University implements electronic transcripts

By Nicholas Nardini

The death toll of paper documents on campus may have just been sounded by the Office of the Registrar.

This month, the U of C became the second school in the nation, after Pennsylvania State University, to offer digitally signed electronic transcripts to its students through cMore. The idea was the brainchild of U of C Registrar Thomas Black and NSIT Director of General Services Bob Bartlett.

“Back in 2003, we were doing chalk-talk together,” Black said. “I told him I needed to present this document electronically with the same authenticity of a paper transcript. That’s when we came up with digital signatures.”

High schools and colleges have been sending electronic transcripts for more than a decade using Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) and, more recently, Extensible Markup Language (XML). However, only about 10 percent of postsecondary institutions took advantage of the technology because of fears about authenticity; there was never a way to guarantee that an e-mailed transcript had not been forged or altered during its journey from school to transcript company to recipient. Until now, it wasn’t an option for U of C students.

What Black and Bartlett brought to the table was the idea of digital signatures, encrypted codes embedded within a file that verify the document has not been altered after the application of the signature.

Black approached NSIT Director of Administrative Systems John Mohr, and the pair coauthored an article published in the Summer 2004 edition of College and University Journal calling for the technology and outlining its benefits. In June of that year, they traveled to a convention of university registrars and delivered talks on the subject.

“Penn State’s Registrar, Shawn Wagner, mentioned that one-fifth of his transcripts were leaving by FedEx, which is very expensive,” Black said. “Very quickly, he put this solution in.”

Penn State, which implemented the system in February of last year, has sent more than 9,000 transcripts with this method. Chicago, which implemented the system this month, is already sending 15 percent of its transcripts electronically. “The goal is 50 percent,” Black said.

The benefits of electronic transcripts are clear, administrators say. In a test run of the system performed by this reporter, the transcript arrived a few hours after it was ordered, in PDF format, looking indistinguishable from the paper version. Electronic transcripts are cheaper than paper ones, which are hand-stuffed and require postage fees. CAPS codirector Linda Choi said she is optimistic about employers’ reception of the transcripts.

The electronic transcripts cost $12 per request, the same as the fee for paper transcripts. Students who have already paid the lifetime unlimited transcript fee of $35, a now standard charge for first-years, will not pay for the electronic transcripts.

This technology won’t stop at transcripts, Black said. “One day, you could store all your birth certificates, passports online, and have complete control over when and where to share them. And it’d all be certified. Where better than an educational institution to demonstrate these possibilities? This will be seen and replicated. When you the students use this, you’ll actually be educators.”