Scholarship bill raises questions about minors on campus

As Indiana lawmakers ponder a bill that would give high school students an incentive to graduate early, state university leaders are bracing for the possible impact—an influx of minors onto their campuses.

Students younger than 18 can present legal, educational and social issues more complex than those that accompany their adult counterparts.

It’s a matter that could arise Wednesday when the Indiana Senate’s education and career development committee takes up the bill, which would grant students who graduate before 12th grade a $3,500 scholarship. The proposal is expected to be amended Wednesday, but not voted on by the committee.

The "minor" factor is less a legislative issue than it is a logistical maze that universities would have to navigate if the bill passes and a lot of students take advantage of it. The possibility raises many questions.

“Where will they be living? What does that mean for their interaction? Who becomes the guardian?” said Melissa Exum, vice president of student affairs at Purdue University in West Lafayette. “If we see hundreds of students coming in, we have to start asking these questions.”

Schools such as Purdue already have some minor students on campus. But their numbers are so small that those topics tend to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Hundreds of students, however, would be a different matter.

Among the most complicated issues to sort out is guardianship. Who claims responsibility for the student, for example, if parents are hours away and the student encounters legal or medical trouble?

It also could influence interactions in the classroom. Under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, 18-year-olds have ownership rights to their academic records, but parents still have a stake in minors' records, which gives them the right to inquire about their student’s academic performance.

“I don’t think we want a professor to know that a student is younger in terms of their expectations of them,” said Dale Whittaker, Purdue’s vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs. “So when a parent calls and says, 'did my student show up for class today', that presents an awkward situation.”

The same issue could apply in a school clinic setting, where medical privacy rights are different for adults and minors.

Boarding schools with students younger than 18 grapple with these kinds of issues, too. But it’s more complicated for universities, which are used to dealing with an adult population, to sort out how to handle two different student populations.

Kay Bales, vice president of student affairs at Ball State University, said via e-mail that college life is “based on the expectation that the majority of the population is comprised of adults.”

“The traditional university setting offers students a tremendous amount of freedom and may not currently have a level of supervision that minor students or their parents might expect,” Bales said.

She added that it’s too soon to say how the school would deal with a deluge of minors but that all university policies and procedures would be reviewed should the bill become law.

Ball State already has a template for hosting minors on campus. Its Indiana Academy for gifted high school upperclassmen is located on campus, but Bales said the student population is largely isolated from the university’s undergraduates—with separate housing and student life.

Separating students, however, requires resources, such as building space and advisers to staff the buildings and plan social activites. And, for minors who are essentially college freshman, calling that kind of attention to them could cause more trouble than benefit, Exum said.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, the lawmaker who authored the bill, said he has concerns about some of those issues. But, ultimately, he said, it’s up to universities to figure out the best ways to accommodate the new population—and parents to decide whether their students are mature enough to enter the college environment.
While it would require a lot of time and effort, the university administrators say they’d be up to the task.

“Taking on these kids is not easy, and it will entail some expertise and extra monitoring,” said Jeff Linder, Indiana University’s associate vice president for government relations. “(But) we are there to provide the best opportunities for the students who are really ready to take that extra step and excel.”

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