If you didn’t finish college on an earlier try and hope to resume your education, debt to your previous school may hinder your plans. Schools typically withhold academic records—including official transcripts—from students who owe them money. Because most colleges require official transcripts as part of an application, your debt may prevent you from moving forward in your quest for a bachelor’s degree.
That’s exactly why schools withhold transcripts: it can be their most effective leverage to collect a debt. Colleges place holds on academic transcripts, grade reports, and even diplomas when students have failed to meet his financial obligations to the school. When students need one or more of these items, they are forced to pay up or make do without them.
Monies owed to a school can include high-ticket items like unpaid tuition and student fees, or they can involve pesky minor fees for lost library books, dorm-cleaning charges, and unpaid parking tickets. A school may even withhold transcripts if you default on your federal student loan, even though you don’t owe that money to the school itself.
Any of these financial obligations can result in a hold. Small debts are usually easily resolved, but if the debt is significant, you could face a tough dilemma. Schools can be intractable in their demands for remuneration: they may refuse to consider repayment plans (the sort of offer you might get from a collection agency), and they are unlikely to negotiate the debt down to a smaller amount.
College hopefuls who want to return to school but are unable to pay back debts to their prior college find themselves trapped in a frustrating holding pattern. How can they move forward with their education and their lives?
Who exactly owns your transcript: you, or your former school? Educational records, like student transcripts, fall within the jurisdiction of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Under FERPA, any school that receives federal funds must allow students over the age of 18 to inspect their education records, including their transcript. Since most schools receive federal funding of some sort, this would appear to be good news.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. FERPA gives you the right to see your academic records, but you aren’t entitled to a copy bearing the official stamp of the registrar. Since that’s what most schools require as part of a complete application, that still leaves you without the documentation you need to resume your education. Some schools will provide you with an unofficial transcript. That’s usually enough to start your application elsewhere, but you likely won’t be able to complete the application without an official copy of your transcripts, which brings you back to your unresolved debt.
What can students do to complete their degrees when their transcript is withheld?
If the amount you owe is relatively small, you probably just want to pay it off. ‘Small’ is a relative term, of course, but assuming you have the money to continue your education, you should be able to resolve some parking tickets or library fines. The school may be willing to work with you on a repayment plan for larger debts, and it may be willing to release your transcript once a payment plan is in place.
If you owe so large an amount that repaying it immediately is impossible, you will need to negotiate a repayment plan with the school. Make sure to ascertain the terms under which you will ultimately obtain your transcript before agreeing to the deal. Some schools will release your transcript once a repayment plan is in place, others will not release it until your debt is repaid in full. Mitigating personal circumstances can help your case: in conditions of illness or extreme hardship, plead for leniency.
Another option is to contact the Department of Education in the state in which your college or university is accredited. Some states have specific laws in place authorizing a school to withhold your records. In others, the law is not so clearcut. In either case, officials at the Department of Education will know your rights and can explain to you what, if any, chance you have to get the school to release your transcript.
The last option is to use bankruptcy to obtain your college transcript. Filing for bankruptcy protection is a big step and is not for everyone, but it will allow you to have immediate access to your transcript. The reason for this is that filing for bankruptcy triggers an “automatic stay” in the legal battle for your records. An automatic stay is a powerful legal tool; it prevents any action by creditors related to your case once you file. Those creditors include your school. While your case is being decided, your transcript will be temporarily available to you, because a transcript hold is considered a form of action.
If bankruptcy is granted, a judge will grant a discharge of your education debt and the college can no longer withhold your official transcript. If bankruptcy is not granted, the school can resume its withholding of your transcript. Presumably, by that point, you will have obtained the official copy you needed to complete your application to another school.
Take note that tuition and other student fees are discharged under bankruptcy, but student loans are not. A student loan may only be terminated if you can prove hardship. In some cases, you can rehab a loan to either your old or new school. Only a qualified school financial advisor can advise you on this. Loans are a complex financial product best worked on with a professional.
A final note on loans: if you are paying off a student loan and are in good standing, your transcript should be made available to you. If you have defaulted, however, you may not be able to access your official transcript.
Many students quit school because they can’t fund their college education. Years later, they may be better prepared to return but remain hobbled by the inability to pay off old debts. While there is no easy solution to this situation, the strategies we have discussed here may help you clear your old debts and return to your undergraduate studies.
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