Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Lines Before Christmas

Yesterday I thought I'd pop over to our local community college to take care of some paperwork issues so that my spouse can take a music theory class.  I gained some important insights into customer service and why some students will pay a lot to go to private schools and for-profit schools, even though they could get similar educations for much less money elsewhere.

You may be wondering why I would do the paperwork issues for my spouse.  He needed to stay at home and wait for the arrival of the grill.

Plus, I thought it would be easy.  Two days before Christmas--how many people would there be at the college?  Surely I'd be one of two or three stalwart souls, trying to take care of paperwork issues before the school shuts down for 2 weeks.

I was not the only one who had these thoughts.

I arrived and went to various offices, waited in various lines.  Finally, 2 hours later, I had proved my husband's status as a Florida resident and proved his capability in English.  The advisor took away the hold, which showed he had reading and writing skills.  Having taken Business Math, he did not have advanced math skills, so he will not be allowed to take any classes with a Math pre-req.  No Physics for him.

Luckily, he's hoping to increase his musical skills, which although it does involve some Math skills, he will be allowed to do without taking Calculus.

As someone who works as an administrator, I rarely see the other side of the desk in the way that I did yesterday.  I waited and waited to show the documents that prove residency, all the while thinking that if there was a way for computer systems to talk to each other, I wouldn't have to take such an old-fashioned approach:  showing up in an office with paper documents.  I filled out a paper form, with a pen, and then, 10 minutes later, a college official signed that form with a pen--and then entered everything into the computer.

Then I waited and waited to see an advisor.  The line wasn't even as long as it was when I arrived.  Still, I waited.  I read Madeleine L'Engle's The Irrational Season, so it wasn't completely unpleasant.  Still, it was tiring by that point, and perhaps a bit demeaning.

Let me hasten to add that every human who spoke to me was professional and often kind.  The process itself felt demeaning--and I'm a person who feels completely at home in educational systems.

I found it demeaning because of having advanced degrees--why do I have to do this?  I also found it demeaning because the process shouldn't be so byzantine.  I can do much of the application process online--why can't it all be automated?

Of course, that would be a lack of many jobs--lots of people were at work yesterday, bustling and taking care of us stalwart souls that would rather enroll our spouses in a class than do some Christmas shopping.

If I didn't feel at home in academia, I imagine the process would seem even more strange and inaccessible.  I understood that there might be several lines, so I quickly got myself out of the wrong line when I arrived.  I understood the documents I would need and I had them.  I saw lots of people who weren't so lucky.  I understood how to explain that my husband wouldn't be taking Math based classes, and thus, my spouse is enrolled in Music Theory class.  If I wasn't articulate, he might have had to come in, take a placement test, and take a series of Math classes before he could take what he really wanted.

Or he'd have left in frustration.

I work at a for-profit school, and it's interesting to think about how we do the front end of the process differently.  Until you're enrolled, with money committed, there's no standing in line.  An Admissions rep walks people through the process.  If there's waiting to be done, there's a nice space in which to wait--but everyone works hard so that there's no waiting.  Cynics would say, "Right, so that the future student doesn't have a chance to reconsider."  That's part of it, but a larger part is the customer service ethic at that point.

Now, later in the process, there will be lines, especially at registration time, especially if students aren't the type to think to make an appointment, to work ahead.  We've had staffing cuts, which means that we simply don't have enough people to make the process streamlined.  At some point, we're not doing more with less resources, we're doing less with less.

But at the for-profit school, at the point when students have to stand in line, they're not likely to go away.  Yesterday, I had to force myself to stay and stand in line and get the process taken care of.  I knew that if there were lines and crowds 2 days before Christmas, it wouldn't get any easier after the holidays.

But I do understand why many people would be deterred by this process.  Is there a way to make it easier?  Should we do that?  If we make it too easy, would people take on the debt that most college degrees require these days with too little thought?

So, here I am, on Christmas Eve, thinking about education issues.  I am saying prayers of thankfulness, that I can navigate complicated systems, that I have the money to send my spouse to school, that I have a family who loves me and friends who would miss me if I wasn't here, that I have a house that's in good shape and that I have electricity and for now, I have a job to pay for it all.

I hear the news reports, and I know how lucky I am.  NPR just ran a piece on a man who was making decent money in the RV industry, and now he lives in a broken down camper.  He hasn't had a shower in weeks because the hose that delivers water is frozen.

Yes, I am fortunate.  And my spouse is now enrolled in his Music Theory class.  I'm hoping it's a new adventure and that years later, we'll be saying, "Who knew how many doors that decision would open!"  If not, he'll have a better grasp of how music works.

And I've had a reminder of how important it is to treat people humanely, to give as good a customer service as I can.

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