Lawmakers pass ban on withholding college transcripts

SPRINGFIELD - Graduates from Illinois colleges and universities may soon be able to access their transcripts even if they still owe money to the school they attended.

The Illinois House on Tuesday gave its approval to a bill that had already cleared the Senate prohibiting higher education institutions from refusing to provide copies of student transcripts either to the current or former student or that student's current or prospective employer.

The proposed change in Illinois comes as the Biden administration is considering limited changes to federal guidelines that have long encouraged colleges and universities to withhold transcripts from anyone who is delinquent on repaying certain student loans.

Senate Bill 3032, dubbed the Student Debt Assistance Act, would go further than the Biden administration's proposal by prohibiting the withholding of transcripts, or charging a higher fee for accessing those transcripts, on the grounds that the student owes the school any debt.

Rep. Bob Morgan, a Deerfield Democrat and the chief House sponsor of the bill, said schools have not limited the practice just to collecting student loan debt but sometimes use transcripts as leverage to collect any debt, including library fines and parking tickets.

"It's estimated that 6.6 million people in the country cannot get a copy of their transcript because they owe a debt to their college, sometimes as little as $25," he said. "Twenty-five dollars is keeping them from getting access to their transcripts."

He said that can prevent students and graduates from being able to get a job and earn the money it takes to pay off their school debt.

The bill originally passed the Senate without opposition, 55-0. But Republicans in the House raised concerns that the bill has no cap on the amount of money someone could still owe a school while still being able to access their transcripts. That, they said, could make it more difficult for schools to collect money owed to them, which could force them to raise tuition and fees on other students to make up for the loss.

"And that's precisely what this is doing because somebody has to pay for that cost," said Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, a Jacksonville Republican. "And if those debts are outstanding, somebody has to pay for it in the meantime. In the long term, you know, they may pay it 10 years down the road or 20 years down the road, they may pay it off. But in the short term, current students are going to be paying that cost."

Morgan, however, said the bill does not forgive a person's debt, nor does it prohibit schools from using other methods of collecting what's owed to them.

The bill passed the House 74-33 but was sent back to the Senate for concurrence with a minor technical amendment. That vote could happen as early as Wednesday, which would clear the bill to be sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Meanwhile, a similar bill is pending in the Senate that would prohibit public high schools from withholding a student's grades, transcripts or diploma because of an unpaid balance in the student's school account.

House Bill 4243 passed out of the House 66-36 on March 4 and passed out of the Senate Education Committee Tuesday on a 10-4 vote. If it clears the Senate, it would also have to be sent back to the House for concurrence with a minor amendment.

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