Gabriel Toro choked up behind his mask as he described the lengths it took him to complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Estranged from his parents and briefly homeless, he took out $50,000 in federal loans. He worked as a mental health counselor, a busboy in a bar, a team member at a Whole Foods and a cashier on the night shift at a diner while juggling a full slate of courses. He skipped meals and shared a studio apartment to save on food and rent. He took a job in a clothing store to get the employee discount on the clothes he needed for his internships.
Then, just when he had polished off the credits required for a bachelor’s degree in management with a minor in psychology, Toro logged on to his university email account and found an unexpected notification from the bursar’s office. The subject: “Degree Withheld.”
In addition to the loan debts he’d incurred, Toro still owed money to the university, including a $200 graduation fee he hadn’t known was mandatory. And until he paid, he would be blocked from receiving the degree and transcript that he needed to get a job.
“I did not have time to cry,” he said, remembering the email that came even as he was struggling to find a job in the pandemic.
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Toro, who is 23, is one of 97,145 students, graduates and former students who can’t obtain their transcripts because they owe money to Massachusetts’ public colleges and universities, according to data obtained by The Hechinger Report and GBH News.
Nationwide, 6.6 million students can’t obtain their transcripts from public and private colleges and universities for having unpaid bills as low as $25 or less, the higher education consulting firm Ithaka S+R estimates.
The policy prevents students from being able to take their credits with them if they transfer, and from getting jobs that could help them pay their balances.
Toro learned that he owed $2,715.33 to UMass Boston for reasons he still doesn’t fully understand and said he can’t find anyone to explain to him. “I need my transcript to be able to work in order to continue my education and be able to pay off those debts,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s why we’re there. That’s why we have gone to school.”
A spokesman for UMass Boston, which has 9,848 students, graduates and former students who, like Toro, can’t get their transcripts because they owe money, said only that the university withholds transcripts for unpaid balances in any amount.
Advocates alternately call this “transcript ransom” and “the transcript trap.”
Students “might decide to go back to college, or they might need to get a job, or they might have actually technically finished at a college,” said Bill Moses, managing director for education at the Kresge Foundation, which works to close equity gaps. But when they try to get a transcript to prove that, “it’s held up.”
Unpaid bills can be not only for tuition but also for room and board, fees, parking and library fines and other costs that students sometimes don’t know they owe. In many cases, late charges are added, significantly increasing the original amounts.
“What may seem to be a relatively small amount of money — $10, $25, $50 — for some students is a lot of money,” Moses said. “So what could have been a relatively trivial charge but may be too much to pay at a certain stage in a student’s life could escalate and balloon into something much, much larger.”
Jarrod Robinson left Ohio University after three semesters and then withdrew, ultimately resuming at a community college closer to home. But the university won’t release Robinson’s transcript — or any of those credits already earned — because of an unpaid bill for three months’ worth of room and board that, with interest and penalties, has grown to $18,000.
This “punitive approach to student debt” is “holding me back,” said Robinson, now 25, who is studying environmental science. “It’s crazy, withholding transcripts. It really does get people on the lower rungs of society stuck in a trap that keeps pushing forward cyclical poverty.”
An OU spokeswoman said transcripts are held for balances due in any amount. She said the university offers payment plans to help students pay them off.
Lisa Nishimura was in the honors program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York system. The daughter of a single mother, she struggled to pay for each semester, scraping together the money as she went, and finished her major in criminology last year. But because she still owes $3,000, she can’t get her transcript or degree.
“It makes no sense that I paid my whole way through college, and I’m still not able to get the point of why I went to college,” said Nishimura, 23. “It’s stigmatizing and degrading. I want to pay off my balance, but I need a job to pay off my balance. When [prospective employers] require proof of a bachelor’s degree, what am I going to tell them? That I don’t have my diploma or my transcript because I owe money to my college?”
A John Jay spokesman provided a link to the CUNY policy for delinquent accounts, which says that students with unpaid balances will have their transcripts and degrees withheld and will not be permitted to register for subsequent semesters.
Students who have paid off all but a small number of completed classes can nonetheless have their entire transcripts held back, said Rebecca Maurer, counsel at the nonprofit advocacy group the Student Borrower Protection Center.
“Even if you want to make sure people pay their debt, there is no logical excuse for holding the paid and obtained credit,” Maurer said. A student “can be one credit away from graduation and their car can break down, and they will lose all of the previous work that they put in and paid for.”
Unsurprisingly, the impact of transcript holds falls almost entirely on low-income students. The practice also disproportionately affects students at community colleges, which promote themselves as affordable and transfer friendly, the nonprofit research institute Policy Matters Ohio found. And it prevents at least some of the estimated 36 million Americans who started but never finished college 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.”
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.Julie Szeltner, senior director of adult programs at College Now Greater Cleveland
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 owed by 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.
“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.”
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.’”
It 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 transcripts of 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.”
While many of these students’ unpaid debts are small, the average at community colleges is $631 and at universities and colleges overall, $2,335, Ithaka S+R estimates. Institutions argue that lifting the threat of withholding transcripts could encourage more students to let such unpaid bills pile up, and that legislators who have cut their funding leave them little choice.
They have usually resisted efforts to reform the practice.
“What we have seen in each state where we’ve shown up to change the transcript laws is that the schools show up in opposition,” Maurer said.
A law that took effect in Louisiana in August, for example, gives public universities and colleges the option of ending the use of withholding transcripts to collect debts, but private universities and colleges lobbied successfully to be exempted from the law, and none of the public university or college systems in Louisiana has so far changed its policies, the consulting firm HCM Strategists found. In Washington and California, colleges preserved their right to stop students with overdue balances from reenrolling until they pay up. A previous version of the Massachusetts proposal died in committee.
The growing legislative attention to this issue comes against the backdrop of the financial problems being faced by higher education institutions themselves, and their appeals for taxpayer money. They got $40 billion in the pandemic relief package, half of which they’ll be allowed to use to pay their own bills.
“We need to ensure that students’ institutional debts are prioritized in the same way we prioritize the institutions to which they owe these often-ignored debts,” the Student Borrower Protection Center demanded before the relief package passed.
It said that, as a condition of the government money, universities should be required to at least temporarily stop withholding transcripts. No such provision ended up in the pandemic package.
“A hospital can’t take away someone’s health when they don’t pay, but somehow we’ve allowed higher education institutions to say they can’t have that transcript” proving they’ve received an education, Maurer said. “It is a unique and unfair debt-collection tool.”
The practice also likely isn’t winning friends for a higher education sector whose approval ratings have been falling. Half of college students agree with the statement “my institution only cares about the money it can get from me,” according to a survey released in January by the think tanks Third Way and New America.
“These kinds of policies do undermine public trust in higher education,” said Moses, of the Kresge Foundation. “When you have relatively trivial fees in some instances that then make it impossible for a student to transfer the credits from a college that they once attended, it doesn't necessarily build real support for higher education.”
The real question, he said, should be: “Is this serving their students?”
Back in Boston, Toro is planning to someday run for political office — he has his eye on city council — to stand up for people like him and promote change.
Anger among students over withheld transcripts, he said, “is starting to create this momentum, this voice of people who feel like they have not been treated right by their educational institutions. And it’s for all kinds of weird fees, like something as small as a parking ticket.”
Toro said that he and others in his generation “were taught to value education, that you must graduate college, that you must go to college, you must get your diploma.” When they can’t, “there is a sense of shame. There is a stigma that they cannot manage themselves financially, which is completely untrue. They are just victims of a predatory system.”
Editor's note: Since this story was first published and aired on March 22, several people came forward to help Gabriel Toro pay off his debt to UMass Boston so he can obtain his transcript and his degree.
This story about colleges withholding students’ transcripts was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.
Research assistance by Diane Adame.