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Massachusetts Public Colleges Are Withholding Transcripts And Degrees From Thousands Over Unpaid Bills

States increasingly are stepping in to block this debt-collection tool.

3/23/2021 3:39:00 PM

Nationwide, 6.6 million students can’t get their transcripts from their college because of unpaid school bills -- some of them $25 or less. The policies can stop students from transferring their credits or even from getting jobs. WGBHNews

States increasingly are stepping in to block this debt-collection tool.

from resuming their educations, even as many need to change careers in the pandemic recession and as policymakers and universities themselves attempt to lure them back.“When you start working with adult learners you find a lot of people who have institutional debt,” said Julie Szeltner, senior director of adult programs and services at College Now Greater Cleveland, which provides college and financial aid advising. “All these people are locked out of continuing their educations. Beyond the moral imperative, there’s just a business case to be made. You’re not going to have any students if you don’t find a better way to do this.”

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Beyond the moral imperative, there’s just a business case to be made. You’re not going to have any students if you don’t find a better way to do this.Unlocking these holds can be time-consuming and confusing, especially for students without experience in financial matters or who don’t know whom to call, said Szeltner. “It’s such a hassle,” she said. “Think about getting on the phone with your insurance company and multiply that times 1,000.”

Withholding transcripts also appears to be a not particularly effective way to collect. In Ohio, which has one of the nation’s most aggressive collections practices, for instance,less than 7 cents of every dollar owedby students, graduates and former students at public universities is recovered annually, a study by Policy Matters Ohio found.

There’s been little public attention to the problem, especially compared to the issue of student loan debt. “People just see student loans,” said Marissa Munoz, the New York-based regional director of the student advocacy organization Young Invincibles.

In Massachusetts, several public university and college officials put the onus for the practice of withholding transcripts on declining state funding that forces them to increase costs and makes it hard to forgive debt.While students “have seen disproportionate hardship in this public health and economic crisis,” said Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges spokesperson Tara Smith, the colleges “are resource-starved institutions themselves.”

Other institutional responses varied.The spokesperson for one community college wrote to a superior, in an email inadvertently sent to a reporter, that, “from a PR standpoint, we may want to include talking points” about how the school gives its students who are in arrears a chance to enter into payment plans.

Some community college presidents whose schools were asked to provide the figures on this practice said they were surprised to see how many students were affected and how much the rules varied from one public campus to another and wondered aloud whether essentially preventing their graduates from getting good jobs was the best way to help them pay off what they owe.

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“We really need to review whether this is actually even an effective policy to encourage students to pay their money back,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, which reports 5,331 students, graduates and former students with unpaid balances of $100 or more whose transcripts are being held back. As this story was about to appear, Bunker Hill said it would drop the policy and no longer withhold transcripts and degrees from students who owe any amount of money.

“Looking at everything else that we’re doing for the students, this piece of policy does not necessarily reflect that ethos,” Eddinger said, adding that holding transcripts for small amounts did not match the college’s mission of access and affordability.

“Your inquiry made us look at this very closely and very carefully and think about what we’re doing,” said James Mabry, president of Middlesex Community College, which has 6,055 students, graduates and former students with unpaid balances who can’t get their transcripts.

Maurer said she wished Eddinger and Mabry had been sitting in her office at legal aid “when the fifth client in a row came in and said, ‘I have this transcript that was held so I can’t get a job or reenroll anywhere.’”As with much in American society, she said, the practice comes down most heavily on the poor.

“So much of where this comes from is [the belief] that debt is a moral failing of these students,” she said, “whereas these are people working incredibly hard for a piece of what we’ve always told them is the American dream, only to get trapped by some tiny little thing.”

The chair of the 15-member council of presidents of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges, Mabry said he asked subordinates the reasons for the policy. “And the only answer I could get from people who have been at the college for a long time was, ‘This is how we’ve always done it.’ And that’s never a good answer.”

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The colleges “never pulled it together in this way,” Eddinger said of the data. “Your requests actually made us go, ‘Look, I think this is important to see if we do have uniform policies and to see what the actual effect is.’”After reviewing its policy, Bunker Hill said it would no longer withhold transcripts and degrees from students who owe any amount of money.

Joanne Rathe / Boston Globe via Getty ImagesIt may not be up to them much longer.Several states have passed or are considering lawsuits to curb the practice of blocking students who owe money from obtaining their transcripts. California last year became the first state in which public and private higher educational institutions were

banned from holding back the transcriptsof students who have unpaid debts. A new Washington State law requires that students who owe money be allowed to get their transcripts to apply for jobs.A coalition of advocacy groups in New York is encouraging a measure there like California’s. And a bill in Massachusetts would

give students ownership of their college and university transcripts, though not their degrees, if they still owe money.“They own the transcript, the grades that they’ve already paid for and have acquired,” said Massachusetts state Sen. Harriette Chandler, a co-sponsor of the bill. Blocking a student from getting a record of this “is wrong. It’s just plain wrong. It means that if you have some debt left in school, you can’t move on with your life. And there are many, many reasons why students might not be able to completely pay off their debt.”

The problem, she said, “has only gotten worse” because of the pandemic and resulting economic downturn. Students in this situation “are stuck. This is sort of like keeping a young college student hostage.” Read more: NPR »

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stateofohioshow WGBHNews Medical records used to be w/held pending pymt in full. This ended because it hurt people & rendered them unable to gain proper care. Medical records belong to the patient. No difference here. The degree/credits have been earned. The transcript belongs to the student. WGBHNews They entered into an agreement with the schools. The schools should be paid in full before releasing the students transcripts. This says more about the students that the colleges.

WGBHNews Liberals got to have their money first. The students should understand how liberals operate after being indoctrinated while attending college. WGBHNews your bill? This is pretty easy, seems like something college students could figure out. WGBHNews That’s been standard policy at colleges for decades. Students and parents know that.

WGBHNews Now there's a lesson! Never take on debt you can't handle WGBHNews It's more than just transcripts. I had a summer term with two of the absolute worst professors in my academic history, so I wound up dropping both my courses, which meant having to repay financial aid. For two years I couldn't even get travel reimbursement from work because of it

WGBHNews Wow! Just awful! To think that people who don’t pay their bills should face (shudder).......consequences! 🙄 WGBHNews You mean you have to pay your bills? Who knew? WGBHNews I wanted to become a teacher, but I am unable to send my transcript to get certified. This is incredibly unfare. My degree is useless because I have no access to it. They should take my debt away if I have zero access to my degree.

WGBHNews You could 🤔 pay your bills and pay attention to your terms and conditions

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WGBHNews I see both sides. Perhaps colleges can come up with a creative solution, such as the last semester of college is free. This would give students time to figure out how to pay off a remaining balance, and boost the school's reputation and graduation rate. WGBHNews Pay the bill then! WGBHNews This is standard practice for universities.

WGBHNews Petition the government to pay your debts. WGBHNews There was a time when you were awarded a degree for what you knew and the sweat it took, not an accountant's ok. WGBHNews This happens everywhere. There's always some unexpected fee towards the end, and they hold the diploma hostage until you pay up.

aleximenez WGBHNews This is so painful true! WGBHNews It’s called responsibility! WGBHNews This is great. It’s called accountability. This is what happens when every kid gets a trophy and mom and dad beat the teacher up to change a grade. The kid thinks everyone will kiss their ass in life. Nope not at alll. Earn your grades, pay your bills, do your job.

WGBHNews The government needs to stand up for the students , covid made so much loops including financial loops.

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WGBHNews WTF WGBHNews I'm going through this now. My university sent me a bill after I had graduated and received my diploma. Fees from overpaying me on a loan, but loaning bank says everything matches. No explanation as to why, or how this happened. Just sent a bill and then to collections. WGBHNews This isn’t a story. This is how it’s done at every school. Pay your shit and stfu.

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WGBHNews Sad... Bidens America WGBHNews Maybe just maybe a different college should have been chosen WGBHNews This isn’t just Massachusetts. This is literally every college WGBHNews Just pay them.... I had the same thing happen when I needed a copy of my transcripts in 2005 and had to pay two 10-year-old parking tickets. It's really not that hard.

WGBHNews aren't the students responsible for paying off these unpaid bills?

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WGBHNews So pay them!!!!!!!! That’s a novel idea! WGBHNews Try paying your bills then! School is meant to teach you more than just physics and history. If you don’t pay your bills as an adult the repercussions are sure as hell more severe than not being able to transfer a credit. WGBHNews Inexcusable.

WGBHNews This is not right.

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