Opinion | Hello! May I Assist You in Taking on a Lifetime of Debt?

By Elena Valenzuela-Stookey

What I learned answering calls to my university’s student helpline.

By Elena Valenzuela-Stookey

Ms. Valenzuela-Stookey is a senior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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If you have ever worked in a customer service position, you are probably familiar with managerial lectures about not veering off script.

I spent last summer working one of those jobs, as a phone operator. I processed eight-digit codes, helped customers determine whether they were eligible for any discounts and made sure no bill was left unpaid.

“This is a business,” my supervisor would say. “No matter how difficult the conversation, you must try to remain pleasant and patient with the caller.”

But I wasn’t working at the Gap and our callers weren’t asking about the return policy on a frayed sweater. I was an employee of the University Helpline at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and my callers were students and parents, who were often trying to reach the financial aid office and the bursar.

We started every morning at 10 with a queue of callers already on hold. Students were lost in the bureaucratic shuffle of loan applications, tax-verification documents and arcane equations that calculate their expected ability to pay down to the last penny. I spent my days reciting instructions for requesting tax return transcripts from the I.R.S., applying for loans and reading nauseating overdue charges off student accounts.

And those were just the easy calls. I also spoke to a mother who cried as I explained that if she couldn’t pay more than $8,000 by the next business day, her child would not be allowed to return to college in the fall.

Our team consisted of 12 undergraduates and a graduate-student supervisor,; salaried administrative staff members would step in when a caller had a more complex question we didn’t know how to answer.

We were frequently reminded to handle as many calls as possible, as quickly as possible. At the end of each week, we received a report on how many calls we failed to properly account for. After 11 weeks, our team had taken a total of 11,807 incoming calls.

The university presents the Helpline as a useful service. A spokesman said the student operators "answer a variety of questions, including about financial aid, billing, parking and housing. The purpose is to help and guide the caller.”

But it felt to me that our only real job was to decrease callers’ average wait time. It seemed the theory was that parents and students would be so comforted by the opportunity to speak to a real person that the process of taking on tens of thousands of dollars of debt would feel almost worry free.

Armed with our pleasant tone and “can do” attitude, we stood between students and their economic and emotional desperation. And we failed them every day.

“Thank you for calling the University Helpline. How may I help you? Based on your taxes from two years ago, we have determined that your Expected Family Contribution is $5,827.13. Unfortunately, you no longer fall under the critical $5,486 E.F.C. cutoff for your need-based MASSGrant. It looks like you have found ways to borrow thousands of dollars in loans already; may I assist you in worsening this potentially lifelong burden? We so do appreciate your customer loyalty.”

We hated the job, but we had our own bills to worry about. We kept answering the phones.

“Thank you for calling the University Helpline. How may I help you? I am sorry that you think the university prioritized the construction of a $50 million dining hall complex over the cost of your education. Too bad you won’t be around to try the No. 1 campus dining in the nation.”

It shouldn’t have to be this way. Access to truly affordable education is not a radical idea. In 1862, the Morrill Act financed the establishment of colleges specializing in “agriculture and the mechanic arts” with land grants. The University of Massachusetts, then called Massachusetts Agricultural College, was one of them. Tuition was $36. Even 30 years ago, you could pay for college by working summers on a Western Massachusetts tobacco farm.

This feels like ancient history now. It’s true that as the cost of college continues to rise, fewer families pay the sticker price. And yet determining what is actually owed takes time, energy and a lot of anxiety. It also often involves taking on debt. And for some of us, that debt can remain crippling well into adulthood.

The least colleges can do is be more considerate of the dreams that slip through the bureaucratic cracks. Students deserve patient and reliable guidance tailored to their financial needs, not a disjointed network of administrative offices that seem most concerned with collecting money.

As I walk around campus this fall, I see banners everywhere that read, “Building a Community of Dignity and Respect.” I’m sure many of the students and parents I spoke to over the phone last summer would consider that false advertising.

I think of my supervisor reminding us, “As a part of this business, it is important to refrain from any irritated or sassy remarks.”

“Thank you for calling the University Helpline. This is Elena. How may I contribute to an illusion of calm as your state and federal governments fail to satisfy your right to affordable higher education?”