Monday, May 04, 2015


Howard University is soliciting alumni donations to pay off “holds” on student accounts so academically eligible seniors can graduate.

I don’t use the word often, but this is brilliant.

Holds are a much bigger deal than most outsiders realize.

Simply put, a “hold” on a student’s account is a red flag that prevents the student from doing the next thing, whether it’s registering for classes, graduating, or getting a transcript.  Holds can happen for several reasons.  Financial holds are common.  They can come from underpaid tuition, a missed payment, a financial aid glitch, unpaid parking fines, unpaid library fines, or any number of other places.  Disciplinary holds are much less common, thankfully, but they exist.  And some holds are harder to categorize.  For example, incomplete immunizations (or incomplete immunization records) can cause holds, especially in allied health programs.  (If the anti-vax movement picks up steam, I foresee serious issues in allied health programs in a few years.  Clinical sites want immunized students, and rightly so.) When we made new student orientation mandatory a few years ago, “mandatory” involved creating a new hold for those who skipped it.

In a perfect world, students would get their various affairs squared away before the start of a new semester, so they could focus entirely on the task at hand once classes start.  But that’s not how the world works.  

Community colleges face these issues all the time.  That’s because our students have less financial breathing room and, often, more complicated lives.  

Dealing with holds is a double-edged sword.  We want students to progress, succeed, graduate, and either get jobs or transfer cleanly.  But we also need them to comply with our policies along the way.  Sometimes the only way to get a foot-dragging student to comply is to create a consequence, and it has to be one with enough teeth that they can’t ignore it.  

Financial holds are frustrating because they highlight the difficult reality that while we root for student success and do what we can to encourage it, we also have bills to pay.  Some students read that cynically, which is unfortunate, but it’s a fact of life.  With state support covering an ever-smaller portion of the budget, student payment covers ever more.  If we lose that, too, we’d have to shut down.  I’d happily take much greater state support if it were offered, but some variables are outside local control.

Howard has separated the hold from the student.  It’s using donations to backfill the payments students couldn’t make.  In so doing, it’s accomplishing several things.  First, it’s channeling philanthropy directly into the operating budget.  That’s no small thing.  Second, it’s improving student success rates without sacrificing income.  Third, it’s giving donors the satisfaction of seeing direct, immediate, personal payoff for their donations.  Finally, it’s giving students in difficult straits a break at a crucial time.  

Obviously, the danger in any sort of program like this over the long haul is “moral hazard.”  If students learn, or figure out, that they can shave a few thousand off their final semester’s tuition and someone else will pay it for them, well, it’s easy enough to predict what will happen.  If the program will be sustainable, it will need policies and guidelines to prevent abuse.  Let a few sensational stories out and the donations will dry up; it’s well within Howard’s interest to keep the program on a tight leash.

But still.  Kudos to Howard for finding a direct, humane, and useful way to address a real need.  I hereby predict that other colleges will follow suit.  It’s too good an idea not to imitate.