That's an important distinction. Because state colleges are state government functions, the statute of limitations is different. It can be as long as ten years, depending on how the debt was arranged. So it is important to get confirmation of the debt, and the documentation on which the debt is predicated first.
Once that is obtained, if it appears that the debt is covered by the ten year statute of limitations (a contract
with the word "seal" appearing at the signature line, for instance), then it may still be collectible.
There's a good run down of the procedures under the state debt collection laws at one of the UNC campus's websites. (While some information, such as the name of a specific debt collection vendor may be particular to that unit of UNC, the procedures are generally statewide, under a law that requires the Attorney General to handle collections for state government units, including UNC campuses)http://www.uncp.edu/ba/policies/co/co0708.html
The Attorney General's Office provides the following guidelines:http://www.ncdoj.com/Files/About-DOJ/Legal-Services/Legal-Resources/Collections-Guidelines-Sept-2008.aspx
It is interesting to note that the Attorney General's office does not advise not to collect debts on which the statue of limitations has run; the reason is that that if a debtor acknowledges the debt exists, it starts the clock running again on the statute of limitations. So it is important to say nothing, except ask for proof of debt, including billing and payment records, as well as the nature of the debt (so as to determine if the debt is being pursued under the three-year statute of limitations or the ten-year one).
Here's a precise quote from the Attorney General's guidelines for state agencies:
"The Debtor has the burden of proof
of bringing the defense that the statute of limitations has run. Once a debtor raises this defense the collection agency and the Collection Section will stop all collection proceedings and return the account to the Agency creditor with the code (SOL), which means Statute of Limitations has run and the account is considered uncollectible. If the Debtor raises the defense of Statute of Limitations to the Agency Creditor, then the Agency Creditor should also consider the account as uncollectible if the Statute of Limitations as run.
But the Attorney General tells the state to use a gotcha: "If a Debtor acknowledges the debt, either by letter, e-mail or by making a payment toward the debt, this will renew the statute of limitations and it will begin again from the date the correspondence or payment is received by the Agency Creditor."
In sum, the previous expert's guidance is correct if the debt is covered by the three-year statute of limitations. But if the university says it was incurred under a contract (for instance, for room and board) signed under seal (which is a legal term, in the old days for a wax seal, but these days is usually done simply by printing the word SEAL by the signature block), then the statute of limitations runs for ten years. No matter what, watch out for the gotcha as described -- with this, as with any debt collection effort.
I wish you every success in resolving this matter!