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  • Advocating for Bereavement Leave Policies for College Students
  • Heather L. Servaty-Seib (bio) and Chye Hong Liew (bio)

Substantive research indicates that 37 to 44% of college students report the death of someone important to them (i.e., family member or close friend) in the prior 2-year period (Cousins, Servaty-Seib, & Lockman, 2017; Cox, Dean, & Kowalski, 2015). Yet, few institutions in the United States offer bereavement leave policies for students that are parallel to their polices for employees. Students are generally required to approach individual faculty to request bereavement-related accommodations. We provide rationales for student-focused bereavement leave policies and offer details regarding the development, structure, and ongoing implementation of one such policy at a large Midwestern university.


Experiencing the death of someone close often affects college students’ overall functioning and may hinder their ultimate success. Balk (2011) argued that grief interacts in dynamic and holistic ways with college students’ physical, interpersonal, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual development. As connected with Tinto’s (1993) model of retention, challenges appear clearest in the academic and social domains. Students who experience deaths report difficulty concentrating (Cupit, Servaty-Seib, Tedrick Parikh, Walker, & Martin, 2016) and display lower GPAs than their matched nongrieving peers during the semester of their death loss (Servaty-Seib & Hamilton, 2006b). Grieving students describe isolation, lack of support, and decreased belongingness (Servaty-Seib & Fajgenbaum, 2015) and are also at risk for leaving college at higher rates than matched nongrieving peers (Servaty-Seib & Hamilton, 2006a).

Only college students attending a small percentage of colleges and universities across the US are protected by policies that allow time away following a significant death loss. Such lack of policy seems surprising given that these protections (e.g., paid absence separate from other types of leave) are generally afforded to adult employees and K–12 children and adolescents. Using Google Search (June 2018; terms were student bereavement leave policy and student grief absence policy), we located 44 institutions with established bereavement leave policies for college students (contact authors for list). Most were in the Northeastern US (36%) and were institutions classified by Carnegie ( as 4-year (89%), large (52%), public (75%), and primarily residential (48%; 25–45% of students live on campus).

Bereavement leave policies are advantageous. [End Page 240] First, they communicate respect and compassion for students as adults with lives outside the institution and as individuals who experience difficult life events. Second, such policies provide accommodations that may enhance experience and success at critical moments in students’ college careers. Third, although establishing bereavement leave policies for students may seem onerous and costly at first, such policies might reduce resource expenditures and promote consistent treatment of grieving students (J. Cox, personal communication, November 30, 2018). Faculty need not spend time or effort in determining how to provide appropriate accommodations for each student when policy details how many days of absence are allowed. Students can communicate with one central campus unit (e.g., Office of the Dean of Students; ODOS) to provide required documentation of the death, thereby relieving students of the need to discuss the death with each faculty member. The central campus unit may also conserve resources by applying a standardized policy and using an automated system to inform faculty and advisors of the death loss and the allowed days of absence. Finally, alumni whose bereavement experiences during college were handled in an empathic and thoughtful manner may be more likely to remain attached and contribute to their alma mater (Hamilton, 2008), an important consideration in an era of continued reduction in governmental funding for higher education.

In sum, the death of someone close is a powerful life experience. Acts of institutional support immediately following deaths are impactful and deeply appreciated (Servaty-Seib & Fajgenbaum, 2015). Bereavement leave policies are one such institutional support that communicates recognition and responsiveness to student needs and may enhance student experience and success, reduce resource cost, and potentially contribute to alumni loyalty.


The development, structure, and implementation of a student-focused bereavement leave policy will vary by institution. Below, we describe the development process on our own campus, the content of our policy—the Grief Absence Policy for Students...


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pp. 240-244
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