Report: Most institutions withhold transcripts if students owe

October 5, 2020
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Date: October 5, 2020

Contact: AACRAO Communications

Report: Most institutions withhold transcripts if students owe
Few offer debt forgiveness or know how many students are affected by the practice


WASHINGTON, D.C.— Students with an outstanding balance at an institution probably cannot access their official transcripts, even if the debt is less than $25, according to a study released by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).

“Stranded credits” are accumulated credits for which a student is unable to obtain an official transcript due to an administrative hold, most commonly an outstanding balance. Little research has been done regarding this practice, but a 2016 AACRAO survey found that almost all responding institutions withhold access to an official transcript if a student owes money.

The current study, “Stranded Credits: Another perspective on the lost credits story,” was undertaken to further explore this practice and its implications. Almost 300 institutions of varying size and control responded to the survey informing this report.

Study findings
According to the report, institutions that serve higher populations of Pell grant recipients (need-based financial aid) are more likely to have practices that lead to withholding an official transcript from a student. In addition:

  • Among those that withhold an official transcript, 96% do so for an outstanding balance; 64% of those do so for a balance of less than $25.
  • Two-thirds of institutions do NOT have any debt forgiveness practices.
  • Three-quarters of institutions do NOT have any debt elimination efforts in place to help students.
  • Few can determine the count or percentage of the students impacted by an official transcript hold or the characteristics of the students most impacted by these holds.

“Too little data exists to draw any conclusion about the scope of the impact on students and this is a major weakness for any institution seeking to be student centered,” the authors write. “The impact of any practice which either negatively or positively impacts students should be able to be tabulated and tracked over time to monitor for effectiveness and any issues of equity.”

Practice recommendations
To promote student service and equity, the study authors offer the following guidance, which mirrors and expands upon practice recommendations from

  • Institutions should reconsider the practice of withholding a transcript for an outstanding balance of less than $25; instead establish an internal fund to eliminate these small debts
  • Develop and widely share with all stakeholders written policies specifying the circumstances under which an official transcript will not be released
  • Identify and clearly document and widely disseminate how these circumstances can be avoided or addressed if implemented
  • Provide a formal avenue for appeal
  • Allow students a single unofficial copy
  • Release official transcripts to a prospective or current employer if conditions tied to an employment related action are tied to the receipt of an official transcript
  • Withhold only the academic transcript related to the academic work with the debt (e.g., undergraduate and graduate)
  • Notify students of your policy and practice early and often and in particular if a student has a transcript hold
  • Develop debt elimination and debt forgiveness programs where none exist

This research was conducted with Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit organization generating action-oriented research for institutional decision-making and collaboration across higher education communities.


AACRAO is a non-profit, voluntary, professional association of more than 11,000 higher education professionals representing approximately 2,600 institutions in more than 40 countries. Its commitment to the professional development of its members includes best practice guidance on admissions strategies to meet institutional diversity objectives, delivery of academic programs in innovative ways to meet the needs of a changing student body, and exemplary approaches to student retention and completion.