A former VCU student moved out of her dorm after two weeks, but Virginia took her to court for the full semester’s rent during the pandemic.
Over the past year, VPM News has been looking into a hidden type of debt affecting thousands of Virginia college students. It’s not federal student loans, which dominates most of the headlines. It’s money owed directly to institutions, called direct-to-school debt.
In our series Dreams Deferred, we’ve been exploring how this is creating hardships for students, making it difficult for them to complete their degrees and advance their careers. To start this series from the beginning, click here.
In summer 2018, Kennedy Burke got a startling text message from her mom. She remembers her mother telling her about a letter she’d received from Virginia Commonwealth University. She was being sued by the university, according to the text.
“I just remember feeling extremely targeted and very small,” she said. “They’re a big institution, and I was just a very poor 19-year-old girl.”
At the time, Burke was working a summer waitressing job at Yellowstone’s Roosevelt Lodge, where she earned $2.13 an hour plus tips and slept in a staff bunkhouse. She’d made her weekly 45-minute drive from the lodge to Gardiner, Montana to get cell reception and call home to Virginia when she saw the text.
“I had made sure that I had left VCU in time without being charged,” Burke said. “And so I called my mom. And I was like…I don't really know what this is about, I don't get it. It must be a mistake.”
Burke had only attended classes for one week in fall 2017 when she decided it wasn’t the right time — or the right school — for her. When she left VCU, she says she was told she didn’t owe any money for tuition because she withdrew in time to get it fully refunded.
But even though Burke occupied her VCU dorm for less than two weeks, she was still charged for the entire semester’s dorm rent. According to court paperwork, it was determined she owed $2,796 plus $699 in fees for a total of $3,495.
VCU’s tuition refund policy didn't — and still doesn't — align with the student dorm cancelation policy, creating a situation where VCU didn’t charge Burke for any tuition but kept her on the hook for the entire semester’s worth of dorm rent. In Virginia, tuition policies are regulated, but universities have unlimited discretion when setting the housing policies that contributed to Burke’s debt.
The seriousness of the situation only sunk in when Kennedy Burke spoke to Charlottesville-based attorney George Coles, her friend’s dad, who agreed to help with the court case.
“I realized that it was going to be a process,” Burke said. “[It] wasn't just going to be George calling VCU up and being like, ‘Hey, this girl doesn't owe money.’”
It’s all about the contract
Coles argued in court that because Burke’s dorm room was later occupied by another student that semester, she shouldn’t be charged for the full semester’s rent. But Coles said VCU and the state Attorney General Mark Herring’s office argued that because of the language in the contract, whether or not the room was later occupied was irrelevant.
“Their response was they always have empty units,” Coles said. “And to move a person from one dorm to another doesn't mean that they have made up the economic loss by Kennedy leaving.”
While Coles was fighting the case in court, Burke filed an administrative appeal with VCU to get her housing fees refunded, too, but that appeal was denied.
Tom Gresham, a spokesperson for VCU, told VPM News in an email statement that VCU has a “general practice” of granting prorated refunds to students. Gresham said that VCU’s Residential Life and Housing staff receives a list of students who’ve withdrawn by the university add/drop deadline and processes a prorated refund based on either the add/drop date or the date the student moved out.
But that didn’t happen in Kennedy Burke’s case; she says she wasn’t notified by the school about this option.
Ultimately, the housing contract alone was enough for the judge to rule that Burke owed the money. The judge did reduce the principal rent charge by a few hundred dollars: from $3,099.50 to $2,796.00.
“The breach of contract here is the failure to pay the full room charge, not the failure to cancel within the grace period,” Judge Lawrence B. Cann wrote in a letter to both attorneys before entering his written opinion. “By failing to cancel before July 11, Burke ‘lost the ability to cancel without financial responsibility for the entire room charge.’”
In other words, unless Burke had notified the school of plans to move out within five business days of receiving her room assignment — well over a month before her classes even started — the contract specified that it couldn’t be terminated for any reason.
A since-updated housing contract for the current school year includes some additional language stating that students can be released from housing charges in “certain limited circumstances, for example, if the Resident’s assignment can be reassigned to another student or certain instances of university-approved Medical Leave of Absence.”
Studies have shown that hardly anyone reads the fine print in lengthy contracts; in fact, in a 2016 study, people agreed to give up their first-born child, proof they weren’t reading the fine print.
“From the point of view of companies and policy-makers, the idea that these documents are eliciting informed consent is really a joke,” said Shankar Vedantam in a 2016 NPR story about the study. “They [contracts] may provide legal cover, but how many people are really providing informed consent?”
An impossible situation
The following summer – a year after she found out VCU was taking her to court over dorm rent – Burke was waitressing at Yellowstone’s Roosevelt Lodge again. After making the 40-minute drive for cell service one day, she was sitting outside on the Tumbleweed Cafe’s front porch sipping a drip coffee with extra cream.
As she sat on the cafe’s patio, she pulled out her laptop and started checking emails. She’d already attended three semesters at James Madison University in Harrisonburg and was enrolled in classes for the upcoming fall 2019 semester. But there was some bad news: Burke wouldn’t be allowed to enroll in classes until she paid JMU $5,433. Burke had dropped two classes the fall prior while changing her major. As a result, her cost of attendance had been adjusted down as well as her financial aid package.
“I didn't really have any guidance and had no idea that [dropping classes] would have an effect on my financial aid,” Burke said.
That meant she had to immediately pay back some private loan funds she’d already been awarded to the school, since JMU had sent those funds back to the bank. Burke was now on the hook for $5,433, and she’d have to pay off the entire balance before she could resume classes at JMU or receive a copy of her transcript to resume classes elsewhere.
According to information SCHEV recently requested of public Virginia universities as part of a Congressional inquiry into the issue, JMU withholds transcripts from all students with a balance, regardless of dollar amount, though they say they’ve made some exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
“I was crying, getting frustrated, and calling so many different people. I'm sure I looked like a wreck,” Burke said. “I didn't really know where my path was going to be if I wasn’t in school.”
Kennedy Burke had a sinking sense of deja vu.
She now owed money to JMU in addition to VCU, and Burke says she couldn’t just pay out of pocket and resume classes. She was living paycheck to paycheck and qualified for Medicaid at the time.
Burke called her bank to see if she could take out a private loan to cover the cost, and they said no. Her mom couldn’t afford to help her, either. Burke was paying her way through college on her own, like nearly a third of college students across the country.
On her drive back home from Yellowstone that summer, she slept in her car in Walmart parking lots because she couldn’t afford a motel. She had to move back in with her mom and worked two jobs for a year in order to pay JMU back so she could go back to school.
Collection efforts continued during pandemic
At one point while sleeping on her mom’s couch and trying to figure out how to pay JMU back, Burke considered moving to England to study. That’s where her mother is from; Burke says she lived in England, Wales and Ireland as a child before moving to the U.S. when she was 9 years old. She’s considered pursuing a master’s degree in Irish literature.
“I was just like, maybe a different country will give me a better experience in terms of education,” Burke said.
But she couldn’t afford the move. And after reflecting on her experience at JMU, Burke says it was her respect for, and relationship with, certain professors that helped her ultimately decide to finish her degree at JMU.
Burke was finally able to reenroll at JMU this past fall after taking a year off.
She’s in her senior year and is majoring in English. Burke is really excited about classes like reproductive dystopian literature and is thinking about pursuing a master’s in creative writing.
But Burke’s financial woes aren’t yet behind her. In December 2020 – during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – the state attorney general’s office attempted to garnish Burke’s wages to repay the VCU dorm debt. And, ironically, they sent garnishment paperwork to the employer Burke worked for while taking a year off from JMU to pay JMU back.
The state was ultimately unsuccessful in garnishing Burke’s wages because government employees tried to collect from a former employer and not a current one. But that doesn’t mean they’ll let her off the hook.
Right now, Burke can’t afford to pay VCU back for the dorm rent. She still lives paycheck to paycheck, and at one point early in the pandemic had to decide which bills to pay that month. Her hours at work got cut, but she didn’t qualify for unemployment.
Burke says she hopes someone will have a change of heart and drop the VCU debt issue, or that she’ll at least be allowed to wait until she’s out of school and has a steady income to start making payments.
“It’s really had a huge psychological toll on me,” Burke said. “Because it’s just another thing I have to worry about. It just felt so unjust how it all went down.”