An admissions change announced at Rutgers University this week is being called the "honor system" for college admissions (even if it's got too much verification to be a true honor system).
Starting with those applying this fall for admission to all three Rutgers campuses, high schools will no longer be asked to submit applicants' transcripts. Instead, applicants will themselves enter all of their grades and high school courses in an online application form. An official transcript will eventually be reviewed for every applicant who is admitted and indicates a plan to enroll.
As New Jersey high schools learned of the change, the question everyone has been asking is: Will this lead to a new variety of grade inflation, as applicants (accidentally of course...) somehow transcribe themselves into honors students? Rutgers officials say that won't happen because the transcript checks of accepted applicants who plan to enroll will cover every single student. If you inflate your grades, your admission offer will be revoked -- period.
There is evidence that some combination of honesty and fear can in fact work to keep the self-reported transcripts accurate. The University of California, the pioneer in this type of admissions system, reports extremely low rates of transcript errors. This year, the university admitted 60,000 students to enroll as freshmen at its 9 undergraduate campuses and -- as has been typical in recent years -- campuses don't have more than 5 admitted students each where there is a discrepancy between the reported grades and those verified after the admissions decisions. Applicants are required to sign a statement indicating that admissions offers may be revoked based on false information provided in the process, including high school grades.
While Rutgers and California are in a distinct minority now, many admissions experts predict that, one way or another, the delivery of transcripts from high schools for colleges is about to change significantly -- potentially with up sides for all involved.
For Rutgers, the motivation for making the change was a desire to escape mounds and mounds of paper. "There are a lot of trees we aren't going to be cutting down," said Courtney O. McAnuff, vice president for enrollment management. (He also said that the move should save money by eliminating the need to pay people to manage all the paper.)
Last year, the university had 43,000 undergraduate applications and the enrolled class of new students was only 7,000. Each transcript involved an average of seven transactions -- counting communication with the students, their high schools inputting the information, and checking it at Rutgers, among other functions. That's a lot of paper and a lot of activity, McAnuff said, especially for 36,000 people who never enrolled.
Applicants receive instructions that tell them that they must enter grades not from memory, but from a transcript. Further, they are told that they must reproduce the transcript exactly, "not to round, not to average, but to do everything that appears on there," McAnuff said.
To test the directions and the inputting process, Rutgers ran trials of the system over the summer with high school students visiting the university, and adjusted the wording on instructions until they were clearly being understood.
McAnuff has the goal of completely removing paper from the process of confirming high school grades. Currently, Rutgers works with ConnectEDU, a company that provides electronic transmission of high school transcripts. Although universities, not high schools, pay for the service, not all high schools are set up to participate and provide the materials electronically. So even with the huge decrease in paper volume, McAnuff said there will be plenty of paper transcripts in the office -- for now -- when transcripts are requested for students who plan to enroll. "In another five years, I don't think that will be the case, and this will seem normal," he said.
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he saw the logic of the shift Rutgers is making. He said that the continued reliance on paper transcripts by admissions offices "ought to strike everyone as really odd."
It takes time for admissions offices to input transcript information, to check it, and so forth, he said. "With the enormous volume, it's ridiculous to do data entry."
Nassirian said that when the University of California first started to have students input their own grades, there was "a lot of trepidation" about it, but that results have shown the system works well. The threat of losing an admissions offer "seems to do a good job of enforcing" the honesty of the system, he said.
More colleges are likely to follow Rutgers and California, Nassirian added, and leave paper behind. He also said that there may be an educational benefit: If 9th and 10th graders look at an application, and check out the detail they will be asked on courses and grades, that might provide more incentive to take college preparatory classes and to do well, he said. "You can provide enormous clarity about what you are interested in seeing," he said.
Craig Powell, chief executive officer of ConnectEDU, said he isn't surprised that institutions like Rutgers are abandoning printed transcripts. Powell's company is currently working with about 2,000 high schools to send electronic transcripts to some 300 colleges. He said that there are problems with anyone keying information -- even about themselves. People make "honest mistakes," he said, so he predicted that colleges would eventually shift from paper to relying consistently on electronic transcripts.
The shift by Rutgers, which uses his service for transcripts of those who will enroll, shows "the pain threshold for colleges" in managing all the paper right now.