Michigan Embraces Electronic Transcripts

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"We get wheelbarrows of paper documents in the mail every day," according to Michael Cook, senior associate director of admissions at Michigan State University. "Our goal is to become paperless here in the admissions world," he added, "but that's not as easy as it seems."

To reduce paper flow, save money, and serve students better, Michigan State has begun using the services of electronic transcript firm ConnectEdu. Cook said he's confident that MSU's move from paper to digital transcripts, although a slow process that is just in its beginning stages, will pay off handsomely eventually. Although it will take time, with 46,000 students and 25,000 applicants a year, MSU hopes to eventually see a sizable dent in the paper flow.

ConnectEdu, which was formed in 2002, is gradually recruiting high schools throughout Michigan, at no charge, to submit their student transcript information to ConnectEdu's Connect! system. The company said it has signed up large public higher education institutions in Michigan including not only Michigan State University, but also the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn. 

The company interfaces securely with individual high schools' student information systems to convert high school transcripts into electronic data, then offers that information to client schools. ConnectEdu also offers additional services to students, parents, and guidance counselors to help them research and select schools, including help for parents in applying for financial aid. After working in the state for a year, the company said it has 200 Michigan high schools in its network and 14 colleges and universities. Most if not all of the largest higher education institutions in Michigan have signed on, meaning potentially hundreds of thousands of student transcripts to be exchanged annually eventually.

ConnectEdu works with high schools, including training, implementation and data loading, at no charge. Institutions such as MSU are in effect sponsoring the implementation of the technology statewide. At least for now, Michigan high schools must be users of Connect! in order for students, counselors, and parents to have access, since the service is not available to the general public.

Rather than delivering transcripts as Adobe-format PDF documents, ConnectEdu converts incoming student transcript information to the XML data standard, using guidelines set by the Schools Interoperability Framework Association (SIFA) and the Postsecondary Education Standards Council (PESC). PESC, formed in 1997, is a non-profit umbrella association of colleges and universities, along with professional organizations, vendors, and state and federal government agencies, that is working to establish data exchange standards in education.

Historically, Michigan State scans paper transcripts as it receives them, then stores the transcript information electronically. But even with that system, Cook said, "we still end up pushing [paper] through the office during the entire process." The Connect! system enables the university to accept an electronic transcript when a student applies from a ConnectEdu-affiliated high school, thus eliminating the paper process for the most part.

One big advantage Cook sees with the ConnectEdu system is that it converts student data to XML format, rather than a PDF. Getting actual data points, Cook said, enables a receiving institution to manipulate the data. For Michigan State, this means it can recalculate a student's GPA automatically using its own internal codes. That's done manually now, by plucking the numbers from the scanned paper transcript. "With electronic data, as opposed to something on a piece of paper, we'll be able to run [software] macros to recalculate GPAs and run analyses on which courses the student has taken," Cook explained. "That could allow us to automate a large percentage of the work that we do here."

Michigan started with ConnectEdu about a year ago, as the company was first making inroads with state high schools and colleges. Cook said he hasn't seen a big surge in submissions that make use of electronic transcripts just yet, nor is he expecting to this early in the process. In fall 2007, he estimated receiving just 500 digital transcripts out of 25,000 undergraduate applications. "High schools are coming on board slowly but surely.... This is going to take a while to catch on," Cook said. That includes time for ConnectEdu to enlist high schools, train high school guidance counselors on using the product, and get students and parents on board. "They're changing the climate on how kids apply to college," Cook said.

Next year, he said, he expects the volume of electronic transcripts the university receives to double. Even with the low percentage of electronic transcripts received so far, Cook estimated that Michigan State is a leader in the move to digital, receiving more electronic transcripts last fall than any other university in the state.

He also pointed out that the state is looking at possibly endorsing a state-wide standard, perhaps with ConnectEdu, which would speed up the adoption process--and give Michigan State an obvious leg up in the adoption process.

Although it's too soon to estimate all of the cost savings that electronic transcripts will bring, Cook said, some of the savings are obvious. Simply eliminating a large portion of the paper flow--and the people it takes to deal with it--is one benefit. Electronic transcripts, by moving more quickly through the system, will allow the university to respond to students faster with admission decisions. The increased accuracy and efficiency of digital information is another big plus. "It makes sense," Cook said. "It's just not an overnight thing, and we have to have a lot of patience."

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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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