Searching for the right college match, students and parents usually have plenty of questions about topics like class size, dining options and extracurricular activities. But colleges say they get fewer queries on counseling services and campus security.
That could change after the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech. The group Security on Campus, a nonprofit advocacy group, says a number of high schools are asking for copies of the group's "safety audit," a printed guide to help seniors evaluate campus safety along with other factors as they make their college choice.
Experts emphasize there is no way to anticipate an event like the Virginia Tech shooting. But two big issues it highlighted - campus mental health services and security - are topics every student should care about.
About 13 percent of university students and 25 percent at liberal arts colleges use mental health services, according to The Anxiety Disorders Association of America.
Campus crime varies widely by school, but is more widespread than many students realize. Among about 17 million college students, institutions reported relatively few criminal offenses in the category of murder or non-negligent homicide: just 15 on campuses in 2004, and 48 overall, according to federal figures.
But large communities of peers living together makes colleges more vulnerable to other types of crime. On-campus alone, there nearly 40,000 burglaries and more than 3,600 forcible sexual assaults that year.
Experts say there are questions students and parents can ask during the college search to evaluate a college's mental health and security resources.
COUNSELING: Find out whether a university's counseling center is accredited by the International Association of Counseling Services. If so, it means the center has hit a number of benchmarks in such areas as training and ethics.
The 200 accredited U.S. universities on the group's Web site are mostly larger schools, but students considering smaller schools can ask many of the same questions of college officials, says Keith Anderson, a staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, chair of a national task force on counseling center best practices. Among them:
- What is the ratio of counseling staff to students? (IACS suggests one counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students).
- Is someone from the counseling center available 24 hours a day?
- Are walk-in appointments available? Almost any center will have procedures for emergencies, but without walk-in hours it might take weeks to get a non-emergency appointment.
- Is there a psychiatrist on staff? That's a particularly important question for the growing number of students who arrive on campus already taking medication. If there isn't, students may have to find an off-campus doctor to monitor medication, or have it sent from home.
- Does the counseling center have the resources to focus on prevention, rather than simply treating patients who seek help and respond to emergencies? The best counseling centers have broad outreach programs where they speak regularly to faculty, resident advisers and students about warning signs and available resources, Anderson said.
LOOK AT CAMPUS CRIME STATISTICS: A federal law called the Clery Act requires colleges to release, each year, detailed statistics on campus crime. You can get stats for a particular campus from the U.S. Education Department's Web site, or the site of Security on Campus.
Take the numbers in context, however, by comparing them to schools of similar size. And remember that in some categories, a high number isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"If a school with 10,000 students shows 15 sexual assaults, that may raise a red flag," said Alison Kiss, program director at Security on Campus. "But when you call, you may find out they have phenomenal sexual assault services" so students may feel more comfortable reporting assaults. It's not credible that a large school would have no sexual assaults, and that claim would raise a different kind of red flag.
THINK ABOUT SECURITY ON A CAMPUS VISIT: The "campus audit" published by Security on Campus suggests a number of questions. Do dorm rooms have safety chains and dead bolts? Are doors left propped open? Are there regular security patrols? The audit also suggests asking colleges about their parental notification policies when, for instance, a student is accused of stalking.
GET INFORMATION ON THE CAMPUS POLICE FORCE: At some schools, police are sworn officers with full arrest powers who are as well or better trained than their municipal counterparts. Elsewhere, they are more like private security guards who have to call on better-trained law enforcement in a crisis.
Ask whether the campus police force is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. If so, the campus police have gone through a rigorous evaluation, and are at least on par with a well-trained municipal force. Thirty-nine university police forces have CALEA accreditation (including Virginia Tech), and another 23 are pursuing it.
A campus with a small or unaccredited police force is not necessarily unsafe, but it needs to have a close working relationship with other area police.
ASK ABOUT EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS: Virginia Tech faced criticism for failing to notify students after the shooting of the first two students, which happened two hours before 31 more people, including the gunman, were killed across campus. Police said they believed the first two victims were part of a domestic dispute, but said even if they had tried to shut the campus down, getting the word out to thousands of students and faculty would be difficult.
Better emergency communications with students was already on the agenda at many colleges, but has become more urgent after Virginia Tech. Some schools, like the Universities of Washington and Iowa, are considering warning sirens and outdoor speakers; others are trying to see if new cell phone technologies might help (one problem: it's hard for colleges to keep track of students' cell phone numbers).
Ask about a college's current capabilities - and plans - for reaching students in an emergency.