High Marks for E-Transcripts

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Delivering academic records electronically offers substantial convenience, time,and cost advantages over paper-based exchange.

High Marks for E-TranscriptsWHERE THERE IS MONEY to be saved, schooldistricts have a keen interest. Which is a way to boil downwhat Mark Johnson means when he calls electronic transcriptsystems an "attractive value proposition." Theattraction, plainly, is the across-the-board savings.

Johnson is president of the National Transcript Center (NTC) in Austin, TX, which provides transcript-exchange services to academic institutions nationwide.

For example, in Texas, factoring in the costs of labor, materials, and postage associated with preparing and mailing a student's transcript, the Texas Education Agency estimates the state's school districts incur a human resources cost of more than $8.3 million a year gathering and sending off 720,000 high school transcripts to colleges and universities on behalf of the 450,000 students applying to higher education schools nationwide. The TEA says each paper transcript takes approximately 30 minutes to create and process, costing $7.71 apiece. Schools in other states incur similar costs, Johnson says, because the process is the same. By comparison, the NTC charges $5 per electronic transcript sent to non-participating schools from client schools. And the cost per electronic transcript sent between client schools may be far lower, depending on the organization's contract with each state.

In addition to the cost benefits to be had, other forces are creating a blooming interest in electronic transcript systems. An increasingly mobile student population'creating a need for more school-to-school records exchange'–a rising percentage of college-bound high school seniors, and the greater demands being placed on school registrars and guidance counselors are all factors that are persuading states to move away from paper transcripts. Fortunately, many of the nation's colleges and universities are in sync, implementing similar systems that enable them to receive electronic transcripts quickly and easily.

Hitting Critical Mass

According to Clare Smith-Larson, who works in the Office of the Registrar at Iowa State University and has served as a member of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) Standardization of Postsecondary Education Electronic Data Exchange (SPEEDE, pronounced "speedy") committee, electronic transcripts took off in 1992, the year SPEEDE was formed and began advocating the benefits of data exchange to its members. By 1997, universities began accepting electronic transcripts from local school districts. At Iowa State, for example, the transition away from paper started modestly in 2003, with a single major feeder district and three community colleges. Today 10 to 15 percent of Iowa State's transcripts are received electronically.

Although momentum is certainly building, the movement toward electronic transcripts has been anything but speedy, partly because high schools and colleges have not pushed software vendors to provide such systems, says Smith-Larson. But the benefits are evident to districts that have moved ahead with implementation using companies such as Docufide, ConnectEdu, Triand, and the National Transcript Center as providers on a national level. There are many regional providers as well. In the case of the National Transcript Center and some of its competitors, the companies serve as the central repository for all their clients' transcripts, or pull from a repository provided at the district or state level. Since every school keeps its data in different formats, the NTC's Johnson says his company provides a common denominator, enabling schools to send transcripts using their system's format while colleges and universities pull them off the server using theirs.

Smith-Larson says the main benefits of electronic transcripts are: 1) improved security of data, 2) increased speed of process, and 3) the ability to manipulate data. Student data is more secure as an electronic document transmitted directly to the intended recipient in seconds, rather than as a page of hard copy that can get lost at various points along the way, or opened by someone other than the addressee. The process of sending a transcript also compresses from three to five days with a traditional paper document to less than 24 hours electronically. Finally, student records can be manipulated for easier evaluation by the admissions committee when presented in electronic form.

Yet despite the compelling advantages of electronic transcripts, the reality is, "you sell it to your boss using labor savings," Smith-Larson says. "What took two days to do before, now takes half a day, so your employee now has 1.5 days to spend on higher-level customer service." In fact, research gathered by the AACRAO SPEEDE committee found that there is a 25 to 30 percent savings in time and labor transmitting transcripts electronically and an even higher savings'65 to 75 percent'on the receiving end.

Wyoming Leads the Way

Although cost savings is always a key consideration with any new initiative, the state of Wyoming began investigating electronic transcript exchange in earnest in 2005 as part of a statewide scholarship program that was being created.

The Hathaway Scholarship was established in 2006 to encourage and enable high school students in Wyoming to attend the University of Wyoming or several participating community colleges, explains Meredith Bickell, technical services supervisor with the Wyoming Department of Education. The program provides financial support for students based on grade-point average and ACT score'the higher the scores, the more scholarship funds the student is eligible to receive'as well as financial need.

For the program to function, however, the DoE had to assure the legislature, which was providing funding, that it could effectively track enrolled students, Bickell says. Part of that process of demonstrating a functioning system included timing how long it took to send transcripts electronically versus the old way. As expected, electronic transcript sending was much more efficient. It took 2.5 hours to send 4,000 transcripts electronically, compared to "the better part of two weeks to pull one at a time and send them individually," says Bickell.

Although Wyoming has fewer students than other states of its size, the potential cost savings from transitioning to an etranscript system is still significant. If each of the state's 6,323 high school seniors sent out just one paper transcript, using the same per-transcript fee that was used in Texas, the cost would total nearly $49,000, as opposed to $31,615 using the NTC's rate of $5 per transcript for transcripts sent between participating and non-participating schools. Wyoming would save even more, since all of its schools will be NTC clients and therefore charged a lower rate.

Transferring student records between school districts is another application of Wyoming's e-transcript system, which is expected to be operational by next fall and will save the state additional resources'and headaches. Full student records' grades, assessments, immunizations, counseling'will be sent almost overnight from one district to another when a child transfers. Bickell says that a child who leaves one school Friday afternoon will be registered on arrival at the new school Monday morning.

It took the Wyoming DoE 2.5 hours to send 4,000transcripts electronically, compared to two weeks topull one at a time and send them individually.

Pilot Program Success

One of the first Wyoming districts to implement e-transcripts was Natrona County School District #1, which participated in a pilot program that began last spring. Such forward thinking is typical of the district, according to Mary Holt, IT database manager, who says, "We're the first to agree to pilot programs."

The district kicked off the pilot process by uploading 5,000 student records'belonging to all of its ninth- through 12thgraders' into the National Transcript Center's system.

Reducing the amount of time required to find a student's record, print it out, hand-sign it, address the envelope, and mail it is the district's hope, in addition to improving upon the imperfect delivery rates of paper transcripts. Holt hopes the system will eventually "reduce the number of times the college registrar has to request a new transcript that has been lost." Reproducing each transcript is time-consuming, says Bev Jackson, the district's registrar.

Because the new electronic system wasn't yet fully operational, Jackson sent out 50 student transcripts to colleges the old-fashioned way this past summer. The whole process took somewhere between three and four hours, she says, with no guarantee or confirmation that all the transcripts reached their destination. With the new system, "I can do as many as I want at once," she says. "It takes almost no time."

"We'd like to see in a couple of years that we never print a transcript," Holt says. "We only send it electronically.

Marcia Layton Turner is a freelance writer based in Rochester, NY.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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