Missing The Point About Missing Students

Despite all of the rhetoric from our elected officials about their interest in containing college costs, every American should know that the legislation Congress passed last year reauthorizing the Higher Education Act significantly increases the cost of running a college, and therefore the cost of attending one.

By way of example, let’s look at the additional bureaucracy and administrative cost associated with just one of the many new institutional reporting requirements included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. The provision requires institutions of higher education that participate in federal financial aid programs and maintain campus housing to develop a notification system to report students who have been missing from residence facilities for 24 hours.

This provision sets a dangerous precedent by radically expanding in loco parentis responsibilities of colleges and universities. Moreover, it constitutes yet another unfunded mandate imposed by Congress on institutions of higher education. But the real question that university administrators will now struggle with is how to differentiate between a student who is missing, which infers a sense of foul play or of being lost, and a student who is exercising the freedoms of adulthood and simply electing to spend 24 hours somewhere other than in her own room. Shocking as it may seem, college students on occasion venture off campus for parties, romance and even an occasional road trip, and oftentimes they don’t notify anyone in advance of their plans. Sometimes they don’t even have a plan, but simply let the day – and the night – unfold as it will.


Yet institutions are forced to comply with this absurd provision because failure to do so means that the students who attend that institution will not be allowed to participate in Federal Student Aid programs, such as the Pell Grant Program and Stafford Loan Program. How much will institutions spend to hire additional administrators to conduct daily headcounts, to purchase software that monitors student movements and to follow up on endless (and likely erroneous or premature) missing student “alerts” that are likely on any given weekend? How many new security officers will be required to follow up on missing student alerts, to notify parents when students are deemed missing, and to alert the local authorities of a missing student situation? What new challenges will local law enforcement authorities face as the number of false missing student reports increase, and will local authorities even initiate an investigation if less than 48 hours have elapsed since the student was last on campus? Scarce resources will be invested to comply with this provision, which sadly does nothing to make a campus and its students safer or more secure. It may allow parents to sleep better at night, if the student gives permission to the institution to call the parent in case he is missing, but some parents will actually lose sleep when they receive the erroneous missing student report for their child who is simply spending the weekend with friends off campus.
As the parent of a college student, I can’t even begin to imagine what a family goes through when the unthinkable happens and their child meets an untimely death. But nothing about this reporting mechanism makes the world safer for my child. In fact, it only serves to further infantilize our young adults by transferring to the institution responsibilities that are the students’: to travel in groups, to let roommates and friends know where they will be and when they expect to return to the dorm, to check in with parents from time to time, and to provide parents with phone numbers of roommates and friends in case of an emergency, among so many others.

This provision requires institutions to expend significant funds to develop tracking and notification systems that offer little protection and potentially take valuable resources away from actual missing person investigations. The notification system is unlikely to change the outcome of an unfortunate tragedy, and it might not even ensure timely parental notification if the adult student has not authorized the institution to communicate with his parents. Is it too much to ask parents, rather than institutions, to negotiate check-in schedules with their own children? I wonder if, in the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we might see a requirement for all college students to have a GPS tracking device so that the institution can monitor each student’s every move and notify parents if the student is skipping class, eating in unhealthy establishments, driving too fast, visiting dangerous parts of town, or sleeping somewhere other than in his or her own bed.

This and many of the other reporting requirements in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 do nothing to provide more students with the opportunity to attend college, nor do they improve the educational quality or campus safety for those fortunate enough to attend. In reality, these provisions result in rising tuition costs that preclude many potential students from having the opportunity to earn a college degree.

Diane Auer Jones

Diane Auer Jones is former Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education.

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