Electronic Transcripts at the Tipping Point

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In an age of electronic information, it seems obvious--exchange student transcripts electronically, thereby cutting costs, speeding the process, and making fraud more difficult. But in a process that has taken many years, student transcripts are just now being pushed and pulled into the 21st century. Often on a state-by-state basis, high schools and colleges are gradually adopting technologies to allow them to exchange transcripts electronically.

For many post-secondary institutions, transcripts are the only remaining paper part of what has become an almost entirely electronic process of applying for college online. The paper portion: requesting transcripts that must be physically mailed between the high school and college, often many times as it becomes more common for students to apply to five or even 10 schools.

But a number of states are working to change that. Georgia is an example of one state that has now moved almost completely to an electronic transcript exchange system between its high schools and colleges. The program, initially only for those high schools participating in Georgia's huge $500-million state college scholarship program, now encompassed all high schools, colleges and universities in Georgia.

The process was a lengthy one. Beginning in 2004, the state worked with Xap Corp. to develop and deploy a statewide electronic transcript exchange that allows virtually all Georgia high schools and colleges to exchange official transcripts. Xap offers products and services around electronic and Internet-based information management systems, and has been active in the electronic transcript exchange arena.

The Xap system developed for the state of Georgia was deployed in late 2006 and has been in production since 2007. There are various approaches to providing electronic transcripts between schools. Xap offers its Transcript Exchange service, but also works to help a school or schools develop a "mentor" site that guides students through the process of comparing colleges, selecting which to apply to, applying for admission, and working through the financial aid application process.

Jim Baumann is CIO of the Georgia Student Finance Commission, a state agency that offers a variety of financial aid packages to Georgia students. His commission spearheaded the drive to electronic transcripts, which he described in retrospect as "a huge effort." There are 618 high schools in Georgia, about 350 public and the rest private, and the transcript program was initially required of any high school with any senior graduates who want to become eligible for the state's HOPE scholarship program--in short, nearly everyone.

Xap worked with Baumann's commission to build a mentor site called GAcollege411, Baumann explained, that serves as the user interface for authorized senders to deliver transcripts to Baumann's commission. Xap also provides some transcript exchange capabilities between schools and colleges.

Once transcripts are uploaded to the site by a high school, they are stored by Xap in a Xap-defined proprietary format that allows all information on the transcript to be captured and stored. Rather than exchanging PDFs or other documents, that means Georgia schools using the Xap system are exchanging actual data. That, however, required extensive work with a variety of student information system vendors, Baumman said. Fortunately, vendors were able to see future advantages to adopting to the new system, and thus cooperated.

Georgia made the decision early on, Baumann explained, to eschew electronic transcript systems that exchange images of transcripts--often PDFs. That seemed an interim step to the final goal of a completely electronic data exchange system. Baumann said Georgia was thus the first state to fully implement the PESC (Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council) XML standard online. "Others [states] are still thinking of moving images around. That speeds it up, but ... we made a leap way beyond that," Baumann said.

Once a high school (and student) has released a transcript to Xap using the Georgia system, any Georgia college or university administrator with proper access can go to the mentor Web site, log in, and download the transcript. The site also tracks who has accessed a transcript, so a guidance counselor can keep parents and students in the loop.

One huge challenge during the process was dealing with the low level of standardization that existed among high schools; Baumann found 36 different student information systems in Georgia, for example, each of which had to interact with the Xap system. "Even public schools hadn't standardized [on a single student information system among them]," Baumann said, "and private schools were all over the map. They often didn't even have [a student information system.] They were just using Excel."

Cost is probably one of the biggest benefits, if not the biggest, in moving to an electronic system. Georgia did a cost analysis early in the process and pegged the cost of producing a paper transcript at $10 per, versus $0.50 for an electronic transcript--one-twentieth of the cost.

Schools are "just beginning to see all the benefits" of the system, Baumann said. High school to high school transcript exchange, which would be a huge benefit because of the number of students who transfer between high schools within the state, has "stimulated a lot of discussion," he said. Similarly, exchange of transcripts outside the state beckons, although the topic hasn't been formally broached yet.

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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