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CAEL Pathways Blog

Preventing Administrative Holds From Holding Up Student Success

On March 13, CAEL’s vice president of research and impact, Becky Klein-Collins, and Peace Bransberger, interim director of programs and evidence, policy analysis and research, and programs and services at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), cohosted a presentation on administrative holds. The event occurred during a Coffee With CAEL, a 45-minute discussion on relevant topics held regularly for the benefit of CAEL members.

From their substantial impact on adult learner success to the scrutiny they are receiving from federal policymakers, administrative holds offer plenty of relevance to the CAEL community. The presentation reviewed recent data on the characteristics of holds and the students (and would-be students) they affect. It also offered advice for colleges and universities, particularly about being more proactive in communicating about holds and the events that trigger them.

WICHE original research was the basis for much of the discussion. For its No Holding Back project, WICHE partnered with 12 public colleges and universities in the western U.S. to study data, policies, and practices around administrative holds. 

Holds by the Numbers
There are many reasons institutions place holds – the report catalogs some 45 of them. Bransberger made it clear that not all are intended to be punitive, although they often turn out to be. Their primary purpose, she said, is “trying to get students’ attention.” For example, students may face a hold because they haven’t completed required advising. But holds are often related to financial issues. They can include incomplete loan and financial aid requirements, unpaid fees, and even library fines. 

While their reasons may be unclear to students, their impact is unmistakable. Most holds prevent students from registering for class, receiving transcripts, or both. In the WICHE study, 67% of holds restricted enrollment, 14% restricted access to transcripts, and 6% blocked both functions. Klein-Collins highlighted 2020 research by Ithaka S+R estimating that there is about $15 billion in unpaid balances to colleges and universities, stranding credit for more than 6.5 million students. 

WICHE’s research uncovered that trivial balances contribute to that large aggregate. The most prevalent holds in No Holding Back were triggered by debt amounts between $100 and $1,000. Across all the study’s institutions, 70% involved debts less than $2,000. While Bransberger acknowledged that institutions must ensure their own financial sustainability, she said that institutions might benefit from finding ways to remove holds based on relatively low thresholds; these may penalize primarily lower-income students who do not have the resources to pay those debts.

Holds Are a Heavier Lift for Adult Learners and Marginalized Students
The implications of such restrictions for adult learners and even the institutions seeking to enroll them become clear when considering Comebackers, said Klein-Collins. This population of more than 40 million adults have completed some college but not a credential. “A lot of colleges and universities are trying to find ways of bringing them back,” she said.

“We need to think about this as an economic issue as well,” she added. “Communities and employers want to address their latest talent needs through skill and credential development, and they may not realize that these are potential roadblocks for the workers who need training.”

Bransberger and Klein-Collins also stressed the equity ramifications of imposing holds. While essentially all students in the WICHE study experienced some form of hold, there were clear disparities in resolving them. Black, Hispanic (of any race), non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students were less likely than average to resolve their holds during the study period. They were also more likely to experience a hold. While Pell recipients were not more likely to experience holds, they were less likely to resolve them.

These equity-related findings confirm previous studies. Klein-Collins noted that an Ithaka S+R analysis showed that public institutions and colleges where Pell-eligible students comprise more than 40% of enrollment are more likely to withhold transcripts for an outstanding balance. She also cited a 2023 Inside Higher Ed report. Black students and Hispanic students are disproportionately likely to have their registration plans thwarted by holds, the survey found. 

Holds can also be particularly burdensome on military-affiliated students, Bransberger said. The WICHE study revealed that mismatches between semester timing, class registration schedules, and veteran benefits schedules repeatedly disadvantaged affected students. Even with Veterans Affairs disbursements scheduled for set times each semester, students faced holds on class registrations for pending payments. For such students, competing for limited class slots becomes more difficult.

Advice to Institutions
One thing No Holding Back made clear is that murky communications around holds create additional obstacles for students. When students receive aid at the beginning of the semester, they sometimes infer that there is no further need to access their financial accounts. Bransberger suggests ensuring a communication flow that makes it clear that further action, such as signing documents, may be required to allow registration for the following semester. Staff should encourage students to approach administrative processes like health insurance claims or credit card monitoring, she said. “They need to check early and often in particular so that they are not surprised when they go to register for classes that they have something standing in their way.”

But even when communication is dedicated to holds, it often fails to resonate with students – if it even reaches them. Information about holds can appear cryptic to students, said Bransberger. Such messages often emanate from an institutional portal, which students may not actively visit. Some campuses have many different computerized systems, some of which students must opt in to or access with an app, which can fragment communications. When students receive many other messages unrelated to holds, they may expect to receive a noteworthy message rather than learning about a hold when they are prevented from completing an academic process. 

Bransberger also urged greater communication among institutional staff. When different functions such as advising and finance collaborate, they can better work toward the common goal of eliminating barriers for students, she said. For example, one of the study institutions found that most of its advising holds originated in a single college. Upon reviewing data presented by the institution’s research team, the college dean immediately led efforts to change how student requirements for the majors were enforced. 

Bransberger also urged a more tailored approach to hold policies. A one-size-fits-all approach can have unintended consequences, even for well-intentioned advising requirements, she argued. She said some institutions are experimenting with removing preemptive holds and giving students the chance to comply by the end of the term. This allows intervention to be focused on a smaller number of students rather than the traditional broad approach that can punish students before they have a chance to enroll.

Pending U.S. Department of Education rules may elevate the urgency of these best practices. The new rules, which are effective July 1, prohibit institutions from withholding transcripts from terms for which federal financial aid was applied and paid off. While this doesn’t cover all students, Bransberger said differentiating students on the basis of the rules may be difficult for some institutions and that they may forgo transcript holds entirely to ensure compliance. Additional guidance from the Department on this new rule is expected this spring

Members can view a replay of Coffee With CAEL events at caelconnect.org. All upcoming CAEL events are listed at cael.org

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