Tom Green still recalls his trips into the musty archive holding the transcripts of Seton Hall University students. These records – bearing the handwriting of Seton Hall professors dating back to the 19th century – dutifully listed the course work completed by the first students to enroll at the university, the amount of time they spent in those classes and, of course, the grades awarded at semester’s end.

In time, the inked transcript gave way to a typewritten document, which was eventually supplanted by mainframe data entry and all of the technology that has followed. Through it all, though, the essential content of the transcript hasn’t changed. It is and always will be the document that follows anyone who has spent time in college – if only to earn a single credit.

“It’s valuable inside higher education as a document that conveys a certain amount of information about what a student has accomplished,” says Green, a former Seton Hall official who is now the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).

But Green and other experts are aware that, in the world beyond the campus green, the transcript is less valuable. In fact, in some quarters, it’s viewed as an esoteric document that says little to nothing about what a student actually learned in those lecture halls, labs and classrooms.

Essentially, today’s transcript is what it has been for many decades: a copy of a student’s permanent record at a particular institution – the courses taken, grades received and credentials earned.

But things are changing. Today, 15 years into the 21st century, the college transcript is being transformed. Many experts say the changes are long overdue – that the traditional transcript is too limited and imprecise to properly serve today’s students and employers, or even the institutions that issue them.

“It has always been a relatively poor document to communicate how well someone knows (learned) material,” says Matthew Pittinsky, an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and the chief executive officer of Parchment, an independent firm on the cutting edge of transcript reform. “And the other option, the diploma, conveys even less.”

Kevin Carey, director of education policy at New America, is even more direct. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Carey quipped that “the standard diploma has roughly the same amount of information that prisoners of war are required to divulge under the Geneva Convention.”

Policymakers, registrars and higher education administrators say the problem is not what the transcript tells employers and graduate school admissions officers about an applicant. It’s what the document doesn’t say.

“We’re not going to throw out the transcript; we’re looking to enrich the information.”—Tom Green

“Currently, credits and units are the currency of learning,” notes Joellen Shendy, associate vice provost and registrar at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). “But time and place are not proxies for learning – and they were never meant to be. We’ve all sat in a class in college or high school where we’ve learned something different than the guy next to us, even though we sat in those seats the same amount of time.”

The reconfigured student record rejects the notion that grades or credit hours are the only – or even the best – way to gauge student learning. Instead, it embraces the idea that a student is the sum total of his or her learning.

Make no mistake: grades still matter.

“We’re not going to throw out the transcript; we’re looking to enrich the information,” says Green, who is overseeing AACRAO’s participation in a Lumina Foundation program to evaluate and upgrade the transcripts issued by 12 U.S. colleges and universities (see accompanying story).

But in the eyes of many, a viable and meaningful student record must also credit the learning gained from service learning projects, military service, community volunteer efforts, job experience and other activities. What’s more, it must put that learning in context, taking into account the varying circumstances that define the disparate lives of today’s more than 20 million postsecondary students.

“Students today are doing a lot of things that are not contained in the boundaries of a course,” says Robert Sheets, a research professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy. So the college transcript must break boundaries, too. It must, as Shendy says, assess students “a little more holistically.”

The concept of a more comprehensive transcript is nothing new, at least from a global perspective. The non-scholastic activities of university graduates in Great Britain have been cited on “diploma supplements” for more than a decade. Here in the U.S., Stanford University, the University of California-San Diego and Elon University in North Carolina are among a handful of institutions that have pioneered advancements in student records and credentialing. And there are more such institutions exploring this area each year.

Three primary factors are now pushing this innovative trend into the postsecondary mainstream: 1.) the embrace of competency- based learning, 2.) the disruption in the job market that began with the Great Recession, and 3.) digital technology.

Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, a national organization representing student affairs professionals in higher education, marvels at the “cottage industry” spawned by this growing effort to upgrade the traditional transcript.

“It’s the Wild West out there,” Kruger says of the proliferation of software developers, institutions and various parties that compile and deliver these new-look records of student achievement.

Arizona-based Parchment, headed by Pittinsky, is one of several start-ups to which colleges and universities now outsource the task. The biggest competition to firms like Parchment comes from the colleges and universities themselves. Typically, administrative leaders form teams of registrar’s office and information technology personnel who revamp the student record and implement the technical changes necessary to build it.

NASPA’s Kruger predicts that institutions and the private sector will eventually adopt something akin to a universal template. “It won’t be 140 approaches, but a core way to do this,” he says.

Green, however, cautions that “it could be a number of years before we have a consensus on what is best” for those colleges and universities that are making the transition to a modern transcript.

Most experts think that the student record of the future will in many ways resemble a LinkedIn profile. They envision some sort of Web-based portfolio or compendium that reflects a wide range of a student’s accomplishments – and does so in a way that is fully digital (to ensure it can be shared online with employers) and portable (so students “own” their records and update them throughout their careers and lives).

The possibilities for this digital, personal portfolio are endless – and to some, a bit frightening, as anyone who has seen a LinkedIn profile listing middle school science projects can attest.

The self-curated, overly inclusive nature of such profiles presents a big challenge to those involved in transcript reform. College and university officials are working hard to decide how much information is, in today’s social media shorthand, TMI. Even more important, they’re focusing intently on quality assurance, looking for ways to validate the learning inherent in a student’s record. That step – though described by Kruger as “one of the headaches of the process” – is critical for any institution that plans to put its name, and thus stake its reputation, on any such record.

Despite the headaches, policymakers and administrators involved in this effort are convinced that the transformed transcript will benefit all students. Among the first to benefit, they say, will be older learners, first-generation students, and the 19 million Americans who, according to Parchment, hold “educational certifications apart from an academic degree.”

In fact, UMUC’s Shendy sees these revamped student records as a promising new rung on the ladder of success for tens of millions of Americans. “The students’ capacity to interact with their records in different ways will open up a ton of connections they otherwise wouldn’t have made,” says Shendy. “This lets students understand what they can do and what they have learned to communicate – and that’s a huge thing, because the students’ most precious commodity is themselves.”

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