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.
Our current system of credentialing in the United States is under attack, within and outside higher education. Google says the grade-point average is "worthless as a criteria for hiring." The New York Times reported on “degree inflation” and the diminishing value of the college diploma, where “it takes a B.A. to find a job as a file clerk.” LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman called for “an upgrade of the diploma,” to include, among other things, the full scope of skills and expertise to enable better job matching.
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.