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.
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
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.