What is a Transcript Anyhow?

We occasionally are asked “What is a transcript?” Usually, this question comes from an international student who’s home country’s education system has a different term, but sometimes we ask ourselves this question.

Why would we do that? We produce them. You’d think we’d know!

Hey, it’s always good to question the existence of something. What are transcripts? What are they for? Why do we produce them? These questions can help stop scope-creep, when the boundaries around something start creeping outwards and a transcript ceases to be a transcript anymore.

Wikipedia has an answer, but I’m not sure who wrote it. Who would refer to the Registrar’s Office as the Student Registrary??? I thought I’d heard them all, but that was a first for me! Anyhow, it only sort of answers the question.

Have you seen the “National Transcript Guide for Use in Canadian Postsecondary Institutions“? It lists the definition as follows: The transcript is a subset of the student’s academic record. The transcript should contain a complete and accurate history of the academic path of a given student in a particular postsecondary institution. Its content and format are determined by institutional history, evolution, policies and regulations and are subject to legal constraints (page 20).

Phew! Put a few academics onto something and it gets complicated pretty quickly. Let me try my own simple definition and then I’ll attempt to put boundaries around it. You tell me if I’ve got it or not. Here goes: An academic transcript is a chronological record of academic activity. Sometimes we call it a “Course History”, although the word “course” may be too narrow a term. Is a Chemistry Lab a course? What about a co-op? Maybe, maybe not. But let’s keep it simple – it’s a chronological record of academic activity.

What does that mean? Well, for us, it lists courses with credit hours, letter grades, labs, and grade point averages. It lists those in semesters (e.g., Fall 2009), and it summarizes the grade point average for each semester. Then, it also lists a cumulative summary of grade point average and credit hours attempted and credit hours completed. Finally, it lists any academic credential completed, like a Bachelor of Arts in History, or a Certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language, along with the date completed.

Ok, so what are the boundaries?

A transcript is not a “nasty” or a “nice” document. It simply is a historical record. Why do I say this? Well, how many of you have been asked by students if you can remove a failed course? I have. In fact, I’ve even been offered money to do so (I didn’t accept) … (although I thought about it) … (but only briefly). Public people, sometimes politicians, like to try to rewrite history to be kinder to themselves, and sometimes students and really nice faculty members want to do the same with a transcript. Actually, if I could, I’d like to go back and “fix” my own transcripts. But then they would cease to be historically accurate and their usefulness would diminish. The National Transcript Guide put it best: “The transcript is a trusted document and all efforts should be made to avoid undermining this trust” (page 20).

What other boundaries are there? They are not a record of everything a student does. In other words, they are not a record of Student Union involvement, or volunteer activity. They don’t list whether the student was a member of the Chemistry Club, or that they were the editor of the student newspaper. Some people would like it if they were, but that info belongs on another document: a Resume.

What other boundaries do you believe should be placed on transcripts? What are they not to be used for? Is my definition accurate and complete? Post a comment!


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