Time for a Truth-In-Graduation Disclosure Policy

It’s that time of year again, when hope springs eternal, smiles of pride break out, tears of victory are shed. It’s graduation time. Already our mailboxes are finding relief from the steady stream of junk mail and monthly bills. Mixed in are graduation announcements from neighbors, young and old, and relatives near and far. Milestones reached, at last.

No time to be cynical. Well, maybe not.

As I was opening a college graduation announcement one day, I was struck by something a student told me a few years ago when I called to acknowledge receipt of her invitation.

 “Oh,” the prospective graduate said, “I’m not really graduating. I’m just marching. I’ve got a few more hours to go before I really graduate.” Pardon me? You are donning that cap and gown, sitting through pomp and circumstance, listening to an inspiring graduation speech, and you aren’t really graduating?

It was not that long ago “candidates for graduation” were pulled out of the graduation line for any number of reasons: missed tuition payments, plenty of credits but not the right ones to graduate, outstanding library books, unpaid parking tickets. Many strutters in cap and gown were trembling inside for fear of feeling that invisible hook around their necks, yanking them out of line just as they were about to step across the stage, faces beaming.

Now, in this era of zero tolerance for anything, tightened academic standards and relentless testing, we’ve loosened rules on the one college process we all thought we understood. We’re in a virtual graduation mode.

Somewhere along the way, colleges began allowing students just a few hours short of graduating the honor of marching in the spring with others who have really graduated. That’s sort of like a sports game official saying, ‘Well, you’ve won most of the game, and it’s almost over. I’m really confident you are going to win, so I’m going to go ahead and give you the trophy so you can celebrate.’

I’m confused.

“If a student appears to be on track, we’ll let them participate,” says Jim Burns, spokesman for the University of California, Santa Cruz, articulating a policy that is standard for all nine UC system universities.

“The penultimate goal is not to march but to send a diploma in the mail,” Burns explains. “We’re not giving them a diploma at graduation. We’re giving them a certificate saying they participated in the exercise. We don’t ever have assurance they will complete the course work, but it’s rare that people don’t finish.”

There isn’t enough time between final exams and graduation ceremonies to verify that all seniors have cleared all academic requirements, says Burns, echoing officials at schools with similar policies.

The UC system is not alone in its flexible graduation policy. Emory University, Harvard University, the the University of Maryland, the University of Michigan and even The George Washington University, the school named after the ‘I cannot tell a lie’ president, will let you march before you graduate.

There are probably other, more practical reasons for letting people march before they really graduate. First, ‘we don’t want to embarrass you, your family and friends by holding you back. That’s for children in elementary school, not adults.’ Another possible reason: ‘Listen, I know we charge an arm and a leg to go to college, but there’s no money to be made in having a full summer graduation. We don’t want anyone to miss the joy of it all when we put on the ritz, so we’ll let everyone near the victory line partake when most people are focused on such things.’

However, not every school marches to the same drummer. At Howard University, the policy is simple.

As Barbara Utley, assistant to the director of records at Howard, puts it: “You either cleared or you did not. Students don’t always hold up to what they agreed to do, and years later they use the graduation program to show they did something they didn’t do.”

Now, that’s a zero-tolerance policy I can believe in. Howard has company on its “no march” team, including Southern University of Louisiana, Tuskegee University and Vanderbilt University.

Not to be a skunk at the picnic, but we should address this situation like honest adults. It’s time for a truth-ingraduation policy. Why not follow the model used by car dealers and other hawkers of things we feel all must have to achieve in this world? Get the announcements printed with an asterisk in small type at the bottom indicating all may not be as it seems. Carleton College puts an asterisk in commencement programs next to names of students who still have work to do.

Yes, we should have a truth-in-graduation disclosure. For the moment, however, let’s not worry about it. Anyway, we know it doesn’t apply to our neighbors and relatives. They would never partake in such academic fraud. — Reginald Stuart is a regular contributor to Diverse: Issues In Higher Education.

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