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Oklahoma college students owe millions for nontuition charges

Current and former students at Oklahoma's two largest universities have millions of dollars in unpaid charges on their bursar accounts at the end of each school year.
by Andrew Knittle Modified: November 23, 2012 at 10:29 pm •  Published: November 23, 2012
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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.

Collections methods

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.”

by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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