Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, is set to remove students from their classes if they owe the university more than $1,500 and have not established a payment plan.
Those who fail to meet the deadline will be required to vacate campus housing by Sunday, according to university officials.
Fisk leaders assert that they have shown flexibility toward students’ debts in recent years, thanks in part to federal COVID-19 relief funds. However, the historically Black university can no longer sustain this practice.
They first informed students of the new payment policy in a December email, but some students claim that the policy was poorly communicated and left them scrambling to find money they don’t possess.
They have called on campus leaders to extend the deadline until November.
Students protest university’s strict payment deadline policy
Frank L. Sims, acting president of the university, wrote in a December email to the student body that students with balances over $1,500 would be unable to register for classes or receive a dorm room assignment starting in the fall.
Several days after classes began on August 17, campus officials sent an email announcing two separate rounds of enrollment purges in late August: one for students with outstanding balances from previous semesters and another for those with outstanding balances for the current term.
The university followed through on the threat, disenrolling some students from their courses.
However, after a two-hour emergency town hall meeting on August 28, university leaders relented and extended the final deadline to September 8, allowing previously removed students to return to class.
The email from campus officials on Thursday reminded students that those who do not pay or set up a payment plan by the new deadline will be disenrolled and must move out of the dorms by September 10.
It also stated that the first payment for students on the plan would be postponed until October.
Tamaya Kimble, a junior at Fisk, expressed concern that the postponement for disenrolled students to move out is not long enough.
She was among a group of approximately 30 students who protested the policy on campus last week.
The group also circulated a petition calling for an extension of the deadline to November, which garnered almost 400 signatures.
Kimble said she was not aware of the policy announcement last winter, as she does not recall receiving the December email or any reminders.
She only found out about the possibility of disenrollment after arriving on campus for the fall semester. She was attending class and working on assignments as usual, but on August 24, she noticed that none of her current classes were visible on her student portal anymore.
She and the other disenrolled students were instructed not to attend class.
AJ Macon, a sophomore and one of the protest organizers, said many students reported not receiving reminder emails. Macon was also included in the August purge, despite being on a payment plan.
It took them repeated calls and emails to administrators to get the issue resolved and remain in class.
University leaders “understand the fact that a number of these students are international students coming hours from home, they’re first-generation college students who have parents who have not done this before or they are low-income students who don’t have brightest financial backgrounds,” Macon said. “So, the administration can’t act surprised when students can’t come up with thousands upon thousands of dollars immediately,” or even get on a payment plan with a $60 setup fee and a down payment.
Michael Henderson, a senior at Fisk, said an academic adviser reminded him of the policy last spring. He believes administrators have been “gracious” and “flexible” by extending the deadline to September.
He said he has been encouraging friends and classmates at risk of being booted to sign up for the payment plans.
While he sympathizes with them, he understands that Fisk is a “small business” that needs tuition dollars to operate.
During the pandemic, numerous institutions, particularly HBCUs, used federal COVID-19 relief funding to clear students’ outstanding balances owed to their colleges and universities to reduce their debt burdens during an economically challenging time.
For example, in 2021, Delaware State University and Shaw University in North Carolina forgave students’ institutional debts, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Other institutions that disproportionately serve minority and low-income students did the same; Trinity Washington University, a predominantly Black and Hispanic-serving institution in Washington, D.C., cleared $2.3 million in unpaid balances, and the City University of New York system announced plans to wipe $125 million owed to the system that summer.
Dominique Baker, associate professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, said she suspects Fisk’s situation is an example of what’s to come for other higher ed institutions as their federal COVID-19 relief funds run dry.
College and university leaders were eager to cover students’ institutional debts, a “common” barrier to enrollment and graduation, she said, and to offer other kinds of supports.
But “anything that was covered by pandemic assistance is not sustainable,” she said.
She believes the recent controversy at Fisk reflects larger national issues beyond students’ and the university’s control.
The campuses that generally struggle with large amounts of unpaid debt tend to be “systematically underfunded, and they frequently are educating students whose families don’t have a ton of wealth,” she said. “I don’t want to downplay how tough that is.”
It’s easy to blame students for failing to pay or criticize campus officials for demanding those payments, she said, but the real solution lies with policy makers.
“What state and federal policy makers need to be thinking about is how to adequately fund our systems of higher education,” she said. “Everything else is like a Band-Aid on the actual problem.”
Macon said students are waiting to see what happens on September 10, when disenrolled students are supposed to move out.
But they assume it’ll be “like a wound opening up again, and this chaos will probably restart once more,” they said. “I think, personally, I’m fine, but I know some students will not be and some students