Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Kafka Goes to College

The Wife wants to take a few one-day, non-credit summer classes at my cc. She has taken a few of these before, and has enjoyed them tremendously. The free-tuition-for-spouses employee benefit is nothing to sneeze at.

In the past, my secretary pushed through some of the paperwork, and I walked the rest to the relevant offices. It wasn’t elegant, but it worked. This time around, I decided to test the student experience myself, and personally walk everything through, just like any other student.


Start with the terminology. What everybody on campus calls the ‘registrar’s office’ is intuitively labeled ‘records and registration.’ Then, what everybody calls the ‘cashier’s window’ is even-more-intuitively labeled the ‘Bursar’s Office.’ (It isn’t quite as archaic as, say, ‘exchequer,’ but it’s close.)

The registrar’s office was fine. The line at the Bursar’s was longer, but didn’t look forbidding. Then I saw it in action.

Every single student had some major issue. We don’t take that credit card; the Stafford loans get disbursed after the late fee deadline; you have to get a form from Admissions first; you have to get an advisor’s signature first. (I know that because everything was clearly audible in line, which raises some fairly obvious privacy issues.) There wasn’t a straightforward transaction in the bunch. Each one took far longer than it should have, and I finally walked away in disgust after twenty minutes of the line not moving. The cashiers could be described as Buddha-like in their calm, their pace, and their preternatural lack of urgency.

Undeterred, I decided to try my luck paying online. I’ve spent the last few years hearing about the glories of online registration, so I figured online would be faster than in-line. Nope. It took several minutes just to find the link to pay online; then I needed her student number (check), which prompted me for a password, which had to be obtained manually from the help desk during regular business hours.

I’m beginning to see a pattern here.

Might there be a connection between indifferent or negligent customer service and shaky enrollment? Might students who don’t know the ropes and are already intimidated simply throw up their hands in disgust and walk away?


Lucky for me, I got her a parking sticker when I started working here. There’s no telling how hellacious that process might be. And we don’t have to deal with financial aid or buying books.

From my days at the old for-profit, I know this isn’t unique to the public sector. Even the major for-profit college (you’ve heard of it) had a Byzantine and self-defeating process for registration and payment; students were constantly getting deleted for non-payment due to delays in financial aid (and their seats in full classes getting taken by others in the interim), or being blocked from registration due to phantom ‘holds,’ or, in one memorable semester, issued ‘dismissal’ letters two days after graduating. (The phone calls that week could charitably be described as ‘ugly.’) The logistics of registration defeated even a company with a profit motive to improve them.

We’re actually worse than the DMV now. There’s no excuse for that.

The only other sector where I’ve seen paperwork as daunting and stupid as this is health care. Nope, no cost issues there.

In olden times, I’m told, registration was carried out with index cards. (I remember literally penciling in my classes on gray index cards when I was in college. I’d drop them off at the registrar’s office, and that would be that.) Financial aid was always FUBAR, but I attributed that to government rules, rather than the college. Perhaps I was naïve.

It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s not like we’ve never registered students before. Why does this basic, fundamental process defeat bright minds?

Every once in a while, I get to be a part of this lovely bureaucracy. We have two summer programs, neither of which will use the "regular" registration process. Both of these programs use Blackboard extensively. When you go through the regular registration process, Blackboard enrollment occurs automatically. When you don't, well, it's totally screwed up. When that gets screwed up, there are more screw ups on our end.

My role is primarily a customer service one. I have nothing to do with the mistakes. I just figure out what they are and how to fix them (i.e. who to call to fix them).

I've discovered this summer that the administrators of these programs have no idea how our process works and don't bother to ask. They just start calling people, which is highly inefficient and causes problems for their students.

I've been on the phone with quite a few irate customers.
I think it's a *really* good idea to try to approximate a student's experience with any bureaucratic process at a school. Our registration process often makes students break down in tears. It wasn't until I went with my advisees one day and saw it for myself that I understood why...
My office is currently doing a Dept-of-Ed funded study on the accessibility of community college websites (applications, specifically) for people with disabilities.

We did user testing with people with visual disabilities, learning disabilities, and a control group.

We were *very* surprised to find that there weren't huge differences in many navigation tasks between people who were totally blind and our controls. Some of the sites were so badly designed that our control group -- made up of *current* university students -- couldn't manage to even *find* the pages to accomplish the tasks we'd set (fill out application, find financial aid office, find a course list). It was a real eye-opener about the importance of usability as well as accessibility -- and the fact that lots of these processes are apparently designed by people who have never used them.
When I was an undergrad (late 90's when they were just moving over to online/electronic registration systems... I experienced both the index cards and the newer systems), I would plan for one whole day to navigate the system at the begining of each semester. It was always a complete nightmare and never very private. (I too always wondered how these public universities were justifying everyone displaying everything about their finances and at that time SS#s for anyone and their dog in line to listen in on.)

Over time, I learned there were better days than others at my particular institution to deal with this situation should I not be able to deal with everything online. One semester, at a university which capped the late fee at $50 but would not drop you from class for non-payment, I decided it would be easier to wait until mid semester and deal with the holds than to stand in line. It actually turned out to be the most painless experience of them all.

It is a miracle that any of the non-traditional or marginal students show up at all given the effort it requires.
Like those who have posted above, I think it is a really good thing that you have experienced what the students go through. I know we all have been students, but sometimes those of us who are still students feel the folks in admin have completely lost touch with us. It seems, to me, that this kind of experience is so important. Not just talking to students about it, but being forced to deal with it yourself.
It has always been my opinion that the smartest and most tenacious you have to be in any given semester is getting registered, tuition paid and getting someplace to park. After that, the classes themselves are easy.

Hubby went to school while in the military, which added another immense bureaucracy. Imagine being told, "you are choosing to go to an officer's school (private univeristy) we'll only pay what we would have paid at the four-year public.." and then having to cross major hurdles to get even that amount paid.
I've been working in government for 16 years, and the very worst bureacratic mess I've ever seen was as a student trying to get through any administrative/registration process with the University of Ottawa. Take everything you just mentioned, and add a linguistic bias that does not favour anglophones. It was appalling.
You're totally awesome for trying that Dead Dad! I still remember standing in line at the Bursar's office trying to get my student loan checks. What you said so accurately describes my experiences.
It's been about 8 years since I last was in college. I went this week to sign up for some pre-reqs at a CC. This is was passed:

Me: Hi. I registered for this class yesterday, then last night I received a call informing me that the lab was no longer available. I wanted to check that the lab really is cancelled, and if so, can I change to this class?

Them: Have you been home this morning?

Me: Huh?

Them: I guarantee you have a message telling you the new time of the lab.

Me: I know, but I can’t make it to the new lab time, so I need to change classes.

Them: It’s been moved from 6-10 to 1-5.

Me: Right. I know that. I spoke to the man last night. But since there is no longer an evening lab, I need to change classes.

Them: Then you need to fill out a Registration Form. They are available in the hall.

Me: (Arriving with the newly filled out Registration Form a few minutes later) This is the new class I would like to take in place of the cancelled class.

Them: (Same lady) You need to fill out an Add/Drop form.

Me: But.....

Having said this, this was actually one of the less painful interactions I've had trying to find somewhere to take these pre-reqs.

Hey, Dean Dad, thanks for sharing your perspective.
-Regularly lurking lurker
I registered this week for a class at the CC for fall and I'm concerned that there wasn't any point where they asked for money. The whole process went by very quickly and it's not at all clear to me that the fees will all be waived!
Presuming the employees who work the counters are not tenured, consider customizing something for your college off this template.

[1] Count transactions per hour-at-the-counter for each individual clerk. Don't differentiate "problems" from "clean" transactions

[2] Require each person who waits in line to submit a short survey (fewer than 5 questions with checkbox answers) on customer satisfaction.

[3] Require each clerk to submit a short survey at the end of each day listing their satisfaction with their supervisor, and a list of all the transactions that were "problems".

[4] Post a big honking visible summary of all the individual-clerk data and group roll-ups every week and keep it updated. Display it in the waiting area three times the size of God.

[5] Provide a bonus to supervisor on a diminishing ratio of "problem" transactions, and give supe authority to change processes (within guidelines you-all set up).

I suspect there's not much incentive currently for the clerks/supe to fix problems on the fly Nordstrom style. I suspect the clerks don't enjoy it much either, and have come to expect upset students and radiate hardened shells to try to get ahead of the incoming bile, which in turn engenders incoming bile, ad infinitum.

You may have to fire an unyielding clerk to two, or get a new supe, but that's a very small cost relative to the benefits to the customers and to the clerks.
Smooth-sailing administration is one of those things like low humidity or not having a headache that you don't appreciate until you do...

Just this weekend getting my MA degree I navigated an absurdist maze on an unfamiliar campus (my program was in nearby Big City but commencement was upstate) to find the (wrong) office where our caps and gowns were allegedly waiting for us. It took nearly an hour. Surprising, since, you know, commencement occurs only once a year giving all concerned a decent amount of prep time, and caps and gowns are, like, pretty central to the process...

The vacant facial expressions and general DMV-ness of it was really surprising to me - also very telling was the total lack of surprise that I had been given the wrong directions...sigh.
Sounds like you just have a really bad online system. At my school we have system-wide usernames and passwords that are used for email, online registration, Blackboard, etc.
At my undergrad school there was a course on our graduation checklist that hadn't been offered in 15 years. So everyone who applied to graduate in my major was initially rejected, and had to appeal on the grounds that the course didn't exist. Apparently, doing this for five students every semester for fifteen years was more efficient than printing a new checklist.

As a grad student I had a TA position, so the university paid my tuition. One semester they paid my tuition late (to themselves?) and I was dropped from my classes and sent a bill for the late payment fee.
What a great learning opportunity, eh?

Do the clerks at the heads of those lines have the authority to actually solve problems? If not, who has the authority? Sometimes it seems like stupid things that a clerk really should be able to change get bumped up endlessly until it takes a dean signature or something.

When clerks can solve problems, and are rewarded for solving problems, life gets better for everyone, I think.
Just think -- every transaction which is muffed costs your college the time necessary to straighten it out and move forward. All that lovely, lovely staff and redundant computing taking the place of facilities, teachers, and supplies . . .

Kudos on you for spotting the issue, and I hope you're promoted soon.
I'm waiting for the day that a Board Member goes thru registration. Oh yeah.
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