Institutional debt is an understudied and overlooked type of student debt that hinders stopped-out students’ ability to complete or further their education. This specific debt often results in “stranded credits”—earned credits that students cannot access because their former institution is withholding their transcript or blocking registration until they settle their unpaid balance. Institution record systems are not designed to facilitate easy access to understanding who is affected by stranded credits. But, with small changes and greater collaboration, institutions can build a well-established data infrastructure to reconnect with and support students with institutional debt. In this blog post, we share three key aspects of a data management cycle—data collection, standardizing data management practices, and accommodating changing information—that can strengthen institutional efforts to capture better data and provide strategies for institutions designing their own data systems.

Accurate information on students’ debt and transcript and registration holds is key to understanding stranded credits but involves navigating complexity across systems and often across institutions. Students with institutional debt often face holds beyond their transcripts, and research has shown that obtaining detailed information into the nature of these holds is challenging. Furthermore, obtaining information on student debt might require accessing data from the bursar or accounts payable department, while academic records might require access to registrar data. These kinds of cross-department data inquiries can be challenging for practical reasons—among them, higher education is facing staffing shortages and institutional record systems were set up to protect student privacy and meet immediate needs in cost efficient ways rather than in an agile manner that easily connects academic records with financial records. Student debt information may also require cross-institutional data collection; in some states, institutions contract with collections or state agencies to collect institutional debts. The multiple entities responsible for the debts, with different policies and processes around things like interest and fees, complicate accurate tracking of debt information.

Of course, working with multiple stakeholders to gather the required data calls for a collaborative effort around data management and data collection practices with rigorous attention to privacy, security, and permissions—a complex task under any circumstances. With many departments handling students’ personal identifiable information, it is vital to establish appropriate parameters and strong communication channels to ensure student data is protected and free from misuse. Additionally, the idiosyncratic practices of each department in defining and organizing the data necessary to understand a student’s situation hinders a standardized data collection process.

Data management and collection efforts need to also accommodate changes in student information. Engaging with stopped-out students, many of whom last enrolled many years ago, can be challenging at the very least. Institutions often have no methodological way of keeping contact information up to date, resulting in outdated names, addresses, email, or phone numbers—all necessary when attempting to get in touch with students. Beyond contact information, inaccurate data on the way students identify themselves can create a mismatch over time. A student’s gender and preferred pronouns may have changed since they first enrolled, or an institution’s record system may not have been set up initially to accurately reflect students’ sex and gender. Students’ experiences with parenthood, disability, military service, the criminal-legal system, and more can change over time and shape the kinds of support they need to return and thrive in an institution.

When setting up new processes and systems to understand students with stranded credits and institutional debt, institutions should consider the following three starting points:

  1. Initiate a Discovery Phase to Identify Key Data Points. Considerable time and collaboration across departments is necessary to understand the number of and characteristics of students impacted by stranded credits and institutional debt. A discovery phase that captures key data elements like the amount of institutional debt and the status and source of transcript and registration holds can help institutions explore intervention opportunities within the context of their unique needs. It is important too at this stage to bring together different stakeholders who can interpret data and suggest next steps from their unique perspectives, including from student support services, the bursar’s office and student accounts, the registrar and institutional research offices.
  2. Streamline Processes and Promote Consistency. Institutions should consider identifying departmental data management points of contact to ensure a clear line of communication between partners. Additionally, developing a standard definition of each data element and providing clear guidance on data collection protocols, like specifying which data points to capture, providing formatting guidelines, and standardizing recording practices, can help align efforts across various departments. This approach helps build strong data management and collection protocols, as well as improving everyone’s understanding of variance in students’ debt balance and the source of that debt to inform future improvements to program eligibility and individualize support for returning students.
  3. Establish External Partnerships and Ensure Flexibility in Data Management. Partnerships with local or national third-party organizations who have the resources to gather accurate contact information can help expand institutional outreach efforts and connect with a greater proportion of eligible students. At the same time, it is important to design data management strategies to accommodate changes and updates to student information. This includes finding ways to merge student provided information, such as preferred name and email addresses, with administrative records.

Approximately 6.6 million students are unable to progress in their academic and professional careers due to stranded credits. Accurate information on student demographics, debt, and transcript holds, clear guidance around data collection, and sound data management and sharing practices can help leaders make sense of who is affected by stranded credits and design possible solutions for the future. With these practices in place, it becomes possible to initiate and manage a consistent set of expectations regarding data definitions, management, analysis, and responsive actions—essential elements for any student success program.