Some colleges are withholding degrees over unpaid fees; advocates push for action

degrees withheld
Posted at 4:36 PM, Mar 29, 2021

The pandemic has been a major barrier to employment for millions of Americans. Now, some warn colleges, and a long-standing practice by these institutions could be playing a role in yet another barrier.

An association of college bursar and registrar’s offices reported 95 percent of colleges still do or have had a policy of withholding degrees over institution fees. During the pandemic and resulting economic downturn, those fees have been more difficult to pay.

The impact of withholding a degree is magnified by the job loss and hyper-competitive job market that has resulted. The impact also disproportionately impacts lower-income students and former students.

It’s impacting students like Gabriel Toro, who enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in Boston as his ticket to a better life.

“I moved by myself up to Massachusetts, because I was also leaving an unsafe household,” he explained. “Actually, for a brief period of time, I was also a homeless LGBTQIA youth.”

Fighting for a better future, he worked multiple jobs while studying and still had to take out around $50,000 in student loans. However, in the summer of last year, he finally completed his degree.

“I suddenly had to start looking for a job at literally the height of the recession,” said Toro.

Up to the challenge, he sought help from a staffing agency and eventually was offered a job. However, while submitting documentation to his prospective employer, he came across an email from his school that stated his degree was being withheld.

"No one called me. I only learned this after checking my school email,” Toro explained. “It came as a shock.”

The school said he owed roughly $2,700 in fees, including a graduation fee, despite no formal graduation ceremony during the pandemic. Without the new job, he couldn’t afford to pay that fee.

“I just remember being overcome with anxiety,” Toro added.

Fortunately for him, he told his prospective employer about his situation and they were understanding. They even hired him without the verification of his degree. Then, the textbook rental and tutoring company, Chegg, heard about his situation and offered to pay his fee balance.

“There are still so many other students who do not have access to that money right now and I think we need to still be looking at this as a bigger picture,” said Toro.

According to a report by Ithaka S+R, more than 6 million Americans are dealing with their degree being withheld by universities over fees. In some cases, the fees are as little as $25, but during a pandemic and economic downtime like the one we are in, $25 for some might as well be a thousand.

“COVID-19 is a really pernicious time for schools to be withholding transcripts,” said Rebecca Maurer. "It is bad for students. It is bad for our economy as a whole, and the research tells us that schools aren’t even getting a whole lot of money withholding these transcripts.”

Maurer is a lawyer with the Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC). The center helped California become the first state to pass a law banning schools from withholding degrees to collect fees in 2019. Last year, Washington passed a ban. States like Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts are considering similar legislation. Advocates are now looking for the federal government to take bolder action.

“We have a new administration; a new department of education and we would be thrilled to see them step in and regulate institutional debt and transcript withholding,” said Maurer. "We can just eliminate this problem that is holding back millions of Americans.”

Doing so could make it easier for some to find a job and get back to work.