Withholding Official College Transcripts
Colleges are legally entitled to withhold a student’s official college transcripts if the student owes the college money and has not made satisfactory arrangements to pay the bills. It is the only form of leverage the college has to force the student to pay their debts to the college.
A transcript is a record of the courses a student took and the grades the student received while enrolled at the college. The student may need an official copy of their college transcripts to provide to another college or to a prospective employer. But, if the student left the college while owing the college money, the college can hold the transcripts hostage until the student pays the bill.
The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires colleges that receive federal funds to provide students with access to their education records, including transcripts. However, FERPA does not require the college to provide the student with a copy of their official transcripts. Often, the college transcripts will be marked as “unofficial” and will not be signed by the registrar or certified with the college’s official seal. Colleges are also not required to provide the student with multiple copies of their transcripts or to send a copy of the transcript to a third party.
There is, however, one exception to the college’s right to withhold official transcripts. If the student files for bankruptcy and includes the college debt in the bankruptcy petition, the college may not refuse to provide official transcripts during the pendency of the bankruptcy proceedings or if the debt to the college is discharged. There is clear legal precedent that refusing to provide an official copy of the student’s transcripts is an attempt to collect a debt and thus a violation of the automatic stay and discharge injunctions in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
Colleges may be on shaky legal ground if they withhold official transcripts for previous years that were paid in full. Only the current year or academic term's transcripts may be withheld for an upaid bill.