Are Fines an Appropriate Disciplinary Sanction For College Students?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Feb 28, 2016 | 0 Comments

Disciplinary probation, suspension, expulsion - These are some of the many disciplinary sanctions that New Jersey and Pennsylvania colleges and universities will impose upon students when there is finding against an accused student.  When an accused student is found to have breached a school's code of conduct and commuted a disciplinary violation, the school will consider many factors when deciding upon what it considers to be an appropriate sanction for the student's misconduct. 

Schools often do not use the term "punishment" because they generally prefer to look at their actions against a student in a more altruistic light, but a sanction is just that in many instances; a punishment for student misconduct.  Regardless of what a college or university believes it to be, sometimes a sanction is a disciplinary fine; sometimes nominal, and sometimes much more burdensome to a student.  A number of questions arise when a college or university fines a student, including: 1) Is a fine an appropriate disciplinary sanction for a student in and of itself?  2)  If deemed an appropriate disciplinary sanction, what discretion should the school use in setting the amount and terms of the disciplinary fine?

Colleges and universities that impose fines upon students as a disciplinary sanction often do so in a limited context; this is true even if the school has discretion under its student code of conduct to impose fines for any kind of misconduct.  For example, Temple University in Philadelphia can fine a student for any disciplinary violation.  This power, however, is generally only invoked when a student commits a violation of Temple University's drug and alcohol policy.  If a student is found responsible for violating Temple University's code of conduct because they were caught with alcohol or marijuana in a residence hall for example, Temple University will fine the student $250 for the first violation and $500 for the second violation. 

Temple University's disciplinary fines were lower until about ten years ago when it adopted a "mandatory minimum" for violations.  Before the fines were raised, a first-time violation of Temple University's drug and alcohol policy subjected students to a $50 disciplinary fine, and a second violation subjected students to a $100 disciplinary fine.  These fines were deemed to be too low by Temple University.  Students chosen to preside at a Temple University Student Conduct Hearing, the body that an accused student would appear before if a disciplinary case is not resolved in an alternative fashion, provided feedback to the school that the lower fines were a "joke."  After the "mandatory minimum" fines for drug and alcohol violations were raised, violations decreased in number.  Temple University believes that the higher fines and aggressive advertising of the possible sanctions have a deterrent effect and are what brought about this decrease.

Temple University is not unusual in imposing fines upon students found responsible for violating its code of conduct.  A question that arises is whether the imposition of fines for certain disciplinary violations and not others sends a mixed signal to students.  A student found in violation of Temple University's drug and alcohol policy is fined $250 whereas a student caught cheating on an exam often receives no fine.  Just as Temple University has discretion to impose fines upon any kind of student misconduct, other colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey also exercise such discretion.  Despite this discretion, when fines are imposed, it arguably is most often for violations of a school's drug and alcohol policy.  It is obvious that some kinds of student misconduct are more egregious than others, but does fining students for some violations of a school's code of conduct and not others send a mixed signal as some claim?  Along those lines, are fines more appropriate for drug and alcohol violations and not others?

Another concern that arises with any kind of disciplinary fine is that students who are not similarly situated from a socioeconomic standpoint can be disproportionately affected by the imposition of a fine regardless of the fine amount.  A student who comes from a more privileged background may regard a disciplinary fine as a "slap on the wrist," whereas a student from a less privileged background may find a disciplinary fine to be very burdensome.

The argument can be made that the imposition of disciplinary fines is appropriate at times in the campus setting both to deter student misconduct and in response to student misconduct; however, the fair administration of disciplinary sanctions would necessitate that the difference in how the same fine can disproportionately affect different students should be taken into account by colleges and universities; this, however, is an impossible proposition.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience passionately fighting for the futures of his clients. Mr. Lento represents students and others in disciplinary cases and other proceedings at universities and colleges across the United States while concurrently fighting in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania counties, and New Jersey. Mr. Lento has helped countless students, professors, and others in academia at more than a thousand universities and colleges across the United States. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide.


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