Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Summer of Hoop-Jumping (Dealing With the Administration at Southwestern College, Part I)

I know a few college professors. To be truthful, I know a lot of college professors. They are as different from each other as any population, but like any subset of the people, they have their own recurrent topics of conversation.

One such topic, of course, is “students.” As a smaller part of that subject, another frequently mentioned discussion topic is ‘student excuses.’

“My student says they were dropped without warning while they were trying to register.” “Well, my student claims his financial aid package just disappeared.” “Oh yeah? Well, I know one who says…”

I’ve heard a lot of them: the comments, questions, disbelief. In one instance, a professor of my acquaintance described a situation that a student had with financial aid as “impossible.”

The same thing happened to me.

Don’t think I’m castigating the instructors – I’m not. Not everyone has yet had that student who was able to explain things, to clarify exactly what happened. I suspect that eventually all of them will, because frankly, this system is deeply flawed.

As a result of that flawed system, some students will never get a chance to try again. Some simply fall away from college, because they were wrongly dropped or rejected, or because “they” put up one last hoop, one too high for the student to jump through.

(This article also appears on the Patch network.)


I applied for financial aid in May this year. I knew about what classes I wanted to take, and by that I mean I had a vague idea, but I was bound and determined to actually get that education. I want that degree I’d never acquired, but the education was my goal.

Okay, the degree really is the goal, but I didn’t want to muck about and try to game the system to get that degree with as little work as possible. I wanted to take those blasted classes and learn something.

I applied near the end of the spring semester. Things began to go wrong immediately. Every day I checked my email with a vague sense of dread, wondering what hoops Southwestern College had for me to leap through this time.

On two separate weekends, I received trios of emails in the middle of the night, starting late Friday – three days of three emails. Both times the format was the same: two emails that read “Congratulations! You’ve been approved for financial aid at SWC!” followed by one that said “We’re sorry, but you’ve been rejected.”

I’m a writer. I can handle rejection.

But each rejection including a line that read (and this is a quote): “…you are not eligible for the program due to the following reason:”

And… nothing. No reason, just a blank line.

Each time that happened, I packed up various documents, records, schedules, tax forms, and so on and hauled it all down to SWC’s financial aid department. Each time I was told, “Whoops! That’s a computer glitch. You shouldn’t have had to come down here. You’re fine.”

That happened twice.

On two other occasions, I received emails that read, “Your application for financial aid at Southwestern College has been received. However, the documents listed below are required to review your file.”

And… nothing. No documents listed, just a blank line.

Of course, these happened at different times than the terrible trios of emails occurred. So again, each time I packed up the document box and hauled it to SWC. And again, each time I was told, “Whoops! That’s another computer glitch. You don’t owe us anything.”

On my fourth and final trip to SWC this past summer to account for documents they didn’t need and to find out why I was eligible, eligible, and ineligible, I asked the employee at the financial aid desk if I needed to provide anything.

“No,” she said. “Your file is closed. You don’t need to bring anything else. We’ll review it and you should be set come autumn!” (I’m paraphrasing here. I didn’t know I’d need to record the conversation.)

Autumn arrived. I’d selected my classes and on the Sunday afternoon before I went back, I suddenly had a feeling of dread. I logged into the campus computer system to see how things were going.

They weren’t.


There was nothing there about a grant – nothing at all. The school had no record of it.

Had I discovered this during the week, I’d have broken land-speed records getting back to campus to find out just what the hell was going on. As it was, I didn’t get the chance. Stuck at home on Sunday, I dug around the various files and links attached to my records, and through a link titled “Documents,” I found that SWC needed a copy of my high school diploma.

I was actually speechless, until the swearing began.

Diligently, I’d brought copies of everything, including my passport, to the school. As far as I knew, I’d accounted for everything. What high school did I attend? When? Whom do we contact? Can we get copies of your high school transcript? Yep, yep, sure – I filled out all of it. But sometime late this summer, someone decided they wanted that one document.

I accept that. I also have it.

However, no one at SWC ever sent me an email informing me. In fact, no one ever contacted me about it at all. They apparently assumed I’d discover this need on my own. But then another question appeared.


Let me preface this by stating for the record: I don’t hold the SWC employees responsible. With all of California’s budget slashing going on – and thank you so much to the conservatives for making that happen while preserving those precious tax breaks for oil companies that have quit hiring locals and have moved many of their operations to countries with non-existent minimum wages – the campus employees are shorthanded and overworked. Each time I went there, I tried to be polite and reasonable, hence the reason I brought every document I had with me when I went.

But who is “they?” Who sent out these alerts? Who decided to send me ridiculous requests for nothing and constant trios of acceptance and rejection?

The computer system did. It’s all automatic, I’m told.

Seemingly, the computer system outranks the employees, and sends out what it wants at the time, whenever it wants to do it – except when it doesn’t. When it decided that I needed to jump through one more hoop before receiving any grants, it apparently chose to not let me know, and to rely on my scavenging through its innards to find out on my own.

Had I not done this, I never would have known about the damn diploma.


Students clutter up the campus, the Dean of Student Services ignores me, computer systems that are meant not to talk to each other, and how this is all my fault.

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