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Transcripts That Mean Something


Jamie Merisotis


​Each year, I come up with a list of what I think are the top issues in postsecondary education. Frankly, the list doesn’t change much from year to year: affordability, equitable access, growing the nation’s talent pool, and alignment of education with workforce. In the last few years, another important issue has taken its rightful place on the list: defining and verifying the actual learning that stands behind the growing array of valuable credentials in the United States (e.g., degrees, certificates, industry certifications, digital badges, and micro-credentials).

For Lumina Foundation, these are core questions because our work centers on achieving a single goal: By 2025, 60 percent of Americans will hold a degree, certificate or other high-quality credential (Goal 2025). Unless U.S. credentials stand for quality learning, reaching any number—whether 60 percent, 80 percent, or even 100 percent—will be meaningless. So learning and how we verify learning are hot topics. And, surprisingly to many, that means the college transcript is a hot topic as well.

We used to think that a college transcript, the official record of a student’s academic achievement, provided ample proof of a student’s learning. That is no longer the case. In fact, the transcript—long useful as a record of a student’s history of courses taken, individual grades, GPA, and credentials earned—has really never said much about what has actually been learned—what knowledge and skills have been obtained.

Why is this so critical today? Companies and organizations are having a harder time identifying candidates who possess particular skills; educational institutions are in the middle of a shift in the way they’re preparing graduates for twenty-first century job demands; and job candidates are struggling to make themselves marketable in a rapidly evolving labor market.

As Lumina has engaged for the past several years with faculty and employers to understand and define whatpostsecondary degrees should mean in terms of learning outcomes through the creation of the Degree Qualifications Profile, transcript issues have taken center stage:

  • Students don’t think their records reflect who they are and what they can do because no explicit statements of learning are offered on the transcript. Also, the transcript represents only a portion of their learning because learning outside the classroom is not counted.

  • From the institution’s perspective, working with faculty and staff to define student progress based on learning outcomes rather than seat time is impossible using the traditional transcript.

  • Employers searching for evidence of what a graduate knows and can do must rely on multipledocuments: a transcript; a resume for curricular, co-curricular, and work experiences (because employers recognize the value of these experiences in developing well-rounded employees); and an application with employer-specific information. None of these individual documents can do the job—and even when combined, the picture they present is incomplete.

  • Static documents such as resumes and transcripts put many students at a disadvantage in a technology-driven world. Increasingly, documents used in candidate search processes are read by machines that search for key competencies (tag lines) linked to the position the company seeks to fill. Unless competencies are identifiable, applications are dismissed. In a recent study, 58 percent of human resource officers believe that digital credentials will one day replace or supplement these more traditional paper documents.

These technology-driven challenges—coupled with the explosion in the number of pathways to an education beyond high school—mean that today’s job seekers possessing an array of credentials (four-year college degrees, associate degrees, apprenticeships, occupational licenses, education certificates, digital badges, and industry-awarded certifications).

Learners want—and deserve—to have their competencies and skills recognized and translated to academic credit that counts toward graduation, whether that learning occurred in a dual-credit course in high school, during military service, from a massive open online course (MOOC), on the job, or simply from life experiences. All of these avenues can challenge the traditional recordkeeping services in the college registrar’s office.

The bottom line is that our learning-verification systems need a major overall. Student records must reflect the reality of learning acquired through multiple pathways.

Inspired by the development of diploma supplements in Europe, Lumina hosted a convening in 2014 to explore these issues. Many who attended the 2014 convening came from institutions already trying to work co-curricular information into the traditional college transcript—to more accurately and systematically capture students’ academic and co-curricular achievements, as well as competencies developed in the workplace. The convening group underscored that this work would be gathering momentum, fueled by growing attention to competency-based education and recognition that competencies are acquired throughout life, not just in the college classroom. Indeed, they were right, because that is where we find ourselves in 2016—with many more institutions and technology companies engaged in the work of developing new student records.

To accelerate this work, Lumina awarded a $1.49 million grant to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education to partner on a comprehensive student records (CSRs) project in 2015. As a result, registrars, faculty, and student affairs professionals from 12 colleges and universities are working together to identify emerging practices in collecting, documenting, and distributing student learning outcomes and competencies as demonstrated through the curriculum, co-curriculum, and other educational experiences.

The goal is to develop a framework for extended transcript models and best operational practices that can inform institutional personnel as they seek to create a student learning record that reflects all of the competencies students gain. The project aims to validate and present student learning in a usable way. The CSRs developed by each institution will be showcased at a convening this fall, where discussion will continue about how to further develop and improve student records.

The good news is that the drive to transform the student record on these 12 campuses and on many other campuses is well underway—and there’s a growing body of evidence to show that it’s gaining momentum. For example, scores of colleges are now accepting high school transcripts that show how students demonstrate specific learning outcomes or competencies, rather than simply recording the time they spent in classrooms or the grades they received. Also, in seeking to create a more expansive student transcript, many U.S. institutions are taking cues from the United Kingdom, where 90 colleges and universities are implementing or planning to implement the Higher Education Achievement Reports, a single comprehensive record of a learner’s achievement, including academic work, extracurricular activities, prizes, and employability awards, voluntary work, and offices held in student union clubs and societies that have been verified by the institution.

These trends, and the burgeoning reform effort they reflect, point to a long-term goal that is both ambitious and tremendously exciting: a student record that is digital (and thus easily shared with employers and other institutions); comprehensive (in that it credits all types of learning, not just the in-classroom type); and portable (i.e., “owned,” and for the most part maintained, by the student rather than the institution).

Eventually, the new-look transcripts that emerge from this work will offer huge benefits. Employers will be better able to find job applicants who have the specific knowledge and skill sets they need. Institutions will have better ways to define, demonstrate, and increase the value they add to their students’ educational experiences. And students will have a comprehensive, flexible, permanent, and portable record of their learning—no matter where or how that learning was attained.


Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation and author of America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce.

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