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How the college ‘transcript trap’ impacts Ohioans

The country’s student loan debt crisis earns a lot of attention. But there’s also another type of college bill that can get in the way.

About 222,000 people have unpaid bills totaling $556 million to colleges across the state for things such as unpaid tuition, parking tickets, library fines, or other outstanding fees or charges, according to an October 2020 report from education consulting company Ithaka S+R.

Some experts label these “stranded credits.” Ithaka’s findings estimated 6.6 million students nationwide could be impacted by this, owing $15 billion to institutions.

Those unpaid bills, though, do more than just harm students’ credit. Public colleges can withhold students’ transcripts over these unpaid balances. This prevents students from accessing proof of the credits they’ve earned.

That’s a big deal. It could keep students from transferring those completed courses to another school to finish a degree. Those looking to get a job with a potential employer who requires proof of a transcript would be out of luck. Some have dubbed it the “transcript trap.”

These rules often impact students of color, first-generation students and older students to a greater extent, according to a 2020 report from Policy Matters Ohio.

That same report found there were about 390,000 active accounts with the Ohio attorney general’s office by the end of the 2019 fiscal year. That’s a big chunk of the roughly 1.5 million Ohioans who have completed some college but don’t have a degree or credential.

“How many people would that be if you could help them finish?” said Julie Szeltner, senior director of adult programs and services at College Now. “How many businesses would then have their trained talent that they’re looking for?”

Jarrod Robinson holds one of those accounts. The Cleveland Heights native, 25, started out at Ohio University in 2014. Robinson, who identifies with they/their pronouns, left Athens about a month into the second semester of their sophomore year due to mental health issues.

Robinson said there wasn’t a lot of support when it came to figuring out how to withdraw. They said they shared the plan to leave with an adviser, who didn’t mention any related red flags.

Yet a balance of about $9,000 remained for outstanding room and board charges. They said they tried to get on a payment plan, but having to put down several thousand dollars just to begin the process of making monthly payments wasn’t financially feasible.

The initial balance has ballooned up to about $18,000 or so as of last year, they said, though they’re not exactly sure. Navigating the situation has been filled with red tape.

The balance has moved through agencies, Robinson said. A phone call searching for answers resulted in a busy signal. Notices go to their mom’s house, not their current residence. They answer every robocall that comes through, thinking it might be someone else on the other end with some related context.

“I feel like, to give all that energy and time to an institution like that, (then) have them completely turn their backs on you,” Robinson said.

And the lack of a transcript for courses completed years ago still shapes their current reality. Robinson has since taken classes at Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland State University but could be further along toward a degree if those credits from OU weren’t in limbo.

“How do you expect me to pay this if you’re not going to allow me to get into a position to pay it?” Robinson said.

The average amount owed at public four-year institutions comes in at $2,871, compared with about $611 at community colleges, according to Ithaka’s findings.

The bulk of the money students owe at Lorain County Community College comes from unpaid tuition or book charges, according to Tracy Green, the college’s vice president for strategic and institutional development. She said the college got rid of many other additional fees, such as parking, years ago in an attempt to remove barriers.

Green said part of the reason students might not return is because they still owe money.

“Their tuition that they may be behind on is not the only factor that’s going on in their lives, particularly for community college students,” she said. “It is one of many.”

The college piloted a program this past spring called “Commodore Comeback” to reach out to students who left the school with a balance.

The offering allows students to re-enroll at the college and get up to $1,000 of their balance wiped away, even if it’s already been turned over to the state. In exchange, students must take at least six credits and create an academic plan.

It’s a start, Green said, especially considering the school’s strategic plan, which is linked to Ohio’s goal of getting 65% of the population to earn a credential or degree by 2025. It’s especially important at an institution like LCCC, where, she said, 85% of graduates live and work in the region.

“If we ignore that constituent base, we’re not going to help move that needle at all in our community,” she said.

Cleveland State University ran a similar program as a pilot in fall 2019. Those who fulfilled the program’s requirements could each have up to $5,000 forgiven, a number state higher ed officials said is one of the best offers across the country.

About 45 eligible students inquired and 18 enrolled. About half of that group completed the semester and had $26,000 forgiven, according to Jonathan Wehner, CSU’s vice president for enrollment management.

He said he wishes the university didn’t have to turn outstanding amounts over. He thinks the solution would be to better fund students at the institutional, state and federal levels to avoid these situations. But in the meantime, he said, students have incurred a debt they’re obligated to make good on.

“The taxpayers in the state of Ohio, who in part fund our public institutions, have a right to collect on an outstanding obligation that is owed to them,” he said.

Advocates calling for changes say it’s not just about the money, adding they’re not specifically looking for balances to be forgiven. They’re instead pushing for scrapping transcript withholding and giving institutions more flexibility to figure out how to get students back in the classroom before their debts are sent off.

New guidance recently came out from the Ohio Department of Higher Education outlining how the state’s institutions have options to offer debt forgiveness in exchange for new tuition, similar to programs like those at CSU and LCCC. This comes as many institutions are dealing with enrollment woes amid the pandemic.

The new information is a move advocates say is a nod to a recent increase of conversation and awareness on this issue. But it’s not a straight policy change.

A line tucked into a state Senate bill could tweak the law. First proposed as getting rid of institutions’ power to withhold transcripts, the latest update calls for allowing potential employers to request access to trapped transcripts.

The bill is still under consideration.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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