Updated Dec. 21 at 2:32 p.m.
Silver Wolf's five-year journey toward a bachelor's degree has taken her from a small private college to a community college, both in Pennsylvania, and then to the University of Massachusetts Boston. Each time she transferred, she hit the same snag: her first school would not release her transcript because of unpaid bills.
"I didn't have all of my fees paid off yet for everything, and it took me a couple of months to actually get into UMass Boston since they had everything they needed except for my actual transcripts,” Wolf said.
Eventually, she paid off her $2,000 debt, and Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania released her transcript. The two delays in transfering cost her a year when she could have been earning credits.
Wolf isn’t alone in getting tripped up this way.
Because former students owe money, colleges are withholding transcripts from more than 6.6 million Americans who’ve transferred to another school or abandoned their pursuit of higher education. These debts total about $15 billion, according to a new study by the research firm Ithaka S+R. In Massachusetts, more than 153,000 students who owe more than $794 million cannot obtain copies of their college records.
A 2020 survey of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found most colleges that hold back transcripts do so even for debts less than $25.
Julia Karon, who led the Ithaka study, said once a student transfers, colleges have a couple of options to collect any money they’re owed.
“They can withhold a transcript or they can transfer that debt to a collections agency,” she said. “Many institutions claim that transcript holds are sort of the most effective way to bring students back to the table and start a conversation around repayment.”
Karon said colleges say if they don’t withhold transcripts, students will just transfer their credits wherever they want to, but her research shows that’s not the case.
“Students do try to pay back this debt. They’re not just taking their credits and running,” she said.
With enrollment down and finances a major concern for colleges that were already financially-strapped, administrators could grow even more strict about holding back transcripts and even less willing to forgive small balances.
A majority of students who cannot obtain copies of their transcripts are poor and attend community colleges, so a handful of states are moving to prevent the practice. California and Washington have enacted bans, while lawmakers in New York and Massachusetts have proposed similar legislation.
Now some colleges are addressing the problem, too.
“Sometimes for a student, any barrier is a big barrier,” said Dawn Medley, vice president of enrollment at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Medley led the effort to ban transcript holds at the public school as long as students agree to a repayment plan.
“If you have bad credit, you can still borrow money to get a car. But if you have a past due balance at an institution — that's it, you can't go on,” she said. “In the southeast Michigan region, we realized there were almost 700,000 adults who had some college and no degree and a lot of those students were locked out because of past due debt and they couldn't access their transcripts.”
Medley said while first-year college enrollment is down nearly 20 percent across the country, this new, student-centered approach has helped Wayne State maintain its overall enrollment, which is flat.
“We grew over five percent in our freshman class this year,” she said. “We see that as a pretty big achievement given the pandemic.”
In New Jersey, Silver Wolf is taking the spring semester off to save some money. She’s working at her uncle’s business, inspecting coffee and cocoa beans.
Next fall, she’ll enter her fifth year of college at UMass Boston, where she’s majoring in biology. She plans to graduate in 2022, but she said the whole process of transferring has left her frustrated.
“I'm definitely stumbling behind a bunch of my friends who are graduating this year,” she said. “It is disheartening to see them all be able to graduate, and I'm kind of left behind.”
Wolf said she and other students would be more likely to graduate on time if fewer colleges withheld transcripts for small debts.
Ithaka’s Julia Karon worries academic bureaucracy could undermine the country’s economic recovery.
“We know that the pandemic has devastated the most vulnerable student populations,” Karon said. “It’s so important that these students get back and get their degrees because they will likely need these degrees to get better paying jobs.”
Over the past 20 years, more than 36 million Americans have left college without earning a degree. Many are left in debt without good jobs to pay it off.
Correction: The original version of this article mischaracterized one finding reported in a new study from the research firm Ithaka S+R. That study cited a 2020 survey of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers that found most colleges will hold back transcripts for debts less than $25, not that most students whose transcripts are withheld owe less than $25.
GBH’s Diane Adame contributed to this report.