Field Notes: Are You Exceptional at Handling Exceptions?

November 1, 2021
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
  • field notes
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By Aimee Vitangcol Regoso, Registrar & Assistant Provost for Systems & Operations, Andrews University

"Field Notes" is a regular 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

Policy and process are commonplace in an educational institution. Regardless of established standards, every institution is bound to receive requests that fall outside of the boundaries set. The requests received may vary widely from curricular and academic policy exceptions to fee exemptions to requests outside of the allotted timeframe.

How are exceptions handled at your institution? Do you find yourself in the front lines receiving requests? Is there a committee reviewing exceptions with a formalized process for review? Do you serve on such a committee at your institution? Or do you find yourself in the decision-making role? Whatever your role may be, the following process and principles offer guidance on how exceptions can be managed.

  1. Ensure that all requests for an exception to policy are made in writing. 

When a request is received verbally, there is a greater risk of misunderstanding and miscommunication. A written request will provide an opportunity to the requestor to clarify the request and include relevant documentation. A written request also establishes a communication trail, which is especially beneficial when others need follow-up.

Most institutions have a standard form for exceptions to academic policy and curriculum in the form of a petition. If you do not have a standard form for the exception requested, consider creating a standard form to collect the necessary information, including a rationale for the request. The standard form created may vary as you consider the exceptions requested within your institution: fee reversals, late submissions; grade appeals; course substitutions or waivers; academic policy exceptions.

  1. Complete a review of the request along with relevant policies and procedures.

Once a request is received, gather the data and facts concerning the request. Then, review any written policies and procedures in place to see if an accommodation is allowed.

The following are a list of questions to consider when making a decision:

  • What is the purpose of the policy or standard? Clearly understanding the “why” behind the policy allows one to identify if and when an exception should be allowed.

  • When should an exception to policy be allowed? When is an exception to policy not allowed? Asking both questions together helps the decision-making body to establish protocol and consistency in the decision-making process.

  • What are the ramifications to consider when reviewing an exception request?

    • Accreditation, compliance, and regulations: What guidance is given at the federal and state level or by your accrediting body (consider financial aid and immigration regulations)? 

    • Precedence: If the exception is allowed, are you setting a precedent?

    • Equity: Have you said no to similar requests?

    • Liability: If the exception is allowed or not allowed, is there any potential for liability?

    • Cost/benefit analysis

  • Are there non-negotiables that your institution has established? If your institution has not established non-negotiables, noting regulations and best practices can provide a starting point for doing so.

  • In the absence of a written policy, are there consistent practices in place? If so, this provides a basis for how one might handle a request. Consistency is key in order to be fair and equitable.

  1. Communicate the decision.

After reviewing the request, the communication sent back should be clear, concise, and based on facts. Clear communication of information is crucial. While the decision may not favor the exception, it is important to be kind and respectful. If additional steps are required, outline the next steps clearly. If the answer is no, indicate the decision followed by what options, if any, can still bring about the sought-after outcome.

  1. Consider the possibility of an appeal.

Always be prepared for the possibility of the individual appealing to the next level. The communication trail established early on will help facilitate sharing information to other parties if an appeal happens.

If you find your decision is over-turned, look at it as an opportunity to find out why and whether this is a decision you could have made.

  1. Close the loop.

While it is necessary to address individual requests, addressing patterns is essential and most beneficial in minimizing exceptions. In addition, maintaining statistics of the types of requests received will allow you to keep track of long-term or more global issues.

Make a distinction between occasional and repetitive exceptions. For repetitive exceptions, determine the root cause as policies and procedures may need to be updated to formalize the practice. In addition, policy interpretation changes and evolves; these factors necessitate updates to policy for clarification of intent. If exceptions are allowed consistently, note the exceptions in a procedure manual. 

Identify a final point of appeal for exceptions. Consult the policy-making body for how to handle exceptions, so all parties are on the same page. This will help minimize handoffs, ensure a shared cohesive message, and empower all team members.

Exceptions are inevitable. Understanding how to successfully tackle and resolve each one can relieve the frustration of dealing with requests day-in and day-out. More importantly, closing the loop and reevaluating policy and process can help to minimize the number of requests and provide long-term resolution.


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