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One of the shocks of moving into community college administration is discovering how many “academic” decisions are made based on financial aid rules.

Some folks on campus are floating an idea that I have to admit makes a certain kind of bureaucratic sense. It involves restricting the windows during which students can change their majors to the periods between semesters. A student who decides in, say, October that she picked the wrong major would have to wait until January to switch.

It’s driven by financial aid.  

Federal financial aid only covers courses in (or, sometimes, prerequisite to) a student’s major. The idea is that aid is for “degree-seeking students,” so it should cover only degree-seeking behavior.  In the minds of the Feds, courses outside of one’s major are clearly larks, and the taxpayers shouldn’t be on the the hook for larks.

It’s a position that makes sense in the abstract, but that falls apart when you meet actual students.

Actual students don’t always know from the first day of classes what they want to study. Or, they may think they do, but discover upon exposure that it wasn’t what they had in mind. The idea behind “meta-majors” and “guided pathways” is to help students choose, without leaving credits behind if it takes them a little while. A first semester comprised of a meta-major exploring a wide field, combined with some gen eds, will transfer nicely from one major to another. That’s a point that many critics of pathways miss.

But pathways or no, a student who decides to change her major mid-semester can create an awkward financial aid situation. Courses that had been eligible for coverage under the initial major may not be under the new one; all of a sudden, a student can be on the hook to pay back aid that she already received. For instance, “Business” is not a general education category. So a student who enrolls in a business class with the idea of majoring in business, but who changes her mind mid-semester and wants instead to major in humanities, may find that her business class doesn’t carry over.  And now she’s on the hook for it financially.

But if she waits until January, then what’s done is done. She can change majors without imperiling financial aid. (She’ll still lose credits.)  

Civilians might be surprised at how often, and how many, students change majors. It’s not a trivial number. Pushing all of them into January or the summer -- but especially January -- would create a hellacious crunch time for advising, registration, and financial aid. It would also most likely lead to some students missing appointments, whether because they lose track of time, get crowded out by others doing the same thing, or just decide it isn’t worth it.  

In this case, improved technology has actually made the situation worse. It’s easier now to track when students’ courses don’t match their majors, and to get that information quickly. Once a college knows, it has to act; the technology now is too good to hide behind “we didn’t know in time.” The interstices of manual systems, I’m told, created room for human judgment. But the tech has become good enough to squeeze out those spaces. We can now apply blunt instruments much more efficiently.

In my more-perfect world, financial aid would be flexible enough that students could explore a bit without penalty. Lifetime Pell limits would be restored to pre-2012 levels (or eliminated altogether), to allow students with developmental and/or ESL coursework realistic timeframes to complete programs. We would make aid decisions based on academic needs, rather than the other way around.

But this is where we are. Between narrow rules and advancing technology, we’re getting to the point at which telling a student who wants to switch majors “come back in three months” actually makes a kind of sense. Not academically, of course, but there’s no rule for that.

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