus is abuzz with young men and women in their interview clothes… getting a résumé checked here, getting inside information about an industry there. Which brings us to this week’s Friday Short: The Fine Art of Following Instructions.

I get at least 100 applications for each job I post… on rare occasions, it’s more than a thousand. And, I have to assume that since getting a job is the single most important thing to many people, there is no assignment I can ever give you which will be more important to you. My thought is your résumé is the very best work you can do. And I am super busy. So, the first screen is pretty tough. A lot of candidates — possibly good candidates — get tossed into the “no thanks” pile (from which there is no appeal) by simply not following instructions. Here are some tips for avoiding their most common mistakes.

1) Send the file in the format the person doing the hiring wants it. Many companies use automated screening tools. Sure, plain text is boring, but if the software can’t read your résumé, the chances aren’t good that you’re going to get the interview. I specifically ask for résumés in .PDF format only, because Adobe Reader, to the best of my knowledge, cannot run an embedded virus or macro. The folks who choose to send me Word documents instead of what I asked for never, ever have them read because, since I don’t know them and am not familiar with their data security processes, I’m not opening a Word document from them.

2) If the ad says “no phone calls”, don’t call. It is not a “courtesy” to me to interrupt my work with a “courtesy call” about your résumé. It shows, at a time when one is trying really hard to make a great impression, a willingness to disregard instructions. And, it says to me that the applicant thinks his or her time is more valuable than mine. He or she is entitled to his or her opinion, but that’s simply not the sort of person I want to spend most of my waking life with.

3) If the ad asks for salary expectations or history, send it. For every job I have, I also have a budget. It’s not in my best interest to pay people poorly… not only does it lead to bad morale which leads to bad customer service, but it’s not like I get to keep whatever I don’t spend. But what I’ve got to pay for a particular job is all I’ve got, and I couldn’t come up with anymore if my life depended upon it. My time is valuable. Applicants’ time is valuable. Why waste time talking if we’re not even in the same ballpark and therefore just cannot possibly make it work? And since I’ve got at least 100 applications to get through before I can go home for the day, I’m just not spending a lot of time dealing with folks who won’t follow instructions.

4) If they ask for extras, send them. As just one example, we’ve got a lot of jobs that don’t require an electrician’s license; but for the ones which do, it’s a non-negotiable. And, we’ve had enough folks trying to negotiate it that if you don’t send your license with your resume, we’re not calling you.

5) Bonus Tip: Robots are even more demanding than humans! Here’s a really cool graphic that shows just how prevalent robotic screening is. Simple fact: If the algorithm is looking for particular words and you have not parroted them back from the ad, you’re joining the 75 percent who don’t make the cut!

It’s still a tough job market out there. And, many of those who do have jobs are doing more work than ever. Many of the folks doing the initial screening of résumés are very nice people, with lots of other stuff they have to do. So making it easy on them — by following instructions — seems like an easy way to improve one’s odds!

Friday Short: Sometimes You Have To Prove Yourself First

First published at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/friday-short-lessons-from_b_4917997.html

Even though it’s still technically winter (and so chilly here at our Central Florida campus that just last week our beach volleyball team had to put shorts on over their bathing suits!) spring is definitely in the air. And, at Webber International University, that means it’s all about the job… first real job, summer job, or an internship. And, there’s just something about those of us drawn to higher education… we cannot help sharing advice, solicited or not. So, here’s this week’s Friday short: sometimes you have to prove yourself first.

We had the Secret Service on campus recruiting this week. Pretty sweet gig if law enforcement is your chosen career. But, along with detailing the fabulous career paths available for those who perform, the recruiter was careful to tell students that their first assignment would most assuredly not be the White House, but would rather be somewhere nobody with any seniority wanted to work. “Yup,” I thought, “that’s how it worked at my first job. First you get in, then you show them what you’re made of.”

I’ll admit it… I didn’t go to college to raise heck or find myself. I went because the lifestyle I wanted to live required a salary that generally wasn’t obtainable without a college degree. Just a couple of weeks out of college, I left home and reported for duty at my first real job.

And it actually was a fabulous and wonderful job. I went to work for Zoo Atlanta just after the city of Atlanta realized that private industry is better at running a zoo than is a city and gave the zoo to a private, not-for-profit company. We had nowhere to go but up, and we were determined to get there as quickly as possible! Every day was an adventure, and numerous zoo director careers were launched.

But life is a series of tradeoffs. At the time (those fabulous 80s), the zoo had almost no money (quite literally), so the pay was horrific and the staffing was short. I worked 93 consecutive days — Saturdays, Sundays, holidays — before I got my first day off. And, most of these days, I was at work before the sun rose and there after it set. Once I paid my rent, utilities, gas, taxes and more taxes, etc., I didn’t have money to eat. I very quickly learned that every afternoon at around 5pm, down at the Okefonokee Café, they tossed the unsold food from the serving line into the trash can. And every afternoon about 5pm, I intercepted my dinner just before it hit the aforementioned trash can… on good days it was fried chicken or catfish; some days it was hot dogs; a few days, it just nacho chips. But, it got me through the next few hours of work before I went on home for the day. I worked for wonderful, wonderful people… they weren’t exploitive or evil; they were good folks who, much as they cared about wages and benefits, lacked the ability to conjure money out of thin air and therefore had the money they had, and my job paid what it paid (which was exactly what they said it paid when I took it).

There are those who would have felt exploited. But, I agreed to take a salary and they paid it to me every other week, just like clockwork, so they kept their end of the deal. And, there are those who would have whined that the director (who had a PhD and decades of experience) made so much more than did I, while getting much less sweaty. I took a different path: I went to work early, stayed late, worked weekends and holidays, and busted my butt. Concentrated on doing the job I actually had really well, as opposed to spending my time trying to get the job I actually wanted. I learned a lot, did my job the best I could, said “sir” and “ma’am” to everyone — including my subordinates — and generally proved my worth.

And choosing that path made all the difference. “Are you throwing that cheeseburger away?” didn’t remain the default way of ordering my dinner for too long. When the opportunities to impact pay did become available — someone left, some unexpected money came in, it was a new budget year — I wasn’t just someone who needed more money. I was someone who had proven his worth and dedication, someone who — based on their own observation at their own organization — deserved and had earned more money. And, substitute “responsibility” for “money” in the last paragraph, and it reads just as true. And the really neat thing is that I didn’t have to ask (heck, didn’t have time to ask).

It’s an old fashioned idea, of course. You go in as an unknown… maybe you add value, maybe you don’t. But, little demonstrates one’s value to an employer better than actually performing. And that, for me, is one of the many lessons from my very first job ever: sometimes, before you’re lavished with praise and rewards, you actually have to prove yourself first.

4 Wonderful Things I Learned from the Job I Hated Most

First posted 2/28/2014 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/things-i-learned-from-the-job-i-hated-most_b_4875652.html

It’s that time of year around Webber — the sun is shining, spring is in the air, and seniors are in their interview clothes. And, it’s that time of year when those of us with more experience in the work world just cannot help but try to share what we’ve learned.

I’ve had several wonderful jobs. And, while every job has it’s “I-hate-this-job” moments, I’ve had a couple of jobs I hated most of the time. But I learned an awful lot at the one I hated most. Once upon a time, I was a Business Analyst at Dun & Bradstreet (so were U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, though we never met). D&B is a great company — lots of opportunities, good work environment, good pay, does good and meaningful work that helps keep commerce humming and, consequently, people working. But, it was most assuredly not the right job for me. And, according to my friends who still work there, things have changed a lot in the last few decades, so my experience on the job wasn’t the same as someone would experience today. But, my oh my, was it an experience!

I was just a kid at the time. It was my second job ever. I beat out 400 other applicants, got good training and excelled at it. I was usually the best reporter in the region and occasionally in the nation. And, while it didn’t take me that long to figure out it wasn’t the right job for me, I learned some very valuable things.
•Lesson 1: Nothing substitutes for integrity. Okay, I knew this before I got there. But when I got called into the office because a business owner I quoted said he never spoke to me, things got real very quickly (fortunately, he didn’t remember talking to my manager who was checking up on me either). Integrity was paramount. “It’s true” was the ultimate defense to anything. There were no second chances for “made it up.”

•Lesson 2: Nothing substitutes for results. I had to write 50 cases a week. Felt like it? 50. Didn’t feel like it? 50. Car broke down? 50. Hung over? 50. Lots of folks not at work due to snow on the roads? 50. And a huge chunk of my pay was depending upon adding value to those cases… X pieces of data coming in, X + Y percent of data coming out = bonus. Good reasons for not being able to do it? Explanations for lack of performance? Excuses? Generally got you a “Wow, if I had your numbers, I’d be on the phone calling instead of here telling me why I couldn’t do my job.” One performed or one did not perform, and no amount of babbling defected attention away from whether you were one of the ones adding value or one of the ones consuming resources without producing. One didn’t last long in the latter camp.

•Lesson 3: Pressure builds competencies; results build confidence. Where you stood was always up there on the “big board” in dry erase marker. To say that one got a bit of ribbing if he or she were near the bottom of the heap is to put it charitably; fortunately — you’ll remember I beat out 400 other folks for my job — if one stayed at the bottom of the heap, he or she didn’t have to put up with it long! It’s amazing what that kind of pressure cooker — together with being 23 and not knowing any better — will do. I called and got through to the chairman of Boeing. I called the president of Supercuts at home and we had a great conversation. Bankers and CEO’s returning your call — and big, old stacks of cash when you did meet your goals — did a whole lot to boost confidence.

•Lesson 4: It’s all about filling needs. It seems like an impossible job really: call up business owners, get them to tell you all the details of their business for a report you’re going to sell to folks they may or may not want having it. And you couldn’t even sell the credit rating, really, since some got horrific ratings or none at all. So it really took a good deal of seeing it from the other perspective to make it. Those who made it learned how to explain to business owners what was in it for them (largely credibility and verifiability).

That’s the neat thing about life. You learn something new every day. And, some of those lessons last a lifetime.

Five Important Things to Look At in Off-Campus Housing

First published 08/07/2013 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-wade/five-important-things-to-_b_3719386.html

I run a university which provides student housing.  Whatever your budget or taste, we’ve got something — from a basic shared room with the bathroom down the hall, to a private apartment style room complete with private entrance and private bath.  And an extraordinarily important part of college life — one that 20 years later folks who experienced still talk about and those who did not experience still lament forgoing — is living on campus.  College is about more than the classroom, and lots of things happen quickly and without a lot of advanced notice.  When it comes to being an engaged part of the college community, being there is half the battle! And, when all the costs are factored in, for many students, living on campus is their least expensive option.  But, I’ve got more folks who want one of these rooms than I do rooms.  So, we end up with students living in private residences off campus.  Some have great experiences.  Some, not so great.  Much of this has to do, frankly, with doing one’s homework.

We find students have a few reasons for wanting to live off campus.  Some do, in fact, save money.  We are cognizant of the sacrifices students (and often their families) make to go to college, so we’re a not-for-profit which runs lean.  But there are some things we don’t skimp on which add costs “off the books and under the radar” housing providers can avoid (anyone who has ever taken a “gypsy cab” across New York will know exactly what I am talking about here).  We pay security.  We pay resident assistants.  We actually have staff who live on campus. We comply with building codes.   The fire inspector comes and inspects our facilities on a regular basis.  Safety does not come cheap; square foot by square foot, a modest college dorm room can cost more to build than a luxury home.  It’s going to be largely the same with any housing at any reputable college.  “Can you pay me in cash?” rentals can be a different story:  we’ve seen students live as cheaply as $100 a month by sharing a two bedroom, two bath house with five other women.  Not my cup of tea, but it works for some, and, done right, can indeed reduce the cost of living.  Some move off campus because they want to escape the rules and regulations inherent in college living.  To the great disappointment of some freshmen who believe that Animal House was a documentary, very few colleges today allow drunken orgies — or even full on keggers — on campus.  We try not to be overly intrusive in the lives of our students, but we do have a mosaic of rules, resident assistants, and grown up staff in place.  And, some, of course, are taking another step towards adulthood — paying rent, putting deposits down on utilities, negotiating with roommates.

Regardless of the reason for the decision, before you take the plunge and live off campus, you need to do your homework.  Here are five important things to consider and ask about when considering off-campus housing.

1) What fire protection is in place? Little is scarier on a college campus than a fire.  But, fact is, the vast majority of fires tragically claiming the lives of college students happen at off campus housing.   Since 2000, 14 times as many students (86 percent) have died in off campus fires than in either on campus or Greek (i.e., fraternity or sorority) housing fires (6 percent each). That’s a staggering number.  Ask to see the last fire department inspection (don’t be surprised if there wasn’t one — many students live in what authorities believe are single family private homes).  Check the fire extinguisher pressure gauges.  Be sure the secondary exits (often bedroom windows) are actually functioning.  Check smoke detectors.  Heck, why not check the circuit breaker box?  You don’t have to be an electrician to be wary of wires stapled up the wall and over the ceiling!

2) Check the security. When’s the last time they’ve changed the locks?  Is it a difficult to duplicate key?  Do locks on the doors and windows actually work?  How’s crime?  If the neighborhood doesn’t have online crime reports (a couple of neat sites are My Neighborhood Update and Crime Mapping) the local police are usually happy to tell you what they know.  Does law enforcement know college students live there?  A sad fact of life is that there are those who prey on college students.  While many law enforcement agencies make it a point to “drive by when we’re in the neighborhood,” they cannot do this with houses which deliberately “fly under the radar.” 

3) Read the lease. Twice.  This is where many of our students get burned, as often as not because there is no lease. 

4) Find out about maintenance. First thing we do in my office each morning:  follow up on maintenance requests we think are taking too long.  We might not have a spare everything, but we have a couple of spare air conditioners, refrigerators, and toilet flappers on the shelf at any given time.  Who do I call to fix things?  Is it 24/7?  All good questions.

5) Check the roommates, especially if you’re jointly responsible for rent and/or utilities. We’ve had students get stuck with the entire rent on four bedroom houses.  And, lifestyle is important too.  I’ve got dozens of rooms just alike — the folks who check “stay up late” on their questionnaires go in rooms together; the folks who write “in bed by 9″ go in rooms together.  If you really hate your roommate on campus, we’ll let you move.  If you’re stuck with someone for the entire school year, you’d better not hate them!

For many students, that first “my own place” — even if it is shared with others and parents help pay the rent — is a wonderful, magical time.  But, for others, it is a nightmare.  Sure, there’s plenty of homework in college without making your own.  But this is some that is really worth doing:  for those choosing to live off campus, a little bit of due diligence can help make it a good experience.

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