By Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries
The higher education workforce knows all too well the claim that the academy is highly resistant to change. Yet, at any of our institutions we can point to the many ways in which change happens regularly. We also know that many of these changes must first overcome multiple barriers that slow or even bring the change process to a halt. One long-time higher education practice is finally undergoing an experimental change at several colleges. If successful, it will yield considerable relief to students. Will more institutions and their libraries follow – or will they find ways to resist the change?
The particular, long overdue for change practice, is the withholding of transcripts from students who terminate from the institution, for whatever reason, until they settle their debts. In extreme cases, transcripts may be held for debts of less than one hundred dollars. Withholding transcripts can be detrimental to a student’s future in two ways. First, without a transcript a student may be unable to successfully apply for a job or graduate programs. Second, an adult learner who left college before graduation needs a transcript in order to re-apply elsewhere to complete their degree. When students owe hundreds or thousands of dollars in tuition or fees, they are in a state of limbo, unable to move forward with their careers or education without access to their transcript. According to research from Ithaka S&R, 95 percent of higher education institutions withhold transcripts when students have an outstanding balance. This affects 6.6 million students nationwide, leaving them with “stranded credits” that can’t be applied elsewhere.
If our institutions are as committed to student academic and career success as we state on our websites, why would we maintain a practice that is a clear barrier to that exact outcome?
We know the answer. Money. In order to collect unpaid balances from students, the finance office uses the transcript as a form of final leverage to get what it is owed. As much as we might want to provide the transcript, once the student has it they’d have no incentive to settle their debts. In the case of the academic library, the transcript hold is often the only remaining leverage available to ensure that students either pay extensive fines, return long overdue books or pay for lost materials. Lost books carry fees in the hundred dollar range, plus processing fees or accumulated fines, so failing to return even a few long overdue items or accounting for them if lost or damaged, can add up to hefty amounts.
Our goal is rarely to punish students by withholding their transcript. We just want our books back. We seek to maintain the integrity of our collections. We must ensure valuable books are available to other students. This is our responsibility as stewards of institutional assets. For better or worse, the transcript hold is the way to get students’ attention. It’s not uncommon for students to ignore repeated requests from the library until they have no choice if they need to get their transcript. All of the above stated reasons for libraries to support the transcript hold are noble causes. If they are causing harm to students, though, we need to do better.
Perhaps there is a better way. A group of colleges, with support from Ithaka S+R, are experimenting with a change for the better.
As reported at Inside Higher Ed on January 3, 2022, a consortium of eight Ohio institutions will provide students with some degree of debt forgiveness so that they may settle their bills in order to have their transcripts released. The only catch is that the students must then re-enroll at one of those eight institutions. While details have yet to be worked out, such as the amount of debt relief allowed, the general idea is that students, once re-enrolled, can pay off small amounts of their remaining debt over time while they complete their degrees. In addition to this program, according to the article, “Education secretary, college leaders want colleges to stop holding transcripts over unpaid balances”, several community colleges in both Massachusetts and New York, are using federal relief funds to pay off these remaining debts so that students can obtain their transcripts and move on. Up to 50,000 students will benefit from the program. It was reported that U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said withholding transcripts drives inequitable outcomes. It is the first time the nation’s top education official called for the practice to cease.
These debt relief programs are laudable as they allow students to achieve their goal of earning a college degree while keeping personal debt levels manageable. But what do they mean for academic libraries? Librarians certainly support debt relief and student academic success, but what if their debt is related to missing collection items? Would there be a repayment plan for accumulated fines or lost book fees? If libraries were asked to cancel the debt, would comparable funding be provided by the institution? Losing some number of books to students who’ve left the institution is anticipated. Might eliminating the transcript hold leverage lead students to be less conscientious about returning books or paying off accumulated library debt? Any problematic scenario is a possibility. So what should librarians do if this movement comes to their campus?
Anytime we create change there is potential for an unexpectedly poor outcome. Despite best efforts to avoid the worst case situation, academic librarians could anticipate that losing the ability to withhold transcripts may lead to concerning collection losses. My inclination is to err on the side of what’s best for our students. I believe most of us prefer to take that position, even if it might create new challenges for us. While we could sit back and wait to see if this happens at our own institution, why not take a more proactive position. We like to think of ourselves as campus leaders, calling for change when we observe the need for it – and especially when no one else is giving it attention. What better way to show that we’re about more than just building collections and guarding their integrity? Let’s demonstrate our commitment to student learning and success. What better way to do that than eliminating one barrier we all know is problematic for students but lack the will to change.
About the Author: Steven J. Bell is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University Libraries. His past blogs have included The Kept-Up Academic Librarian and Designing Better Libraries. He started the blog ACRLog in 2005 and was its primary contributor through 2011. Between 2009 and 2019 he authored two monthly columns, “From the Bell Tower” and “Leading From the Library” for Library Journal. You can learn more about Steven at http://stevenbell.info or follow him on Twitter @blendedlib