In the Media
Some Colleges Target Jargon in the Name of Student Success
July 31, 2019
By Will Jarvis
In mid-April, on a Facebook page focused on first-generation college students’ success, La’Tonya Rease Miles posed a question: “Can you think of any college terms or lingo that students are presumed to know?”
Rease Miles, director of the University of California at Los Angeles’ First Year Experience office, was compiling a guide to define the terms many students — first-generation or not — find confusing or confounding. More than 100 responses flooded in.
Weighted and unweighted GPAs. Commencement versus graduation. Freshman forgiveness policies. Good standing. Withdrawal. Provost. Bursar. Registrar. EFC. SAP. TA. RA. CV.
“Why do we have so many freaking acronyms?!” one commenter asked.
It’s a valid question. Language is a creature of tradition, and on-campus vocabulary was often settled long ago, said Naomi Norman, associate vice president for instruction at the University of Georgia. But colleges and universities are beginning to question their own jargon-filled handbooks and campuses, taking steps in recent years to simplify the language they use or, at the very least, to clearly define confusing terms.
Kaye Monk-Morgan, Wichita State University’s assistant vice president for academic affairs, said it comes down to a simple question: “Are we building a campus that works for the grown-ups here, or are we building a campus that works for the student body we’re recruiting?”
That question is even more pertinent for first-generation students, who sometimes stumble in navigating the invisible rules and unspoken expectations often called colleges’ “hidden curriculum.” Incomprehensible lingo can “flare that impostor syndrome,” said Sarah Whitley, senior director of the Center for First-Generation Student Success at Naspa, a national student-affairs organization.
Ensuring a sense of belonging — and a structure set up for success — is vital for both campuses and students, Whitley said. First-generation students graduate at lower rates than do their peers whose parents attended college, according to research by the U.S. Department of Education. And misunderstanding institutional language can lead to missteps — withdrawing after a deadline, for example, so students pay for credits they don’t receive.
“There’s kind of this trickle effect that creates bigger problems for students,” she said.
Jargon begins before students ever arrive on campus. Laura Keane, chief policy officer at uAspire, a nonprofit focused on college affordability, said her field — helping students navigate financial aid — is rife with confusing jargon: In a recent study of 455 colleges, she and her colleagues found 136 different terms for the same unsubsidized student loan.
‘How Can We Simplify?’
Some colleges are doing something about the problem. Over the past two years, the University of Georgia mailed a jargon handbook, available in English, Spanish, Korean, and Chinese, to about 800 families of first-generation students. The idea for the booklet came from Judith Iakovou’s conversations with first-year students when she was an academic adviser. Over nine months, Iakovou, now a transfer-student coordinator, and a committee of administrators and former first-generation students assembled the words and terms that could benefit from everyday-English translations.
Dozens of other institutions — including Dartmouth College, Maryville College in Tennessee, and Western Illinois University — have created web pages defining campus terms and phrases. At Weber State University, a similar initiative two years ago drew a positive reaction from students and faculty members, said Jessica Oyler, interim assistant vice president for human resources. The Utah university’s website now offers a terms and definitions page, including phrases like “Community Engaged Learning” and “Bursar’s Office.”
Such resources are a step in the right direction, but they do little to solve the actual problem at hand, said Zachary W. Taylor, a research assistant at the University of Texas at Austin who studies institutional communication. In effect, colleges “are admitting to themselves and their student audiences that the language is so difficult that students need to learn words to be able to conform to and access the system,” he said. “I think that’s a little bit backwards.”
Taylor said the question then becomes: “How can we simplify?”
The answer requires institutions to change the perspective of their communications. Student input is a must, Oyler said, and Monk-Morgan, at Wichita State, suggested viewing writing “through the lens of a first-gen student on the first day of school.”
Sometimes that requires more than simple translations. At Wichita State, where first-generation students have made up about 47 percent of the last three freshman classes, the administration has taken a more critical look at its language, providing top-down suggestions for how professors should communicate and format their syllabi.
“It’s hard to understand that we’re talking amongst ourselves,” Monk-Morgan said. “Everything from the way we set up the syllabus to the instructions that we give — we weren’t using language that our first-year students really understood.”
Monk-Morgan said the “aha moment” came when she suggested that students at the Kansas university attend “office hours.” But many, she found, were under the impression that “office hours” meant the time when professors wanted privacy to work. The university formed a committee of faculty members that suggested changing the term to “student hours.”
Top-down institutional change takes time, though. Iakovou said jargon-free terms can disrupt a “common academic language” across colleges and universities. And campus structures can create siloes, so “changing a term on one document, in one place, actually has a ripple effect,” uAspire’s Keane said.
Critics who say simplifying language is akin to lowering standards — or that changing “office hours” to “student hours,” for example, reduce expectations — are missing the point, said Sonja Ardoin, an assistant professor at Appalachian State University who has studied and written about first-generation students for more than a decade.
“I hear that,” Ardoin said. “But we have to understand it’s actually creating some lanes of access for people who’ve been, historically in higher education, purposely and sometimes unintentionally exploited.”
“If we’re trying to be more inclusive, and we’re target-recruiting populations that are underserved,” she said, “then we have to prepare and be ready for them.”