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The City University of New York announced Wednesday that it would temporarily stop withholding transcripts from students with unpaid bills, reversing a long-held policy that prevented thousands from transferring between schools or entering the careers of their choice. In the announcement, which linked to The Hechinger Report’s coverage, Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez described the decision as “the most pragmatic and compassionate way forward in this challenging climate.”

CUNY students were among the millions across the country hit hard by the pandemic and left struggling to finance their education. But the problem of transcript withholding long predates Covid, as Hechinger’s Jon Marcus found when he began investigating this issue as part of our Hidden Debt Trap project. He’s spent months reporting on what critics refer to as the “transcript trap,” when colleges and universities refuse to release transcripts for students who owe them money. Nationwide, an estimated 6.6 million students are unable to receive their transcripts because they have unpaid bills, some for as little as $25.

Some of these students have graduated, but without their transcript, they can’t prove that they have earned a degree and are qualified for a well-paying job. Others are seeking to transfer to a new college – for example, from a community college to a four-year university. Without their transcripts, none of their credits transfer and they have to start again.

“No New York college student should be held back by past debts.”

Marissa Muñoz, northeast regional director, Young Invincibles

But with increased attention to the issue, things are beginning to change.  CUNY, one the nation’s largest public systems with 275,000 undergraduate and graduate students, joins a small but growing list of colleges and universities reexamining their policies on withholding transcripts and eliminating old barriers. (The university also announced that it would lift financial holds on roughly 74,000 students so they could reenroll in the fall.)

Southern New Hampshire University, a mostly online university with an enrollment of 150,000, began releasing transcripts to students earlier this year. Bunker Hill Community College eliminated its transcript-withholding policy following questions by The Hechinger Report and GBH, Boston’s public radio station. And the University of Massachusetts Boston changed its policy following publication of Hechinger’s article, saying it will now only withhold transcripts for students with balances of $1,000 or more.

Related: Colleges fight attempts to stop them from withholding transcripts over unpaid bills

Advocates hope that more schools will follow suit, pointing out the potentially devastating consequences for students who cannot get well-paying jobs that would help them pay off their balances. As one student Marcus interviewed put it: “I need my transcript to be able to work in order to continue my education and be able to pay off those debts. That’s why we’re there. That’s why we have gone to school.”  

Marissa Muñoz, northeast region director for Young Invincibles, a student advocacy organization, praised CUNY’s decision but also urged the New York state assembly to join California lawmakers in passing legislation that would permanently bar the practice, noting the disproportionate impact it has on Black and Latino students.

“Ultimately, transcript withholding as a debt collection practice is a matter of equity,” Muñoz said in a statement. “No New York college student should be held back by past debts.”

This story about colleges withholding transcripts was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. For more on transcript withholding and other formers of hidden debt, sign up for our Hidden Debt Project newsletter.  Sign up for our higher education newsletter, too.

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