Imagine if you had your car repossessed for not paying the satellite radio bill. Students often have their transcripts withheld over everything from small, overdue debts like library fines and parking fees, charges that are largely unrelated to their education.
For many students, transcript withholding is a barrier to re-enrolling in college, without access to them students cannot prove they have already completed credits towards a degree. Thirty-nine million Americans have completed some college but have no credentials to show for their efforts. With enrollment down at many colleges, removing barriers to returning to higher education is vitally important, benefiting students and the colleges and universities that enroll them.
Ithaka S&R estimates that 6.6 million students in the US have credits they cannot access because their former institution is holding their transcript to provide leverage in collecting unpaid balances. Some of these holds are related to large debts owed for tuition or housing, but many of them are for relatively small sums.
A new project from Ithaka S&R hopes to help students blocked from their transcripts reenroll at one of eight colleges in northeast Ohio. Called the Ohio College Comeback Compact, the program will help students reenroll even if they owe their former college money that led to their transcript being withheld. The work aims to support students and show colleges that creative solutions to debts owed to institutions benefit both the institution and the student.
How does transcript withholding impact students?
Transcript withholding is a long-running practice that allows colleges and universities to deny access to a student’s transcript as a tool to get them to pay debts owed to the institution, sometimes debts as small as $25. Institutions argue that withholding a transcript is one of the few tools they have available to get students to pay back anything from library fines to unpaid tuition bills. Colleges also argue that holding transcripts is a better approach than sending students straight to collections. But transcript withholding appears ineffective. Even states where aggressive collection practices are allowed show only 7 cents on the dollar reclaimed due to transcript holds. Most importantly, transcript holds are counterproductive, barring students from the income boost that a completed degree can provide, which can help them pay back any debt owed. These holds also have profound equity implications for the most marginalized and disadvantaged students.
Students with transcript holds are usually unable to reenroll at any college. Re-enrolling at the college where they owe money is impossible without paying off the debt. Starting at a new college is impossible unless they want to start from scratch, forgoing any credits they have earned that could count towards their degree or credential.
Transcript withholding is beginning to be banned by states concerned that the practice does more harm than good. The Student Borrower Protection Center estimates that one-quarter of students go to college in states that ban transcript withholding. The issue has gotten a lot of attention this year, with New York public institutions banning the practice ahead of a new law that made it illegal at all New York colleges and universities. Ohio, Louisiana, Virginia, and Maryland have recently introduced bills prohibiting the practice if passed into law. Additionally, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has said it is investigating whether schools are inappropriately using transcript holds as a debt collection practice.
Who will help this project?
Ithaka S&R estimates that 15,000 students who formerly attended one of the participating institutions—Cleveland State University, Cuyahoga Community College, Kent State University, Lakeland Community College, Lorain County Community College, Stark State College, The University of Akron, and Youngstown State University— will be eligible for the program. The Ohio Department of Higher Education also supports the project.
Elizabeth Looker, the Senior Program Manager running the project said “By re-engaging students who have stopped out, the Ohio College Comeback Compact will help get students back on the path to graduation with a degree or certification to join the workforce. Success for the Ohio Compact is lowering the barriers to re-enrollment and helping students have the support they need to make smart choices about their education that will advance their careers.”
Institutions in the compact have agreed to forgive up to $5,000 of institutional debt per student and release academic transcripts for former students enrolling through the program at participating schools. Institutions will also conduct proactive outreach to encourage students to re-enroll. Participating colleges will make payments across institutions when a student enrolls somewhere other than their original college to partially compensate schools for the debts they are writing off.
Ithaka S&R hopes that the compact will enable students to complete degrees and institutions to recoup more than they would have by pursuing the debts through traditional collection methods.
Looker also said, “It’s wonderful to see all our partners in Ohio come together to make this program a reality”
As opposition to transcript withholding grows, colleges and universities are likely to welcome creative approaches, to re-enroll students where they would have previously withheld transcripts. Students who come back and complete degrees as a result of the compact will be able to advance in their careers and become alumni success stories for their schools.