University of Connecticut Storrs campus (Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie)

A legislative panel on higher education scaled back a bill Thursday that would have prevented colleges and universities in Connecticut from withholding the transcripts of students who owe them money. 

The bill seeks to address a tactic commonly used by colleges and universities to collect unpaid debts: requiring students to pay up before the school will issue them a transcript for a job or educational application or for their own records. The original proposal would have prohibited such a refusal.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

However, the committee removed some of the proposal’s teeth before voting to advance it in the legislative process. The version of the bill approved Thursday still requires schools to release a transcript directly to a potential employer if a student requests it for a job opportunity. Otherwise, the institutions retain the ability to refuse transcript requests from indebted students.

Sen. Derek Slap, a West Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the panel, said the changes were a response to schools’ testimony during a public hearing earlier this month. 

“I thought this was almost a no-brainer. And then we went through the public hearing,” Slap said. “I learned a lot about the unintended consequences.”

Several Connecticut institutions of higher education submitted testimony in opposition to the bill, saying it limited schools’ tools for collecting debt and could potentially result in a greater reliance on debt collectors and higher fees and tuition for other students. 

Margaret Selleck, director of cash management and bursar at the University of Connecticut, urged state lawmakers to refrain from acting on the issue as the U.S. Department of Education is in the process of negotiating regulations on unpaid student loan debt. Selleck said UConn’s unpaid receivables totalled more than $19 million in the 2020 to 2021 school year. 

“The University acknowledges that no matter what systems we have in place, there are students that have legitimate obstacles to paying their debts on time,” Selleck wrote. “We also acknowledge some students may simply choose to avoid this responsibility and the threat of not obtaining a certified transcript may be the most effective measure for the university to obtain any balances due.”

However, the issue impacts millions of students nationwide. A 2020 report by the consulting firm Ithaka S+R estimated that roughly 6.6 million college students had credits “stranded” by institutional policies on unpaid debt. Although some states have laws explicitly allowing schools to withhold student transcripts, others like California and Washington have passed policies banning the practice.

During the hearing, the proposal received support from students and organizations representing them. Luke Herrine, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, submitted testimony, urging the committee to “save colleges from themselves.”

“If they cannot prevail upon a debtor through suasion, pestering, dinging credit reports, or hard bargaining, then they can always resort to the courts,” Herrine wrote. “Refusing to release transcripts—mere records of an alum’s own accomplishments—is petty. Venal. Cruel.”

The changes made by the committee Thursday led to more support from a few lawmakers who had previously been opposed to the measure. Others spoke in opposition to its diluted language for varying reasons. 

Rep. Jay Case, R-Winchester, said the bill should have also enabled students to receive their transcripts if they were seeking admittance to another education opportunity like grad school. 

“We’re pro-education in this state and I think we ought to work with students to pay their bills, number one, but we shouldn’t eliminate people from moving on in their education,” Case said. “That’s the way they’re going to be able to get their jobs, through graduate school.”

Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, said students make a contract with universities when they enroll and should be expected to pay the resulting bills. 

“In this society we’ve gone away from accountability and we’re constantly looking at ways for people not to have to do something they’ve agreed to do,” Vail said. “I don’t think that’s a good precedent and I think we do that way too much here.”