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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Students are being crushed by tuition debt

Student loans are already a huge issue, but late tuition exacerbates the problem.

The entrance to Dowling Hall is pictured on Oct. 23.

A couple of weeks ago, I opened my phone to a message from one of my best friends that made my stomach drop. “The debt collectors called,” she said. Last year, she went through family-related financial difficulty and was unable to pay for her spring semester tuition in full. Suddenly, $6,000 of debt had been dropped into her lap, and there was seemingly nothing she could do about it. Working paycheck to paycheck in food service and having already transferred to community college to keep costs down, she started scrambling to figure out how to stay financially afloat. Later in our conversation, she asked, “Is it selfish to start some sort of GoFundMe for this?”

While it’s easy to see a case like this as an outlier, she is far from alone. Public colleges in Massachusetts alone have sent debt collectors after almost 12,000 students who have fallen behind on tuition, even when these students are doing everything in their power to pay. State law mandates that colleges notify students for debt collection once the tuition is 90 days past due. This means that anyone who’s had unexpected financial hardship will have less than three months to put together costly tuition money.

This issue is disturbingly common, especially because the rules are so draconian. Some students can be put through this process despite only owing $100 to their school. And, of course, once the tuition deadline is missed, the late fees and interest start piling up. At Tufts, the late fee is a 1.5% compounded monthly interest. For students who already cannot afford tuition, this amounts to pouring salt in an open wound.

Even more concerning, the options for students who have fallen behind on tuition payments are distressingly few and often put students in an even more financially precarious position. Most online resources have few solutions to point you to other than loans, which are largely private ones that are often harder to pay off. Other solutions aren’t much better. Stilt Inc., a loan service that focuses on providing financial help and advice to immigrants and immigrant students, even recommends asking family and friends, and yes, crowdfunding, as some of the best options for how to escape debt from unpaid tuition. Frankly, it’s pretty clear that a system is broken when one of the best solutions to the issue is to beg strangers for money online.

The consequences of late tuition can be incredibly damaging. Many colleges withhold transcripts of students who are late on tuition, which can prevent students from graduating. In fact, a report done in 2020 found that 6.6 million students in public colleges and universities were unable to get their transcripts due to late tuition. As scary as that sounds, some colleges take it even further. Here at Tufts, you might see a registration hold or a withdrawal of registration. At Harvard University, you can be dropped from your classes; at Boston University, you can be dropped from classes and “denied access to all University facilities and services.” Brandeis University goes a step further, threatening suspension, dismissal and a refusal to allow your credits to transfer, essentially trapping students in a money pit with little hope of a degree at the end.

Worst of all, when colleges send debt to debt collectors, they very likely will notify credit bureaus. This debt can hurt your credit score, which can impact your ability to take out loans in the future. This can create a vicious cycle that dooms low-income students’ hopes of financial betterment after college.

It’s understandable that colleges want to ensure they get the money they are charging, but that doesn’t justify the horrifically punitive system in place today. It also doesn’t change the fact that my friend — who had to turn to crowdfunding to maintain her financial situation — must now fend off debt collectors and contend with the issues that this debt brings. Colleges must be more understanding of students whose financial difficulties prevent them from paying. Moreover, the law needs to protect the students who can’t afford another fee, not the colleges who already charge exorbitantly for tuition.