Students who think they can walk away from their college bills may want to think again: The state may not let the issue drop.
In the last three years alone, tax-supported colleges and universities statewide have turned over more than $140 million in bills to the Ohio attorney general’s office.
“It’s a very shocking figure,” said Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is required by law to try to collect for state entities, including colleges and universities. “I’m sure some of it is driven by the tough economy. It’s a societal problem.”
Only partway through the year, many colleges and universities are on track to turn over more unpaid bills than ever this year as the sea of red keeps rising.
For example, Ohio State University already has turned over $10.3 million in uncollected bills this year, twice what it certified in 2010. Cuyahoga Community College’s debt has grown from $1.8 million last year to $3 million so far this year. Kent State’s debt is poised to be close to the $3 million it certified last year.
DeWine’s office is pursuing the scofflaws for anything from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars — for tuition they didn’t pay, parking tickets they didn’t clear, library books they didn’t return.
For students, the result can be a steep cliff — their original debt, plus 4 percent interest compounded daily, plus a 10 percent recovery charge imposed by the attorney general’s office to fund its collection efforts.
There are still more fees if the attorney general turns a stalled account over to a third-party vendor and eventually to private attorneys under contract with the state office.
Window of 40 years
On top of that is the very sobering fact that the state can by law pursue debtors for up to 40 years — long after their college days are little more than a misty memory. In reality, though, the whole chain of collection takes about five years, said Marcia Macon-Bruce, chief of collections enforcement.
“It has been a challenge in these economic times, with students who aren’t working,” she said. But her office is having more luck getting debtors on repayment plans.
All the efforts — from calls and letters by her staff to prosecution in local courts — has generated more than $96 million, including money recovered by taking state income tax refunds, since 2009, according to attorney general spokesman Dan Tierney.
At the same time, debts are not rising at all universities. The University of Akron is one where the amount certified to the attorney general’s office may well be under last year’s.
So far, UA has forwarded $1.9 million to the state, about half of the $3.9 million in 2010.
In a typical year, just 3 percent of debts can’t be collected by campus efforts, UA general counsel Ted Mallo said, and are shifted to the state.
Of course, all tax-supported institutions have a club of their own that they can hold over students’ heads, and a powerful one it is — withholding diplomas and transcripts.
If students have federal Pell Grants, their trail of unpaid bills also will follow them to other institutions. They’ll be unable to enroll elsewhere until they clear the debt.
But all that’s no threat to students who left school without a degree or don’t care if they ever get a copy of their grades.
“Sometimes the younger person might not have the same rationale of the long-range ramifications,” said James McGrail, vice president for business services at Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville.
Even though the 2,500- student Eastern Gateway is one of the smallest community colleges in Ohio, it still was stiffed with almost $500,000 in unpaid bills over the last three years, according to the attorney general’s office.
That represents about 170 students each year, McGrail estimated, with only 30 to 40 percent of them eventually paying.
Eastern Gateway is gentle with those who remain, writing off debts that get down to $25.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.