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Getting School Transcripts (When You Owe Money to the School)

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In a Nutshell

If you owe money to your college or university or you’ve defaulted on your student loans, the school may deny your request to get an official academic transcript. Without these transcripts, you may not be able to transfer to another school, attend graduate school, obtain a professional license, or qualify for some jobs. That said, you can get your transcripts if you take action. This may include paying any overdue school fines/fees, negotiating with your school, contacting your state’s Department of Education, or filing bankruptcy to discharge your student loans.

Written by Lawyer John Coble
Updated October 6, 2023


Do I Have Any Rights to My School Transcripts?

Yes, you do have limited rights in this situation. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives you the right to review and inspect your school transcripts even if you owe money to the school. These may be unofficial transcripts, which are different from official transcripts.

While FERPA allows you to review your transcripts, you may not be able to obtain the “official transcripts'' from your school until you resolve the financial situation. You usually need to provide official transcripts when you transfer to a new school, apply to a graduate program, or apply for a professional license from a licensing agency. Some employers may also request to see your official transcripts.

Note that FERPA applies to any schools that receive federal funds, which may include public colleges, private colleges, state universities, and community colleges.

What Gives Schools the Right To Withhold My Transcripts? 

Even with FERPA, withholding transcripts is well within the rights of the university, college, or community college that you owe money to. This could be anything from unpaid loans (such as defaulted federal student loans) to something seemingly minor like outstanding on-campus parking tickets or library fines. 

The bottom line is that if you have unpaid debt related to your school, your official academic records may be withheld by the school.

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What Can I Do To Get My Student Transcripts?

If you’re trying to get your official transcript and you’re being blocked because you owe your school money, you can try a few things to resolve the issue:

  • Pay the fine or fees you owe.

  • Negotiate with the school.

  • Check the state law.

  • File bankruptcy.

Let’s explore each option in more detail.

Pay the Fines/Fees You Owe

This might seem obvious, but often the easiest way to get the school to release your official transcripts is by simply paying the outstanding money you owe.

If your school is withholding your transcript for something as small as an unpaid parking fine, this will be easier to do than if you owe a significant amount. If your financial obligation to the school is high, you may be able to negotiate a payment plan with the registrar’s office. Read the next section to see how to negotiate. 

Negotiate a Payment Plan With the School

You may or may not be able to successfully negotiate a payment plan or other offer with your school’s registrar, but it’s worth trying. It’s unlikely that you’ll be successful negotiating the amount you owe, but you might have success negotiating a payment plan.

If you’re trying to negotiate a repayment plan, it may be helpful to provide evidence or information about your current income and expenses. Suggest a monthly payment amount that fits into your budget. If you’re facing a serious medical situation or extreme financial hardship, it can be helpful to relay this information as well.

If the school accepts your repayment plan, it may not be willing to release your official transcript until you complete it. If so, consider offering the school a payment plan with automatic monthly withdrawals from your checking account. This may increase the chance of the school releasing your transcript before the full debt is repaid.

Negotiate an Offer With the School

If you find yourself unable to repay your school debt because you don’t have a job but you need your official transcript to get the job, that can be very frustrating. In this case, you may be able to negotiate an offer with the school. For example, you could offer to pay a portion of the debt in exchange for releasing your official transcript. Or you could simply explain your situation.

Similar to negotiating a repayment plan, you may have a better shot at negotiating successfully if you provide information about why you’re struggling to repay the full debt and/or how having the official transcript may help. 

If you’re trying to get a job or a higher paying job and the employer needs to see your official transcripts, let the school know about this and how much more you will be making with the new job. Show the registrar that you’ll have an income or a higher income soon and explain how this will put you in a position to repay your debt. (You may want to simultaneously negotiate a payment plan to begin after the job begins.)

If the school doesn’t budge, you can try negotiating with your employer instead. Explain your situation and ask if they will take an unofficial transcript. It’s super frustrating if you can’t pay the debt without the job, but you can’t get the job unless you pay the debt. Many employers will accept the unofficial transcript in this situation.

Call Your State's Department of Education or Check State Law

FERPA is a federal law that allows schools that receive federal funds to withhold official transcripts in certain cases. But your state may have different laws.

If the school is part of the state's public college or university system, contact the state Department of Education to ask about its transcript policies and laws. 

According to Best Colleges, withholding official transcripts is not allowed in the following 11 states:

  • California

  • Colorado

  • Connecticut

  • Illinois

  • Indiana*

  • Maine

  • Minnesota

  • New York

  • Ohio

  • Oregon**

  • Washington

*In Indiana, transcripts can be withheld in some cases. Under state law, schools can’t withhold transcripts if the student has paid $100–$300 on their student debt in the previous year.

**The Oregon legislature passed a bill in July 2023 that “Prohibits post-secondary institutions of education that are based in Oregon from refusing to provide transcript to current or former student because student owes debt to institution.” This is effective Jan. 1, 2024.

File Bankruptcy 

Filing bankruptcy isn’t the right solution for everyone, but if you have a lot of other debt (like credit card debt or medical bills) in addition to student loans or student debt, it’s worth considering alongside other debt-relief options

One major advantage of filing bankruptcy is that as soon as you file your petition, the automatic stay goes into effect. This stops all collections actions, which includes the withholding of your official academic transcripts. In other words, with the protection of the automatic stay, the school would be required to release your official college transcript.

While you can file bankruptcy on student loan debt, you must file additional paperwork and go through a process called an adversary proceeding. The guidelines around this process changed in late 2022. The goal was to make it easier for folks to file bankruptcy on federal student loan debt, but there’s not enough evidence yet to say whether or not courts are following this guidance. Still, if you’re filing bankruptcy anyway, it’s worth including your student loans. Upsolve may be able to help you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy and deal with your federal student loans. 

Let’s Summarize…

Higher education is expensive. Even with financial aid, getting a bachelor’s degree may take more financial resources than you have. If you leave school with an unpaid balance, the school can refuse to provide you with official transcripts, which you may need to get into another school, for a job, or to get a professional license. If this happens, you can pay any outstanding fees/fines, negotiate a payment plan or deal, or file for bankruptcy to get access to your official transcripts. You should also check your state’s laws to see if they prohibit schools from withholding transcripts. 



Written By:

Lawyer John Coble

LinkedIn

John Coble has practiced as both a CPA and an attorney. John's legal specialties were tax law and bankruptcy law. Before starting his own firm, John worked for law offices, accounting firms, and one of America's largest banks. John handled almost 1,500 bankruptcy cases in the eig... read more about Lawyer John Coble

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