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The Education Department is planning to deploy “secret shoppers” to colleges around the country to suss out deceptive and predatory practices, particularly around financial aid. At the risk of incurring the wrath of colleagues everywhere, I have to admit that it’s a great idea.

The merit of secret shoppers is that they provide the view from what a professor of mine called “the other side of the desk.” They come in without institutional knowledge—just like most students do—so they see the oddities (or worse) that have come to blend into the background for folks who work there. That’s valuable.

When I taught writing, I liked to focus on audience awareness. Unless you’re writing in a journal that you plan to burn or bury afterward, chances are that your efforts are meant to be read. A good writer takes the audience into account and may make stylistic changes for different audiences. A legal brief will read differently than a children’s book. Language and style choices should reflect the expected reader.

The same applies to institutions that serve people.

Say what you will about for-profits, but when I worked at one I was struck by the differences in language. The office most colleges called the bursar was instead called the cashier. Students who were the first in the family to attend college had probably never even heard of a bursar before, but everyone knows what a cashier is. That’s the person you go to in order to pay. It had deans, but it didn’t have a provost. For folks who work on campuses, if you get a chance, ask a group of first-year students how many of them know what a provost is. It’s just not a word that exists in most contexts.

A few years ago, a faculty colleague wrote about the differences in student perceptions when she started calling office hours “student hours.” For someone from outside higher education, “office hours” could mean time when someone is available, or it could mean time when they’re supposed to be left alone to do whatever it is that they do in there. But “student hours” are clearly intended for students. A simple name change made the practice more legible to students who had never seen the term before.

A secret shopper can have the effect of bringing a new lamp into an old room. It can shine light into corners that had previously been dark, showing whatever unpleasant stuff had gathered there over time. Several years ago, the college at which I was working at the time decided to stop accepting credit card payments at the bursar’s (!) window, though it would continue to accept them for online payments. The folks in the bursar’s office put up a sign saying “credit cards not accepted.” They weren’t wrong, exactly, but many students read the sign to mean that the college didn’t accept credit card payments at all, which was not the intended meaning. That only came to light when some students asked pointedly why their parents couldn’t pay with credit cards. The sign assumed a level of background knowledge, or a propensity to ask the second question, that just wasn’t characteristic of its audience.

Fresh eyes notice things that acculturated eyes don’t. Brookdale has a building called CAR, which stands (or stood) for Counseling, Advising and Registration. A student once asked me where the auto tech program was; she had just been to the CAR building, and it wasn’t there. If you go just by acronyms, the question makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t auto tech be in the CAR building?

Financial aid has its own language. Sometimes that language gets used as a smokescreen to confuse students, as when aid packages treat loans and grants interchangeably. As a heavily regulated area, it sometimes adopts the language of regulators. How that gets communicated to students and their families can vary quite a bit. Empowering some folks to report back on the student’s-eye view may lead to a few awkward moments, but it’s likely to lead to more legible and consistent practices. That’s a great goal. If the feedback is handled well, it could also lead to some well-deserved recognition for the directors and staff who’ve been doing great work for a long time, often unnoticed. It’s easy not to notice when problems don’t arise. But preventing those problems can take monumental effort. If some quiet stars finally get some well-deserved praise, I’m all for it.

So bring on the secret shoppers. They’ll tell us things we desperately need to know.

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