Gabriel Toro choked up behind his mask as he described the lengths it took him to complete his bachelor's degree at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Estranged from his parents and briefly homeless, he took out $50,000 in federal loans. He worked as a mental health counselor, a busboy in a bar, a team member at a Whole Foods and a cashier on the night shift at a diner while juggling a full slate of courses. He skipped meals and shared a studio apartment to save on food and rent. He took a job in a clothing store to get the employee discount on the clothes he needed for his internships.
Then, just when he had polished off the credits required for a bachelor's degree in management with a minor in psychology, Toro logged on to his university email account and found an unexpected notification from the bursar's office. The subject: "Degree Withheld."
In addition to the loan debts he'd incurred, Toro still owed money to the university, including a $200 graduation fee he hadn't known was mandatory. And until he paid, he would be blocked from receiving the degree and transcript that he needed to get a job.
"I did not have time to cry," he said, remembering the email that came even as he was struggling to find a job in the pandemic.
Toro, who is 23, is one of 97,145 students, graduates and former students who can't obtain their transcripts because they owe money to Massachusetts' public colleges and universities, according to data obtained by The Hechinger Report and GBH Boston.
Nationwide, 6.6 million students can't obtain their transcripts from public and private colleges and universities for having unpaid bills as low as $25 or less, the higher education consulting firm Ithaka S+R estimates.
The policy prevents students from being able to take their credits with them if they transfer, and from going to graduate school or getting jobs that could help them pay their balances.
Toro learned that he owed $2,715.33 to UMass Boston for reasons he still doesn't fully understand and said he can't find anyone to explain to him.
"I need my transcript to be able to work in order to continue my education and be able to pay off those debts," he said, shaking his head. "That's why we're there. That's why we have gone to school."
A spokesman for UMass Boston, which has 9,848 students, graduates and former students who, like Toro, can't get their transcripts because they owe money, said only that the university withholds transcripts for unpaid balances in any amount.
Advocates alternately call this "transcript ransom" and "the transcript trap."
Students "might decide to go back to college, or they might need to get a job, or they might have actually technically finished at a college," said Bill Moses, managing director for education at the Kresge Foundation, which works to close equity gaps. But when they try to get a transcript to prove that, "it's held up."
Unpaid bills can be not only for tuition but also for room and board, fees, parking and library fines and other costs that students sometimes don't know they owe. In many cases, late charges are added, significantly increasing the original amounts.
Jarrod Robinson left Ohio University after three semesters and then withdrew, ultimately resuming at a community college closer to home. But the university won't release Robinson's transcript — or any of those credits already earned — because of an unpaid bill for three months' worth of room and board that, with interest and penalties, has grown to $18,000.
This "punitive approach to student debt" is "holding me back," said Robinson, now 25, who is studying environmental science. "It's crazy, withholding transcripts. It really does get people on the lower rungs of society stuck in a trap that keeps pushing forward cyclical poverty."
An OU spokeswoman said transcripts are held for balances due in any amount. She said the university offers payment plans to help students pay them off.
Unsurprisingly, the impact of transcript holds falls almost entirely on low-income students. The practice also disproportionately affects students at community colleges, which promote themselves as affordable and transfer friendly, the nonprofit research institute Policy Matters Ohio found. And it prevents at least some of the estimated 36 million Americans who started but never finished college from resuming their educations, even as many need to change careers in the pandemic recession and as policymakers and universities themselves attempt to lure them back.
"A hospital can't take away someone's health when they don't pay, but somehow we've allowed higher education institutions to say [students] can't have that transcript" proving they've received an education, said Rebecca Maurer, counsel at the nonprofit advocacy group the Student Borrower Protection Center. "It is a unique and unfair debt-collection tool."
Withholding transcripts also appears to be a not particularly effective way to collect. In Ohio, which has one of the nation's most aggressive collections practices, for instance, less than 7 cents of every dollar owed by students, graduates and former students at public universities is recovered annually, a study by Policy Matters Ohio found.
In Massachusetts, several public university and college officials put the onus for the practice of withholding transcripts on declining state funding that forces them to increase costs and makes it hard to forgive debt.
Some community college presidents whose schools were asked to provide the figures on this practice said they were surprised to see how many students were affected and wondered aloud whether essentially preventing their graduates from getting good jobs was the best way to help them pay off what they owe.
"We really need to review whether this is actually even an effective policy to encourage students to pay their money back," said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, which reported 5,331 students, graduates and former students with unpaid balances of $100 or more whose transcripts were being held back.
Bunker Hill said it would drop the policy and no longer withhold transcripts and degrees from students who owe any amount of money.
Several states have passed or are considering laws to curb the practice of blocking students who owe money from obtaining their transcripts. California last year became the first state in which public and private higher educational institutions were banned from holding back the transcripts of students who have unpaid debts. A new Washington State law requires that students who owe money be allowed to get their transcripts to apply for jobs.
A coalition of advocacy groups in New York is encouraging a measure there like California's. And a bill in Massachusetts would give students ownership of their college and university transcripts, though not their degrees, if they still owe money.
"They own the transcript, the grades that they've already paid for and have acquired," said Massachusetts state Sen. Harriette Chandler, a co-sponsor of the bill. Blocking a student from getting a record of this "is wrong. It's just plain wrong. It means that if you have some debt left in school, you can't move on with your life."
Back in Boston, Toro is planning to someday run for political office — he has his eye on city council — to stand up for people like him and promote change.
Anger among students over withheld transcripts, he said, "is starting to create this momentum, this voice of people who feel like they have not been treated right by their educational institutions. And it's for all kinds of weird fees, like something as small as a parking ticket."
Toro said that he and others in his generation "were taught to value education, that you must graduate college, that you must go to college, you must get your diploma." When they can't, "there is a sense of shame. There is a stigma that they cannot manage themselves financially, which is completely untrue. They are just victims of a predatory system."
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report in collaboration with GBH News in Boston. Additional reporting by Kirk Carapezza. Research assistance by Diane Adame. This story was originally published and aired on GBH News, and afterward listeners and readers came forward to pay off Gabriel Toro's outstanding bill to the university, allowing him to obtain his transcript and degree.
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