1 Academic Policies: Barrier or Support to Strategic Enrollment Management and Student Success? By David Wood, Registrar, Mount Royal University Background Those of us who straddle the two worlds of strategic enrollment management (SEM) and day-to-day practical decision making must learn to work effectively in a place where the rules don t always apply. In the abstract, institutional values are connected to SEM outcomes through the development of polices and their implementation through procedures. For better or worse, we do not live in a world of absolutes so a kinder and gentler organization will attempt to be flexible in the application of rules. This article explores some of the factors involved in the consideration of bridging the abstract area of policy development to the concrete reality of SEM outcomes and student success. Mount Royal College s policy on late withdrawals and some case studies will provide further focus. Values and Practice According to Kerlin and Kilgore (2008): Enrollment management is a comprehensive and coordinated process that enables a college to identify enrollment goals that are allied with its mission, its strategic plan, its environment, and its resources, and to reach those goals through the effective integration of administrative processes, student services, curriculum planning, and market analysis. As the preceding definition of SEM suggests, establishing an institutional purpose aligned with enrollment goals that are informed by the consideration of a range of other factors should provide a framework for the realization of an institution s SEM goals and student success when merged with well-articulated administrative and academic services. To explore how this might actually occur, participants at a recent conference presentation on this article s topic were asked to provide examples of institutional values. They responded with such words as fair, high academic standards, transparent, flexible, personal, integrity and the like. Of interest to this author is whether these values are maintained in the development of policy, the implementation of that policy and the potential need for flexibility in circumstances that don t fit neatly within the constraints of the rules. In other words, is there a demonstrable link between the strategic thinking (e.g., mission statement, enrollment goals) and the outcome of an academic policy (e.g., decisions on late withdrawals)? Put even more plainly, is it possible to maintain a positive relationship with students in a necessarily bureaucratic environment? The following is a statement of principle from a newly revised policy on academic standing and graduation at Mount Royal. Although the principle is not from the policy that dictates action on the case studies on late withdrawals found below, it is accurate to say that it foreshadows the tension found among policy development, implementation and the achievement of SEM goals and student success.
2 Mount Royal is committed to maintaining high academic standards, promoting student success, and endeavoring to support students who have difficulty meeting academic requirements. Arguably, the institutional values expressed in this sentence are apparent. For the purposes of this article, I will assume that many would see the values studentcentered and focused on educational quality in this statement. I will make a further assumption that a Mount Royal SEM plan would establish optimum enrollment targets based on the type of student we would hope to recruit and retain. Based on those assumptions, consider the following excerpt from the Mount Royal calendar that stipulates the conditions for a late withdrawal from classes: A student may request approval for a course or complete withdrawal after the deadline solely on the basis of the following reasons: 1. Serious illness verified in writing by a physician; or 2. Severe emotional distress verified in writing from Student Counselling Services or other registered mental health care professional. Normally, a request for a late withdrawal will not be considered after the last day of classes. Under no circumstances will applications for a late withdrawal be accepted after the final examination for a course(s) has taken place (original emphasis). It is immediately clear that the attributes inferred from the statement of principle are no longer quite so obvious in the procedures. To begin, it appears that there is no acknowledgment of the fact that students lead complicated lives. Potentially, there could be many reasons why a student is unable to finish a class that might not be categorized as a serious illness or severe emotional distress. Second, what is the connection, if any, between educational quality and this process? Furthermore, there is no guidance for the decision maker(s) to support the SEM goal of retaining the right kind of student in the institution. We might reasonably conclude that the rule actually works against the noble values expressed in the policy. Traditionally, the requirement for a withdrawal deadline has been rooted in the academic domain. Withdrawal without penalty from a course is generally interpreted to mean that a student has not completed enough of the course to allow for an informed academic decision. Mount Royal s current policy dictates that up until approximately two-thirds of the way through a semester, a student can withdraw with no questions asked and no penalty assigned. When the deadline has passed, a student is deemed to have completed sufficient course work for the instructor to award a grade. Only students who have a legitimate reason are allowed to avoid an academic judgment. Missing from this reasoning is a clear connection to student centeredness. To those students who do not meet the stated criteria, how does one slavishly say no without compromising the SEM objective of retaining the right
3 student? There is no guidance within the policy or procedure that steers us toward achieving those objectives. There may be an argument that the rule ensures educational quality by creating a deadline intended to teach students perseverance and to build intellectual stamina. The rule requires the student to make a commitment to finish something s/he started unless there are medical or psychological reasons not to do so. In other words, with limited options for exemption, a normal student is encouraged to continue to the final exam and accept the result. As stated in the Mount Royal calendar under Student Rights and Responsibilities : Students have the responsibility to familiarize themselves with current information regarding academic regulations, policies and procedures and to follow those regulations The net outcome is, presumably, an intellectually robust graduate. A critical examination of this position is outside the scope of this article, but even if we accept that the rule supports educational quality, there is no indication of how we maintain that standard when a student asks to withdraw after the deadline. A reasonable conclusion from this brief discussion is that the institutional values expressed in the policy are, at best, tenuously connected to the procedure. A more extreme, but equally valid, view is that the lack of connection could work against the most fundamental of SEM objectives: student success. Leaving the implementation of the policy to the judgment of a solitary decision maker creates a lonely and thankless responsibility. Consider the following correspondence from Mount Royal students who asked to withdraw after the stated deadline. 1 Rachael I am pregnant and expecting at the end of January. My pregnancy has made me extremely tired, sick, and constantly nauseous. This is our first child so my husband and I were really scared to hear that I have a high-risk pregnancy. My symptoms made it very difficult for me to attend class or focus on my studies, therefore, I had failed the midterm. I had decided to withdraw from the course, but when my condition got worse in November, I had completely forgotten about the withdrawal and ended up missing the withdrawal deadline. I should have spoken to my teacher earlier to discuss my options at that point, but my head was just not in the right place from being so sick and worried about the baby. I thought my only option was to finish the course so I tried my hardest to prepare for the final. I did manage to pass the final, but it was not enough to pass the course because I failed to complete the group assignment that was worth 10% of my mark. I was unable to do the assignment because I was told by my doctor to be on bed rest, therefore, preventing me from attending more classes. I had spoken to my teacher and she informed me that I can no longer make up any assignments, it was too late. 1 Some of the entries have been shortened, but otherwise they are from the original correspondence. All identifying information has been removed. The names are fictitious but have been inserted for ease of reference.
4 I do realize my timing should have been better and I should have taken more responsibility for this course, but given my stress and fear for the baby's health, I was unable to think straight. Stephanie I am writing you in hopes that you can help me out. I am currently taking two statistics classes and calculus. I thought the date was November 20th for some strange reason and I really need to withdraw from these classes as my marks are awful and I have not been able to make it to classes. Bottom line is, my father is going through bankruptcy and I have been working to try to help him out and I had to neglect my school in doing so. I honestly thought that I would just withdraw from the classes on time, but due to my inability to read properly I missed the date. If I have these marks on my transcript from these classes I know that I won't be able to get my degree. I talked to someone at the school today, and I was given your card and told to write you. I know this is purely my fault, but if there is any way you can help me I would greatly appreciate it. I am going to take these classes in the new year and I know I will succeed and I know that I will give it my all. I really don't know what else to do. I hope you can help me and give me the chance I need to reach my goals in life. Jason i actually thought that i had dropped your class in october when i dropped another class. apparently [that s] not the case and i have not been to one of your classes since i thought i dropped it. so i am very afraid that i will fail your class and it will mess up my [grade point average]. i have left my late withdrawal form a[t] your office and they said they would give it to you to sign. do i come in and get it after you have signed it? Sally I spoke with the registrar employee a few weeks back when I went to ask if I could withdraw, I had my one letter which is what I submitted to you from October (that an instructor requested to see as I have missed a few days of class) and she said that the letter conformed I had migraines and that is all that I needed, I did not need any further documentation. When I dropped my form off December 4th I said that my physician was in [City #1] and that my neurologist is in [City #2] and that I could only have them fax letters of confirmation in time to make the deadline if anything else was needed, however the office employee said no. I honoured all deadlines and did make an effort to contact your office before the December 4thI do not believe this to fair since I received inaccurate information from your office. Had I been told that I needed other documentation I would have provided it before December 4th. I was hospitalized at the [local] med centre which I withdrew from Cell Biology weeks earlier to slim my course load, I had documentation then however I was told a grade or W [Withdrawal before the deadline] is the same as a WC [Withdrawal with Cause supported by medical and/or
5 psychological documentation]. There is a clear history with the office and that the news of my migraines did not come till the end of the deadline. (Note the letter of October 17th) A strict interpretation of the rule immediately rules out Stephanie and Jason for withdrawal because they do not have medical reasons that account for their inability to complete the semester. Furthermore, Stephanie s stress is the result of events occurring in someone else s life. Although not presented in her , Stephanie received a scholarship because she maintains a near perfect grade point average. Outside of an ad hoc decision, the rule does not explicitly allow us to consider this. Similarly, the fact that Jason is an aboriginal student straight from an inner city high school who is finding the transition to postsecondary education difficult is, strictly speaking, immaterial. Applying the rule without taking these facts into account does not achieve a good result if an institution s SEM plan is to retain scholarship students or increase student diversity. It is also worth noting that the rule requires us to accept that a high-risk pregnancy (Rachael) and a vague reference to migraines (Sally) carry equal justification for a late withdrawal because they bring supporting documentation. Most would agree that granting a late withdrawal in Rachael s case is the proper course of action. On the other hand, even though Sally has documentation, would it not be reasonable to ask Sally how her migraines prevented her from meeting the deadline? Because the effects of migraines vary dramatically from person to person, this seems like a valid question. However, in the absence of more detailed instructions, how would Sally know that the decision maker might require additional information? How much information would be enough? These examples illustrate how difficult it is to align policy and practice despite all good intentions. The extrapolation of institutional values as expressed in policy to the achievement of SEM objectives implemented through procedure is tenuous at best. As a consequence, the connection can be made only if the decision maker is prepared to make the attempt. Because each new file potentially brings more complex and time-consuming considerations, what can be done to support the decision maker in making informed, consistent and reasonable decisions? The obvious place to start is changing the approval process. We could achieve a more student-centered approach with a new rule : After the withdrawal deadline, if a student determines s/he is unable to complete the semester, s/he must provide supporting documentation and a rationale to the Appeals Committee. 2 The committee will consider medical/psychological information, the student s academic performance, testimonial letters from faculty and any other information the student feels is appropriate. A decision will be made within five working days of the request and is final. Normally, a request for a late withdrawal will not be considered after the last day of classes. Under no circumstances will applications for a late 2 This committee does not exist, but if it did it would be a small group consisting of a student, a faculty member, a counselor and the registrar.
6 withdrawal be accepted after the final examination for a course has taken place. Moving the responsibility from an individual to a small, informed group automatically ensures other points of view are considered. In making other factors such as academic performance explicit, the committee has permission to consider some of the SEM goals mentioned earlier. Even though there are no apparent restrictions on the reason for an exemption, the student is alerted to the possibility that other factors peripherally linked to their rationale may also be subject to scrutiny. This approach would likely work in Stephanie s favor. Even though Jason is a weak student, the committee could legitimately consider his situation in the context of a SEM objective for student diversity. The committee s work could be further supported with more explicit instructions on what constitutes adequate documentation. The current procedure provides little guidance even though Sally s case might suggest that we don t have quite enough information. The following questions, if publicly available, could provide students (and decision makers) with more focus. The order here suggests a decision tree approach that could provide a structure for deliberations. 1. Has the student s condition prevented him/her from meeting the obligation to withdraw on or before the deadline? 2. If the answer to (1) is negative, has the student explored other options (e.g., deferred exam)? 3. If the answer to (2) is negative, has the student s existing condition escalated or has there been a sudden onset of a condition that prevents the student from completing the semester? 4. If the student is not requesting a late complete withdrawal, what is the connection between the student s condition and a specific course? If both Rachael and Sally know in advance that these are the institution s requirements for documentation, the committee can evaluate their requests based on identical criteria. The perceived difference between a high-risk pregnancy and migraines becomes essentially irrelevant to the decision. In other words, the committee is no longer basing a decision on the nature of the student s condition but rather on a standard of documentation. The committee would have the latitude of applying these criteria to Stephanie s and Jason s situations in addition to considering SEM objectives. By modifying the parameters of the process and developing more specific guidelines for documentation, the procedures would be in almost complete harmony with the policy. Two other possibilities remain for improving the alignment between policy and practice but these are for subsequent reflection. Briefly, we have not examined how educational quality is realized in this particular process. In addition, we have not considered how the policy could be reshaped to be more in line with SEM objectives and student success. To illustrate, the phrase, endeavoring to support students
7 who have difficulty implies a level of student support services that may or may not be in place. Lastly, what data could an institution collect to determine the influence on SEM objectives and student success? 3 In summary, the development of academic policies can support SEM objectives and student success if there is a deliberate effort to build connections between institutional values, policy statements and administrative procedures. Because there will always be a need for compassion and exceptions, we must ensure that all students are treated equitably by requiring a meaningful adherence to administrative deadlines while allowing for systematic and defensible exceptions. The former requires students to be accountable for their actions; the latter requires specific, but not prescriptive, conditions for an exemption from students responsibility inherent in the policy. Reference Kerlin, C., & W. Kilgore. (2008). Core concepts of SEM: Two-year institutions. Presented at AACRAO s 18 th Annual Strategic Enrollment Management Conference, Anaheim, CA, November 16, Available at David Wood is Registrar at Mount Royal College, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 3 See North Carolina State University 2008 Strategic Assessment for one approach. They propose to measure the effects of policy by evaluating graduation rates at the four-, five- and six-year marks to determine if there is any improvement. Available at January 10, 2009