Archive for September, 2009

The Door Into a UC Gets Narrower

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

I happened upon some information last week that confirmed what we have found to be the case with our kids and college: it’s harder to get in, and assuming they do get accepted, they are borrowing more to pay for it.

Let me share with you what put this in black and white for me.

Our daughter, Valerie, who is a high school senior, got a brochure in the mail titled “Introducing the University” from the University of California system. Of course, it was filled with photos of good-looking, ethnically-diverse students participating in all sorts of intriguing activities that represent the college experience at a particular UC campus. It was obvious from the happy expressions on their faces that none of them were thinking about their student loans.

The brochure also had a single page for each UC school that gave the 2009 admission profile for freshmen. There was a little pie chart showing the percentage that were accepted and their average high school GPA and SAT scores. This profile page looked familiar so I flipped through my file labeled “General College Info” and there I found the same information except it was for 2003. These pages had been photocopied and handed out at a college information night I attended for our son six years ago.

Now I could compare apples to apples and see if it really was harder to get into a UC in 2009 than it was in 2003. Looking at UC Davis: in 2003 they admitted 56.8% of applicants and the average high school GPA was 3.86. In 2009, the admission percentage was 46.2% and the GPA was 4.0. Next page; UC Irvine. They admitted 53.8% with a 3.89 GPA in 2003, and in 2009, they admitted 42.3% and the average GPA had gone up to 4.01. Wow, they are admitting about 10% fewer applicants. It seems as if only students loading up on AP classes so they can super-size their GPAs should even bother to apply.

In my small statistical comparison, the only UC school which increased its admission percentage was UC Berkeley. They admitted 23.9% of applicants in 2003, and in 2009, they admitted slightly more, 26.6% which is still basically one out of every four applicants. The gates into UC Berkeley have not been flung open; the statistics show that now they are letting in a couple of salutatorians in addition to the masses of valedictorians.

The piece of information that really amazed me about Berkeley and the other big UC schools was the huge numbers of applications that they receive. More than 55,000 students applied to UCLA and almost 50,000 applied to Berkeley.

So that means that these schools are receiving 50,000 or more essays that are supposed to be read and evaluated as part of the selection process. The thought of reading 5,000 or 10,000 essays boggles the mind, but 50,000? And I have to wonder; does the essay that an over-achieving high school student spent hours crafting get the same consideration whether it’s essay number 49,899 or essay number 130?

That leaves me with one piece of advice for my daughter about the process, “Valerie, get your application in early.”

Next week: paying for college.

Unrewarding Customer Rewards

Monday, September 21st, 2009

A few months ago, it seemed like every third phone call that we got on our business line was someone from AT&T asking to speak to the person who handled our phone service. So when they called one day and the alternative to talking to them was paying bills ““ a task I’ll happily procrastinate doing ““ I stayed on the phone and agreed to let them review our phone service.

The rep told me that we could get a better deal on our package of phone services if we signed up for AT&T Universal Messaging. And as a thank you, they would send us a $25 Visa gift card. OK, fine. Sign me up.

I hung up and forgot about the entire phone call until a letter from AT&T arrived in the mail a couple of months later. Instead of the usual “your contract is about to expire and your rates could go up” message, enclosed was the promised gift card.

While an unexpected $25 isn’t exactly winning the lottery, I was happy to take the money and run an errand to Target. All the items that I buy there that get entered in the “Household” category in QuickBooks can really add up, so this was the perfect time to use the gift card to shave a little off the total.

At the checkout stand, I handed the AT&T gift card to the cashier and watched the screen so I could feel the victory of saving some money. She swiped it once, and nothing happened. And then again without so much as a penny coming off the $95.36 that I had spent.

Neither the cashier nor her supervisor had an explanation as to why the card wouldn’t go through; I had definitely activated it. Now I felt like $25 had been taken away from me, so I was determined to find out why the card didn’t work.

At home, I retrieved the letter that accompanied the gift card from the trash and called the number for “Card activity.” After I made my way through the phone tree, all I was able to get was an automated voice telling me that I had a negative $15.62 balance. Wait, they’re giving me $25, how did I end up owning them money on a prepaid gift card?

I tried the number for customer service on the letter. After making my way through the phone tree and techno-pop hold music, I was connected with a sweet girl who confirmed, that yes, I had a negative balance. I explained that I had tried to use the card at Target but that it wouldn’t go through. She conferred with her supervisor and said to give it a few days for the transactions to clear and then the card would show the correct balance.

Two weeks later, nothing had changed when I checked the balance online at . I called again. I was put on hold again then given a different number to call. I spoke with David (although I’m sure his name was Rajnesh) and he referred me back to the original number. I called again and got the same story.

At this point you may be thinking, why am I pursuing this with such vengeance? It’s not like I’m really out $25; it was money that was never mine in the first place. Two reasons: I’m cheap and I want my $25 and second, I love a challenge. So if it’s me versus AT&T, I’m up for it.

I spoke with four different reps and three different supervisors, until I got one that said that AT&T had sent out a batch of “hot” cards, meaning they actually didn’t have any funds on them. They apologized for the inconvenience and said I could expect to receive a new gift card in about six to eight weeks.

Last week, I got my new card. And when I tried to activate it, I got a recording telling me the status prevents them from activating it and to call the AT&T Customer Care Center.

Yes, I’m conceding defeat. An hour of phone-tree hell made sense if I was at least going to get $25 for my effort. Three hours”¦not so much. As Cesar Millan says to a bulldog and Steve sometimes has to say to me, “Drop it.”

So how does this experience affect my opinion of AT&T? Did I think more positively about the company before the gift card fiasco? If their goal was to create customer loyalty and generate warm and fuzzy feelings, it had the opposite effect. And these days, companies need all the goodwill they can get.

Our Loveseat is Swept Away

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

I naively thought that putting “free” in the Craig’s List posting for our old loveseat would generate some inquiries. When that didn’t happen, I thought writing a blog about our difficulty in getting rid of it might reach a different audience and turn up someone who was in the market for a pre-owned, pre-snagged loveseat.

There are, after all, advantages to acquiring a piece of furniture that has already been broken in by kids and pets; anything that could happen to a sofa already has happened, so everybody can just have a seat and relax. Feet on the couch, who cares!

But alas, no takers.  In the meantime, our loveseat sat warm and cozy in the garage while our daughter’s car shivered in the driveway.

The only option left was to call up a local charity and schedule a pick-up. I had been resisting doing this for fear of rejection; whether or not they will take an item is at the driver’s discretion and a few years ago we had a close call when the Salvation Army almost refused to haul away a sofa that I considered to be in pretty good condition. I was a little shaken to find out that the Salvation Army has higher standards in home décor than I do.

So rather than risk having the same picky driver inspect our loveseat, I instead called the local Catholic charity to schedule a pick up ““ at least that’s what I hoped it would be. While I was on the phone giving our contact info to a very nice gal, I tried to get a sense of how particular they are about the condition of items they will accept.

“So if you can see the pattern of the fabric through the cat hair, that’s ok, right? Steve was across the desk gesturing wildly at me, certain that the mere mention of cats would be enough to doom any possibility of them taking it.

Steve was the one who was going to be home on the day they were scheduled to come. Throughout the day I kept checking in with him. “Have they come, did they take it?”

When I pulled into the driveway late that afternoon, the garage door was open and”¦yippee!…where the loveseat had been was now empty space waiting for my daughter to pull her car in.

Of course, I wanted to know right away from Steve how the transaction had gone. Did he have to bribe them to take it? No, a payoff wasn’t involved but it was Steve’s quick thinking that saved us from having to chop up the loveseat for firewood.

Steve said the driver gave it a thorough once over and said with a half-smile, “The problem is it has a lot of dog hair.” Even though I had used the “Warning: Sucks up small children and animals” pet hair attachment on my new vacuum.

“Wait a minute,” said Steve and he shot upstairs to retrieve the Pledge Fabric Sweeper I had bought at Target a few days earlier. The driver immediately recognized it as the product he had seen TV ads for. In a few strokes, Steve had swept off about a pound of assorted pet hair. “Wow, does it work on cat fur, too?” Which of course Steve’s demonstration showed that it does. “I gotta get one of those.”

So everyone was happy. With the loveseat thoroughly de-thatched, the charity was willing to take it, we had our garage space back, and Pledge has sold another sweeper.

Bringing College into Focus

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Our son, Ethan, just started his first semester at San Francisco State. He transferred there as a junior after attending Santa Rosa Junior College for three years. I am celebrating that he is on his way to a degree. And he is absolutely bubbling with enthusiasm over starting this new phase of his life.

But about two years ago, I doubted that Ethan was going to get from the junior college to a four-year college. Attending the JC is a wonderful option, but for certain types of students, there can be a downside.

If your child is the kind of student who camps out by their counselor’s office so he or she can check in regularly to be sure they are doing everything they need to do so they can transfer to UCLA or some other school, then you don’t need to be concerned.

However, if they are more like Ethan who didn’t start the JC with a strong focus about where he eventually wanted to end up, I think it’s easy for the student to lose the thread of how to get to a four-year college.

So I’m sharing a little of our story in the hope that it gives some encouragement to a parent who finds themselves in the same situation that we were.

Ethan was into his second year at the JC, happily building a long transcript but with no clue what he was going to do with it once he had checked off all the transfer requirements.

He was also working almost full-time while going to the JC. He liked getting a paycheck and that was a much more immediate reward than a diploma. He knew the value of work but the value of more schooling seemed questionable to him. I would regularly confess to Steve that my biggest fear was that Ethan would be made manager at the Blockbuster where he worked; I thought that would certainly put an end to any intention he had of getting a college degree.

Yet Steve and I felt strongly that a college degree would be important in the long term for the type of career path that Ethan might take. We just couldn’t sit back and let him drift along. A brain like his is a terrible thing to waste.

So we got proactive and got help in the form of a college planner. This jumpstarted the process and relieved us of the burden of having to figure out the college selection and financing process ourselves.

From Ethan’s perspective, our college planner wasn’t just his parents yakking at him, but someone who actually knew something about college, so he started to get energized about the possibilities that were open to him. He and Steve took a couple of overnight trips to So Cal to look at schools. He started to catch a vision of himself attending one of these colleges.

Ethan applied to several schools and in the end, got accepted at ones that would have meant taking out student loans the size of a jumbo mortgage. He happily decided to attend a state school ““ at least there his loan would only be the size of a mid-sized SUV ““ but he was very proud to have options.

So if you see your JC student motoring along without a destination, my advice would be to get help. It’s too important to their future.

Ethan is ecstatic and we are relieved.