Washington State University got a lot of attention late last month when its Board of Regents agreed to approve a provision  that would allow it to fine students for violating the code of conduct. The policy would cover everything from academic dishonesty to theft to sexual assault.
However, it seems that what made the Washington State case unusual was not the content of the rule itself -- many colleges have one -- but the reasoning behind it. It goes like this: If an underage student is caught drinking in the residence hall, he or she has to pay a $75 fee for a sanctioned alcohol education course. But, in what might send a strange message to students, someone who commits a more serious crime such as stealing a laptop from a student’s apartment pays nothing (at least to the university).
“We felt that if we wanted to have some more fairness in terms of conduct violations, that might be an option,” said John Fraire, Washington State’s vice president for student affairs and enrollment. The university won’t decide whether to start charging fines until it gathers more input from students and other campus offices.
Most colleges that impose such fines for any conduct violations do so as a preventive and educational measure, and in many cases, it works. Institutions also tend to impose fines only for incidents that are illegal or very severe. So it would be unlikely to see a student fined $100 for, say, cheating on an exam. But when the rules do apply, the price can be steep.
At Temple University, while the code of conduct  specifies that students can be fined for any violation, that rule is really invoked only in drug and alcohol incidents. The repercussions of getting caught (on- or off-campus) are enough to discourage even a gainfully employed person from taking a risk: $250 for the first offense, and $700 for the second.
Those dollar amounts have risen from $50 and $100, respectively, when the university adopted the “mandatory minimum” rule nearly 10 years ago. As it became clear that the penalties weren’t enough to deter violations, Temple raised the second-offense fine to $500 about five years ago. After that, violations started going down, but officials again raised the mandatory minimums during their regular code review in September 2009 -- and the reason might surprise you.
Andrea Caporale, Temple’s assistant vice provost for student affairs, recalls the students who sat on the review committee saying that the "fines were a joke: 'Students don’t care about fines that are low. If you make the fines higher, then they might have more of an impact.' ”
The fine hike, combined with aggressive advertising of the policy, seems to have worked: there has been a “drastic decrease” in second-time offenses over the years. (Another factor at play could be Temple’s medical amnesty policy, which promises no sanctions for students who call for help when a student is in danger.)
“There were a lot of other schools out there that were doing these mandatory minimums and we thought it would be a good deterrent…. It might keep students from even thinking about violating the code a first time,” said Caporale, although she wasn’t sure whether or by how much first-time violations have decreased. “What we really want is for them to learn from it, but the fine is a piece of it.” (Officials used to issue fines more broadly, but they narrowed use of the penalties when they began thinking such charges served no educational purpose.)
Ryan Holmes, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, said philosophies on conduct fees vary by institution. Those that use them tend to believe the results they produce are worthwhile, while others are turned off by the burden they might impose on students.
"Different campuses, they know their student population best and have come up with ways that best suit their campuses," said Holmes, who is also associate dean of students and director of judicial affairs at the University of Texas at El Paso. "There are some campuses that believe that the fines work and there are certain campuses, such as UTEP, that stay away from fines unless they have to do with restitution."
It depends in part on a college’s student population, Holmes said: "If you come from a well-off background, a fine might be a slap on the wrist," he said. But if you're less privileged, it might be “very punishing.”
And even though universities may have similarly written policies, that doesn’t mean they use them in the same way. In many cases, a code of conduct permits the issuance of fines for any violation. But most often, Holmes said, they are issued for incidents related to drug and alcohol use.
Institutions such as Shawnee State University  in Ohio, meanwhile, have in their codes a fairly extensive list of things for which they might fine students: violations of alcohol policy, pets in campus housing, false fire alarms, tampering with fire alarms or extinguishers (and more).
But in practice, the university typically limits fines to violations that result in property destruction or other undue costs, or to those that violate state and federal laws.
“We have very few repeat offenders,” said Elizabeth Blevins, a Shawnee State spokeswoman. “Whether or not that is due to monetary sanctions is unknown.” Shawnee State, like Temple, would like to think the low number of repeat offenses is due to the educational sanctions that accompany a fine, such as mandated courses, materials or community service.
However, Shawnee State students likely share at least one qualm with those at Washington State: potentially having to pay two separate fines -- one to the state and one to the university -- for the same violation, if it’s illegal.
"When the student views this information, they view it as one more fee, one more fine, and that’s the frustrating part. It’s an additional fine coming at a time when money is as thin as it can be for a student,” said Amanda Spalding, vice president of Washington State’s student government. But, she added, “If this can in some way help students create a safer environment for themselves and make better decisions for some issues on anything from sexual assault to alcohol or violence, I think that will be a good thing.”
But the student body president isn't sure that just the possibility of having to pay a fee will affect student behavior.
“If we’re talking $50 to $100, I definitely think having to write that check would deter repeat offenders,” Riley Myklebust said. “I don’t necessarily know that it’s going to stop people for the first time, but I’d definitely say if you do something and see, ‘Wow, that $100 might not seem like a lot, but now that I have to pay it, it is.' ”