University threatens to withhold college degree that owes 1 cent

A student received a worrying email from her university, saying her diploma could be withheld if she failed to pay an outstanding 1 cent (stock image). Dobrila Vignjevic/Getty Images Katie Lane received an email from her university saying she owed 1 cent in fees. The email said the university could keep her diploma if the bill wasn’t paid. Lane told Insider she was initially worried but upset when she saw how much she owed

When Katie Lane received an email from the Washington State University IRS office on Feb. 3 saying her account had an outstanding balance, she was concerned.

The email, which Insider saw, said failure to pay the balance could result in “late payment fees” or mean the university would withhold her diploma.

“I was totally freaked out because I thought something went wrong with my financial support because the semester started less than a month ago,” Lane, a fourth-year zoology major at Washington State University, told Insider.

“So I was worried that all of my financial support wasn’t being dispersed or there was an issue I needed to solve.”

But Lane said she felt “relief mixed with anger” when she logged on to see how much she owed. The balance on her account was only 1 cent.

Lane posted her reaction on TikTok, where the video received over 360,000 views.

“Don’t you think you could just let this one go?” Lane asked, showing a screenshot of the $0.01 balance and an option to sign up for a payment plan. “I’ve got a penny lying around right now. I will personally go and give it to them.”

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Lane told Insider that’s her initial plan, but that she wants to wait and see if the university sends a follow-up email. So far they haven’t.

“I can pay online, but there’s a $3 convenience fee for paying with a debit card, and I’d rather not pay 300 times my balance,” she said.

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A university spokesperson told Insider that WSU’s policy “is to award students the degrees they earn, regardless of whether they have unpaid college credit.”

“However, the physical diploma may be withheld from students with unpaid balances of $5 or more,” they said.

The 1 cent unpaid balance in Lane’s account was an error, they said, and they are working to fix the cause. “Nevertheless, for reasons of university policy, no diplomas would be retained for an unpaid 1-cent balance,” it said.

Universities have made headlines before with similar situations. In 2017, several UK universities refused students degrees because of unpaid debts, which included library fees.

About 6.6 million students in the US have been prevented from receiving their certificates, sometimes because they had bills of $25 or less, The Hechinger Report reported in 2021. The story involved a student who received an unpaid bill of $2,715, $33 that he didn’t know about and couldn’t work out why.

Lane told Insiders that she’s received messages on her TikTok from many people who have had the same experience. She said she enjoys all the different stories where people have received requests for similarly small amounts.

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“I did a TikTok because I think the best way to approach it is to just laugh at it,” she said. “Because it’s ridiculous.”

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