More than half of Massachusetts public colleges have used COVID relief funds to cover unpaid student bills

As students prepare to return to campus, colleges in New England and across the country are looking to spend a $ 69 billion windfall in federal COVID-19 relief funds. More than half of Massachusetts’ public colleges use some of that money to cover millions of unpaid balances students owe them.

GBH News survey reveals at least 17 of the 29 of the state public colleges have collectively written off nearly $ 20 million in student debt. These schools include Massasoit Community College, Bunker Hill Community College, Worcester State, and UMass Dartmouth. In the spring of 2021, students in 17 schools had institutional debt of more than $ 130 million.

An unknown number of private schools in the state are doing the same, but it is not known how much they spend. The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts says it does not track how individual institutions are using their relief funds, but in an email, Brad Freeman, its vice president for government affairs, said “provide financial aid for unpaid tuition fees and other balances is just one of the many avenues colleges … use to provide financial relief for their students.

Higher education researchers advocate for global reduction in student debt say use the relief money to eliminate unpaid balances not only helps students, but also colleges, by boosting enrollment and ensuring money they might never otherwise be able to collect from students.

Massasoit Community College in Brockton is using more than $ 2.3 million in federal relief to help more than 1,500 current students pay off their debt. Ray DiPasquale, Massasoit’s new president, said the finance movement is collecting income and helping to retain students. A few weeks ago, registrations were supposed to drop by 15%, but now seem to drop only 5% in Massasoit.

“By eliminating the debt, they are going back to college without worrying about this debt hanging over their heads,” DiPasquale said.

Those with unpaid debts face punitive action, said Rachel Fishman, who studies financial aid policies and promotes access to higher with the leftist think tank New America.

“It’s a good thing, at the end of the day, to see some of this debt go away,” Fishman said.

Fishman pointed out that most colleges using federal funds to cover student debt at the same time withhold transcripts for relatively low outstanding balances. “Once these debts are turned over to state collection agencies, things can get even more punitive for students,” she said.

She recommended that colleges ban transcripts and use this historic influx of federal dollars to do more than hold students in a way that “also lines their pockets.”

“It’s the institutions that punish students for these debts, and now they have these dollars and they’re like, ‘Look, we were able to write off your debt!’” She noted. I was so punitive in the first place when it came to these debts. “

A new report from research firm Ithaka S + R says stranded credits – credits that cannot be accessed due to unpaid debts – are a problem skewed by race and socio-economic status, exacerbating inequalities existing.

With increased attention given to this issue following articles from GBH News and The Hechinger report, practices are starting to change – slowly.

The City University of New York announced this month that the school will stop holding transcripts of students and graduates with debt. Administrators said CUNY will also remove enrollment blocks from the accounts of approximately 74,000 current students enrolled during the pandemic who have outstanding balances.

In March, as a GBH News article was about to air, Bunker Hill Community College announced it would abandon its policy. In June, the Roxbury Community College Board of Trustees approved a new policy whereby transcripts will no longer be withheld due to outstanding student account balances. UMass Boston has increased the threshold for holding transcripts, and other Massachusetts public colleges are reviewing their policies, including Massasoit.

“We are definitely considering changing it,” said DiPasquale, explaining that the community college is currently preventing students who owe money from accessing their academic records and re-enrolling.

“There is a fiduciary responsibility to raise money,” he said. “The key here is to work with the students and say ‘yes this transcript is important to you, but let’s find a way to help you pay for this. ”

As for criticisms that colleges are lining their pockets, DiPasquale is not opposed.

“This is exactly what we are doing,” he said. “This is a correct assumption. The money is coming back because it is income that we would have lost.

Massachusetts public colleges have paid out at least $ 18.6 million in federal relief funds to cover student debt.

Besides Massasoit, Bunker Hill ($ 351,000), Worcester State ($ 483,501) and UMass Dartmouth ($ 986,030), other state colleges that have written off student debt are: UMass Lowell ($ 133,000); Berkshire Community College ($ 224,550); Bristol Community College ($ 307,119); Mount Wachusett Community College ($ 501,928); Bridgewater State University ($ 702,965); North Essex Community College ($ 880,000); North Shore Community College ($ 888,170); Fitchburg State University ($ 889,137); Holyoke Community College ($ 957,089); Massachusetts College of Art & Design ($ 1,075,000); UMass Boston ($ 1,149,848); Quinsigamond Community College ($ 2,500,000); and Middlesex Community College ($ 4,300,000).

Diane Adame contributed to this report.

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