In news announced this week, Kentucky is bringing K-12 and higher education institutions together to smooth out and standardize the transcript request process.

Educators and students alike find the current paper transcript process inefficient. It takes way too much time for everyone involved, uses up valuable resources and doesn't put the student in the driver's seat.

People expect access to their information from everywhere, whether it's at a bank, medical institution or government agency. They expect that access in education too, but often don't get it.

"Everybody wants to control their information flow, whether they're ordering something on Amazon.com or they're transferring money from one bank account to another bank account," said Allen Lind, vice president of information and technology for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. "And higher education and K-12 needs to step up and meet people's expectations."

How the transcript process works now

1. Students request a transcript for each college they're applying to, which can be anywhere from one to six, depending on the student.

2. For each transcript requested, guidance counselors and registrars must do the following:

  • Print the transcript
  • Copy the ACT, SAT and AP exam scores on the back
  • Sign the transcript
  • Stamp the transcript with the school seal
  • Place them in an envelope
  • Put a seal over the envelope
  • Sign over the seal
  • Mail it to the college

It doesn't take a ton of time to do one transcript, but if you have 200 students with multiple transcript requests, it adds up, said Sarah Greenwell, guidance counselor at Breckinridge County High School in Harned, Ky. And it also takes quite a bit of paper, toner, postage and other resources, said Mark Roberts, counselor at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Ky.

3. The transcript is en route to each college, but the students and their families don't actually find out whether the college receives it. If it gets lost in the mail or misplaced at the college, this becomes a problem.

4. Oftentimes, the transcripts that end up in the college enrollment area are early transcripts because students haven't graduated from high school yet. So enrollment officers have to manually enter transcript information — formatted differently depending on the school district — into an electronic system and then re-enter everything when they get the official transcript in June or July.

5. In June or July, enrollment officers have piles of transcripts, folders and applications on their desk. They have to open each envelope and put it in the electronic system before they can decide whether to admit the student into the university. This is a very labor-intensive and time-consuming process. And three or four months could pass between the time colleges receive early transcripts to the time they get final transcripts. That's why colleges often give students early acceptance based on their preliminary transcripts.

First-generation college students get left behind

Students who want to be the first in their family to go to college often have the hardest time navigating the college admissions cycle. Because they are new to the process, they often wait to turn in college applications and request transcripts until May. Typically, all the financial aid awards are gone by February.

Under the current paper transcript process, that means they sometimes don't hear back from a college until July — a month before school starts in many cases. This sets them back from the start, since they may miss summer orientation or early class registration opportunities.

Greenwell knows how frustrating this is because she was one of those students. She knew she wanted to go to college and had a specific one in mind, but didn't understand how to get there. When she finally visited the campus late in her senior year, she hated it.

"It was April of my senior year, and I still didn't know where I was going to go," said Greenwell. "Because of that I also missed out on a lot of financial aid opportunities because those are done by then."

She ended up at  Western Kentucky University, where she earned her bachelor's, master's and Rank 1 — a second master's mainly for education degrees. Now she is trying to help students at Breckinridge understand what they need to do to reach their goals.

In the unincorporated community of Harned, she sits down with all the seniors during the first two to three weeks of school and gives them a timeline of what they need to do to go to college. At least half of the students who apply to college in her rural area will be first-generation college students.

Harned is 63 miles southwest of Louisville, and the closest university is a little over an hour away. Sometimes students will take their transcripts in person to a university farther away, only to have them rejected because they weren't in a signed and sealed envelope, even though the signature and seal were on the transcript. (The high school started sealing and signing the envelope after this happened.)

"When a kid takes a transcript and goes two hours away and they don't accept their transcript, it is extremely frustrating because that's almost kind of been a wasted day," Greenwell said. "I'm hoping the eTranscripts process will make that not an issue."

Fixing a slow and inefficient process

Kentucky plans to make the transcript request process faster and easier this school year with an eTranscript initiative announced on Monday, July 29. Three education groups in the state — the Department of Education, the Council on Postsecondary Education and the Higher Education Assistance Authority — worked together to make this project happen after a pilot test with 13 schools and three universities last year.

A number of other states have electronic transcript systems, including Kansas, Michigan and Indiana. And Florida built its own system called FASTER. But the participation level varies within each state, and not all of them have common student information systems and transcript forms.

In Kentucky, three major education organizations brought all of the public and private high schools, public higher education institutions, and independent nonprofit institutions of higher education on board.

"Getting all those people in the same place at the same time to agree on the same thing is a major accomplishment, to be honest with you," said Aaron Thompson, senior vice president of academic affairs for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

Along with securing agreements from every school and college to participate this year, Kentucky decided to create a common transcript format that will make it easier for colleges to process. On top of that, the state's schools were already on the same student information system, which is fairly unique among the states and makes the transition process easier.

Future improvements

This week, Jefferson County Public Schools started training on the digital system with Parchment, the transcript exchange platform provider, and Infinite Campus, the student information system provider.

Throughout the 2013-14 school year, Kentucky will gradually roll out the eTranscript technology to school districts and have them go through training. The district will then turn around and teach the schools, and the schools will educate their staff and families on how the process works.

Now that Kentucky has decided on a common transcript format, the Council on Postsecondary Education is looking to make even more improvements on the college end. Although the process will now be digital and common for every school, the universities will still probably have to manually input some of the transcript data into their student information systems.

Ultimately, the council plans to start working on a way to download these electronic transcripts directly into their student information systems. With a direct download, the transcripts will look the same from the school to the university, and universities can share them with one another in a common format if students transfer or pursue further education at another institution.

"Our jobs in higher education really are to get our folks in and get them through," Thompson said. "It's not necessarily to create differentiation from that standpoint. It's OK to be differentiated from the standpoint of providing missions and directions about what we can do to help our state with our students, but when it comes to getting our students and helping them to be successful, then we want to be as uniform as possible for time-saving and human resource-saving."

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.