I’ve taught both theoretical and applied university classes in my academic career, and the opening lecture always has one thing in common: an invitation to my students to demand something of me. I tell them to insist they walk away from my course writing better, speaking better, thinking more analytically and a little more comfortable with numbers. Indeed, I urge them to insist the same of their university education writ large.
My efforts to frame courses like Sociology of Education and Social Science Research Methods around a set of broadly applicable skills aligns me with an “outcomes” orientation increasingly promoted by academic, business and political leaders. Yet whether my students achieved the four capacities I encourage or not, their college academic transcript will never tell.
If the answer to those who doubt the value of higher education is to trumpet the full educative impact of a postsecondary education, students deserve a credential that describes their full set of educative experiences. The time has come to extend the traditional academic transcript and begin issuing Postsecondary Achievement Reports (PARs), a verified summative document issued by colleges and universities that aligns and reflects each institution’s deeper educative goals.
While every institution could issue a PAR according to its own academic policies, what defines a PAR is a set of generally accepted conventions for the structure and technical formatting of academic transcripts that include co-curricular and competency-based information, along with traditional information such as courses, grades and credits. But before describing the PAR in greater detail, let’s first set some context for why colleges and universities have begun to think differently about how they document learning outcomes.
Defenders of academe are inclined to agree that transcripts and diplomas are insufficient credentials, though for very different reasons. As the scholar Andrew DelBanco argues in “College: What is, what was and should be,” the traditional four-year college experience can be an exploratory time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values with the help of teachers and peers. If a degree is really about developing a whole person, and preparing them with humanistic education that will serve them in a very dynamic career landscape, surely a ledger of courses and grades alone is a poor reflection of that experience.
Indeed, institutions with a more vocational orientation face a similar challenge documenting the industry-skill certifications their graduates achieve on their way to conventional degrees.
It’s not surprising that, given these pressures, higher education has, in fact, put forth efforts to innovate the credential. Three distinct developments are already in process: co-curricular transcripts, competency-based transcripts and data-enabled eTranscripts. Together they lay the foundation for a new generation of academic credentialing. Co-curricular and competency-based transcripts innovate at the level of content and substance, extending the academic transcript. Electronic transcripts innovate the medium of credentials, enabling machine-readable data and analytics that can make student learning outcomes more easily understood and actionable.
Each initiative has successfully generated some momentum and adoption in the higher education community. For example, Northern Arizona University is doing innovative work documenting the student competencies that have been mastered via coursework, and State University of New York at Geneseo’s is continuing long-standing efforts to capture the student leadership, research, study abroad and other co-curricular experiences that define its vision of a postsecondary education.
While these institutions are already extending their transcripts, there are good reasons for concern that the grassroots nature of their innovations will conspire against its own success. Specifically, I fear a Tower of Babel if we do not find a way to converge around a lingua franca that describes the basic structure of such 21st century extended transcripts of the type being issued by pioneering universities across the country.
We take for granted the fact that transcripts make sense; we all expect to see a course title and number, a letter or number grade, in a sequence that is chronologically based. But transcripts are not actually standardized in any formal sense. My company, Parchment, exchanges millions of electronic transcripts each year. Our platform has been developed to help both sending and receiving institutions align and utilize the different information transcripts contain. For example, colleges may award different numbers of credits for essentially the same course. A-level work at one college may be B-level work elsewhere. Over time the academy gravitated toward a basic document structure, along with a strong professional code for issuing transcripts that remain a sacred trust of our university registrars. This standardization respects academic freedom while supporting learners in their pursuit of academic and professional opportunities, for example when transferring between institutions and seeking course credit for prior learning.
How does a university articulate a competency transcript from a peer institution? Where does Ernst & Young look for evidence of leadership, when each institution’s co-curricular information is reported in different sections, with no convention for describing the process by which activities were verified? How do various information systems import achievement data, when the field names and file formats lack any rhyme or reason? Before you know it, the best intentions and efforts give rise to documentation that isn’t widely understood, reliable or actionable.
We need to extend the transcript, but we need a method to do it within a well-worn convention that is backward compatible. By backward compatible I mean we need to preserve the role of the traditional academic transcript, and create a reasonable roadmap for extending it, when institutions so choose, in a way that serves students, educators, associations and employers.
This is why I am calling for a “PAR,” a Postsecondary Achievement Report. A PAR is a concise, electronic document that provides a standardized, machine-readable report of the full range of higher education experience. It can be verified by the academic registrar to confirm credibility, and it creates a common understanding of both course-based and campus-based achievements. A PAR does it sensibly, recognizing academic freedom. It is not a uniform way to grade; rather, it is a consistent document structure and data standard when institutions choose to extend their traditional academic transcripts. The PAR can be issued alongside a traditional transcript, or act as its next generation successor. It is a summative statement from the institution and a passport for the learner.
Perhaps the best model for a PAR is the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), which has been evaluated for almost 10 years in Britain. The HEAR not only provides a standardized academic transcript; it also captures information relevant to employers. And the information is captured and transferred as electronic and verifiable data.
The HEAR is a maximum of six pages long and adheres to a standard template. It is verified by the academic registrar and regularly updated throughout a student’s enrollment. It is accessible by the student at any time, and is unique and personalized to them. There HEAR contains six sections:
Personal information about the student (name, date of birth, etc.)
Name and title of degree earned
Level of degree in the context of a defined, national framework
Detailed course information and results
Information about the degree and professional status (if applicable)
Additional awards and activities
In their final report, the HEAR’s creators summarize well the goal of their work: “The HEAR has been designed to encourage a sophisticated approach to recording achievement that better represents the full range of outcomes from learning and the student experience in higher education at the same time as encouraging personal development that is commensurate with a culture of lifelong learning.”
The HEAR is one example; there are various efforts internationally to create a more standardized way of reporting and documenting academic achievement. Australia has adopted something similar with the Australian Higher Education Graduation Statement (AHEGS). Our colleagues abroad also recognize the need to extend the transcript electronically, but do it in a way that is understood among all constituents nationally and internationally.
The U.S is the world leader and innovator in postsecondary education; we can take extended transcripting to the next level.
To succeed, we need to start with a core set of institutions, particularly those that are already doing competency-based and/or co-curricular transcripting, and have adopted eTranscripts. Those institutions can share their experience to establish a set of conventions that creates a common language for all. Institutions can create a roadmap for implementation, by adopting sections when ready. The beauty of a PAR is that it represents incremental change. At least some sections of PAR would be immediately actionable by any institution using eTranscripts. If a limited form PAR is as far as an institution is comfortable going at first, so be it. The pace of the roadmap will be driven, in part, by the validation PAR receivers give to more robust PAR issuers. In other words, if employers or grad school admissions committees start paying more attention to parts of the PAR, more institutions will add them. The more valuable a “complete” PAR is found to be, the more it will be demanded, and the broader and faster adoption will be.
Such an effort will require the collaboration of a number of campus leaders beyond registrars and admission officers. Chief academic officers, deans of continuing education and online programs, directors of student affairs and career services, as well as other campus leaders, will need to be engaged in the conversation both on their campuses and through their national organizations. And core organizational stakeholders like the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and the P20W Education Standards Council (PESC) are central actors in helping to make the PAR a reality.
We are all ready for a new era of credentials communication, one that is aligned with our more mobile and digital culture. The PAR will be universally understood and actionable. It will be easily portable and stackable in an individual’s personal, online credential profile. Lifelong learners will start with a PAR, then continue to add digital academic or professional credentials from an ever-growing diversity of resources — from degrees to certificates to badges — to their profile, and present a verifiable, complete picture of education and skills.
In addition to knowledge and specific skills, a college experience imparts the ability to communicate a compelling story, to synthesize information into a bigger picture and to use data and numbers to understand a problem. Those are some of the characteristics that Google is looking for and that LinkedIn wants to help employers identify. In our knowledge economy, where opportunities are defined by what you know and how well you know it, a PAR will provide the foundation for learners, educators and employers to make more insightful and successful decisions.
Returning to the skills I encourage my students to demand in my opening lecture, for me the PAR is personal. I know from both my academic and professional experience how much they matter. In my last lecture — to the great surprise of my students — I reveal that before becoming an academic I was a technology entrepreneur. The skills I said they should demand are the reason my co-founders and I could create and build Blackboard..
We must ensure that the significant value gained during one’s postsecondary journey is captured and validated. A PAR would be a major step to empower learners, and help them turn credentials into opportunities.
Matthew Pittinsky is the CEO of Parchment and co-founder and former CEO of Blackboard. He is on the faculty of Arizona State University, and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
When institutions and organizations begin to identify with processes instead of intended outcomes, they become vulnerable. They lose sight of their real missions and, when faced with challenges or disruptive innovation, often struggle to survive.
Eastman Kodak, once the dominant brand in photography, identified too closely with the chemical processes it used and failed to recognize that its overarching mission was photography rather than film and film processing. Swiss watch manufacturers likewise identified too closely with the mechanical workings of their watches and lost market share to companies that understood that the real mission was the production of reliable and wearable instruments to tell time. If railroads had viewed their mission as transportation of people and goods rather than moving trains on tracks, we might have some different brand names on airplanes and vehicles today.
In retrospect, it seems that the decisions made by these industries defied common sense. Although the leaders were experienced and capable, they were blinded by tradition, and they confused established processes with the real mission of their enterprises.
Higher education today identifies closely with its processes. In open-access public institutions, we recruit, admit and enroll students; assess them for college readiness; place or advise those who are not adequately prepared into remedial classes; give others access to a bewildering variety of course options, often without adequate orientation and advising; provide instruction, often in a passive lecture format; offer services to those who seek and find their way to them; grade students on how well they can navigate our systems and how well they perform on assignments and tests; and issue degrees and certificates based upon the number of credits the students accumulate in required and elective courses.
We need to fund our institutions, so we concentrate on enrollment targets and make sure classroom seats are filled in accordance with regulations that specify when we count our students for revenue purposes.
At the same time that American higher education is so focused on and protective of its processes, it is also facing both significant challenges and potentially disruptive innovation. Challenges include responding to calls from federal and state policy makers for higher education to increase completion rates and to keep costs down, finding ways that are more effective to help students who are unprepared for college to become successful students, making college information more accessible and processes more transparent for prospective students and their parents, explaining new college rating systems and public score cards, coordinating across institutional boundaries to help an increasingly mobile student population to transfer more seamlessly and successfully from one institution to another and to graduate, dealing with the threat to shift from peer-based institutional accreditation to a federal system of quality assurance, and responding to new funding systems that are based upon institutional performance.
Potentially disruptive innovations include the increasing use of social media such as YouTube and other open education resources (OER) for learning, the advent of massive online open courses (MOOCs), the quick access to information made possible by advances in technology, and the potential for a shift from the Carnegie unit to documented competencies as the primary way to measure student progression.
One of today’s most significant challenges to higher education is the increased focus on student success. In response to calls and sometimes financial incentives from policy makers -- and with the assistance provided by major foundations -- colleges and universities are shifting their focus from student access and opportunity to student access and success. Higher education associations have committed themselves to helping institutions improve college completion rates. The terminology used is that we are shifting from an “access agenda” to a “success agenda” or a “completion agenda.”
This identification with outcomes is positive, but it raises concerns about both loss of access to higher education for those students who are less likely to succeed, and the potential for decreased academic rigor. The real mission of higher education is student learning; degrees and certificates must be the institution’s certification of identified student learning outcomes rather than just accumulated credits.
Faculty and academic administrators, perhaps working with appropriate representatives from business and industry, need to identify the learner competencies that should be developed by the curriculum. The curriculum should be designed or modified to ensure that those competencies are appropriately addressed. Students should be challenged to rise to the high expectations required to master the identified competencies and should be provided the support they need to become successful. Finally, learners should be assessed in order to ensure that a degree or certificate is a certification of acquired competencies.
What would we do differently if, rather than identifying with our processes, we identified with our overarching mission -- student learning? When viewed through the lens of student learning, many of the processes that we currently rely upon and the decisions we make (or fail to make) seem to defy common sense. The institution itself controls some of these policies and practices; others are policies (or the lack of policies) between and among educational institutions; and some are the result of state or federal legislation.
A prime example of a detrimental institutional process is late registration, the practice of allowing students to register after orientation activities -- and often after classes have begun. Can we really expect students to be successful if they enter a class after it is under way? Research consistently shows that students who register late are at a significant disadvantage and, most often, fail or drop out.
Yet, many institutions continue this practice, perhaps in the belief that they are providing opportunity -- but it is opportunity that most often leads to discouragement and failure. Some institutional leaders may worry about the potential negative impact on budgets of not having seats filled. However, the enrollment consequences to eliminating late registration have almost always been temporary or negligible.
Sometimes institutional policies are developed in isolation and create unintended roadblocks for students. When I assumed the presidency of Palomar College, the college had a policy that students could not repeat a course in which they received a passing grade (C or above). But another policy prohibited students who had not received a grade of B or higher in the highest-level developmental writing class from progressing to freshman composition. Students who passed the developmental class with a grade of C were out of luck and had to transfer to another institution if they were to proceed with their education. The English faculty likely wanted only the best-performing students from developmental writing in their freshman composition classes, but this same objective could be accomplished by raising the standards for a C grade in the developmental writing class.
Higher education institutions rely on their faculty and staff to accomplish their missions, so it is important for everyone to understand it in the same way. A faculty member I once met told me that he was proud of the high rate of failure in his classes. He believed that it demonstrated both the rigor of his classes and his excellence as a teacher. If we measured the excellence of medical doctors by the percentage of their patients who die, it would make as much sense. Everyone at the institution has a role in promoting student learning, and everyone needs to understand that the job is to inspire students and help them to be successful rather than sorting out those who have challenges.
"The mission of higher education is student learning, and all of or policies, procedures, and practices must be aligned with that mission if our institutions are to remain relevant."
It is important for faculty and staff to enjoy their work, to feel valued by trustees, administrators, peers, and students -- and for them to feel free to innovate and secure in their employment. As important as our people are to accomplishing our mission, their special interests are not the mission. Periodic discussions about revising general education requirements are often influenced by faculty biases about the importance of their disciplines or even by concerns about job security rather than what students need to learn as part of a degree or certificate program. Before these discussions begin, ground rules should be established so that the determinations are based upon desired skills and knowledge of graduates.
Too often, students leave high school unprepared for college, and they almost always face barriers when transferring from one higher education institution to another. The only solution to these problems is for educators to agree on expectations and learning outcome standards. However, institutional autonomy and sometimes prejudice act as barriers to faculty dialogue across institutional boundaries. It is rare for community college faculty and administrators to interact with their colleagues in high schools -- and interaction between university and community college faculty is just as rare.
Why should we be surprised when students leaving high school are often not ready to succeed in college or when the transition between community college and university is not as seamless as it should be for students? If we are serious about increasing the rates of success for students, educators will need to come together to begin important discussions about standards for curriculums and expectations for students.
Despite the best intentions of legislators, government policies often force the focus of institutions away from the mission of student learning. In California, legislation requires community colleges to spend at least 50 percent of their revenue on classroom faculty. Librarians, counselors, student advisers, and financial aid officers are “on the other side of the Fifty Percent Law.” The ratio of student advisers or counselors is most often greater than a thousand to one. Research clearly demonstrates that investments in student guidance pay off in increased student learning and success. Despite the fact that community college students are the most financially disadvantaged students in higher education, they are less likely to receive the financial aid they deserve. Yet, the Fifty Percent Law severely limits what local college faculty and academic administrators can do on their campuses to meet the needs of students in these areas. Clearly, this law is a barrier to increasing student learning and success. Perhaps state legislators and the faculty unions that lobby them do not trust local trustees and administrators to spend resources appropriately, but this law, in its current form, defies common sense if our mission is student learning.
At the federal level, systems of accountability that track only students who are first-time, full-time freshmen to an institution do not make sense in an era when college students are more mobile than ever and in an environment in which most community college students attend part-time. A few years ago, I met with a group of presidents of historically black universities and encouraged them to work with community colleges to increase the number of students who transfer to their institutions. The presidents told me that doing so could lower their measured student success rates because transfers are not first-time freshmen, and the presidents were not willing to take that risk. Fortunately, officials in the U.S. Department of Education are aware of this issue and are working to correct data systems.
There are many other examples of policies and procedures that seem senseless when viewed through the lens of student learning rather than cherished processes and tradition, just as it seems silly that Eastman Kodak did not recognize that its business was photography or that the Swiss watch manufacturers did not understand that their business was to manufacture accurate and affordable wristwatches.
American higher education today is increasingly criticized for increasing costs and low completion rates. Higher education costs have risen at an even faster rate than those of health care; student indebtedness has skyrocketed to nearly $1 trillion; and college completion rates in the United States have fallen to 16th in the world. In addition, new technologies and innovations may soon threaten established practices.
Challenging the status quo and confronting those with special interests that are not aligned with the mission of higher education can be risky for both elected officials and educational leaders. But given the challenges that we face today, “muddling through” brings even greater risks. Every decision that is made and every policy that is proposed must be data-informed, and policy makers and leaders need the courage to ask how the changes will affect student learning, student success, and college costs. Existing policies and practices should be examined with the same questions in mind. Faculty and staff need to be free of restraining practices so they can experiment with strategies to engage students and to help them to learn.
Colleges and universities are too important for educators to deny the challenges and demands of today and too important for policy makers to pass laws because of pressure from special interests or based on their recollection of what college used to be. Decisions cannot be based on past practices when the world is changing so rapidly. The mission of higher education is student learning, and all of our policies, procedures and practices must be aligned with that mission if our institutions are to remain relevant.
George R. Boggs is the president and CEO emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges. He is a clinical professor for the Roueche Graduate Center at National American University.