Ryerson students are stuck paying the highest fees in the province for letters proving they go to university. Olivia Stefanovich explores whether it’s necessary or if there are cheaper alternatives.
You’ve probably just finished class and now you are forced to wait behind 30 people who all have long and detailed problems to explain to bored-looking employees. You can’t even leave the line to grab a latte from Starbucks or play with that new Coke Freestyle machine. You groan and lean against the wall for support, wondering what you did to deserve this hell.
Welcome to the line for the Enrollment Services counter on the first floor of the Podium Building. It’s a necessary sacrifice for important documents or transactions of any kind, including third party letters.
The charge for letters has been in place for over a decade. It costs students $20 and an additional $15 if a student requests rush service. Each additional copy is an extra $5.
The Office of the Registrar is looking to automate the system sometime this school year, which would reportedly lead to a faster processing time. Students will still be requesting the letter, but a computerized application process will take approximately 48 hours instead of the current 10 business days. Whether the fees will decrease depends on the amount of work required from the staff members who process the letter requests, explains University Registrar Keith Alnwick.
Fourth-year international economics and finance student Brian Seong has had to request a third party letter each year for Knowledge First Financial, his Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) provider.
“I think [the fees are] a cheap way of collecting revenue by the university,” says Seong. “It also takes up to five business days to process it, which I feel like is way too slow considering that we are paying $20 for it.”
Seong believes that speeding up the service is a step in the right direction, but is not enough. “Automated is good, but I think the price should be lowered, especially if it’s going to be automated,” he says. “I wouldn’t want government funding to be used to make these letters, but they should be used to fund programs that actually benefit students intellectually, such as creating more space for students and hiring profs.”
Alnwick says that the reason Ryerson’s proof of enrolment letters require a fee is due to the large student population and a lack of the resources necessary to process these letters.
York is the only university in the province with a larger student population than Ryerson to offer the service for free.
“The problem is that we have a long list of services… This is something that not all students request… What we are trying to do is pay for these services that not all students use,” says Alnwick.
Third party letters can be used as official documentation for a number of services, such as eligibility to graduate, Qualification Evaluation Council of Ontario, transfer credit equivalency, confirmation of graduation status, proof of enrolment, jury duty and photocopies of award documents.
If the letters were free of charge, Alnwick says the Registrar’s Office would be overwhelmed by the volume of requests. As a result, the workload vital to dispense these letters would have to be done at the expense of other student services that the office handles, such as grade standings.
“By charging the fee, we’re able to pay for staff resources and we don’t have to re-direct resources [such as student services] up and above other things,” he says.
To process the letters, staff must first understand exactly what the request is and what information is needed. Many letter requests can be confusing and some third parties require particular information that others do not. Then, they must fact check and confirm the administrative information so that the letters are up to date with the student’s official records.
“The reality is that the institution doesn’t receive enough funding,” says Melissa Palermo, vice-president of education at the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), and calls the situation “unfair” for students. “This is just another avenue Ryerson is walking down to [extract] more money,” says
Soraya Mohamed, a first-year English student. While Ryerson continues to frustrate students in search of third-party letters, other universities have already cleared the hurdle of student discontent by using tools that also exist at Ryerson.
For instance, certificates of enrolment at Carleton University are free of charge and can be processed through the school’s Blackboard system. Unlike Ryerson, the certificates are not mailed directly to the third party from the university, but the forms are processed within three to five business days.
Similarly, the University of Guelph issues letters of permission for students who intend to enrol in a course for credit at another educational institution at no extra cost.
At George Brown College, which offers joint educational programs with Ryerson, there has been a $10 processing fee to verify a student’s education at the institution since 2010.
Alexandra Haire, a second- year business administration and marketing student at the college, says she was shocked that it had not been included in tuition.
Haire didn’t need an official letter to prove to TD Canada Trust that she was a full time student for her student loan. “All I had to do was show my schedule and there was no problem.” Although students can show their student ID card or download information from RAMSS, such as class schedules and unofficial transcripts, not all third parties accept this type of documentation. Palermo says that although she hasn’t heard any direct complaints from the students about the third party letter fees, the general consensus from students is that they are already paying too much.
“It is generally unfair for students because it should be part of tuition,” she says about the extra cost of the letters. Alnwick says he hasn’t heard direct complaints either, but he knows many students are unhappy about the fee. “No one celebrates having to pay for something… Time to time we hear sighs of frustration.”
But those sighs are louder online. On SoapBox, a new addition to RAMSS, students are showing their dissatisfaction with the fees. The app allows students to share their suggestions concerning Ryerson and up vote or down vote other student ideas. Posts about graduation fees, transcript fees and the third party letter fees are popular complaints and suggestions for the university to improve upon. SoapBox user Jay commented about the letters on Aug. 29:
“The school charging $20 for the first signed letter, and $5 for subsequent signed letters is a bit ridiculous. Please help university students save money by charging reasonable fees for these services… Or eliminating them entirely.” So far, the comment has received 70 thumbs up and two thumbs down.
Alnwick said that the university is monitoring feedback from SoapBox and Twitter feeds to help improve student services. Students can take matters into their own hands by photocopying their third party letters to avoid the extra $5 fee. “It’s up to the student and how they see fit,” Alnwick says.
Considering the average cost to photocopy one sheet of paper is 10 cents, this would certainlybe easier on a student budget. However, the original letter payment would still be in effect.
Alnwick says systems have successfully been implented to request transcripts and confirm graduation status electronically, but there are factors that make transferring those processes easier.
“Graduation is something that’s pretty static,” he says. “Other than convocation time, it’s not subject to change like enrolment.” Another electronic system change the university is attempting to work with is the implementation of the Ontario Student Assitance Program (OSAP) Express.
The new system is supposed to allow students to acquire their OSAP loans through a simpler electronic system while only signing an agreement once in their post-secondary careers, as well as reducing the time it takes for proof of enrolment to process.
However, the system is not yet fully in play as of yet because of delays in testing with the government, according to Alnwick, who the financial aid office reports to.
“We’d hoped to have it implemented for the fall,” he says.
He describes the system as better than before, but not as improved as they would have liked.
They hope to have it fixed in the next week or two to help students having trouble getting their loans. “A number of universities are in a similar position,” says Alnwick. “We’ve been doing the semimanual confirmation [for now].” Although they have converted much of the process to online already, they need that final step to smooth out the OSAP process. “It’s really that last piece that completes the picture. We want it to be fully tested,” he says.
Alnwick did reveal that the Office of the Registrar is looking to team up with whatever Ryerson departments are necessary in order to put in a system which helps improve the turnaround time for the letter requests. They are in talks with Computing and Communication Services (CCS) to work on the project in the Fall 2012 semester.
“If our students need something, we’d like to provide it,” says Alnwick. “We know this is something that needs doing.”