How complex academic jargon can hamper student success

Higher education lingo can pose a formidable challenge for students trying to navigate college, prompting some institutions to prioritize materials with plain language, according to The Hechinger Report. Densely worded documents—like the notoriously cumbersome free application for federal student aid and many college handbooks—are often filled with complex academic jargon that can prove impenetrable, especially for students who don’t have support from counselors or parents who’ve been to college.

“Universities have been slow to realize the importance of plain language,” Deborah Bosley, owner of The Plain Language Group, told The Hechinger Report. “There is a sense that if you’re in an academic environment, writing has to be complex so that it reflects the intellectual level of a university, which in my way of thinking is totally the opposite of what they should have been doing.” The Plain Language Group helps its clients rework their communications to increase clarity.

How can colleges shift course?

Institutions can help eliminate the language barrier by writing concisely, using active voice, formatting with bullet points, defining abbreviations and acronyms, and addressing the reader directly as “you,” Zach Taylor, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas and plain language advocate, said.

In that spirit, The University of Georgia last year created a handbook for first-generation students, featuring plain language and a glossary of terms that students are likely to encounter but might find unfamiliar. The university mailed the resource—which is also available in Spanish, Korean, and Chinese—to more than 400 incoming freshmen in hopes of easing students’ transition to school. “Once a student gets on campus, they get so much information so early in the process that they can be overwhelmed,” said University of Georgia transfer student coordinator Judy Iasskovou. “[S]o reaching them in advance so they know, watch for this information, is going to be an important piece of that.”

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