Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Student Appeals

A new correspondent writes:

I am Nursing faculty at a community college, in only my 2nd year in
the academic world. This semester I am a member of the 'Appeals/
Advisory' committee, which consist of representative faculty from
throughout our program, and the Directors of Nursing. I subbed on
this committee at the end of the last semester, when we had 2 marathon
days of listening to student stories of why they should be allowed to
continue in the program (usually after 2 failures which, according to
our policy, means dismissal unless the Appeals committee decides

These were 2 very painful days, as students had endured incredible
difficulties, and we had to determine which were circumstances that
deserved another chance. I found it incredibly difficult to make
these decisions that effect students lives and futures, and felt truly
unprepared to do so.

I am looking for guidance/ information/ support that may be out there
for faculty on these matters. Unfortunately, all I seem to be finding
on this issue in the literature and on the internet has to do with the
legalities of it or the specifics of the process. I'm not looking to
analyze or alter or process, just to learn how to approach it so I can
be fair to students and be the best member of this committee that I
can be.

Any ideas on where I should turn?

In a perfect world, I'd solve this with data.

Since your program has (probably) been doing this for years, you should have a pretty good sample size to examine. The ideal approach would be first to compare the 'success' rates (however defined) for students readmitted on appeal, and to compare them to other students. Since you don't kick students out until the second failure, I'm guessing their success rate upon reentry is pretty low.

Then, if you have access to the files, it might make sense to try to make some distinctions among cases. Do some types of readmits do notably better than others? If they do, then you have a non-arbitrary basis for making decisions.

I'm philosophically opposed to "Queen for a Day" style appeals. They shift the discussion to 'fault,' and 'compassion,' and all sorts of criteria that have nothing to do with the likelihood of subsequent success. Given the scarcity of seats in Nursing programs, and the cost to the institution for each, I think there's a solid institutional argument against infinite chances. (There's also a student-centered argument against setting students up to fail.)

Without data, though, it's easy to default to 'every case is different.' Whatever you can do to get around that should improve things.

One easy improvement would be to have a discussion within the department to boil down the appeals to a few key points, like a checklist. Restrict the content of the appeals to the items on the checklist. It should be a useful clarifying exercise for the department to decide what it cares about most. It would also make subsequent comparisons easier; was item 1 more or less predictive than item 2? To the extent that you can replace hunches with data, you have a better shot at real fairness.

(Even if you can't get to a checklist right away, you can at least suggest that the appeals be in writing. You'll have much cleaner recordkeeping that way, and it will be less likely to introduce factors you oughtn't consider. It'll also speed up the process considerably.)

At Proprietary U, I spent a chunk of time on the appeals committee, reading applications for re-admission by students who had been academically dismissed. Since PU derived its profits from tuition, there was a strong presumption in favor of the student. I quickly earned the nickname "Dr. No," since I assumed that someone who had flunked out had probably flunked out for a reason. We didn't have a lot of data to go on, but at one point someone actually crunched the numbers and found that fewer than ten percent of the students who were readmitted eventually graduated. I took that as a sort of personal vindication. My personal criterion was always "what's different now?" If the best they could offer was "I'll try harder,' I didn't buy it. The more persuasive cases cited a documented medical issue, or sometimes the simple passage of time. (My personal fave was from a student who had been dismissed over 20 years earlier. He offered as his reason for flunking out that "I was young and stupid. Now I know better." I voted yes.)

I haven't seen any research literature on student appeals, though it's probably out there. Readers who've seen some that might be helpful are invited to share it in the comments.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- any thoughts on the right process for student appeals?

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

I served on the dismissal appeals committee at my 4-year residential state college for a number of years. It is tough duty and every semester I felt the pain you describe. As college professor work goes, it is hard duty.

When I began on the committee the college was having a hard time with enrollments and we were encouraged to be lenient, by granting as many appeals as possible. We chose not to and I still convinced that this path was a good one for the college and for many of the dismissed students as well. Our research found that there was a lot of overlap between students with academic problems and students with disciplinary problems. (I don't know if this will carry over to a CC or not.) Removing poorly performing students also made the college a better place to live.

Over my tenure the committee developed a number of good practices, but I think the most important were 2 questions: Was the disprution significant enough to cause the poor grades? Does the student have a resolution to the problem in place? If the answer was yes, then the appeal was almost always granted, otherwise the chances were pretty low. Some exceptions were made when a student was very close to graduation or when the committee believed that the college was at fault in some way, but for most students without a clear solution they were not readmitted. To do so seemed to taking their money without a clear chance at success.

The committee also moved toward having each case reviewed separately by two members to minimize the bias of presentation. This was time consuming, but I think it improved the process.
If denials are made on the basis of a lack of evidence that the student has turned their situation around, is this reason for denial communicated clearly to the dismissed students? Or is it more like the "Sorry, no, bye" form letter I've seen in the past?
I've been on our financial aid appeals committee for 4 years now. I have had a similar experience to the nusring faculty person who posted here. If a student fails to complete 70% of their work overall or in a given semester, they lose their fin aid. It's very tough. I have heard it all -- arrests, house struck by lightning, pregnancy, illness, death, car crashes, or simple immaturity. We try not to "grill" the students and they don't have to "atone" for what they have done. But if they show that they have a good support network and have a clear goal in mind, they usually get cleared for at least 1/2 time funding. I would say, just try to empathize and also be firm. Good luck. -- ccprof
IN reply to "human", students who are dismissed get a detailed letter that describes what kind of information and documentation is appropriate for their appeal. They are told that they need to show how their problems have been resolved. Denial letters are maybe not as specific as you might like, but they say more than see you later.
Yesss. Passage of time. After my freshman year, multiple time-wasting activities and attendance at class tending to zero resulted in a gpa below a D average.

Five years later, I reapplied, based most of my application on 'I was stupid. Dead end jobs suck. Please let me back in!'

I graduated with honors :)
I've never served on such a committee, but I do consider the question "would I drive over a bridge designed by this student" when considering what constitutes passing in my physics class.

I assume the writer has worked as a nurse and has a good idea of what constitutes professional behavior and what standards must be met in the classroom and in clinical practice to pass the licensing exams and be a good nursing professional. I would let those guide my decision.

I would also not overlook the reputation of the school and its passing rate on the licensing exam. Have "appeal" students done as well as others? Why or why not? (This is a question for your Dean.)

If your problem is that the only evidence is presented verbally in sob story fashion, then you need to do what my college does for less important decisions: have an appeals form that lists the main criteria you consider as a matter of policy and requests a written description of the problem, documentation of the circumstances, and an explanation of why success will be expected on their last attempt.

What would a professional do (during the semester) when certain circumstances arise? Did the student do something appropriate in a timely fashion?

Finally, I would think that two failures over two semesters would be of more concern than two failures in the same semester due to a one-time event.
Having worked in a private college and in the nursing dept as staff,I've seen far too many people get a pass when they are the last person I want standing over me in the hospital. Another aspect to consider, were the nursing classes the only ones failed? If they are passing english and history but failing at nursing, a good sign they won't do well later on. I've seen it far too often. And even if unforseen circumstances caused the failure, sometimes a break is needed for emotional and mental health.
Effect, affect, hmmmmm, which to use. Geez figure it out!
To me, at least, the real issue is do the students get fair warning before they go over the cliff.

Much more effective than picking up the pieces at the bottom.
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