The Trouble with Transcripts

An article on Slashdot yesterday reads:

Dave Lindorff writes in the LA Times that growing numbers of students are discovering their old school is actively blocking them from getting a job or going on to a higher degree by refusing to issue an official transcript. The schools won’t send the transcripts to potential employers or graduate admissions office if students are in default on student loans, or in many cases, even if they just fall one or two months behind. It’s no accident that they’re doing this. It turns out the federal government ‘encourages’ them to use this draconian tactic, saying that the policy ‘has resulted in numerous loan repayments.’ It is a strange position for colleges to take, writes Lindorff, since the schools themselves are not owed any money — student loan funds come from private banks or the federal government, and in the case of so-called Stafford loans, schools are not on the hook in any way. They are simply acting as collection agencies, and in fact may get paid for their efforts at collection. ‘It’s worse than indentured servitude,’ says NYU Professor Andrew Ross, who helped organize the Occupy Student Debt movement last fall. ‘With indentured servitude, you had to pay in order to work, but then at least you got to work. When universities withhold these transcripts, students who have been indentured by loans are being denied even the ability to work or to finish their education so they can repay their indenture.’

Absolutely appalling.

This whole problem space is one I am finding more and more interesting, particularly as it pertains to (1) openness and data ownership and (2) employment. I’ve been exploring these ideas in posts like Or Equivalent and The Jig Is Up and in the context of our recent HASTAC/Mozilla/MacArthur badges grant. I want to try to bring some of that together here.

We’ve all seen job listings that state something like, “BS in Marketing Required.” But employers don’t necessarily care whether or not you have a degree – they just want to know that you have the skills and knowledge to be successful in the job they’re advertising. Unfortunately, there’s not an economical, scalable way for employers to determine whether or not you have the specific skills they’re looking for. So “do you have a degree?” becomes the rough approximation of the question they really wish they could ask – “do you have the specific skills I need you to have?”

College transcripts hold a significantly greater amount of detail about what a student knows. The transcript is a complete list of all the courses a student has taken and how well they performed in each class. Checking the “I have a BS in Marketing” box tells a potential employer nothing about the electives a student took, the areas they specialized in, and their level of mastery in each area. The transcript provides a much clearer view of this information – regardless of whether or not a student even graduated or had to stop out of school early.

Unfortunately, requesting transcripts is both expensive and a hassle. Students have to sign paperwork verifying their identity every time they request an official transcript. Unofficial transcripts are less useful for making high stakes decisions. Additionally, students have to pay $10 – $20 for each copy of their transcript they request. Due to the cost and headache, individuals rarely provide a copy of their transcript to potential employers, and employers rarely ask for a copy.

Consequently I’ve become very interested in the idea of “jailbreaking the transcript.” By jailbreaking your transcript you could provide employers with a much more detailed view of who you are and what you can do. Even if you never graduated, you could demonstrate to employers that you have the specific skills and knowledge they’re looking for – without the hassle, red-tape, and fees of interacting with the registrar’s office every time you want to apply for a job. If you could jailbreak your transcript, you could actually own your own data and be able to manage and use it however you want. No student should ever be at the mercy of a school or anyone else with regard to accessing and using their own educational data.

I’m working on something in this space that I’m really excited about, and hope to be able to show that something very soon. Normally I would have waited to post until it was ready, but the LA Times article was just too frustrating to let pass by without comment.

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  • http://www.downes.ca Stephen Downes

    This is nothing new. The University of Alberta refused to issue transcripts from my PhD studies there in the early 1990s because I owed them tuition – to the the best of my knowledge they are still refusing, because I still haven’t paid them (and they still haven’t given me a degree).

  • Fallon_234

    I’m not following. The U of Alberta provided you services (classes), you reneged on the payment  …and you’re upset that they’re withholding a degree?