Education Secretary calls for end to colleges that hold transcripts

Withholding transcripts from students who owe their colleges money leads to inequitable outcomes, said U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, marking the first time that the nation’s top education official called for a change in the prevalent practice.

“More needs to be done to recover from the damage caused by COVID-19,” Cardona told financial aid administrators at an online conference. “To emerge even stronger from the pandemic, institutional leaders must embrace long-term change. This means evaluating long-standing institutional policies that block the retention and completion of our most underserved students, such as enrollments and transcripts for students with unpaid balances.

Cardona’s remarks in her opening address to a federal financial aid training conference in Washington, DC, reflect a growing consensus among college leaders that withholding transcripts for relatively low debt is unfair . GBH News covered this previously obscure practice with the Hechinger Report earlier this year, which prevents most low-income black and Hispanic students from graduating or getting jobs. They then struggle to earn the money that would help them pay off their debts.

“A lot more people are discussing the issue of frozen credits, institutional debt and the holding of transcripts,” said James Ward, senior researcher at Ithka S + R, a New York-based nonprofit. .

Rapid changes swept through colleges and universities.

Thirteen of Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges have ended the transcript withholding, while the other two, Greenfield and Mount Wachusett, are reviewing their policies. Together, these schools welcome 97,000 students. More than half of Massachusetts’ public colleges, including Massasoit Community College in Brockton, have used federal relief dollars to pay off their student balances.

Worcester’s Quinsigamond Community College told GBH News that the change has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of transcript requests processed by administrators.

The City University of New York – the largest urban university system in the country, with 185,000 students – cited the GBH and Hechinger report when it announced in August that it would stop withholding transcripts from students with balances and would also reimburse what 50,000 students owed.

Another way to withhold transcripts can put the brakes on students: when trying to transfer. Students who earn college credits but have an unpaid balance at some schools cannot send transcripts to their next schools, leaving them unable to prove courses they have already taken and leaving credits “locked in”.

Ward’s team discovered late last year that colleges were withholding papers from more than 6.5 million Americans who either transferred to another school or dropped out of college altogether. These debts total approximately $ 15 billion. Most colleges will withhold transcripts for debts under $ 25, according to a 2020 survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

The average debt? In community colleges, it’s $ 631. In four-year colleges? $ 2,335. At some public colleges in Massachusetts, the GBH News survey found that the average amount owed by students was less than $ 800.

Changes at the institutional level, says Ward, are helping students finally access their transcripts.

“I think the impact has been significant, certainly for the students, and I think it has moved at varying speeds across sectors and states,” he said. “In some institutions, I think there has been an immediate change in the policies that allow students to access these transcripts. But there is still a lot of work to be done.

The American Council on Education, Washington’s main lobby for colleges, has decided to change the practice.

“Colleges and universities are fundamentally businesses. They have expenses that need to be paid, ”said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a professional group of college presidents based in DC.

But for the first time last week, the 103-year-old group strongly recommended that colleges remove unnecessary barriers that prevent students from accessing their transcripts.

Hartle says attitudes are changing.

“Many students who owe money owe very modest sums of money, and there is a growing consensus that it is not desirable to hold a transcript hostage for a sum of de minimis money, ”he said, adding that the importance of accessing university degrees is growing. .

“More students are transferring each year than before,” Hartle said. “Employers weren’t in the habit of checking to see if someone had actually graduated. Almost all employers do this on a regular basis now. “

Gabriel Toro worked several jobs to pay his tuition fees at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He juggled a full course load and made sacrifices so he could pay rent and food.

“I started eating two meals a day,” Toro told GBH News and Hechinger in March. “I gave up a social life which I think led me to sacrifice my sanity.”

During the pandemic, the 24-year-old was struggling to find a full-time job when he received an email saying UMass Boston was withholding his transcript and diploma for unpaid bills, including a graduation fee of $ 200, even if he had earned enough credits to graduate.

“I need my transcript to be able to work and continue my education,” Toro said.

Since the story about him aired in March, several people have come forward to help Toro pay off his debt to UMass Boston so he can get his academic record and degree. UMass Boston relaxed its policy for current students a few weeks later.

“To finally get my transcript, that meant I could start applying for jobs that I wanted and not necessarily that were available to me – jobs where I could actually make a living and pay off my debts,” Toro said.

Toro now works as an account manager at an insurance company in Boston. He also applies to law school while defending the interests of other students who cannot access their academic records. He is pushing for a bill on Beacon Hill that would ban the practice of withholding transcripts altogether.

Massachusetts, New York and Maine are all considering measures that would ban public colleges from holding transcripts for small debts. California, Louisiana, and Washington passed such laws in 2019 and 2020.

Many schools say they fear that if they don’t withhold transcripts from students who owe them money, it will be free for everyone, leaving colleges and taxpayers to blame.

Researchers and student advocates, however, say there is no evidence to support this dire financial scenario.

Going forward, Ithaka S + R’s Ward recommends that states and colleges identify students with stranded credits and consider how this affects their lives and the economy in general.

“But it’s also important to understand why these students find themselves in this situation, because then we can tackle those underlying causes,” he said.

Many schools are still resisting because higher education, in general, is slow to change, says Sosanya Jones, a professor at Howard University who teaches higher education policy.

“When you’ve been doing something for 20 or 30 years, and that’s all you’ve done, you think it’s the only way,” she said. “Doing something else different – that requires a paradigm shift in embracing the change, and maybe even a frightening risk.”

But Jones said allowing students and graduates to get their transcripts won’t solve the institutional debt problem.

“You can’t just address fairness in some areas, but not in others, especially when it has been pointed out that holding transcripts for ransom really does not produce the results that institutions claim to produce and, in fact, that it is counterproductive towards institutional objectives.

This story was produced by GBH News In Boston. Additional reporting by Diane Adame.

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About Mark A. Tomlin

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