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April 27, 2006

Making Pitt work: Student Records staff process graduation apps

Pitt’s senior administration grabs most of the headlines. The faculty get noticed when they bring in research dollars, win teaching awards or publish in their fields. But behind the scenes, University staff, some 6,500 strong across five campuses, often toil in jobs ranging from the mundane to the esoteric.

This is one in an occasional series profiling University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the less recognized employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.

Everyone who’s ever graduated likely has felt the tug of senioritis, when dreams turn toward reaching out and taking hold of a hard-earned diploma and moving on.

Pitt seniors get an initial taste of how close graduation is when they apply for a diploma — a task that must be done one semester prior to their anticipated graduation.

For students, filling in that application is a one-time milestone. But for the staffers behind the scenes who process them, the path to commencement day is more like a recurring scene from the movie “Groundhog Day.”

About 1,600 times for the spring semester and 500 times each for the fall and summer terms, Sue Crain, director of the Arts and Sciences (A&S) Office of Student Records, and her eight-member staff painstakingly review the records of each graduating A&S senior to spot potential academic deficiencies that could keep a student from receiving a diploma. It’s their job to review each student’s academic record to ensure the required courses have been taken and the requisite grades attained. They also have the happy task of calculating who qualifies for departmental honors or the University distinctions of cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude.

When Crain started at Pitt 25 years ago, about 800 students applied to graduate in a typical term, she estimated. Now, with larger classes and a higher caliber of student arriving — more of whom complete their studies and graduate — the workload has increased, Crain said.

In addition, many of today’s students are doing more: declaring multiple majors, minors or certificates. This year, 1,582 A&S students applied for April graduation. Of those, 531 of them also applied for an official minor. And 216 students applied for an A&S certificate. In addition, 113 non-A&S students got minors in an A&S discipline.

Crain and her staff constantly check and re-check A&S students’ graduation applications to ensure that only those who have met all the requirements receive a diploma. “Graduation goes on year round, so it’s never slow,” Crain said.

In spite of the never-ending stream of applications, Crain considers the process an especially enjoyable part of the records office duties “because the kids come in and apply for graduation and are so happy,” she said.

While the records staff is wrapping up one semester’s graduation-related work, the next already has begun to trickle in.

“We’re always working on two graduations at the same time,” Crain said. “From November to May, it’s constant paperwork.” And, for a brief time each April, the staff is juggling graduation paperwork for all three terms at once. “It’s a constant review,” Crain said.

The process begins when a student applies for graduation the semester before he or she intends to graduate. Applications go to the records office in Thackeray Hall, where Lisa Machi alphabetizes them and enters each prospective graduate’s name, identification number, major and degree sought into the graduation database. She then checks the application against the student’s academic plan record as it appears on the PeopleSoft system to ensure that the two match.

Despite the University’s move toward paperless recordkeeping, these are cases in which it’s useful to have a copy of the student’s record in hand. The hard copy, which can be eight pages or more, is easier to work with than trying to cross-check requirements by scrolling on a computer screen, staffers said. So, each student’s transcript is printed, attached to the application and placed in the student’s individual folder to be checked by hand to ensure each student qualifies for graduation.

For spring term graduates — the academic year’s largest class — the preliminary work Machi performs takes a week or two. Then, after the folders are prepared, the detailed checking begins. Any deficiencies are color-coded: red ink for certificate requirements remaining, blue for major requirements left undone and green for minor requirements that remain unfulfilled.

If the student’s record is simple — with no re-taken classes, only one declared major and one minor — the process may take 10 or 15 minutes, staffers say.

Several employees have worked in the records office for more than two decades; others are Pitt graduates who are studying for their master’s degrees. Experience has developed their familiarity with graduation requirements, so the work can be done more quickly than might be possible for a newcomer to the job.

Figuring the more complex records can take longer, especially if a student must be contacted and alerted to a deficiency that could derail his or her graduation plans.

First, staffers check each file against University and departmental policies to ensure students have sufficient credits to meet graduation requirements, including general education requirements and the needed grade point averages. Then they ensure that students have fulfilled all requirements for their intended majors, minors and certificate programs.

“You have to check all the credits by hand to see if everything taken counts toward their degree,” Crain said.

Then, they add in the classes the student plans to take in his or her final semester, penciling in what they’re taking to fill any deficiencies.

If a deficiency is discovered, students receive an e-mail and a follow-up letter to alert them to the fact while time remains to take action to correct it. Departmental requirements are double checked by an adviser from each department who is responsible for confirming that each student has fulfilled what’s required. They sign off to attest that the requirements have been met.

Although students are responsible for meeting with their departmental adviser each semester, sometimes that doesn’t happen, especially when students are busy with multiple majors and may not find time to meet with each of their advisers. That lapse can cause problems, which Crain said may be averted when PeopleSoft’s self-advisement module becomes fully active. Students will be able to view their academic progress for themselves anytime, perhaps warding off deficiencies earlier in the process, she said. “They can be more proactive,” Crain said.

Currently, about 20 percent of students go into their final semester at the University needing to complete some requirement, Crain estimated.

Of them, between 10 and 15 percent will have some sort of final-semester problem that could impact their ability to graduate: Perhaps they received an incomplete grade, or didn’t earn a grade high enough to count toward a particular program, for example.

Even then, there’s a brief period of about 10 days following the posting of grades in which some of those issues can be rectified before the diploma roster is finalized, she said.

Because commencement ceremonies already have come and gone before final grades are due, some who participate in commencement don’t actually earn a bona fide diploma. But students who don’t graduate usually are aware there’s a problem, Crain said, so typically such news doesn’t come as a surprise.

For those who have deficiencies remaining, not graduating may be a disappointment, but “it’s not the end of the world,” said Crain. “It’s not that they don’t graduate, they just need to re-apply [for graduation the following semester,]” she said.

The work in Student Records is not all paper shuffling. Staffers get to know the A&S students whose records they process. Customer service comes into play when they need to say no to a student’s request, be it graduation-related or associated with other academic issues such as transferring credits or study-abroad questions.

“We try to find [students] an alternative if we have to tell them no,” Crain said.

“Ninety-nine percent are friendly even if you have to tell them no, as long as you tell them in a nice way.”

Among the calls they field when there’s a problem are the unavoidable post-commencement ones that come from confused parents who don’t understand that attending the graduation ceremony doesn’t mean their son or daughter actually graduated.

The time spent dealing with the students over the years of their academic careers builds a sense of benevolent warmth toward them, so while there’s always another graduating class in the pipeline, the Student Records staff all take time to assist at commencement.

They’re among the volunteers who take pride in ensuring students are lined up correctly and caps and gowns properly adjusted. “It’s like they’re all our children for that day,” Crain said.

Andrea Fitzgerald, who’s worked in the department for 30 years and now is seeing the children of former A&S graduates coming through the school, noted, “Everybody’s happy. You have no complaints on that day.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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