Getting tough: Rules beefed up; enforcement more consistent

About 150 upperclassmen who allowed their grade points to slide below 2.00 fall quarter discovered in early January that Washington State University has become much more firm and consistent about enforcing its academic standards.

The bottom line is, last week approximately 60-70 percent of those students who had deficient grades (over the last two consecutive semesters or any three semesters total at WSU) and who had applied for reinstatement, were denied.

That’s a major difference from the past, when about 90-95 percent of all students with two or more deficient semesters on their record would have been reinstated if they applied.

“The faculty’s concern was that while the university had rules in place, we were pretty lenient in our interpretation and enforcement of them,” said Tom Brigham, secretary of the Faculty Senate.

No argument from Al Jamison, associate vice president for educational development and director of the Student Advising and Learning Center, which helps enforce academic rules. “Previously, we have been very loose in our enforcement of existing academic rules, often reinstating students numerous times.

Years in the works

“The change began several years ago. During development of the university’s Strategic Plan, a great deal of the focus was on academic quality and the ability to better recruit better students. Over the past two years, applications and enrollment have reached a point where we can now institute and enforce more rigid standards, but first we need to live up to and enforce the level of standards we have,” Jamison said.

In the fall of 2002, the Faculty Senate’s Academic Advising and Reinstatement Subcommittee was charged with looking at existing academic rules and recommending the changes necessary to achieve the university’s goals. In January 2003, the Faculty Senate approved that committee’s recommendations. Last spring and fall those changes were announced and publicized, and today they are being implemented.

“It’s important to note,” said Jamison, “that the intent is not only to better enforce standards but to do what is best for the students. Holding high expectations of students is much better than having lower standards and not enforcing those.”

“Quite honestly, we were reinstating students whose chances of graduating were pretty low,” said Brigham. “Now, we have the statistics and can predict pretty well what a student’s odds are of finishing their degree.”

Who is affected?

For the most part, the effort to enforce academic rules more firmly does not affect first-semester freshmen or students with just one deficient semester. The university knows that freshmen and transfer students often stumble as they adapt to university life, learn how to study and take tests, adapt to a new living environment, suffer an injury or illness, or experience a change in a family or personal relationship. This semester about 700 WSU students fit that description, mostly incoming freshmen.

The change in academic enforcement centers around Rule 37, targeting students whose semester gpa is below 2.0 in each of the last two semesters, and Rule 39, specifying those whose cumulative gpa is below 2.0 for two consecutive semesters or for any three semesters. This semester, there were about 500 such students, and approximately 55 percent of those chose not to apply for reinstatement.

The Student Advising and Learning Center, via a letter of notification, told all students affected by Rules 37 and 39:

“We recommended that you attend a community college or another university for a year as possible indicator(s) of your motivation and commitment to academic success. Reconsideration of your potential major is very important. Resolution of personal factors that contributed to lack of academic success must be documented. Declarations of good intentions are not sufficient.”

Don’t miss the point

“The issue for these students usually is not so much one of low grade points, as it is making changes in their outlook, lifestyle and study habits,” said Jamison, pointing to such issues as drinking, drugs, a poor living environment, lack of commitment to studying and earning good grades, a poor circle of friends, and an inability to manage and balance multiple commitments and relationships.

“By offering easy reinstatement, we were just sending them back out into the same environment, before they had identified and corrected the root problem. That isn’t helping the student to become successful. It’s more of a recipe for failure. We want to encourage those students to get control over those problems and patterns in their lives.”

Statistically, he said, only about 20 percent of the students (cited under Rule 37 or 39) who were reinstated ended up graduating. That means 80 percent of them ended up dropping out anyway. Furthermore, under past reinstatement patterns,those students would end up staying at WSU another two years.

“That’s two more years of a student’s time, two more years of tuition and fees, two more years — or about $4,000 to $8,000 — in student loans they will have to pay back, and two years of expended financial aid eligibility,” Jamison said.

Catching yo-yos

Before, if a student had two consecutive deficient semesters, but a cumulative GPA above 2.00, and they came to the Student Advising and Learning Center and talked to an advisor, that was enough to get them reinstated.

The new policy, he said, is designed to catch students with recurring problems, sometimes referred to as “yo-yos,” because their performance goes up and down and up and down. Under the rewritten Rule 39 these students usually will be dismissed.

That’s not to say there is no leeway. If a student has shown a consistent, solid performance in the past and suddenly tanks with Ds and Fs, “there’s usually a story” that needs to be considered.

Academic advisors almost unanimously agree, he said, that when students who have been dismissed later return they are “invariably better students.”

“In my entire career in advising,” said Jamison, “I have rarely run into a student who couldn’t achieve the grades required. The issue generally relates to three factors — commitment, motivation and maturity.”

What can WSU employees do to help? Jamison said that as faculty and staff interact with students they can let them know what the rules are and that they are being firmly enforced. Also, they can help students understand that faculty, staff and advisors are looking to help them succeed.

Jamison said that in the past several weeks he has encountered students who have been informed by friends “not to worry about being reinstated, it’s no big deal.” However, those same students have often gone away dismissed and in tears, or determined to not allow it to happen again, knowing there won’t be another reprieve.

“Hopefully, the message that ‘reinstatement at WSU is easy’ is being dispelled,” Jamison said, “and students realize that the rules will be enforced.”

(Additional information not found in print below)

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How the process works

In general, here’s how the process works once a student’s grades are posted and are found deficient.

* A detailed letter of notification is sent out via e-mail and standard mail from the SALC.

* Students are immediately dismissed, which means their enrollment in classes for the upcoming quarter have been canceled and they cannot attend class.

* Students who feel they have unusual or extenuating circumstances may apply for “early” reinstatement.

* First time offenders, who want reinstatement under Rule 38, are required to complete an application and personal interview and return to campus early.

* All reapplying students need to respond and declare their intention online. Handwritten responses are not be accepted.

* All students who are reapplying must print out an online form, sign the application and submit their personal statement regarding why they are deficient and why they should be readmitted. These documents must be submit to SALC via mail, fax or in person.

* All applicants are charged a nonrefundable Reinstatement Application Processing fee — $50 for those deficient the first-time; $75 for those deficient two or more times.

* Under the new process, students falling under Rule 37 and 39 no longer have an opportunity to present their case in person. Any extenuating circumstances must be presented in written form with proper documentation.

This change, Jamison said, has “eliminated the influence of emotions. It allows reviewers to look at each case objectively and make a fair determination.”

* A three-person review board then considers the application and notifies the student as soon as possible.

* Students who are dismissed from the university are required to remain out of WSU for at least one academic year.

* Students granted initial reinstatement must then pick up their paperwork at the SALC; make and appointment and meet with their academic advisor; negotiate acceptable conditions for readmittance; put those conditions in a contract form to be signed by the advisor and student; then return that contract to the SALC.

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