Last month I noticed a letter gathering water stains on my kitchen table. It was from the University of Missouri at St. Louis, addressed to my son, a student there.
But just because a letter is addressed to my son and might forever shape his future does not necessarily mean my son, who lives at home, will actually open the letter and read it. So I did.
It said, "Careful consideration should be given to the insurance coverage for your personal belongings as well as items you may need to borrow for educational reasons. Please note the University assumes no responsibility for your personal property. Haylor, Freyer and Coon Inc. and other companies offer an optional student personal property protection insurance plan."
With the letter was a sales brochure from Haylor, Freyer and Coon Inc., an independent insurance agency in Syracuse, N.Y. The letter was on University of Missouri System stationery and signed by Ed Knollmeyer, director of risk and insurance management for the university system.
I was curious. Who sent the letter? How did a company in New York get this sweet spot for a sales pitch that appears to have university backing? Who's giving away my son's mailing address? Why doesn't my son read his own mail?
Bob Samples, an UMSL spokesman, said that since 2003 UMSL has been giving its mailing list to the Syracuse company. If you're enrolled in a class at UMSL this fall you should have received this letter. That covers roughly 12,000 students.
The reason for the letter, Samples said, is that most students don't realize the university is not responsible if their property is stolen, damaged or vandalized. Not all students on campus are covered by their parents' homeowners policies, he said.
Knollmeyer, who signed the letter, told me he knew little about why Haylor, Freyer and Coon Inc. was highlighted or why their sales brochure was selected.
"This was all organized a number of years ago," said Knollmeyer, hired in January 2007.
Back in 2003, Samples said, an UMSL administrator briefly suggested the university provide laptops in dorm rooms. That led to a broader discussion of how to inform students they might want to buy insurance for their possessions as well as for university equipment they might have borrowed.
"What about students who come to our dormitories with television sets, iPods, iPads?" Samples asked.
The 2003 discussion worked its way to the Risk and Insurance Management office in Columbia, where, at the time, William A. Payton was director.
"Normally, the university bids all their coverage," said Payton, who is retired and living in Florida. "At that time, this was a niche market for this company." Few, if any, other companies offered coverage for college students living in dorms, he said.
That's what Tom Palmer told me, as well. Since 1996 he has been a vice president with the Syracuse company.
Most insurers find it too risky to insure the property of college students in joint living arrangements, Palmer said. For example, someone on a dorm floor could spray shaving cream throughout a room, as a prank, and damage high-end electronics equipment.
Palmer said his company offers insurance through Harleysville Insurance Group, of Harleysville, Pa.
Students can choose the dollar value they want for insurance and decide the deductible. In addition, Palmer said, his company offers insurance for students studying abroad.
Palmer said it might be best for a college student to have his own policy because his or her parents' homeowners insurance — which covers possessions of far greater value than just what the student takes to college — will likely have a deductible of $500 to $1,000. That's not helpful in replacing something like an iPad or a Kindle that costs less than $500.
Palmer said his company foots the cost of mailing the letter and brochure and agrees to use the UMSL mailing list only once a year. His company does not pay UMSL for the addresses.
Palmer stressed that big companies like State Farm choose not to compete in this niche market of insuring college students.
"That is not correct, because we do," said Jim Camoriano, spokesman for State Farm in Missouri.
"We want to insure college students' property because we see many, many cases of theft, particularly when it comes to campuses," he said. "We are the largest property and casualty insurer in the area, in St. Louis, in the sate."
He questioned how a New York company got the inside track in making its sales pitch.
"It would be nice if we had that chance," he said.
According to Payton, in 2003 "State Farm was not interested in this type of business and I'm very certain of that."
Regardless, eight years have passed and it's time UMSL looks at how it handles this and whether there should be competitive bidding and whether UMSL should charge private companies for its list of student addresses.
While I'm at it, it's probably a good idea for the risk management director in Columbia to better understand the letters he signs.