In my years as a senior administrator and college dean some of my most distressing conversations with students were when they appeared in my office angry, sad, frustrated or confused over having fallen afoul of some process, procedure, deadline or rule that they had no idea of. Colleges hold students accountable for knowing things like the timeline for contesting a grade, all the course requirements for graduation, the possibility of taking a class pass-fail, the options for mixing majors and minors, who the chair of the Physics department is and much, much more. A typical response when a student appears having missed the deadline to contest a grade is that they should have known. It was printed in the catalog.
The college catalog is the really important book that college students rarely read. Yet it is both bible and contract for students. For example, the graduation requirements posted in the catalog at the time a student enters college will be the ones that they are expected to fulfill even if the rules change along the way. The catalog in place at the time of matriculation is the one that is enforced. Generally, because it is such a labor intensive and detailed document, it is only reissued every two to three years. There is some wiggle room for the college in that they will typically have some language in small type that says that they can change the rules anytime. And now that the catalog is more often than not an online rather than a physical document that is more true than ever before, but such changes will usually be tiny and not a major overhaul.
Students who are supposed to be learning to be accountable for themselves during this life transition point that is college are being held accountable for what is in the catalog. In reality, it would be impossible during orientation, for example, to cover every rule or option that the catalog offers. Not that students already overwhelmed with information overload as they come in would remember even if they were told more.
But there is really important stuff in this often inch thick (when printed) document. It is where you can learn the construction of departments and who the faculty are and what it takes to major or minor in any particular field. It is where you can learn that when in academic trouble you can take a course pass/fail or take an incomplete or drop it with no penalty within certain dates. You can learn which offices deal with which kinds of problems. Yet students whom we have trouble getting to read the texts assigned to them in class are loath to delve into this dense document that at the same time could be a real life saver.
So what do we do. Basically we need to promote this book for the importance that it represents in the lives of students so that students might actually look at it before they end up in some dean's office in tears because they did not know (had not read) the rule that was about to become their undoing. Catalogs are hardly ever promoted. What if we did a marketing campaign that included facebook quizzes on catalog content, games, homepage snippets relevant to key dates, issuing summaries of vital pieces to targeted audiences at key times (graduation requirements to second semester juniors for instance.) A freshman handbook can point out key pages or sections of the catalog in the context of other relevant content. Students need to be told more forcefully and upfront that this book that they rarely read may be the one that can make or break their college careers.
Creativity in college communications is not always a priority. Even websites can be reviewed to assure that they are user friendly. At one point in my career I noted that the twice annual mayhem in the registrar's office in part had to do with the fact that the registration process was not transparent. Having the good fortune to have both Student Affairs and Marketing reporting to me we were able to collaborate to reconstruct the registrar's section of the college website so that it answered not the question of who served in the office but the question of how to register. The frazzled staff and the students were served in the process. Looking at all of the pieces of information that colleges need to communicate with students more from the user standpoint can be a life saver for both students and staff.
Today's students are accustomed to more creative, brief, targeted and compelling communications whether via twittersphere or YouTube or TED Talks. But we have to get the information they need into their hands and heads.
Visit www.collegecountdown.com to learn more about Marcia Cantarella and her new book I Can Finish College.
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