Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Bouncer Duty

A regular correspondent writes:

Lots of people are showing up in class these days who have been cut off from their computer accounts because of unpaid bills. There they are, ready to write--but I'm supposed to send them to the business office to settle their bills.

I tell them the business office is mad at them for owing money, and they need to get down there PDQ. So far, so good. Then I log them into my account so they can have class and write.

I feel like it's a boundary issue: I'm not their friend, not their lover, not their parent, not their boss, and not their credit counselor.. And I'm certainly not the school's bouncer or enforcer or kneecapper or repo man.

I'm the English teacher.

In the real world, would it not be an immediate security question if faculty were put in the position of dealing with areas beyond their expertise (I don't have their bills in front of me), areas not impossibly leading to anger and acting out?

This is a toughie. In my faculty days, I loathed the 'bouncer' role. But as a dean, my life is made infinitely harder by faculty who cut informal side deals with students.

It's easier in the moment to choose to look the other way and let the student sit in the class (or log in, as the case may be). After all, financial aid offices have been known to make mistakes, and the innards of any given offer are not the professor's business. (And if you think excuses for late papers can be baroque, you should hear the excuses for late payments!)

But looking the other way puts the college in an impossible position.

Like it or not, when you're teaching a class, you're acting as an agent of the college. (This is even true if you're adjuncting.) If you were to create a hostile environment in class, the college could be held liable. The grades you assign are recorded on official transcripts. Although professors like to think of themselves as free agents, the fact of the matter is that when you're teaching, you're acting as an agent of the college.

As such, if you allow a student who isn't on the roster, or who you know hasn't paid, to function as a member of the class, you're establishing the basis for the student to assume that he's in the class. This chicken comes home to roost at the end of the term, when the student demands a course grade, and waves graded papers at us as proof. If The College didn't think of him as a student, why did The College grade his work?

It's tempting to brush that off as a bureaucratic problem, but the bureaucracy issues your paycheck, and it does so, in part, with the money paid by students. Start forgiving tuition unilaterally, and watch colleges implode financially. Before long, nobody gets access to classes, since there's no money to pay instructors to teach them.

It's easy to object to bouncer duty, but what would be your alternative? Should we post guards outside the door of every classroom, to make sure that everybody's papers are in order? Institute mandatory fingerprint checks?

The point about anger and acting out strikes me as valid but not dispositive. Students get angry and act out at bad grades, at comments they perceive as insulting, and sometimes simply at exposure to points of view different from their own. Managing your classroom -- including angry students -- is a fundamental part of your job. It isn't what most of us enjoy doing, but it needs to be done, and I don't know who would do it better than faculty.

There are also issues around fundamental fairness. If tuition is effectively optional, then the students who bust their humps at low-paid jobs to pay tuition are suckers. If some students are offered the look-the-other-way discount and others aren't, you have a nasty due process or discrimination claim on your hands. (Imagine: Johnny Whiteboy got a waiver, but Jenny Minority didn't. Jenny files suit. The legal term, I believe, is "roadkill.") I'm the first to admit that financial aid procedures can be slow, cumbersome, imperfect, and even maddening, but to replace them with tuition-waivers-by-fiat just isn't viable. Imagine if we allowed cops just to execute obviously-guilty suspects upon catching them. Yes, it would be much faster than our slow, expensive, sometimes-arbitrary legal system, but would it be better? "Due process" isn't sexy, but it matters.

In my faculty days, I didn't like bouncer duty, either. But if you don't manage your classroom, including such basic matters as who is allowed in and who isn't, who will?

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found an effective way for dealing with students who don't pay, or who are otherwise trapped in a Kafkaesque financial aid situation?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

At my undergrad institution, all tuition had to be paid in full and up front before you could even fully register for classes, otherwise you were blocked.

I don't recall the instructors having any particular problem turning people away who did not appear on their official printouts from the Registrar's office. This used to happen regularly to a friend of mine because state/federal financial aid was never credited to a student's account by the school's tuition deadline. That would just be too convenient. It wasn't until later that it would finally clear. My friend finally got so sick and frustrated with this semesterly rig-a-morole that she withdrew from school altogether to work F/T. It wasn't until much later that she went back at night and finally finished her degree.

On the other hand, another friend of mine who did her workstudy in the Financial Aid office could attest to the students who came to the FA window frantically wondering why their financial aid hadn't cleared so they could register for classes.

So it doesn't seem like too many "side deals" were getting cut between faculty and students at my school at that time.
Here's where it seems the questioner is in a dumb situation, though: it sounds to me as if these students are still on the class roster. That they have not been booted for non-payment, but rather that the university's first step in dealing with the non-payment issue is to take away computer privileges, which are essential for them to do the work of the course in which they remain enrolled and which they are attending. So the prof is in a bind because if he/she boots them and sends them over to the bursar (or wherever) the prof is hurting the student's ability to do the work of the course. And if the student doesn't have the money (which I'd imagine they don't, or they'd have paid), they can't just take care of the bill, so the problem won't be resolved immediately even if the prof doesn't do an end run around the technological roadblock.

I don't know. This sounds to me like a policy that's just plain stupid. We've got nothing like it at my university, and I'm sure that this isn't because everybody is perfect in their payment. If students don't pay, they are dropped from their classes. If they're not on the roster, they know they can't show up. The prof doesn't know their financial business - all the prof knows is that they're no longer enrolled in the course. I think this is as it should be.

Also, I resist the idea that comp courses are getting even more crap loaded onto them than they've already got. It's the instructor of the course that requires the student to use technology that is burdened with the role of heavy or bouncer - not every instructor of every course that the student takes. THAT is another thing that seems really wrong to me about this situation and policy.
DD, I think you're missing part of the point. The issue isn't so much gate-keeping, as the professor who knows that they're going to be expected to have this student back up to speed the minute his or her finances are settled.

For the person who's posing the question, there are issues of time and participation that I'm pretty darned sure the registrar's office isn't worried about -- it strikes me as one of those places that once the student's finances are fixed, they're readmitted to the course and they're magically back on track.

The problem is that you can't stop and start the classroom experience. Even if I put all my lectures out in podcast form, for instance, half of my medieval survey course happens in the discussion sessions. I can't recreate those for students who've been barred from class due to non-payment, even if I were insane enough to offer one-on-one make-up sessions for such students. Even one such student per class I teach would be a full workday extra for each week missed. Unacceptable!

The registrar's office wants faculty to enforce these arbitrary cut-off dates, but then they want faculty to get these students back on track after being locked out of weeks of class. Frankly, that's an awful catch-22 and I can see why so many professors skirt around the expectations that they'll be the bouncer. If they are the bouncer, they're also going to have to be the private tutor for each and every student readmitted to the course that they bounced out of class.
I would like to second Ancarett. The commentor said exactly what I was thinking. I am at a school where students routinely don't get the financial aid situation straightened out by the start of class. That means they can't get books (a textbook rental system here) but they are enrolled in the course as that doesn't require any money upfront at this institution.

The registrar does not manually drop non-paying students from the class roster until eight to ten weeks into the course. In the interim, I allow students to log on to the class website, go to lectures, complete assignments (which I grade), and participate in labs. Officially, they aren't nonpaying students, just late payment students for the first four or five weeks. I have no way of knowing which students are going to just get dropped or will eventually get "the check". And I am not covering half a semester of classwork with a student in my, haha, free time.

Normally, DD, I am totally in agreement with you. Not today. Maybe it is a difference in institutions or my lack of administrative experience but I am not going to boot students for financial issues. It will come back to bite my in the rear in a big ugly way. My co-workers advised against it because they had already been biten. I try to learn from others when possible.
The proprietary college where I teach will put a notice in the instructor's box that says "Please tell the following student to visit the financial office at the class break" (three-hour classes, 15-min. break). It's a pretty efficient system and minimizes class disruption. The students know that if they don't go, someone from that office will appear during the second half of class, or their next class, and call them out for a private discussion. This reinforces that the FA matter has to be dealt with, and all the instructor has to do is pass on the message. The instructor is never in the position of barring a student from class.
Yes, the instructor is an agent of the college. But I wouldn't ask the FA people to grade my students' papers; why should they ask me to get involved in a student's nonpayment issues? Of course, I wouldn't "enroll" a student who can't be enrolled in the first place, but once students are on the roster and doing the work, I treat them like enrolled students unless and until they aren't anymore.
I have first-hand experience in how badly a financial aid office can screw up tuition, so I'm inclined to be sympathetic to the students in this case. I also see DD's point, though: the college is in the business of selling teaching, and you can't reposess the work if the student doesn't pay.

Maybe a hybrid system? Let's say the student gets unrestricted computer access for the first 4-6 weeks after the start of semester. Beyond that, the student must either pay up or get a waiver from the financial aid office. (Waivers could be given if there's a holdup in the funding, but the college will clearly get its $$ eventually. I'm thinking something like a scholarship that didn't pay out on schedule for some reason.)

That way, the kids who are just getting jerked around by the system won't lose ground in their classes. However, the ones who are never going to come up with the money don't get pulled along for the entire semester.
Up front, as a recent undergrad, I think it's completely insane to deny students the ability to participate in classes for not having paid their bills by the time class starts. That would have dropped an incredible number of the folks I knew when I was in school, including myself - and some of the smartest people I've ever met. That just seems counterproductive and counter to the ethos of higher education.

My ideal solution is to not even tell the instructor/professor about the financial issue; I don't even think it's relevant to teaching.

On the other hand, given the situation, here's my compromise: Let the student in the class with full privileges. Have them do all the assignments - but have the instructor keep them, perhaps graded, perhaps not. If the issue is resolved by the end of the term, grade them if necessary and hand them back. If the payment issue is not resolved, then....I suppose the instructor could either junk the student's work, which seems harsh, or simply grade everything and give them an incomplete, allowing them some time to pay their bills.

I realize this puts extra strain on the instructor; however, I don't see how it's even remotely fair or reasonable to punish students for not having so much cash up front for tuition. For many of us undergraduates, suggesting that we be operating with no unpaid bills to the school would have resulted in uncontrollable laughter, as we knew that such a policy would have shut out thousands of students. (Yes, I went to a public state school - about 20,000 students total.)
Wow, my college doesn't make us deal with any of this. We grade the students that are on the roster, and the roster is computerized and run from central command, wherever that is. It records withdraws, drops, non-payers, etc. The only thing I have to do is at midterm record if I have any students who never turned up but did not drop, and then record letter grades at the end of the semester.

If a student isn't on my roster, I have no power to do anything about it, and they all know that. They go to student services and sort themselves out there. The only thing I can do is tell them to go to student services or to see their adviser.

I've never had a student ask me about money or enrollment issues, other than, "Can I get into your class during the late enroll period?" (which IS within my discretion). I guess they all know student services handles it all, and it must do so reasonably efficiently because I don't hear too many complaints or snafus.
I have to say, the financial aid department at my liberal-arts college (Kenyon, actually) screwed up my bill every single semester I was there, including two semesters when I was living in another country. You had to take a number when you got to the office, because they pretty much did this to everyone.

While this probably isn't what's going on with these students, it still puts the instructor in a bad place. Couldn't they come up with something cleverer? Like 'pay up by X date or we'll boot you' or 'you won't get credit unless it's paid in full by this date'. All the private schools I've been at essentially do this: pay all your fines and fees, or you won't get credit/ graduate/ be allowed to register for next semester. It seems a better idea than something that interferes directly with teaching; there have to be better threats.
My usual practice is to allow students who tell me they are having financial aid issues (and who therefore don't appear on the roster) to come to class and do the work--but thell them they have to resolve the issues by a specific date. If they haven't, I quit grading their work.

Seems to work OK.
Some of the comments seem to be missing the point:

This prof needs the student to have computer access during class so s/he can write an [in-class?] assignment.

Because the Uni has restricted the student's computer privileges, the prof is SIGNING THE STUDENT IN under his/her own account!

I've done this; I always regretted it.

Here's the big problem: Usually the restriction of computer privileges comes after a MAJOR failure to pay. Depending on the particular school's policies, this often is well after the late payment period [and IMHO usually means there's a carryover from a previous semester's bill too].

When I went to CC in 1988, we had to have the bill paid in full before the semester started. This was a true financial burden, and I was grateful when, in later semesters, they quickly got it together to give financial aid credit until the "check" came in.

But here's the thing: if I hadn't been able to meet that payment schedule, I would have dropped out of school. Why do people always think there's a free ride? And when can I hop on that gravy train?

If a student has a financial aid issue, s/he needs to take care of it, even if it means frequent revisits to the Financial Aid Office. I always had to revisit it a few times every semester, so why are there students who think their financial woes are the prof's problem [which is essentially what the students-by inaction-is doing to the correspondent/bouncer]?
1) If a student shows up to class and is on my roster, he or she is on my roster.

2) Setting a deadline -- "Have this resolved in a week, or I won't be able to assist you any more" or some such -- is a good approach.

3) The network security issues are nontrivial. I don't have a good solution for that one.
I'm a little late to the discussion, but as a financial aid counselor I find the discussion quite interesting.

At the school where I work, a student cannot register for the next term's classes until the current term's balance is paid. So, if the student is having issues paying, they can finish the classes they are currently enrolled in, but they will not be allowed to enroll in the next term until their issues are cleared up. The faculty need not be involved at all.

Thank you all for the discussion!
I completely disagree with your opinion. I think it is highly inappropriate for a faculty member to act on behalf of the bursar, wellness centers or any other department except their subject area. As an adjunct I am clueless as to payment deadlines or vaccination shots. If these departments want to enforce their rules they get out of their chairs and march to the classroom and speak with the student directly and have security escort the student out of the class. And if they don't have the time or manpower then hire more staff. I am hired to teach, not act as an agent for other departments. The only institutions that require teachers to announce memos in class is high school and elementary school. Just because the students expect 13th grade does not mean we have to endorse it. One solution would be to ticket their cars in student parking or confiscate student ID when it is utilized at the campus library, bookstore or eateries.
This increasing tendency of passing the responsibility buck is a particular peeve of mine, and I think I have to agree with the last Anonymous and other similar responses.

Yes instructors may be agents of the school, however beyond checking a computer generated roster as to who is or is not legitimately registered for their class, I don't think it is appropriate to require them to have to take a more active role in policing their classroom with respect to financial matters.
I suspect deandad's regular correspondent must be in the situation several writers mentioned: the defaulting students are still on his class roll but are no longer able to participate in class since they can't get online.

If the bureaucrats in charge think the students should no longer be on the class roll and the student continues to appear in class, then it's a matter for security.

If they think the student is (sort of) on the roll but just not to be allowed to actually do any work until finances are worked out, then I'd say it's time for a call for a meeting to form a subcommittee to devise proper policy and procedure to bring before the college community for feedback.
Okaaay now! This has been an interesting discussion. To quote a philosopher of our age, “Can’t we all just get along?”

To the last few posters: Whether thy be a university, community college, or technical institute, the successful institution of higher education depends on cooperation and participation by all employees, low and high. To use the football analogy, you are defining the role of faculty as a specialist. Something akin to being an academic place-kicker, who should disdain the lateral from a teammate. Not exactly conducive to helping the team win. All the years that I have fought the battle for shared governance, it has been implicitly understood by my fellow faculty members and I that we would share in part of the heavy lifting necessary to operations from time to time.

At my school, which is state funded, students are dropped before count day (the twelfth class day – the state census date) for outstanding bills. Nice, neat, and no problem, right? Wrong. Checks bounce. Vouchers provided by outside agencies are not honored. There are a thousand reasons why students acquire debt during the semester. Some, based on earlier comments, would like the registrar police to roam the campus and slap the cuffs on financial offenders. This would leave faculty unsullied from the abattoir that is higher admission operations. Unlike Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, that is not how an institution really functions. If my fellow faculty wants to share governance, they must be willing to share operations. My president will stoop to pick up trash as he walks across campus. He judges it to be the right thing to do and not beneath his lofty station. We should all be willing to step off the pedestal to accomplish the greater good.

Logging the student in the system under the prof’s code violates just about every Acceptable Use Policy I have ever seen. It could lead to the compassionate prof losing university computer privileges. Enough said.

Finally, withholding a grade until the debt is paid is dancing on broken glass. Sooner or later you will be cut. When you visit with institutional legal counsel, they will tell you that you may legally block issuance of an official transcript (there is case law). No pay, no final transcript. But when you cross over to making the awarding of a grade for completed work contingent on payment, that’s a horse of a different color. It akin to an ob/gyn threatening to step out of the hospital delivery room, refusing to birth a baby until the delinquent bill is paid. Just does not work. Birth must happen. Let the grade be recorded. Don't play games of now you see it, now you don't, now you see it. Record it, then freeze the record.

In the end, all play a role. If financial aid is non-functioning, it must be fixed. If students habitually seek a free ride, they must be introduced to consequences. And if an institutional function must be carried out, it falls to all to place collective shoulders to the wheel.

Amen, Dean Dad, amen. Sorry for the rant. It takes a village.

An old and gray Mighty Favog
There's quite a range of institutional practices out there!

First, a dose of reality. The registrar cops don't, won't, and can't exist, and you don't want them to.

And heaven help the professor who allows a student to commit fraud, such as signing in under someone else's ID.

That said, I see a fundamental failure of shared governance in many of these comments. (Whether that's a failure of execution or a failure of design is for another day.) For the folks at colleges at which the financial aid system is clearly broken, and you see good students put into impossible positions: what's the right response?

1. Invent your own ad hoc policy.

2. Bring the issue to the faculty senate, work through the relevant committees, and try to fix the actual problem.

If shared governance means anything at all, the answer is 2.

This also strikes me as the answer to Ancarett's (real and correct) objection. In my faculty days at PU, I recall a student showing up to my class for the first time in the sixth week of the semester. At the break, I marched up to the then-dean's office and demanded that he be removed -- to suggest that you could miss that much without consequence was to suggest that my class was without substance. To his credit, the then-dean agreed.

I'm not defending every status quo out there. I'm attacking wildcat solutions.
In the meantime, I suggest a quick call to ITS and a request for a temporary lifting of the student's block "while the financial aid issues are worked out." Seems kinda hippocratic to me.
Here's a question, though, and forgive my ignorance. Would faculty senate *have* any kind of governance role as relates to financial aid? At my institution, I feel like they don't (just as they don't really have "governance" over how much parking costs - they can give suggestions, but they don't have any real role in making those decisions, just as they don't in deciding tuition increases or dates when things like that come due). If the university in question does grant faculty that power, then yes, going through the proper channels seems like the right thing to do. But if policies are set by administrative fiat and then faculty are expected to enforce those policies over which they have no governance, then that is a different issue. Finally, the "registrar police" do exist: they're called faculty members, right? We already enforce that kind of stuff; it's just a matter of whether we want our perspectives on individual students in our courses to be influenced by knowing that they don't pay their bills (which, to be honest, I do not, though I am comfortable with knowing that sort of info and advocating on behalf of students in my role as adviser, in which I'm not in a position of power in the same way over the student).
This topic is absolutely ridiculous and I feel by sending a memo to faculty to handle delinquent student accounts is the financial department's last resort. Obviously to expect faculty to take time from teaching to handle these issues sends a huge message the system is broke and they have no idea how to fix it. My classes are less than 2 hours for 2 days a week and I have so much material to cover I do not have time to deal with student account issues.

Secondly, if we faculty allow this to go on what other campus departments will take advantage. At my school the wellness center has begun sending memos to faculty about students deficient with vaccines. Needless to say almost every case has been on the fault of the campus health center with misfiling and not processing paperwork. If a student poses a health threat it should be up to the campus health department to deal with it, not the faculty member. Also, with the high adjunct to full-time ratio how can you expect it to be really enforced. Adjuncts are not informed and included on many campus decisions and are sometimes paid substantially less, so why should they care? This topic make me mad a hell when administration gets paid high salaries to deal with these issues and should stop passing it onto faculty.
Anonymous 1:37 PM said:
I think it is highly inappropriate for a faculty member to act on behalf of the bursar, wellness centers or any other department except their subject area.

This is a misreading of the original question and reply. The correspondent was not being asked to act as the bursar. The instructor was not told to collect any unpaid fees or even tell the student about the problem. Those functions had already been carried out by the appropriate administrator when the account was cut off, and it is the student's responsibility to take care of it. This is not a 3rd grader without milk money, this is an adult. Hold him or her responsible for his or her inaction.

My advice to the instructor would be quite simple: Some people actually use pen and paper to write, so if a kid can't access the computer because s/he has not paid for the right to do so, the kid can use pen and paper now and submit it electronically after the bill is paid.

Anonymous 8:03 AM says:
Obviously to expect faculty to take time from teaching to handle these issues sends a huge message the system is broke and they have no idea how to fix it.

No one asked the instructor to "take time from teaching" to handle the problem. Read the original question. They told the instructor that the student would need to take time from learning to deal with something that could have been done hours, days, or weeks ago. It takes zero time to tell the student to take responsibility for their life. It takes more time, and a huge risk to you personally, to log them in under your account. What if the kid surfs to a porn site while in class as "you"?

More importantly, would you, as an adjunct instructor, keep teaching if you did not get paid at the end of the month? Where do you think your salary comes from if not from the check that student bounced?
I'd be OK with excluding a student on administrative instructions, as long as I won't later be instructed to help that student catch up.

Suspending a student (for whatever reason) and then telling faculty to help them catch up the missed work is essentially punishing the faculty as well as the student.
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