• September 3, 2014

College Graduates Deserve Much More Than Transcripts

College Graduates Deserve Much More Than Transcripts 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

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close College Graduates Deserve Much More Than Transcripts 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

College transcripts are horrible. I say this not as a columnist but as an employer. Whenever my nonprofit policy group advertises a position, we get hundreds of résumés. Every applicant is a college graduate. But when it comes to winnowing the field to 10 or 15 semifinalists, we have almost no useful information about what they learned in school.

Their résumés tell us if they attended a selective institution, which provides some insight into what they were like at age 17. But we're not in the market for high-school juniors. Their major suggests a broad area of interest, but if they weren't interested in my field, they wouldn't be applying for the job in the first place.

I could request transcripts, but I never do. They provide very little data—a vague course title, a number suggesting some kind of divisional hierarchy, and a letter grade of wholly unknown integrity. Squeezing useful information from hundreds of such documents—each presented in a different format—simply isn't worth the effort.

At a time when colleges are struggling to maintain enrollment and make the case for public financing, this is a big missed opportunity. If students can't present information about their college learning to employers, educators, and the wider world, that learning is devalued. Devalued things aren't supported as they should be­—and worth obscured is worth denied.

Indeed, colleges themselves don't trust college transcripts. That's why graduate and professional schools require, and give great weight to, standardized entrance exams like the LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE.

The more the rest of the world organizes its information, the more of a problem scattered and hidden college data become. When I began screening résumés, 15 years ago, the transcript problem bothered me less. Now I feel entitled to search for more important information, which is no more than a blinking cursor away. Why can't I type words into a box on my computer screen to search this pile of résumés for what I need? Why can't I find out what those vague titles and grades actually mean?

Things could improve as colleges make the transition to digital learning environments, and more evidence of students' knowledge and skills is saved. But mere computerization won't solve the problem. Information needs to be organized as well as stored.

To be searchable, evidence of student assessments and work will have to be tagged and assigned to specific learning objectives within a course. That means professors will have to decide ahead of time what their learning objectives are and express them in a logical and orderly way. They'll have to cooperate within and among disciplines and institutions to achieve some semblance of order. These are not, suffice it to say, universal practices at the moment.

Colleges will have to grapple with issues of privacy and control. While students are shielded by strong federal privacy laws, they're also given little control over personal information—like how their transcripts are formatted—that's vital to their education and eventual employment. Credible evidence of learning needs to be liberated from the bureaucratic clutches of the registrar and made available to students so they can present it to others as they choose.

Much of the interesting work in this area is taking place outside the academy. The Open Badges project, sponsored by the Mozilla Foundation, is at work on a system that allows students to earn and display credentials from participating organizations in a standard format that can be universally recognized.

All manner of organizations, formally educational and otherwise, will be able to grant digital badges that contain within them a range of data about what the student learned, the integrity of the granting organization, and a wide array of supporting documents and evidence. A kind of digital "backpack" will allow students to assemble and organize badges earned in various contexts, with badge owners in control of who sees what, when.

Degreed, a technology company based in San Francisco, uses algorithms to standardize and score different kinds of higher-education information, including where people went to college and their degree programs. To this people can add evidence of learning from transcripts, MOOCs, certificates, informal courses, events, books, and other sources. Someone with a degree from a midtier institution and a wealth of additional knowledge might score higher than a freshly minted graduate of an elite college.

People don't stop learning the day they graduate from college. Their credentials of learning shouldn't stop, either.

Meanwhile, two recent graduates of Durham University, in England, have started a company called Accredible, which allows users to create their own certificates of learning. That might sound like a do-it-yourself diploma-mill scheme, but it's not.

Diploma mills themselves are an unfortunate artifact of the information-poor traditional college degree, of credentials whose value lies solely in the alleged integrity of the granting institution. Diploma mills exploit the inefficiencies and absurdities of that system. They can't exist in a world where employers expect verifiable evidence of student identities and rich, authentic, searchable information about what students have learned. Many of Accredible's users are among the hundreds of thousands of students learning on Coursera and other open platforms. Instead of simple course names, students upload their notes, exams, and readings as evidence of what they've achieved.

What all these new credentialing systems have in common is their openness to learning of many kinds. They give people opportunities to create meaning from their college experiences in ways that traditional transcripts don't. But they also challenge the hegemony of college degrees as the only credentials that matter in the modern labor market. The new system will increase the value of all kinds of learning, not just the expensive, college-delivered kind.

Indeed, when I first ran my credentials through Accredible, it assigned a higher credibility score to the course I had just finished at Coursera than to my bachelor's degree from SUNY at Binghamton. And why not? My undergrad days are two decades past. Who knows, really, that I'm the same Kevin Carey who studied in upstate New York back then? With the exception of a few sketches from my art class, every scrap of evidence of what I was taught and what I learned in college has long since disappeared.

All that's left is a transcript: a few blurry typeset letters on a single sheet of paper. Students in the future will have more—and the sooner the better.

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation.

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