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 na├»ve.

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?