Thursday, May 23College Admissions News

OPINION: Stop holding college transcripts hostage over unpaid debt

OPINION: Stop holding college transcripts hostage over unpaid debt

Institutions of higher education like to boast of their diversity initiatives, showcasing the diversity of their student bodies on slick websites. Beneath those smiling testaments to multiculturalism is the likelihood that many students of color, often from low-income backgrounds, will have to interrupt their education several times. Every time a person drops out there is a risk that the college will be owed a fee. The school can then withhold the student’s transcript until the debt is paid in full. This ransom approach to debt collection undermines the egalitarian rhetoric: Millions of Americans cannot reenroll in college because of an outstanding debt owed to a college they previously attended.

The debt could be due to unpaid tuition, on-campus parking tickets, books, fines or fees. In essence, colleges and universities are holding transcripts hostage.

An official transcript is the proof of academic completion that a student needs in order to transfer credits or apply to graduate school. A person unable to access her academic record cannot pursue any degree, and her academic progress is halted. The implications of this ransom approach to debt collection can reverberate for years — if not generations. Our most vulnerable students need help overcoming this policy to relaunch their academic careers and build a solid foundation to create the life opportunities many take for granted.

In my work at College & Community Fellowship (CCF), I meet people every week whose college dreams are on hold because they owe money to a college they once attended. We help women who have had contact with the justice system get into college and stay there. Academic counselors at CCF usher students through whatever obstacles are preventing them from succeeding. Onerous parole stipulations, lack of child care, housing insecurity and gaps in technology are common barriers to academic success for justice-involved women.

Sometimes CCF has to pay a would-be student’s college debt so we can obtain her transcript and begin strategizing the optimal route to her academic success.

We realize that the households we serve are often caught between the criminal legal system and poverty. A person remanded to jail while charges are pending often cannot pay rent and loses everything. Most women released from custody won’t own even a fork, let alone have housing, when they return to society. The majority of justice-involved people are relegated to the lowest rung on the economic ladder, which  enhances the risk for future contact with the justice system. Education is the most reliable remedy for poverty and ongoing contact with the justice system.  

If colleges no longer had the power to hold transcripts hostage with impunity, we would be much closer to ensuring equity and opportunity to people from marginalized communities.

Denying an education to these women because of previous student debt ensures that they will languish in the past. One of our students had incurred over $50,000 in student loans to pay tuition for 3.5 years of college. An addiction made it impossible for her to complete the last twelve credits to earn her degree. Imagine the fortitude required to endure the indignity and trauma of an arrest, getting sober, repairing relationships. She found steady employment to bring those student loans out of default so she could sit in a classroom again. Submitting her readmission application was her reward for three years of relentless adversity. The triumph was short-lived; the university would neither allow her to reenroll nor provide her transcript because she owed $1,100.

She had 108 earned credits but could not benefit from them until the $1,100 was paid. A college degree can boost lifetime earnings by up to $600,000.

Related: Colleges are withholding transcripts and degrees from millions over unpaid bills

CCF does not have infinite funding, but we are proud to include Second Chance Scholarships in the array of services available to the women in our community. The scholarships pay the transcript ransoms so these women can return to college, get their educations and occupy the spaces where decisions are being made.

The financial hold on this student was particularly challenging to overcome. Nearly six months elapsed between the approval of her Second Chance Scholarship and our ability to obtain a verified bill from the school with payment instructions.

The bill itself was laden with fees that had little to do with tuition. It included fines and interest, which had ensured that the debt kept growing.

In another case, a student was denied her transcript for a fine she didn’t know she owed. She had paid her tuition and completed a semester before she was incarcerated. Her student aid did not reflect any irregularities, so we contacted the bursar’s office for the bill. She owed $82.50 for overdue book. Many students like her are unaware of any outstanding debts until their transcript requests are denied, and arcane rules about what fees can be added to debts make them challenging to contest.

These women and their valuable perspectives need to be included in our discussions about race, poverty, mass incarceration and social reforms. But they cannot elevate class discussions when they cannot even make it back into the lecture halls.

If colleges no longer had the power to hold transcripts hostage with impunity, we would be much closer to ensuring equity and opportunity to people from marginalized communities.

Our student with the $1,100 balance will finally be back in the classroom this fall. The university that had rejected her for that old debt will come to know what I know — a brilliant, dedicated student brimming with potential.

Her son will watch his mother balance her adult responsibilities with the rigors of college study. His own future will become more secure when she earns that diploma, and her university will become one student closer to achieving true diversity in its alumni community.

Stacy Lyn Burnett is a formerly incarcerated college student, a writer and a partnership strategist for College and Community Fellowship, a nonprofit that enables justice-involved women to earn their college degrees.

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Published at Thu, 27 May 2021 10:00:00 +0000

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