Pay Up or Get Out

Colleges need to get paid but students face many barriers in affording higher education. Where is the middle ground between forcing out students who are behind in tuition payments and collecting money owed?

October 17, 2019
 
Istockphoto.com/Tero Vesalainen

Students at Thomas Jefferson University were surprised to receive stern notices about unpaid bills in early September.

The emailed notices said students had to arrange to pay outstanding tuition bills in the next six days or they would be dropped from fall classes, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The college, which merged with the largely undergraduate Philadelphia University two years ago, had sent out similar warnings before to its graduate student population. However, undergraduate students told the Inquirer that the notices were the harshest warning about unpaid bills that they’d received thus far.

Students held a sit-in to push back on the email, and the university withdrew its threat to de-enroll students with unpaid bills.

According to a statement from the university, the email was a result of integrating information systems after the merger that led to "the distribution of a standard communication" that admittedly "caused distress."

“We appreciate the efforts our students and our Student Government Association (SGA) made to make us aware of how this communication was received,” Angela Showell, a spokeswoman for the university, said in a statement. “We have taken steps to ensure clearer communications in the future and to help students resolve outstanding issues around tuition statements. Additionally, we have assured students that we will continue to work with them as the integration progresses. We have met with students and have received good feedback on the steps we have taken to date.”

The widely publicized incident led to discussions in higher ed circles about how far colleges should go in trying to get students to pay up. There is a wide spectrum of opinions on what strategies colleges should use to ensure tuition and other fees are paid. The National Association of College and University Business Officers focused on this issue in a 2016 article published in its magazine, Business Officer, that looked at what various institutions do to collect money owed.

Some colleges prevent students with high balances from registering for the next semester, while others offer them interest- and fee-free loans. Some institutions charge late fees but don’t automatically drop students until after the add/drop period is over.

"Colleges and universities take different approaches to helping students understand their financial obligations," Liz Clark, vice president of policy and research at the association of business officers, said in a statement. "NACUBO surveys have found that institutions help their students navigate their tuition and fee responsibilities by offering payment plans, financial literacy, and money management trainings."

She noted, however, that institutions also have an obligation to protect themselves financially and to avoid the risk of default.

“Net tuition revenue affects the financial health of all colleges and declines could limit their ability [to] fulfill their educational and public-service missions. NACUBO surveys have shown that institutions take different approaches to collecting overdue payments that may include withholding transcripts and blocking or canceling future registration,” Clark said.

Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, would not discuss whether Thomas Jefferson University crossed the line with its approach. However, she did say that colleges can take steps to make the payment process easier for students by being flexible.

“The cost to attend college is expensive, but most students understand that their expenses should be paid,” Parnell said.

Institutions can “create comfortable opportunities” for students to talk about their financial challenges, she said. She pointed to the rising trend of colleges offering emergency funding to students to help them stay enrolled when times get tough. Some colleges also are actively paying off students' unpaid balances in an effort to get them to re-enroll.

Timing and communication are also issues.

Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said the organization has heard from students surveyed who said they were down to the wire for bill deadlines but still waited to get their last piece of financial aid before paying up. Colleges could better communicate timelines for financial aid awards and provide flexibility on bill due dates if students are still waiting for some of their packages, she said.

“I think the broad picture is the level of challenges that low-income students in particular are facing when trying to pay for college,” Voight said. “With unpredictability and unaffordability, the consequences are really significant.”

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