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What should I do about a tuition repayment catch 22?

QUESTION: My daughter went to a college in Rhode Island and in her second year had to stop because she was unable to handle everything emotionally. She received a medical excuse from the school, was given forms to be filled out by a counselor/psychologist to verify that she received help for her condition and returned to the school by the required date to return in the fall.

She did all that they asked, but when she was ready to return, she found out that instead of prorating her tuition, as they said they would, she owed for the whole year and they would not allow her to return without paying the balance. And while they didn’t prorate her tuition, they did prorate her financial aid package. To make matters worst, the school returned the check from the bank that supplies her loans.

She can't get back into any school because she has no transcripts. She can't even start all over because the applications ask if she has attended any school. If she says yes, school B will deny her because she owes school A. If she lies and says no, it would only be a matter of time before the truth is disclosed and she could risk expulsion.

What can we do? The school is being totally uncooperative. Signed, Mom in Distress

Dear Mom in Distress: It does seem like you are in a frustrating Catch 22. To get out you need to break the cycle. Either you need to get the Rhode Island college to cooperate and pro-rate the tuition so that your daughter can re-enter or you need them to release the transcripts so that she can apply to another college.

Head to the top of the administration, which means deal with someone at the Dean or Vice-President level. These are the people who have the authority to fix your situation. If possible an in-person meeting will be much more effective than a phone conversation. Once you have scheduled a meeting you and your daughter should attend together and have a presentation ready that documents what has happened and all communication and agreements. These must be in writing so bring copies of the letters that your daughter received describing her leave of absence and the terms for re-entry. Also, if the school promised to pro-rate tuition then bring documentation of that along to the meeting.

Since it sounds like you have already run into resistance at the school you have to be prepared for the worse. That means that the school may not be willing to re-admit your daughter and may even try to break previous promises. So when you go in have a list in mind of what outcome you want but at the same time be ready to make some compromises.

If the school will not allow re-admission then settle for paying the pro-rated tuition amount as you intended and the release of the transcripts. This sounds like a very reasonable compromise. The school gets some of their money and your daughter gets a fresh start applying to another school.

Throughout the meeting, fight any urges to get upset or angry. Be polite but firm. Be open about your daughter's desire to apply to another school and the fact that she will need her transcripts. Make sure they understand that you expected them to pro-rate the tuition and feel misled.

If you go in well prepared and with some concrete ideas of what outcomes you are ready to accept then you may find a sympathetic dean or vice-president.

We are not lawyers and this is not legal advice. We advise you to consult with a lawyer to fully understand what your rights are in this case based on all the facts. You can contact your local Bar Association. Often they can refer you to an attorney who can provide an inexpensive consultation.

Remember, however, that the school is also entitled to defend itself if they believe that they are correct. A prolonged legal battle would be expensive and still may not get you the results you want.

In the end, keep in mind your goal, which is for your daughter to finish her college education. If you can't get anywhere with the Rhode Island college, then the other option is for your daughter to enroll in a community college and complete her first two years and then transfer to a four-year college. Most community colleges have open admissions so a lack of transcript should not matter. Also, after transferring your daughter would enter as a junior and graduate with a degree from a four-year college. It may also be a cheaper route since you would only have to pay for two years of tuition at the more expensive college or university.

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Gen & Kelly Tanabe

Gen and Kelly Tanabe are the founders of SuperCollege and the award-winning authors of 11 books on college admission, financial aid and scholarships. Together they were accepted to all of the Ivy League colleges and won more than $100,000 in merit-based scholarships to graduate from Harvard debt-free.