It is legal for private schools to withhold student transcripts for nonpayment of tuition/fees?
Implicit in any private school enrollment is the school’s agreement to furnish the student with an education and the associated documentation of his/her academic achievements (e.g., transcripts) in exchange for the parents’ agreement to pay tuition and fees. If the parents breach the agreement by failing to pay the agreed upon tuition and fees, the school has no obligation to perform its obligations under the contract. In short, the school may withhold the student’s transcripts until the agreed upon tuition and fees are paid in full.
Enrollment contracts vary greatly from school to school. Many schools have contracts which obligate the parents to pay the tuition/fees in full, regardless of whether the student is withdrawn or dismissed prior to the end of the school year, and hold the parents responsible for collection costs (attorney fees, expenses and court costs) incurred by the school in the event that the school is forced to take legal action to collect the debt. Many schools do not have such provisions in their contracts and thus withholding transcripts might be their only leverage for collecting outstanding debts for tuition/fees owed.
PRACTICE TIP: Because many parents are unaware of the school’s right to withhold transcripts for nonpayment, it is advisable that schools include language in their enrollment contracts which explicitly states that all student transcripts are the property of the school and will not be released until the student’s account is paid in full. Also, if a school allows a student to remain enrolled after an account becomes delinquent, the school should notify the parents in writing that the school is reserving its right to withhold the student’s transcript pending payment of the account in full; otherwise, the student may be able to force the release of the records based on the legal doctrine of “detrimental reliance” (i.e., where the school is estopped from withholding the transcripts because the continued enrollment led the student to believe that the school would perform its obligations under the contract notwithstanding the delinquent payments).
Caveat: Under FERPA, a student, regardless of the status of the account, has the right to “inspect and review” his/her education records within 45 days of the school’s receipt of the request. This does not entitle the student to a copy of the records, only the right to “inspect and review.”
Allen & Gooch is providing this legal update for informational purposes only. This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion as to any specific facts or circumstances. You should consult your own attorney concerning your particular situation and any specific legal questions you may have.