Across the country and throughout our state of North Carolina, there are millions of people who have met all the requirements to graduate from a college or university, but are barred from doing so because of a minimum debt of $25. A 2020 report estimated that of the 6.6 million students who completed their courses and met the requirements to earn their degrees, 42% owed $1,000 or less, with an average of $2,300.

The practice of withholding degrees and transcripts due to unpaid debts occurs in 75% of states, and up to 98% of colleges and universities admit to engaging in this practice. US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has spoken out against this unethical practice, saying it leads to inequitable results, as title retention on debt primarily affects low-income, first-generation college students and students of color.

Twenty-six-year-old Mary Thuma, who fled ethnic genocide in her Karenni state in Burma and moved to North Carolina as a teenager, was heartbroken to discover that after spending five years in high school and seven in college, she was barred from graduating with her fashion design degree due to unpaid fees.

Mary works full-time as a tailor, helps her family pay the bills, and has been working toward her bachelor’s degree. Despite receiving some financial aid during college, she was unable to cover all of her costs. Her family moved to the United States with little more than they could carry and have sought to rebuild their lives. A college education is the beginning of Mary’s rebuilding.

She dreams of owning a cloth company and providing work for women in Asia. There are many women who are sold into human trafficking there, and she believes that by creating more jobs, she can help prevent some from looking for work, which ends up being a false promise that makes them slaves. Mary wants to provide a safe workplace for women to do meaningful work. She says, “I want to give them a chance to succeed, like the chance to succeed they gave me.”

For Mary and others like her, the practice of withholding titles and transcripts negatively affects the entire family. Mary’s earning potential is hampered by the lack of a degree. And for a family that fled genocide and moved to the US as refugees, this only adds additional obstacles to existing ones and plays a role in the systemic inequity faced by many in our country.

The state of North Carolina should consider legislation similar to what has already been enacted in other states to prevent this practice, which further marginalizes and penalizes students who already have the cards against them. Mary and others like her have earned their titles and should be in possession of them. If you want to take action, one way to start is by contacting your legislators.

For now, Mary is left waiting. She feels that her dream is delayed because she makes small monthly payments. She looks forward to graduating at the end of 2023 and proudly walking across that stage to celebrate the hard work she has put into this title. It is my hope that her deferred dream of her will not “dry like a raisin in the sun”, but will be fully realized in her spectacular beauty.

Jennifer C. Mann

Jennifer C. Mann is a doctoral student in the English Language Arts and Literacy program at NC State. Her research includes critical literacy, culturally sustainable pedagogy, and the social-emotional well-being of marginalized students. She has spent 15 years teaching students from kindergarten through college, and she spent the majority of that time as a high school English literature teacher, specializing in the instruction of culturally and linguistically diverse students.