Critiquing UCSD’s Academic Disqualification Policy

One student’s academic disqualification experience left her discouraged, confused, and convinced that the policy must be changed.

A student at UC San Diego is subject to academic probation if their quarter or cumulative GPA falls below the 2.0 threshold. If their GPA falls below 1.5 or if their cumulative GPA remains under 2.0 after two quarters of being on academic probation, they’ll be academically disqualified.

But for senior Michelle Hipp, a biochemistry major from Thurgood Marshall College, the circumstances of her academic disqualification were not so black-and-white. As she single-handedly financially supported herself throughout her first year as an undergraduate, Hipp’s busy schedule meant that she struggled in her first few quarters of classes. She was placed on academic probation and academically disqualified shortly afterward. Her experience has convinced her that the academic disqualification policy at UCSD needs to be changed, for the sake of its students.

After graduating high school in San Diego, Hipp had moved out of her father’s home, begun classes at community college, and worked various odd jobs in order to support herself. She planned her classes so that they all fell on two days of the week— this way, she could work the rest of the week. Hipp had begun community college as a visual and performing arts major, but soon decided to switch her major to something more “realistic.” Knowing she wanted to remain in San Diego, she decided to dip her toes into one of the region’s most lucrative industries: biotechnology. She changed her major to the high-unit biochemistry. After taking the classes necessary to transfer to a University of California, Hipp applied to various UC campuses and was accepted into UCSD, her dream school.

After going through some emotional struggles the summer before starting at UCSD, Hipp kept busy to distract herself once school started. She started an informal dog-walking business and began an internship at the prestigious J. Craig Venter Institute. After hearing her provost stress the importance of joining student organizations at orientation, Hipp acquired a leadership position with the Villagers in Programming and even started an edible community garden at The Village at Torrey Pines. Yet her grades suffered under the burden of her many obligations.

“I was so excited to be accepted into UCSD, I was like ‘this is a dream school,’ Hipp said. “Coming into UCSD, though, it was really difficult to transition to the quarter-system, not to mention all of the things I was doing. I went to academic advising, I went to CAPS, I stopped doing my internship, but during spring quarter, I was struggling.”

Hipp holds that her academic disqualification resulted from the larger problem that she didn’t have the financial security necessary to dedicate time to her grades. Though her financial aid paid covered tuition and living expenses, most was used on her housing at The Village. She had to work in order to cover her other living expenses, so her grades faltered. She appealed her disqualification, explaining her situation, but to no avail.

“The reason I didn’t get good grades was because I was struggling financially,” Hipp said. “I didn’t have enough money, so I was stressed out all the time, it made my schedule so chaotic.”

Determined to be readmitted, Hipp was willing to take the required year off from UCSD and take classes elsewhere.

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“You can take these classes at UCSD Extension, but you have to pay for them, and they’re not cheap,” Hipp said. “You even take the classes here on campus, in the same room, with other students, as if you weren’t academically disqualified. But they don’t count for your degree.”

In the meantime, she had no place to live, having been notified that her appeal was rejected in July after her first year at UCSD. She tried looking for a place in a women’s shelter, but was unsuccessful, so she moved to the east coast to live with her sister and take community college classes online. Her newfound free time meant that her grades were nearly perfect, and she returned to UCSD after her year away. This time, Hipp found the Basic Needs program, which connected her to a caseworker to help her find housing and receive food stamps, which eliminated some financial worries. But her overall experience left her even more financially burdened than she was to begin with.

“It felt like the end of my life. I had worked so hard for this, and for them to just kick me out without really considering what was going on— I don’t want it to happen to someone else who really wants to be in school,” Hipp said. “I’m from an impoverished area, and this situation has left me more impoverished.”

Hipp feels that her entire situation wasn’t considered when the decision was made to academically disqualify her. It’s a numbers game, she stresses, which doesn’t factor in any part of a student’s life other than their GPA.

“I want to ask the provost: why don’t they have an interview with the student they’re academically disqualifying? They just make this decision without consulting the student,” Hipp said. “I got into UCSD, my dream school, just to get academically disqualified. I felt like I was doing a ton of good things, showing leadership. I tried to have this conversation with the provost, and she was super defensive.”

Hipp questions what benefit academic disqualification is meant to achieve. She is firmly convinced that the academic disqualification itself needs a significant revamping. For now, she holds that the policy seems to be an attempt at a deterrent for academically disqualified students to return to school.

“What is the lesson to be learned from kicking people out? You can’t just kick people out of school all willy-nilly. That’s a huge deal,” Hipp said. “I don’t understand the point of taking a year off and going through all of those discouraging loops. They expect you to go to UCSD Extension and charge you for classes that you would normally be taking as a student anyway.”

Hipp made attempts to communicate with her provost about her academic disqualification: she wished to discuss why she felt the academic disqualification policy was unfair and to explain why her financial circumstances had affected her academic performance, but her attempts have been met with curt response. Hipp is clearly an ambitious, organized, and hardworking individual, and she once had dreams of getting her doctorate and working in academia. But now, she’s discouraged. She feels that UCSD, and her college, Marshall, are failing to demonstrate the values they claim to emulate and even the very person they strive to represent.

“When I moved to my sister’s house after getting disqualified, I was walking down the street with my sisters and there was a book on the ground. I just happened to pick it up, and it was Thurgood Marshall’s biography,” Hipp said. “He got some Cs in school, but he barely put in any effort. He started taking himself seriously in graduate school and became really successful. I feel his story is very similar to my story.”

Most of all, Hipp feels there needs to be a more prioritized and genuine care for students, including those who are academically struggling. She understands the nature of a large public university, but she feels that there should be some concern for a student’s well-being when it comes to the decision to academically disqualify them, rather than focusing solely on their GPA number. Hipp has now returned to school at UCSD and is getting good grades, now that some of her financial burden has been lifted. She plans to finish out her senior year, and she’ll have to take a few extra classes next year to complete her degree. But she still feels that her situation could have been handled in a less discouraging way.

“What they could have done is, after they saw that I got into school and I’m getting Cs, call me in for a meeting with academic advising,” Hipp said. “I think that the departments need to be in better contact with each other: the mental health services, the student services, the financial aid department, my major department, and my college. They could have all come together to see what was happening. They didn’t take everything into consideration.”

Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

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