Cleveland State University doubled down on its transcript withholding policy late last year

The practice, commonly called the “transcript trap,” means a college doesn’t have to release the document showing students’ grades and completed classes if that student owes money to the college.

The issue keeps getting attention in Ohio and nationwide. In fact, last year, state lawmakers requested the state’s 14 public universities and 23 community colleges reexamine their policies.

Now, new findings provided to Signal Cleveland from the Ohio Department of Higher Education show Cleveland State is in the minority among its public higher education peers across the state. 

Current policies at Ohio’s public colleges

What are Ohio’s colleges doing about the ‘transcript trap’

College officials were required to let the Ohio Department of Higher Education know their policy by the end of December. Here’s where the colleges and universities landed: 

  • Twenty-three institutions changed course and will now release transcripts. That includes the state’s flagship university, Ohio State, along with Kent State University and the University of Akron. 
  • Ten colleges, including Cleveland State, reaffirmed their decisions to not release the documents when students owe money. 
  • Two colleges plan to continue to not withhold transcripts, while two other institutions now will withhold some transcripts and release others. 

Take a look at the full breakdown of what each public college is doing in the table below. 

What is the ‘transcript trap’? 

Here’s how the policy looks in real life. A student may owe money directly to a college for unpaid tuition or fees. It’s different from student loan debt, and, typically, it’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things. For example, the median amount of institutional debt for some Ohioans clocked in at $735.

A college can then choose not to release a student’s transcript until that debt gets paid. That can be a big roadblock for students because they need documentation to transfer or enroll in graduate school.

Those who are first-generation, older, and/or students of color are affected by this practice more than others, according to a 2020 report from Policy Matters Ohio.  

“If you’re a lower-income student, a smaller amount of debt will derail your education versus higher income students,” said Policy Matters’ senior researcher Piet van Lier. 

Plus, Ohio’s one of only a handful of states where these debts often get reported to the state attorney general within about 45 days. Many, then, can get turned over to debt collection offices.

Officials at the state higher education department, though, point out “flexibility exists today that did not exist several years ago” on this front. One of those options includes a program known as the Ohio College Comeback Compact.  

What comes next 

Policy Matters’ van Lier hopes the state will begin to look at its institutional debt collection practices. 

He urges state leaders and lawmakers to “reconsider something that is more student-centric.” That, he said, could help Ohio hit its long-stated goal of having 65% of residents earn some type of post-secondary degree or certificate. 

“If that’s what we really want, we need to act like it,” he said. “We need to get rid of this onerous, inequitable process that just undermines our goals around education and derails people’s education goals.” 

As for Cleveland State, officials previously told Signal Cleveland the university plans to reexamine its policies within the next 18 to 24 months. Additional federal guidance on this front is expected to go into effect next summer, too.

What type of coverage is missing when it comes to higher education in Cleveland? Our reporter Amy Morona wants to know what you think! Send her a note by filling out this form.

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

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