Monday, 28 October 2019 19:56

Students Beware: Portland State University

In Brief:

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.

Best avoided.

Next Steps

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:

  • Leave this web page up, indexed on search engines, and periodically shared on social media to deter prospective students

  • Contact elected representatives at the state and federal level to request oversight and intervention

  • Report Portland State University’s conduct to the Department of Education

  • Tell my story through area media publications like The Oregonian

  • Engage the services of an attorney to recover my own costs and pursue damages on behalf of myself and any other victims

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.