Graduation Requirements

Graduation requirements for students in colleges and universities are established as part of the interrelationship between accrediting organizations, the federal and state governments, the courts, and institutional boards of trustees. This entry reviews the role of these groups in defining graduation requirements and then examines the legal framework for dismissing students who fail to meet these standards. 

Defining Graduation Requirements

Accrediting organizations are national governing organizations that provide accreditation to colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education seek admission into and approval of accrediting organizations that often have universal graduation requirements for their students. Member colleges and universities of accrediting organizations routinely complete the process of seeking accreditation and, in doing so, must meet the accrediting bodies’ delineated requirements. 

States also have help in defining graduation requirements and guidelines for institutions of higher education via detailed statutes as well as rules and regulations for state certifications and endorsements that students may seek. At the same time, colleges and universities offering these certifications and endorsements must develop programs of course offerings that meet the state requirements and must apply to the state for approval of their programs. On receipt of approval, institutions are able to offer their students the course offerings concomitant for the certifications and endorsements.

Historically, the federal government has not been directly involved in regulating college and university graduation requirements. However, the federal government has provided other support for colleges and universities. Significant federal legislation that affected public higher education in the 18th and 19th centuries included the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which required states to provide public higher education with proceeds from the sale of public lands, and the Morrill Land Grant Acts, which established funding sources for the study of agricultural and technical education. The G. I. Bill of 1944, the Federal Work-Study Program established with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and the Higher Education Act of 1965 all reflect federal commitments to student financial aid, grant programs, and support for higher education. In addition, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 and the National Defense Education Act of 1958 provided federal research funds to institutions of higher learning. Moreover, the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 offered help for facilities, while the Higher Education Act of 1965 provided federal guidelines on institutional aid that ultimately helped to raise graduation rates to the extent that the aid to students made it easier for individuals to complete a college education. 

By the 1950s, public institutions of higher learning and many states moved to centralize their control and governance of institutions of higher learning. States did so through the establishment of higher education boards or coordinating agencies. These evolving state efforts have helped define graduation requirements and institutional accreditation. 

Colleges and universities also define graduation requirements through their respective boards of trustees or other named governing bodies. In general, the structure of colleges and universities includes boards of trustees that implement charters of incorporation. As part of their governing authority, these boards have the power to appoint and remove faculty members, to fix salaries, to direct the courses of study to be pursued by the students, and to fill vacancies created in their own bodies. Moreover, boards of trustees define and vote on graduation requirements in their role as the legal decision-making entities of their colleges or universities. 

Types of Dismissals

Insofar as determining whether students should graduate or be dismissed from academic programs short of graduation has always been controversial, the judiciary has played a key role in reviewing some of these cases. In general, there are two types of dismissals from colleges and universities that impact student graduation: academic dismissals and disciplinary dismissals.

Academic Dismissals

Academic dismissals from colleges, universities, graduate schools, and professional schools have triggered litigation. The issues often have been whether students were owed due process before being dismissed for academic reasons and whether institutional officials, rather than courts, decide whether students should graduate or be dismissed. Generally, absent significant faculty misconduct or institutional negligence, students may be dismissed from colleges and universities for academic reasons. 

The U.S. Supreme Court first addressed the issue of academic dismissal in the seminal case of Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz in 1978. At issue was whether a medical school had to provide procedural due process prior to a student’s academic dismissal and whether officials had authority to evaluate whether she failed to meet the institution’s academic standards. More specifically, the Court considered whether the student was entitled to procedural protections under the Fourteenth Amendment and whether officials deprived her of either a liberty or a property interest. The student contended that her dismissal deprived her of liberty by substantially impairing her opportunities to continue her medical education or to return to employment in a medically related field. 

In Horowitz, the Supreme Court found that it did not have to resolve whether the student’s dismissal deprived her of a liberty interest in pursing a medical career, nor did it have to evaluate whether her dismissal infringed any other interest constitutionally protected against deprivation without due process. Instead, the Court ruled that assuming there was a liberty or property interest, the student received at least as much due process as the Fourteenth Amendment required. The Court was satisfied that officials informed the student of their dissatisfaction and the danger it posed to timely graduation or continued enrollment in a manner that was careful and deliberate. 

As part of its analysis in Horowitz, the Supreme Court held that academic evaluations of students, in contrast to disciplinary reviews, do not necessarily require full hearings. To this end, the Court pointed out that the dismissal rested on the academic judgment of school officials that the student lacked the necessary clinical ability to perform adequately as a medical doctor and that she was making insufficient progress toward that goal. According to the Court, such judgments are, by nature, subjective and evaluative. By analogy, it is fair to say that like the actions of faculty members as to the proper grades to assign to students in their courses, evaluating whether to dismiss a student for academic reasons requires expert evaluation and is not readily adapted to judicial or administrative decision making. In this way the Court declined to substitute its judgment for that of the faculty members at the medical school, declaring that education was committed to the control of state and local authorities. The Court suggested that only perhaps under a showing or arbitrariness or capriciousness could academic dismissals from state institutions of higher education be enjoined. Thus, absent a showing of arbitrariness or capriciousness, the Court concluded with a warning against judicial intrusion into academic decision making. 

Other courts have examined graduation requirements and academic dismissals. In University of Texas Health Science Center v. Babb (1982), an appellate court addressed whether a student could return to complete her nursing degree after being dismissed from the university due to her poor academic performance. The catalog under which the student entered the nursing program indicated that if, at the end of any semester, a student’s grade point average fell below 2.0, he or she would be placed on scholastic probation. When the student was notified that she was failing a course, her counselor advised her to withdraw, send a letter asking for readmission, and reenter under a new quarter program. The student did as advised and was readmitted, but received a grade of WF, meaning that she withdrew failing. The new catalog existing when she reentered indicated that students with more than two Ds in their programs would be required to withdraw. After the student subsequently received two Ds, she was sent a notice informing her that her participation in the program was being terminated. 

On review of the student’s suit, an appellate court in Texas interpreted the school’s catalog as constituting a written contract between it and the student. In noting that the student had the right to rely on its terms, the court pointed out that the first catalog allowed students to complete degrees within a six-year period and maintain 2.0 grade point averages. Therefore, the court directed officials to permit the student to return to school and complete her degree. 

Three years later the Supreme Court returned to the question of academic dismissals in Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing (1985). In dispute in Ewing was the claim of a student in a six-year medical school program who was dismissed after failing an important written examination. At issue was whether officials deprived the student of a property interest without due process in refusing to allow him to retake the examination. 

Ruling in favor of university officials in Ewing, the Supreme Court held that when the student enrolled in the special six-year program offering a joint undergraduate college degree and medical degree, he was required to complete four years of study and pass the written examination administered by the National Board of Medical Examiners. The facts revealed that although the student completed the courses of study, he failed five of the seven subjects on the examination. In light of this, the Court upheld the action of the university’s Promotion and Review Board, which voted unanimously to drop the student from the program, because it agreed that officials acted in accordance with the institution’s promulgated procedures. In upholding the academic dismissal, the Court observed that because the dismissal rested on the sound academic judgment of university officials, absent improper notice or arbitrary or capricious conduct, there was no basis on which it could interfere with such an academic dismissal.

Disciplinary Dismissals

Disciplinary dismissals that impact the ability to graduate have other constitutional requirements. For example, in Goss v. Lopez (1975), a case from K–12, the U.S. Supreme Court, in reviewing disciplinary dismissals, including suspensions and expulsions, explained that students have rights to procedural and, in some instances, substantive due process prior to be excluded from school, consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment. In its judgment, the Court commented that procedural due process requires notice, a timely hearing, right to counsel, a decision based on the record of a proceeding or hearing, and such other procedures as would allow the student an opportunity for a full and fair hearing. Substantive due process involves the provision of basic fairness. 

Disciplinary dismissals usually involve student conduct that violates college or university rules, regulations, or policies as well as the law. Violations of these provisions may result in dismissals from academic programs and the failure to graduate. Under this approach, student behavior is generally examined not just in classroom settings but also in academic or other circumstances including laboratories, libraries, and/or off-campus activities. 

Common student behaviors that have triggered disciplinary dismissals include cheating, participating in hazing, and taking part in events involving the impermissible use of alcohol. In some cases, there have been mixed academic and behavior fact patterns, such as when a graduate student tinkered with thesis research and was challenged about the authenticity of data. Students who failed courses and were involved in behavior issues have also incurred dismissal. 

Professional schools such as those for careers in education and law often have the additional requirement that students be certified as being of good character. Dismissals or refusals to stipulate the good character of students that may restrict their ability to graduate or enter their chosen professions may require the existence of promulgated institutional rules and regulations. In disciplinary dismissal cases, due process hearing is required prior to dismissals. As a result of such due process hearings, other students who were convicted of felonies, including credit card fraud, were dismissed. Institutional officials have considered other behaviors, such as where skills related to professional competence were lacking, in determining whether students should be allowed to graduate. 

Conclusion

Graduation requirements, then, are defined by accrediting agencies, states, federal law and court decisions, and boards of trustees. Even so, academic and disciplinary dismissals based on college or university rules and regulations are subject to faculty and administration review. In the end, there is something of a dichotomy when students are denied the opportunity to graduate. On the one hand, if students are unable to graduate due to academic infractions, the courts generally defer to the expert judgment of institutions and their faculty, without reliance on full hearings, based on appropriate academic standards. On the other hand, if students are unable to graduate due to disciplinary infractions, courts are more careful to ensure that institutions act based on promulgated school rules that may well entitle students to due process hearing before they may be subject to the penalty of dismissal.

Vivian Hopp Gordon

See also academic dishonesty; academic freedom; Catalogs as Contracts; Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing

Further Readings

  • Melear, K. B. (2008). Academic grade appeals: Legally sound policies and procedures. Education Law Reporter, 237, 557–564. 

Legal Citations

  • Agricultural College Act of 1890 (Second Morrill Land Grant Act), ch. 841, 26 Stat. 417, 7 U.S.C. §§ 322 et seq. 
  • Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78 (1978). 
  • Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-452. 
  • Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975). 
  • Higher Education Act, Pub. L. No. 89-329 (1965). 
  • Higher Education Facilities Act, Pub. L. No. 88-204 (1963). 
  • Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, ch. 130, 12 Stat. 503, 7 U.S.C. §§ 301 et seq. 
  • National Defense Education Act, Pub. L. No. 85-864 (1958). 
  • Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214 (1985). 
  • Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (G. I. Bill), Pub. L. No. 78-346 (1944). 
  • Smith-Lever Act, 7 U.S.C. § 343 (1914). 
  • University of Texas Health Science Center v. Babb, 646 S.W. 2d 502 (Tex. App. 1982).