Outstanding college balance translates to possible loss of job offer

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Q:  I recently applied for a job, after just graduating in May 2021.  I was extended a job offer, which I accepted.  Now I am being told that there is a problem with my background check.  I didn’t realize that they were checking my education.  I still owe some money to my undergraduate university.  We are arguing about the amount because some of the fees include unpaid parking tickets.  Can my college do that?  This might mess with my chances to land this job!

A: Most colleges and universities expect students to complete academic degree requirements.  Specifically, most of us think of this as a student’s ability to complete the required number of academic credits.  However, for most students, many financial obligations need to be settled too.  Colleges and universities charge students for tuition, housing (if living on campus) and meal plans (if selected or sometimes these are even required, particularly for students living on campus).  Fees can range from just a few dollars to several hundred dollars.  Fees can be related to orientation, student activities, labs, graduation, athletic access, academic transcripts, and library or technology usage.  Fees vary by the college but also vary by major.

Colleges and universities can withhold a diploma or a transcript because of outstanding financial obligations.  This makes it difficult to prove if a student has completed the course credit requirements.  It also makes it challenging if a student attempts to transfer credits to another institution.  In the “fine print” most colleges have language that requires a student to pay any outstanding balance due, even if this outstanding balance may include unpaid parking tickets.  Some colleges call this a “financial responsibility agreement.”  This agreement outlines the responsibilities of the students concerning tuition, fees, and other financial responsibilities.  It often also details the penalties for non-payment, which often includes withholding a student’s diploma.

Some critics call the withholding of a transcript or diploma “transcript ransom.”  Even small amounts like a $25 fee for an outstanding library book can block the release of a student’s transcript or the ability for a background check firm to confirm that a student has indeed graduated.  Most colleges want a student to be able to graduate and pay off any balance owed.  Some colleges will offer to arrange a payment plan so that the graduate can pay a small amount on a weekly or monthly basis.

You didn’t share the amount in question.  If you can reasonably afford it, it may be worth it to pay this outstanding balance.  If you feel like you can negotiate with your institution, I would do that quickly.  I would explain to your prospective employer that you are negotiating some final fees owed to your undergraduate institution and you expect to have them resolved quickly.  I would also explain to this prospective employer that you have completed all the academic requirements, so they understand that you are not short a class or two.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.