Monday, August 04, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Deletes for Non-Payment

A returning correspondent writes:

I have a "student as consumer" question for your blog.

Our students have been able to register for fall classes for months now and all of the prime sections are full, but many have not yet paid their fees. In a week or so the ones who have not paid will be dropped from their classes, opening up those sections to kids who put off registering until now. The deadline is in the dead time between semesters, before most students come back to town. The questions are

1) What does your college do if they only owe some small amount, say for fees that are not covered by financial aid? Do they lose all of their classes, only one class so the others are paid in full, or do you carry that debt until the first week of class or even the end of the semester like parking fines?

2) Is there any penalty for not paying on time? Some colleges lock them out for a day, giving all other students a shot at the classes they didn't pay for.

3) What payment policy would you have at your ideal college?

I’ve seen this handled in different ways.

At Proprietary U, there were all manner of payment plans, revolving funds, and extensions available; the thinking was that once you kick someone out, you may not get him back. The downside, though, was that students figured out pretty quickly that payment was effectively optional. As a commuter campus, the only place students could be found reliably was in class. (For reasons unknown, they never seemed to check emails, and we used to joke that our snail mail was sent by Pony Express. Phones were completely hopeless.) So in practice, faculty had to be bouncers. They’d receive ‘callout lists’ each week, and they were expected to send the identified students out of class to either Financial Aid or the Cashier’s Window (what most colleges call the Bursar). This was never popular with the faculty, since the students would invariably (and sometimes correctly) claim that their names were included on the list in error.

In my faculty days, I’ll admit that my compliance with the callout list was, um, let’s go with ‘spotty.’

When I decamped for my current college, I saw a much more straightforward ‘delete’ policy, in which students who weren’t paid in full by X date (well in advance of the start of the semester) were simply dropped from the classes for which they had signed up. You still hear denial, sob stories, and the rest, but the incentives are different; rather than rewarding foot-dragging, this system rewards promptness. Issues still pop up, but not to the same level they did at PU.

The headaches come when a deleted student pays up and tries to re-enroll, only to find that several of his classes are now full, since others swooped in and took the newly-opened seats. (This is especially brutal in areas like Biology, which combine high demand with fixed capacity.) Students can get thrown off their intended path to graduation because a lender dragged its feet. In practice, we’re likelier to try to bend rules for students in those situations, but certain courses have hard caps that really can’t be exceeded.

I’ve heard suggestions from time to time of pro-rated deletes, wherein a student whose payment is, say, two-thirds of what it should be is only deleted from two-thirds of his schedule. While there’s a certain intuitive appeal to that, the implementation has ‘nightmare’ written all over it. It also ignores the reality of the magical 12 credit threshold, since a great many benefits hang on ‘full-time student’ status.

I don’t have an ideal solution to this. Ideally, financial aid would be painless, seamless, and quick, and everybody would be conscientious about paying their obligations. Also, I’d have washboard abs, Laura Dern would have me on speed dial, and it would only rain at night. In the real world, things are messier.

Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen? Is there a better system?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.