Sitting in his money coach’s office, Da’Von Horn was ready to enroll. But in the span of just a few minutes, he learned his entire college future relied on whether he could come up with $26,000.
Horn, a computer science junior, is one of the students who was unsure whether he could enroll next semester due to holds on his bursar account, which are part of a change in OU's enforcement of the enrollment policy on bursar payments. Horn said he never had a hold on his enrollment due to his unpaid bursar balance before, which had accumulated over previous years.
“I was just thinking, 'How am I going to do this,' like 'How am I going to pay for this?'” Horn said. “I called my dad and I talked to him about it, and he didn't know either because he thought I had it all under control, which I feel like I did up until then. And then, at that point, I felt like I just lost all control of the situation.”
This change is a reversion to how enrollment was handled with bursar payments two and a half years ago. The new enforcement places enrollment holds as soon as there is an overdue balance or necessary payments are not made through the payment plan, said Alison Baker, director of Bursar Services.
This change in policy implemented by President James Gallogly's administration is meant to help students from incurring additional debt, Baker said.
“Our goal is to help all students attain their educational goals, and provide resources to help them find necessary funding,” Baker said in a statement to The Daily. “However, if necessary funding cannot be secured by the student, this policy provides a safety net to ensure their debt to the university is as small as possible.”
The way the policy on enrollment holds was enforced for the past two and a half years was to address unpaid bursar balances on a case-by-case basis, Baker said. The office had more flexibility, as holds were not placed on each and every person with unpaid balances.
Whether a hold was placed depended on if the student was judged to be able to pay off their outstanding balance with loans or other resources offered, Baker said.
As a first-generation college student, Horn said it was hard for him to figure out how to pay off what he owed, but his money coach helped him explore all the options available. Horn said he also reached out to the bursar office, and that they were “zero help” to him.
Horn said the bursar office told him his only option would be to take out a personal loan for the entire amount, which he did not think he could get due to his lack of reliable income as a college student.
“(My money coach) was definitely helpful because at that time I couldn't even think straight,” Horn said. “Having her able to just lay out the options that I did have on the table or that I potentially had and then what those will look like for me in the future... was really nice.”
It took Horn two months to come up with the combination of private and federal loans he used to pay off the outstanding balance. But by that time, some classes he had planned to take in the spring had filled up.
“It affected how my schedule for next year will be,” Horn said. “Luckily, I was able to enroll in all the classes that I need for next semester, but I had no say in what my schedule was going to look like.”
Horn said he had to deal with midterms at the same time he was wondering if he would have to drop out.
“(I was) constantly (thinking) whether or not I'm going to be able to attend university next semester — because for me it was all up in the air,” Horn said. “It's not something that you really want to have to deal with at a time when you're already stressed out with a bunch of other things.”
OU's Public Affairs Office said three different types of emails are sent to students who have overdue bursar payments. One of the emails alerts students to a hold on their account, tells students why the hold was put in place and directs students to call the Student Financial Center if they cannot pay the required amount.
Public Affairs said the bursar office also made “hundreds of phone calls” in August and September to students they felt “were subject to holds” before returning to the automated system.
Baker said she sees a lot of students like Horn who plan on paying off what they owe after they graduate, but that’s not how the bursar operates. Students need to pay what they owe to OU first, and they can receive funds from an outside lender if they want to actually pay it off afterward, but they need to make that crucial step to continue their enrollment, she said.
Sawyer Stephenson, planned program LGBTQ studies junior, said they also had problems with the new enforcement of the bursar policy, having been told when meeting with their scholarship adviser this semester that all they would need to do to enroll in the spring is owe less than $10,000 to the university.
Stephenson said when they tried to enroll, they were told they always had to pay off their bursar all at once, which they had never had to do before. Stephenson also said they were never aware of the new enforcement in policy before trying to enroll in late October.
“No adviser really told me what was going on,” Stephenson said. “It’s something that they changed without giving any warning, which is really unfair to everyone because college is very expensive, and it’s really hard to get thousands of dollars together on short notice. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who aren’t able to come back next semester.”
Stephenson also previously attended Southeastern Oklahoma State University as a concurrent student, and said Southeastern has a similar policy of needing to pay off all that they owed before enrolling in the next semester, but that they and their family never knew of a policy like that at OU.
“We went into Southeastern knowing that,” Stephenson said. “I never got any kind of notice (at OU) that I was going to have a hold against me.”
Stephenson acknowledged that they understand they have to pay off their bursar before they graduate, but said they wished they had known about this change in enforcement of the policy so they could have had time to prepare.
“If (students) had gone into the semester knowing that we needed to pay everything off, that would be a different story,” Stephenson said. “But we were advised and we went on like normal, like every other semester before this, and then, boom, we can’t enroll.”
Public Affairs said many university offices have been working together to help students who can’t pay the required balances to find resources. One of those offices, the Student Financial Center, was updated over the summer to become a sort of “one-stop” to answer all questions students may have about financial issues.
“Student Financial Center is perfect for them, for a student that is completely lost or their plan fell to pieces,” Baker said.
Baker said she also talked with two colleges that have been going through every one of their students with a registration hold to see if there is any discretionary scholarship money that can help to get them enrolled.
Public Affairs said the bursar’s office gave presentations to the Provost Advisory Committee on Academic Advising to tell them how to address the automatic holds that would be put in place with students, and that they are still looking for more ways to aid students.
Stephenson said they hope that, in the future, changes like this are announced to students more quickly.
“I’m just worried about them changing a lot of policies in a way that’s really going to hurt students without telling us,” Stephenson said. “Going halfway through the semester thinking that the rules are one way and they’re actually another, it’s not fair to students or parents or anyone.”