“Everybody was like, ‘Oh my God, congrats,’ ” said Young, a double major in psychology and business administration who owed $11,000 in unpaid tuition. “It just came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting this, and I’m so grateful.”
Trinity Washington is among more than 100 colleges and universities using federal pandemic relief aid to reset the ledger for students in arrears. The move is making it possible for thousands to register for the upcoming semester, get their diplomas or transfer elsewhere. It is a recognition of the financial strain students still face in the wake of the public health and economic crisis.
Although the Education Department could not provide a list of colleges clearing outstanding balances, The Washington Post reached out to higher education associations for an informal tally. Those organizations collectively identified about 150 schools, but there are probably many more.
In all, The Post found colleges across the country giving students a second chance. Some are small private institutions such as Trinity, which is providing a clean slate to nearly 400 undergrads owing more than $1.8 million. Others are large public systems such as the City University of New York, where at least 50,000 students will have up to $125 million in past-due bills forgiven.
At least two dozen of the schools identified are historically Black institutions, including Norfolk State University in Virginia and Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Another 18 are tribal institutions, such as Little Big Horn College in Montana and Northwest Indian College in Washington state.
And there are dozens of community colleges on the list. Howard Community College in Maryland spent $1.4 million to clear outstanding balances for 1,574 students, while Connecticut State Colleges and Universities will alleviate about $17 million in debt accumulated by 18,161 current and former community college students during the pandemic.
Schools are only forgiving debt owed directly to them, balances that students amass for unpaid tuition, parking or library fees.
All of this was made possible by three rounds of federal stimulus dollars. Congress has provided a total of $76.2 billion since last year for colleges and universities to pivot online, stave off steep financial losses and help students weather the crisis.
Inconsistent and unclear guidance from the Education Department on how to spend the money created confusion in the initial rollout, but the agency has since clarified the parameters of the funding.
In March, the Biden administration said colleges, with a student’s consent, could use grants to pay off outstanding balances dating back to March 13, 2020 — when President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.
The news was a godsend, said Trinity President Patricia McGuire.
“It was like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ going from black and white to color,” McGuire said. “I suddenly saw a path forward.”
At the time, McGuire was worried students were amassing large unpaid bills that the university could not afford to cover. In spring 2020, Trinity had suspended a policy of barring students with balances over $4,000 from re-enrolling. The policy often resulted in some 200 students leaving school, and McGuire wanted to avoid adding any more stress during the pandemic, she said.
But waiving the policy meant the debts continued to grow.
Young, 20, watched her own balance climb as her family could only afford to make two tuition payments during the pandemic. Her father, a truck driver, went from working five days a week to two days, earning just enough to cover living expenses.
Although Young works part time at a restaurant in Silver Spring, the money was not enough to put a dent in her school bill. Young, who emigrated from Jamaica as a teen, is trying to become a permanent resident. But without a green card, she cannot take out federal student loans. The scholarships Trinity provides, she said, made her remaining balance manageable — until the public health crisis struck.
Before she got word of the forgiveness plan, Young had reached an agreement with Trinity to pay down her balance, because work has since picked up for her father. Having that flexibility, Young said, made it easier to focus on her studies.
“I was anxious that I would have to leave after working so hard,” Young said. “I know my dad would do anything to keep me in school, but the pandemic made it difficult. I’m happy Trinity decided to revisit that rule.”
The median family income of Trinity’s undergraduate students is $25,000, and tuition costs roughly the same amount before aid is applied. Need is high, and students are vulnerable to financial disruptions derailing their education. McGuire said she has long been uncomfortable with the unpaid balance policy but is trying to keep the institution financially healthy while helping students complete their studies.
Donations have been key to keeping costs down for students, but McGuire said doubling the Pell Grant for financially needy students would go a long way to help. She also hopes the federal government looks at policies that make it harder to pay off debts owed to schools. Students, for instance, cannot take out a federal loan to pay a prior semester’s balance.
Dominique Baker, an assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said the federal regulation creates a barrier for students with limited financial means.
“We create a scenario with these past due balances where students have to come up with cash,” Baker said. “We know who has the easier time finding people to give them a few thousand dollars.”
Baker also challenges colleges to reconsider the logic of their policies for unpaid balances. Keeping students enrolled yields more money than having them drop out. And withholding transcripts in exchange for past-due fees creates a barrier to completion.
An October study by education group Ithaka S+R found that colleges nationwide are barring as many as 6.6 million students from accessing their transcripts because of unpaid balances. Researchers found that adult learners, students of color and those from families with low incomes are most likely to have stranded credits.
Before the pandemic, some schools were exploring ways to clear a path for students in arrears to return. Wayne State University in Detroit, for instance, created the Warrior Way Back program in 2018 that forgives up to $1,500 for students who dropped out to re-enroll. It’s a model that could be replicated with the support of state or federal funding, Baker said.
“There is real space for the federal government to consider ways to create programming that would say, ‘We will waive these fees for you to come back to school and finish,' ” Baker said. “It’s pretty clear at this point that this is a problem.”