Statement on Transcript Withholding | 2/17/2022

Melanie Gottlieb |
February 17, 2022
  • Advocacy
  • Financial Aid and FAFSA
  • President and Executive Director Updates
  • Records and Academic Services
  • Transcripts
  • Access and Equity
  • college completion
  • Debt
  • education department
  • Federal Regulations
  • Federal relations
  • Negotiated Rulemaking
  • Student Success

Since the release of AACRAO's two part study on the use of administrative holds and their impacts on student progress and success, there has been considerable attention in the media and state legislative authorities to our research broadly, with specific focus given to an institution's use of the transcript hold as a leverage against student debt. AACRAO has been tracking these discussions as they have cropped up in on legislative agendas in New York, California, and others.

During this week's negotiating rulemaking discussion regarding institutional and programmatic eligibility, a universal ban on the ability of institutions of higher education to withhold a transcript for any amount of outstanding debt was proposed and discussed.

AACRAO does not support the use of transcript holds for the purposes of collecting trivial or minor debt. We encourage our member institutions to seek alternative means to clearing student debt. We do agree that there are issues around access and equity that transcript withholding can exacerbate. Notwithstanding, trying to address this inequity through regulatory action is problematic for a number of reasons.

For example, once a learner has separated from an institution, there are few tools left for that institution to deploy to collect on debt beyond withholding a transcript or referring it to a private debt collection agency. Sending a learner to a collection agency further damages the learner's future prospects by increasing the debt owed and damaging their credit report. For this reason, currently debt collection is a last resort solution for an institution. This action could move private debt collection to the top of the list.

We have evidence to suggest this solution exacerbates the problem by triggering an institution to adopt a more complex work-around to achieve the same result--practices like releasing the transcript while suppressing the grades for unpaid semesters or denying the award of the credential until the debt is cleared. The root of the problem is the student debt, not the hold on the transcript. We should focus on the fix to the root of the problem rather than forcing the creation of new emergent symptoms. The suggested path forward seems like an approach that will make policy makers feel good but is ultimately performative and not productive.

Finally, this is a dangerous precedent being set. We don't believe that the Department of Education should be getting that far down into the weeds in terms of how an institution should collect on debt for services rendered. There are nearly 4,600 institutions and they come in all shapes and sizes and each has their own methods and procedures for functioning as an independent entity. This level of detail is best left to institutions rather than the department.

We think that it's important to point out that our research did not focus on only transcript holds for debt.  We looked at holds more broadly and found that the ability to use holds to prompt a student to take an action is one of the few resources in an institution's toolkit that supports student success by motivating a learner to take an action that will enable them to remain enrolled, to earn credential-applicable credits and complete the educational credential sought. Holds are easy to implement, track, and manage, and, when well implemented and paired with transparent communication to the learner, can be a vital part of a success program. Overall, institutions are well intentioned with their holds, but as always, there are improvements that can be made to make them more effective.