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Old debts present challenge for NSU

PIERRE -- Students have routinely dropped out of school while still owing money to South Dakota's public universities. Collecting on those debts seems to become impossible when the former students leave the country, as has happened to Northern State University in Aberdeen.

NSU is seeking permission from the state Board of Finance to write off $13,759.74 of students debts that appear uncollectible.

That amount includes more than $10,000 owed since 2010 by 10 students who, according to university officials, are no longer are in the United States.

The state board routinely allows universities and state agencies to write off unpaid debts after several years.

The debts are still owed and remain on the students' records, but don't have to be part of the ongoing accounting.

In the case of NSU, however, the board wants proof of the university's efforts.

The board at its November meeting asked for further documentation. The board took up the matter again Tuesday at its December meeting but none of the participants had seen anything from NSU.

That evidently was a problem of timing and circumstances.

According to university spokeswoman Brenda Dreyer, NSU sent the information on Dec. 10 to the secretary of state's office, which is the administrative center for the Board of Finance.

The person to whom the information was sent, however, wasn't in the office this week.

That was one of several administrative difficulties.

Board members didn't receive an agenda or notice until the day prior to the meeting, and the board also didn't comply with the state open meeting requirement that notice of the meeting be posted at least 24 hours in advance.

Dreyer said Thursday the university provided answers to the board's questions. She said the university followed the specific policy set by the state Board of Regents, whose members govern the public universities.

The policy requires three in-house attempts by the university, followed by referring the debt to a collection agency. After the agency exhausts its efforts, the debt can be referred to the state board for write-off if the debt is at least two years old.

Dreyer said the collection agency didn't act on the debts because it isn't allowed to make calls outside the country.

The amount that NSU is seeking for write-off was a fraction of the $130,575.08 that Black Hills State University in Spearfish submitted to the state board.

BHSU received approval. Most of those 120-plus debts were at least six years old and had been worked by Progressive Financial Services.

State policy prohibits students who have debts from re-enrolling until the debts are paid.