College education is a critical tool for Mainers to boost their income and for a stronger economy. We should be seeking opportunities to support students, especially individuals from households with low income, so they can finish their degrees and bring skills to the labor force. LD 1838, “An Act To Improve Student Access to Postsecondary School Transcripts and Diplomas,” introduced by Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, is a common-sense way to do just that.
Universities and colleges currently withhold the transcripts and diplomas of students who have outstanding balances, sometimes even for parking tickets or library fines. Without transcripts, students cannot re-enroll or bring credits they’ve earned and paid for to another school. Without a diploma, students face greater obstacles in the job market and difficulty paying off debts, which they must do to receive their diploma.
LD 1838 would prohibit colleges and universities from withholding transcripts from students who owe modest debts, which would improve Mainers’ prospects for completing their degrees and getting jobs that pay down their balances and contribute to Maine’s economy.
Maine must reduce hurdles to higher education
Due to the considerable cost of higher education, many Mainers leave school before earning a degree. As of 2019, nearly one in five Mainers aged 25 or older — more than 180,000 people — had some college education but hadn’t earned a degree.1
Meanwhile, Maine faces a chronic need for more skilled workers. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated long-term workforce challenges here in the nation’s oldest state, and we should be doing everything we can to provide wellbeing and stability for our people, including empower students to finish their degrees.
Even before the pandemic, a 2018 survey of over 1,000 business and professional leaders found the second most agreed-upon problem Maine’s governor and legislature should address was the availability of professional workers. The fourth most cited issue was the availability of skilled technical workers.2
Working Mainers likewise highlight the need for more training. Last summer, the Maine Department of Labor surveyed more than 2,600 individuals to understand what current barriers to work people face. The most cited barrier was a “lack of opportunities that match my skillset,” while the second most cited element for supporting return to work was “additional skills training opportunities.”3
No proof transcript withholding is an effective debt collection tactic
Nationwide, a 2016 survey found that 98 percent of schools hold transcripts as a debt collection tactic. A 2020 survey found 64 percent of schools withhold transcripts if students owe less than $25. National estimates suggest there are roughly 6.6 million students who have earned credits they cannot use due to transcript holds.4 Data provided by the University of Maine found more than ten thousand students have account holds due to outstanding balances.
While college and university representatives have long relied on the regressive practice of transcript withholding, they have not proven its effectiveness in recouping outstanding balances. Evidence from recent years in Ohio — where more data on the subject is available — found that universities collected a small fraction, about 7 percent, of outstanding balances each year. This represents significantly less than 1 percent of those institutions’ operating budgets. Ending transcript withholding could, in fact, increase schools’ revenues by enabling students to enroll who previously could not because their transcripts were withheld by prior institutions.5
Administrators have asserted that transcript withholding helps start a conversation with indebted students. However, when students currently request a transcript from the University of Maine, the school’s policy states, “University policy prohibits issuing transcripts (official or unofficial) to any student indebted to the University. The issuance of partial transcripts is not permitted.” Definitive statements such as this may deter students with account holds from engaging at all.
LD 1838 would not amount to debt forgiveness, and it would not prevent schools from collecting outstanding balances — but it would incentivize colleges and universities to seek solutions that enable Mainers to pay off their debts while continuing their studies and pursuing careers.
A growing national movement for reform
In December, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called out the practice as one which “block[s] retention and completion for our most underserved students.” The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) also called for the practice to be reformed. Last month, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced it will begin examining how post-secondary schools use transcript withholding as a means of collecting institutional debt.
Meanwhile, California and Washington have already effectively outlawed the practice, and New York and many other states are considering comprehensive reforms.
By joining this national movement, Maine would buoy students and employers alike and would help grow our economy at a time when labor markets are tight and skilled workers are scarce.
 US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2019 data.
 “Making Maine Work: Critical Investments for the Maine Economy,” Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Maine Development Foundation, and Educate Maine, 2018, available at https://www.mdf.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/MMW_2018_FullReportsml.pdf
 “Barriers to employment: Key findings from recent survey effort,” Maine Department of Labor, September 2021, available at https://www.maine.gov/labor/docs/2021/Barrierstoemployment_Findings%20and%20Analysis_091321.pdf
 Ithaka S+R, “Solving Stranded Credits Assessing the Scope and Effects of Transcript Withholding on Students, States, and Institutions,” October 5, 2020.
 Rebecca Maurer, “Withholding Transcripts: Policy, Possibilities, and Legal Recourse,” November 15, 2018, Student Borrower Protection Center, available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3288837