Field Notes: "It's all about the student": Reconsidering an axiom

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at 

by Adrian Cornelius, University Registrar, University of Maryland

As enrollment services officers, we are entrusted with ensuring the integrity of our students’ academic records, which places us in the position of having to understand, interpret, and explain academic policy and often puts us at crossroads with twists and turns in policy (and procedural) interpretation for the benefit of a particular circumstance at hand.

At times like this I often hear the remark, “It’s all about the student!” This phrase is often telegraphed to mean, “Let’s get our priorities straight here,” and the person uttering the statement beams as the voice of reason within the conversation. The phrase is uttered with an imperative such that no-one dare question it, but, quite on the contrary, drop, or redirect, all other views in favor of “helping the student” the way that person sees it.

Every time I hear this statement it makes me wonder whether the person pronouncing it really believes he or she is the only one in the conversation who is looking out for the students, and that the other participants have lost sight of the true goal. As such, I get worried about the misuse of this treasured educational service premise for the sake of posturing.

My response: “Yes, indeed it’s about the student , and also about being fair to all students!” In the past, I reacted to this comment by discussing the importance of policy integrity and compliance. However, I’ve found that introducing the concept of “fairness to ALL students” to be very helpful in resetting an understanding of each other’s commitment to serving students.

I remember engaging in a very insightful conversation with some of my staff on what “fairness to all students” means. I’d like to share a few of the most notable comments, apropos to this concept:

  1. Each student can expect that their needs will be addressed carefully, accurately, and fully

  2. A student will get the help they need, whether they yell the loudest, or whether they are kind and courteous in their approach

  3. Helping one student will set a precedent to follow when helping subsequent students with the same issue

  4. Helping one student won’t disfavor other students

  5. Promoting a campus atmosphere of student responsibility and standards of excellence to prepare our students to face the real world in which entitlements are frowned upon and accountability is embraced

  6. Student advocacy straddles all levels of student diversity, needs, and academic competencies

  7. Having a clear cognizance of the make-up of the student population and their needs, to strategically incorporate the types of services that will enable student success expectations

  8. Implementing easily accessible and user-friendly technological solutions to facilitate delivery of services to students

  9. Developing and promoting a campus culture in which collaboration amongst service entities is valued and appreciated

  10. Articulating clear and concise policies to eliminate opportunities for misinterpretations and the delusion of standards of excellence

As the above illustrates, making it “about the student” is harder in reality than just the utterance of a phrase. I’d still like to think, though, that redefining this concept is an achievable goal on which no single individual or office has a hegemony, and which I believe we can accomplish by operating on a platform of fairness, i.e. fairness to ALL students and to EACH OTHER.

At the same time, I’m reminded of what Mick Jagger says, “You can’t always get what you want!”