A proposed state law advanced by an Assembly committee would restrict the ability of New Jersey colleges and universities to withhold transcripts from current and former students who still owe money to the school.

A student may need a copy of their transcript to transfer to another institution, apply for a graduate degree program, or for employment. And currently, higher-ed institutions in the Garden State have the power to hold on to copies of those documents due to money owed.

"I think it does a tremendous disservice to students and is a significant obstacle in our quest to encourage students to return to school and complete their education," said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, a primary sponsor of the measure.

According to Jasey, there is a "strong national trend towards eliminating this practice."

"I'm disappointed that New Jersey, always a national leader, is not taking a lead in this effort," she said.

Under her measure, which cleared the Assembly Higher Education Committee on Thursday, institutions that offer academic degrees cannot refuse to provide a transcript to a current or former student due to a debt of $2,000 or less of "non-mandatory charges" (parking tickets and library fines, for example, rather than tuition and other mandatory fees).

Institutions also would not be able to charge these students a higher fee for the transcript, or use the transcript issuance as a tool for debt collection.

Amendments to the bill note that colleges and universities will still have some ability to withhold transcripts, when the debt exceeds $2,000, or the debt is related to mandatory charges such as tuition. In these cases, schools may condition the provision of a transcript on the student's agreement to enter into a repayment plan. Also, a first payment must be made on that plan.

Eugene Lepore, executive director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, told lawmakers that schools in his association reported average debt amounts of $2,000. David Rousseau, vice president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey, said average debts are in the $5,000-$6,000 range.

Rousseau said this appears to be an issue mainly among students who entered college but never graduated.

Lepore and Rousseau testified in favor of the bill's amendments. When it was first proposed, the legislation strictly prohibited colleges and universities from withholding transcripts due to any type and amount of debt owed.

"I think, by and large, the institutions themselves realize that the practice that currently exists may conflict with other goals the institutions have, such as reengaging students, making sure students have every tool at their disposal to make their way toward the completion of their degree program," Lepore said.

There has been no legislative action yet with a Senate version of the bill.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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