Rethinking transcript holds for students with outstanding balances

U.S. colleges and universities for years have had a policy of withholding transcripts and degrees from students who have outstanding balances, but some institutions are now reconsidering the approach. According to The Hechinger Report, around 6.6 million Americans are currently experiencing transcript holds, potentially limiting their ability to transfer to new institutions, seek employment, or earn more advanced degrees.

‘How can they pay us if they can’t get a job?’

Pointing out that the practice disproportionately affects low-income students—a population especially strained by the COVID-19 pandemic—some institutions and state legislatures are pursuing change.

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), one of the nation’s largest nonprofit institutions with around 150,000 students, has said it will no longer withhold transcripts. University officials say the practice was only “marginally successful” in prompting students to pay their balances. The average amount owed among the 2,257 students whose transcripts were withheld in the past year was $728.

According to Deanna Bechard, SNHU’s registrar, the uptick in students voicing concern during the pandemic “because they owed money, and how can they pay us if they can’t get a job” prompted the policy change.

At Arkansas-based Philander Smith College, graduates in the classes of 2020 and 2021 recently learned of a similar policy change: Philander Smith said it would forgive all $80,000 owed by those students, allowing them to access their degrees.

Some state legislatures driving change

State-level shifts are also underway. California last year began prohibiting private and public colleges and universities from holding transcripts for outstanding balances, and a New York coalition is advocating for a similar law there. In addition, Washington state requires institutions to release transcripts to students who need them to seek employment.

Massachusetts colleges and universities also appear poised for change, following scrutiny of transcript withholding in the state and an effort in the state legislature to bar the practice at state institutions. The Hechinger Report notes that Bunker Hill Community College has abandoned its transcript block policy, and the University of Massachusetts Boston says it will now withhold transcripts only if the amount owed exceeds $1,000.

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