Stranded credits, stranded students: how students make sense of institutional debt policies and holds



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Over 6.6 million students in the United States owe financial balances—including unpaid tuition and fees—directly to higher education institutions, representing over $15 billion of crippling student debt (Karon et al., 2020). By reviewing extant research, I examine “stranded credits,” which exist when a student still owes an institutional debt, such as tuition and fees, directly to an institution after a deadline. Students with stranded credits and no degree are referred to as “stranded students” and experience a phenomenon that sets off a series of consequences prohibiting a student from enrolling, graduating, and securing employment (Ajinkya et al., 2019; Jones & Andrews, 2021; Karon et al., 2020; Kilgore, 2020; van Lier, 2020). The current methods of collecting institutional debt are at odds with state and institutional goals for student recruitment, retention, and degree completion by preventing registration, diploma, or transcript obtainment (Jones & Andrews, 2021). This study explored the use of financial holds, which prevent registration and transcript obtainment as collateral for institutional debt, and how students make sense of institutional-debt-related holds. By using sensemaking theory as a framework, I examined the factors students reported contributing to their overdue balances, how they became aware of their own overdue balances, and how institutional debt policies and expectations shaped their educational journeys. Two semistructured interviews were conducted with 11 UT Austin students with a financial hold and an owing balance of over $1,000 that prevented registration, transcript, or diploma issuance, before they were financially dismissed from the University. Data from the interviews were analyzed and summarized through an adapted model of student sensemaking from the prior work by Schudde et al. (2021). Students deliberated and approached their balance and hold either procedurally, with the hold as the primary motivator to pay, or strategically, whether their circumstances have changed and they required further assistance to pay for college. Each approach was influenced by the expectedness of the factors or events related to the overdue balance, whether the student had violated the policy previously or was a first-time violator, and if the student was dependent or claimed self-responsibility over their educational expenses.


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