Backers of legislation to ban colleges and universities from withholding college transcripts over unpaid balances could not find enough support in the House last session, but they hope that the pandemic’s economic impacts and an expanded advocacy effort will generate new momentum this time around.

Tens of thousands of Massachusetts students struggle to obtain academic records because of debt they continue to owe to higher education institutions in the Bay State, reform supporters said Tuesday. The “outdated practice” prevents many individuals from accessing lower-cost education options or providing a transcript to a prospective employer, they said.

“Unable to pay for their most recent semester, students are often forced to drop out, leaving them with an outstanding debt to their former school,” said Sen. Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat who filed legislation (H 1347 / S 821) aimed at reining in the practice. “As a result, their transcript can be withheld, denying them access to credits they’ve already earned and paid for and placing them essentially in a hostage situation.”

The legislation Chandler proposed alongside Rep. David LeBoeuf would prohibit all colleges and universities in the state, both public and private, from rejecting a transcript request over a student’s outstanding tuition, loans, fees or fines.

Schools could continue to deny a diploma or degree if a student fails to pay, and they could also withhold transcripts involving courses for which a student has not fully paid, but they would be required to provide records for credits in previous, paid-off semesters.

In July 2020, the Senate voted unanimously to add similar language to its version of an economic development bill. The provision did not survive conference committee negotiations with the House, however, and the push reset with the 2019-2020 lawmaking session’s end.

This session, supporters are ramping up their public campaign, bringing advocacy groups such as uAspire, Zero Debt Massachusetts and the Boston Intercollegiate Government into the fold.

LeBoeuf, also a Worcester Democrat, said he and other cosponsors continue to push for the legislation in the House and are “still building support amongst our colleagues.”

“I had an email, ironically, yesterday from a constituent that was having an issue with a transcript at a private institution, so it’s definitely not something that’s abstract,” LeBoeuf said at a legislative briefing about the proposal. “In the economy that we’re facing and as more people are focused on COVID recovery and economic advancement around equity, I think people are going to become more aware of this and become more interested in it.”

The legislation remains before the Higher Education Committee, which has not acted on it since it invited testimony at a July 2 hearing.

The issue also caught the attention of Democrat gubernatorial candidate Ben Downing, who in March called on Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to support Chandler’s legislation.

A March investigative report from GBH News and The Hechinger Report found that 97,145 students, graduates and former students of Massachusetts public colleges and universities could not obtain transcripts because of money they still owed to the institutions.

Spokespeople for the University of Massachusetts system and the state Department of Higher Education could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning about how UMass and state universities handle transcript requests from students with unpaid balances.

At least one UMass school has changed its policy recently. According to an April report from GBH News, UMass Boston previously withheld transcripts over any unpaid balance but during the pandemic shifted to denying requests only when a debt exceeds $1,000.

The impact among private college students, alumni and former students in Massachusetts was less clear.

Dennis Wieboldt, a Boston College student and chair of the Boston Intercollegiate Government group, said his group contacted more than a dozen of its member institutions and found many had some version of a policy to withhold transcripts for unpaid debts.

Wieboldt said those schools include Bentley University, Boston College, Boston University, Emerson College, Gordon College, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Northeastern University and UMass Lowell.

“Most of them are very vague, saying they may withhold transcripts. There’s often not a dollar amount associated with it,” Wieboldt said. “In general, among at least the schools that Boston Intercollegiate Government represents, this is a pretty ubiquitous practice.”

Representatives for the schools Wieboldt listed could not be reached for immediate comment Tuesday.

Wieboldt said the only exception his group confirmed was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which responded that it only withholds transcripts in extreme cases.

Last year, higher education consulting firm Ithaka S+R said about 6.6 million students had “stranded credits” — academic credit they earned but could not access due to unpaid balances as low as $25 — from public and private colleges.

(Copyright (c) 2021 State House News Service.

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