Community Colleges Feel Sting from Nonpayment; Debt Collectors Are Hot on the Trail of Some Community College Students. [Derived Headline]

By Erdley, Debra | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 27, 2016 | Go to article overview

Community Colleges Feel Sting from Nonpayment; Debt Collectors Are Hot on the Trail of Some Community College Students. [Derived Headline]


Erdley, Debra, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Debt collectors are hot on the trail of some community college students.

But they're not looking for students who have reneged on their promise to repay student loans.

They're seeking students who failed to pay tuition and fees, withdrew from classes before the end of a term or failed to show up at all after registering for classes.

Although the amount is small compared to the $1.1 trillion American students owe in student loans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank, it can make a difference in the bottom line at community colleges facing declining enrollments and budget shortfalls.

Students at community colleges in Allegheny, Butler and Westmoreland counties owed more than $2.7 million in unpaid tuition and fees for the 2014-15 school year, school officials said.

It's a problem that's especially bad at community colleges versus traditional four-year schools because two-year colleges tend to enroll students from homes with lower incomes, experts said.

Because community college tuitions also are relatively low, the amounts owed are generally small in terms of the overall budget. But officials say every dollar counts when the time comes to cut services or pare academic programs.

"Anecdotally, we've seen some information showing us that smaller amounts can be problematic," said Martha Parham of the American Association of Community Colleges. "They may have a debt of (only) $250, but if you don't have money to pay the rent or feed your kids, that's an issue, and it's a default."

Defaulting on a payment can leave students with bad credit, which can haunt them for years.

For local community college students, it also can lead to phone calls and letters from debt collectors seeking to recoup money for the schools.

Using debt collectors, often employed to recover money owed on everything from credit cards and car loans to mortgages and medical bills, is a relatively new strategy for some community college officials.

Underlying meaning

A high rate of bad debt signals a school might be having a retention problem, according to Bob Shea, senior fellow for finance and campus management with the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

"It's a problem if you don't retain students," Shea said. "It's a cycle colleges need to be very aware of. It's up to the business side and the academic side to come up with a plan to keep students so they will pay."

Part of the problem may stem from attempts to make community colleges more accessible for low-income and nontraditional students.

When Butler County Community College, which previously required students to pay tuition and fees at the start of the semester, moved to give students the option of making three payments a semester, students' bad debt grew from $89,090 in 2013-14 to $152,083 for 2014- 15. …

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