by Ben Adlin
New student enrollment and registration software has been causing a range of problems for students, faculty, and staff at Seattle Colleges, and they say school administrators and State officials have been unresponsive to their repeated requests to make fixes.
The transition to the new software platform, ctcLink, has caused headaches for students trying to register, in some cases making it difficult to search for required courses or wrongly telling students they haven’t completed a class’s prerequisites. The platform has also prevented faculty from making quick corrections to course descriptions and meeting times, creating even more confusion for students. There have even been occasions when students were mistakenly dropped from courses for nonpayment, though they had, in fact, paid.
Critics claim the problems have contributed to significant declines in enrollment at Seattle Colleges — which include South Seattle, North Seattle, and Seattle Central colleges — since ctcLink’s launch there in February. They say the lower enrollment has led to course cancellations and has cost faculty members their jobs.
These frustrations come on top of an already chaotic year and a half of pandemic-related changes that have forced students and educators to move virtually all of their work online. Projected budget shortfalls related to the pandemic have also led to staff and faculty layoffs, furloughs, and reduced hours.
The declines in enrollment at Seattle Colleges predate ctcLink as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2016 to 2020, enrollment dropped 29% at South Seattle, 23% at North Seattle, and 21% at Seattle Central, according to a presentation at a September board of trustees meeting.
But over the past two years, enrollment has fallen even faster. Seattle Central College’s 2020–2021 enrollment fell by more than 16% compared with a year earlier, while South Seattle and North Seattle saw declines of about 15% and 6%, respectively. Overall, the state’s community and technical colleges have seen enrollment decline by about 18% over the past five years and 11% between fall 2019 and fall 2020.
These colleges serve a student body that’s more racially and ethnically diverse than Seattle itself. According to data from the fall 2019 quarter, the most recent data published by Seattle Colleges, 43% of students enrolled were People of Color and 32% were white, while information for 25% of students was unknown or unreported.
“Faculty should not be facing potential job losses, and students should not be getting driven away by a Kafkaesque registration experience, due to poor implementation of this new system,” Jean Fallow, an adjunct English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor at Seattle Central College, said at a Sept. 9 board of trustees meeting.
Nearly everyone agrees a new platform is needed to replace the State’s aging administrative system, which had been in place for more than 35 years. But since the beginning of ctcLink’s implementation, bugs have plagued the process.
A 2015 pilot program at three other colleges ran into “numerous system functionality and conversion issues following go live,” the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) website says. By 2016, the program was behind schedule and an estimated $10 million over budget, a cost that’s expected to be passed on to students. A year later, in 2017, the company hired to install the software sued the state over what it claimed was $13 million in unfulfilled payments. SBCTC, meanwhile, said the contractor’s work was substandard or never completed at all. The State eventually settled the lawsuit for $2.6 million.
A month and a half later, faculty say the problems are ongoing. Administrators have acknowledged some of the issues but have been slow to respond with clear action, according to people who’ve helped organize faculty and staff around the issue.
“I think they want to project [that] they’re professionals and all that. You know, ‘We got this, we’re on top of it,’” said Tracy Lai, a history professor at Seattle Central. “And so they don’t want to have a committed group where they’re regularly accountable to … disgruntled faculty who keep finding problems.”
More than 185 faculty have signed a petition calling for a stop to course cancellations until ctcLink’s issues can be addressed. They also want a better system for reporting problems, greater ability to make local changes within the software, and “responsive assistance and system revision” from PeopleSoft, an Oracle subsidiary that developed ctcLink.
All cuts resulting from low enrollment due to ctcLink’s implementation, the petition says, should be borne exclusively by Seattle Colleges’ upper management instead of frontline faculty and staff.
Administrators and State officials, for their part, frame ctcLink’s problems as the kind faced by any sweeping technology change.
“After initial implementation, as issues arose, we sought [solutions] and applied them,” Kurt Buttleman, Seattle Colleges’ vice chancellor for academic and student success, and the acting project director and executive sponsor for ctcLink at the colleges, said in an email last month.
“We communicated these broadly to faculty and staff each week so they knew the status of the items that impacted students directly,” he added. “We continue to be as responsive as we can to all concerns / questions that are brought forward.”
An Oct. 7 presentation from Buttleman to the Seattle Colleges board of trustees provided a status update on the ctcLink rollout, including ongoing technical issues. Among them were errors around course prerequisites that prevent students from enrolling, misleading permissions settings, problems that prevent students from seeing charges to their accounts, difficulties accepting credit card payments, and incorrect tuition and fee charges.
Laura McDowell, communications director for SBCTC said the board does “not believe there are deep issues with the software itself.”
“We are facing issues common with the rollout of any new, complicated software system,” she wrote last month. “We would like [Emerald] readers to know that we hear them and are working to fix technical issues. Starting fall quarter during a pandemic is stressful; starting fall quarter with a new software system is even more stressful. We hope people hang in there and continue to be patient as we work to provide them with powerful and modernized software tools.”
For now, however, the system is driving some families to tears.
Roderick Sauskojus is the father of a high-school junior who, earlier this year, attempted to sign up for Running Start classes at Seattle Central for the fall term. His wife tried to help at first, Sauskojus said, but she soon came to him crying. “She literally broke down and was sobbing because of this process,” he said.
Calls to the school’s technical support staff were generally unhelpful. “They were nice and they helped out as much as they could,” Sauskojus said, “but they’re dealing with a system that’s fundamentally broken.”
As for critics’ claims that ctcLink led to declines in enrollment at the colleges, both Buttleman and McDowell countered that student enrollment has been down nationwide during the pandemic. However, colleges don’t track the reasons would-be students don’t complete enrollment, making it almost impossible to measure the software’s impact.
The launch of ctcLink at Seattle Colleges in February was part of a multiyear statewide rollout across all of Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges, which SBCTC oversees. The estimated $100 million ctcLink program is one of the largest IT projects in the state. The first schools to use it officially launched ctcLink in 2019, and the final ones are scheduled to transition to the new system by mid-2022.
Next up are Bellevue College, Everett Community College, and Grays Harbor College, which are set to go live on Nov. 8.
When ctcLink was first rolled out at the pilot-program schools, some students were unable to register for classes or were removed from classes they’d already enrolled in. Others didn’t receive financial aid payments, and some employees even missed paychecks. The Pacific Northwest Inlander described the situation in a 2017 article: “Washington’s plan for a better community college software system is falling apart; can it be salvaged?”
While the State board temporarily paused the rollout of the pilot program’s expansion following the lawsuit, it has otherwise remained committed to moving the ctcLink transition forward. Its website currently describes ctcLink as “a single, centralized system of online functions to give students, faculty and staff anytime, anywhere access to a modern, efficient way of doing their college business.”
“In the future, ctcLink will feel like second nature to people,” McDowell told the Emerald, “and many of these last technical issues will be ironed out.” Faculty and staff, however, say they’ve received little in the way of concrete fixes to problems.
Sauskojus doesn’t think it’s a matter of merely ironing out technical wrinkles. He thinks the entire ctcLink system needs a thorough review and overhaul.
Besides being a parent, Sauskojus has also spent most of the past 20 years working on user experience (UX) in software. “I specialize in making applications usable, meaning somebody can come into a website and have an experience where they run into as little friction as possible going from A to B,” he said. He described ctcLink as “ultra-opaque” and “super hard to deal with.”
“These students are highly technical. They live and breathe technology,” he said. “If they can’t do this, that’s a massive red flag.”
Buttleman at Seattle Colleges replied that he has been “actively using / viewing / engaging with the system from a student perspective nearly every day in response to questions and concerns brought forward.”
Faculty have also sought to understand ctcLink from a student perspective. In an Oct. 8 email to Buttleman and others, which was shared with the Emerald, Seattle Central College English professor Greg Bachar wrote that “it would be useful if all of us faculty could see what it is like for students to register for classes, to be able to help them.” Bachar asked whether it might be possible to create a dummy account so faculty could review what students see when trying to enroll — a change the colleges have since implemented.
At a board of trustees meeting last month, Bachar said he’d experienced trouble himself trying to communicate course details to students trying to enroll. He pointed to an online class he offered that he called “asynchronous” and that by design had no live meetings. On ctcLink, the meeting time was listed as “still to be determined,” something he was unable to change himself.
“I have had at least two students email me and say, ‘I would like to register for your online class, but I need to know when it meets first,’” Bachar said.
Faculty, staff, and students say they’ve been bringing up these and other issues to administrators for months, but little has changed. In a June article in the student newspaper, The Seattle Collegian, staff writer Lolita Kim wrote that within just a few months of the software’s launch, “there are so many unexpected controversies rising up [as to] whether it is actually effective and helpful for students.”
Among the early problems Kim highlighted were an extra $300 fee the system mistakenly charged a student and obstacles interfacing with health insurance. In a separate article, Kim may have summed up student and faculty frustration with ctcLink by simply describing it as “the worst thing ever!”
Editors’ Note: This article has been updated on 11/09/2021 to clarify changes in features for ctcLink and how faculty have been working to understand the system from a “student perspective.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured Image: Photo by ub-foto/shutterstock.com
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