New hope for college students with ‘stranded’ transcripts

iStock / NuPenDekDee

By Terri Taylor

Ever started pulling at a string on a sweater and ended up with a fistful of yarn? That’s how I’ve felt while going into a deeper understanding of how and why holds are placed on a student’s transcript or enrollment and the impact that it has on students. But untangling these complexities is essential for us to clear a significant barrier for millions of students.

A hold can be a snarl in a current student’s pathway — and a block to re-enrollment. It can follow a person around for a long time, limiting educational, career, even licensure opportunities. An important part of the affordability discussion, it’s not simply a matter of canceling debt. Many institutions have taken action this year to remove holds and forgive balances for students enrolled during the pandemic but haven’t made changes for former or future students.

Shedding light on how holds impact current students is a new report by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions officers (AACRAO), Stop! Do Not Pass Go! Institutional Practices Impeding Undergraduate Student Advancement. As the first-of-its-kind analysis of student-level data across a diverse group of colleges in academic years 2017–18 and 2018–19, it provides a stunning picture of the scope and frequency with which holds are placed on enrollment or transcripts.

Holds are commonly used for a variety of reasons, including to compel students to pay a debt, see an academic advisor, or turn in a document.

The report shows that in just two academic years, 370,754 holds affected 126,500 students. At these 14 institutions alone, 558 hold codes were available for use. More than half of holds were placed by someone other than the bursar, registrar, or financial aid office. Most holds don’t appear to have long-term negative consequences for students, and more than 90 percent are resolved.

But, when not resolved, holds can be a significant barrier to maintaining progress and to coming back to finish later. The number of students affected is not minimal. In the AACRAO study, 7,311 students had unresolved debt of more than $15 million. Ithaka S+R estimated the national number to be 6.6 million students, with balances of about $15 billion. Both studies found that holds are more common at institutions with higher Pell enrollments.

New research on students with these “stranded credits” found that many didn’t know how to resolve the debt, had poor communication from their colleges, and experienced feelings of shame and disappointment. They also were more likely to be students of color, first generation, and/or low income. As one institutional administrator in the study said, to an important group of students, holds are “a stop sign rather than a yield.”

Though not intended to have these effects, holds are causing outsized issues for a notable population of students — and demand more attention to re-evaluate their purpose and operation. Though most participating institutions attempted to resolve the holds with students, none of them had reviewed holds across the institution for possible impact. I’m happy to report, however, that a quarter of the institutions participating in the study have already changed their policies or practices after seeing their results.

Financial holds are often not the result of a student simply not paying their tuition. Complex financial aid rules and misaligned timelines contribute, too. For example, holds can happen when a student withdraws from a class and triggers federal “Return to Title IV” rules that require an institution to return unspent federal financial aid to the U.S. Treasury. That amount then becomes an unpaid balance on the student’s account because the institution disbursed the student’s federal financial aid at the beginning of the semester. Given that many students’ actual need is far greater than their financial aid award, it’s no surprise that — by the time this unpaid balance shows up, an affected student may not have the resources to pay it back immediately. And they can’t use the next semester’s financial aid award to pay the balance because federal financial aid rules prevent it. With few options — and other financial pressures outside the unpaid balance — many students simply leave and lose out on the benefits that an education can provide.

So how can we remove this barrier for students?

Institutions should look at their practices and the impact on students. The AACRAO study found that 95 percent use transcript holds but less than one third of surveyed institutions regularly review the use of transcript holds. They could consider a more centralized approach to holds to improve oversight and streamline communication and engagement with affected students. They can also change how they communicate about holds. They should emphasize that holds are common and usually resolved with the institution’s help, which can go a long way to help students see the situation as a temporary, solvable problem rather than an insurmountable barrier. It would also help to publicize policies on resolving and managing the underlying reasons for holds. Relying on students to ask for help has already shown itself to be an insufficient solution.

For policymakers, changing the law may be less important than giving institutions permission and cover to do something new. Ohio illustrated this with new guidance acknowledging that institutions may forgive unpaid balances and must release transcripts when an employer requires it. Agencies should also reconsider any non-regulatory guidance that blesses holds as a solution for unpaid balances, which some institutions have interpreted as requiring holds rather than simply allowing them.

We need to do more for students with stranded credits who are no longer enrolled. Ithaka S+R is working on an innovative “clearinghouse” model where a group of institutions and community partners come together. All eight public universities and community colleges in Northeast Ohio, with the support of the state agency, have agreed to design and pilot the approach, building on their existing transfer networks and history of collaboration. Our hope is that these early movers will succeed and pave the way for scaling the concept throughout Ohio and to other states.

The institutions participating in the clearinghouse will agree to settle the debt and release the transcripts of students who return to any of the participating schools. Meanwhile, Ithaka S+R will manage robust outreach and advising for affected students.

This is especially important for students who seek to transfer but have credits held at their former institution. The clearinghouse model would also allow the former institution to receive some compensation for the unpaid balance, likely higher than collections would provide but lower than the actual balance. The student could then continue their education. Ithaka has estimated significant revenue and credential completion if even a small group of affected students takes part.

Lumina Foundation is proud to be working with several partners to understand and address the problems associated with holds and stranded credits. Together, we can untangle these knots and make a significant difference for students.

Terri Taylor is strategy director for innovation and discovery at Lumina Foundation.

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Terri Taylor

Terri Taylor

Strategy Director for Innovation and Discovery at Lumina Foundation

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