Registrar 101: What Is a Transcript?

This is a new series on the blog designed for people new to the registrar profession in which I will explore the concept of a transcript and its purposes. I’m interested in this because I regularly face requests and concerns about altering the details on transcripts, and I’m sure you do (or will) too. No one wants an F grade on their transcript. Some people don’t even want a withdraw noted on their transcript. Yet others wish that we could say, “this student is freaking awesome” on a transcript, “preferably in bold font,” they ask. Sure, just give me a felt marking pen and a highlighter and I’ll take care of that… (That’s a bit of sarcasm, just in case you missed it!)

The basis for this series is the National Transcript Guide, published by the Association of Registrars of Universities and Colleges in Canada. I will be referring to the definition and basic guiding principles found on pages 20-21 of that document, using them to introduce each blog post and then discussing issues and concerns about them that I think are important. I will provide examples and applications from my own personal experiences over my 20 years of being a Registrar. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but the grey hairs in my beard are there for more reasons than my age, if you get my drift…

Definition of a Transcript (page 20 of the Guide):

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.

The transcript is a subset of the student’s academic record.

We registrars and the academic institutions we work for have determined that out of the entire academic record there are certain pieces of data that are most important and should be summarized into a one or two page document. The data elements that should be included are listed in the Guide, so I won’t repeat them here, but what is interesting to me is why certain elements made the list and others didn’t. Let me explain what I’m getting at.

What is missing from the definition in the Guide is the purpose(s) for the transcript. What is the dang thing for anyways? We don’t look at our own transcripts in my university. I suspect that transcripts are rarely used by the universities that produce them. We look in our student information system or database for the information we want. So who does use them? Other universities use them for admission purposes, students want them to show to third parties to do things like demonstrate that they are currently enrolled, or have met the admission requirements to another university, or that they qualify for a scholarship award from some agency or a First Nation Band Office, or to verify that they have graduated with a degree, etc.

Therefore, I believe the purpose of a transcript is to summarize and verify the academic history of a student for a third party. This is an important distinction because it helps us determine what elements should be on the transcript and what elements are not necessary to show on the transcript. For example, transcripts never show that a student lived in dorm for the first two years, but they always show how successful the student was in their academic studies. If a transcript is designed to summarize a student’s academic history for other universities or other organizations, then those organizations actually have some influence on the data elements that show on a transcript. More on this in a subsequent blog post.

The transcript should contain a complete and accurate history of the academic path of a given student in a particular postsecondary institution.

Complete and accurate history: the word “history” here is very important. I describe it like this: a transcript shows what actually happened, not what we wish happened. Therefore, if a student failed a class the historically accurate thing to do is to document it with a failing grade. There may be many reasons why a student failed the course, but at that time and place in history, the student failed the course. There may be ways for a student to retake the course and pass it, or replace it with another course towards meeting the program requirements, but as of April 28th, the student failed the course and that’s what is recorded.

How many times per week do I get asked to change a student’s grade because there are extenuating circumstances that caused that student to fail? Often enough. Of course, the word “accurate” is also important because sometimes students receive grades for courses they did not attend and so we have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t misrepresent what happened, either. Your institution will probably have a policy on this.

The word “complete” is interesting because if the transcript is a summary, then we decide what makes it complete. That falls under the last sentence of the definition: Its content and format are determined by institutional history, evolution... etc. For example, at Trinity Western University, students take science classes with laboratory classes, but the labs are not reflected on the transcript. At other universities, the lab classes will show and may have separate grades and in some cases will even have additional credit hours that show on the transcript. If an external body such as an accreditation council required us to show the lab on the transcript, we would probably do it. But in the history of TWU, labs have never shown on the transcript – it’s just the way we do things. Does that mean our transcript is incomplete? You tell me!

Subject to legal constraints.

I think what this phrase refers to is that certain jurisdictions (Provinces, in Canada) legally define what must be on a transcript. For example, the Province of British Columbia does not legally require my university to publish the basis of admission on our transcripts but the Province of Ontario, where we have a small campus, does. We do not produce different transcripts for different provinces, so all of our transcripts have the basis of admission on them because we are legally constrained to do so by one of our jurisdictions. Legal constraints vary across Canada and around the world so I will not attempt to capture them here, but if you are a registrar and this is news to you, I strongly suggest that you look closely at the legal requirements that allow your university or college to operate. Don’t break the law. Don’t go to jail. Don’t do it. I’ve heard that terrible things happen to registrars behind bars.

In future posts, I’ll discuss the basic guiding principles, and hopefully reduce some of the fear and sphincter-tightening that goes on when we discuss transcripts. Unless you think you might be going to jail. Then you should tighten your sphincter. A lot.

As always, if I’m missing anything, please let me know in a comment!

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