‘Transcript ransom’ bill would help job-seekers owing debt to colleges

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

A proposed state law would prevent Georgia colleges from using a student owing money to the school as a reason to withhold a student’s transcript should they need it for a job.

House Bill 39, filed Monday and sponsored by three Republican and two Democratic lawmakers, seeks to remove barriers for job-seekers who are sometimes thwarted by their school’s transcript policies. Georgia’s proposal would allow those with debt to access unofficial transcripts, but official transcripts would be provided for employment purposes only.

Schools often require students or former students to pay off debts before releasing academic records that some employers demand before hiring or promoting workers, a practice derided by critics as “transcript ransom.”

The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Marvin Lim, D-Norcross, says that creates a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum for those who can’t access their transcripts. They need a transcript to land a job, and they need the job to pay off what they owe to the school.

“We want to be able to get people employed,” he said. “We want people to pay off their debts, too.”

The bill would not forgive any student debt held by the school.

If it becomes law, Lim said it would impact Georgia’s public colleges, including two- and four-year schools, and potentially some private colleges that could be subject to such regulation.

Under the proposal, schools could still charge students for providing a transcript, but they couldn’t charge a higher fee because the requester owes money.

A spokeswoman for the University System of Georgia, which includes 26 public colleges, said it does not comment on pending legislation.

Nationally, some college leaders and groups have defended transcript withholding as a way to keep students accountable for debt. The Coalition of Higher Education Assistance Organizations has called it “a key tool in the process by which colleges and universities communicate with students about owed balances.”

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In the past few years, just over a half-dozen states have passed related laws targeting transcript withholding. The movement represents a paradigm shift as policymakers and colleges begin to rethink what has been a common but ineffective tool for debt collection, said Winston Berkman-Breen, deputy director of advocacy and policy counsel for the nonprofit Student Borrower Protection Center.

“There’s no intrinsic value to the transcript to the school. It’s only a tactic to inflict pain,” he said. “It’s only a penalty.”

The debt a student owes directly to their school is different than federal loans students may take out. This so-called institutional debt can vary in amount from as little as $25 for a library fine or a surprise graduation fee to larger amounts due to withdrawing midsemester, he said.

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Some of the recently passed state laws have a wider focus than the Georgia proposal. The most flexible, such as a California law signed in 2019, generally ban colleges from withholding transcripts for any reason. Other states require transcripts to be released for circumstances beyond employment purposes, such as when a student is trying to transfer to another college.

Rep. Beth Camp, R-Concord, said she signed on to support the Georgia bill because many times students don’t know they owe money or haven’t had a due process period to dispute a charge.

“We don’t want to put (up) any barriers for anyone trying to get into the workforce or get a better job,” she said.