The Student Accounts office is preparing to start a heavy notification process targeting students who have a substantial balance due on their tuition, fees, room and board.
Associate Controller Rick McCollum said students who fail to contact the Student Accounts office by an as-yet-undetermined deadline will be dropped from class, and students in UCA housing who have not paid anything toward room and board will have their meal plans suspended. He said the Student Accounts office would like to have the deadline around the time of fall break but must first get approval from the president’s office.
“We’re still trying to catch our breath from fee payment and the dispersing of financial aid, so this is just the next major step that we have to take – not one of our most pleasant,” McCollum said. “We’re talking millions of dollars so we have to make a pretty strong effort to collect. I’m open to suggestions.”
The Student Accounts office will follow last semester’s methods of notifying students through Bearmail, letters in the mail, phone calls, advertisements in The Echo and other ways of communicating to students that their overdue balances must be paid.
Of the $5.9 million in outstanding student balances from this fall, Student Accounts does not have any payment agreement for $3.9 million, which is 8.3 percent of the $46.9 million anticipated revenue from student tuition, fees, room and board for the semester.
The enrollment purge would target the 1,100 students who have paid less than $2,000 on their accounts. This group makes up $3.3 million of the $3.9 million owed. There are 825 students who have set up payment plans this semester, compared with 697 on payment plans at this point in the spring semester.
“If they’re here, and actually going to school, then they need to pay or set up arrangements to pay, that’s what our goal is,” McCollum said. “It’s taking pretty drastic steps to say you’re going to castrate enrollment or suspend meal plans, because then you’re dealing with students who are upset, and that’s not what we’re here for. There’s the student side, but then there’s our position that we have to collect.”
In March, Student Accounts dropped 74 students from classes for failing to pay or set up payment plans for their outstanding balances. It was the first time the office carried out an enrollment purge in seven years. In 2001, students with outstanding balances were dropped before semester classes began – an action that caused the university to lose 600 to 800 students primarily because their financial aid had not yet arrived.
A mid-semester purge, McCollum said, allows students time to apply for financial aid and set up payment plans; however, some students wait to apply until the semester begins, which sets back the accounts office and may put students at risk of being dropped from their classes. McCollum said the Student Accounts office is working on ways to “try to break that cycle.”
“We’re looking at moving up the payment date [at the beginning of the semester]. We’re trying to do things that will get a person thinking, ‘Oh, I need to get my financial aid in place.’” he said. “Students are here to get an education, and we want them to, but they have to pay for that education.”
While students are not allowed to register for the next semester’s classes if their accounts have outstanding balances, McCollum said the accounts office is looking at ways to prevent methods that students have found to avoid making payments to Student Accounts.
McCollum said students should also be aware that federal regulation does not allow students to use more than $200 of current financial aid to pay for past semesters’ outstanding balances. Students are encouraged to talk to Financial Aid in McCastlain Hall to help resolve payment issues.
Assistant Controller Jerry Rankin said UCA is still collecting on past semesters’ outstanding balances, but has turned the majority of the process over to professional collection agencies. Past overdue funds totaling $3.9 million were put into an “allowance for doubtful accounts,” which keeps current financial status looking like it should.
“The ‘allowance for doubtful accounts’ reduces your receivables on your balance sheet, so when the world looks at your financials, you’re not overstating that ‘we’ve got all this money coming in,’ but you really don’t,” Rankin said.
McCollum emphasized UCA has not given up on collecting the money owed from past semesters, and it will soon receive some relief from the state’s Debt Set Off program that allows universities “the first crack” at the income taxes from Arkansans who failed to pay off their debt to the universities.
Though the current semester stands at $5.9 million owed, McCollum said that after the collection effort, the amount due should fall to a number comparable with previous semesters.
Last fall concluded with $700,000 in outstanding balances, last spring with $751,000 and the summer sessions with $280,000.