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  • Adrienne Frumberg

Navigating Leave of Absence & Withdraw Policies in College: Why We Need to Know

Published in Fall 2021 IECA Insights Newsletter

Co-authored by: Adrienne N. Frumberg, M.A. & Joanna Lilley, M.A., NCC

Therapeutic Educational Consultant

Lilley Consulting

Mason was thrilled to start an elite engineering program within a large university during the fall of 2020. His college made the decision to have in-person dorming and some of his courses online, while others would be in-person. Six weeks into the semester, Mason’s mental health issues began to take a toll on him and on his ability to complete his school work. He and his family made the difficult decision to withdraw from his five courses and return home.

During the past year and a half, greater numbers of undergraduate students have chosen to take a leave of absence from college. Students are more readily considering a leave, whether it is due to mental health reasons as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of virtual or hybrid learning models, or taking an interest in waiting until school returns to in-person learning. For some, this process can be anxiety-provoking and daunting. Being accurately informed in the leave of absence process or the retroactive withdrawal option is of critical importance.

First, what is a leave of absence, and why do students consider taking one?

A leave of absence is a prescribed amount of time when a student is no longer enrolled in classes at a college or university they are enrolled in as a matriculated student. While on a leave of absence a student maintains the intent to re-enroll at their college or university. The length of time for a leave of absence can vary to weeks, months, or even in some cases, years. Depending on the university, this break could be titled as Planned Leave, Planned Educational Leave, Planned Academic Leave, Personal Leave, Medical Leave, and Leave of Absence, just to name a few. For the sake of this article, we were referring to all leaves as “leave of absence.”

Students can request a leave of absence for a variety of reasons. Reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • Mental health issues and their treatment (anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, substance abuse)

  • Medical diagnoses or illnesses (acute or chronic)

  • Emergencies (family or otherwise)

  • Accommodations not being met for a health condition

All of the above reasons for a leave of absence can be seen in a proactive light. The student acknowledged they needed a break and opted to leave before or during a semester. They are also alerting their university that they are taking time off to get the appropriate help needed, and intend to return. Referencing student “Mason” from the beginning of this article, his example could have fallen within this category. It also could have been a university withdrawal.

Second, what is a university withdrawal, and why would a student do this?

Some students don’t know about “leave” options and merely withdraw from their college or university. A university withdrawal is when a student withdraws from the entire semesters worth of classes, after the semester has begun. A university withdrawal negatively impact a student’s Student Academic Performance (SAP) which impacts their Financial Aid eligibility. With a university withdrawal, there is no indication to that college or university that the student will return the following semester unless they are already registered.

Third, what is a retroactive withdrawal, and how can a student obtain one if needed?

A retroactive withdrawal is the petitioned request for an undergraduate student to be removed from a prior semester, or in some cases, multiple semesters due to documented circumstances that inhibited the student from performing in their academic courses. A reason to pursue this would be if the student didn’t complete a university withdrawal or take a leave of absence, and were not able to academically succeed due to extenuating circumstances. Institutions of higher education do not advertise or market this appeal process for students. Additionally, some schools limit the number of semesters one can apply for, or stipulate that if it’s not completed one semester after the extenuating circumstances that they aren’t eligible to apply. For anyone working with college students, it’s imperative to direct families and students to these policies.

How to request a retroactive withdrawal:

  1. Make contact with the student’s academic advisor and share the concerns prompting the petition for retroactive withdrawal.

  2. Find out what documentation or forms must be completed and who they should be submitted to within the university. Many colleges require a written statement about the circumstances leading you to submit the retroactive withdrawal request.

  3. Request letters of support as supplemental documents for this application. A letter of support can be written by a Mental Health Professional or Medical Professional. Supporting documentation could include a death certificate of a family member, hospital discharge or treatment discharge paperwork. Whatever the extenuating circumstances, find documental that can support the personal statement submitted.

  4. Review this statement with the academic advisor and ask for feedback. If the student is not close with their academic advisor, I would direct them towards a professional who works in and understands Student Affairs and can provide guidance. The most valuable advice for this is to be objective about the situation, and for the student to take accountability for their actions.

  5. Submit the statement to the appropriate person or review board on campus. Sometimes this person may be called a Director of Student Advocacy or Affairs. Then wait to hear back from the Committee on the results of your application. This can take up to 4 weeks, and if approved, may take another 3 weeks before the change is reflected on the transcript.

Tips EC’s should provide to their families and clients who are considering a leave of absence, university withdrawal, or retroactive withdrawal:

  • Research the specific college’s leave of absence, university withdrawal, and retroactive withdrawal policies. Each policy is different! Encourage the student to speak with their Academic Advisor if possible about the best course of action for their situation.

  • Create a paper trail! Colleges require dated documentation from healthcare providers when requesting a medical leave of absence or retroactive withdrawal. It’s better to have this and not need it, than need it and not have it!

  • Meet the prescribed deadlines set forth by the colleges and universities. You may have to dig for this, but once you find it, make sure the student and family understands “what happens if” they miss a deadline.

  • Connect with the Office of Disability Services or Accessibility as needed to seek clarification on accommodations for a student’s return to campus. It would also be beneficial for a student to connect with the Case Management office to ensure that their return to campus includes being supported by professionals in other offices.

  • Inquire about how a specific leave (leave of absence, university withdrawal, or retroactive withdrawal) will impact Student Academic Progress (SAP) and subsequently impact Financial Aid eligibility. Every decision made on campus has potential consequences. Be aware of how one type of withdrawal will impact a student’s status moving forward!

  • Encouraging a student and family that taking a leave of absence is okay! College will be there when the student is ready to return. It’s important to normalize how this may show up on their transcript (depending on the college or university), but it won’t impact their GPA (unless we’re talking about retroactive withdrawal). If a student isn’t balanced in all areas of wellbeing, it’s hard to be a healthy student!

  • Try to connect the parent of this student with other parents who have “been there, done that.” It’s easy for parents of college students to truly feel isolated and alone in supporting their child. If the parent also has a support network, the student’s time away from school can potentially be less shaming.

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