February 01, 2017 | By Jesse Parrish, Jack Fryer, and Rodney Parks
TAGS: best practices, internships, candidate selection, journal
NACE Journal, February 2017
The digital revolution of the 21st century has spawned countless innovations in the way that we live, learn, interact, and consume. In 2001, Apple revealed to us the iPod, the now ancient forerunner to i-everything; in 2013, a notable company in San Francisco showed us a (literal) glimpse of what lay ahead with Google Glass; and in 2016, a start-up company within Google took augmented reality a step further with perhaps the “greatest” technology of all: Pokémon Go. Throughout the last 16 years, these and many other technological innovations have reshaped the human experience. Our lives are quantified by Fitbits, enriched by smartphones, and discussed at a clip via Twitter, Snapchat, and the like. It is remarkable to note, then, that our institutions of higher education have sputtered through fits and starts to modernize the way that our students are prepared for fruitful citizenship. Despite students’ widespread adoption of the century’s greatest technologies, higher education has stubbornly maintained its reputation of bureaucratic resistance to change.
This resistance has begun to wane, however, as institutional leaders have been thrust into a collective conversation about the merits of college in the information age. Presidents and provosts must now justify the increasing cost of a four-year education as the public offers its expert scrutiny. Many of them have examined the question from an operational standpoint, simply ending programs and initiatives that are financially infertile to focus on comparative advantages. Others take a hard look at their value proposition, endeavoring to improve return on investment by strengthening relationships with employers. Still others have embraced a promising evolution in credentialing to reveal the true breadth and depth of their students’ experiences.
It is this third approach that seems most complex and challenging, as it seeks to overcome decades of institutional inertia. However, it can also be the most impactful and cost-effective. Its proponents seek to document student experiences already occurring that are not captured by the academic transcript to paint the full picture of the university experience. If approached mindfully and resourcefully, it requires no new capital investment or programmatic overhaul. Institutions can capitalize on the decline of paper-based recordkeeping by reallocating resources to the development of digital credentials. Similar strategies can be employed for the collection of the data that constitute them. By operating with a digital-first mindset, enrollment management and student life professionals can collaborate to offer students and their future employers a record of meaningful and transformative out-of-class experiences, conveniently packaged in a portable and accessible medium.
Many forward-thinking institutions have taken swift action, and the results are varied. We now have a considerable variety of supplementary credentials, each of which supposedly reveals a previously untold story about an institution’s graduates. New terms for curricular achievements, such as badges, competencies, and co-curricular learning, are becoming lingua franca on many college campuses, but we have yet to arrive at a consensus about which is most appropriate for conveying the true value of the higher education experience.
For many years, registrars have been pressured by institutional leaders to include additional information on the official academic transcript, such as course types, longer descriptions, and grade distribution. All the while, they have received similar pressure from faculty to retain traditional standards, preserving the integrity of a document intended for use within the realm of academia. Registrars have largely erred on the side of caution, keeping the transcript a static, partially encrypted document, but the technological innovations of the 21st century make their circumspection difficult to defend. In fact, many other public and private sectors have embraced advances in information integration to improve their products and services: Banks offer online and mobile account services, and some even allow their customers to take pictures of checks to deposit them; telecommunications companies have enabled their customers to record and save television programs and access them across different devices; and the fitness industry has fueled the proliferation of wearable technologies, spawning the Quantified Self movement.
It is no surprise, then, that the currencies of higher education—a symbolic pillar of progress and ingenuity—have been criticized for their obsolescence. Employers point out that the academic transcript communicates little more than course titles and grade point average. They can dig for more detailed information in an institution’s catalog or course syllabi, but rarely can afford the time to do so. As such, the academic transcript remains the exchange currency between higher education and the job market, but it suffers from various forms of inflation. Not only do short course titles allow for intimation and exaggeration, but a decades-long (and ongoing) trend of actual grade inflation may alter students’ behavior and further obscure their abilities and aptitudes. Kostel, Kuncel, and Sackett (2015) posit that “even if the effect of rising grades for any single student is small, when aggregated across thousands of students even small decreases in study time can have large impacts on the national quality of student learning.”
While the express purpose of the academic transcript is to assist employers in appraising the mindsets and skills resulting from this learning, many of them call for more thorough information about graduates. This shared opinion is noteworthy, especially considering the shorthand that has become common practice across institutions large and small. Registrars are often asked to identify course attributes such as “service-learning,” “diversity-themed,” “online,” “hybrid,” and “study abroad” on the academic transcript, but are often restricted by both a character limit and the expectation of consistency.
In response to pressure for more thorough documentation, many institutions have developed new ways to supplement the traditional transcript in place of expanding it. These supplements include co-curricular transcripts, competency-based transcripts, data-enabled eTranscripts, and visual transcripts, innovations that are paving the way to address the growing need to thoroughly document the student experience. Matthew Pittinksy, CEO of Parchment, Inc. (2014) notes, “Co-curricular and competency-based transcripts innovate at the level of content and substance, extending the academic transcript.” By uncovering the notable features of experiential learning, institutions can equip students—and potential employers—with efficient views of the undergraduate experience without eroding or diluting the academic transcript.
Like other technologically advanced enterprises, institutions of higher education now collect enormous amounts of data from and about their customers (students). Though largely protected from view by FERPA, institutions know their students inside and out: where they come from (literally and metaphorically), what courses they take, how they feel about their professors, how often they change programs, how well they do in class, how well they behave outside of class, their club affiliations, their logged research hours, and so on. Additionally, cloud storage technologies and enterprise data management tools have enabled the efficient capture and organization of that enormity of data. While some institutions have begun to address the monumental task of reorganizing the co-curricular dimensions of that data, the concept of a suite of credentials is still a contentious topic, and at some universities still a long way from a fully supported endeavor.
On the other side of the employment divide, the traditional college academic transcript remains little more than a screening tool for employers overwhelmed with applications. Along with resumes, transcripts are often fed through document readers that enumerate the presence of “key words” that match the employer’s evoked set, a practice that severely disadvantages large swathes of the applicant pool for the sake of efficiency. Learning meaningful details about applicants typically requires a series of interviews. With inventive digital credentials, however, employers may be able to peruse the most attractive qualities of applicants with confidence, knowing that the artifact was produced by the institution. With 76 percent of company CEOs now lamenting that finding qualified people is a major concern (Connecting Credentials, 2016), the time is ripe for institutions of higher education to use the data they collect to create a credential representative of the entire college experience.
Records of learning and achievement have a direct impact on how employers and graduate schools appraise a graduate, but the academic transcript often fails to provide relevant or meaningful information. David Blake, chief human resources officer at Oregon State University, argues, “An employer needs to see the ‘experiences’ gained by a potential job candidate and not just a random list of courses taken.” Traditional academic transcripts may signal to an employer the type of classroom learning that has taken place, but rarely can they capture the different ways in which a student gains knowledge, skills, and abilities. In today’s working world, “experiential learning is just as important as academics” (CUPA-HR, 2014).
As experiential learning researcher Moore (2013) notes, the curriculum of experience exists where knowledge acquisition transcends the boundaries of the classroom, promoting understanding that can only be taught in context, such as “how the student handles pressure, deals with authority, works with people different from them, how hard they work, and so on.” (82). DelBanco (2013) upholds the importance of extra-academic experience, asserting that college should be “a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.” If a university’s purpose is to develop the “whole person,” then our superannuated transcript alone is a poor reflection of its realization.
With renewed appreciation for the fulfilment of this purpose, institutions have in recent years sought to expand the number of experiential learning opportunities available to students. This type of learning is increasingly viewed as critical to the developmental experience and, perhaps because of its attractiveness and outcomes, positively impacts student retention (Moore, 2013). Universities that have taken note of the positive outcomes of experiential learning have also begun to explore how to approach its documentation.
For more than 20 years, Elon University has been a national leader in experiential learning. The institution’s undergraduate students are not only encouraged to engage outside of the classroom; they must do so to graduate. Students are required to complete at least two experiences from among five categories: study abroad/study USA, service learning, leadership, undergraduate research, and internship. Each of these categories boasts a significant variety of opportunities, whether local or abroad, general or specific to a field of study, lasting a week or an entire semester. Regardless, each experience is overseen by one or more faculty mentors and is designed to espouse the tenets of a traditional liberal arts education. Participation in these experiences exposes students to concepts, theories, and methods that are synthesized into the curriculum, and their mentors help them make connections between the two. The combination can be transformative, producing graduates that can think critically and solve problems based on prior experience.
In the early nineties, Elon University took an initial step toward legitimizing this out-of-class learning. The Elon Experiences Transcript (EET), launched in 1994, was a first attempt by student affairs to capture and transcribe what are now known as high-impact practices (HIPs). During an accreditation review in 2002, university faculty approved the official incorporation of these practices into the curriculum by adding a standard experiential learning requirement (ELR) to all undergraduate programs. The decision was inspired by a collective desire to strengthen co-curricular connections to academic learning, largely predicated on the university’s developed expertise in the area.
By engaging students in opportunities that integrate knowledge and experience, the ELR fosters an understanding of and appreciation for the learning process. Students prepare, act, and reflect to develop the habits of mind required to learn effectively and contribute as responsible global citizens (Kolb, 2015). Importantly, the ELR also reinforced the institution’s commitment to inclusivity and access: Students of every discipline engage in and benefit from experiential learning. Once adopted campus-wide, the ELR inspired another innovation in Elon’s history—the experiential transcript. Though unsophisticated in its original incarnation, every student’s experiential transcript would be populated with at least two experiences because of the ELR, making the transcript more consistently meaningful over time. As a result, it became a more frequent topic of conversation on campus, and requests for the document began to increase.
In 2012, Elon’s administrators realized that they had missed an important opportunity by not making the transcript available to academic advisers and faculty. They recognized that this data would allow mentors to monitor their students’ experiential progress in the same way they monitor their academic progress—advising students experientially and academically at the same time. In this way, a comprehensive picture of the Elon experience could be discussed with the student, promoting reflection and intentional planning. The revelation transformed the advising practice and raised important questions regarding the use of the two transcripts with other parties, specifically potential employers.
Institutions have adopted different approaches for determining the categories of experiences to be included on co-curricular records, but they are typically modeled after the now widely promoted high impact practices. At Elon, experiential education is managed by the Elon Experiences Advisory Council (EEAC), which is composed of faculty and staff from academic and student affairs. Over the past two decades, in contrast to the national trend Kuh (2008) has identified, Elon has seen considerable growth in student participation in experiential education. While Elon has endeavored to expand experiential education, participation in HIPs nationwide has remained constant over the last few years, with only service learning experiencing modest growth (Kuh 2013, 5). (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1: Percentage of students participating in HIPs (at Elon versus nationwide)
Despite this considerable growth in participation, very few students requested a copy of the credential upon which it was documented. With only anecdotal evidence available, possible explanations for the disconnect between participation and the perceived importance of the record are speculative. It was clear, however, that without a meaningful transcript, students were less prepared to discuss their co-curricular experiences. In the Office of the Registrar, a common response from seniors seeing the document for the first time was, “I had no idea I did all of that!”
This dissociation between students’ actual experiences and the incorporation of those experiences into their self-concept was confounding for those maintaining the record. Further complicating its promotion was the fact that the two records were not accessible via the same ordering system. This caused some confusion among students, who were unsure of the co-curricular transcript’s value, and additional work on the part of employers, who had two separate credentials to inspect should students decide to use them. In response to these concerns, Elon decided to bridge the distribution gap between the EET and the academic transcript by launching a new document ordering system. The new system allows students to opt in to receive a copy of the EET along with their academic transcript at no additional cost. Once the new system was in place, the number of orders for EETs increased from three official transcripts in 2012 (students could print unofficial copies) to 727 in 2013. During fall 2013, Elon partnered with the credential vendor Parchment to combine the two transcripts into one certified PDF document, improving not only its validity but its relevance and portability. Today, Elon produces 71 percent electronic transcripts, whereas, for most institutions, paper remains the predominant method for sending and receiving transcripts (Kilgore, Hansen, & Hamill, 2014). The EET alone now constitutes 20 percent of Elon’s transcript volume, suggesting an improvement in its perceived value among students.
The shift to a digitally connected co-curricular record not only improved its perceived value, but also it has proven to correspond well with the preferences and inclinations of the Millennial population. In a 2015 nationwide survey of recent college graduates by Parchment, 60 percent reported that they were “excited” by the idea of displaying official or verified credentials on a digital or social media site, and 71 percent identified marketability to potential employers as the primary reason they wanted digital credentials.
Considering that digital supplemental credentials are relatively new and vary widely from institution to institution, one of the greatest challenges is assessing the perceived value of the co-curricular transcript among the employers that receive them. Elon administrators wonder how often students submit copies of the EET to prospective employers and what outcomes, if any, these transcripts yield. With growing interest to extend the transcript, institutions have begun involving employers more directly to better understand their needs, with the goal of developing an electronic credential that most effectively communicates the competencies of college graduates. Employers, in response, have identified evidence of experience-based learning as a key qualification they seek in college graduates.
In 2010, a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found a strong correlation between a student having a paid internship and an increased probability of receiving a full-time job while searching prior to graduation (NACE, 2011). Similarly, in a 2014 study to understand what employers seek in a comprehensive credential, researchers found that a redesigned EET, which features information about internships and other types of experiential learning, was well received. Those surveyed indicated that when combined with an academic transcript, the EET painted the candidate more favorably (86 percent), improved the candidate’s chances for employment (70 percent), and found the information on the EET useful in hiring decisions (67 percent) (Parks & Taylor 2016). Emboldened by this initial feedback, Elon endeavored to iterate further, with the goal of building a graphical credential that presented in-depth yet accessible experiential information about a student.
In 2015, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and NASPA collaborated to bring together registrars and student affairs professionals to identify institutions with the vision to build such a credential. Their goal was to create a framework to guide the development of replicable credentialing models to better serve institutions, students, and external constituents. The partnership aimed to produce a stable of valid and transparent credentials which could be used to better understand an applicant. In July of 2015, AACRAO and NASPA received a $1.27 million Lumina Foundation grant to explore how to “collect, document, and distribute information about student learning and competencies, including what is gleaned outside of the traditional academic classroom” (Fain, 2015). In recognition of the initial work done to supplement the academic transcript, Elon University was selected to be one of eight members of the initiative. The registrar charted the goal of converting the institution’s traditional EET into a visual, displaying the same experiential data in a collection of intelligible and aesthetically appealing infographics.
Elon partnered with Parchment, Inc. to develop and launch the Visual Elon eXperiential Profile (Visual EXP) in May 2016. The new visual transcript is a two-page document that summarizes the student’s experiences on the first page in a timeline, with corresponding visualizations of the five Elon experiences on the second page.
To date, more than 500 students have requested the Visual EXP in conjunction with the academic transcript. To complement its production and inform plans for future iterations, the Office of the Registrar launched a survey to employers and graduate school admissions officers to assess their perceptions of the new document. Among 144 responses thus far, 81.7 percent agreed that the Visual EXP was easy to understand, and 86.8 percent agreed that the new document was visually appealing. One of the main objectives of the innovation was to equip students with a storytelling tool—a credential that could be used to help them describe their passions and out-of-class experiences in addition to verifying them. The overwhelmingly positive response with regard to its intelligibility and visual appeal indicates that the Visual EXP could be used as an anchor for elaborating on the Elon experience. (See Table 1.)
Table 1: Aesthetics and information (Matrix table)
Additionally, 78.9 percent of employers indicated that the new transcript paints a different picture of the applicant, and 80.9 percent indicated that the Visual EXP differentiates an Elon applicant from other applicants. If this co-curricular record distinguishes Elon candidates from the rest of the applicant pool, that may signal to current and prospective students that the Elon experience is well worth the cost. Once invested in the opportunities available at the university, students may become more likely to engage in experiential learning opportunities, thereby contributing to a more robust learning paradigm.
While 72 percent agreed that the Visual EXP provides useful information for the hiring process, only 42.4 percent agreed that the Visual EXP increases the chances the applicant will get an interview. While this may seem an unfavorable response, 42.3 percent submitted a neutral response to the same question. This suggests that employers are reluctant to place too much confidence in those applicants based on this credential alone, likely because it is still relatively new and exists with few parallels.
Employers were also asked to indicate the importance of each of the Elon experiences in the hiring process. Leadership and internship were designated as the most important experiences that Elon tracks. (See Table 2.) The prioritization of leadership experience is consistent with findings presented in the NACE 2016 Job Outlook report, which indicate that leadership is the top attribute sought by employers when scrutinizing resumes (NACE 2015).
Table 2: Mean relative importance of Elon experiences
Few standards exist regarding what employers actually seek in a qualified applicant and how institutions should communicate proficiency, especially when assessed across different industries. Furthermore, the range of preferences among employers—even within the same industry—makes the conditional customization of the artifact a desirable but significantly challenging goal. Some employers prefer brevity and want to see only highlights, like GPA and a short list of major experiences. Others take a more deliberate approach, mining data about applicants and requesting access to a portfolio. It is critical that the credential serve these varying needs simultaneously.
To address this variety without fragmenting the credential, Elon has begun the exploratory phase of embedding artifacts into the Visual EXP. If learning artifacts are embedded into a layered view of the credential, then employers will have the option to view as much or as little information as they desire. For example, an employer might hover their cursor over a research term in the Visual EXP and see a descriptive paragraph about the experience appear. With consideration for this future development, employers were asked what types of information they would prefer to see embedded in the Visual EXP. Most respondents indicated a desire for leadership and internship position descriptions, consistent with their ranking by importance. (See Table 3.)
Table 3: Preference for embedded information (Multi-value multiple choice)
If Elon were to embed additional information into the transcript, what type(s) of information would you like embedded?
Frequency responded “Yes”
% responded “Yes”
Leadership position description
Student’s research publications
Finally, the survey also asked employers to rank the traditional features of the hiring process by relative importance. The results indicate employers still feel the resume and interview are the best way to determine applicant fit. These rankings may change over time as more institutions adopt or develop supplementary credentials, warranting longitudinal studies of employer preferences.
Table 4: Mean relative importance of hiring process elements (Rank order)
In the knowledge economy of the 21st century, it is incumbent upon college and university leaders to develop better methods of representing the accomplishments of their graduates. For too long, the transcript and diploma have been the only currency available to students and employers, and both have remained unchanged despite the rapid pace and abundant incidence of technological innovation. Institutions of higher learning have invested significant resources into strengthening the undergraduate experience by upgrading teaching and learning technologies, diversifying campus interactions, and providing substantially engaging out-of-class experiences. Today’s student is keen to take advantage of these opportunities, interspersing the steps along their curricular path with intentional experiential learning. At graduation, they are eager to translate the lessons of this learning into marketable knowledge and skills.
Why, then, must graduates continue to be disadvantaged by their alma mater’s inability to adapt? Why are these students and their potential employers still forced to use a flat and utterly uninformative record of courses taken? Barring tradition and a lingering fear of change, there is little reason not to invest in upgrading and expanding credentials to match the depth and breadth of the modern undergraduate experience. The data are omnipresent, and existing student information systems can organize it. Students are well-versed in the maintenance of online identities and employers know how to sift through them. The challenge therefore falls to registrars and their colleagues to create and curate the record pursuant to their needs.
Elon’s efforts to expand the student record to include experiential learning constitute significant strides toward this more transparent and informative exchange of information. What began as a rarely used supplemental document later became an official expansion to the academic transcript, and is now presented as data-enabled visuals. Employers have expressed a need for more comprehensive yet accessible information about college graduates, and preliminary research efforts indicate that the Visual EXP is a step in the right direction. With further iteration and innovation, complemented by open conversations between employers, institutions, and students, a co-curricular record may one day emerge that serves the needs of them all.
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Jesse Parrish is assistant registrar for communications at Elon University, where he has served since 2015. Since coming to Elon, Parrish has worked extensively with undergraduate research students, mentoring them on research techniques and contributing to numerous publications.
Jack Fryer is an undergraduate research assist for the Office of the Registrar. Fryer is currently a second-year student studying entrepreneurship at Elon University and has worked extensively on the extended transcript project.
Rodney Parks is university registrar and assistant to the provost at Elon University, where he has served since 2013. He also serves as an assistant professor of human service studies. Parks earned his Ph.D. in counseling from the University of Georgia in 2011 and has published numerous studies focused on unique student populations and their challenges in navigating higher education. He is also known for his work with transcripting experiential learning artifacts leading to Elon’s selection to be part of the AACRAO/NASPA Lumina grant to extend the transcript.
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