UH Phone System Swamped

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The University of Houston’s phone lines are in gridlock this morning – at least the ones going to the all-important Admissions Office which is where you check to see if your financials are all in order. And today’s the day UH says you have to settle up your bill or face dis-enrollment from your classes that start Monday for the fall semester.

Yesterday, the phones were busy all day, too. A lucky 1,200 people broke through to talk to someone, according to Eric Gerber, spokesman for UH. That’s out of a 35,000-plus student body so we’re guessing there were a few more people who – like us -- would have liked to have gotten through.

Today, it’s worse. Early morning busy signals have been replaced by the off-hours message. You know the one that tells you what to do when you’re calling before or after they are open for business. The one that tells you the hours they are open. The one you’re not supposed to hear repeatedly at 10 o’clock in the morning.

According to dire warnings on the PeopleSoft home page for students – the software system UH uses to handle communications with its enrollees about their status at the university -- by 7 p.m. today you’re supposed to have any outstanding balance paid on your bill.

Here’s the Catch-22: For all the students waiting on loans, the loan money isn’t disbursed to the school until August 25 – six days after today’s deadline.

So does the loan money count now? And if it does, then why don’t the totals in a student’s activity account reflect that? Do students somehow need to come up with the money today and get a refund later? But if a student applied for a loan, that usually means he doesn’t have the money now. Huh.

We passed on all these questions to Gerber yesterday. Gerber, a meticulous sort who doesn’t want to get anything wrong and add to the confusion, was still working this morning on deciphering the bureaucratic rules with a UH administrator. We’ll update as more information becomes available.

The UH Board of Regents is having a meeting today. Along with the deserved round of congratulations they’ll be giving themselves for an uptick of 15 percent in this year’s student enrollment, maybe someone can talk about getting an adequate phone system and one that is staffed to meet the surge of calls created by the university’s own confusing deadlines. And hey, the phones don’t even have to be Tier 1 yet.

Update -- A Q&A with UH Director of Communications Eric Gerber:

Houston Press: If the university knows the loan funds won't be disbursed until August 25, why is August 19 the deadline for complete payment?

Gerber: The university treats “pending” funds as though they were actually paid into the account and this satisfies the August 19 deadline.

There appears to be some confusion surrounding that term and we could do a better job of explaining this seeming anomaly to our students and their parents. That is something we are taking under consideration.

HP: Would a student, in fact, be dis-enrolled from his classes because he hadn't paid the total on August 19 -- even if the loans coming in on August 25 more than cover his bill?

Gerber: In the scenario you have just given, the answer is “No, the student would not have his enrollment canceled.” Remember, pending aid is treated the same as if it had already been disbursed.

HP: Why don't the two dates match, or better yet, have the loans come in before the final balance is settled?

Gerber: Texas Education Code states that “payment or payment arrangements must be made prior to the first class day.” At UH, the Payment Due date is set early enough so that students who do not have sufficient “pending” financial aid will have enough time to make other arrangements before classes begin.

The date for disbursement of financial aid is set for the first day of class as a practical consideration. Many students do not show up for classes. Disbursing financial aid to them prior to the start of classes can create serious financial complications for them and the university. This means they would have been enrolled, shown as paid, and probably received failing grades. Additionally, the university would have to reverse the aid, and seek to recover any refunds that had resulted.

HP: If in fact, there is nothing to worry about if loans are set up to go, why then all the (unnecessary?) stress caused by conflicting dates and messages?

Gerber: We will have to do a better job of explaining this to our students and parents.

HP: Are you aware it's practically impossible to get through the phone lines to UH now?

Gerber: We are aware of the huge call volume at this time and are constantly trying to address this issue. We have been receiving thousands of calls and we recognize that it can be very frustrating to our callers. We have added a second phone number (832-842-1010) to help address this problem.

-- Margaret Downing

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