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Bill to ban transcript withholding at public universities passes Virginia Senate

Person speaks into microphone
A Senate subcommittee hears testimony about a proposal to ban transcript withholding at Virginia's public colleges and universities. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor’s note: The following story contains a mention of suicide.

Over the past year, VPM News has been looking into a hidden type of debt affecting thousands of Virginia college students. It’s not federal student loans, which dominates most of the headlines. It’s money owed directly to institutions, called direct-to-school debt.

In our series  Dreams Deferred , we’ve been exploring how this is creating hardships for students, making it difficult for them to complete their degrees and advance their careers. To start this series from the beginning,  click here .

Salona Perkins, a 21-year-old former Virginia Commonwealth University student featured in VPM’s Dreams Deferred series, shared her story with lawmakers last week. She told a subcommittee of senators that she’d had to drop out of VCU after two years there because she couldn’t afford to pay her bills.

“Without my transcript, though – I have to take all of those classes again,” she said.

Before testifying, she told VPM News that for a while after leaving VCU, she thought about not going back to school at all because the experience was so difficult to swallow. She still owes money to the school that she’s not sure how she’ll pay, and she felt dejected after not being able to get a copy of her official transcript.

“I definitely was like…I don't know if I want to go through this again,” Perkins said. “And I don't know if I'm gonna have to pay more money to go to another school.”

Perkins was in foster care until she was 16, and she’s paying her own way through college. Recently, she decided to go back to school at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond. She also changed her major from health sciences to paralegal studies.

But because she couldn’t get proof of the class credits she’d already completed at VCU, she was forced to repeat her general education requirements at J. Sargeant Reynolds.  She’s currently enrolled in two of them: psychology and English.

If she had her VCU transcript, she says, “I could really just be starting my major and have less time in school, so it's like starting over…but it's how you look at it.”

A perennially positive person, Perkins has found a silver lining in her current situation, focusing on the ease of classes she’s taking now (because she’s taken them before). She’s excited to finally resume classes in person, too.

“Compared to VCU, honestly, I feel less stressed,” Perkins said. “I feel better, I don't feel as pressured, as stressed. I feel like this is good for me.”

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield), who is carrying the Senate version of legislation that would ban the practice of transcript withholding at Virginia’s public colleges and universities, chimed in after Perkins finished her testimony.

“When a student has to take those credits over again, that is further building the debt. It’s increasing the cost of college to these students in particular,” Hashmi said. “Having a student take those credits again is seen as a detriment to the continuation of federal financial aid. And it can have serious consequences to a student’s ability to retain that financial aid or get additional aid in the future.

“We really want to ensure that if a student has completed credits, that they can have those credits in hand” so they’re not “trapped in repeating credits unnecessarily, and further falling into greater debt,” Hashmi said.

Hashmi’s bill cleared the Senate, passing 25 to 15. The issue is not a partisan one, garnering support from four Republican senators: Amanda Chase, Siobhan Dunnavant, Todd Pillion, and David Suetterlein. 

But the fate of the House version, brought forth by Del. Betsy Carr (D-Richmond), isn’t so certain with Republicans maintaining a 52-48 majority, although many issues relating to higher education have historically been bipartisan. VPM News has requested interviews about the bill with all GOP members of the House Education Committee; members of the higher education subcommittee will hear testimony on the bill next Monday.

Del. Carrie Coyner (R-Chesterfield) told VPM News in a December interview that she “fully supports” legislation that would prevent colleges from withholding transcripts from students because she understands the negative consequences debt has on students.

“It hangs over you. And it impacts your ability to rent, your ability to buy a house, your ability to get financing… It impacts so many things,” Coyner said.

“I think we need to look at: if we're not going to hold higher education accountable in some way for getting you [student] to complete [college], then why do we allow them to hold that debt over you and not release it [transcripts]? That’s a question I’ve had for a long time.”

According to research about stranded college credits from Sosanya Jones, a professor of higher education leadership and policy studies at Howard University, “one of the most disheartening revelations to emerge” was the “lack of flexibility and support institutions offer when students seek assistance to settle their debt.”

Jones found that students often took to social media to post about these grievances because they felt like they didn’t have anywhere else to turn.

“Marginalized students tend to use social media to vent and to find community and support because they don't necessarily find that in the institution,” Jones said. “And so social media has become a really important tool for people to exchange ideas, to get information and to find community around things that are traumatizing.”

She found posts of students with stranded credits expressing traumas and hardships associated with not being able to continue their education. In some posts, students contemplated suicide.

“Students felt like their life, or their career goals, were over, that they were always going to be stuck in this place because they couldn't get access to their degree,” Jones said. “A college degree and access to a college degree and proof of a college degree can really mean the difference between a career and a job that you just have to have just to pay the bills. And people can feel like they're stuck in a cycle of poverty.”

VPM News reached out to all four-year public Virginia colleges and universities to ask whether or not they supported or opposed legislation put forward to prohibit transcript withholding. All of the schools that responded said it’s university practice not to comment on pending legislation.

“As is our practice with any bill introduced into the General Assembly, Virginia Tech does not comment on active legislation,” wrote Mark Owczarski, Virginia Tech’s associate vice president for university relations in a statement. “As such, we do not have an official position on the bill you reference. I can only add that the university is having conversations about the bill with both the House and Senate patrons.”

VCU also declined to comment to VPM News about Hashmi’s proposal, though VCU Senior Director for State Government Relations Miles Gordon has been in contact with lawmakers about the bill.

“The current practice of withholding a transcript is one of the few tools an institution has to incentivize a student in paying their outstanding balance,” part of an email from Gordon obtained by VPM reads. “In the event that more students choose to not pay, growth of student liabilities potentially affects the credit ratings of schools and the commonwealth.”

Virginia was one of five states that were subjected to a Congressional inquiry into the issue of transcript withholding last fall. The commonwealth is among the top 10 states with the highest number of students impacted by stranded credits, according to a recent study

There are an estimated 58,000 students with stranded credits at public four-year Virginia universities, according to Julia Karon, an analyst with Ithaka S+R.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia recently collected data from public colleges and universities about the practice for the Congressional inquiry. While the data is incomplete because several schools haven’t been tracking it, it’s clear that the use of transcript withholding – also often associated with an administrative hold preventing students from enrolling in further classes – is widespread and disproportionately impacts students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Of over 650 withheld transcripts where student race was reported, only around 1-in-4 were for white students.

At Norfolk State University, one of Virginia’s historically Black colleges and universities, outstanding balances of as little as $50 prevented students from receiving a copy of their transcripts.

“This is a situation that begs for a solution,” said Lee Andes, SCHEV’s associate director for financial aid. “The current situation is just not acceptable.”

In an interview with VPM in December, staff members from SCHEV including Director Peter Blake said the issue fits into their current strategic plan, which emphasizes equity of access to higher education and closing completion gaps. But it’s unclear how SCHEV plans to deliver on these goals.

“To the extent this [transcript withholding] is a barrier to a student being able to transfer, completing his or her education, being able to get a job or be employed gainfully…then we very much are interested in it,” Blake said.

VPM’s Dreams Deferred series details the negative impacts of transcript withholding and direct-to-school debt on Virginia students.

Sosanya Jones interviewed 20 students across the country with stranded credits for her research and says practices like transcript withholding deepen already existing educational inequities because students who need their degree the most to increase social mobility are least likely to be able to pay their debts in order to get their transcripts. 

"The people who already have an advantage and can pay that debt, usually already have opportunity anyway. They're gonna move through the system,” Jones said. “So paying a debt really isn't punitive for them. And I think the policy really is meant to be punitive. And the only people it really punishes are the people that need it [transcripts] the most."

She says it’s contradictory for universities to continue withholding transcripts from marginalized students while purporting a mission of equity.

“Because if you're practicing things that are antiquated, things that have been in place for 20 or 30 years but are disproportionately affecting the poorest and the most marginalized student populations, then you're not really practicing equity,” Jones said. “And you can't say that that is a mission or aspiration if you continue to do things that don't support equity.”

There’s been concern from some lawmakers that students won’t pay their debts if colleges stop withholding transcripts.

“I don’t know what else will drive a student who has debt to a university to pay off that debt if they have their transcript,” said Sen. John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake) who voted against Hashmi’s bill following testimony from Salona Perkins in the Senate subcommittee meeting last week.

But in Virginia, public colleges are required by law to collect on these debts by withholding a portion of students’ tax refund payments. According to data VPM received as part of a public records’ request to the state Department of Taxation, Virginia public colleges and universities collectively received over $5.3 million in 2019 by withholding individuals’ tax refunds to collect on debts owed.

Recent data SCHEV collected from colleges and universities shows that transcript withholding has not been an effective tool in collecting money from students eligible for Pell grants, which are reserved for those who demonstrate exceptional financial need.

For example, from 22 Pell-eligible students VCU withheld transcripts from in 2021, the university has received less than 5% of funds due — only $2,390.30 of a $53,426.56 total.

NSU received less than a third of the funds it attempted to collect from 101 Pell-eligible students the school withheld transcripts from over the past five years. They’ve received only $55,878.18 out of $184,451.34 – even with transcripts withheld.

Jared Calfee, executive director for Virginia21, told lawmakers last week that: “Generally speaking, students who are able to pay a debt back will do so. While students who are not able to pay a debt back won’t – regardless of whether or not the transcript is withheld. So all this is doing is harming prospects for those who are least able to pay back those debts.”

Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) told VPM News in December that she thinks the current system is “flat out wrong,” adding that the U.S. “is the country of second chances.”

“If you have paid money in the past to earn these credits, you should be able to get that information whenever you need it,” Guzman said. “You should be able to take those credits earned and transfer them. This is going to help you get a better job, go back to school and even take positions of responsibility.”

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) says the legislation reminds him of the first bill he passed as a delegate. If a student defaulted on their federal student loans, the state was able to pull their professional license as a form of punishment. His legislation removed that option.

“The idea in the ‘90s had been that by doing this, you would actually get more people to pay off their student loans,” VanValkenburg said. “But of course, if you can't work in the job in which you're an expert – and in which you're licensed – you probably can't make enough money to pay back the loans.

“What we've seen is, these forms of punishment don't help. They don't actually solve the problem that they're trying to solve, they just – in many cases – ruin peoples’ lives,” he said. “And if our goal is to have Virginia citizens being productive citizens, which I hope is a universal goal, withholding their transcripts and suing them doesn't seem to be the way to go about doing it.”

The collection fees that VCU charged Salona Perkins when she already wasn’t able to pay off the principal amount definitely felt punitive to her.

She told lawmakers that not being able to access her transcripts on top of that is “holding back career and job” prospects in the legal field. She said having the opportunity to share her story with lawmakers – and learning a lot about the legal system over the last couple of years –  inspired her to go back to school and change her major to paralegal studies.

“This is actually something I want to do now,” Perkins said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Peter Blake's name as Peter Black. We have updated the story and apologize for the error.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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