Monday, November 28, 2016

 

Co-Curricular Transcripts?


I noticed on Twitter Monday that there’s a conference this week of student affairs professionals looking at the prospect of co-curricular transcripts (#BeyondTranscripts).  My day job prevents attendance or watching the livestream, but I have some questions that I’d love to have answered.

As I understand them, the concept behind co-curricular transcripts is to recognize in writing the value of activities that students do beyond coursework.  These could be athletics, student clubs, certain kinds of community service, and the like.  What gets measured gets valued, the thinking goes, so co-curricular activities are likelier to be valued if they’re measured, which is to say, if they’re documented.

So far, so good.  I agree that co-curriculars can have tremendous value.  My time at the radio station in college was some of my best time in college, and it taught me a lot about organizational behavior.  I’m not alone; we know from national studies that students who get involved on campus are likelier to persist and graduate than students who don’t.  Some of that is probably self-selection, but it’s intuitively clear too that friendships help people get through.  I remain convinced that this is the missing link in some purely online programs, and it helps to explain the lower graduation rates they have.  

I could even see the value in the context of academic advising.  Academic advising done well isn’t just about course selection.  It’s about goal identification, and then figuring out the best academic path to that goal.  To the extent that an easily accessible record of co-curriculars is available, it may help connect some dots.  A student whose academic performance has been indifferent so far, but who devotes untold hours to a quirky student club, may be in the wrong major.  Look to the club to see what her real interests are, and work backwards to an academic goal.  I can see real value in that.

But I have some questions.  These are some of the same questions I raised locally last year when a faculty member brought up the idea here.

First, who is the audience for the co-curricular transcript?  Academic transcripts are a sort of inside baseball that make sense when students try to move from one institution to another.  They were never intended for employers.  Co-curriculars seem to be more employer-focused, though I’ve literally never heard of an employer asking for one.  That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t see the value if it were offered; it just means I need some clarity on the problem we’re trying to solve.  

Second, how does it differ from a resume?  Historically, students have documented classes on transcripts and everything else on resumes.  What does a co-curricular transcript offer that a resume doesn’t?  It could, but it’s not obvious to me at this point.  

If it tracks competencies, then the whole notion of “curricular” vs. “co-curricular” starts to break down.  If it’s a portfolio, we’ve had those for years.  

Finally, and most crucially from my standpoint, we have strict protocols and systems for evaluating academic work and recording the results.  We don’t have anything like that for co-curricular activities, with the limited exception of athletics.  From an “institutional integrity” standpoint, any record that the college blesses as official should have some sort of warrant behind it.  We have that for classes; the collegewide grading system is clearly spelled out in the student handbook, we have “instructors of record” whose job it is to assign grades, and we require faculty to outline grading policies in their syllabi.  We even have a grade appeal process for students who can show that a grade was either the result of a computation or data entry error, or differential treatment.  (“But I tried really haaaarrrrddd..” is not grounds for an appeal.)  Those processes are accreditation requirements, and they’re also common sense.  

We don’t have anything like that for student clubs and organizations.  

Yes, we get lists of officers.  But we don’t know about members who aren’t officers, and we don’t evaluate the work or level of participation.  We don’t keep track of which students show up for each college event.  The surveillance apparatus necessary to verify and certify co-curricular performance enough to maintain institutional integrity strikes me as problematic at best.  If I say I attended meetings of the Monty Python Club for two years, who’s to say I didn’t?  But if the college is going to put its seal of approval on a document saying I did, it had better be able to back it up.  Self-reporting isn’t going to cut it.

Wise and worldly readers -- including those at the conference! -- are there good answers to these questions?  The idea strikes me as well-intended and potentially groundbreaking, but without some clarity on these points, it could be a quagmire.

Comments:
At my campus, when students attend special events (plays, guest speakers, various events on campus), they can swipe their student id after the event is concluded. A list of students who attended each event is sent to faculty and advisors. Supposedly, this information is then available as part of student transcript/campus records. Problems: not enough card swipers, resulting in very long lines after some events. Also, the person controlling the card swipe does not necessarily match the ID to the student--student A might have a friend swipe the event in their stead--easy if two or more card swipes are operating at the same event. I don't understand why such info is valuable to students. It might arguably help budget planning for future events, but surely there are other ways to get that date that do not raise concerns about student privacy and normalizing the surveillance state.
 
We have something like that, but I can't help you with details. What I do know is that the reporting of student activities and volunteer hours is done regularly (weekly? monthly?) so you can't just put something down at the end of the year like appeared in the back of my old HS yearbook. In particular, contemporaneous attendance records for student club activities is gathered because it is one of the requirements for club viability and funding.

But I agree: I don't know who is the audience. Can it tip the scale for a transfer admission? I suppose that is possible. I'll have to remember to ask the folks on the receiving end when I see them next year.
 
I would really try to avoid it. It would just lead to kids doing the things that they think looks good rather than the things that interest them. And then if they want to game the system, they'll do as many as possible, as shallowly as possible.

 
What about students who are also working full-time or part-time and cannot necessarily be a part of co-curricular activities? I certainly would have enjoyed doing such things during my college career, but I found myself busy working 40 hours a week and then studying and going to classes in my spare time. This would be even more of a problem for commuter colleges or community colleges where you have a very diverse student body in terms of age range.
 
I think my former Uni half-way did this. My transcript definitely had my summer research programs listed, and I think the athletic teams I was on too. But agreed - I have no idea what purpose this serves beyond a resume (other than limiting lying) and it seems challenging to implement more broadly.
 

I think efforts to institute a co-curricular transcript are understandable (elevate the value/importance of different kinds of experience and learning, capture information about student activities, appeal to employers), but misguided.

Basically, your resume IS a co-curricular transcript. It's where you put internships, summer jobs, campus leadership, service, special skills, etc. To my recollection, I have never heard an employer express interest in a co-curricular transcript--they wouldn't know how to evaluate it and would likely ignore it. Students might care about a co-curricular transcript, but only to the extent that it demonstrates they've fulfilled a graduation requirement.

You also raise important points about measuring competencies and gathering this data. If it's self-reported, it's much harder for a college to verify it took place, let alone measure the impact it had. Absent some kind of co-curricular or experiential learning requirement that is baked into the higher education experience and has an accompanying administrative oversight (Warren Wilson College's triad of academics, work and service comes to mind), I see a lot of challenge in administering this, an unclear audience and subsequently very little value.

 
I was in clubs in university and high school that I'm not sure I'd want recorded on my transcript to reveal decades later to employers...
 
I was involved in three "main" clubs/activities in college, and I would have wanted (and, in fact, received), a different level of tracking/school accountability in each case.

First, I worked for the school newspaper as a section editor. This was a high enough level position at my school that I received a small stipend ($75/term, I think) and 1 or 2 academic credits in some sort of "class" out of the Communication department (I don't think it counted toward fulfilling the major, but I really don't remember now). The accountability for this was that if I didn't actually get the sports section of the paper together every week, it would be really obvious that the paper didn't have a sports section, and our faculty advisory would presumably notice as he leafed through the paper that Friday. Presumably, the editor in chief also did some sort of report. This sounds more like your "radio station" example - something with shifts and a product, where it makes sense to track it somewhat like a job or a class, particularly if students may go on to a career in a related area.

Also, I was involved in our school's gaming club. One year I was even co-president, so the school might theoretically still have a record of that. For this, we submitted to administration what events we held to justify our budget (with rough headcounts), and mostly our accountability piece was a list of which rooms we'd booked for club events when so we could show we were an active club with lots of things going on. We mostly played tabletop RPGs, and we discovered that student groups could book conference rooms for free, so we mostly tended to book some pretty nice 10-person conference rooms for various games on weekend evenings when they weren't otherwise used. This was probably the main reason we needed "club" status in the first place, although they did also give us a small budget that we spent on building a game library and buying supplies to make boffer weapons. We were probably considered one of the most active groups on campus in terms of sheer number of "meetings" since we had several different people running games that meet weekly (we designated each game as a "subcommittee" for room-booking purposes). I doubt admin ever had a clear list of our membership (except for the school-supplies email group list), let alone who attended which event. This also isn't something that most employers would care about and there's very little temptation to lie and say that you were, in fact, spending all of your Friday nights rolling dice and pretending to be a pirate if you weren't bothering to show up. We certainly could have provided attendance lists (since it'd be the same small group every week with a clear leader who was in charge of running that game), but we didn't.

Finally, I was in our school's GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance). At that time, that's something I actively wouldn't have wanted employers to see, particularly when I was applying for teaching jobs in small rural towns (times have changed a bit, but I'd still rather bring that up on a case-by-case basis). I'm pretty sure no one took any kind of attendance at our meetings (possibly a headcount of roughly how many people attended events), and some of our attendees wouldn't have been comfortable coming if we had.

So anyway, these cover the broad three types of student activities: things students would, in most cases, want documentation of (newspaper), things students probably wouldn't care about one way or the other (gaming), and things students might actively want not to have documentation of recorded (GSA). Any plan that doesn't distinguish between those three different types of activities probably needs more refinement even before you get into the tracking piece.
 
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