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Background: I just graduated from a US university. I have also received my diploma (both in paper form mailed to me and also in electronic form) certifying that I have received such-and-such a degree.

However, I have not paid the tuition fees for the very last semester in which I enrolled.

I do not plan to have any dealings with that university ever again. Nor do I intend to work in academia.

It appears that eventually they will put some sort of "financial hold" on my student account, but given that I already have what I need (namely the degree), I don't really care about that.

So my question is this: What consequences are there if I never pay those tuition fees? For example, can they (or will they) revoke my degree? Are they likely to pursue me for the money?

New information added: I originally requested that morality and ethics be left out of this question, but it seems clear that with some exceptions (notably NateEldredge), this request has been ignored. So I would like to elaborate a little more on my situation, in the hopes that the focus will be moved a little further away from calling me a thief and instead answering my above questions.

(1) I last took classes in the spring semester and was supposed to graduate then, but because of a mistake on my part, I missed the deadline to apply for graduation that semester. And so in order to graduate, I had to register for the summer semester as well. I did not take any classes in the summer semester. I did not take up any additional resources during the summer semester, unless you include whatever little manpower was required to process my graduation. Nonetheless I was fully billed for it, as if I took a full load of classes.

(2) This is perhaps controversial, but I personally view the US higher education system as being costly to the point of injustice. I have already paid >$200k in tuition and fees into the system and now I am being billed for another semester in which I took no classes.

The money is not the issue. If I go ahead with this plan, I will donate every penny of that semester's worth of tuition fees to some worthy charity instead. The issue is that I am disgusted with having to give away even more of my money to the bloated, inefficient, "not-for-profit" US higher education system.

Some here have called me a thief. But I prefer to see this as a small act of civil disobedience---akin to what Aaron Swartz did, when he "stole" millions of articles from JSTOR and refused to compensate JSTOR for the "damages". (Note: By no means do I consider this potential act of mine as great and noble as Swartz's; I'm just trying to draw an analogy here.)

(3) BTW, I am an international student. So there is the option of me simply leaving and never returning to the US, in which case the concerns associated with bad credit are moot. Although I would also like to have the option of staying in the US, and so I do welcome and appreciate the answers given thus far regarding credit issues.

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    You are now a university graduate and you are educated enough to know that money debts do not evaporate by ignoring them or hiding your head in the sand and pretend they do not exist. Instead they have huge interests when they are overdue and they become even bigger over time. What do you believe? That you are the first person who thought of such a silly scheme against universities? You have more chances to ask for a refund, because they have not taught you the basics of how debts, economy and life in general works, than getting away with such a ridiculous plan. – Alexandros Aug 15 '15 at 15:03
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    What happens if you rent an apartment for a year and don't pay the last month? The landlord was kind enough not to kick you out; you are now leaving to a different city and don't have plans to have any dealings with him (or that city) again; moreover, you and have no moral qualms about not paying the last month -- you have already paid thousands of dollars for previous months. What do you think will happen? – Ran G. Aug 15 '15 at 16:04
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    What consequences are there to being a thief? – Pete Becker Aug 15 '15 at 18:02
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    Should we ignore all moral aspects just because you want us to, and, help you not avoid paying a legal debt? – Pierre B Aug 15 '15 at 20:02
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    How much you feel is "enough" to pay isn't really relevant to how much you owe. – Matthew Leingang Aug 15 '15 at 21:04
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Some universities (perhaps most) will refuse to provide transcripts for students who owe money. Example.

This can be a serious problem for you. Some employers insist upon an official transcript as a condition of employment. Your diploma or similar certificate will not suffice; the employer wants a document directly from the university, which has not passed through your hands (to avoid the risk of you falsifying it). If the university won't send a transcript because you didn't pay them, too bad, no job for you.

Also, you say you are done with academia, but if you should change your mind someday: US graduate programs generally require an official transcript from your undergraduate university as a condition of admission. So no grad school for you, either.

Academic matters aside, the university also has all the same options that would be available to any other creditor. This side of things is more on topic for our sibling site, http://money.stackexchange.com, but as a partial overview:

  • They can report you to a credit agency, which will damage your credit score and make it difficult or impossible for you to get credit cards, car loans, mortgages, etc. Bad credit can also keep you from getting a job in certain industries, especially defense and other work that requires a security clearance.

  • They can refer your account to a collection agency, who will try pretty hard to bother you until you pay.

  • In principle, they could sue you, and they'd almost certainly win, as they can easily prove you owe the money. This would enable them to get a court order to seize your assets (eg take money directly from your bank account) or garnish your wages (take money directly from your paycheck).

  • Note that while technically your employer is not supposed to treat you any different if your wages get garnished, in the real world they don't forget that this person doesn't pay their debts. – corsiKa Aug 17 '15 at 17:48
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For example, can they (or will they) revoke my degree?

I am surprised that you were issued a degree without having paid tuition for your last semester. In most cases I am familiar with, universities require students to be in good financial standing in order to receive a degree, for exactly this reason. If it was an intentional decision, not holding up your degree for nonpayment of tuition is unusually generous on their part. If it was a bureaucratic mistake: yes, it seems that in principle they could revoke -- or suspend pending payment, or whatever -- your degree. Given that you did not live up to your end of the bargain in a significant way, I would have to acknowledge their right to do so. Will they? I don't know: you could ask them.

Are they likely to pursue me for the money?

It is likely that you will be hearing from them within the next year, yes. When they contact you, you'll learn how serious they are and what their terms are. The chance that they will ask about it presumably becomes smaller as time passes, but you never know. In terms of how long you are legally liable for the debt: a good long time; ask a lawyer. My PhD program wrote to tell me that I had overpaid a bill in my final semester and they wanted to send me a refund check. I received this letter from them about eight years after receiving my PhD! (There was something in there about their not having been able to track me down, which I thought was pretty weird, but bureaucracies work in strange ways.) If a university was so durably interested in squaring an old account in my favor, I would not at all discount the possibility that N years down the line they could discover the issue and start it up again. Not doing anything would risk having this hang over you indefinitely.

Personally I have no moral qualms about not paying that last semester's fees, given that I've already paid upwards of $200k over the years.

Just because you have no moral qualms about something does not make your actions ethical. Many people, including future employers, upon learning about this would view it as a serious character flaw. If you plan on listing your degree on your resume then anyone who wants to can look into this at any time. Are you confident now that what you are doing five or ten or twenty years later is something so that having this information revealed would be no problem for you?

Added: The OP has modified his question. I will address those modifications.

First I want to address the point about the ethics. I read that carefully, and the claim that I ignored it is false. The OP's question was "What can happen to me if I do this?" and after addressing all of the specific questions he asked about that, I decided to address the part that there are practical consequences to behaving in a way that other people regard as unethical. Pointing out "If you do this, then you may -- or may not, depending upon the circles you run in -- get in trouble" is not an ethical argument in the slightest. It is quite the opposite. Only at the very end of my answer did I include two sentences which indicated that I viewed the actions as unethical. This point has been well made by many others by now, so I have removed those sentences. This leaves an answer which is 100% devoted to answering both the letter and spirit of the OP's question.

Now, on to the added points:

(1) This is an important detail, enough so that it probably should have been in the original question. Being charged for a full semester's tuition even though you didn't take any classes does seem unjust. In fact, it is so unjust that I think there is a good chance that it was a mistake of some sort, and the fact that you were allowed to graduate is nontrivial evidence of that (a circumstance which otherwise seems quite irregular). If you have received a bill for a full semester's worth of tuition, you should speak to some university official on the phone or in person and explain why that is not reasonable. Definitely mention that you've already received the degree.

(2) You are now explicitly making an ethical argument, so here we go. Referring to the nonpayment of a debt that you entered into voluntarily following a mistake on your part as "civil disobedience" is ridiculous almost to the point of being offensive. If you wanted to stand on principle, then you should not have agreed to pay the bill in the first place. You could then have asked them "Are you really going to deny me my degree after I've completed all the requirements and paid all the tuition just because of some missed graduation deadline? Because I refuse to pay another semester's tuition: that's outrageous. In exchange, I will tell the world that I do not have a degree from this institution but that I completed all the requirements and paid all the money for the semesters that I took." Instead you obtained your degree under a promise to pay and are now reneging on that promise. This is not a virtuous act.

(2 continued) You chose to pay more than $200,000 for your college education. (Statistically speaking, it is much more likely that your parents paid. But I'm taking you at your word.) Is that more than you should have paid? Well, that's for you to decide, but it's a hell of a lot more than I paid or would have been willing to pay. In fact I paid no tuition whatsoever, because I got a merit-based scholarship. My sister got into an Ivy League school but decided to attend an excellent state university instead and paid a fraction of the price. At my current institution, in-state residents who maintain a 3.0 GPA pay no tuition whatsoever. And so on. The flaw in your moral stance is that you willingly entered into this bargain. Arguably you shouldn't have. Not only would you have more moral high ground, you would probably have at least another $100,000.

(3) For an international student to come to the US and pay full tuition, it is likely that you come from a wealthy background and that you and/or your family have made a very conscious investment in getting a degree from an elite American institution. You could have attended a university in your native country, most likely for a small fraction of the cost. Since you did not do that, I am guessing that you want to be able to advertise your American degree. If that degree carries a lot of prestige in your home country, then it seems likely that they will not just take your word for it that you attended and graduated but will want to see official documents and/or transcripts coming from the university. Investing $200,000 and not having that to show for it would be a very poor outcome for you...practically speaking.

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    At my institution "fulfilling all financial obligations to the university" is a stated graduation requirement in both the undergraduate and graduate course catalogs. I am also surprised you received your diploma at all. – Ben Norris Aug 15 '15 at 15:02
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    Even at my (public) high school they won't let you graduate till you've paid your debts! (Library dues, sports, etc.) – Elliot Gorokhovsky Aug 16 '15 at 4:50
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    A friend of mine had to pay the final 50p they owed before they could graduate. – Jessica B Aug 16 '15 at 7:19
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    Yeah, you may not have a problem with it morally, but this "Many people, including future employers, upon learning about this would view it as a serious character flaw" is so true. This question just makes me queasy. I'm surprised you're able to justify it to yourself as anything other than theft. – Dan Aug 17 '15 at 22:57
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    @djechlin it's really not. Inflating tuition is a consequence of government-subsidized cheap credit. Civil disobedience would be to refuse to pay the taxes that fuel that inflation. Especially if the money is spent on people who at the end do not understand simple concepts like a commercial transaction, a debt, or what "civil disobedience" really is. I second Pete's comment about the use of that word being inappropriate. – Cape Code Aug 18 '15 at 9:14
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If I were a hiring manager verifying the degree for a recent graduate and the institution reported that they walked away without paying their bills, that candidate would be an automatic no-hire. Would you want to work with someone who had demonstrated they cannot be trusted?

Even ignoring the ethics of the situation, be careful with your reputation. You can earn money to pay off debt, but repairing your reputation is much more difficult. The world is smaller than you might imagine and consequences have a tendency of coming back around in surprising ways.

Others have already covered the more basic financial aspects of not making good on your debts. If you ever want to buy a home, in particular, pay careful attention to your credit record.

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another aspect that everyone else seems to have missed is that the school can go back and issue you an AF (administrative fail) for the semester's courses, thus invalidating your degree. The piece of paper they handed you as you walked across the commencement podium is not your degree...it's just a certificate.

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    Interesting. I'm not familiar with any universities that have a policy of retroactively altering student grades (or invalidating degrees) for financial or other non-academic reasons. Can you point to a university that does have such a policy (preferably in writing)? – Nate Eldredge Aug 17 '15 at 17:16
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    If the OP didn't take any subjects that semester then what would the AF apply to? – curiousdannii Aug 18 '15 at 7:14
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    Most universities have a policy that all tuition and fees must be fully settled for a degree to be issued. Many will, however, allow the candidate to walk across the commencement podium and receive a scroll along with their classmates, because of the administrative delays and "friction" in the system. My point is that the OP thinks he has a degree, but he might just have a piece of paper. What matters is whether the UNIVERSITY thinks he has a degree. – dwoz Aug 24 '15 at 14:33
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Any debt you have can be eventually sold by the party you owe to (although for amount less than original) to agency which is collecting payments. If such an agency is unsuccessful to get the payment from you, they usually work with executor on collecting it. In my country, executor has powers guaranted by law which include blocking your bank account or seizing your property including house, appartment or car. And they do it. Even with smaller owed amounts, executor fees plus interest can cost you much. I know cases where people originally owing 10.000€ were expected to pay 45.000€ after few years.

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What consequences are there if I never pay those tuition fees?

They take you to court and sue you for their money. This puts a black mark on your credit rating. Then either 1) you pay, or 2) you don't pay.

  1. You pay, have a lower credit rating, but this will gradually rise again if you make all your payments on time.

  2. You don't pay. The court issues an unsatisfied judgement with the credit bureau. This NEVER goes away (until it is paid). Later you want to get married and buy a house, car, etc.... The bank looks at your credit report, sees UNSATISFIED JUDGEMENT and closes the file, that's it, you're done.

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    The bank will only look at your credit report if you try to borrow money. And getting married should work in any case. – gerrit Aug 17 '15 at 9:07
  • Also this is only a possible consequence with several possible detours: (1) most universities don't bother suing people for debts themselves, (2) the people they sell the debts to buy them cheap and may or may not sue you, (3) when they sue you, they may or may not offer a settlement, and (4) state judges are pretty crazy sometimes. – virmaior Aug 18 '15 at 11:11
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Another point not mentioned by others is this: College debts CANNOT be included in any subsequent bankruptcy actions on your part. In other words, if you owe your university for your last semester's tuition and figure you'll simply file for bankruptcy and "wipe the slate clean" your college debts will still be with you after you've filed for bankruptcy. And, with that bankruptcy action following you for at least seven years into any requests for credit that you might make - including mortgages - it seems a pointless exercise. In addition to credit worthiness, a bankruptcy affects your attempts to get a job, to obtain a security clearance, and even to obtain rental housing.

Pulling a fast one on your university is not something you first thought up. This idea is NOT original by you. Universities are plagued with a few shysters like you every year. That's why it's so surprising to many of us that the university allowed you to think that you've graduated and "got away with it." If I were you, I'd start looking over my shoulder at my credit report, waiting for collection agencies to start calling at all hours, and find either your bank account or paycheck docked the cost of your tuition - plus attorney's fees - all actions you will have no control over. You might think you've gotten away with something, but you'll learn the hard way that the real world (beyond academia) has a way of dealing with shysters and thieves.

The amount you've already paid for your education has no bearing on the matter.

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    What you describe is the case for student loans. It's not clear if the OP has actually taken out a student loan for the semester (signed a promissory note, agreed to a payment plan, etc). It sounds to me more as if the university has simply billed him for the full amount of tuition, payable immediately - no loan was taken out. I'm not aware that the "no discharge in bankruptcy" rule applies in that case - do you have a citation for this? – Nate Eldredge Aug 17 '15 at 17:08
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    Specifically, if he had a student loan, then the university would have been paid in full by the lender, and they would have no reason to place a financial hold on the OP's account. In that case the OP's debt would be to the lender, not to the university, and the lender wouldn't have the power to impose any academic consequences. – Nate Eldredge Aug 17 '15 at 17:12
  • In fact, contrary to the un-eliminable nature of student loans, paid college tuition can be clawed back in bankruptcy to meet the claims of other debtors (wsj.com/articles/…) – virmaior Aug 18 '15 at 11:15
  • agreed with @NateEldredge here...this answer is completely wrong. Federally guaranteed student loans are not dischargeable, but a debt to the school itself is. A loan comes from a BANK, not a school, though the whole bank mechanism might not be apparent to a student who is not paying a lot of attention. – dwoz Aug 24 '15 at 14:37
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Due to people getting caught lying on their resumes/CVs more and more employers are verifying with schools that candidates actually attended and received the degrees they have listed.

Your university could place a hold on your records and then refuse to confirm your attendance and/or graduation to a potential employer. Whose word do you think a potential employer will take more seriously? My money is on it being not yours.

As to your in-hand paper certificate and electronic file, in all honesty, they're worth the paper they're printed on.

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