A Clarification of Higher Education Jargon that Negatively Impacts the College Student Experience
Sheri K. Rodriguez, Ed.D.
On a recent episode of the TV sitcom The Middle, one of the main characters, Mike Heck, attempts to negotiate on his daughter’s behalf in order to convince the Bursar at her university to reinstate her financial aid package so she can continue to attend college. In the true spirit of family television, and without giving away too many spoilers, the show has a bittersweet outcome. Nevertheless, parts of this episode are heartbreaking, and the truth is, situations like these are all far too common in higher education and are certainly not considered comic relief.
At the root of these issues are the deadlines, processes, and terminologies that often bombard and confuse college students and their parents, since many times, they have never heard of such higher ed specific “jargon”. Higher education is its own animal, with an alphabet soup of ever-growing acronyms and lengthy labels. With each new initiative, department, or policy, someone decides to give it an unnecessarily complicated name or acronym. And, if that acronym spells out a word, that’s even cooler. Such jargon has become so common that many schools provide what feels like an infinite list of terms that of course, we know every student loves to read and, naturally, commit to memory.
On top of some of this newer, flashier, higher ed jargon, there are the long standing terms steeped in tradition, exclusive to colleges and universities in the United States (some of these terms are found commonly in educational systems in Europe and the UK as well). For instance, did you know that the term “Bursar”, which is typically the term for a college or university’s billing office in the U.S., is derived from the Latin term purse? And, to make things a little more confusing for this term that is practically unheard of outside of education systems, the head of the Bursar Office is the Bursar, so someone could be talking about either a single person or a whole office. But wait, there’s more! If you have a question regarding your FASFA or loans, depending on the school, don’t go to the Bursar- they probably won’t be able to help you. Turn your heels to the Financial Aid Office, and then you’ll probably need to go back to the Bursar once you have your issue resolved. By then, however, if it’s the start of the semester, you may have been dropped from your classes if you were late in resolving your financial aid and tuition problem, so then you would have to visit the Registrar to get your classes reinstated, that is if there are any remaining seats. In that case, you may then have to visit your Academic Advisor to get new recommendations or overrides for new courses. This is a vicious cycle that has played out over and over again in colleges and universities everywhere.
This is a single example of the entanglement of archaic terminology and convoluted processes that can confuse a college student and be detrimental to their academic success as they begin navigating their way through attending, completing, and paying for a degree at a college or university. Such barriers have received attention even more recently with the increase of first generation college students, students of color, and other populations of students who have been considered “underserved” and are likely the first in their families and communities to attend college. From understanding how to accept financial aid packages to dealing with being on academic probation, higher ed is riddled with jargon for students to interpret and, unfortunately, misinterpret, especially for these incoming populations who are usually unfamiliar with college processes. And, typically, it is that one issue or misunderstanding, such as the loss of financial aid, that can cause a student to throw their hands up in disgust, and say, “forget (or insert your favorite expletive) this, college isn’t for me. This is too hard. I don’t want to do this anymore”.
So what is the solution here? Many college have increased visibility and education about financial aid through seminars and making reminders very noticeable in the form of posters and signs around campus. Several institutions have leveraged social media and mass text messaging tools to spread the word about important reminders and services on-campus. While these mechanisms are cutting-edge and seem to be helpful, they are only one piece of the higher ed jargon puzzle.
Unfortunately, higher ed jargon isn’t likely going anywhere anytime soon, but with the right and, and increasing, support and tools students can learn to navigate a college environment. There are several avenues of assistance, and several organizations provide suggestions, including those who connect students with colleges, and high school students with current college students, to help applicants understand how to navigate and understand a college environment. The good news is the concern has been raised, and this jargon has been shown to create obstacles for students and their efforts to graduate. If students continue to ask for assistance and remain vocal about the confusion surrounding discrepancies, colleges and universities will continue to respond with support, and eventually (hopefully) change, using more familiar terminology in the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Sheri K. Rodriguez is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Delaware. She has more than 10 years of experience in K-12 and higher education. Her academic interests include first-generation college students and other historically underrepresented college student populations, student development theory, and organizational leadership. She has a B.A. in Psychology from Rutgers University and her M.A. in Higher Education and Doctor in Educational Leadership (Ed.D.) from Rowan University. As a first-generation college student herself, she has been an advocate of college student success. She also hopes that this bio does not include too much higher ed jargon.
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