Colleges taking note of jargon-filled campuses, taking steps to simplify language

To help students succeed and ensure a sense of belonging, some colleges are working to define or simplify confusing institutional language that often fills financial aid documents and handbooks, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education. Higher education lingo can pose a particularly formidable challenge for students without college-experienced parents or counselors to guide them. It also can contribute to “imposter syndrome” among first-generation students or lead to financial missteps.

For example, in a study of financial aid award letters sent by 455 colleges, researchers at New America and uAspire found 136 unique terms used for the same unsubsidized student loan; 24 of them didn’t even contain the word “loan.”

“Are we building a campus that works for the grown-ups here, or are we building a campus that works for the student body we’re recruiting?” asked Kaye Monk-Morgan, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Wichita State University.

Defining—or, better yet, simplifying

To help reduce language-related obstacles, the University of Georgia started mailing jargon handbooks—which are also available in Spanish, Korean, and Chinese—to incoming first-generation freshman. Other schools like Dartmouth College have created online glossaries of terms and phrases found on campus. At Wichita State, where nearly half of the last three freshman classes were first-generation students, administrators provided professors with suggestions for how they should communicate and format their syllabi.

But there are no overnight solutions, and some experts have pointed out that changing commonly used terms can disrupt a “common academic language” that unifies U.S. higher education institutions. Other skeptics say that simplifying on-campus language could reduce academic standards.

But they are missing the point, said Sonja Ardoin, an assistant professor at Appalachian State University. “If we’re trying to be more inclusive, and we’re target-recruiting populations that are underserved,” she said, “then we have to prepare and be ready for them.”

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