Institutions of higher education are businesses. They seek profit, expansion, and charge increasingly higher fees for their services, which they market and provide on a large scale. So why are they able to maintain a business model in which their customers receive really poor treatment, are victim to numerous errors, and somehow develop multi-generational ties to those customers?
Let me tell you a story:
I recently transferred from my local community college (which I’ll call CC), to a top ten regional university (which I will refer to as M). My grades at CC were above average (although, not exemplary) and because of that, when I explored transferring to M as an “adult learner” I was informed that I would qualify for a $1,500.00 per semester scholarship. That, coupled with being able to transfer all of my paralegal credits directly into my major, and paying per credit (rather than the obscene full time tuition rate) caused me to decisively choose this institution. Fast forward to my first semester. I had decided to take the full government-subsidized loan amount in order to alleviate some of the burden my monthly bills caused. Credit card debt, rent, utilities, car insurance – it’s a decent sum of money for someone to pay when they are trying to maintain a full-time course load of upper-level classes. I just did not have the time to work full time, too; this is especially true because my job is substitute teaching and the hours conflict in a pretty significant way.
Three weeks into the semester, Student Financial Services finally gets around to telling me that I need to create a “degree plan” before they can pay out part of my refund. This would have been much less of an inconvenience if they had told me BEFORE the semester started so I could get my refund on time. So, I contact my adviser who then informs me that none of my paralegal credits can be applied to my major because M’s paralegal program is A.B.A. certified and CC’s isn’t. Translation: the 30 credits which were supposed to be applied to my major (more than two semesters if I want to be able to afford my tuition), are worthless. In total, M had transferred 87 credits. Of those 87 credits, only 12 could be applied to my major and in order to use those 12 credits, I would have to declare business as one of my concentrations. I want to go into educational law – attend graduate school for education and then go to law school. The last thing I really want or need is a concentration in business when I am trying to explain my intent when applying to graduate programs for EDUCATION.
I flipped. I had committed to this particular institution because it was affordable and I could graduate in three semesters without having to overload myself. M’s solution? They could do a transaction reversal and make it like I had never even attended. Forget the credit inquiries for the loans which would not be removed from my credit report, forget the semester I’d lose (making the purpose of the transaction reversal moot since it was too late for me to attend somewhere else for that semester instead), forget the pay I’d sacrificed during the three weeks I’d already been attending classes – they just didn’t understand or really seem to care about the extraneous damage they’d caused by misinforming me for the three months prior to the semester beginning and the three weeks after it had started.
After I came to terms with the idea of concentrating in something I hated and had no real use for, I was still confronted with the issue regarding my refund. It was almost October first, my rent was due, and I literally had no money in my bank account. (One of the greatest side effects of being per diem is that you lag a pay period behind, which means that when pay is bi-weekly, you don’t get paid for the first month after summer vacation; i.e. not until the first Friday in October). I had counted on my refund, that had been the entire point of taking out loans; my tuition was covered otherwise. (I’m grateful for that, and I know not everyone is that lucky. I know many people have to take out loans to cover just their tuition and end up carrying huge debt loads).
I submitted my degree plan and waited. And waited. And called. And waited. Suddenly, they realized my refund was being held up because I had to explain how I lived on $6,000.00 declared income in 2011. My income was too little for me to qualify for aid without explaining where every penny of my money went. I’m not even kidding. (Poor people don’t automatically get handouts; true story).
Seriously, bro. True story.
At this point, we’re in late October, the semester has been in session for two months, and I’m struggling to pay my bills, usually with complete failure. Once again, I did what M told me I needed to do, and waited. Again, things were taking longer than I was told they would. So, again, I contacted them to find out what was wrong. This time I was told that, for some odd reason, my name had been left off the roster for processing. I was told this in a tone that very clearly said, “Oh, oops!” Like someone had just knocked over a sealed bottle of water.
Ultimately, I received my refund at the beginning of December, two weeks before the semester ended. I had accrued late fees for most of my bills, overdraft fees for my bank account, and interest on my partially subsidized student loans (despite the lack of payout). I had no recourse, and the best case scenario was simply hoping that it wouldn’t happen again.
Now, it’s my second semester, we’re a month in, and again, I haven’t received my refund because they had me put into the system as a Psych major in the accelerated program (which just means that they thought my semester started halfway through March, so I couldn’t have my money until then). Forget the part where in the fall they’d billed me incorrectly because I’d been in the system wrong then, too (in a different, yet just as irritating way). Again, my only recourse is to harass, beg, and wait for M to fix its mistakes and do the bare minimum to rectify the situation.
My story, though the details may be unique, is far from being unique in its nature. I have friends who were unable to graduate on time because advisers had given them wrong information regarding which classes they should take. These mistakes all cost the student significant sums of money and they cost the college nothing. In fact, colleges tend to gain from the mistakes they make by collecting an extra semester’s tuition.
Given the increasing cost of education and its decreasing worth, these mistakes are becoming increasingly damaging. When grade inflation means that your degree is worth less because standards are too low, inflated tuition costs mean that you’re starting your life under the weight of a a debt that in past generations would have been a mortgage, and a recession means the job pool is too small, my generation is already facing too many obstacles. Do we really need poor customer service policies obstructing our success, too?
There needs to be a way for students to seek retribution for the damage these mistakes cause. Perhaps it already exists and no one knows about it. I suppose you could always file a law suit, but with the cost of litigation, and the amount of money some colleges can throw around willy-nilly, I doubt you would be very successful. Colleges have no fear of losing their customers, not when jobs are so competitive that you need a bachelor’s degree to be a file clerk. The worst part is that usually the people you have to talk to when a mistake has been made aren’t even nice about it. They usually talk down to you, blame you, or completely blow you off. Let’s face it, if someone at a grocery store took your money, sent you to the back of the longest line, and refused to refund you for some bad cheese, you’d be ready to get out your pitchfork and storm the Bastille.