If you owe the school money or you have defaulted on your student loans, it's common for schools to deny requests for your official academic transcripts. For many, this can be devastating. 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.
Do I Have Any Rights?
You do have some rights in this situation. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does give you a right to inspect your transcripts. This doesn't mean these transcripts have to be "the official transcripts" that other schools, licensing agencies, and employers may require. To make matters worse, these transcripts sometimes show that you have defaulted on your financial obligations.
What Can I Do to Get My Transcripts?
You have a few options when it comes to getting your official transcripts in this situation. The school could be withholding your transcript for something as small as an unpaid parking fine. In this case, it's best to pay the fine. You can negotiate with the school. The school might accept payment for one or two semesters in exchange for releasing your official transcript.
Different tactics could be useful with your negotiations with the school. Show the school what your current income and expenses are. If you’re seeking the transcripts in an effort to obtain a higher paying job, show the school how much more you will be making with the new job. By showing the potential for a higher income, the school will understand that they have a better chance of getting paid. Plus, typically schools want to see their former students succeed - sometimes the folks handling the financials just need to be reminded of that. If need be, offer the school a payment plan with automatic monthly withdrawals from your checking account. Improving the school’s chances of getting paid through your higher income and providing the school with the security of automatic withdrawals from your account could be enough for the school to see that it’s in their own interest to provide you with the official transcript.
You can call your state's department of education and ask for advice. Different states have different laws on this issue. Federal law allows schools to withhold official transcripts. But, if the school is part of the state's university system, the department of education may have a policy requiring the school to release your transcripts.
With potential employers, you could explain your situation and ask if they will take an unofficial transcript. You are in a catch-22. 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.
The most effective way to get your official academic transcripts is to file bankruptcy. Of course, filing bankruptcy for a single debt that is unlikely to be eliminated in the bankruptcy may not be the best idea. Consider this option if you have other debts you need relief from. Chances are, if you're unable to pay your student debt, you have other debts, especially if you’re currently underemployed. Bankruptcy is usually only a temporary solution, so you will need to act quickly to secure your transcripts after filing.
How Can Bankruptcy Help?
The instant you file bankruptcy, the automatic stay goes into effect. The automatic stay is defined in §362 of the Bankruptcy Code. The automatic stay stops all collections actions. Since withholding your official academic transcripts is a collection action, most courts require the school to release your official transcript. But, not all courts follow this rule, so it's a good idea to consult with a local bankruptcy attorney on this issue.
Only in very rare cases can your student loan be discharged in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy or a Chapter 13 bankruptcy can still benefit you by discharging your other debts, allowing more of your money to go toward your student loan debt. Using a Chapter 7 in conjunction with an income-based repayment plan can be a very effective method for dealing with student loans.
What if the debt you owe to the school is not in the form of a student loan? What if you owe for tuition, room, board, etc., but never signed a promissory note? Many courts will allow you to discharge such a debt. To see if this will work for you, you need to consult with an experienced bankruptcy attorney where you live.
You have a few ways to try to get your transcripts before considering bankruptcy. If it's a small debt you can afford, you could pay the debt. You can call the state department of education for advice on the issue. You can try to negotiate with the school to pay a part of the debt in exchange for the release of your official transcript. Last, you can call an attorney. It may be a good idea to discuss the issue with not only a bankruptcy attorney but also a student loan attorney. You can use the locator on the website for the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) to find attorneys specializing in student loan law. Select “student loan” in the dropbox to the left and select your state on the dropbox to the right and a list of student loan lawyers in your state will show. After consulting with both a student loan attorney and a bankruptcy attorney, you can make an informed decision about which route is best for you to achieve your particular objectives.