Tuesday, May 29, 2018


Kim Weeden made a great point on Twitter on Tuesday about exceptions to college policies.  As she put it:

What an administrator says: "this is the rule, but students can petition for an exemption."

What a sociologist hears: "this is the rule, but middle- or upper-class students who grew up thinking it's their right to question school authority figures can petition for an exemption.”

She’s correct on that; students who feel entitled to push back -- a group that often correlates with higher social capital -- will be likelier to find workarounds to sticky situations.  I saw that myself this week, when The Boy got himself into a bit of a scheduling pickle. Luckily for him, he had two educated parents on hand to help him figure out a solution. If he hadn’t, he could easily have run into an unnecessary conflict that could have snowballed.  In this case, social capital showed itself quietly, in the form of a sequence of conflicts prevented before it started.

That said, exceptions aren’t necessarily just escape clauses for the affluent.  

I’ve seen them used as political compromises to get a rule enacted.  A bit of discretion can temper the downsides of a general policy, or at least, that’s the hope of the folks who push for it.  And while that can play out in biased ways, there’s also a long tradition in law of balancing fairness or equity with procedural consistency.  Before we too-quickly dispense with discretion as a form of bias, it’s worth remembering what can happen when we have “zero tolerance” policies instead.  

Exceptions, or room for discretion, can also reflect a sort of epistemological humility.  It’s often impossible to predict the ripple effects of a policy, especially as it interacts with other policies enacted by other people.  An exception clause can function as a safety valve, preventing unintended explosions.

For example, many colleges have policies limiting the number of times a student can repeat a credit-bearing course.  The idea is to prevent students spinning their wheels (and/or using up their financial aid). If a student is taking Anatomy and Physiology for the fifth time, having failed it four times previously, her chances of making it into med school aren’t great; a policy limiting course attempts works as a sort of intervention, containing the damage.  But a policy like that needs to have an exception clause, because some reasons for withdrawing or failing don’t have much bearing on the ability to succeed. For example, we don’t “count” course attempts cut short by a student’s National Guard unit being called up. A strict application of the rule would say that we should, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain what purpose that would serve.  Similarly, a student hospitalized for injuries sustained in a car accident may not finish a given semester, but be perfectly capable of finishing a subsequent one. A complete absence of discretion would require flattening out circumstances, doing real violence to individual lives.

The balance, I think, lay in training both sides of the request.  The folks of whom exceptions are being asked need to be able to explain why they said “yes” to student A and “no” to student B.  Ideally, they should know not only the rules, but the reasons behind the rules. That’s a tall order, but in many cases, it can be done.

The harder part is in empowering students with well-earned fear or skepticism of institutions to make their valid needs known.  Asking policymakers to be omniscient is a fool’s errand; we need to be able to work around stupid or counterproductive applications of rules.  We need to help students gain not only the knowledge, but the sense of belonging, that gives the confidence to step up and ask if a given case makes any sense.  

When higher education was mostly directed at the second sons of the aristocracy, that sense of belonging could be assumed.  Now it can’t be. We have to cultivate it, and we have to make it real on a daily basis. In a society as stratified as our own, that’s a tall order; in my gloomier moments, I wonder if that’s part of why public higher education offends so many by its very existence.  But it’s a lesson we need to teach. And if it results in the rules getting a bit more fine-tuned over time, all the better.