The hassles of getting a graduate degree

by Renae

I’m torn.

On one hand, I’m THRILLED to be going back to school for an online graduate degree. The classes sound fantastic so I can’t wait to dig in.

On the other hand, at this writing, I’m UNHAPPY with where I must get my degree. So far, too many of my experiences and interactions with the school have been negative. But for financial reasons, I need to attend a state university. And this particular school is the only one that offers the program I want online. I have considered other programs … and now I am seriously considering changing because I am so frustrated already … and I am not even officially accepted yet!

I so want to write a letter to the Dean to express my dissatisfaction. But I can’t get to the Dean’s page since Web troubles seem to plague the school on the front-end, which doesn’t give me much faith in its back-end–especially considering this is an ONLINE program.

Plus, I’m not sure if the Dean would even care … or be able to do anything. But since I must vent, vent I will.

1) Web Issues. The school’s Web site has major problems. Pages fail to load completely no matter how long I let the little circle in upper right corner of my Firefox browser spin. The message at the lower left continually says, “Transferring data from….” When I first began exploring this program, I sent a message to the Webmaster to let someone know about the problems. They still exist now, several months later. Lack of people? Lack of funds? I don’t know. But it bugs me. This is the school’s public face. Don’t they care enough to do something about their crappy Web site? Especially considering that they offer ONLINE degrees and certificates? This does not give me confidence in taking this program.

2) Unprofessional Program Pages. Web issues at the grad school are mentioned on the program’s page as well. You read comments like, “Your application sometimes seems to go into a black hole so be sure to follow up.” And “Read carefully because the format is very confusing.” The program page itself is seriously in need of an upgrade as well. First, in appearance it is very 90s. Second, information is hard to find. Third, links are inconsistent among pages. Fourth, in reading, you find yourself being asked to click “here” to a page that asks you click to “here” and “here” and here”–and each of those pages also ask you to click to “here” and “here” and “here”–until you’re so far away from your original page that it’s hard to remember where you started. Also, between the program and the grad school pages, there does not exist ONE clear description of the application process. It’s a nightmare for someone like me who prides herself on reading carefully and getting things right. Because it means that despite my best intentions, I still get things wrong.

3) Inconsistent, Unclear, Disorganized Information. Case in point. The site says to send transcripts. So I did. My transcripts from the university also list my coursework from the community college, so I sent only transcripts from the university. I must have missed somewhere in the small print or in one of the dozens of pages where it says, “Transcripts are needed from all schools attended, INCLUDING those whose coursework is listed on other transcripts.” Guess what … I don’t think it says that at all. This information comes from an e-mail I received today from someone at the grad school.

4) Rude and Slow to No Phone and E-mail Responses. Which brings me to another problem: rudeness in and slow response time for both e-mail and phone communications. After I received my transcripts from the university, which I had sent to me instead of to the school by mistake, I noticed that the “seal” on the envelope was broken, like it had been applied before they licked it or something? Since there was a note right there along with the seal that said “NOT OFFICIAL UNLESS SEAL IS UNBROKEN,” I thought I better call the grad school to make sure it would be ok. The gal who answered the phone sounded totally disgusted that I was on the other line — like I totally disrupted her day and “would you please hang up now you stupid b&@&!.” I could not believe how rude she was! At the time, I chalked it up to a bored or frazzled grad student earning her keep. No big deal. But when you add it to the other communication problems, it becomes a big deal.

a) The director of the program had me e-mail the program advisor who would help me get registered for upcoming summer classes. But it took a week to get a reply. About halfway through the wait, I e-mailed the program director again to be sure the advisor was in and that I had the right e-mail. Am I wrong? This is an online program. A week is simply too long to make someone wait for a reply.

b) I have been checking my application status daily, waiting for the grad school to update my online application page to say that they received transcripts from the university. I waited the required/requested two weeks and then, a week ago, sent an e-mail. I did not get a reply. All week. So this past Monday, I think it was, I called. Another rude individual answered, listened to my troubles, and then passed me on–WITHOUT A WORD (I thought she hung up on me)–to someone else’s voicemail. I left a message, per instructions, explaining the problem, and included my e-mail and phone number. Needless to say, she did not return my call or e-mail me back. Then Wednesday, I sent a second e-mail to the grad school, asking again for help and saying that this was my second e-mail and that my call had not been returned. I was going to call again at the end of the day today when, lo-and-behold, I finally received a reply by e-mail.

c) Which brings me to another communication bugaboo: rude e-mails. Now I realize that you can’t tell what a person is thinking or feeling from an e-mail. But there is such a thing as basic e-mail politeness, such as starting off a reply with “Dear Renae,” or even just “Hello.” Instead, I get this:

Your application is incomplete due to the following missing items:
Transcript: CC
Recommendation Letters
Statement of Purpose

Transcripts are required from all institutions attended. Transcripts are required from all undergraduate, graduate, professional and foreign institutions that you have attended even if it was only for a single course or college credit awarded while you were in high school.

I happened to be on the computer when this came in. So I immediately replied, with a warm “hello” and “thank you,” even though the person sending was not friendly toward me. I mentioned that my coursework from the community college is included on the university transcripts … and also that I don’t think I need to send the letters and statement since I’m starting off in the certificate program.

A few minutes later, I get this:

Official transcripts are required from all institutions attended. Transcripts are required from all undergraduate, graduate, professional and foreign institutions that you have attended even if it was only for a single course or college credit awarded while you were in high school. Transcripts are needed from all schools attended, including those whose coursework is listed on other transcripts.

Ok, like I could not read that myself the first time? And, as I said earlier, that last fragment there, “including those whose coursework is listed on other transcripts,” is not found anywhere on their Web.

So. Am I wrong to be upset? Am I too picky? I think I am talking myself out of attending this university and obtaining this degree. I could just as easily get another degree at another program, although the degree would be different. And that might be a problem–or not. It depends on what the future holds.

My Recommendations?
And my point in this post is not merely to complain. I wish I could affect change, too! Here’s what I’d do:

1. Require student-facing, grad-school staff to take either an in-person or online seminar in “customer service” to address the rudeness over the phone and in e-mail and the delays in response. There is simply no reason why people can’t treat the person on the other end of the computer or phone with respect, dignity and human decency.

2. Hire someone to fix the grad school Web site. Perhaps students could do it as a project to get rid of the “black hole” and make the “confusing” layout NOT confusing anymore? Sounds simple enough to me.

3. Create a new program Web site, bringing the site into the 21st century, including a new information architecture that makes it easy to navigate and find what you need. Again, I’m thinking grad students could do this. I could do it myself … and if I take the program, maybe I will recommend it as one of my grad projects.

4. Do not require transcripts from a community college if that coursework is already listed on the university transcripts. It simply saves resources–mine and theirs.

5. Require that teachers of online programs respond to student/prospective student e-mails within 24-48 business hours when school is in session. Or, if not, at least ask them to use an auto-responder so students aren’t kept waiting in the dark for a week.

I’m not sure who’s reading this, if anyone. But it sure feels good to get it “out there,” anyway.

P.S. The grad school application page, which I opened before I started this post, is still not loaded. It says, “Read www.xxxxxxx.edu” — and that little circle on the tab on my Firefox browser is still spinning, spinning, spinning.

{Update, June 28th: Despite even more hassles and mis-communications, which I will not detail here, I am finally and “officially” in the graduate program. And I’m so excited to be here! My professor and the other faculty with whom I’m in contact seem very helpful … the first batch of reading I’ve done is fascinating … and I am really looking forward to interacting with others in the class and becoming a “master” in my field. In re-reading this post, I worried that it is too harsh. Minor issues turn major when many of them are added together; criticisms flow easily when I’m riled. That’s probably not such a good thing. I contemplated deleting this blog post–“What if a professor or fellow student from the class finds it?”–but after pondering the issue, I felt it wouldn’t be honest to do so. I still believe the issues raised are valid and need to be addressed, but I just wish I would have initially communicated my frustrations in a more professional way. My goal in this program–from here on out–will be to always take the “high road” by assuming first that others mean well and have good intentions, even if things don’t always turn out the way they or I want. So I toned down my initial “irateness” and left the post here as a reminder to me of a good lesson learned.)

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