Three weeks ago, legislators took an essential step toward improving access to higher education and strengthening Maine’s workforce.

Withholding transcripts from college students who owe modest debts can delay their graduations or keep them from graduating at all. Matt Benoit/Shutterstock.com

The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee advanced a bill, L.D. 1838, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, to prohibit four-year colleges and universities from withholding transcripts from students who owe modest debts – often because of fees or for unforeseeably having to leave school.

If this bill – An Act to Improve Student Access to Postsecondary School Transcripts and Diplomas – had been law years ago, it would have changed my life. Now, the Legislature and Gov. Mills have an opportunity to help countless Mainers get back to working toward their degree and advancing their careers.

In March 2014, I had to withdraw from the University of Maine at Farmington because of medical reasons, so the school sent me a $1,200 bill for tuition that my loans no longer covered. What options did the university give me? Either make three payments of $400 or pay the balance in full. I couldn’t afford either, so I made modest payments each month.

I was ready to get back to school that fall, but I had a hold on my account because of the outstanding balance. I couldn’t reenroll, and I had no access to my transcript, which meant I couldn’t transfer my credits – which I’d already earned and paid for – to another school. My progress toward a degree was indefinitely delayed. Months later, after I’d made payments totaling hundreds of dollars, the state garnished my tax return without informing me. Even then, I couldn’t access my transcript.

Eventually, I became so fed up with putting my life on hold that I took out a personal loan, paid off the remaining balance and in the fall of 2017, I transferred to the University of Southern Maine. All told, my graduation was delayed three years because of a mid-semester medical issue.

Advertisement

For too many Maine students, especially those with low incomes, transcript withholding is a trap. Students are told they cannot get back to school or access their transcript until they pay off their debt, even though that makes it harder to get the jobs they need to be able to do so. Especially when there’s so much demand for skilled workers, transcript withholding makes no sense.

Reforming this backward practice is moving toward reality. In December, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called for transcript withholding to be reformed. In January, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said it would look at how schools use transcript withholding as a potentially harmful debt collection practice. California has already outlawed the practice; Washington state has reformed it, and New York and many other states are considering comprehensive changes.

Maine can join that movement by passing L.D. 1838. Rather than cancel student debt, the bill simply asks schools to take a more productive approach to collect outstanding balances. If this bill had been law years ago, who knows where I would be in my career.

For the sake of Maine’s workforce and the many students who stand to benefit, I urge our legislators and Gov. Mills to make this proposal a reality.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.