Vivé Griffith is a writer, educator, and director of Foundation Communities’ Free Minds program in Austin.
As the academic year opens at colleges across the country, one important group of students will be underrepresented in classrooms: returning adults. The missing students may have both the abilities and the motivation to pursue degrees. But many are shut out of higher education because of debt owed to schools they attended years, even decades, earlier.
This debt is as pernicious as the student loan debt that’s the focus of our national conversation, but it’s largely unknown. It is disproportionately held by low-income, first-generation college students, who are already less likely to complete school; only 11 percent of these students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a 2008 Pell Institute study. These students leave school — and then the schools, with government encouragement, stand in the way when they try to go back.
To explain, I’ll tell you about Natalie Ross. A star student from San Antonio, Natalie received scholarships and aid to allow her to attend Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College) in Lynchburg, Va., in 2001. Like many first-generation students, she saw college as a path to a different life. Once there, however, she struggled to fit in among her wealthier and better-prepared classmates. She received her first-ever grade of a C. When a beloved grandfather died during her second year, she withdrew from classes and took a Greyhound back to Texas. She always assumed she would return to college.
Fifteen years later, she can’t. Not at Randolph or anywhere else.
Natalie faces the same academic roadblock that impedes countless returning students. Having quit college before graduating, she owes money to the school for Pell Grant funds that had to be returned to the federal government; housing; and other fees that kicked in when she left. These aren’t student loans she knowingly took out. Yet until that money — more than $3,000 — is paid in full, the school won’t release her transcript, which is required for registration at most colleges. So, until she has hers, she can’t enroll elsewhere.
Natalie’s $3,000 debt may not be much to someone of means, and it doesn’t seem like much at Randolph College, where the current cost of tuition and fees totals $49,350 a year. But to a single mom who works three part-time jobs and travels around town on buses and her bicycle, it seems impossible to repay.
I meet individuals like Natalie all the time in Free Minds, the education program I have directed in Austin since 2007. An affiliate of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which President Obama recognized with the 2014 National Humanities Medal, our program offers low-income adults a second chance at education through free college humanities classes.
Our students receive six hours credit at Austin Community College for completing a nine-month course. Over and over, I am forced to turn away qualified applicants whom I can’t enroll because their transcripts are being withheld. Many of them will never go back to college.
The U.S. Education Department is part of the problem, by encouraging colleges to withhold academic transcripts of students with defaulted loans. This sets a precedent for colleges to use transcripts as a means of pressuring students to repay any debt, including fees accrued after withdrawing. While in some cases the practice may work, in many cases it creates a real and often insurmountable barrier to the classroom.
We cannot afford to prevent smart and serious students from earning degrees that could change their — and their families’ — trajectories. With a bachelor’s degree, Natalie would probably make about $400 a week more than she does now. She’d be more likely to pay off her debt to Randolph College, as well as purchase a house, contribute to her local tax base and prepare her daughter for her own college career.
We need to create fair and manageable policies that enable individuals to meet their financial obligations while completing their educations. Policy on debt to previous colleges should mirror federal financial aid policy, which allows those with defaulted student loans to rehabilitate those loans by making nine on-time monthly payments in an affordable amount. The loan is not yet paid off, but once it is rehabilitated, it is out of default and the individual is allowed to enroll in classes. Instituting a similar policy for debt to colleges would ensure the colleges receive payment while clearing a pathway for college completion.
We should also place a statute of limitations on withholding transcripts. I met a woman who was prevented from enrolling because she owed $200 toward a semester of college she took more than 25 years ago. We offer “fresh start” programs to those with subpar grades, recognizing that academic records from when we were teenagers may not reflect the students we’ll be a decade later. Why not do the same for missing transcripts?
It’s good news that we are finally discussing the best ways for people to finance their educations without being crushed under debt. But that isn’t enough. We must also figure out how to keep the doors of college open to all, including promising adults who deserve a second chance.