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Hold Up: What We Do and Don’t Know About the Impact of Holds on Postsecondary Student Success

August 8, 2022 3-minute read
Grant Type:
Sue Cui

Sue Cui

The COVID-19 health crisis has thrown into focus financial barriers for learners from low-income backgrounds in reaching their academic and career goals. One such barrier is the practice of transcript withholding, which blocks students’ access to proof of credential attainment if they have unpaid debts, even in small amounts. Transcript holds risk students losing the opportunity to land jobs, transfer to other colleges or obtain required occupational licenses. While notable policy changes at institutions, systems and states are curtailing the use of transcript holds, there are other types of administrative holds that colleges can impose on students who are still enrolled (e.g., a registration block for an incomplete immunization record, an unpaid library fine or poor academic standing). The impact of these varied holds, individually and in aggregate, especially on learners from low-income backgrounds, requires further examination to be understood.

Ascendium recently awarded $405,000 to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), in partnership with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), to help institutions better understand the impact that the practice and policies of administrative holds can have on student success. As part of this initiative, 12 institutions were recently selected to be part of a collaborative network. This network is intended to make it easy for the participating institutions to share resources and troubleshoot. It will also provide access to data from student information systems that will help them determine which kinds of holds are and aren’t effective at spurring student action without eroding students’ sense of belonging or creating stigma. We are eager to learn from this network how to translate research to action and to share these strategies widely through a forthcoming technical guide and a series of case studies.

This project was co-funded with the Lumina Foundation and is building on lessons learned from influential research conducted by Ithaka S+R and AACRAO. It also follows a recent policy brief we commissioned from Education Commission of the States, which explored the origins of administrative holds and the role state, postsecondary system and institutional policies play in authorizing holds. The brief cited an EAB report that estimates between 40 and 80 types of registration holds in use at most institutions. A major category of administrative holds, these holds restrict students’ ability to register for courses in order to compel them to complete paperwork, pay balances or carry out other transactions.

With an estimated 92% of debt-related holds and 85% of non-debt related administrative holds reaching resolution, use of holds constitutes reasonable practice to prompt students to take action. In fact, a recent joint statement by AACRAO and NACUBO, the organizations representing college registrars and business officers, respectively, states plainly that holds work well, but provides guidance for improvement. The field should also keep an eye on how institutional practice may be shifting, particularly if new administrative holds are used to compensate for the inability to withhold transcripts, and raise alarms if the impact on student success is negative and inequitable.

In supporting initiatives like those from WICHE and the Education Commission of the States, we are hoping to lay the groundwork for evidence-based reforms that increase the likelihood that learners, especially those from low-income backgrounds, can achieve their education and career goals.