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USA Today, Hechinger Report create interactive guide to culture on college campuses

College Welcome Guide aggregates information to help paint comprehensive picture of campuses
USA+Today%2C+Hechinger+Report+create+interactive+guide+to+culture+on+college+campuses
Abigail Leavins

Each year, US News releases their “Best National University” Rankings, which students can use to help inform their college decision process. This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison ranked #35, up from #38 the previous year.

UW has also been at the forefront of clashes about diversity and free speech on college campuses.

Most recently, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos promised to withhold pay raises for UW employees until the university cuts its diversity, equity and inclusion spending by $32 million, according to AP News. In a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers announced his decision to sue the GOP lawmakers for the move, which he said is one of many abuses of the separation of powers.

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In this period of increased scrutiny of DEI initiatives, free speech and political climate on college campuses, some incoming students are looking at more than just rankings as they make their college decisions, according to USA TODAY.

To help paint a more comprehensive picture of campus culture, USA TODAY and The Hechinger Report partnered to create the College Welcome Guide, which includes three interactive tools showing state laws and institutional policies affecting college and university students.

The guide

The first tool in the College Welcome Guide shows student body demographics, faculty demographics, services for veterans, graduation rates, services for students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ resource centers, speech climate, hate crimes and Pell Grant statistics on campuses.

The second tool shows states with higher ed policies on DEI and CRT, states with anti LGBTQ+, anti-trans and abortion laws. It also shows tuition policies and financial aid for undocumented students, tuition policies for veterans, LGBTQ+ profiles in the state and whether student IDs are accepted to vote.

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The final tool allows users to compare graduation rates by race and ethnicity.

The guide compiles data from over 4,000 colleges and universities, with indicators showing whether the school is religiously affiliated or specifically serves students who are Black, Hispanic, Asian-American and Indigenous. It also shows which institutions are in rural places or serve students from rural areas.

Director of the Office of Student Transition and Family Engagement Carren Martin said she wouldn’t rely on any one factor when choosing a college. Rather, she said it is important to get many different kinds of data points — personal testimony from students, campus visits, virtual visits and online panels. Martin said the best way to get a feel for campus culture is through a campus visit, if accessible, because there are certain things that can only be absorbed in person. 

“Sometimes there’s no substitute for the feel of what a place is like or what it feels like to walk around on that campus, “ Martin said. “I think for sure there are people that want to look specifically through that DEI lens at things that might be more meaningful to them culturally.”

Martin said if she could change one thing about the tool, she would make the first tool more comparative. She said it could be beneficial to users to be able to compare stats from two or three schools at one time.

“A number, if it’s just standing alone, is just a number,” Martin said. “I’d love to see two schools side by side.”

A look at UW

According to Martin, the tool is useful because it eliminates the need to search for each statistic on individual campus sites.

“It is a nice aggregation of things if you’re wanting to look through some particular lenses and get the information drilled down to that in a more efficient and digestible way,” Martin said.

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US News rankings relied heaviest on graduation rates, peer assessment, graduation rate performance and financial resources per student. Senior Associate Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning Wren Singer said students who use tools or rankings to help make their decision should look at many tools to keep everything in perspective.

“Selecting a college is an important and individual task and most rankings and tools like these attempt to simplify a very complex decision in ways that aren’t really meaningful for an individual,” Singer said.

According to the College Welcome Guide, UW has an average speech climate. New York University, which tied with UW in the US News Best National University rankings, has a below average speech climate. Princeton, which ranked first in the US News rankings, also has a below average speech climate.

According to the guide, UW has 24,006 white students, 855 Black students, 3,193 Asian students and 2,504 Hispanic students. NYU has 7,285 white students, 2,526 Black students, 6,060 Asian students and 5,313 Hispanic students. Princeton has 2,085 white students, 448 Black students, 1,211 Asian students and 563 Hispanic students.

Unlike New York and New Jersey, Wisconsin does not provide financial aid for undocumented students, according to the guide. None of the three states have anti-trans or anti LGBTQ+ laws.

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