UNIVERSITY POLITICS

Syracuse University’s academic drop deadline isn’t compliant with federal law, experts say. It will change next semester.

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The academic drop deadline has in the past come nine weeks into the semester. The deadline will be moved up five weeks in the spring.

Syracuse University’s academic drop deadline comes several weeks later in the semester than federal law says it should — a discrepancy that will be addressed by the university moving the deadline up this spring and in future academic years.

This spring, the deadline will come on Feb. 6, the same date as the financial drop deadline and five weeks earlier than the deadline has come in past semesters. Individual courses dropped after that date will appear on a student’s transcript as withdrawals. Additionally, students who initiate a leave of absence from the university after that date will be considered as having withdrawn from SU and the courses will appear on their transcripts as such.

Under the rules that have long been in place at SU, students who initiated leaves of absences after the financial deadline but before the academic drop deadline had that semester’s courses wiped from their transcripts — even though the courses should have appeared as withdrawals under federal law. That loophole gave SU students an advantage, likely resulting in inaccurate transcripts for some and possibly affecting their Satisfactory Academic Progress statuses.

Siham Doughman, SU’s University Registrar who was appointed earlier this year, did not say whether SU was prompted to change the deadline because of federal law. In an email interview, she originally said the change was made because faculty were concerned that students “invested time and energy” into courses only to drop them midway through the semester.

Later, when asked about the federal regulations, Doughman said the deadline change “will make staying in compliance more straightforward.” Despite multiple requests, The Daily Orange was not granted an interview in person or by phone with Doughman or any other university officials.

Doughman added that, going forward, “the process for withdrawing from all courses” will remain the same: Students will either be granted an official leave of absence or withdrawn depending on the date they request the leave.

But while that policy will technically stay the same, the consequences will be greater for students who initiate leaves midsemester, as the academic drop deadline is the determining factor in whether students are granted leaves or considered withdrawn. Under university policy, students who request a leave of absence after the academic drop deadline are officially considered withdrawn.

Experts described SU’s previous use of the academic drop deadline as noncompliant with federal guidelines.

In past semesters, students had until the ninth Monday of the semester to initiate a leave of absence from the university, meaning they intend to return to SU, and avoid having the semester’s courses appear as withdrawals on their transcripts.

Giving students until that point in the semester to leave the university without officially being considered withdrawn is at odds with  guidelines set by the Higher Education Act of 1965 for universities that receive federal funding, experts said.

When a student leaves during the semester, federal law stipulates that it can only be considered an official leave of absence if the student is not charged financially for that semester. If a student leaves the university and is charged for that semester, it must be considered a withdrawal, experts said.

At SU, which uses a model similar to many universities, the financial drop deadline is set each semester on the Monday of the fourth week of classes. After that date, the university’s enrollment statistics are established and students are financially responsible for their courses. Students who drop all their courses after the deadline are ineligible for a full refund of tuition, and if they receive financial aid, are required to pay back a portion of it. Thus, under federal law, students who drop all their courses after that date must officially be considered as having withdrawn from SU, even if they intend to return to the university.

The rules on the federal side for a leave of absence are that, in order for it to be an official leave of absence, a student must be able to return at the exact point at which they left and there be no additional charges,” said David M. Canaski, the president of Financial Aid Experts, a higher education compliance and consulting service. “It really doesn’t work at a semester-based school.”

Last academic year alone, 76 SU students initiated leaves of absences between the financial and academic drop deadline, Doughman said.

The distinction between an official leave of absence from the university and a withdrawal can affect a student in multiple ways.

Students who apply for readmission after leaving the university are reviewed to determine if Satisfactory Academic Progress standards are met, according to university policy. To meet SAP standards, students must earn at least 67 percent of credits attempted. Withdrawals are considered attempted credits and consequently have a negative impact on the percentage of attempted credits a student has earned.

Students who fail to meet SAP standards risk losing both federal and institutional financial aid, which together encompass SU grants and scholarships, Pell Grants, Perkins Loans, direct loans, federal work-study awards and more.

Additionally, students who have taken leaves of absences that should have officially been considered withdrawals have inevitably maintained inaccurate transcripts, which are often used when applying to graduate schools and jobs.

SU’s academic drop deadline has come about nine weeks into each semester since at least the 2007-08 academic year, the oldest year for which an academic calendar exists through the university’s website.

The new academic drop deadline will also affect students who drop individual courses but remain at the university. Students will have up until 5 p.m. on the date of the deadline to drop a course from their schedule and see it removed from their transcripts. Individual classes dropped between that deadline and the withdrawal deadline, which comes toward the end of the semester, will appear on transcripts as withdrawals.

This semester, the last before the deadline changes, students have until 5 p.m. on Oct. 23 — the semester’s ninth Monday — to drop an individual course without penalty.

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