American universities — whose grads often owe six-figure debts that can't be discharged in bankruptcy, and that can even be charged against their Social Security checks — are increasingly engaging in the (legal) tactic of refusing to provide transcripts to grad schools or employers as a means of extorting payment out of students who get behind. A good summary of what this means comes from NYU's Andrew Ross, a prof who helped start Occupy Student Debt: "It's worse than indentured servitude. With indentured servitude, you had to pay in order to work, but then at least you got to work. When universities withhold these transcripts, students who have been indentured by loans are being denied even the ability to work or to finish their education so they can repay their indenture." Dave Lindorff writes in the LA Times:
It's no accident that colleges are using the withholding of official transcripts to punish students behind in their loan payments. It turns out the federal government encourages the practice. Schools are not required by law to withhold transcripts, but a spokeswoman at the Department of Education confirmed that the department "encourages" them to use the draconian tactic, saying that the policy "has resulted in numerous loan repayments."
It is a strange position for colleges to take, however, since the schools themselves are not owed any money. Student loan funds come from private banks or the federal government. For federal Perkins loans, schools get a pool of federal money to apply to students' financial aid, and if students don't pay, that pool gets smaller. But the creditor is still the government, not the college. And in the case of so-called Stafford loans, schools are not on the hook in any way; they are simply acting as collection agencies, and in fact may get paid for their efforts at collection.
In Southern California, USC's website makes it clear that unmet loan obligations can prevent students from getting transcripts. As for the University of California, Kate Jeffery, director of student financial support for the system, says transcripts are withheld in the case of delinquent Perkins loans. She concedes it's a difficult issue but says that "it's the only tool we have to make them pay."