LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Colleges are withholding transcripts from millions of students for unpaid bills and blocking many of them from finishing degrees or pursuing graduate studies. In Massachusetts, public colleges are holding a majority of the transcripts, as Kirk Carapezza of member station GBH reports.
KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: To pay his tuition and fees at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Gabriel Toro worked several jobs - as a mental health counselor, as a busboy at a bar, and a late night cashier at a diner. Juggling a full load of courses, Toro also made sacrifices so he could afford rent and food.
GABRIEL TORO: I started eating two meals a day. I gave up a social life, which then I think built up to me actually sacrificing my mental health.
CARAPEZZA: Estranged from his parents and for a time homeless, Toro says his mental health took another hit. When struggling to find a full-time job during the pandemic, he got an email saying UMass Boston was withholding his transcript and degree for unpaid bills even though he'd earned enough credits to graduate. The 23-year-old had already taken out loans to finance his bachelor's degree in management, and he still owed UMass Boston $2,700, including a $200 graduation fee, which he says he didn't know was mandatory.
TORO: I need my transcript to be able to work in order to continue my education and be able to pay off those debts.
CARAPEZZA: Toro is one of nearly 100,000 students who can't obtain their transcripts because they owe money to Massachusetts public colleges. Collectively, we found their debt amounts to $184 million. At UMass Boston, nearly 10,000 students can't get their academic records because they collectively owe more than $33 million. Historically, UMass Boston would withhold transcripts for unpaid balances in any amount, but provost Joseph Berger said the school has relaxed its policy indefinitely.
JOSEPH BERGER: We've changed that during the pandemic.
CARAPEZZA: So if current students owe less than $1,000, the university will now release their transcript. That doesn't apply to former students like Toro, though. Defending the general policy, Berger says withholding transcripts is one tool UMass Boston uses to collect money it's owed and budgeted for.
Has it been effective?
BERGER: I would say that it's been effective to the extent that it gives us an opportunity to talk with students about financial planning to help them take care of that debt.
CARAPEZZA: For those students who can't take care of it, UMass Boston allows them to enroll and to set up repayment plans. Student advocates don't buy it.
BILL MOSES: This transcript ransom is really preventing students from getting the credentials, getting the degrees that they're seeking.
CARAPEZZA: Bill Moses is with the Kresge Foundation, which works to close equity gaps. He says millions of low-income students are caught in what he and other advocates call the transcript trap. Colleges are holding their academic records not just for tuition, but also graduation fees and even parking and library fines - costs that students sometimes don't know they owe.
MOSES: And if they don't pay it soon enough, in some cases, they are actually charged penalties, and in some cases, interest.
CARAPEZZA: In Massachusetts, several public college leaders blame declining state funding that has shifted costs from taxpayers to students, making it harder to forgive their debts. Our reporting about this issue prompted Bunker Hill Community College in Boston to reverse its policy. Bunker Hill President Pam Eddinger says the school is no longer holding transcripts or degrees.
PAM EDDINGER: Looking at everything else that we're doing for the student, this piece of policy does not necessarily reflect that ethos.
CARAPEZZA: Since this story first aired on GBH, several people came forward to help Gabriel Toro pay his debt so he can get his transcript and his degree.
TORO: My generation is raised to value education - that you must graduate college, that you must go to college, you must get your diploma. And so when that is withheld, I feel like a lot of people don't feel like they're living up to that expectation.
CARAPEZZA: Toro is now working in human resources, trying to save enough money to pay off his federal student loans. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story was a collaboration with The Hechinger Report.
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