Portland State University is trying to take nearly $1,500 from me because their own negligence, and other students are at risk, too.
If you are considering attending Portland State University as a graduate or undergraduate student, I want you to be very, very careful before making a final choice.
PSU, particularly the Financial Aid Office, is failing to provide vital information to students who discover during a Term that they need to withdraw from courses - say, when there's a family medical emergency.
As a result, I and probably many others are being hit with inappropriate bills amounting to thousands of dollars.
Here’s the story.
In the Winter Term of 2019, I was enrolled half-time as a graduate student in two courses, one independent study and one online.
During the term, my spouse was referred to Oregon Health Sciences University in order to treat a rare and extremely painful chronic condition called trigeminal neuralgia. To treat it, she was scheduled to have brain surgery at the beginning of April.
The procedure involved a surgeon drilling into her skull, then intentionally damaging a major nerve in hopes of relieving the chronic pain. Recovery would require two months of bed rest at home, minimum, and we needed time to prepare beforehand.
As a result, in Week 7 of Winter Term, I made the choice to withdraw from my courses in order to help her prepare for this potentially life-threatening operation. I accepted that I would receive W grades on my permanent transcript, reluctantly informed the instructors I had been working with, and let my department know I would be taking a leave of absence for Spring Term.
Three weeks later, I received an email from Portland State informing me that I owed the university almost $1,300 dollars, and would have to begin making payments - right when we were having to think about the costs associated with the surgery.
When I was finally able to make contact with someone who could tell me what happened, they informed me that because I had, by my withdrawal date, completed less than 60% of the Term, hadn't “earned” the financial aid I was awarded at the beginning of term.
Here’s why this came as such a shock: The exact same thing happened the prior Term, Fall 2018, when my spouse first fell ill. Then, I was similarly forced to withdraw from my courses - but this time in the middle of Week Five.
In that term too, weeks later and too late to do anything about it without direct help from the University, I had been sent a $1,300 bill out of nowhere. When I contacted Financial Aid, I was told I had not completed at least 60% of the term and so hadn’t “earned” my aid.
Problem: Nowhere on the Portland State University website, catalog, or published rules was this 60% threshold rule available. I had no idea it existed, and I doubt other students did either - until they withdrew, and got hit with the bill.
At that time, with my spouse’s condition still new and unknown, I didn’t have the time or mental energy to do anything other than point this lack of information out to Financial Aid.
So in Winter 2019, when I again found it necessary to withdraw, I made sure I was past the 60% point in the Term. Portland State is on the quarter system, all coursework to be completed by the end of Week 10. After that comes a variable week where those with finals take them, and term papers are often due, but no new work is assigned and many students – especially graduate students – are free to grade or work on research.
Once I was finally able to get in contact with someone via email, they informed me for the first time that Portland State Financial Aid considers the Term to include finals week. So because I withdrew on Monday of Week 7, and 60% of 11 weeks (as opposed to 10) comes to about 6.6 weeks, I had only technically completed 56% of the Term.
According to the Financial Aid Office’s numbers, had I withdrawn on Thursday of Week 7 instead of Monday, I would have passed the 60% threshold and "earned" all of my Aid. But because this information wasn’t public, there was no way I could know - so Portland State says I owe them $1,300 + late fees.
This is an especially frustrating situation because Portland State, in these emails, gives every impression of very selectively interpreting what 60% of term means – and always in such a way that the student is at a disadvantage.
I have made numerous attempts to contact the Portland State Financial Aid, Registrar, and even President’s Offices by email in order to resolve this issue over the past six months.
I have received only silence, bills – and most recently, notification by letter that my account has been referred to a collections agency.
Portland State has had ample time to fix this issue or at least respond with some kind of coherent explanation. No one has attempted to reach out, no one has responded to my inquiries.
Further, it is very likely that I am not the only student who has experienced this.
Any student who had to withdraw from a Term in the 2018-2019 Academic Year for medical reasons was likely impacted. If they withdrew on the correct (but unpublished) date, they hit the 60% threshold for “earning” their Financial Aid. But fall short by a day, and a student will receive a bill for half their tuition.
Portland State has systematically failed to publish basic information on Financial Aid policy and procedures, refused to address the problem I raised across two separate terms, and gives the appearance of selectively interpreting regulations to make students foot the bill for Portland State’s errors.
Withdrawing from a course for medical reasons is a normal thing in a student's life. Illnesses happen. As someone who has worked in academia for many years, I have seen withdrawals at other universities happen smoothly and generally with no financial impact to students.
If you are considering Portland State University for graduate or undergraduate studies – be very, very careful.
This is not a university that demonstrates care for vulnerable students.
My position is that Portland State University is systematically victimizing students, and this must stop.
As a resident and taxpayer in this state, I have a right to know my public universities aren’t failing their students and hitting them with crippling bills.
Until I receive a letter from Portland State University acknowledging the problem is resolved, canceling this illegitimate debt, and apologizing, I will take the following actions as my time allows:
Given that Portland State University did this to me in two consecutive Terms, if I have to press the issue, I will seek compensation for the money I had to pay out in Fall 2018 just to be able to receive Financial Aid in Winter 2019 as a result of the first iteration of this mess.
That comes to $2,800, including the late fees assessed to my account.
Then there is all the time I have had to waste working through the consequences of their negligence – thirty hours minimum over the past year, at my professional contracting rate of $40/hourly comes to another $1200. Say $4,000 total in direct damages.
But frankly, the stress and anxiety this has caused me has impacted the past year – already fraught with medical terror – demands something more.
And that is what I plan to talk to some attorneys about. In the meantime, Portland State - you know how to contact me.
Where Election 2020 is headed
The Incumbent's approval ratings have remained remarkably steady since 2016. Around 40% of Americans strongly identify with him and more than 60 million will vote for him in November 2020.
The root of his appeal is deep dissatisfaction with steady economic decline in regions of the USA, intertwined with deep-seated racial animosity embedded in US history.
Part of his identity-appeal lies in demonstrating implacable opposition to the Democratic party, portrayed as corrupt and - important for keeping Evangelicals on-side - anti-Christian.
This has created dualistic dynamic - direct engagement with him feeds his base's sense of victimization. This dynamic was aptly demonstrated in the 2018 Texas Senate election, and is a characteristic of the 2-party system in an era where identity is everything.
Republicans will accept whatever reality their leader tells them. The supporters of whichever Democrat is nominated will rapidly do the same.
The Democrats however face a problem their opponents do not face. The Democrats are a big-tent party with mutually irreconcilable wings and can never count on maximum turnout.
The most likely outcome will be a repeat of the very close 2004 election, with the Republicans holding two crucial advantages: Incumbency, and several years of deliberate manipulation of the electoral process in crucial swing states.
Pennsylvania and Michigan will likely return to the Democratic column. Wisconsin has seen extreme levels of voter-roll purging, which strongly aided the 2016 result in that state, and is likely to stay red.
Florida and North Carolina, the two states aside from Wisconsin expected to be potential Democrat pickups, are (what a shock) seeing the same effort, and typically defy the Democrats' hopes.
Democratic voters are concentrated in urban areas, disproportionately non-white, and so relatively easy to passively suppress using technically legal means.
Arizona may represent the Democrat's last stand on election night, as trends in the west are moving in a different direction than in the rest of the country.
Of course, if this happens, the result will immediately be claimed to be a result of illegal voting.
What it means
What all this represents is a kind of perfect storm, the ultimate test of American Democracy.
The incumbent has repeatedly questioned the usual rules of succession, term limits - essentially all norms of American politics. He is also rhetorically consistent in promising upheaval and conflict if his position is threatened.
It must be assumed that 2020 will be a vicious election, and there is a growing possibility of violence carried out by rogue right-wing groups animated by the rhetoric.
Bitter, divisive elections tend to drive town turnout among non-partisan voters, particularly when they perceive the process as corrupt.
The stage is being set for an election featuring high turnout among partisans - mostly living in electorally-secure states for one side or the other - but low among exhausted independents.
If this is the case, the Republicans will likely win the electoral college, unless a truly uniting, Obama-esque voice is found among the Democrats - and soon.
None of the current crop are particularly inspiring, and as the top-polling candidates are all in their 70s there remains a severe generation gap that risks demolishing the Democrats' turnout hopes, much as happened in 2004 with John Kerry.
Further, with a 5-4 Conservative majority on the Supreme Court, the incumbent will likely see a path to contesting vote counts on a state-by-state basis, threatening an even worse version of the 2000 election.
Under these circumstances, the legitimate winner of the election might not be immediately known - and neither side may accept a loss lightly.
Additionally, the Incumbent is now in a position where may fear being removed from office prior to the election. This could instigate adventurous military behavior to galvanize support and impact the Democratic primary process.
And there is the age and health of Ruth Bader Ginsburg looming - were she to pass in a hotly-contested election year amid an Impeachment trial, this would have unpredictable consequences on the process.
At present, it appears more than likely that the Incumbent will be re-elected, unless the impending recession strikes *and* he is assigned blame for it by his supporters.
However, rhetorical groundwork is already being laid to blame the Democrats for any economic downturn.
In the ideal case, a Democrat would be able to unite the party's fragmented wings and appeal beyond their usual supporters.
But given this is unlikely thanks to institutional inertia, now is perhaps the moment a genuine third party might emerge.
Third Party Time?
Many portions of the American electorate remain under-served and disaffected from the process. Most lean left or right, but in general it is safe to say, based on recent turnout, that 35-40% of American voters aren't being served.
A third party with funding and the prestige-backing of notable figures could potentially consolidate much of this bloc, especially in an otherwise vicious electoral cycle, provided a common rallying cry could be found.
The party (call it the New Hope party) would have to run a woman of color, ideally a military veteran, for President - offering a stark contrast to the likely nominees offered by the other major parties.
It would also have to come up with a comprehensive vision for rebuilding America, that avoids partisan traps and reconnects the average voter to the political process.
This party would also have to publicly make the case - something most Americans agree with - that D.C. is out of control and no longer represents the citizens' best interests.
The minimum goal of this party would have to be preventing Donald Trump's re-election. This could be achieved by targeting red states where the Democrats lack any cultural appeal, and where the loss of even a few electoral college votes would block Trump from winning.
But another path to the Presidency is possible. In the event of no candidate reaching 270 Electoral Votes, Congress decides which of the top three vote-getters becomes President. Each state gets one vote - and if it meant keeping Trump from another term, the Democrats would certainly agree to a compromise choice, knowing the Republicans would never put a Democrat in the Oval Office.