Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Ask the Administrator: House Calls

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

I am an adjunct instructor in the General Education department of
Proprietary Art School in Large City. Recently, our
management has gotten very uptight about student attrition rates,
almost certainly because if students start disappearing the bottom
line of the school will be adversely affected. The department head
(probably responding to pressure from above) now requires that all
faculty members contact poorly-performing or non-attending students at
home, hopefully inducing them to start coming to class again and to
try doing the work. We have to turn in weekly reports showing that we
have done this.

I am fearful that I could be walking into a legal minefield if I
complied with this. This school has a rather draconian
non-fraternization policy, and a few years ago a high corporate
executive actually came by and told us that we shouldn't talk to a
student out of class time for any reason whatsoever--even to the
extent if we happen to get on the same public transportation in which
a student was riding, we had to immediately get off. This is
certainly melodramatically excessive, but I am concerned that if I
called 19-year old Hottie at home to ask why she hasn't been coming to
my class I could be faced with an irate father or a jealous boyfriend
demanding my head on a platter, lest they sue the school into

There are also privacy issues to be considered--If a family member
answers the phone and asks why I want to talk to 19-year old Hottie, I
have to be careful that I don't mention anything about her academic

Am I worried too much, or is there a real danger of stepping on a landmine here?

This brings back memories.

At Proprietary U, preventing or reducing student attrition was an obsession. (You're right about the reasons – a returning student is, among other things, a repeat customer.) “Intrusive advisement” was the favored approach. Students who didn't show up were to be called, cajoled, nagged, or whatever it took to get them back. The idea was to hector them into discovering why they wanted to go to college.

It rarely worked.

I never liked the approach, and very carefully positioned myself to avoid actually having to do it. Still, at one point PU actually had an office with three people and a director (I know, directors are people too...) devoted entirely to mailing attendance notices, calling vanished students, etc. I used to hang out with one of the people who worked there. She reported that fewer than half of the student phone numbers in the system were actually connected to anything. Whether the numbers were straight-up false, or the students just weren't that stable, was a matter of some speculation. Email addresses were even worse. A surprising percentage of them were obscene (“hotslut69@...”), and almost none of them produced responses of any kind. We used to joke that letters from PU were delivered by Pony Express.

The faculty, for their part, were supposed to keep rigorous track of student attendance, and 'reach out' to students whose attendance was spotty. The academic in me always considered that a form of pandering, and assumed that rewarding indifference would produce more of it. Still, it was the order of the day.

Intrusive advisement and FERPA stand in some tension with each other. As I understand FERPA, you can't leave messages on voicemail saying “we're noticed you haven't been to school in a week,” since you can't be certain who's listening to the voicemail. That said, experience tells me that if you don't leave messages, you might as well not call.

Intrusive advisement and your overly-paranoid 'non-fraternization' policy are in even worse conflict. I've never been one to go out drinking with students, but I'd say 'hi' if I ran into them in public.

I'm thinking it might be worthwhile to address these conflicts – carefully, of course – with the management at your college. What would they have you do when you get a voicemail, or when you reach a student and the student gives you waaaay too much information, or when you get the student's parent or spouse? I'm guessing that the 'non-fraternization' policy was drawn up at one time, in response to one incident, and the outreach policy was drawn up separately. You might need to connect the dots for them. Tactfully, of course. Don't do it on voicemail.

Worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

While I am at a different kind of institution, "intrusive advising" is not unknown here, either. It's easier for us to get in touch with our students, because 95% of them live on campus.

But to my mind, there are other reasons besides privacy (and the strategy's (in)effectiveness) to be concerned about this strategy. College students are supposed to be --at least in theory-- adults. That means that they make choices that have consequences. I don't take attendance in my classes, because it is the student's *choice* whether or not to show up. Making that choice, of course, brings with it certain consequences... but it remains their choice.

I am all for substantive, meaningful advising-- for students who want it. But nagging students to go to class, or re-enroll, or get all their forms signed and their t's crossed and i's dotted... I dunno. College isn't junior high, for a reason.
So, I'm at a much larger university that will remain anonymous for the moment (think >30K enrolled at the flagship university). People here are so paranoid that the math department

1 - has an official 'doors open' policy for professors with undergrads in their offices

2 - professors are required under threat of firing! to keep final exams so that grades can be retroactively justified.

I have it on good authority (ie my research advisor told me) that these were in response to one lawsuit and one serious threat of a lawsuit.
In order to attempt to avoid the legal issues associated with intrusive advising my cc has a student alert system that we can use to send out notices to our wayward students and/or students who aren’t completing assignments in a satisfactory manner. These alert notices are basically progress reports that we can send out at several different times during the semester and the alert notices are coded for attendance issues, assignment completion, failing grades or to implore students to “see your instructor” and I’m guessing systems like this are somewhat common in ccs around where I work. They take very little time for faculty to do since they're merged with our online grade system. While these alerts are “optional” all new adjunct faculty members and new faculty members are basically told please make sure you do this at least once per semester to alert underperforming students. I like this idea in principle because it gives faculty a seemingly decent way of contacting students without muddling with FERPA w/out adding too much more bureaucracy. Maybe you could encourage your school to move towards a similar system?
All this being said, speaking anecdotally, pretty much every time I’ve sent out one of these reminders students haven’t generally made academic and attendance turnarounds. I think it’s actually a more of a useful form of CYA for the insturctor. After sending one of these alert notices out, especially the “see your instructor” I feel like I’ve made an additional legitimate effort to contact my students and that the ball is in their court to see me to chat about attendance issues and other problems (I obviously try to grab them after class too, encourage them to visit office hours, etc).
This can just turn into a nightmare. We have an open doors in loco parentis model of student - faculty interaction. I was calling a student to find out why he had been missing classes and ended up talking to his mother. In a weird example of motherly intuition she immediately started hollering about the fact that the boy had just started a new relationship and that they had both been religiously "going to University" every morning. From the way it all fell out it would appear that the only course they were studying for was Human Anatomy. Instead of encouraging one student to remain in class we lost both students.

Any model of faculty - student interaction where the student is not assumed to be an adult and must face the consequences of their decisions is doomed to failure.
You mates across the Pond must've missed the memo that said:
Those who don't attend, don't make the grade i.e. no diploma.- Moreover, attendance is the sole responsibility of the student and has nothing to do with U administration. It's quite simple really, as long as you stipulate that every student has only one chance to repeat (certain courses must be passed to be able to advance) an academic year at the institution he is enrolled in and if he or she doesn't succeed in this second attempt they can no longer take classes at the above mentioned U but can transfer to another U. This, dare I call it, regime is generally percieved as stimulative by the students and the generap public. Well, maybe that's why European Us are free (for now).
Anon -- would that it were so. However, federal financial aid guidelines stipulate that we have to specify the "last date of attendance" for a student on aid who drops a class. (The idea is to prevent people from signing up for aid fraudulently, and living high on the hog on student loans.) That means we have to keep track.

Philosophically, though, I agree that students who show or don't show should bear the full weight of responsibility for their choices.
I wouldn't do the phone call route. If pressed, I'd ask for mailing addresses and send letters addressed to the student. If the parent or spouse opens the student's mail, it isn't your problem and there is no way the interaction can be considered improper.
Okay, so I fall on the other side of the "support" spectrum. In my program, our instructors do reach out to students who have not turned in assignments, shown up to class, or have otherwise fallen off the radar screen. Also, students in our field do an internship, and so if they fail to show up there, we hear about that, too.

We will oftentimes require that any student who has a progress report turned in talk to their teacher and/or their advisor. If they do not show at internship too often, they have to talk to our department staff.

When we have these meetings, we usually spend time discussing (academic, personal, work, etc.)issues that have arisen, their poor decision-making skills (e.g., not notifying their instructors), and identifying ways to address these issues and problem behaviors. Sometimes, these students have real problems (sick family member, boyfriend who committed suicide), and they did not know what to do to get help. Meetings and outreach are especially helpful for these students.

We find that these meetings actually do reduce attrition and increase the chance that the students will do well. We find that early intervention can preclude bad grades--withdrawing is a GOOD option for some folks!

We do not talk to parents or partners about these issues, unless we have a release. And we do kick students out of the program if they continue to fail to perform. So, I feel okay about the practice.
Well, north to the future, in the Unorganized Borough, we of the "19 credit hours for new students from remote areas, because if you don't keep them busy they'll just get in trouble" feel it is best for white authority figures to call the parents and harangue them that they must get their adult child to return to campus.

This is especially important if the university has already bragged about how successful its emerging program is for non-Euro-American communities.

Meanwhile, students who do struggle against the administrative bullying end up without support and don't return at year's end, despite their abilities, despite their interest (expressed in administratively unrecognized ways), and despite our need for educated citizens.
Here at Proprietary Art School (PAS) I have so far be able to arrange it so that I haven’t yet had to make any of those “intrusive advising” phone calls to people like 19-year old Hottie. My boss seems to be quite understanding about all this and I haven’t gotten a hassle about it, at least not so far. The really serious cases that I encounter I leave in the hands of the Counseling department, since unlike me they are trained how to deal with these matters.

Lots of good ideas here about how to handle the “intrusive advising” problem without stepping on a legal landmine. I like the suggestion in which the entire process is farmed out to a special group of people in the administration who will try to make contact with students who have gotten into academic trouble (failed the first couple of tests, haven’t been attending, etc) to see if they can help. They (unlike me) should be fully aware of the federal privacy laws, and will know what they can and cannot ask.

Like most proprietary schools, PAS is absolutely nutty about attendance, and we faculty are required to issue things known as “Attendance Failures” if a student misses a certain number of class hours. Although it is never stated as such, these attendance failures are supposed to be issued no matter how well the student is doing on the tests and examinations. The school is sort of schitzophrenic about attendance—faculty hands in regular attendance records and the registrar is fully aware at all times who is attending and who is not, but the faculty members are supposed to issue the attendance failures. I suppose that this means that there is some built-in slack in the process, that faculty has the freedom to decide when the issuance of an attendance failure is justified. In my case, I have chosen to reserve attendance failures for those cases in which I never saw the student’s face in the first place or those cases in which the student simply vanished into thin air in mid-term.

I used to teach at Nonprofit Research-Intensive Technical Institute back in the 1980s, and we never took attendance at all—like most teachers there I didn’t give a rat’s ass whether or not a student ever showed up in class, only how well he or she did on the final exam. But I know that things are different now, and as DeanDad says Federal law requires that attendance be taken because of financial aid considerations. This is even truer in for-profit schools like PAS—there have been some high-visibility scandals in which unscrupulous proprietary schools have enrolled “ghost” students or failed to report students who had dropped out so that they could collect their financial aid dollars.

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