Red Flags For (Neuro) Diversity at Portland State

photo of one red flag on a beach
photography by Seoyeon Choi

Have you found yourself the recipient of an email from the Office of Financial Aid, suggesting that you have not initiated attendance in a class that you know you’ve attended? You’re not alone – I certainly have. If you’ve accepted a Federal Perkins loan, a Pell Grant, or FSEOG, ACG, or SMART grant funds, you’re among those that the school has targeted for these messages.

screenshot of an email notification from Financial Aid

Recent changes to e-CFR Title 34, § 668.21  mandates that schools return funding provided by the Department of Education if students do not initiate attendance in registered classes, which has resulted in changes to attendance policies and classroom management strategies across campus and for online courses at universities nationwide. For students who have never attended classes that they registered for, this is an understandable policy change. Title 34 will hold PSU accountable for that funding should they not initiate attendance. The process for returning funding can be quite tricky, and it is understandable that PSU would seek to limit this where possible.

In response to this requirement and to support this initiative, Portland State created an Initiation of Attendance Policy and shared it with the student body. It outlines what does and doesn’t count as attendance or “academically related activities.” Understandably, they need to create some guidelines here for everyone to understand how to succeed and make the most of the Federal funding made available for us to pursue our educational goals. If the students need to know about the policy changes – so did the professors. The Office of the Registrar published their Faculty Guide to Initiation of Attendance to teach them about the changes, how to initiate, and even answer some commonly asked questions.

Where Red Flags Start Waving

Accountability and Impact on Student Mental Health

The lack of accountability among teachers at Portland State University concerning attendance management reveals a deeper issue that directly impacts student mental health. This process, where faculty members are contacted several times before a communication is sent to the student, places an undue burden on those who are already fulfilling their responsibilities. It raises a critical question: Why should students, particularly those diligently attending classes and engaging with their coursework, bear the responsibility for the institution’s failure to ensure that attendance policies are properly enforced? This scenario not only reflects a disregard for teacher accountability but also exacerbates the stress and anxiety among the student body, especially affecting those from the neurodiverse community. Students with challenges such as anxiety, PTSD, or C-PTSD may interpret administrative communications regarding attendance as threatening, potentially triggering severe emotional responses. In 2024, the expectation that policies and communications should be crafted to support, rather than hinder, the student experience is not unreasonable. The involvement of students in the development and implementation of these policies could prevent such issues, ensuring that the diverse needs and lived experiences of the student body are considered.

Economic Pressures and (Pell) Grant Recipients

 The economic realities facing over 51% of PSU students who receive PELL grant funding further complicate the situation. These students come from families earning less than $20,000 annually, positioning them well below the US poverty line of $31,200 for a family of 4 as of 2023. These students navigate daily challenges and systemic barriers that limit their opportunities for upward mobility. The question arises: Are the current administrative communications and policies adequately acknowledging and supporting the efforts of these students, many of whom are potentially the first in their families to pursue higher education? The requirement for PSU to return funding to the Department of Education under Title 34 for students who fail to initiate attendance in their classes is understandable. However, the approach to enforcing this requirement, particularly in how it impacts students who are actively attending classes and those who are neurodivergent, needs careful reconsideration. The current system, which can escalate to threats of revoking financial aid for non-compliance, places additional stress on an already vulnerable student population.

In addition to navigating policy changes, students grapple with administration fatigue, where the sheer volume of administrative tasks detracts from their educational focus. This fatigue is compounded by the uncomfortable responsibility students bear in monitoring their teachers’ adherence to attendance policies. Such dynamics not only divert attention from academic pursuits but also contribute to heightened stress levels among students. Furthermore, the reliance on students to ensure proper enforcement of attendance policies highlights systemic issues within the institution. As we confront these challenges, it’s evident that alleviating administrative burdens on students is imperative. Efforts should aim to foster a culture of support within the academic community, recognizing the need for equitable distribution of responsibility and accountability.

This situation underscores a broader issue: the need for inclusive policy-making that genuinely considers the diverse needs of the student body, especially those with neurodivergent conditions. In an era where inclusivity should be at the forefront of every policy decision, PSU’s approach to attendance and financial aid communication seems to fall short. The real question becomes, how can PSU adjust its policies and communication strategies to be more inclusive, less threatening, and more supportive of all students’ needs? Engaging students from various backgrounds in the policy-making process could be a starting point. This would not only help identify potential issues before they arise but also foster a sense of community and belonging among the student body.

Moreover, it’s crucial for the administration to revisit its communication strategies, especially concerning financial aid and attendance policies. Transparent, empathetic, and direct communication can alleviate unnecessary stress and anxiety, providing a more supportive environment for all students. Ultimately, by addressing these red flags and working towards a more inclusive and understanding campus culture, Portland State can better support its diverse student body in achieving their educational and personal goals.

 While the intention behind the Initiation of Attendance Policy may be to comply with federal regulations and manage risk, its implementation and the resulting communication have raised significant concerns among the student body, particularly among neurodiverse students. It’s time for PSU to reevaluate its approach, prioritize inclusivity, and ensure that all students, regardless of their background or neurodiversity, feel supported and valued. After all, the goal of higher education should be to uplift and empower all students to succeed.

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