Back when he was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, James Smith recalled he fell behind on his final housing payment after his family in Minnesota ran into financial problems. Smith said he promised to repay UMass, but the registrar withheld his transcript anyway.

“It was sort of like communicating with a brick wall,” he said. “I told them, ‘I’ll pay it when I can but I just don’t have the money.’”

After UMass sent his $2,000 balance to a collection agency, Smith said he began receiving notices and phone calls informing him the collection fee would exceed his original balance.

“It was certainly really frustrating when I was trying to pay what I owed, and essentially the debt had been doubled,” he said. “I thought it was just wildly predatory.”

A GBH News-Hechinger Report investigation finds public colleges in Massachusetts have sent to collection agencies the overdue accounts of 11,719 students. About 5,500 of those pending cases come from the state's 15 community colleges, more than 3,400 from the five-campus UMass system and the remainder from state colleges like Salem State (894) and Framingham State (702).

State law requires the schools to send out for collection outstanding debts more than ninety days past due. The practice boosts the overal debt, as in Smith's case, and lowers personal credit ratings.

The minimum debt that Massachusetts public colleges will send out for collections varies, but at some schools, like UMass Amherst, it can be as little as $100.

UMass Amherst would not comment on James Smith’s specific case, citing student privacy laws, but says administrators work with students to set up repayment plans.

Two state schools, Holyoke and Springfield community colleges, have hit pause on the practice due to the pandemic. Others say referral to a collection agency is not ideal but necessary. They’re standing by the policy.

"I think the numbers tell us that all in all our institutions are doing a pretty good job of trying to mitigate the number of students who actually get sent to debt collectors," said Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges. "Getting to the point of sending something to a debt collector is obviously our path of last resort."

"Ideally we'd send zero students to debt collectors," Mackinnon said. "Unfortunately, we are a high-cost state when it comes to community colleges and public education. We don't enjoy the state's support at the level that other states do."

Advocates call this practice the “transcript trap” — something that forces students to stumble on their way to crossing the graduation stage because it undermines their ability to document the credits they’ve earned — and to find well-paying jobs so they can pay off their original debt.

A GBH News reporter last month asked Marty Meehan, president of the UMass system, whether holding transcripts and sending balances to collections were effective tactics to recover the money it is owed. The former congressman did not directly answer the question, saying, instead, UMass administrators are committed to negotiating repayment plans.

“They work things out with students and make sure that students are in a position that they can graduate,” he said during an unrelated news conference at UMass Boston.

University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan announced millions of dollars in federal aid at the UMass Boston campus in Dorchester, Mass on May 21, 2021. Meehan is defending the university’s tactics for collecting outstanding balances, saying administrators are committed to negotiating repayment plans. “They work things out with students and make sure that students are in a position that they can graduate,” he said.
Kirk Carapezza/GBH News

The national picture resembles the state’s when it comes to collecting college debt. A pre-pandemic survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers found nearly all schools — public and private — withhold transcripts as a means of collecting overdue accounts and nearly all say they will eventually report that debt to a collection agency.

“Just like a medical bill,” said Carly Eicchorst, a college administrator in Minnesota with nearly 20 years of experience in financial aid. “There’s exponential growth once the collection agency is involved.”

Eicchorst, director of advancement operations at St. Olaf College, said a major problem is that the length of time colleges manage overdue balances varies from campus to campus. “It could be two months after you cease attendance. It could be two years after you cease attendance, and the students have no sense of that,” she said.

While she understands colleges see holding transcripts and sending debt to collections as one way they can get what they’re owed, Eicchorst points out “there is just such a gap on the student understanding side.”

She meant understanding how the debt could balloon and appear on your credit report, an issue that disproportionately hurts low-income students and students of color.

“They were already struggling to pay the bill, and now that it's accruing. It becomes impossible,” said Sosanya Jones, a Howard University professor who teaches courses on higher education policy.

In her research, Jones has found, historically, a nominal grace period has been given to students who may be the first in their family to go to college. Jones says it’s hard to tell whether these transcript hold and collection policies are even effective, but she’s skeptical.

“In order to access that data, we would need institutions that come forth and actually open their books,” Jones said. “It doesn't make a lot of sense to hold someone's transcript hostage because then they're not going to definitely continue to be enrolled in your college."

As some students struggle to make ends meet during the pandemic, researchers and administrators seem to agree: These policies are a bad look for higher education.

Some schools are reversing course, including Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Massachusetts, and Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. All three schools announced this semester they’ve stopped blocking transcripts. SNHU has begun releasing the academic records of more than 2,000 students who owed the nonprofit college unpaid balances that average $728.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, Philander Smith College announced during graduation ceremonies that the historically black school would forgive all outstanding balances for the classes of 2020 and 2021. President Roderick Smothers told graduates the move was “in the spirit of doing all the good we can.”

“If you’ve got a balance, know that your balance is no more,” he said.

All of the graduates put on their masks, stood up and cheered. Some danced around their socially-distanced chairs.

Sosanya Jones of Howard, a leading historically Black university, predicts more schools will follow suit because these policies create negative feelings about colleges “in terms of alumni, in terms of word of mouth.”

“That’s a loss of advertising when you just have students who are locked out of the system,” Jones said.

James Smith sits outside his home in San Francisco, California on Sunday, May 30, 2021. A former University of Massachusetts Amherst student, Smith’s transcript was withheld for a small debt. He describes the university’s debt collection policy as “wildly predatory.”
Marlena Sloss for GBH News

Currently, James Smith is a 49-year-old labor lawyer in San Francisco. When he first heard GBH’s reporting on colleges withholding transcripts for relatively small debts, Smith says it brought back memories of his experience with UMass Amherst in the 1990s and he reached out to us.

Via Zoom, he said that, in the end, he never did pay off his debt to UMass — or the agency’s collection fee.

At home in Minnesota for the summer back then, Smith recalled how he did some back of the envelope math. “Ok, it’s gonna be at least 500 to 700 hours of work at what I was able to make at the time and, to do that, I would’ve had to drop out of school anyway,” he said.

Instead, Smith decided to take an extra course each semester at the University of Minnesota and went on to graduate in five years at the top of his class. His major? Economics.

“I was extraordinarily fortunate,” Smith said. “In the scheme of things, I had to make up my sophomore year. But from my own experience I know that there have to be other students out there who weren’t as fortunate, who had to give up on trying to get their degree.”

More than 36 million people in the country have earned some college credits, but haven’t finished their degree. Researchers say a major obstacle is colleges holding transcripts — and sending out for collection relatively small debts.

This story about colleges withholding students’ transcripts and sending small debts to collection agencies was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report. GBH's Diane Adame provided research assistance.