It’s hard to give people your money sometimes.
Kim and I used to have a homemade soap business, back before the girls got mobile enough to make 50lb sacks of lye things we didn’t want in the house. We’d run the craft show circuit all summer long, and that’s how we ate for those three months that teachers aren’t paid for. I learned during those years that one of the most basic principles of retail is that you never put obstacles in front of a customer. People were walking by me with money in their pockets that was rightfully mine and I needed to make that transfer process as quick and painless as possible for it to work in my favor.
I am continually amazed at how unknown this lesson is in the wider world.
Tabitha is only a few short weeks from heading off to college now, and incoming college freshmen these days are inundated with administrative and bureaucratic tasks, far more than I remember being when I was at an equivalent stage. She’s had to pick a meal plan (they’re all the same cost, but some are more flexible than others), a housing option, and a class schedule, fill out a healthcare form and a blizzard of other such paperwork, and generally spend a vast amount of time gearing up for heading off soon.
One of the things that has to happen somewhere in this process is that the bills have to get paid. As parents, that’s where we come in. Except that with FERPA – the federal law governing student privacy – this gets complicated.
I sat down last week to set up a payment plan for this coming school year. We’ve been saving for college since both of the girls were little and the college was generous with financial aid, so the actual bills will be, um, manageable. Yeah. Manageable. We’ll call it that. So mostly it was getting a plan set up.
I went to the school website, where it said that as far as bill-paying went there was a Student Portal and a Parent Portal.
I like this idea of calling it a portal. The word implies a brief and confused journey to the other side of reality from which return is implausible so you might as well get used to your new situation. It makes sense in context.
So I went to the Parent Portal and was immediately confronted by a login page asking me for my Parent PIN.
I don’t have a Parent PIN. How does one acquire such a thing? From whom? There were no instructions. You’re just supposed to know. And despite having worked in academia for nearly three decades now – the last 10% of that as an academic advisor, responsible for explaining the mysteries of financial aid and related matters to my students – I had no idea how to go about figuring any of that out.
So the next day I called the campus rep and it turned out that because of FERPA Tabitha would have to access her account and give me permission to pay her bills, and as part of this process I would be assigned a PIN.
Fair enough, I suppose.
Last night Tabitha and I tried to take care of this. We downloaded the pdf of instructions, went to the campus website, and Tabitha tried to log in. It wouldn’t let her, despite the fact that she was already logged in several tabs over on her browser. This seems to be an ongoing issue for her, but a simple password reset had us back in business.
We found the place where you’re supposed to set up parents to pay the bills, clicked on the link, and were confronted by yet another login page asking for yet another number that neither of us knew what it was or how to get one. A search of Tabitha’s email, the school’s website, and the pdf of instructions yielded (at least in myself; I can't speak for Tabitha here) only an intense desire for whiskey in quantity, and not good whiskey either – the kind of whiskey that makes you regret ever having heard of the concept of whiskey but which provides enough pain to make you forget why you started drinking in the first place.
So this morning I called the campus once more, this time to the accounts payable people, and we had a pleasant and informative conversation. I have often found that this to be true when dealing with people whose fearsome reputations precede them – IRS agents, DMV representatives, and so on. They’re just people, even if the systems they represent are impenetrable.
“Oh,” they said. “You’re looking for THIS number. This is how that works…”
We tried it again tonight and it worked. We’re set up for a payment plan, and that’s one item checked off the list for next month.
And the drop-off date gets that much closer.