Students and Institutional Debt: How They Make Sense of Financial Hold Policies

November 13, 2023
  • Grants and Scholarships
  • Research
  • Transcripts
Individual looking at a peice of paper.

By Jennifer Love, Director, Texas One Stop for Enrollment Services, University of Texas at Austin

In light of the Department of Education’s recently released regulations regarding transcript withholding, administrators at institutions that hold transcripts, diplomas, and registration for overdue balances are now grappling with how to approach and comply with the new regulations. AACRAO is hosting a webinar on November 17 that will allow participants to hear from both AACRAO and NACUBO staff on the topic and allow space for questions and answers. 

As institutions begin to form committees and determine new approaches for their school and students, I want to share the research I recently completed as a doctoral student in the Executive Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership at UT Austin. My position as Assistant Vice Provost for Texas One Stop at UT Austin inspired me to investigate overdue balances and holds as an area of research, as the issue of outstanding balances and administrative holds crosses the office silos at most institutions. 

Over 6.6 million students in the United States owe financial balances—including unpaid tuition and fees—directly to higher education institutions, representing over 15 billion dollars of student debt. My research examined when a student still owes an institutional debt, such as tuition and fees or other institutional charges, after a deadline and has a financial hold preventing access to official transcripts, registration for the next term, or diploma. The term “stranded credits” best describes withholding transcripts as collateral, and “stranded students” describe those prevented from future registration at their institution. As noted, the current methods of using financial holds as collateral are at odds with state and institutional student recruitment, retention, and degree completion goals

My study leveraged sensemaking theory as a framework to understand how students understand and may be impacted by institutional debt and holds policies. The study approached the research questions by conceptualizing how someone came to make a choice or decision rather than asking why they may or may not have paid their balance. In the Spring of 2023, I interviewed 11 University of Texas at Austin students to explore what factors led them to have an overdue balance. As we approach a milestone of policy changes for holds and institutional debt, the study's results may provide insight into how administrators can better understand overdue balances and financial hold policies through the perspective of our students.

As a result of my study, I found that students faced personal, financial, or administrative circumstances, such as mistakes or errors. Unexpected circumstances, such as a death in the student's immediate family or an undetected administrative error, affected how students interpreted their overdue balances. Additionally, participants in my study discussed receiving communications regarding their outstanding balances. However, participants were only concerned about the specific type of hold (transcript, registration, diploma) that impeded their ability to complete a relevant task on their educational journey. Based on their class standing and educational next steps, students approaching graduation were more concerned about transcript and diploma holds than registration holds.

Lastly, my study found that students deliberated and approached their balance and hold either procedurally, with the hold as the primary motivator to pay, or strategically, whether their circumstances have changed, and they require further assistance to pay for college. Many institutions use financial holds as a communication method and motivation to pay when most students need additional support, help, or significant advising or assistance in managing how their plans for paying for college have changed.

In light of the summary of findings, here are some questions related to recommendations and further research documented in my study: 

  • How are institutions communicating effectively with students about their balances? Is it easy to find resources and information on your institution’s websites?

  • What financial options and support exist for students when their plans for paying for college change? 

  • How are students who experience unexpected life circumstances supported through the withdrawal and re-admission process? What is that experience like for a student? How difficult is it to return? 

  • Are your institution’s advising and financial aid counseling staffing levels appropriate to outreach to students with outstanding balances? 

  • What is the process like for someone to pay back an outstanding balance or set up a payment plan? Is it accessible, easy, self-service friendly? 

  • Do you have a team or committee on campus that is evaluating holds/institution debt/processes? 

More research is encouraged on this topic to understand how students engage with and interpret communications from institutions and the timeliness of understanding how students conceptualize how they pay for college before deadlines. I look forward to sharing my complete research study with y’all at the 2024 annual conference in Columbus, OH.


AACRAO's bi-weekly professional development e-newsletter is open to members and non-members alike.