Out of State Checks and Academic Credits

As the nation’s registrars gather this week in Boston, Wick Sloane applies a dash of Open Source thinking to the costly, intractable data, articulation, credit-transfer muddle in higher education.  

February 27, 2007

Remember the “You’ve got to be kidding!” expression of a bank teller when you presented an out-of-state check?

Hold that image. Before we start on a quick learning journey, ponder this: What’s the link from the teller to cutting the cost of college by 10 or even 15 percent?

Accreditation, credit-transfer treaties, a national student database, and a viable U.S. economy for this century -- all independent debates now foundering alone -- must join as one discussion. We need to bring to these endless questions an acute, emergency-room, as-if-our-lives-depend-on-it pace. Because our children’s lives are at risk here. Every dollar and minute of a U.S. student retaking a course lost to credit squabbles is U.S. gold shipped abroad, forever.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) meets this week in Boston. The members of a federal committee reviewing accrediting rules in Washington, D.C. last week need to be in Boston, too. Accreditation debates do not reach into the database questions, nor do the unit-records debates consider the lost-credit transfer issues. Few consider the lost-credit cost. As a starting question: Why does this have to be a 50-state, instead of one nation, problem? I don’t mean federal control. I mean common sense and simplicity.

For the sake of, well, inquiry, remix of a few of higher education’s mind-deadening debates. From the new mix, we can cook up a new question or two that might just lead to reducing U.S. welfare, Medicaid, and prison costs along and all the U.S. debt the Chinese own.

I promise, I’ll get to the bank teller. We must begin with two colossally stuck issues, each requiring cases of Tylenol to understand, never mind solve. First is the mind-numbing and catchy named “unit records database.” Add next the acres-of-quicksand fracas on smooth-credit transfers for the 60 percent of students who will attend more than one college or university on the way to a bachelor’s degree. Add to this that no one knows how many legitimate credits transferring students lose. From my campus wanderings over the years, 10 percent is low.

Anyone accountable for a solution? No. Dollars and days, flight miles, courtesy shuttles, and conference rooms are devoted to talking about this murky soup. The institutions and associations and accreditors now debating bear no cost for the failure of their system. Yet, this deadening debate is of staggering importance if U.S. rank-and-file people and the U.S. economy are ever to brain its way into this century.

No higher pitch howls around the higher ed lobby based at Washington’s One Dupont Circle these days than opposition to the modest suggestion of a national database for student academic records. The boundaries of the unit records debate to this point are about a black box with which Big Brother can assess the effectiveness of education -- graduation rates, time to degree. The boundaries of the debate are blocking discussions across the professions -- the accreditors and the registrars, for example.  

Accuracy, institutional and individual privacy and security, data integrity, standards are essential for student records, says higher ed. I agree. Impossible to achieve in a central, national data system? “Don’t even try” is the answer rumbling from the higher ed lobbies. The same institutional protectionism that has colleges playing defense against unit records also has them moving far too slowly than the nation can afford in figuring out how a student at Bunker Hill can transfer a credit to UMass or UT-Austin, let alone Stanford. The problem does not depend on immediate resolution of how to compare a University of Chicago master’s degree in Chinese with one from University of Florida. Is such a project easy? No. Possible? Yes.

Inspiration From Elsewhere

What’s this about Open Source? Look at other, similar problems. What can we learn? At last, back to the incredulous bank teller. I am at the keyboard because I have yet to meet anyone in higher education who knows how the Depository Trust Company came to be. History can instruct us all.

No long ago, checks took weeks to clear. Newspapers had photos of the mountains of unprocessed paper, causing the delays all over the capital markets – cash, bonds, stock. Back then, banks were all shapes and sizes, with few formal ties. Some financial institutions marched to state rules, other were national. Cooperate? Impossible. Elites and commoners, too. Morgan Guaranty had liveried drivers to ship elegant trunks of checks to clearinghouses. Average banks used canvas sacks. Any parallels?

Does the ATM or the your online retirement account tell you today to come back in a week? As to security and privacy, is anyone publishing daily trading by you or by the Stanford or Princeton endowments? Or your ATM withdrawal locations? More is working here than not. As far as aligning data standards, financial markets can match education in turgidity any day.

This analogy occurred to me a few years ago when I alone signed for a state-of-the art $20-million student information system that still couldn’t guarantee an English 101 transfer to another state. Not because of technology, but because of squabbles. I’d come from years in the back offices of money managers, where complex, data-heavy transactions happen all the time. Perfect analogy? Of course not. Having seen education and financial data moving, the similarities are in the lead. Yes, I know the barrier is common data standards, not the software coding. The similarities are still way in the lead.

Take a moment, please, and click onto the Depository Trust Company. This is a central database designed and owned by financial institutions, not the federal government. The institutions had plenty of accreditation and privacy and security treaties to devise before anyone sat down to build the black box.

Unlike higher education, however, banks and financial institutions, not the customer, did have to pay for errors. Financial institutions could not keep shuffling complex paper transactions, frustrating customers with delays, all the while raising prices to cover the costs. The financial solution is elegant and instructive. The DTC in this electronic age has put the stock and bond certificates all in one place, without paper. High finance can match education for jargon any day. Hang in there. The DTC Web site states:

The Depository Trust Company (DTC) established in 1973, was created to reduce costs and provide clearing and settlement efficiencies by immobilizing securities and making “book-entry” changes to ownership of the securities…The depository brings efficiency to the securities industry by retaining custody of some 2 million securities issues, effectively “dematerializing” most of them so that they exist only as electronic files rather than as countless pieces of paper.

What does this mean to education? That student records are in one place (immobilized) and that transactions need not be the entire transcript or bust (dematerialized). An employer or graduate program could ask whether a student had taken French and at what level. A student applying for transfer to several schools can transfer records with one transaction within the database. No more individual phone calls, faxes, registered or not registered transcripts. “Book-entry changes” means that ownership/custody of a record changes without paper flying and multi-party transactions. With the student’s permission, one simple transaction can move a transcript from Honolulu Community College to Williams College. Data trespassing would be illegal.

Today’s ruckus on any central database presumes that nothing can happen without tested code for every possible issue. Critics are hurling risks everywhere, never calm questions like “What would it take to…?” This is silly. Begin with the possible. Learn. Move up into complexity. The need is for the millions of low-income bachelor’s degree students with jobs and part-time studies. Evidence that the situation may be cleaner than anyone will let on: If all courses and standards are so different, why is writing a successful college textbook so lucrative?

How about efficient education for today’s mobile student body? Avoid complex paperwork and redundant, expensive systems. To borrow from the securities industry, how about same-day, straight-through processing of student record-transactions? (SAT scores today? Three to five weeks to send to a college. Unless you pay a premium, but even then more than one day. No mention of discounts for low-income families.)


The data topic is a book and this is just a column. The Lumina Foundation just published an excellent report, "Critical Connections," crying out, “it is striking how many states or systems mentioned the effort involved in obtaining consistent and reliable data from institutions. More than half the respondents noted this problem.” Then, this inconsistent data can become part of the U.S. Department of Education Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Rick Mattoon, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, studies higher education and many other industries. The poor data quality from higher education, compared to what other industries provide, appalls him.

“This is an important and overlooked area,” Mattoon says. “What is clear is that [higher education administrators] have very little understanding of when students leak out of the system…. They also do a bad job of tracking what their graduates encounter when they do transfer.”

 “It always strikes me as funny that people get so hung up on measuring outcomes,” Mattoon says. “All anybody is asking for is more transparency so people can make informed choices.”

The federal Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education last summer reaffirmed that the apples, oranges, tomatoes and seaweed of higher education data renders impossible any assessment of either U.S. higher learning or the effectiveness of billions of dollars in student aid, research grants and other earmarks. Plenty of fine people work hard on these issues, but the nation is a long way from a smooth, student and education oriented system. The tone of the debate is destructive, albeit amusing.

Here in Oscar season, the envelope please for “D.C. Spin Doctor, Nick Naylor, Thank You For Smoking Award for Most Farcical Deflection of An Important Issue.”

Rrrrip! And the winner is the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities for this statement last summer on the unit records database: “It is ironic that we are considering such an assault on American’s privacy and security in the shadow of the Fourth of July, when we celebrate the American values of freedom and choice.”

The press release attributes the statement to the association’s president, David L. Warren. No reply from Warren to two e-mails asking, “What would it take?” So I don’t know the true authorship. My surmise is that NAICU has retained Thank You For Smoking author Christopher Buckley himself, a 1975 graduate of NAICU member Yale.

Yes, I know this is not One Issue with One Solution. For every dinged credit I can find, someone can find one that worked fine.

If we are all products of what U.S. higher education calls the greatest education system in the world, how hard can helping students be? The French, with all those cheeses, have found their way through the monetary system to the Common Market and the Euro. The community college student who has to retake basic courses ends up in the job market later than necessary. While the factories are humming in China.

This swamp is of higher ed’s own making. (Transcripts, U.S. style, may be obsolete. Sungard tipped me off to the discussions in Europe about an ePortfolio, a lifelong accumulation of individual learning.) The vendors -- Sungard, PeopleSoft, Oracle, SAS and friends -- are businesses, not charities. They provide what the customer requests. Even I can’t blame the vendors for watching these squabbles and laughing all the way to the bank, and then on to the Depository Trust Company.

Department Of Not A Whole Column:
Has Harvard’s quest for Veritas, for truth, taken a troubling turn? No more Cabots and Lowells as leaders. But a new president with the eminent and notorious academic name of Faust? Can’t want to see who sold what to whom in the compensation package.


Wick Sloane’s Inside Higher Ed column, The Devil’s Workshop, appears as needed. He is an end user of higher education. He'll debate the pros and cons of unit records with Barmak Nassirian, AACRAO's esteemed associate executive director, at the association's annual meeting Thursday in Boston.


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