On a drizzly October afternoon, nearly a dozen students sit slumped inside Tennessee State University's financial aid office. Many have been waiting an hour or more. All they want is some face time with the school's financial aid counselors, hidden behind the employees-only door. Like much of TSU's student body, most of these kids are poor and black. They've got no choice but to wait.
Trapped and listless, they stare off into space or text aimlessly—a scene familiar to anyone who's spent a workday getting jerked around at the DMV. Except these kids aren't waiting to renew a license. They're waiting for the cash they've been promised to stay in school. Tuition, rent, food—all that rides on these badly needed bucks. And that's for a semester already almost half over. Some of these kids can't even buy textbooks. Too bad their midterms are less than two weeks away.
A stylish young woman breezes into the office and asks to make an appointment. As she fidgets with her raincoat-yellow beret, a counselor checks the schedule. The next opening isn't until Monday—six days away.
"Monday?" the student asks. She shakes her head, disbelieving—and leaves without bothering to book an appointment.
The students still waiting look more tired than pissed. For most of them, this is nothing. Not compared to getting run through the meat-grinder of TSU's approval process—a fool's errand that can send students on endless go-nowhere rounds through the school's administrative offices. Worst of all, after jumping through these hoops, many students still leave empty-handed.
A visitor asks the counselor how the situation's going. She gives a disheartened groan, then chuckles cynically. "Let's ask them," she says, turning to the students, some of whom lean wearily against a windowless blue wall. "Well, what do y'all think about what's going on at TSU?"
"Bullshit," mutters a teen in a black sweatshirt and bling, to much snickering and eye rolling.
"See how intelligent our students are?" the counselor asks with a facetious smirk. "Can't y'all answer with something more appropriate to higher education?"
"Fuck that," the kid responds. "This is ridiculous." His defiant tone starts to rouse the others.
"Everyone here just makes us wait," another student says. "They don't help you."
"Technically, I'm not even in any of my classes," says a brunette in a salmon-colored shirt. "They let me go to class anyway, but I got purged, so I'm not really in them."
These complaints are nothing new. They're like the dirty laundry everybody knows inside the family, but the conversation stops when outsiders cock their ears. The trouble, for TSU, is that people both inside and outside the family are talking. The talk turned into shouting in September, when more than 1,300 TSU students learned they were getting cut (or "purged") from their classes because their financial aid hadn't come through. That's in a student body of approximately 9,100. Alumni donations and fundraising rescued about 900 students, but the remaining 416 were left bewildered, devastated—and home.
When those hit hardest sought help, TSU's dismissive student service shifted from private disgrace to public scandal. Rude staff, agonizing waits, slammed-down calls, check's-in-the-mail brush-offs, bureaucratic snafus of Catch-22 absurdity—word of these outrages brought widespread indignation, and rightly so. Many of the people hurt most—black students from low-income homes—were getting the shaft from an institution that had historically been their protector.
Ask some experts, students and school officials, and they say these gripes are overblown. The issues TSU faces, its defenders argue, are hardly different from those at other universities and colleges: rising tuition costs, an economy-wide credit crunch, the hassles of implementing new software. The same storm hit everybody, they say—only the media made it sound like TSU was capsizing.
But worries persist that TSU's abysmal student service is just the tip of a dysfunctional meltdown. At the center of the struggle is the university's president, Dr. Melvin Johnson. A man who has faced down a barrage of recent criticism, Johnson still maintains that TSU can become the state's premier public university. And students believe him.
Nevertheless, for the kids stuck in financial aid, the only promise they can hold in their hands is an appointment card. And that's under the new system. The old system—first come, first served—was even more of a disaster: Lines wrapped two stories high and seven hours long.
As they wait, the sole financial aid worker out front, a lean, soft-spoken gentleman, types appointments briskly into a computer. To his right on the wall hangs an imposing framed photograph of TSU's emblem, a proud, mighty tiger. But the picture on the calendar next to it, flipped open to October, better represents the school's recent service record: a pathetic-looking kitten.
If this were some fly-by-night diploma mill, nobody would bat an eye. But this is Tennessee State University—one of Nashville's best-known academic institutions, and a beacon for black Americans when white schools weren't nearly so welcoming. Back when Vanderbilt was still hemming and hawing about this whole civil-rights thing, TSU was graduating leaders like Xernona Clayton, the pioneering talk-show host and Turner Broadcasting executive, and retired four-star U.S. Air Force Gen. Lloyd "Fig" Newton.
Its history goes back almost a century—back to 1912, when the school's first 247 students didn't just have to study, they had to also hoe crops and carry their chairs from class to class. By the late 1970s, when a lawsuit settlement effectively merged TSU with a Nashville branch of the University of Tennessee, the school was a tough competitor in attracting top black students and athletes. Legendary Dallas Cowboys defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones played for TSU, then entered the NFL draft in 1974 at No. 1. For prestige, nothing tops being the alma mater of Oprah Winfrey—living proof that a TSU grad can conquer the world.
What makes students want to come to TSU today? For students living in or around Nashville, it's the school's convenient location. For others, it's the school's affordability: In-state tuition costs only $2,600 a semester.
But for many, the big attraction is that the school is an HBCU—a Historically Black College & University, of which there are about 100 in the United States. Promising the comfort of the "black experience," HBCUs offer black students a community and camaraderie they sometimes can't get at predominantly white schools. In the '90s, the popularity of the Cosby Show spin-off A Different World, set at historically black Howard University, inspired a generation of students to enroll at campuses steeped in black history and pride.
There are benefits to HBCUs besides the chance of meeting Lisa Bonet. According to a 2006 article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, black students have a higher chance of graduating on a campus that has lots of black students. Not surprisingly, more than half of all black college graduates come from HBCUs. So do 70 percent of the nation's black physicians and dentists. Langston Hughes and Spike Lee attended HBCUs, as did the parents of many TSU students.
"It's really because of the history here," says Brian Woodward, a 21-year-old TSU junior, of his decision to transfer here from Western Michigan University. "You hear that Oprah Winfrey came from here and the athletes that come out of here. The administration is not as good [as Western Michigan], but with the community, I think it's a good experience to have."
But if TSU has traditionally reaped the benefits of being an HCBU, it has also inherited the liabilities. Ironically, some of these can be blamed on integration. At a time when universities across the state have posted significant enrollment increases—7 percent at Middle Tennessee State University, 13 percent at Tennessee Tech, nearly 20 at Austin Peay—TSU's enrollment has remained flat since 2003, increasing by less than half a percent in those five years. At the same time, a drop in TSU's out-of-state applicants, coveted because they pay three times the tuition, has cheated the school's coffers of $6 million.
"This is one of the things you see traditionally with black universities," says a local consultant who wished to comment off the record. "There was a time when they got the cream of the crop of black students who had nowhere else to go. Now those same students get offers from top schools and they can go anywhere they want. So the historic mission is not what it used to be. They've got a difficult choice facing most of them."
"Without those cream-of-the-crop students," the consultant continues, "they're dealing with hard-to-serve black students—those that are first-generation college students and ill-prepared for college. They now take white students in increasing numbers, and then presidents lose jobs. Groups like the Black Caucus say they've turned their backs on the community. But of course they aren't turning their backs. They're just doing what they have to do to survive."
To stay in the game, other experts say on the record, a school like TSU must adapt to meet these changes. Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems in Boulder, Colo., says he isn't familiar with TSU's specific issues. But he does understand the struggles HBCUs face in general.
"They can do training and hiring, but the real down-and-dirty part is academics," Jones says. "I could define 'premier university in the state' a couple of ways. They can become the institution with the greatest value added to students who are ill-prepared, and send them out ready for the world. That's not about financial aid. It's about how well these students get served."
And therein lie the problems that have threatened TSU's reputation, its finances and its future.
With its nondescript brick buildings and minimal landscaping, TSU looks a lot like, say, MTSU in Murfreesboro. True, at MTSU you rarely see students in black T-shirts reading "Got Tuition?" in the campus lounge, surrounding a table with pamphlets and petitions and trying to recruit passers-by. "Make college more affordable!" they shout. "Sign the petition and tell Congress!"
The financial aid office is another story. The students' faces may show more fatigue than frustration, but some 30 complaints have been made on their behalf against the school with the Tennessee Board of Regents. The TBR is the governing board that oversees all public higher-education institutions in the state, except those under the University of Tennessee umbrella. The blistering complaints accuse TSU's administrative services of inexcusable ineptitude and inefficiency.
Some are from alumni, who express concern about the school's "fragile state" and lament that TSU is "not the academic leader it once was." Other complaints cite students who became so frustrated with enrollment issues that they gave up and went to MTSU. They blast state leaders for "racism by neglect."
TSU rants have even started turning up on Craigslist, possibly the last frontier for consumer complaints from voices with nowhere else to turn.
"Why and how are the employees at TSU allowed to treat students (PAYING CUSTOMERS) the way they do?" one post complains. "I have never NEVER seen such hateful, mean, nasty attitudes in my life."
But none are as extreme as the complaint lodged with the Board of Regents by a parent named Lisa Williams. Her daughter Raquel was one of many potential students drawn to TSU by its history and African American community. So strong was their faith in the school that, despite their modest resources, they relocated from Texas to Gallatin so Raquel could enroll.
Williams submitted the tax information that was supposedly required for Raquel's financial aid. She got no answer. She submitted it again. And again. Still no answer. She submitted the same information seven times. Somehow, in all those tries, nobody told her she'd never filed the correct forms in the first place. By the time she finally got an answer, she was told she had to produce $2,000 on the spot to keep Raquel enrolled. She didn't have it.
"I asked them, 'What can I do to keep my daughter from being purged?' And they said they would get it taken care of," Williams says. They didn't.
"I contacted everyone I could think of at that school and I couldn't get anyone to call me back," she says. "I cried. She cried. She finally said, 'I can't cry no more. I can't get more pissed about it.' "
This runaround might be comical if the stakes were lower—if you were forking over the dough for a luxury car, only to have the salesman tell you he lost the keys. And then, in response to your frustration and anger, he simply shrugs as if to say, "What do you want me to do about it?" Only this is your child's education—their ticket to a better income, better social standing, a way out.
"These individuals had no concern about our children and what they are going to do about their education," Williams wrote TBR on Sept. 9. "You don't know how many students I [have] seen crying and upset not knowing what they're going to do. Who do we have out there to speak to us.... What the h*** is going on at this university and what is it going to take for some [one] to take some action?"
The last straw came when Raquel finally got her money—too late to enroll this semester. Her education derailed for the moment, she's currently working a full-time job. She's still deliberating whether to attend next term.
"I'll leave it up to her, because she's a very smart and independent girl," Williams says. "But if it were up to me, she wouldn't go to TSU."
A TSU financial aid counselor, who would talk only on condition of anonymity, says that when she's staffed out front she feels like the lone defender of a besieged fort. "I think it's totally disorganized—totally," she says. "Why would you put a new person out there in an island by themselves with these kids? It's crazy. What can I do to help? I got nothing to help them. They gotta restructure the whole thing here."
They could start with TSU's well-documented culture of rudeness—financial aid workers and administrators who can't be bothered, phone receptionists who hang up, staffers who swing their position of power like a blunt instrument. Many TSU students are the first in their families to attend college. Without parents or siblings to explain the system, they're at the mercy of TSU staffers. A bad one can drive students to despair.
Take Cathy Ho, a sophomore who'd already attended TSU her freshman year. Because her family's in Nashville and she wasn't quite ready to fly the coop completely, she opted to stay close to home. After completing her first year at TSU, she dutifully filled out the FAFSA form—the application for federal student aid required to start the loan process. She accidentally left off the correct school code that routes the application to your university of choice. But she was never told she had a problem until the first day of class.
"They never called me back to let me know that I needed to make corrections—that something was wrong—until the first day of school when I got purged," says the broadcast major, who already possesses the confidence and professionally made-up looks for TV work. "None of my classes were on there, so I had to go re-register."
She concedes that her own error caused the initial problem. But at TSU, simple mistakes tend to snowball into catastrophes. Relying on a combination of Pell grants, a Tennessee Student Assistance Award and a HOPE scholarship, Ho should have received some $6,000 in aid—money that goes straight to TSU, with the balance after school costs returned to her. But for some mystical reason Ho never got the $2,700 owed to her after tuition and fees, and she couldn't get an answer why. By early October, Ho still didn't have her money.
Ho has since taken on a part-time job as a server at TGIFriday's to deal with the temporary setback. She'd rather be studying, but she has no choice. If someone had just explained the problem to her, she could have worked it out in time.
"I still don't know where my money went," she explains. "They don't even answer the phone here. They pick up and hang up on me. I called another office and asked them what was going on with financial aid. Why are they picking up the phone and hanging up? At least let me leave a message. And the lady, I guess in records or admissions, was just like, 'Oh, that's just their answering service.' I'm like, so they pick up and hang up? That's their answering service? Thanks for the customer service, TSU!"
Even when student error isn't the problem, money travels no faster through TSU's clogged pipeline. Sophomore Brooke Haynes, a music education major, ended up overpaying for school. Just a few hundred dollars, the cost of an iPod—no problem, right? Not at TSU. It's been nearly two months now, and the school keeps nickel-and-diming her with small sums—$45 here, $75 there. She's still waiting on the remaining $50.
To most people, Haynes admits, that isn't much. But 50 bucks to many college students is the difference between food and hunger. She needs the money to live on, and she's been borrowing money from her mother every week. In desperation, Haynes even asked TSU's dean of music to intervene on her behalf and call financial aid himself. She called later and managed to get a rep on the phone.
"She got an attitude with me and said, 'You don't get your money back,' " Haynes says. "I told her that I got the dean of music to call, and she said, 'He never called here.' I said, 'I was right there when he did it!' These past few years, TSU is just going downhill. I know it's because of the attitudes they have here, especially in financial aid. They send people somewhere they don't even need to go and they'll be sent right back."
Students say they're typically given one of two reasons for the hassle. One is the tightening credit market, which has trickled all the way down to student loans. The lack of available capital has slowed lending and delayed approved loans. But the excuse students hear most these days involves Banner Services, the new software system that processes TSU's records.
Banner Services is an administrative software system that handles human resources, finance, financial aid and student records, including grades and registration. It is already used by 1,900 colleges and universities. Last year it was implemented in all Tennessee Board of Regents schools, and TSU was among the last of those to go live with the software, in spring of this year.
The TBR's chief information officer, Tom Danford, admits that Banner Services has its quirks. (East Tennessee State University in Johnson City also reported some headaches with the software.) But on the whole, he says, "it's not a really difficult program to learn"—though it can pose problems if "people have not been as dedicated to learning how the software works."
TSU trained over the course of 18 months for the transition. But students say Banner Services has become a convenient scapegoat for financial-aid hassles—the equivalent of the mail losing a check.
"They just started using Banner Services last year," Brooke Haynes says. "And that's always their excuse. They say, 'Banner Services—we get confused.' Banner Services is not confusing, OK? It's really easy."
Even if it is, though, that won't mean much if TSU's staff can't intervene in a crisis. Senior Emily Ghearing learned that the hard way. At 30, she knew her way around the process, having worked in financial aid at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. But at TSU, signing up for aid in early summer was too late. Purged from her classes, she waited in the dreaded two-hour line only once. "It's an experience in torture," she says.
It got worse. Even after she had sorted out her financial aid, Banner wouldn't show Ghearing the critical class codes she needed to re-register. She was sent to the library and the records office, but nobody else had the numbers. She left the office in tears. Luckily, a student nearby worked in a separate department and had access to the list of class codes Ghearing needed.
"If you've been here long enough," he told her, "you know not to let this place get you down."
But it's the younger students Ghearing worries about—students who've come from across the country, paying three times the tuition and room-and-board costs to attend a school she says is "basically a joke to the rest of the community."
"I see a lot of anger in my classes," Ghearing says, "but it's like they don't know who to focus it on. And they're super young kids and they're just leaving with massive amounts of debt from this crap-ass place."
TSU has heard all this before. When the new president, Dr. Melvin Johnson, came on board nearly four years ago, he inherited a sheaf of reports all saying the same thing: The school was nearing crisis point. Johnson commissioned a consulting group to examine the school's challenges, from increasing enrollment to better serving students. He also sought to give the university an academic master plan, the first in its 96-year history.
The Pappas Consulting Group issued its findings in February, and they stung. At this "critical time in TSU's history," the report said, it called for a "cultural shift of seismic proportions" in the school's decrepit bureaucracy. Among many cited weaknesses, the report rapped TSU for paying more money to teachers and administrators than other Board of Regents schools, offering courses of study with limited depth, and having no reliable way to tell whether a program needs improving. It also said TSU must fix the poor service it offers students.
These problems could not come at a worse moment. At the same time TSU hopes to increase enrollment, college tuition at state institutions has risen 53 percent above inflation over the last decade. On top of that, more than a third of today's students are adult learners—one of the groups hardest hit by the current recession. And yet Melvin Johnson insists, unfazed, that TSU wants to become Tennessee's premier public university.
How? Some say that hinges on Johnson, who finds himself carrying the school's hopes to the barricades, both in the media and behind the scenes. "Academic institutions undergo changes," he says. "It's not unusual. Especially after receiving our direction from our academic master plan. We realize that in order to accomplish our objectives we needed to make some changes in some key positions."
The first signs of real, positive change came just a few weeks ago. In early October, Johnson initiated a long-overdue housecleaning that swept out some of TSU's top brass. In short order, the school got a new director of financial aid, a new vice president of academic affairs, a new head of enrollment management, and a reassignment of the university's widely despised call center. Just weeks before that, Johnson called for budget cuts and a hiring freeze that stanched TSU's hemorrhaging finances. The school's budget shortfall now stands at approximately $10 million.
These efforts are enough to foster optimism in students like Marshall Latimore, 24, who has reported on some of TSU's recent issues in the student weekly newspaper TSU Meter. A communications major who believes local media have exaggerated the school's troubles—"I just don't get the sense that these are bleak times and you have the decay of TSU," he says—Latimore says the hopes of many are riding on the university's president.
"I definitely get the feeling that a lot of people have a lot of faith in Dr. Johnson," Latimore says. "I also think people have a lot of faith in TSU. Everybody's definitely going to work with him; but more than anything it's about the collective vision for the university and making sure the ship is on course."
Charles Manning, a Board of Regents chancellor, shares faith in Johnson, even though he calls the school's treatment of students this fall "unacceptable."
"I think he's got his feet on the ground," Manning says. "It's hard to do some things when you're fresh off the boat. But it's time to do it and he knows it. He's the president and I trust him. I believe he's going to be able to turn it around."
Johnson thinks so too. But with the school's limited resources and entrenched bureaucratic culture, turning around TSU will be as difficult as U-turning a train.
"I'm not denying that we could have done a lot of things better in retrospect," he says. "That's one of the reasons for the changes we made administratively."
To combat these problems, Johnson says the school is implementing software that will show students exactly where they stand in the loan process: what documents still need filling out or correcting, feedback at every step—a kind of financial aid 101.
Johnson says TSU will also bolster sturdy programs such as business and health sciences, while beefing up its science, technology, engineering and mathematics departments (or STEM). That's partly at the urging of the Pappas report, which suggested TSU find six strong academic programs and market them as the school's signature majors.
As for issues with enrollment and graduation rates, Johnson intends to aggressively recruit adult students and other minority groups, such as Hispanics. That leaves the budget as their biggest obstacle.
"What keeps college presidents up at night is security issues and finance," he says. "And the finance issue is one where we really have to dig deep to control costs and increase our enrollment. We can manage our way out of this."
Is TSU being singled out unfairly for its recent problems, as defenders claim? Johnson says he wouldn't play the race card, but he does wonder why coverage of TSU's troubles has been so harsh. English professor Elaine Philips agrees.
"I think it has to do with the fact that this is a public black university," Philips says. "I think it gets singled out because it confirms people's worst fears and worst hopes about a university with a black administration. I think that's what hurts TSU faculty and students the most."
But the race card plays both ways. The victims of TSU's institutional dysfunction are not black administrators maligned by bigoted media. The victims are black students—and students of every other race and background—who have been treated like second-class citizens by the school's bureaucracy. If the same students were getting this snub from MTSU or UT Knoxville, there would rightly be an outcry if the media didn't report it.
"It makes me feel bad when I see students that can attend the university and don't have the financial help," Johnson says. "Come on, community. If you really have the heart, let's talk about generating the resources so we can have one heck of a community."
But in the meantime, students like Emily Ghearing are just putting their heads down and focusing on getting out.
"I feel like it's such a gyp for some of these kids," Ghearing says. "I knew what I was getting into. It's close to my work and my house. I knew it wasn't a super great school. But that was OK. I only had 30 hours of coursework left to graduate. I just want to get the diploma and get out."
As for whether student-service problems at a state university are any big deal, consider this: What if the teenage Oprah Winfrey had been a student whose calls were hung up or not returned, whose days were wasted in drag-ass waits, and whose education was ultimately sidetracked because her school dragged its feet on the aid it promised? For all TSU knows, the next Oprah is sitting there now—staring at a windowless wall, checking the time every few minutes on her cell phone, and thinking MTSU looks pretty good.
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