Will collection on unpaid private school tuition bills be a big news story in 2021? Probably.

In late July, I noticed the television ads by the Nashville Catholic Schools during the morning news, confidently advertising that their schools would be open for in-person classes the 2020-21 school year.

The first few times, I wondered if it was a coincidence that the ads were being rolled out while public schools were struggling with the decision of whether to re-open for in-person classes during the COVID pandemic.

Then, the weekend after public schools started their online-only reopening, the private schools’ messaging got a lot less subtle:

Gone were the images of sweet kids in their school uniforms.

These new ads featured a frustrated mom, dealing with a pesky kid with a tablet in her little hands, bothering the mom for help with school work while the mom tried to work from home. But, as the ad showed, once the mom signed her kid up and sent her off to in-person school at the private school, however, all was good.

At the end of the day, a private school is a business, right? This is a marketing technique called “FUD,” which means “fear, uncertainty and doubt” and is evoked intentionally in order to put a competitor at a disadvantage. In short, the private schools knew that public school parents were terrified about the start of the new school year, had no idea what to do, and the ads were deployed the weekend after Metro re-opened to provide some answers.

The campaign has worked in my neighborhood. My local school’s Parent-Teacher Organization has been decimated by defections. Seriously, I might be the new PTO president by default and not even realize it. We’ve had so many kids and their parents opt out of our (awesome) school.

But, as colleges across the country all over America are realizing this week, promises of in-person learning can be hard to keep.

As a collections lawyer, I have to wonder if parents, who were enticed by the promise of in-person learning, will be unhappy with their decision (and the exorbitant monthly tuition costs) if in-person classes are suspended. Will this unhappiness result in defaults in tuition payments?

During the last recession, I represented a handful of Nashville’s private schools in collection matters. It was not an easy task, as I wrote about in this 2011 blog post, More Than Just Legal Expense: The Unexpected Hassles of Pursuing Collection of Unpaid Debt. In that post, I said:

I was reminded of this [difficulty] when I read this [then recent] Tennessean article about lawsuits filed by Nashville private schools to collect on unpaid tuition. I was doubly reminded about the “hassle” part when I scanned the comments, with the schools’ dirty laundry getting aired for the world to see.

The school is perfectly within its rights to seek payment of past due amounts, but collections can bring out the worst in people, especially in this economy.

In 2009 and 2010, I issued a number of demand letters to parents for unpaid tuition, and, wowza, the responses I got were not pretty. The parents complained about everything imaginable. I sent probably 50 letters, but I talked the school out of filing any lawsuits. Life was too short to have to have to deal with those sorts of fights in small claims court.

So, if the promises of in-person schooling end up not coming true during the global pandemic, will parents pull their kids out? Maybe. Does the standard annual contract have a provision that keeps the parents obligated to repay the full tuition? Probably.

Should the school sue? See my 2011 post about that.

This will be a developing issue in 2021. This is the first time that many of those parents are incurring the $2,000 to $4,000 a month fees, and they may not have anticipated the huge budget impact it will have. If the pandemic takes a harder turn–whether it results in online only classes or even a parent’s job loss–will those parents be willing (or able) to stay enrolled and current on tuition?

Author: David

I am a creditors rights and commercial litigation attorney with Harris Shelton in Nashville, Tennessee.

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