Thursday, April 02, 2009

An open letter to the University of Alberta

Good morning everyone. I've got a bit of an odd situation, so let me start off with some background info.

I'm an international grad student enrolled in the MACT program. Since that program is offered primarily online, I'm still living at "home" in Gallatin Tennessee. I picked this program because it seemed more reputable than competing programs I found in the US, both those available within commuting distance and those offered online. The online nature of the program seemed to soften most of the hurdles traditionally associated with seeking a degree across international borders.

For the first year of the program, all those assumptions proved true and I was very happy with my overall experience with both the MACT program and the University of Alberta as a whole.

Then you stopped accepting credit cards.

Now the entire landscape has changed. Had my first few semesters gone like this, I would not have stuck with the program. By the time things took a turn for the worse, I was heavily invested in the program and hated to turn back. I can't say for certain that this move is costing you business, but I can state with authority that it has greatly tarnished my personal experience with and perception of the U of A brand.

As of right now, I still have a balance of $20.66 CAD. But on the day I made my international wire transfer payment, I printed the exchange rates published on the U of A website along with the info sheet for international wire transfers. I took this to my bank and paid a $45 USD fee for the wire transfer. Apparently in the 4 days or so it took the transfer to clear, the exchange rate was not kind to me, so my payment fell short by about 2.8%.

But how am I supposed to deal with this? I took the most up to date info available to me at the time, provided by you. I have no more control over the markets than you do. Last semester, the same thing happened, only I ended up over paying by about $25 CAD. That semester, I sent money orders via international post. That cost about $18 USD, required me to fill out customs forms, would not allow me to get any sort of delivery confirmation, and took several weeks for delivery. I had assumed it was the length of time that resulted in the imbalance, so this term I tried the faster yet more expensive method of international wire transfer. Although I must admit the relative speed is also much easier on my mind. Having no way to track or confirm delivery of something as important as payment for my education provided a very stressful couple of weeks last semester. That stress stems from a process over which you have no control, but the fact of the matter is I experienced that stress as a direct result of a change to your systems. So that experience tarnishes your brand perception anyway. I can avoid that stress in the future by disassociating myself with your brand.

With credit card payments, Visa or Mastercard took care of all the exchange rate madness instantly, so such discrepancies did not happen. Now, international wire transfer is the fastest method available to me, and that takes close to a full business week. It will be virtually impossible for me to make a payment that is correct to the penny. If I'm short, I can either spend $18 (USD) to send you $20 (CAD), and wait for several weeks. Or I can spend $45 (USD) to send you $20 (CAD) and wait about a week. Either way we can easily end up in a Zeno's Arrow situation where I'm faced with spending $18 or $45 (USD) to send you $0.60 (CAD) a month later. If I'm over, I'm sure your institution is placed in a similar situation. Only I lack the means or authority to state and enforce exchange rates past the initial transaction. And to tell the truth, I probably wouldn't worry about it even if I could. How much hassle justifies that last 3% lost to the market?

So to avoid all this, I've asked a classmate, an Edmonton native, to settle up my account as a personal favor to me. Given my options, being indebted to a classmate is the least ugly and gets around the volatility of the market.

Chances are, I'm an edge case. I doubt you have many, if any, other international students who are not actually living in Canada. Such students would have access to Canadian bank accounts and thus would be able to pay with "electronic checks" using native Canadian currency. But I would not be surprised to learn that the parents of international students have found themselves in situations similar to my own. If you've noticed a dip in the recruitment or retention rate of international students, the added red tape introduced by removing the option to pay with a credit card would be the first place to look.

This process costs me about an extra 3% per semester anyway. There's no quantitative measure for the added stress, and I have no means to track the time lost compared to the simplicity of the "old" credit card based payment system. If your institution offered an option to pay with a credit card given a ~3% markup to cover the added costs to you, I'd accept that offer in a heartbeat. And your brand perception could shrug off the layers of stress and aggravation I've come to associate with it over the past year.

Thank you for your time.
Derek Pennycuff

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