Student Recordkeeping Still in Dark Ages

It occurred to me this week–while trying to sort out all of my paperwork for a class I’m taking at a California State university–just how backward student recordkeeping is in this country. While areas such as Finance, Shipping & Logistics, Manufacturing, and Technology Services have been fine-tuning their Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) for over 30 years, the education sector has become ever more fractured in the wake of the Internet. Every college has their own system, with it’s own quirks and difficulties, and few of them work together at even the shallowest layers.

Each and every semester, nearly every student who transfers from one college to another has to have paper transcripts sent between colleges. In many cases, copies of the transcripts are only available to the students by mail, so at a minimum a student has to have 2-3 copies printed and mailed. All of this is per college attended, so a student who attended 3 different community colleges prior to transferring to a state school might have to order 9 transcripts to be printed and mailed. If they transfer again a year later, the number could go up to 12 (or more for students with scholarships or other obligations where proof of GPA is required).

As you can imagine, this cycle of printing, mailing, receiving, processing, and filing all of this paper is practically an industry unto itself. A gluttonous, wasteful industry which has never had to bear the burden of its own indirect costs.

The US supply chain saves almost 40% on the cost of producing purchase orders using EDI. Paperless transactions also save countless trees (and producing good quality paper means cutting down valuable old-growth forests). Our educational system should be following the same example as our healthcare system (which is moving into the paperless world, despite kicking and screaming and gnashing of teeth). Mailing lots of paper around is soon going to be a somewhat shameful anachronism.

Several things are needed to make electronic recordkeeping work in higher education:

  1. Open standards for records interchange formats
  2. Trusted clearinghouses for exchanging information
  3. Sensible personal privacy protection regulation (the healthcare industry was careless with our personal records, so as a punishment they were given HIPAA, let’s not let the same thing happen to our schools)

The first item has been tackled, and there is a standard X.12 format from the Accredited Standards Committee for Student Transcripts (EDI Document Type 130).

There is at least one non-profit clearinghouse for student records, the National Student Clearinghouse: Unfortunately, very few colleges are participating so far.

Number 3 may turn out to be the biggest hurdle. In an effort to protect privacy, many organizations are unwilling to change their business processes, even if those processes are inefficient or antiquated. Laws aimed at speeding up this process often end up complicating matters in unintended ways. I predict this will become more of a national issue as we transition to electronic health records.

The real solution is to elect leaders who understand the role of technology as an enabler for education, or at least to elect leaders who will appoint people with that understanding. And that applies to boardrooms, voting booths, and PTA meetings alike.

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