Wednesday, February 1, 2017

We Are All Bricks in the Wall Now

I just got off the phone with the registrar's office at my law school, and the assistant told me I had a 5% chance of adding one line to a verification letter about what should be an undisputed fact.  It has taken 14 emails and a phone call to get to this point.  

Let me start at the beginning.  I'm applying for a graduate law program overseas.  Foreign institutions are enamored with the word, "apostille," which is basically a notarized verification, but potentially more complicated because a government agency may need to verify the notarized copy of an issued document.  Luckily, the European law school realized the U.S. doesn't really do apostilles and told me I could use a notarized copy of my diploma with the application.  So far, so good, right? 

I head out and make two color copies of my undergrad and law school diplomas--about 8 USD to get usable copies with the right copy size--and write my American law school, asking them to notarize my diplomas. I find out they can only notarize my law school diploma, and I'm fine with that, but I want to get a letter on university letterhead verifying I graduated in 2002 and the process of graduating from my law school required, at some point, a check with my undergrad institution to verify graduation there.  With both a notarized copy of my law school diploma and this letter, I'll be covered both ways.  The cost of the notary is 35 USD, plus 10 USD for each notary stamp, which comes to be 55 USD (one stamp on the verification letter and one for the law school diploma).  

I asked to include a statement on official letterhead as follows: 

"I am a notary authorized by AGENCY NAME and employed by UNIVERSITY's Registrar's Office.  I have checked the databases available to me and confirmed that STUDENT NAME graduated LAW SCHOOL in 2002. As part of attending LAW SCHOOL, STUDENT NAME was required to receive an undergraduate diploma, which he received from University of California at Davis.  I have reviewed both diplomas and have confirmed STUDENT NAME's identity and his possession of UC Davis and LAW SCHOOL diplomas."  

After being told the registrar wouldn't have anything to do with the undergrad diploma and that receiving an official letter was a separate process costing another 10 USD, I asked if its databases link or linked with my undergraduate institution to verify my undergraduate graduation. (I would hope so, because otherwise, any competent forger could apply to any grad school nationwide with the aid of free software and a printer.)  I didn't get a direct response to my question, and if there really was no communication between my law school and undergrad institution, then all this is moot, but it makes sense that at some point in the application process, my law school confirmed I graduated from UC Davis.  So I said, "All right, I'll pay for the additional letter, but let's modify it and just add the following to the existing template: 

"I am a notary authorized by the California Secretary of State and employed by LAW SCHOOL's Registrar's Office.  I have checked the databases available to me and confirmed that STUDENT NAME attended from DATE TO DATE and graduated LAW SCHOOL in 2002 with a GPA of X. As part of our process, LAW SCHOOL verified at some point that STUDENT NAME was listed as a graduate of UC Davis."  [An alternate version could say, "I saw STUDENT'S UC Davis diploma, checked the information on it, and am verifying the person bringing it to me is in fact STUDENT," but that idea was shot down.]  

Only the last line above is in dispute, and apparently I have a 5% chance of having it added to my letter.  If I don't get the additional sentence, I'll have a potentially harder time convincing other institutions to accept my applications without driving over to UC Davis and going through the same process again, which will cost me more money.  Mind you, I paid my law school about 100,000 USD.  The only reason I--and other graduates--and in this situation is because American colleges, despite increasing tuition far higher than inflation every single year, have yet to create databases where graduates and students can consent to having their attendance dates and graduation statuses publicized online. Because of this inaction, we live in a country where an entire industry of notaries is partially supported by inefficiency.  

This is the modern American economy--it is driven by inaction and failure to use technology in consumer-facing ways, necessitating administrative jobs that consume time and energy and pit common sense against established procedures. It's not technology that is ruining our lives--it's decisions made by people in agencies and governments that fail to utilize technology properly and instead support existing professions, regardless of actual utility. Sure, it would cost some money to set up a database and get consent to publicize student graduation and attendance data, but once completed, the consent process would be included along with the regular graduation form.  Thereafter, no reasonable person would need a notarized diploma, and each individual applicant would save about 50 USD forevermore. (By the way, California's State Bar website lists both undergrad and law school institutions for lawyers, indicating such a database wouldn't be that complex.) Yet, taking this common sense approach is problematic not because of the money--colleges have plenty of it via government-guaranteed loans--but because any legislator that tries to insert efficiency and common sense antagonizes an established body of notaries who have paid hundreds in fees themselves to get a special stamp and notebook, and of course organized into their own interest groups.  

The services-based economy in America is creating social rebellion as more people become fed up with inefficiency for inefficiency's sake, even when jobs wouldn't necessarily be lost with greater efficiency.  If the database I've proposed goes down, someone still needs to maintain it--a process that wouldn't need a technical degree with today's available templates and hosting services from Amazon or Intuit.  An IT department might even need to hire more people to increase security against hacking, though such services would presumably already be part of its bailiwick.  

Someone still needs to take calls if a student's or graduate's information isn't listed correctly.  Someone still needs to take the initiative and make sure the list of graduates every year is submitted in a format compatible with the database and easily uploadable.  Yet, in a world where jobs are given to people not based on character and ability to learn on the job, but by a piece of paper that seems to confirm nothing other than obedience, here we are.  Let's see if I can convince the university tomorrow to add the one line to a letter costing me 10 USD. If I can't, why shouldn't machines take over American jobs when American employees in universities that cost 47,000 USD in tuition each year can't think independently or provide decent customer service?

Bonus: my friend tells me, "The notary is likely someone who works in an adjacent office and not the registrar herself. She literally cannot sign as you've written it--California law prohibits it. The registrar is the document custodian, and all the notary does is certify that the document custodian is who he/she says they are.  A notarization is solely a confirmation of identity (in this case the registrar's)."

Bonus: "All progress depends on the unreasonable person."

Update: I received a notarized copy of my diploma.  Basically, it's a copy of your diploma with a piece of paper attached to it signed by the registrar indicating as follows: "I am the University Registrar at UNIVERSITY NAME.  I hereby verify that the attached diploma is a copy of the original." A notary reviews the diploma copy to make sure it's an accurate copy of the original.  The registrar recites a short statement and the notary stamps a piece of paper and makes a notation in her book.  That's it.

The registrar--a delightful, smart woman--said she had nothing to do with the law school application process, so she wouldn't certify or write anything other than what her databases showed.  She referred me to the law school's assistant dean of student services for the letter I requested.  Luckily, I knew the assistant dean from my time at the law school, and she is an amazing person.  I got the letter.

The registrar told me national databases do in fact exist that collect student data.  See HERE (NSLDS) and HERE (National Student Loan Clearinghouse).  However, from my research, such databases are not publicly accessible like the State Bar's website, leading to this ridiculous business of notarizing diplomas and transcripts, which transfers money and time from regular people to institutions and their employees.

Why my law school diploma had to be verified by the undergraduate registrar rather than the graduate institution itself, I don't know.  For a smaller private school, I suppose it saves overhead to consolidate graduate program information into a single central database that includes undergraduates.  I lament once again the American predilection not to be consumer-facing in terms of saving time from the perspective of the consumer, but to organize affairs in order to save costs from the perspective of the entity.

A final note: apparently, some law schools, during their application processes, don't actually check any database to see if an applicant graduated from the listed undergraduate institution.  They just request a verified official transcript. 

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