By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute
Last night I was stopped at a red light. It was late. Not very many cars around. The lights cycled but never gave me a green light. It offered others the opportunity to go, but then it went back to red for my lane. Thus, I sat through two red lights before I finally got a green. Frustrating, right?
I wonder how many times our students feel like they get “double lighted?” That they get in the proper lane, told to stay in that lane, and wait diligently to get where or what they need: financial aid; course registration; student and academic services. It is no wonder that sometimes students feel as if they are penalized for doing as they are told. And we then wonder why students are sometimes non-conforming and seemingly taking short cuts. They just don’t do things the way we expect them to.
Perhaps because they have been double-lighted so many times, students need to try a different pathway. A mouse in a maze typically doesn’t run the same course every time. Rather, they keep trying different routes until they are free. For students, it becomes part of the narrative of not trusting the authorities, because the authorities sometimes turn things into a maze.
To me, it seems that most institutions have the right policies in place and the appropriate systems to get processes done. But to an outside observer, the rules and regulations can be nasty at best and simply cruel at worst. Even for me, a person who has worked alongside financial aid for decades, the process of pushing through financial aid information for my children has been excruciating. It isn’t the FAFSA, per se, but rather the paperwork and regulations that have to be followed to get everything in place. As well, and as it happened for me, some universities apply overarching rules beyond what the federal government requires. At Old Dominion University, they require you to fill out additional paperwork. In my case, I didn’t know that until it was months later, because I had financial aid come through George Mason University with no problem but the ODU loan was stalled and I was never notified. That triggered me a little, I must say.
Students run into the same experiences all the time. Parking police; library issues; residence issues. And everything results in a fine. Everything costs a little extra money if you don’t do exactly as you are told. You may be thinking: “well, you did it; you pay for it.” True, but it does seem that everywhere you turn there is either a fine or some retribution. Professors do this, too. Some are more lenient than others, but some are hard sticklers.
The question I will always pose is simple: does a rule or regulation need to be as is or can it be simplified or reduced? Financial aid is a legal issue, so there is precise documentation in place. That doesn’t solve, for me, why one institution in the same state system requires an extra set of forms compared to other institutions. For professors and others, is there a point to not ever providing leniency on class work? Perhaps, depending on perspective, but I like to think that we are molding and guiding students; not simply cutting them off. People learn by having barriers and regulations in place. There is a reason for most of them. But people withdraw when those barriers become too high.
I understand that some readers and listeners will wave this off as a snowflake piece. I get that. But we also understand that students dropout or stopout of college for some very simple reasons. One more barrier in their face and they go home. It happens every day in America. We can’t solve all of these things, and surely some of these students perhaps are looking for one more excuse to call it quits. But for others, the layers of expectations and getting double-lighted on occasion can push them over the top.
Being a student isn’t always the hardest thing in the world. I tell my kids that these are the easiest times of their lives. That stated, there are times when being a student is very difficult. When the assignments pile up in class, other expectations occur at the same time, and simply too much to do. Some people are really good at this; others not so much. College not only provides an academic education, but it also divides people into those who can follow the rules and those who get caught in the landslide. That is learning, too. But how hard we punish those who fail to meet all the expectations is up for debate.