States step in to prevent colleges from holding transcript ransom for unpaid bills

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Updated April 8, 2021 11:39 a.m.ET

Gabriel Toro choked behind his mask as he described the time it took him to complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Separated from his parents and briefly homeless, he took out $ 50,000 in federal loans. He has worked as a mental health counselor, a bar bus waiter, a Whole Foods team member, and a restaurant night cashier while juggling a full class roster. 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: “Diploma refused. “

In addition to the loan debts he had taken on, Toro still owed the college money, including a $ 200 graduation fee he didn’t know was required. And until he paid, he couldn’t get the diploma and transcript he needed to find a job.

“I didn’t have time to cry,” he said, recalling the email that reached him even as he struggled to find a job during the pandemic.

Toro, who is 23, is one of 97,145 students, graduates and alumni who cannot get their transcripts because they owe money to Massachusetts public colleges and universities, according to data obtained. by The Hechinger Report and GBH Boston.

Nationwide, 6.6 million students cannot get their transcripts from public and private colleges and universities for unpaid bills as low as $ 25 or less, higher education consultancy Ithaka estimates. S + R.

The policy prevents students from being able to take their credits with them if they are transferred, and from going to graduate school or getting jobs that could help them pay off their balances.

Toro learned he owed UMass Boston $ 2,715.33 for reasons he still doesn’t fully understand and said he couldn’t find anyone to explain it to him.

“I need my transcript to be able to work in order to continue my studies and to 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.”

Lawyers 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 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 plans for payment.

Marshal Joseph Berger later said in an interview that the university stopped holding transcripts for outstanding balances below $ 1,000.

The students “might decide to go back to college, or they might need to find a job, or they might have technically finished at a university,” 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 for not only tuition, but also accommodation and food, fees, parking and library fines, and other costs that students sometimes don’t know they owe. In many cases, late fees are added, greatly increasing the initial amounts.

Jarrod Robinson left Ohio University after three semesters, then retired to eventually resume at 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, 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 traps people in the lower echelons of society in a trap that continues to advance cyclical poverty.”

A spokeswoman for the OU said transcripts are kept for balances owed, regardless of the amount. She said the university offers payment plans to help students pay for them.

Not surprisingly, the impact of withholding transcripts almost entirely affects low-income students. The practice also disproportionately affects community college students, who advertise themselves as affordable and transfer-friendly, the nonprofit Policy Matters Ohio research institute found. And it is preventing at least some of the estimated 36 million Americans who started but never completed their education from returning to school, even as many have to change careers in the pandemic recession and as policymakers and universities alike them. themselves try to attract them again.

“A hospital cannot take away the health of someone who doesn’t pay, but somehow we have allowed higher education institutions to say [students] cannot have this transcript “proving they received an education, said Rebecca Maurer, lawyer at the nonprofit advocacy group Student Borrower Protection Center.” It is a unique and unfair debt collection tool. “

Retaining transcripts also appears to be an inefficient way to collect. 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 placed the burden of the practice of withholding transcripts on declining state funding, forcing them to increase costs and making it difficult to keep up. debt cancellation.

Some community college presidents whose schools were asked to provide figures on this practice said they were surprised at how many students were 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 really 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 were 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. California last year 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 jobs.

A coalition of pressure 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 having a record of this “is wrong. This is simply not true. This means that if you have any 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 an eye on city council – to stand up for people like him and promote change.

The anger of students at the withheld transcripts, he said, “is starting to create this momentum, this voice of people who feel they haven’t been treated well by their educational institutions. . And that’s for all kinds of weird charges, like something as small as a parking ticket. “

Toro said he and others 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 on their own 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 unpaid college bill, earning him his transcript and diploma. .

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