Current and former students at Oklahoma's two largest universities have charged millions of dollars in athletic tickets, computer products, doctor visits and other nontuition items to bursar accounts over the years.
By the end of last fiscal year, students at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University had at least $8 million in unpaid, nontuition charges made to their bursar accounts, which are maintained by universities to facilitate payments and handle other school-related business.
University officials say the schools aren't extending students lines of credit — a practice that is against Oklahoma law.
Records released by both universities show that housing and food services items are the largest category of unpaid bursar charges, totaling a combined $5.8 million by the end of the last fiscal year.
Students also owe roughly $2.3 million for things like parking tickets, library fees, tickets to athletic events, health care and purchases made at the schools' technology stores.
At OU, which has a larger enrollment, students owe $1.6 million in nontuition charges that don't include food and housing services.
By the end of the last fiscal year, students at OU owed $311,132 to the athletic department, $426,799 for parking tickets and $237,563 for services rendered at the Goddard Health Center, school records show.
OU students also owed $172,644 in library fines and $470,552 to the OU IT Store, which opened its Campus Corner location in August 2010.
In Stillwater, students owe $662,820 for similar charges made to their bursar accounts, not including food and housing services.
At OSU, students owed $121,724 for athletic tickets, $241,871 for parking citations and $182,841 for doctor visits, school records show.
Students owed an additional $107,015 in library fines. The university's technology store was only owed $9,367, considerably less than OU's store.
Catherine Bishop, an OU spokeswoman, said students are allowed to charge certain items to their bursar accounts “to provide students with an outstanding overall educational experience, which includes working with them to meet their financial obligations.”
“We do permit our students to pay throughout the semester as educational services are extended,” Bishop said in a statement.
“However, after the grades are recorded, the University cannot release an academic record if statutorily mandated tuition and fees associated with those grades have not been paid.”
Gary Shutt, an OSU spokesman, made similar comments about nontuition debt in Stillwater.
“Through the bursar account, we offer students a convenient way to pay for their education, living, medical needs and campus experience,” Shutt said. “We are pleased to offer this service to our students and pleased that we have an exemplary collection rate.”
Shutt said OSU has a $500 cap on certain non-tuition charges to student bursar accounts, including athletic tickets.
At the OU IT Store, unpaid charges to student bursar accounts led to a change in policy for the sleek retail establishment at Campus Corner.
The store, filled with the latest Apple gadgets and other consumer electronics-type products, was owed $959,907 by the end of the 2010 fiscal year.
It had been open at its much-larger new location for less than five months before the policy change took effect.
By January 2011, the university stopped allowing students to charge things like iPods, iPads and other popular Apple products sold at the OU IT Store.
“Within the first couple of years that OU Information Technology operated the IT Store, a comprehensive review of operations and employment of best practices dictated the need for a change,” Bishop said. “The IT Store is open to the public, as well as the university, and therefore charges are much more akin to retail charges.
“Accordingly, the ability to charge to a bursar account resulted in a less-than-efficient business operation, thus OU changed the process.”
The new policy appears to be working, records released by OU show.
At the end of the 2010 fiscal year, the OU IT Store was owed $959,907 by students who charged items from the store to their bursar accounts.
That figure dropped to $714,406 by the end of the 2011 fiscal year and shrank to $470,552 by the end of the last fiscal year.
While both OU and OSU have students who don't pay off charges made on bursar accounts, the two schools have different methods of collecting outstanding debts.
At OSU, a traditional collection agency is used. Shutt said the university's collection rate is between 97 and 98 percent, “which we feel is very good.”
OU used a collection agency until 2006 but now goes about collecting debts in a different way.
The state's largest university now uses an in-house collections department and then files small- claims lawsuits against students or former students who don't respond to correspondence.
“Aside from providing a friendlier student service, one of the benefits is that University Collections, the Office of the Bursar and Financial Aid are able to communicate directly in efforts to assist students,” Bishop said.
Court records show that OU has sued thousands of former students since 2006.
A review of hundreds of the lawsuits show that students owe anywhere from several hundred dollars to $6,000, the maximum amount a plaintiff can seek in small-claims court.
More than 3,000 lawsuits have been filed in Cleveland County District Court since the policy change, court records show.
Bishop said suing former students is a last resort, and something the university takes pains to avoid.
“If the former student responds to any of the communications before filing a lawsuit, the university will work out a payment plan that does not involve credit reporting or public records that may subsequently be obtained by credit bureaus,” she said.
“The law leaves absolutely no discretion for university officials to waive charges … therefore, we have a duty to collect on behalf of the state.”