The term “probation” in American society is linked to criminality. By using this term to indicate students’ academic status, colleges may be creating trauma, telling students that they are doing something wrong, and causing feelings of anxiety, fear, discouragement, embarrassment, and depression. This connection is particularly acute for Black and Brown students who face racial bias, microaggressions, and macroaggressions. It is also traumatic for justice-involved students. This deficit-minded language of probation, codified in California Title 5 Regulations, can cause damage to students. Colleges should consider ways to change their processes and policies to decriminalize the process of improving academic outcomes for students who are struggling and instead focus language and practice on empowering and supporting students.
The language for probation is established in Title 5 §55031, “Standards for Probation.” It delineates two types of probation: academic probation and progress probation. Academic probation focuses on a student’s grade point average (GPA) when the GPA falls below a 2.0 after the student has attempted at least 12 semester units. Progress probation focuses on the number of units completed in courses with “W”, “I”, “NP,” or “NC” grade notifications. Many factors might contribute to a student being placed on academic or progress probation, including life changes, basic needs insecurity, lack of transportation, family demands, emergencies, or requirements, and more. None of these factors warrant the criminalized label of probation. Studies from the Research and Planning Group show that practices like putting students on academic or progress probation disproportionally impact Black students. In a study of students in California community colleges from 2011 to 2016, the data shows that 41% of Black Students were placed on probation versus 24% of White students (Cooper, et. al., 2022).
The intent behind placing students with low GPAs or multiple withdrawals on probation is to inform the students of their status and ensure that they have additional support, such as access to counseling. Local probation processes often require students to regularly meet with counselors, regulate a student’s schedule, and require completion of workshops and creation of action plans. Students identified as being on probation are also penalized through registration priorities and reduced access to financial aid such as Cal Grants, increasing the difficulty for students to make progress and be removed from probation.
Counselors and others working with students on probation are committed to supporting students, and many students are successful in fulfilling probation requirements and are placed back in good standing. However, for many other students, being put on probation is traumatic and impacts their lives and educational goals. Student services faculty and staff are bound by current Title 5 regulations that require probation in its current punitive and criminalized state.
A recent study at California State University, Fullerton discussed the use of “criminal justice lexicon” (Boretz, 2021) to identify student status. The evidence suggests that “such language has an effect on underrepresented students’ sense of belonging and perceived ability to thrive as learners and future learners” (Boretz, 2021). The study done by CSU Fullerton also found a disproportionate number of Hispanic and Black male students were being impacted by probation policies. The study showed that male students were twice as likely to drop out of college as women on probation. Students surveyed stated that they reported feeling “scared” by the phrase academic probation (Boretz, 2021). Probation was viewed as a punishment.
A Research and Planning Group (RP Group) study also shows the negative impact of probation on students achieving their goals. The RP Group brief The African American Tipping Point: Identifying the Factors That Impact Transfer Among African American/Black Community College Students states that being placed on academic probation “presents a significant barrier to making it near the transfer gate for students of all races/ethnicities” (Cooper, et. al., 2022). This practice is most impactful to Black students, who are more likely than other students to be placed on academic probation. Continuing these policies that harm students runs fundamentally counter to the California Community Colleges system Vision for Success, which states a goal of “making sure students from all backgrounds succeed in reaching their goals and improving their families and communities, eliminating achievement gaps once and for all” (CCCCO, n.d.).
In Spring 2022, in response to its internal study, CSU Fullerton officially changed its policies to eliminate the term “academic probation.” CSU Fullerton has changed the process to be called “academic notice” in hopes of “making students, especially students of color, feel less stigmatized” (Steele, D, 2022). This first step is a good beginning. The name change will help with some of the trauma, but real systemic change needs to be a next step. Colleges cannot just change the name of a policy and leave the broken policy to continue to negatively impact students.
California community colleges need less punitive, proactive, and asset-minded processes to support students who are struggling. This improved practice would begin with Title 5 changes that redefine probation and center in strategies to support, not penalize, students. Such policies relate directly to academic and professional matters in the area of “standards and policies regarding student preparation and success” under the purview of academic senates as indicated in Title 5 §53200 (c)(5). Faculty both locally and statewide can and should be leaders in this change. As colleges wait for regulatory changes, local academic senates can work on identifying what they can do to support students on probation. Academic senates can focus on reviewing local policies and procedures including scholarship eligibility, registration priorities, and communication and support for students on probation. Together at the statewide and local levels, faculty can work together to stop this trauma.
Boretz, E., Gunn, K, & La Pietra, D. (2021). Toward a Racially and Culturally Sensitive Renaming of “Academic Probation.” California State University, Fullerton, http://itwebstg.fullerton.edu/aac/Academic%20Notice%20White%20Paper%202021.pdf
California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. (n.d.) Vision for Success. https://www.cccco.edu/About-Us/Vision-for-Success
Cooper, D., Brohawn, K., Nguyen, A., Purnell, R., Redox, A., & Segovia, D. (2022). The African American Tipping Point: Identifying the Factors that Impact Transfer Among African American/Black Community College Students, Brief 1 of 3, Research and Planning Group, https://rpgroup.org/Portals/0/Documents/Projects/African_American_Transfer_Tipping_Point-(AATTP)-Study/AATTP_Brief1_Fall2022.pdf
Steele, D. (2022, April 18). A Positive Change for a Negative Label. Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/04/18/csu-fullerton-changes-term-academic-probation-notice?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=eaad123db5-DNU_2021_COPY_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-eaad123db5-198604945&mc_cid=eaad123db5&mc_eid=2f03ba8d16