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Dreams Deferred

How an overlooked type of school debt is affecting thousands of students in Virginia

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’re exploring how this debt is creating hardships for students,  making it difficult for them to complete their degrees and advance their careers. We’ll address the state and school policies that perpetuate this problem. And we’ll look at what some schools are doing to help students with this debt finish school.

How we reported this series

In April 2020, VPM News got a tip from a Virginia university staff member suggesting that the school was unfairly pursuing students for past-due tuition and fees. The staff member was concerned about students being pursued for balances as low as $20. We’re not naming the school, or the staff member, because they never granted VPM News permission to do so. 

But we started looking into the issue of direct-to-school debt and debt collection and discovered that it was common for students to owe relatively small balances to colleges, and that this was  preventing them from continuing their education.

VPM’s Megan Pauly received a fellowship from ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network to investigate the issue of college debt collection statewide. After the fellowship, VPM News continued reporting and researching, culminating in this 4-part series.

In total, we submitted dozens of public records requests to state colleges and universities and various state agencies including the attorney general’s office. We also sent a survey of detailed questions to every four-year public college and university in Virginia. The information we gathered from schools varied widely making it difficult to compare university policies and practices. Additionally, most state schools sent the bulk of past-due accounts to third-party collection agencies, and the majority of universities either did not have – or would not share – data about this debt.

We learned that at least one school, Virginia Commonwealth University, routinely attempted to collect in court before referral to collection agencies (prior to the pandemic). So we turned to court records to learn more about the role of courts in debt collection. We eventually received data through public records requests confirming the scope of court cases filed to collect past-due tuition and fees from VCU students over the past five years. We also analyzed 2020 general district court data that showed that more Virginia State University students were taken to court by the AG’s office during the pandemic, than from any other public state school.

The court records helped us reach students, too. These records included student names, and we used other databases to find student email addresses and phone numbers. We also published a callout on VPM and ProPublica’s websites, looking for students to share their stories with us. We interviewed over 20 Virginia current or former college students and obtained several students’ university records with their permission. For some students, we granted partial anonymity upon request because we detailed personal medical and financial information that could impact their ability to receive future employment and educational opportunities.

We also interviewed over 50 others, including lawmakers, attorneys, national policy experts, and school administrators. 


Reporting for this series was made possible through a ProPublica Local Reporting Network fellowship VPM News reporter Megan Pauly received in fall 2020.

Dreams Deferred was reported by VPM’s Megan Pauly with editorial guidance and production support from VPM's Sara McCloskey, David Streever, Connor Scribner, Elliott Robinson, Travis Pope and Ben Dolle.

Additional support was provided by independent contractors Johanna Zorn (editor), Amy Tardiff (fact-checker). Special thanks to ProPublica’s Alex Mierjeski, Maya Miller, Beena Raghavendran and Annie Waldman.