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.