Maine Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli D-Arrowsic, speaks on the floor at the State House in Augusta on Sept. 26, 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Public and private Maine colleges and universities would have to stop withholding transcripts from students who owe them smaller amounts of money under a bill advanced by Democratic lawmakers on Thursday.

The measure from Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, would keep four-year universities from withholding transcripts if the student owes them $2,500 or less. The similar cutoff for two-year community colleges would be $500. Students with institutional debt over those thresholds could access transcripts if they agree to a payment plan.

Transcript withholding, used by most colleges to recover unpaid fees from students ranging from tuition, unpaid library or parking fines and other expenses not covered by student loans, has been targeted by states in recent months. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in December the practice should end, citing barriers to the workforce.

Institutional debt is slightly divorced from a wider conversation about student debt, but it is still a significant problem for many students and institutions. For example, the University of Maine System has more than $38 million past due from nearly 11,000 people who cannot access transcripts, though it will often release transcripts to prospective employers or other colleges.

Vitelli’s bill, which was advanced along party lines by the Democratic-led Legislature’s education committee on Thursday over united Republican opposition, was the product of a compromise between Vitelli and Maine’s university and community college systems. The initial version would have released transcripts to any student regardless of their amount of institutional debt.

“I’m really appreciative of this work and this compromise that’s come up that sort of balances the needs for this bill and the needs of the university,” said Rep. Sue Salisbury, D-Westbrook, a member of the education committee.

The current version established the thresholds governing release of transcripts without any promise of payment. Those above the thresholds would have to agree to a payment plan, but they would not have to actually make a payment before they get access to transcripts.

The Maine measure, which now faces votes in the House and Senate, would not forgive any institutional debt. Colleges and universities will still be able to send any amount to collections agencies. Leaving it unpaid could affect students’ credit ratings or their state tax returns.

Vitelli’s plan does not go as far as some others emerging across the country, including in New York, where Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, announced this week that the state university system there would immediately stop withholding transcripts. She will also be submitting legislation to bar them at all postsecondary institutions statewide.

Legislative Republicans saw the measure as an overreach. Rep. Paul Stearns of Guilford, their lead committee member, supported the state institutions’ efforts to establish uniform policies but going no further, saying colleges appear to already be working with students.

“The notion that someone would get the idea that they are not responsible for a debt that they incur is going to, in my opinion, cause ramifications for that individual for the rest of their life,” he said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...