CSULB Seniors Plagued by Delays in 'Grad Checks'

Times Staff Writer

Maris Connelly had her life planned.

After graduating from Cal State Long Beach in December, she would move to Belgium and marry the man she loves.

Instead, she is schlepping to school each week, taking medication for high blood pressure and cursing the system she believes made it all necessary.

"I'm going to hydrogen bomb the college," said Connelly, 24, a speech communications major. "It makes you so neurotic you feel like a prisoner."

Sheryl Edelstein, 21, had planned a European summer after graduation in May, followed by full-time employment at the Hollywood public relations firm where she interned as a student. Now the trip is in jeopardy and Edelstein may have to postpone taking her first job.

"It's really frustrating," she said. "Everything is up in the air."

Both are victims of a bureaucratic bottleneck that by one estimate may be affecting hundreds of CSULB seniors each semester. The problem: long delays in the processing of something called a grad check.

Verification of Credits

Virtually all universities have a system of verifying that a student has the credits to graduate. At CSULB it's the grad check, the required administrative audit of a student's credits requested early in the senior year and theoretically completed well before the beginning of the final semester.

Traditionally grad checks take about three months to complete. For at least the past year, however, they have been taking 9 to 12 months, with the result that some students are not receiving the results until it is too late to switch to courses needed to graduate.

Though some of the blame should be borne by students who don't keep up with changes in the requirements of their departments, the situation is made more difficult by a college catalogue revised too infrequently to reflect all of those changes.

College administrators acknowledge the problem. In interviews this month, they said the school is taking steps to correct the situation and that it will improve by fall, but that significant improvement would take much longer.

According to Sabrina Steele, a journalism major who conducted a survey on the issue, about 25% of the 5,000 graduating seniors each term--or about 1,250 students--enter their final semesters without having a completed grad check verifying that they can graduate. As a result, she says, some 5%--or about 250--end up having to actually extend their college stays in order to correct academic deficiencies of which they were previously unaware.

Moment of Truth

For Connelly, the moment of truth came in December, the month she thought she would graduate and two months before she was to move to Belgium and marry a man she had met while traveling in Europe. Having never received the grad check that she had requested in February, 1984, she went to the Administration Building in December and was told that she was several courses short of graduation, she said.

The deadline for altering schedules had long since passed. So instead of moving to Europe, Connelly stayed to complete college.

"I think I've aged 10 years because of this," she says, adding that she holds the college at least partially responsible for the high blood pressure she developed following the ordeal.

Douglas Sutherland, associate director of the admissions and records office, which handles grad checks, confirms that as many as 1,250 students may be entering their final semesters without completed grad checks. Regarding Steele's estimate that about 250 of them may be extending their college stays as a result, he says he has no way of knowing.

"I don't know if it's exaggerated," he says, "or if you're just hearing from people that we never hear from."

Whatever the case, campus administrators blame the situation on a variety of factors, ranging from an overextended staff to poor communication between the administration and academic departments that change their major requirements at their own discretion.

Statewide Changes

The problem has its roots, says Richard Timboe, acting director of admissions and records, in changes instituted statewide in 1981 that created greater diversity in the way students could fulfill basic requirements.

While a single grad check took a staffer about 30 minutes to complete under the old rules, he said, it now can take four times that long.

"They gave us more to do without giving us the resources to do it," says Timboe, who oversees a permanent staff of eight, which is responsible for a variety of tasks besides the individualized hand preparation of each grad check.

Confounding the problem are those students, fearful of long delays, who have begun requesting their grad checks early, thus clogging the system even further, he said. Of the approximately 9,000 grad checks completed annually, less than 5,000 are from students actually in their senior year. And the only way to discover the imposters is to complete their grad checks, he said.

In interviews this month, administrators said some improvement would come by fall. The records department has added two new trainee positions to its staff and is implementing an efficiency study.

However, Ronald Lee, associate vice president for information management and analysis, said the long-term solution may come if the California State University system buys a computer that does nothing but administrative chores, such as the grad checks, that are now done by hand.

"We're using the same system we used 5 or 10 years ago," said Lee, adding that the single computer solution is being studied by the chancellor's office. Procurement of a new computer system, if it happens at all, is at least eight to nine months away, he said.

System Circumvented

In the meantime, some students say they are finding ways to circumvent the existing system. Christine Kelly said she and four of her friends, all seniors and elected members of the student senate, simply made a direct appeal late last year to university President Stephen Horn when they became worried that their completed grad checks might not arrive before registration for their final semester in January.

"It pays to have connections," says Kelly, 22. Two weeks later all the grad checks were in the mail.

A spokesman for Horn--Gene Asher, executive assistant to the president and director of university relations--said it is not unlikely that the president personally intervened in the cases but that he would do the same for anyone.

"The president's feelings on this," said Asher, "have been that if students comply with the regulations, they should have their grad checks back in time to make course adjustments to graduate. The president is growing very impatient with this whole procedure. We are very unhappy with it."

Even more unhappy are those who don't know the president or didn't have the foresight to personally seek his aid.

18 Units Short

Gail Sullivan, 23, a health science major who received her completed grad check earlier this month--six months after requesting it--and discovered she needed 18 units (about five or six courses) to graduate in May.

It was two months before graduation and long past the deadline for adding classes. She went in frustration to the grad check information window.

There, students like Sullivan and Sheryl Edelstein, who is ready to go to work for a Hollywood public relations firm, first verify that the grad check is correct and then try to find out where to go to winnow down the requirements.

"I'm moving to San Diego on June 1st," Sullivan sighed earlier this month while standing in line. "Now I might have to go to summer school."

Right behind her was Melanie Kamae, a senior physical education major who, six months after requesting a grad check, had still not received one.

"They keep telling me to come back next week," she said. "It's just making me wonder--am I going to graduate on time?"

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