Eighty nine students’ classes were canceled for the fall 2019 semester after a change in the payment policy, according to Director of Student Financial Services Barbara Madison.
The policy, announced in March, requires students to pay their bills before the semester starts. Bills were posted to students’ SOAR accounts on July 11. Students were required to pay their full balance or enroll in the installment plan by Aug. 10.
The Office of the Provost along with the Finance and Administration and Enrollment Management offices discussed the policy after evaluating students who were unable to continue because of their account balances, according to Madison.
In an April Faculty Senate meeting, Executive Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Amy Miller reported nonreturners owed $1 million to Southern Miss in fall 2018. In previous years, students did not have to pay their balance in full before the semester started, but they were unable to register for the following semester. Miller said the new policy is similar to policies at other institutions.
Madison said the purpose of the change was to “provide transparency of the cost of an education, promote student fiscal responsibility, increase retention and reduce student bad debt.”
Miller said the university faces the most challenges with first-year students, who do not always factor in the cost of books, room and board and additional fees after their financial aid is deducted.
“Tuition is only part of the picture,” Miller said. “I have talked to many students who, when I asked them how they planned to pay for college when they started, told me ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I just figured my aid would cover it.’”
Miller said these comments were repeated in focus groups about the payment policy in the spring. Still, Miller said she understands upperclassmen are struggling to adjust to the new payment schedule.
Senior business administration major Nathan Turnage made a public Facebook post in August two days before the deadline that said, “I haven’t really seen anyone say anything about it, but this new payment policy at USM is absolute garbage and a slap in the face to its students.”
Turnage said he made the post because he and his friend struggled to adjust to the policy, and his friend had to pay his/her bill before a scholarship was posted on his/her account.
“For a lot of people before the semester begins, a lot of stuff is usually still up in the air in terms of what classes they are taking or how they are even going to pay for classes,” Turnage said. “I know the person I referenced earlier talked to the business office, and they basically told them they would have to pay it out of pocket, which is a burden on a college student.”
Madison said Business Services heard concerns from students about unposted outside scholarships. Typically, the university does not post outside scholarships to student accounts until the university receives a check, but Business Services accommodated students by taking scholarship offer letters to increase students’ anticipated aid amount in SOAR.
Madison said the university promoted the new policy through social media, Eagle Vision, emails, handouts, tabling, Canvas and postcards in the spring.
Turnage said Southern Miss notified students of the policy change sufficiently, but the reactions to his post showed a disconnect between the university and the students.
“I would say 89 students having their classes dropped would validate my opinion of the policy. It looks like a small number of people compared to total enrollment, but what if you’re one of those 89 people who had your chance at a better future taken away by a poorly thought out policy,” he said.
Senior legal studies major Petra Ehlers said she would have preferred a year’s notice before the policy changed. Ehlers said she talked to someone in the Dean of Students Office, Financial Aid and Business Services, but she was told “there is nothing USM can do to help the students.”
“I would like to have been given a year’s notice, so that I could have saved up money to be able to not have a mental breakdown and spend my whole semester focused on working and not learning,” Ehlers said. “This semester I had to borrow money from a friend to pay my student bill. I think Business Services needs to talk with the student body about creating a policy that all sides can be happy with.”
Miller said faculty and staff are open to suggestions on how to better communicate with students and support them with financial management and awareness.