States step in to prevent colleges from holding ransom transcripts for unpaid bills
Updated April 8, 2021 11:39 a.m.ET
Gabriel Toro hushed up behind his mask as he described the effort it took to complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Far from his parents and briefly homeless, he took out $ 50,000 in federal loans. He has worked as a mental health counselor, street boy in a bar, team member at Whole Foods and night cashier in a restaurant while juggling a full range of classes. He skipped meals and shared a studio to save on food and rent. He accepted a job in a clothing store to get the employee discount on the clothes he needed for his internships.
Then, just as he had completed the required credits for a bachelor’s degree in management with a minor in psychology, Toro logged into his college email account and found an unexpected notification from the Bursar’s office. The subject: “Degree retained”.
In addition to the loan debts he had taken on, Toro still owed the college money, including a $ 200 tuition fee he didn’t know was required. And until he paid, he would be barred from receiving the diploma and transcript he needed to find a job.
“I didn’t have time to cry,” he said, recalling the email that came to him as he struggled to find a job in the pandemic.
Toro, 23, is one of 97,145 students, graduates and alumni who cannot get their transcripts because they owe money to public colleges and universities in Massachusetts, according to data obtained by The Hechinger Report and GBH Boston.
Across the country, 6.6 million students cannot get their transcripts from public and private colleges and universities for unpaid bills of $ 25 or less, estimates higher education consultancy Ithaka S + R.
The policy prevents students from being able to take their credits with them if they are transferred, from attending graduate school, or finding jobs that could help them pay off their balance.
Toro learned he owed UMass Boston $ 2,715.33 for reasons he still didn’t quite understand and said he couldn’t find anyone to explain it to him.
“I need my transcript to be able to work so that I can continue my studies and be able to pay off these debts,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why we went to school.”
Advocates alternately call this “transcription ransom” and “the transcription trap”.
A spokesperson for UMass Boston, which has 9,848 students, graduates and alumni who, like Toro, cannot get their transcripts because they owe money, said in a statement that the university withheld transcripts for unpaid balances of any amount, but allows students to continue taking classes even if they owe money, provides emergency financial assistance when needed, and offers payment plans.
Marshal Joseph Berger later said in an interview that the university had stopped holding transcripts for outstanding balances under $ 1,000.
Students “may decide to go back to college, or they may need to find a job, or they may have technically completed college,” said Bill Moses, executive director of education at the Kresge Foundation, who works to close equity gaps. . But when they try to get a transcript to prove it, “it’s delayed”.
Unpaid bills can be not only for tuition, but also for accommodation and board, fees, parking and library fines, and other fees that students sometimes ignore. In many cases, late fees are added, greatly increasing the original amounts.
Jarrod Robinson left Ohio University after three semesters, then retired, eventually returning to a community college closer to his home. But the university will not release Robinson’s transcript – or any of those credits already earned – due to an unpaid bill for three months of room and board which, along with interest and penalties, rose to 18,000. $.
This “punitive approach to student debt” “is holding me back,” said Robinson, now 25, who studies environmental science. “It’s crazy withholding transcripts. It really puts people in the lower echelons of society in a trap that continues to advance cyclical poverty.”
A spokesperson for the OU said transcripts are kept for any balances owed, regardless of the amount. She said the university offered payment plans to help students pay them back.
Not surprisingly, the impact of withholding transcripts falls almost entirely on low-income students. The practice also disproportionately affects community college students, who present themselves as affordable and transfer-friendly, the nonprofit Policy Matters Ohio research institute has found. And it is preventing at least some of the 36 million Americans who started but never completed college from resuming their education, even as many must change careers amid the pandemic recession and policymakers and academia themselves try to attract them.
“A hospital cannot harm a person’s health when they don’t pay, but somehow we have made it possible for higher education institutions [students] cannot have that transcript “proving they received an education,” said Rebecca Maurer, a lawyer with the nonprofit advocacy group the Student Borrower Protection Center. It is a unique and unfair debt collection tool. “
Retaining transcripts also appears to be an inefficient collection method. In Ohio, which has one of the most aggressive collection practices in the country, for example, less than 7 cents of every dollar owed by students, graduates and alumni of public universities is collected each year, according to a study by Policy Matters Ohio.
In Massachusetts, several officials from public universities and colleges have imposed the burden of the practice of withholding transcripts on declining state funding, forcing them to increase costs and making it difficult to cancel. debt.
Some community college presidents whose schools were asked to provide the figures on this practice said they were surprised at the number of students affected and wondered aloud if essentially preventing their graduates from getting good grades. jobs was the best way to help them pay what they owe.
“We really need to look at whether this is in fact an effective policy to encourage students to return their money,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, which reported 5,331 students, graduates and former students with unpaid balances of $ 100 or more whose transcripts have been withheld.
Bunker Hill has said he will abandon politics and no longer withhold transcripts and diplomas from students who owe money.
Several states have passed or are considering laws to curb the practice of preventing students who owe money from getting their transcripts. Last year, California became the first state in which public and private higher education institutions were prohibited from withholding transcripts from students with unpaid debts. A new law in Washington state requires that students who owe money be allowed to obtain their transcripts to apply for a job.
A coalition of advocacy groups in New York is pushing for a measure like California’s. And a bill in Massachusetts would give students ownership of their college and university transcripts, but not their degrees, if they still owe money.
“They have the transcript, the grades they’ve already paid and earned,” said Massachusetts State Senator Harriette Chandler, co-sponsor of the bill. Preventing a student from getting a record of this “is wrong. It is simply wrong. It means that if you have debt left in school, you cannot go on with your life.”
Back in Boston, Toro plans to one day run for political office – he has his eye on city council – to stand up for people like him and promote change.
Student anger over withheld transcripts, he said, “is starting to create that momentum, that voice of people who feel like they haven’t been treated well by their educational institutions.” And that’s for all kinds of weird fees, like something as small as a parking ticket. “
Toro said that he and other members of his generation “learned to value education, that you have to get a college degree, you have to go to college, you have to graduate.” When they can’t, “there is a feeling of shame. There is a stigma that they cannot manage themselves financially, which is completely wrong. They are just victims of a predatory system.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger report in collaboration with GBH News in Boston. Additional reporting by Kirk Carapezza. Research assistance by Diane Adame. This story was originally published and broadcast on GBH News, and subsequently listeners and readers came forward to pay Gabriel Toro’s outstanding bill at college, earning him his transcript and diploma. .
Copyright NPR 2021.