Reimagining the College Transcript

New approaches.


January 12, 2017

New kinds of transcripts are all the rage. With assistance from the Lumina Foundation and the support of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, various institutions are experimenting with transcripts that provide a more comprehensive record of a student’s accomplishments and proficiencies as a better way to demonstrate the value of a higher education to parents, business, and government.

At a recent convening in Indianapolis, various community colleges, universities, and third party vendors described a variety of approaches to such a record. Five different approaches stood out:

  • A Developmental Record
    To ensure well-rounded development, recognition is awarded on the transcript to students who have taken part in a series of community service and enrichment activities, including lectures, concerts, and artistic performances.
  • A 21st Century Literacy Record
    To recognize the acquisition of such 21st century literacies – including cross-cultural competence, critical and contextual thinking, advanced communication skills, and sensemaking – digital badges would be displayed on the transcript.
  • A Co-curricular Transcript
    To acknowledge the skills and knowledge that students acquire in co-curricular activities – such as internships, externships, study abroad, service learning – these would be included on the transcript.
  • A Competency-based Transcript 
    Alongside grades, a competency-based transcript would specify the abilities, aptitudes, and skills that a student had demonstrated and mastered. There is an ongoing debate about how granular and standardized the competencies should be.

Each of these transcripts is institution centered. A fifth approach seeks to provide a truly comprehensive, multi-institutional record.

  • A Universal Transcript
    A universal transcript would consolidate all of a student’s learning – academic and non-academic.  Such a universal transcript might help individuals receive academic credit for military and corporate training.

In addition to these models, another approach deserves special mention. My colleague Marni Baker Stein has been a compelling proponent for dynamic record that might underlie a universal transcript. She calls it a Persistent Progressive Student Profile and it is essential if advisers are to effectively guide students along their lifelong learning journey. 

This profile, which would be owned by a student, not an institution, is necessary in order to truly personalize education. It would include a student’s learning objectives, student profile information, fine-grained learning data, and academic and non-academic accomplishments, including achievedcompetencies.

Such information could drive recommendations not only about courses and programs that could advance a student’s career, but also customize the experience within individual courses by adjusting pace, content, and learning trajectory to better meet a student’s needs, strengths, and goals.

It remains to be seen whether employers will make use of a comprehensive student record. Earlier attempts to provide alternate records of accomplishment, such as portfolios, were useful in certain fields, such as the arts and journalism, but less useful elsewhere. 

For other fields, it might prove helpful to devise a way to upload a student’s verified competencies onto LinkedIn or a similar system that employers use to search for qualified job applicants. Or career centers might use job market information from companies like Burning Glass to better identify job openings for which a particular student might be competitive.

In the past, a transcript’s purpose was straightforward: Simply to certify a student’s grades and graduation from a single institution. It was a record of performance that was especially useful for graduate and professional schools, but less useful for businesses, since it said little about a student’s actual preparation for the job market. 

A comprehensive student record has more ambitious goals:   

  • To verify the proficiencies and skills that a student acquires across a lifelong learning journey. 
  • To offer a more holistic portrait of a student’s learning and accomplishments than can be found in a record of grades. 

At a time when public skepticism about the value of a college degree has intensified – when there are growing doubts about undergraduate engagement and learning – it is more important than ever for institutions to document the knowledge, skills, and abilities that college graduates have acquired. There is also an urgent need to provide employers with more nuanced insights into a student’s demonstrated competencies and capabilities. At the same time, a more comprehensive student record might help higher education ease credit transfer as students move from a military or corporate training program or a community college. 

At this early stage in the development of such a record, it is not surprising that institutions are experimenting with a wide variety of transcript models. But since the cost of experimentation is low – far lower than offering MOOCs, for example – there is no reason why a college or university should wait to see how other institutions work this out. Granted, everyone doing their own thing can result in a bit of chaos – but one thing that the MOOC era has shown is that it is possible to experiment without dire consequences.

In the end, a comprehensive student record will gain credibility and value when the guiding principles are standardized and widely adopted. The challenge before us is to lay the groundwork for technical and normative standards, and to begin the process of policy advocacy.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

Back to Top