Whose Transcript Is It Anyway?

It’s nearing the start of the fall semester and transfer students are flocking to college. No news with this – every year millions of students enroll in a new college or university. Throughout the nation the process is similar. Students gain acceptance, submit transcript from their home institution for evaluation, and then after processing, are placed into what the receiving institution deems to be the appropriate courses. Depending upon degree programs, institutions and local college policies, credits are or are not applied. It is a cumbersome, clunky and frustrating process. A quick check of the lines in admissions for transfer students is proof positive. It is a source of pain.

The two fundamental purposes of institutions of higher education are the distribution of knowledge (colleges teach and students learn) and the certification of knowledge (the awarding of grades for courses and degrees). The back-of-the-house processes supporting degree certification are essential and changing because of technology. Each and every of college student, and there are more than 19 million today, will require some form of certification to transfer, to apply to graduate school, and often for employment. Students have to get an official copy of a transcript for each of these requests. We demand it in higher education. Fees are small fee, usually $10 or less, but it is an ongoing inconvenience.

Can we do better?

The information contained in a transcript is consistent and simple: name of institution, name and personal information about student, time period of course, course number, course title, grade, credits attempted and awarded, and data like GPA and degree program. Registrars have worked to make standardized fields with common data protocols. It is so traditional, in fact, that there are discussions underway to broaden the role of the transcript.

NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators), AACRAO (American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers), and the Lumina Foundation are looking at models of digital transcripts that could include competencies. This shift complements an ongoing move of many colleges to outsource their transcript work to firms like Parchment or Campus Labs, or to the National Student Clearinghouse. In these systems, college’s share their data and when students need an official copy, they work directly with the outside organization (who also handles payment). Each of these systems preserves the underlying process and the payment. The change is technological outsourcing of processing.

Why not make things simpler with one centralized system run by the government? It was proposed and soundly rejected. In fact, Congress banned efforts by the Department of Education to consider a federal student unit record data system in the 2008 renewal of the Higher Education Act. The plans were vigorously fought by higher education because of privacy concerns and the fear of big government and regulation. Rumblings to revisit the law and concept persist. Last year New America published College Blackout, a report noting that student information is already and that privacy worries could be addressed. Remember, too, that certification is big business with significant revenue.

The debate to federalize or not is subject to partisan politics. That means change may never come. We can re-think by agreeing on a fundamental point: student data does not just belong to the institution that granted it. It is “owned” by the student who registered for the course, paid for the course, and did the work. The most practical solution to the challenges of transcript headaches is to grant ongoing ownership of the transcript with the student. We can build from an established common format so that a student can use their “official” transcript whenever or however they so want. If we take downstream fees and revenue out of the equation, the entire process can become much easier.

The technology to do this is not complicated. Institutions of higher education can commit to giving students transcript information in a common structure, something that already happens, digitally. Students will retain this information, on their own or through any number of third party data organizations. An online certification between student and degree-granting institution, a technological problem already solved many different ways, can guarantee authenticity.

The challenge is development and implementation. The plan is not in any one institution’s interest to advance. It requires collective action by colleges. That is an extremely heavy lift. Organizing faculty is a snap compared to making colleges act in unison.

The idea will not appeal to the large data organizations already involved. They are doing fine and will also do well with the next generation of digital transcripts.

The real benefit to this plan is student time and convenience. Students, however, are not are not going to organize over a $10 fee. They have more pressing complaints.

Our best hope for this student-friendly solution rests with an ambitious foundation keen on implementing student-friendly change. Anyone interested in saving millions of wasted hours and making students happier?

David Potash

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