College Transcripts in the Consumer Age

As if college debt weren’t enough, the ball and chain still dragged around by students includes their permanent academic record, the transcript.  Long after a student leaves college, that institution holds the keys to obtaining an official transcript.  If a student wants a copy of a transcript, he or she pays that institution for an unofficial copy.  If the student transfers to another college, the onus is on the student to request a transcript from the host or exit institution, frequently paying a fee to have an official, sealed copy sent to the host or receiving institution.  In other cases, a student may request and pay for an official transcript to be sent to an employer to verify the student’s education.  In fact, colleges and universities never release official transcripts to students.  The upshot is this: who owns the student’s academic record? Does the student?  Then why pay for the institution for the right to access it?  Does the institution own it?  Then why the interference of the student in paying for a copy and transmitting this document to other parties? Don’t we live in an age of consumers, an age of ownership, an age of individual responsibility, an age of independence?

The fact is that higher education institutions have operated on an ancient model for far too long.  The doctrine of in loco parentis allowed even postsecondary institutions to behave in the stead of parents, taking custody of resident students and meting out discretionary discipline.  With the massive changes higher education faces as a result of costs rising far faster than inflation, student academic records are one area consumers should be contemplating prying away from the purvue of institutions.

For one, students increasingly are characterized by the term nontraditional, meaning 73% of students stop and restart their education due to family and work obligations. They are no longer simply 18-24 year-olds, but mature adults continuing on the path of occupational readiness.  Because of the brevity of work (approximately 2.4 years per worker at one employer), transition and frequent access to academic records should serve as the primary impetus for freeing the institutional hold over student transcripts.  A great many of these institutions are not public, but private non-profit, or private for-profit.  They have administrative policy, not statutory authority, for maintaining student records.

The question is when will student activists rise up to question the traditional aspect of institutional possession of the student record?  When will people place on the ballot initiatives that free their information from the custody of non-governmental institutions which could fail, merge with others, or change address?


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