Students at Emporia State struggle with mountains of debt every year. This includes not only the hundreds of individuals sent to debt collections annually, but also those who are facing debt for unavoidable medical and living expenses.
In the last edition, The Bulletin told the story of Kaitlynd Brasher. After dropping out of ESU, Brasher was sued for nearly $10,000 in unearned financial aid. When her wages were garnished by court order, she said it left her with almost nothing to live on.
Brasher is among the more than 200 individuals ESU turns over to debt collection every year. The university business office says ESU debt collection practices are consistent with standards in higher education. Bessine Walterbach LLP, the Kansas City, Missouri debt collection law firm that handled Brasher’s case declined to comment on that story as well as this one.
National student debt currently amounts to $1.6 trillion, according to the federal student aid office of the U.S. Department of Education. This means if the debt was split evenly across the population of the United States, every person would take on about $4,838 each.
Brasher’s story about her personal struggle with student debt generated outraged comments from readers on social media.
“So this is higher Ed’s response to a mental health crisis??? Wtf, ESU???” said Patti Van Slyke on Twitter.
“Nothing to like in the story as public universities have become nothing more than a state sanctioned racket.” said David Miller former democratic Kansas legislator from 1973-1976 on Twitter. “I would like to see former students successfully sue them for failing to provide an education that is marketable on the prevailing job market that pays a living wage.”
“Wow… very disappointed how ESU is treating this woman and others,” said Nora Lucas on Facebook.
As well as comments online, former students facing similar situations reached out to share their stories. All of them said communication was an issue.
Former ESU student Carter Smith faced thousands of dollars worth of debt accumulated from federal aid and class expenses after dropping out in 2014. Smith, who reached out to The Bulletin after Brasher’s story, said there are still questions left unanswered and from “start to finish” he didn’t “understand anything.”
“I remember walking in the financial aid office, I’m just like, this is it,” said Smith. “Like, I remember there weren’t very many people working there and I’m like, this is all you have to deal with all of these kids.”
ESU receives $246,000 from debt collections every year, according to Pamala Norton, controller of the business office. In 2021, the university’s total operating expenses were over $100 million, according to the Kansas Board of Regents 2022 Databook. This means ESU is receiving approximately one quarter of 1% of its operating costs every year from collection.
Norton says the university follows common collection practices and she feels that the cost to the community and students is worth the money the university receives. Smith, a former student, disagrees.
“It’s not like they need (it),” Smith said. “They’re not trying to feed their kids with that, you know, somebody else is trying to feed their kids with that.”
In addition, former students of the university are dealing with more than education debt.
Emeline Fuller graduated ESU in 2021. She now works at Trox Gallery and Gifts on Commercial Street and creates art that she describes as “fairy tales that don’t exist.”
Fuller’s degree took 18 years to complete after struggling with mental health issues that led to her attempted suicide and thousands of dollars of debt from Newman Regional Hospital. She says that debt is “well over” her yearly salary and she is still suffering wage garnishment.
“As far as the human side,” Fuller said. “Just seeing your future closed off to you by a debt that you can’t get over, that’s difficult.”
Fuller said she felt like she wasn’t given the proper accommodations for her mental health struggles and communication with the university was not up to par. The university needs to be transparent about the consequences of dropping out and that debt collections will commence, Fuller said.
However, Norton says students have “numerous correspondence stating that that’s (debt collection) what’s going to happen.”
Due to the perceived lack of communication, both Smith and Brasher thought they were being scammed by the debt collectors. Smith didn’t understand why he was being sent to collection since he believed he dropped out before the refund date.
“I remember being like, all this has to be like a scam,” Smith said. “Like, this is some craziness. Why would I owe the university? I dropped out.”
The Bulletin reached out to Stanley Ausemus, an Emporia lawyer, for advice on what students should do if they are facing debt collection.
“I would have to say that probably going and visiting with an attorney would be the most practical thing to do and see what options they have available,” Ausemus said. “That’s all I can say. I mean, I don’t know of any other organization in town that, you know other than attorneys, that deal with people that have debt.”
In addition, The Bulletin asked Ted Hollembeak, an attorney contracted by the Associated Student Government to give ESU students legal advice, on what students can do if they are struggling with debt. He said students can find an attorney in town and ask questions about how they can help.
Hollembeak said finding the right attorney is “kind of like just shopping around” until the individual finds a good fit.
Hollembeak also runs open hours two to three times a month from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays in the ASG office and there is a schedule of what days he will be present also in the office.
“I answer all kinds if questions from transgender questions, to debt questions, to criminal questions, whatever their problems are,” Hollembeak said.
In addition to reaching out to local attorneys, Hollembeak said students can utilize the Kansas Attorney General’s consumer protection site for resources and other aid as well as Kansas Legal Services.
While students face debt and other perceived communication barriers at ESU, Fuller said that without her instructors, she may have never graduated.
“They were always willing to give me another chance,” Fuller said. “And I think that that’s, I mean, so many students just need that. They need that. That second chance. And nothing will kill a second chance like money.”