Higher education has lots of practices and policies in place. One of them is called transcript withholding. It even has its own nickname, of sorts: the “transcript trap.” 

Here’s how that works. If a college student owes a school money for  tuition, fees, or other costs, Ohio’s public colleges can – but aren’t required to – withhold their transcript until the student has settled their financial obligations.

Not being able to access that transcript can create big problems. It’s often needed for next steps such as transferring or enrolling in graduate school.

This is not student loan debt. The median debt balance of Ohioians who enrolled in an initiative aiming to get them back to college, for example, was $735. Students of color, first-generation students, and older students are often impacted by this practice more than others, according to a 2020 report from Policy Matters Ohio. 

“This is one of those administrative practices that, for a long time, just really escaped scrutiny,” said Martin Kurzweil, Ithaka S+R’s vice president of educational transformation.  

Perhaps until now, though. There’s more attention nationwide on the issue. And thanks to a directive from state lawmakers, all of Ohio’s public colleges have to reexamine their policies and let the Ohio Department of Higher Education know if they plan to continue doing this by Dec. 1. 

Breaking down the Cleveland State resolution 

Cleveland State University already made its decision. The university’s board of trustees passed a resolution to continue the practice at its meeting earlier this month. 

The resolution lays out the university’s decision in about a dozen paragraphs. CSU already releases the transcript via request for students who need to show a potential employer proof. They’re required to do that by the state. 

This practice also “has provided the university with leverage in getting students to satisfy the financial or other obligations to the university,” according to the resolution.  

In addition, university officials don’t “believe that releasing a transcript for a student who has not met their financial or other obligations at Cleveland State to another prospective college or university for potential transfer promotes the objective of instilling financial responsibility in students.”  

Department officials have made exceptions before, the resolution says, and they could continue to make them in the future. There’s also an additional carve out to release transcripts for residents who want to enroll in the Ohio College Comeback Compact. It’s an initiative aiming to help Northeast Ohio adults who’ve completed some college courses but didn’t earn a degree return to college. 

“Withholding transcripts isn’t fun” 

In an interview with Signal Cleveland, Jonathan Wehner, CSU’s vice president and dean of admissions, said officials began reviewing related rules earlier this fall and believe CSU’s response is “within the spirit of what the legislature was looking for.” 

“Withholding transcripts isn’t fun,” he said. “Nobody likes doing that.”

Part of the reason the university is continuing this policy, according to Wehner, is because it maintains a touchpoint with the student. Then, the two parties can have a conversation about a student’s options, a list that includes enrolling in the Compact or getting on a payment plan. 

“For us, we really look at that as an opportunity, rather than to just cut a student loose and say ‘all right, you owe us money, we’re gonna turn you over to the Attorney General’ and that’s the end of the conversation,” Wehner said. 

In fact, Ohio is one of only a handful of states across the country where universities have to turn over outstanding institutional debts to state attorneys general offices. 

Four years ago, about 390,000 accounts related to students’ debts were active with the state AG’s office, per that Policy Matters Ohio report. The initial amount owed often grows due to interest and fees over time. 

UA, Kent State to end practice 

Kent State University and the University of Akron each passed resolutions this fall to end the practice. KSU estimates just 2% of the roughly 33,000 transcript requests it gets each year get withheld due to money owed. 

The Cuyahoga Community College Board of Trustees is set to vote on a related measure of its own on Thursday, Nov. 30. 

CSU’s Wehner expects the university will revisit its policy when the university undertakes a more comprehensive review of several of its practices over the next 18 to 24 months.  Plus, additional federal guidance related to transcript withholding is set to go into effect next summer. 

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.