Since the first day you entered school as a small child, you have been learning the rules. Where to sit. When to take a bathroom break. How to treat your teacher and your classmates (including that “golden rule” about treating others as you would want to be treated).

You’ve had a lot of homework. You know the rules. But when you get to the point at which you are thinking about college, and especially if you are planning to attend a U.S. college, you may wonder if you’ll have to learn new rules.

The fact is, many U.S. colleges put students squarely in charge of what rules there are and how they are enforced.

Spelling out self-governance

A student government forum at Bryn Mawr College (Courtesy photo)

When students set the rules for a campus community, they call it “self-governance.” “[It] means each student is a citizen of the college,” said Judy Balthazar, a dean of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. “They’re responsible for governing themselves.” For instance, the only behavior codes in Bryn Mawr’s 13 dormitories are those voted on and adopted by their residents at the start of each year.

At Grinnell College in Iowa, students govern themselves through several tenets, such as common sense, responsibility and respect. “It doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules,” said Karen Edwards, director of international student affairs at Grinnell. “But the way students act is not driven by the concept of a disciplinary system, but by thinking about how their actions impact others in the community and vice-versa.” Self-governance can mean students regularly influence college policies. At Bryn Mawr, students air concerns to administrators and make recommendations twice a year. Recently, the process resulted in administrators’ increasing student opportunities in science, tech, engineering and math at the college.

Members of the University Judiciary Committee (Courtesy photo)

At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, entering students pledge not to lie, cheat or steal. And if they do, they are expected to confess or their fellow students are expected to turn them in to an “honor committee.” When a student is accused of a violation, the accusation is investigated by students on the honor committee. If they decide there should be a trial, it is conducted entirely by members of the student body.

The system allows for an unusual level of freedom in their academic lives. “Almost all exams are take-home,” said Faith Lyons, a rising senior and chair of the honor committee. “I picked up an exam, had as many days to take it as I wanted, and could just turn it back in [by putting it] under the professor’s door.”

None of these systems claims to be perfect. In 2013, University of Virginia students voted to alter the honor system  to address concerns that it favored accused students who denied their infractions over those who admitted their guilt.

Long-term effects

Student Charlie Bruce, now president of Bryn Mawr’s Self-Government Association, has had many opportunities to talk with administrators and the college’s board of trustees. “It’s helped me feel more self-confident,” Bruce said.

“The way the students govern themselves is based entirely on their social honor code,” said Balthazar, the dean from Bryn Mawr, which requires that if there’s a problem, they confront it together and that they don’t go running to the administration to fix it.”

At the heart of self-governance is the idea that a college education should extend beyond the academic curriculum and prepare the student to engage in the rule-making processes of the adult world, whether as a political leader, a corporate board member or a citizen acting as a voice for change.

Follow ShareAmerica for information about planning for and getting the most out of a U.S. education. And visit Education USA to get started.