I have a son who was attending Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. In mid-April, he was diagnosed with a condition called chronic osteomyelitis. Essentially his right femur had staph and pseudomonas bacteria growing inside his bone.

Over four weeks he had three surgeries. He has been told he will face more surgeries.

When he became ill, we reached out to the college requesting incompletes for the semester, and we requested that he be allowed to finish his work over the summer. They have refused. Scott will not be able to complete his classes and we are facing a large loss of tuition and fees.

The four courses were intro freshman classes. I do not understand why they will not work online or provide other options for completing his classes.

- Kay Hunsberger, Perkasie, Pa.

Got a consumer problem? The ABC News Fixer may be able to help. Click here to submit your problem online. Letters are edited for length and clarity.

DEAR KAY:

Talk about a double-whammy – first, your son comes down with a truly awful illness and then you get to watch all that college money just go down the drain.

Between the time you wrote to the ABC News Fixer and the time we got involved, Elizabethtown College had agreed to already figured out a refund of tuition, room and board and other fees, based on the number of spring semester weeks that had gone by before your son formally withdrew. That came to about $7,100. Unfortunately, they weren’t willing to budge on your request that Scott be able to finish the classes over the summer, nor would they increase the amount of your refund. You told us that in the end, you’re still out about $11,000.

We’re sorry this didn’t work out better.

But your problem got us thinking: What about all the thousands of kids heading off to college this fall? Is there any way to avoid the financial hit that comes when a student gets sick in the middle of the semester?

There are few things students and their parents can do to mitigate the financial fallout, according to Kal Chany, college finance expert and author of “Paying for College Without Going Broke”:

  • Before your student leaves for school, carefully read the college’s policy on medical withdrawals in the middle of a semester, so you’ll know what your family might face if your student has to leave early. Often, the size of the refund will depend on how many weeks have gone by, but each school can set its own policy and some are more liberal than others (though the return of federal student loan money is governed by federal law).


  • Before school starts, consider buying tuition insurance or a tuition refund plan. This usually costs a few hundred dollars but will pay you back for all or part of the tuition if your student gets sick and can’t finish school.


  • The moment it becomes clear that your student won’t come back, follow the school’s procedures to withdraw and put everything in writing. Since your refund may be based on the number of class weeks that have gone by, you’ll want to stop that clock immediately.


  • It may sound ghoulish, but if you’ve co-signed on private loans for your student, consider buying a small term life insurance policy. It would be tragic enough if your child died – but your grief could be compounded by bill collectors if you don’t have the means to pay off those loans.


  • If your student drops out because of a medical issue, consider making up the lost course time over the summer at a local community college. The tuition will be cheaper, and as long as the credit will transfer your student can get some intro-level classes out of the way. He’ll stay on track to graduate on time and you won’t be paying much more than you had planned. Or, ask your college whether your student can take extra classes after he returns; that’s another way to get caught up over time.


- The ABC News Fixer

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Stephanie Zimmermann

Most people groan at the thought of spending hours on the phone with a customer service call center, but Stephanie Zimmermann relishes the chance to slice through red tape.

Before joining ABC News, Stephanie untangled consumer problems at the Chicago Sun-Times, where her popular column recovered more than $1.4 million in refunds, credits, and merchandise for consumers in the Windy City.

Stephanie, who lives in Chicago, has also worked at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and has bachelor's and master's degrees from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. But most of all, Stephanie is a consumer who hates to see anyone else get ripped off.