Business office takes measures to collect delinquent tuition

By Rebecca Nussbaum

Parents pay tuition for their children to go to school. What happens when parents fail to pay the bills?

One month after the Aug. 1 tuition deadline, about 98 percent of parents had paid their bills, leaving around 30 tardy families, Chief Financial Officer Rob Levin said. About half of these families are supposed to pay full tuition and half of them are on financial aid.

The difficulty in dealing with the families, Levin said, is separating those who cannot and those who will not pay.

If a family is unable to pay the tuition bill, “we are endlessly supportive,” Levin said, but if they are just “putting the school on the bottom of the stack,” the Business Office has to enforce payment, even if it requires them to be harsh, Levin said.

There are many ways to help the parents who cannot afford tuition, Levin said. In addition to a single annual payment, the school has in-house, not-for-profit pay plans that allow families to pay tuition over time. Forty percent of families not on financial aid use these plans, Assistant to the Director of Student Financial Affairs Melanie Blackwelder said.

The school provides short-term interest free loans for families in need of temporary help. For more permanent problems, the Business Office directs families to Director of Financial Aid Geoff Bird to find a payment program that fits their new financial needs.

There are also the people who do not pay even though they are capable, Levin said.

Parents do not always respond to the bills and letters the Business Office sends. A month after a late bill, Director of Student Financial Affairs Patti Snodgrass resends the bill with a note to remind the family that it is past due. Snodgrass and Blackwelder begin making phone calls after 60 days and continue to tell the family that they need to contact the office to receive help, Snodgrass said.

Although the vast majority of families pay their bills on time, those who do not can be difficult to deal with, Levin said.

“This kind of person is used to dealing with business vendors and stiffing them,” Levin said. “We’re not going to get anywhere by dealing with them nicely, and, well, we’re not going to get stiffed. If you give people a written invitation saying please ask for help, and you send people letters and make phone calls and they don’t answer your letters and they don’t answer your phone calls, at some point, that’s not going to work.”

Levin said that getting parents to pay is a tough, but necessary endeavour.

“Teachers need to get paid, and programs need to run around here,” he said. “Our goal is to see you graduate. And if we can do that by being nice to your parents, we’re going to do it. Ninety-nine percent plus that works, but for a few people, it doesn’t. And if the only way we’re going to keep you here ’til graduation is by being a little tough on parents, we’re going to do it.”

Snodgrass said that there have been more late payments during the recession.

“I think it’s difficult for parents who can’t pay because there’s a certain amount of pride involved,” she said. “They don’t want to ask for help.”

Levin compared this ocurrence to a “deer caught in the headlights.” Often the first time a family can’t pay, they don’t respond because they are embarrassed, he said.

Levin estimates that five to 10 families per year do not respond to Snodgrass and Blackwelder. When they don’t respond, Levin sends them a letter. If that gets no response, he talks to the student’s dean, Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra or Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts to see if anyone is aware of a problem going on with the family.

“Occasionally, I’ve made telephone calls to parents and what I’ve found is that most of them have been people who have gotten into some kind of a bind,” Salamandra said.

If the administrator cannot make leeway with the family, he or she gives Levin permission to tell the family that if they do not pay before a certain deadline, their child will not be allowed to return to school.

“What’s a little disturbing is in 70 or 80 percent of those examples, people just pay, which meant that they may have had to stretch,” Levin said. “The point is that we weren’t taken seriously until we behaved unpleasantly.”

When threatened with dismissal, almost all of the families that do not immediately pay contact Levin or Snodgrass to formulate a way to make tuition affordable using payment plans, loans, or financial aid.

“Once you’ve broken the communication deadlock, we can help work with them,” Levin said. “Any parent who’s willing to work with us, we’re there for.”

The only way a student will be prohibited from returning to school is if the parents don’t commnicate at all. It is rare for parents to totally ignore the ultimatum, Snodgrass said. However, she remembers one family who failed to respond to them at all, and the student had to leave.

Hypothetically, if a senior’s parents failed to respond to the Business Office’s communication, the senior could be asked to withdraw from school, prohibited from graduating, or not provided with a transcript, Levin said.

It is important to enforce the tuition deadlines “because otherwise you’re going to have a lot of parents who don’t pay you,” Levin said.

“Once that starts to add up, well then you have to raise the tuition for everyone,” he said. “It’s a fairness issue. Everyone has to do their part.”