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Signature Initiative

Institutional Practices Impeding
Undergraduate Student Advancement

Research by Dr. Wendy Kilgore

As part of AACRAO’s ongoing signature initiative Re-envisioning Transfer, AACRAO Research completed companion research projects about administrative holds used to prevent a student from registering for a class or accessing an official transcript. The first was an exploratory study of student-level hold data from 14 institutions sponsored by Lumina Foundation. The second, was a national survey of administrative hold policy and practice. How and why are holds used, and what are the impacts on students and institutions? These are some of the considerations that the latest research report seeks to answer.

Background

Lumina Foundation engaged Ithaka S+R to use institutional-level debt data and IPEDS data to estimate the impact of transcript withholding on students, states, and institutions. As a result, Ithaka S+R co-sponsored an AACRAO survey of institutional practices in the United States that result in stranded credits. The results provided practice and policy context for the data examined; the authors concluded that the practice of withholding transcripts is widespread and suggested that “adult learners, lower-income students, and racial and ethnic minorities are the most likely to owe outstanding balances to previously attended institutions, and therefore most likely to have stranded credits.”

This research addresses crucial questions that many institutions are considering in supporting student success.

  • Executive Summary of Part 1: An Exploratory Study

    In the context of this research, and higher education institutional practice, a “hold” is defined as a means an institution may employ to prevent a student from completing an action, such as registering for a class or accessing an official transcript. Holds are most often used as an attempt to motivate a student to take an action sought by the institution. For example, the institution may be trying to get a student to pay a debt, see an advisor, check in with a student success coach or turn in a missing document for financial aid. A hold is the motivation for the student to take the specific action required.

    Two types of holds employed by institutions to spur a student to action are registration holds and transcript holds. A registration hold can cause a student stress as she seeks to resolve an issue while trying to complete the term or enroll as a first-time student. A transcript hold may prevent a student from transitioning to other opportunities until the reason for the hold is resolved. For instance, a transcript is required to transfer to another institution, to apply for graduate school, for a professional licensure application, and as proof of education for employment.

    A greater understanding of how and why holds are used, and the impact these holds have on students, is needed to help institutions become aware of the scope and consequences of the practice. Additionally, issues of equity (if they exist) and how effective placing holds is at motivating a student to take action need to be understood.

    Further understanding of the effectiveness of holds will come from an examination of student-level demographic and hold data. This approach differs from the institutional-level quantitative research previously completed by Ithaka S+R and others. Student-level data can be examined for practice-impact differences based on student demographics or socioeconomic factors in addition to differences based on institutional characteristics. This research will benchmark the uses of registration and transcript holds and the institutional remedies already in place to assist students in resolving holds. It will also help identify remedies an institution may adopt to assist students in resolving holds.

    The term “stranded credits” was defined by Ithaka S+R in related research to describe the practice of withholding access to an official transcript for an outstanding debt. Research on stranded credits and other practices that impede student advancement remains relevant because the use is widespread. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated the problem of stranded credits by leaving more students than average with unresolved debt due to job loss and other situations. Further, there is ongoing awareness among institutional personnel that unresolved debt remains an issue for retention and student mobility. This is evidenced by the fact that 64% (n=9) of the institutions in this sample use HEERF funds to forgive some, or all, student debt associated with registration or transcript holds. Sixty-seven percent of a national sample indicated the same.

    Nate McCoy, director of institutional records and research at Lincoln College, one of the institutional participants in the study detailed below, astutely noted, “My takeaway from the study is that our practices regarding holds, why they are imposed, on whom, how the target student is notified, and the content of that notification in terms of resolution actions are often less than transparent to those most at risk of experiencing the hold as a stop sign rather than a yield.” The findings from this research, and the resultant recommendations, will help institutions focus on the message of yield rather than stop.

    Key Findings
    From a sample of hold data from 14 institutions for the academic years 2017-18 and 2018-19 and a survey of institutional practice at those same institutions, we found the following:

    • The registrar’s office is not the primary administrative user of holds; other administrative units and the bursar are primary users
    • All institutions in this sample use all three types of holds
      • All prevent registration and access to an official transcript for an unpaid balance hold placed specifically by the bursar
      • Two (14%) will hold a transcript for any dollar amount owed greater than $0.00, as compared to 49% in the national sample
      • Two (14%) will prevent registration for any dollar amount owed greater than $0.00, as compared to 29% in the national sample
      • Most holds are subsequently resolved. In this sample, 92% of debt-related holds and 85% of non-debt holds are resolved
    • 65.3% of the holds placed on students in this sample prevented registration only; 9.4% prevented access to official transcripts only; and 25.3% prevented both
    • 357 unique hold codes were present in the data:
      • 204 codes prevent a student from registering
      • 40 codes prevent a student from accessing an official transcript
      • 113 codes prevent both
    • 2.7% of all students with holds in the 2017-2018 data had an unresolved debt preventing access to a transcript; in 2018-2019, that percentage was 4.3%
    • 42% of the debt-related holds preventing access to a transcript over both years were associated with unpaid debt of less than $1,000
      • Of those, 7% of the transcript holds were based on a debt of less than $100
    • 42% of the debt-related holds preventing registration over both years were associated with unpaid debt of less than $1,000
      • Of those, 5% of the registration holds were based on a debt of less than $100
    • Modest statistical links exist between hold data and some institutional characteristics:
      • The likelihood a student will resolve any hold decreases as the percentage of Pell-grant recipients increases at an institution
      • Students who attend MSIs are more likely to resolve debt holds and transcript holds than students attending institutions that are not MSIs
      • Students attending undergraduate-only and undergraduate, graduate and/or professional institutions are generally less likely to resolve any hold than students attending community or technical colleges
    • Four participating institutions changed policy or practice as a direct result of examining the data collected at their institution for this project
    • Half of the institutions surveyed have a debt-forgiveness practice, which is greater than the national sample
    • Most of the institutions surveyed (n=8) have debt elimination efforts, similar to the national sample

    Recommendations
    The following recommendations are made based on the research findings and discussions at the convening:

    • Examine the relative value of using a hold versus other motivators; that is, is a hold the best solution for the issue?
    • Minimize the use of holds
    • Establish and maintain clear communication on how a student can resolve a hold
    • Develop a process to manage the creation and use of holds if one does not already exist
    • Routinely examine the use and impact of registration and transcript holds, and include the following components in that analysis:
      • Identify who administers holds and for what purpose
      • Understand what percentage of the student population is impacted
      • Determine the rate of resolution and ascertain the reasons why some are not resolved, and address those issues
      • Understand the student characteristics of those with holds and whether they differ statistically from your overall population
      • Understand the student characteristics of those with unresolved holds and whether they differ statistically from your overall population
      • Examine the value of debt holds compared to how much the student has already spent at your institution
      • Calculate the number of credits stranded due to the use of transcript holds as a means to understand the magnitude of the impact on students of the use of holds
    • Appraise how the existence of a hold is communicated to a student:
      • Evaluate the effectiveness of each form of communication
      • Conduct focus groups to determine if the messaging about the hold is interpreted as a yield and not a stop, where applicable
      • Evaluate how the guidance provided to students about resolving holds is interpreted by the students
    • Consider setting the debt threshold for withholding a transcript or allowing a student to register equal to that of one three-semester-credit class
      • Build rigorous processes to help the student resolve the outstanding debt before the following semester
    • Evaluate whether there is a negative consequence to allowing a student to register for future terms with an outstanding balance
    • Reevaluate the use of holds tied to debt of anything greater than zero
    • Establish avenues for routine exceptions to release an academic transcript held for a debt if the release of the transcript will help the student pay off the debt (for example, for employment or licensure)
    • Examine the timing of the placement of holds for issues of equity. For example, is a hold placed on a student pending the posting of financial aid from any source to his account (i.e., stopping a student with pending aid from registering where others are not stopped)?
    • If a program does not already exist, establish a debt forgiveness program for nominal debts where allowed by law.
  • Executive Summary of Part 2: A National Sample of Policy and Practice

    As part of AACRAO’s ongoing signature initiative Re-envisioning Transfer, AACRAO research completed companion research projects about administrative holds used to prevent a student from registering for a class or accessing an official transcript. The first was an exploratory study of student-level hold data from 14 institutions sponsored by Lumina Foundation. The second, on which this report is based, was a national survey of administrative hold policy and practice.

    AACRAO Research solicited participation in the survey from AACRAO’s list of primary contact members at U.S. institutions that serve undergraduate students. The target audience was institutions that serve undergraduate students. Survey questions focused on the following:

    • use of registration holds and transcript holds
    • ability to identify and quantify students with holds
    • purpose of holds
    • administrative users of holds
    • unpaid-debt dollar threshold for placing a hold
    • percentage of students impacted during the 2020-2021 academic year
    • student characteristics of those impacted
    • communication with students about holds on their records
    • administrative users of holds
    • efforts to resolve debt-related and nondebt-related holds
    • debt-elimination and debt-forgiveness practices
    • recent use of HEERF funds to resolve debt holds accrued because of the COVID-19 pandemic

    A representative sample of U.S. undergraduate-serving institutions completed the survey (n = 317).

    Key Data

    • 95% use transcript holds; 99% use registration holds
    • holds often prevent registration and access to a transcript at the same time
    • Most agree holds are used to motivate a student to take an action
    • The most common reason for the use of an administrative hold is an outstanding debt
    • 49% will withhold access to an official transcript for any unpaid balance greater than zero; 29% set the same threshold for a registration hold
    • 28% of institutions will not release a transcript under any condition unless the reason for the hold is resolved
    • 11% notify a student of a transcript hold only when the student requests a transcript
    • 3% notify a student of a registration hold only when a student attempts to register
    • Less than a third regularly review the use of transcript holds at the institution; nearly half do so for registration holds
    • 36% are confident in an institutional ability to estimate, or calculate, the percentage of students impacted by a transcript hold for the 2020-2021 academic year; 44% reflect the same for registration holds
    • 66% have at least one debt-elimination program
    • 29% have at least one debt-forgiveness program
    • 67% used HEERF funds to forgive student debt associated with registration and/or transcript holds

    Recommendations
    The data from the national survey affirms much of the data from the exploratory study. As such, the recommendations for practice and policy in both reports are the same.

    • Examine the relative value of using a hold versus other motivators; that is, is a hold the best solution for the issue?
    • Minimize the use of holds
    • Establish and maintain clear communication on how a student can resolve a hold
    • Develop a process to manage the creation and use of holds if one does not already exist
    • Routinely examine the use and impact of registration and transcript holds, and include the following components in that analysis:
      • Identify who administers holds and for what purpose
      • Understand what percentage of the student population is impacted
      • Determine the rate of resolution and ascertain the reasons why some are not resolved, and address those issues
      • Understand the student characteristics of those with holds and whether they differ statistically from your overall population
      • Understand the student characteristics of those with unresolved holds and whether they differ statistically from your overall population
      • Examine the value of debt holds compared to how much the student has already spent at your institution
      • Calculate the number of credits stranded due to the use of transcript holds as a means to understand the magnitude of the impact on students of the use of holds
      Appraise how the existence of a hold is communicated to a student:
      • Evaluate the effectiveness of each form of communication Conduct focus groups to determine if the messaging about the hold is interpreted as a yield and not a stop, where applicable Evaluate how the guidance provided to students about resolving holds is interpreted by the students
    • Consider setting the debt threshold for withholding a transcript or allowing a student to register equal to that of one three-semester-credit class
      • Build rigorous processes to help the student resolve the outstanding debt before the following semester
    • Evaluate whether there is a negative consequence to allowing a student to register for future terms with an outstanding balance
    • Reevaluate the use of holds tied to debt of anything greater than zero
    • Establish avenues for routine exceptions to release an academic transcript held for a debt if the release of the transcript will help the student pay off the debt (for example, for employment or licensure)
    • Examine the timing of the placement of holds for issues of equity. For example, is a hold placed on a student pending the posting of financial aid from any source to his account (i.e., stopping a student with pending aid from registering where others are not stopped)?
    • If a program does not already exist, establish a debt forgiveness program for nominal debts where allowed by law.

     

Download the Reports
Institutional Practices Impeding Undergraduate Student Advancement - Part 2

Institutional Practices Impeding Undergraduate Student Advancement - Part 2

A national survey of administrative hold policy and practice answering: 1) How and why are holds used? and 2) What are the impacts on students and institutions?

Re-Envisioning Transfer
Registration & Records
Research
Transcripts
Transfer
Administrative Hold
Institutional Practices Impeding Undergraduate Student Advancement Report

Institutional Practices Impeding Undergraduate Student Advancement Report

How and why are holds used? What are the impacts on students and institutions?

Re-Envisioning Transfer
Registration & Records
Research
Transcripts
Transfer
Administrative Hold
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