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Keeping Transcripts Secure

August 23, 2005

In the last month, Florida officials filed racketeering charges against two former employees and five former students at Florida Memorial University, charging them with helping more than 100 students change their grades -- for money and, in some cases, in return for sex.

Last week, a former secretary at Dodge City Community College, in Kansas, was sentenced to 18 months of probation after admitting that she gave seven students on the football team academic credit or higher grades that they did not earn. She said that she wasn't paid, but wanted to be liked by those she was helping.

In May, California authorities found a ring selling phony transcripts from Los Angeles Trade Technical College that were being used by students to gain credit at Glendale Community College and El Camino College, and probably other institutions as well.

These incidents are of the sort that give registrars -- and many others in higher education -- nightmares. "If you can't trust records, then how do you trust the institution?" says Debra M. Benton, registrar at Ohio University. "The faculty rely on us to maintain records and they need to be 100 percent accurate."

Sanford Kingsley, registrar and director of student services at the University of California at Irvine Extension, says the issue of changing grades isn't a new one, but is more challenging now because grades are kept in databases to which, in some cases, too many people have access. "The same technology that makes a lot of things easier, like ordering transcripts online, also can be used to change grades," says Kingsley, who is chair of the Student Academic Records Committee of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "It's one of the challenges of technology today."

At the same time, Kingsley says tools exist that colleges can use to minimize the chances of unauthorized grade changing.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the registrars' group, compares grade changing to "petty theft in a banking operation." Grades (like money) have "great significance," Nassirian says, and college offices employ a wide range of people, some of whom may be tempted to help a student. "When you have a high stakes situation and lots of hands touching stuff, the potential for malfeasance is there," he says.

The approach colleges increasingly take, he says, is "to have several parties" involved, so a single corrupt person cannot corrupt the system. "You don't want one individual with unilateral control over faculty-submitted grade changes," he says.

At Ohio University, Benton says her office has controls that are based on that idea. All grade changes must be submitted in writing by a faculty member. After grade changes are made, an audit is conducted so that staff members review whether the change is consistent with what the faculty member requested, and in this audit, the person who inputted the change cannot be the person who checks that it was done correctly. Then a memo is sent to the professor who requested the change noting that it was made -- so that the professor acts as a final check that the change was appropriate.

"Every change is checked and rechecked," Benton says.

Kingsley, of Irvine, suggests additional strategies. "Ideally you want to limit [the number of people] who can go in and change a grade. The more people in your records office that have access to change a grade, the greater the risk," he says.

Beyond that, registrars should be sure they have computer programs set up to inform them which grades are being changed. Kingsley says that a program should tell the registrar -- over the course of a week or month or some time period -- which staffers made which changes, what the changes were, the time of day that they were made, and any other relevant information. "You need to look at these reports and if there is somebody changing a grade who wouldn't normally have that responsibility, that's a red flag. If changes are being made at an odd hour, that's a red flag," Kingsley says, adding that patterns will jump out.

Patterns were what tipped off registrars in California about the phony transcript ring there. Registrars at Glendale Community College first suspected something was wrong when they noticed that students transferring from Los Angeles Trade Technical College had transcripts with all A's from that college, but were earning D's and F's at Glendale. (The investigation eventually revealed that these students not only hadn't earned the A's at Los Angeles Trade Tech, they hadn't even taken classes there.)

Fake transcripts also illustrate another problem facing colleges: Those who would change grades or transcripts are always trying to come up with new strategies.

Joe Orndorff is chief executive officer of SCRIP-SAFE, a company that sells special paper to colleges so that transcripts printed on the paper cannot be altered. He sees more creativity coming from forgers. "It's growing because the technology of cut and paste on a computer is much easier than the skill required to cut and paste with an Exacto knife."

His top-of-the-line paper has seven security measures, most notably a special watermark. But as proud as he is of that feature, he says that when it comes to security of transcripts, colleges can't rely on any one approach.

"We'll come up with some kind of a security feature, and then the computer comes up with something that can compromise it, and then we have to come up with something else," Orndorff says. "That's why we have all of these features in our paper. Because there is no one thing that is absolutely positively foolproof, if one thing doesn't work, then something else will work."

 

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