The email in early September to students at Thomas Jefferson University’s East Falls campus hit hard.
Make satisfactory arrangements to pay outstanding tuition bills within six days or “you will be dropped from all of your Fall semester classes and will not be permitted to remain in class.”
It was the harshest warning students said they had ever received and marked a departure from how the campus, formerly known as Philadelphia University, dealt with unpaid bills.
“My heart just dropped,” said Daniel Ross, a senior business management major from Philadelphia who received the email.
The notices went out Sept. 6 — 16 days after the payment deadline — to 2,228 students across all of Jefferson’s campuses, about one-quarter of the student population. Students were so upset they held a sit-in with support from the Student Government Association.
“A lot of freshmen were crying and calling their parents and saying, ‘I’m going to get kicked out if you don’t pay this charge,’ ” added Ashlee Miller, 19, a biology major from Philadelphia. “Everybody was really scared.”
Jefferson five days later withdrew the threat and assured students they would not be de-enrolled that week.
“We regret the distress that the email … may have caused you,” wrote Dr. Mark L. Tykocinski, the university’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.
The university in a statement said it has “taken steps to ensure clearer communications in the future and to help students resolve outstanding issues around tuition statements.”
But the rub over getting students to pay promises to continue to challenge colleges, as enrollment at some campuses drops and competition increases. For many private schools, tuition is the main driver paying the bills, and missing that revenue can strain operations and lead to budgetary shortfalls.
“I’ve seen more colleges starting to send out these kinds of letters,” said Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on student financial aid and publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com. “It may be a sign that it’s not just the students who are experiencing financial distress. It may also be the colleges.”
It’s likely to get worse, he said, given that more students have financial need. About 58% of students nationally graduate within six years; many who drop out face financial hurdles. No statistics were readily available on how often students are ejected for lack of payment.
It can be a conundrum for colleges trying to retain students while maintaining operations. Many schools offer emergency funds, meal vouchers, and other support to students who can’t pay because their circumstances suddenly change.
Harder to deal with are students who aren’t paying and don’t respond to colleges’ overtures. Many colleges prohibit students from registering for the next semester until they at least commit to a payment plan. They also may withhold transcripts.
La Salle University for the first time this semester hand-delivered sealed notices to the residence halls of students who were in arrears, informing them their bill was “severely past due” and they needed to come into the student accounts office to resolve the issue.
But those notices came only after many other attempts to reach students, said Dawn Soufleris, vice president of student affairs and enrollment management. During move-in, the university held individual counseling sessions with students who had large, overdue balances and they were given a 30-day extension so the university could help them develop a plan to resolve the issue, she said.
The hand-delivered notices were another attempt to get students to resolve the balance before it hindered their ability to stay in school and graduate, Soufleris said. Those who don’t pay will not be able to register for spring semester, she said.
“The effort is definitely working," she said, "as we’ve seen an increase in the volume of students who are coming in to develop a plan to resolve their bill.”
West Chester University, a state school, as a last resort has threatened to drop students from classes after making many attempts via text, phone call, email, and in person to resolve the problem, said Kathleen Howley, vice president for enrollment management and student success.
“As in any organization, we do take unpaid balances seriously,” she said. “But more importantly we take the students seriously and work with them to make sure we have exhausted all opportunities to assist them to pay unpaid balances.”
If students are dropped, they must pay their balance plus a late fee to reenroll, she said.
Howley couldn’t estimate how often such communications are sent on the campus of nearly 17,700 students or how often students are dropped from class. It’s not a lot, she said.
“The majority of them come flying in,” she said.
At Jefferson, the situation is more complicated. Two years ago, Jefferson, which had been largely a graduate school campus, including medical students, merged with Philadelphia University, largely an undergraduate campus in East Falls.
Jefferson had sent such warning notices to its health science students in the past. As part of integrating information systems at the two universities, the notices also were sent on the East Falls campus this year before the wording could be reviewed for possible revision, said Angela Showell, university spokesperson.
Jordan Purcell, 21, a senior from Carlisle, said he watched panic spread among classmates. Even after Jefferson said in the follow-up email that it would not de-enroll students that week, students were unsure when or if the university would take that action. He helped to organize the Sept. 16 sit-in.
“You can’t treat students that way,” Purcell said.
Brittney Bell, 20, student body president, said the situation highlighted the need for better communication between students and administrators. Bell, a junior health sciences major from Southampton, said she also wanted students to be involved in the decision-making.
Infuriating students more, Purcell said, was that there appeared to be mistakes.
He said he got a “phantom charge” of $1,200 that he has since had removed. Bell said she owed money but didn’t get the email. Keonei Mahoney, 20, a junior from Clarks Summit, said she got the email 30 minutes after receiving one that said her account was up to date.
Jefferson acknowledged that some students’ accounts may have contained errors and is resolving them, Showell said.
Gary Lonon, 20, a junior from Philadelphia, said receiving the email was particularly hurtful because his mother has been a medical lab technician at Jefferson since 2001.
“Can we get some kind of help?” Lonon’s mother, Shakirah Jordan, wondered in an interview. “Some kind of leeway?”
Some universities offer discounts to employees’ children; Showell said Jefferson is exploring that possibility.
Jefferson now says it has adopted Philadelphia University’s former policy: Students who haven’t paid or made arrangements can finish the semester but can’tregister for the next one.
Ross, the senior who said his heart dropped when he got the email, said the problem is deeper than the email. He had visited the student accounts office about a week before the email went out and tried to register for a sixth class so he could graduate on time. The university, he said, told him he had a balance of more than $29,000 and couldn’t register for another class until he made arrangements to pay.
He said his grandmother had been ill and he’d applied for student aid later than usual and hadn’t received it yet. He urged Jefferson, he said, to allow him to register, given that it was the last day of registration. Someone in the office, he said, eventually asked him to step aside, and when he wouldn’t, called public safety.
“There’s no reason that safety and security was called on me when I was just trying to figure out how I could graduate on time,” Ross said. “That experience was dehumanizing.”
Jefferson’s Showell responded: “A call was received by security on the 29th and the issue was resolved peacefully.”
Ross’ financial aid has since arrived, he said, and he has resolved his bill. But it’s too late for him to register for that sixth class. Now, he said, he’ll have to pay an additional $2,000 to take the class this summer.