Making Transcripts More Than ‘a Record of Everything the Student Has Forgotten’

July 15, 2015

Stanford University’s registrar, Thomas C. Black, isn’t surprised that fewer employers are asking for college transcripts these days.

The old-school version, with its list of abbreviated course titles, credit hours, and grades, might as well broadcast, "Here is a record of everything the student has forgotten," says Mr. Black, who is also associate vice provost for student affairs.

"There’s a clamor," he says, "for something more meaningful."

That "something" is a form of extended transcript or digital portfolio that captures more of what students are learning both inside and outside the classroom.

There could be links for study abroad and internships, robotics competitions and volunteer activities. An electronic portfolio could include examples of creative writing or artwork, or an engineering prototype a student developed.

And at a time when everyone, it seems, is looking for evidence of "competencies," students could highlight the specific learning outcomes they gained in their courses.

Institutions like Stanford and Elon Universities have been experimenting with some of those ideas, which created a springboard for brainstorming sessions here this week at a meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, or Aacrao. The Lumina Foundation has provided $1.27 million for the association to work with Naspa — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education in developing ideas for more-robust student records.

Here's an example of the enhanced transcripts that Elon is trying:


The registrars also heard from the leaders of three entrepreneurial businesses who said they never looked at college transcripts.

While the business leaders said they appreciated efforts to highlight specific skills, piling too much information into an electronic portfolio could overwhelm employers, they suggested. Many of the skills they’re looking for may also be hard to spell out.

"What we value are people who can adapt to environments that are constantly changing," said Cam Houser, chief executive officer of 3 Day Startup, a company that runs hands-on entrepreneurship programs for students at more than 50 colleges. "We want to see what they tried and failed, and what they learned from it. We don’t hire anyone with a five-year plan."

A Proxy for Elimination

The college degree has also become a screening tool for employers who are deluged with applications for jobs, like receptionist and office clerk, that previously didn’t require a postsecondary education. Transcripts that show only courses and grades may shortchange disadvantaged and first-generation college students who got a shaky start academically but have relevant experiences that don’t show up on a traditional transcript.

"They may have skills, but they’ll never be chosen because the proxies employers are using eliminate them," Mr. Black said. "The transcripts don’t help."

When designing new transcripts, it’s crucial for colleges to understand that students are eager to highlight their skills and want to get into the workplace as fast as they can, he said.

Listening to their skepticism about the value of college transcripts, Mike Reilly, executive director of Aacrao, expressed the frustration many in the audience were having in trying to communicate with local employers.

"Some people might think we’re crazy trying to map our outcomes to you guys, who are changing so quickly," he said.

Those who are educating students in the heart of Silicon Valley know that concern only too well.

Stanford plans to open an office in September that will help students create digital portfolios that highlight the skills they’ve acquired.

"The people who get jobs are those who know what they know and can articulate it clearly," Mr. Black told his colleagues at the meeting here.

The university has also created a prototype for what it calls "scholarship records," which help students highlight specific learning outcomes in more than 1,600 courses. Participating faculty members outlined the learning outcomes they expected their students to master.

Not everyone was sold on the idea; some faculty members aren’t convinced that every course should be broken down into measurable and marketable outcomes.

But Mr. Black said it was helpful to see how a philosophy student and a computer-science student both acquired "formal reasoning" skills in their respective courses — "which sets up the argument that you can have very marketable skills in disciplines that don’t have a vocational path."

A Curb on Grade Inflation

Another problem with transcripts, according to conference participants, is that in an era of widespread grade inflation, they don’t provide any context for the high marks students are chalking up.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has learned the hard way just how hard it is to change that.

Faculty members approved a plan in 2010 aimed at curbing grade inflation by allowing for more contextual information to be added to undergraduates’ academic records. The additional information would show the students’ grades compared with others in the same section.

A student with an A-minus in one course where the average grade was an A wouldn’t look so impressive, while someone who had earned a C-plus in a course where 60 percent of the students fared worse might be somewhat redeemed.

A transcript would also feature a student’s "schedule-point average" alongside the grade-point average. It would be calculated by averaging the median grades in the student’s schedule to give a sense of its strength.

Students have pushed back against the proposed changes, arguing that if other universities aren’t reflecting the same information on their transcripts, the contextualized scores could hurt their chances of getting into graduate school or landing jobs. If professors have created a problem with their grading policies, they reasoned, students shouldn’t have to suffer.

"Our undergraduate students felt they’d been blindsided, and it created tension on campus," the university’s registrar, Christopher Derickson, told fellow registrars here.

The plan has been repeatedly delayed, most recently for another year of study. When asked by an audience member, Mr. Derickson predicted that the contextualized transcript wouldn’t survive as an official transcript, but that it would prove a useful tool for departments to compare grading patterns and students to see how they had performed relative to their classmates.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at