Alex Harris loves his job working with students on the autism spectrum — “my superheroes,” he calls them with a broad smile and a deep laugh — in Boston Public Schools.

But the academic transcript Harris needs for a promotion and a raise is being kept from him by the private college he attended because of a balance he owes for expenses he didn’t know weren’t covered by financial aid. The original debt has since doubled, to more than $3,000 with fees and interest from about $1,500.

“It's crazy,” he said in Franklin Park at the end of a long school day. “We have families who are trying to survive. We're trying to participate in society. But how can we when people are literally holding us back?”

The institution blocking Harris from receiving proof of the credits he earned, Springfield College, said it tries to work out repayment plans for students with outstanding bills and holds back their transcripts only as a last resort. “This aligns with our Springfield College mission of service to others,” Stephen Roulier, vice president for communications and external affairs, said in a written statement.

Yet the college is a member of a state higher education association lobbying against legislation in Massachusetts that would end the practice of withholding transcripts — one of several such measures nationwide that colleges are quietly trying to water down or block.

The practice “is a key tool in the process by which colleges and universities communicate with students about owed balances,” the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York wrote last month in opposition to a bill that would ban transcript withholding there as a means of collecting unpaid debts.

As many as 6.6 million students nationwide can’t obtain their transcripts because they have unpaid bills to colleges or universities, the higher education consulting firm Ithaka S+R estimates. These balances can be as little as $25, though they are usually higher; the average at community colleges is $631 and at all types of colleges overall, $2,335.

In addition to New York and Massachusetts, bans on transcript holds as a means of making students pay their debts have been proposed in Minnesota and Ohio. They’ve already passed in California, Washington and Louisiana; there, too, college lobbyists worked to thwart or water down the legislation.

“For those of you on the committee who are parenting, you know that sometimes you can do a lot to try to get someone to behave in a particular way, but it’s not until you have the big stick that you can bring somebody to a table,” Terri Standish-Kuon, president of the Independent Colleges of Washington, testified in opposition to a bill in that state intended to stop her member institutions from withholding transcripts students need to get jobs or transfer to another school.

In the end, the withholding ban was passed in Washington state but colleges preserved their right to block students with overdue balances from re-enrolling until they pay any money owed for tuition, room and board.

“There was so much pressure to try to keep some tools in play,” said Washington state Rep. Vandana Slatter, who sponsored the measure. “I was surprised by the amount of resistance. [The legislation] seemed to me fairly straightforward.”

Colleges and universities there eventually “came around to recognize this as an equity issue,” said Slatter. “But in the beginning there was a lot of resistance, and we needed to have a lot of advocacy to take this bill across the finish line.”

The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities wrote that, without the ability to withhold transcripts from students who owe money, colleges in that state would have no choice but to refer debts to collection agencies that skim 35 percent to 50 percent off the top — and the colleges would as a result end up with less money.

“For an institution, it means that for every $100,000 in debt they refer, they can only expect to recoup between $50,000 and $65,000,” the association wrote while the bill was up for consideration.

Advocates for students say withholding transcripts to recover debts, which they call “transcript ransom” and “the transcript trap,” almost exclusively affects those with the lowest incomes, stopping them from taking their credits with them when they transfer or from getting jobs that would allow them to resolve their bills. Entire transcripts are held back even when students have paid for all but their last few courses.

Alex Harris 2
Alex Harris, who works with students on the autism spectrum in the Boston Public Schools, learned he couldn’t obtain the academic transcript he needs for a promotion and a raise because of a bill he owes to Springfield College for expenses he didn’t know weren’t covered by financial aid. The debt has since doubled because of fees and interest.
Meredith Nierman

“Give us our transcripts so we can earn the money to pay you off,” said Harris, 46, who delayed his education while raising a son as a single father. “I don't understand what [colleges] are gaining from the situation, from holding people’s transcripts and stopping them from feeding their family or advancing in society.”

Kevin Thomas, a former legal services attorney turned New York State senator who has sponsored the bill to stop the practice there, likened it to “holding someone’s throat and cutting off their air.”

A proposal to restrict transcript withholding in Ohio is part of a larger economic development bill, on the grounds that the practice is stopping people from entering the workforce and earning what they need to pay their bills.

“It’s almost like a judge who puts a father in jail for not making child support payments: If the guy’s in jail, they can’t earn money to pay the child support,” said Jerry Cirino, the proposal's sponsor in the Ohio Senate.

“I think the presidents of the private universities and colleges understand that by preventing limited distribution of transcripts for employment purposes, they're not helping themselves eventually collect the debt,” Cirino said. “It's Economics 101. And since all these universities and colleges teach economics, they should get this.”

Colleges say it’s fair to expect students to meet their financial obligations. Public institutions in particular say they can’t afford to forgive such balances. Lobbyists for private colleges hint ominously to legislators that if they’re no longer allowed to withhold transcripts, they’ll have to refer delinquent accounts directly to collection agencies, which also add fees and interest that can quickly compound the total amount students owe, while battering their credit ratings.

“Institutions would be forced to take more draconian measures to receive repayment,” the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts said in written testimony against an earlier attempt to ban transcript holds there, which died in committee. Those measures, AICUM warned, would include requiring full payment in advance at the start of each semester, blocking students with unpaid balances from registering for subsequent semesters and sending the debts into collection.

Yet institutions are already referring their students to collection agencies, often to the students’ surprise.

Massachusetts private, nonprofit colleges and universities disproportionately resort to withholding transcripts, new figures show, with 72,749 students or graduates affected, according to Ithaka S+R. That’s almost as many as in California, a state with six times the population.

A freshly introduced proposal in the Massachusetts Legislature would give students ownership of their college and university transcripts, though not of their degrees, if they still owe money.

So sensitive is this topic that, like Springfield College, most associations contacted did not respond or would only furnish nebulous statements without answering follow-up questions.

That’s because holding back students’ transcripts contradicts the carefully cultivated perception that the colleges are focused on their students’ success, said Erin Hennessy, vice president at TVP Communications, a national communications and public relations firm specializing in higher education.

“If you are going to position yourself as the small liberal arts college that is student-centered, but then at the end of four years, after the commitment of a significant amount of time and resources to that institution, say to a student, ‘You can't have your transcript until we get the $75,’ there is a gap in that perception,” Hennessy said.

The Massachusetts association declined to discuss the issue. The New York independent colleges association did not respond to a request for comment. The president of the Inter-University Council of Ohio wrote that his organization “supports efforts to give colleges and universities flexibility to work out payment plans with students who have failed to pay their tuition and fees,” adding: “We aren’t making additional statements at this time. Thank you for your understanding.”

Behind the scenes, however, higher education lobbyists have been working to slow or stop legislation that would bar them from withholding transcripts.

“There’s sort of a knee-jerk reaction that we’re seeing from colleges that this is one of the tools that they have,” said Melanie Kruvelis, a senior manager of policy and advocacy at Young Invincibles, a national organization that supports the New York transcript withholding ban. They are “reluctant to let go,” she said.

In Ohio, a proposal that would have stopped public universities from withholding transcripts from students who owe money was amended. The revised version would have continued to allow schools to stop a student from obtaining his or her transcript, but let a prospective employer request one if it’s needed for the student to get a job.

“Somewhere along the line it changed,” said Piet van Lier, senior researcher at the progressive think tank Policy Matters Ohio. “We were advocating for it to be stronger, but it got weaker, and we did not see any testimony or hear any testimony publicly from the stakeholders saying that it was a bad idea. So clearly a lot is happening behind the scenes.”

The bill was amended again before being reported out of committee, so that students could obtain their transcripts directly for the purpose of applying for a job.

The law that took effect in Louisiana last year gave public colleges the option of ending the use of withholding transcripts to collect debts, but private colleges lobbied successfully to be exempted, and none of the public colleges in Louisiana has so far changed its policies, the consulting firm HCM Strategists found.

The New York state proposal passed the Senate but the Assembly version is stalled in committee.

Before the country's colleges received a total of nearly $63 billion as part of two federal COVID-19 pandemic relief packages — half of it to pay their own bills — the Student Borrower Protection Center demand that they be forced to at least temporarily stop withholding transcripts went nowhere.

Transcript withholding, and the unwillingness to abandon it, “makes us question the mission of our universities and why they’re supposed to be there in the first place,” said Luz Rivas, a California assemblywoman who sponsored the bill that banned universities and colleges from withholding transcripts there.

The University of California system and the state’s private colleges pushed back against the bill, Rivas said.

“I did listen to their concerns, but I felt that our higher education institutions should be focused on how to best serve our students and help them succeed,” she said.

Lawmakers and advocates are increasingly questioning arguments like the one made by the private colleges in New York that withholding transcripts is a “communication” tool, said Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for student debt relief.

“That was one of the most comical — if it wasn’t so disturbing — pieces of justification for some pretty outrageous tactics that I’ve seen in my day,” Frotman said. “What you see time and time again is schools making dubious allegations that foreshadow doomsday if they’re not able to engage in these really disturbing practices.”

But he said there’s momentum for reform.

“Change starts slow,” Frotman said, “and then it all comes at once.”

This story about colleges withholding students’ transcripts was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

Additional reporting by Meredith Kolodner.