A Cliff Note Version for Parents of College Students
If I had a dollar for every time a “good kid” faced trouble for the first time during the course of their college career, I would retire from practicing law at the ripe age of “somewhere still under 40 years old.” While all the information regarding prohibited conduct definitions, processes, rights, and procedures are readily available on the college’s website, parents often just want to know if their bright young adult just eliminated their ability to get into medical school or land a good job after graduation.
Possible Versus Likely Penalties
Within a college’s code of conduct or student handbook, you can find a general list of sanctions that a university can impose if a student is found to have engaged in prohibited conduct such as underage drinking, fighting, vandalism, hazing, cheating on a test, plagiarism, etc. (Note: this article does not address sexual misconduct or discriminatory behavior under Title IX – that could and should be an entire book). Typically, there is a large array of penalties with limited explanations of why each would be imposed; ranging from a simple informal or written reprimand through expulsion or dismissal from the institution without the ability to ever come back.
When we evaluate a situation, we first want to address whether a conduct record in and of itself would be harmful to a student’s overall goals and second, what the likely sanction or punishment would come from a finding of responsibility (guilty verdict). For some students, a blemish on their conduct record no matter how small the penalty imposed would be devastating. An example of this scenario would be a student with aspirations of entering a very competitive professional school program, such as dental school or law school at Harvard. That student would have to disclose on an admissions application the conduct violation, which could very likely cause the post-graduate institution to reject them, regardless of how mild the sanction imposed.
For other students with no concrete plans for graduate school or a desire to simply enter the work force after earning their undergraduate degree, a conduct record may not ultimately matter to their future goals. However, if the conduct they are accused of carries the potential for a severe penalty such as suspension or expulsion, the ability to even achieve their undergraduate degree could be severely delayed or rendered impossible. Not to mention the financial implications of paying for a semester that you are then stopped from completing, or the additional tuition needed for additional semesters in the future.
Here lies the dilemma and thus, the need to evaluate each student’s situation on an individual basis. Generally, we work on sliding scales and goal setting.
A first-year college student charged with an underage alcohol violation by the university does not deny that they engaged in the behavior, they have no prior discipline at the university, and they have no post-graduate further educational goals. It may make sense for that student to take responsibility for the violation and provide the school with a polished statement of mitigation and reflection on the mistake. The college will most likely require the student to complete an alcohol education course, and/or write a reflection paper, and/or perform community service, and/or place the student on a probationary status with the university. Probation, in the college context, generally means nothing more than a heightened state of warning, i.e., be on your best behavior during this time. Occasionally, it can restrict a student’s ability to apply for travel abroad programs or other experiences during the period of probation but should not have an impact on scholarships or the ability to take future courses. The student can serve out the probationary period and move on to complete their degree as planned.
A 4th year college student is charged with hazing by the university, denies knowledge or participation of the incident, and is planning on attending medical school in the Fall following graduation. This college student is facing the potential for career derailment, with a conduct blemish or finding of a policy violation jeopardizing their medical school admission. This student may also be at risk of a severe punishment, such as suspension from the university or being “kicked out” also known as expulsion. While a student is able to apply to another institution to complete their degree, an expulsion will need to be disclosed which reduces a new university’s desire to accept that student. Further, many colleges require a student to be enrolled as a student for a year or two, prior to earning eligibility for a degree. That typically means the student cannot just finish out one semester somewhere else but would be delayed significantly. Again, financial implications arise as well; unless a student is permitted to withdraw before the withdrawal deadline in a semester, no tuition or room/board fees are refunded.
When facing discipline from a college, it is a good return on investment to seek the advice of an attorney. Specifically, a school law attorney who understands all of the collateral implications of a student conduct record. This area of law and administrative remedies is rapidly changing, creating a much different college experience than even 10 years ago. And yes, school law attorneys exist!
Written by Leslie Albeit, Esq., student rights attorney at Albeit Weiker, LLP 614.745.2001