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.