This story has been updated.
After earning a master’s degree in psychology from Central Connecticut State University in 2014, Sara Berry expected to obtain full-time work and pay off her education debt. But that hasn’t gone as she planned.
Berry has been scraping by as an adjunct professor at Manchester Community College, unable to be promoted to a full-time position because CCSU won’t release her transcript until she pays an academic year’s worth of master’s degree classes in full.
Berry, who is among thousands of Connecticut students whose college transcripts are currently held up over debt, told legislators last month that she’s caught in a Catch-22.
“I realize that I owe Central money that I’m responsible for,” Barry said. “But the reality is that without a full-time job, I will never be able to pay that back.”
Many colleges and universities withhold transcripts from graduates, like Berry, who still owe the school money. In some cases it’s over unpaid tuition. Often, it’s for smaller debts such as library fines, unpaid parking fees or an unreturned textbook penalty.
“They can hold your transcript for any reason, for any debt,” Amy Dowell, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform CT, said. “It could be as little as $100 that you owe.”
But some institutions of higher education say they use the tactic to encourage repayment as a friendlier alternative to passing the debt along to a collection agency, which could hurt a student’s credit.
According to researchers, colleges and universities in the United States face as much as $15 billion in outstanding balances. Those unpaid balances affect potentially 6.6 million students in the form of “stranded credits” — credits they’ve completed but can’t access because their transcript is being withheld.
Connecticut’s state Senate may soon take up the issue, often referred to as the “transcript trap.” Last month, the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee voted in support of legislation that would prevent Connecticut’s higher educational institutions from withholding transcripts from employers or the military.
“This would end a penny-wise, pound-foolish practice,” said Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, who leads the committee.
Connecticut would be the ninth state to pass a law that would prevent colleges and universities from withholding student transcripts. California was one the first states to prohibit the practice. Since then, six other states followed.
Leaders of Connecticut’s institutions of higher education have differing opinions about the bill.
Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, which represents the state’s 15 private colleges and universities, told lawmakers that if SB 922 passed, it would remove a key incentive schools use to ensure students pay their debts. She said schools would lose money, [be] “forced to go to collections more consistently” and could be forced to increase tuition costs for future students.
Margaret McCarthy, a finance director at the University of Connecticut, said students agree to UConn’s Financial Responsibility Forms, which obligates them to understand and fulfill that promise with the school.
McCarthy said that UConn works with students who are unable to pay back their debts, offers payment plans and sends out plenty of reminders to students late on payments.
But representatives for Connecticut State Colleges and Universities provided support for the bill. Sean Bradbury, senior director of government relations and external affairs at CSCU, said they support the bill because of its hindrance on “a student’s earning or career potentials.”
Berry falls into that group.
Berry said she has tried numerous times to work out a deal with the Central’s bursar’s office, which is represented by CSCU, but has been unable to acquire her transcript because she’s unable to pay her remaining balances. Berry says she won’t be able to pay off her debt with the school until she gets a full-time position. But, in order to get another job, she needs her transcript.
When Berry was finishing up her last semester of master’s classes, she realized she would be unable to pay the rest of what she owed. Her grandmother had offered to help and cut her a check, but her grandmother’s health soon declined, she said. Her grandmother ended up in a nursing home, which wiped the savings that were supposed to pay Berry’s tuition. Then the check Berry’s grandmother sent to CCSU bounced.
“I went to grad school to get a good job,” Berry said. “I did all of my work to finish the degree. But to some degree, it’s kind of useless if I can’t get a full time job.”
Berry also argued that many first-generation college students do not fully understand everything they are signing when agreeing to a college or university’s financial agreements.
“I don’t have a problem with paying off the bill,” Berry said. “But I can’t do that if I can’t get a job where I can also pay my electricity rate and run my household.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the legislation would prevent the withholding of transcripts for any reason. It would prevent withholding transcripts from employers or the military.