A transcript is an official record of a student’s work, showing what grades the student received and the courses she took. Official transcripts are usually required to be admitted to college and graduate school -- and in some cases to get a job. When a school decides to withhold transcripts, it is typically because a student has not satisfied her financial obligations. This leaves the school to figure out the best means to collect the money owed.
FERPA in General
Transcripts are considered an educational record and are subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. This law protects the privacy of student education records and applies to schools that receive federal funds. Under FERPA, parents or students over the age of 18 have the right to inspect and review education records that the school maintains, including transcripts.
Colleges and Universities and FERPA
While FERPA gives students the right to inspect their educational records, they don't necessarily have the right to possess a hard copy of the documents. If a student has not met his financial obligation, the college must let the student view his transcript, but it can legally refuse to release an official copy. Colleges sometimes issue unofficial transcripts, which do not have the same weight as official transcripts. This protects both the student and the university, because the university has a means to collect outstanding balances while the student is able to see the contents of his record.
In certain circumstances, a college might not be able to withhold a transcript even if a debt is owed. Courts have held that withholding transcripts is a form of collections because it represents a continuing action to collect the debt. This is relevant in the context of a bankruptcy if the former student declares she cannot repay her debts. If a student files for bankruptcy, the court issues a temporary injunction that prevents creditors from putting debts into collections. A court could interpret this to mean the school couldn't withhold the student's transcript as it represents a continuing act to collect the debt.
Some state laws may authorize colleges and universities to withhold transcripts for a student's failure to pay owed tuition and fees. However, these laws may not supersede federal laws, such as FERPA, or bankruptcy laws. Washington, Florida, California, Maryland and Wisconsin all have laws permitting a college or university to withhold transcripts. State laws may impose additional conditions on releasing the transcript. For example, FERPA allows colleges to release records under court order and subpoena. However, Minnesota enacted a more stringent law requiring records to be released only by court order. Thus, in a bankruptcy proceeding in Minnesota, a student would not be able to retrieve his records through subpoena. A judge would have to order the college to release it.