Scrutiny of College Admissions has been intense recently and it is therefore important to summarize first some of the controversies, particularly around test scores, for context. The standardized testing non-profits have been selling the names of students for years to colleges, albeit with consent. The student performance in scoring bands on the SAT or ACT was ostensibly used for facilitating the matching of suitable candidates to colleges but, in fact, it was also used to drive up applications, benefiting their US News & World Report rankings. An invitation to apply to that selective college may have had more to do with their need to improve the school’s bond rating than the potential match they saw between applicants and schools.
That game thankfully is now over or ending, thanks to the sweeping move away from the use of the SAT and ACT in admissions, driven by valid concerns over equity. This leaves not only a large screening problem for colleges but also a renewed focus on the high school transcript, the GPA, teacher recommendations, alternative credentials, and the extra/co-curriculum — all much better predictors of student success. However, a problem remains for colleges with different levels of admission resources: how can they crunch through all these measures, when screening tools like the SAT and ACT are no longer featured in college admission toolkits? The traditional transcript offers a lot more than just grade data, including the sequence of courses taken, the strength of schedule, the underlying standards and competencies, and their timing. All are indicative of a number of potential characteristics and capabilities of the student, as well as the opportunities offered by the particular schools or family circumstances. Colleges recognize that grades from one school are very different from grades at another, and they adjust expectations according to their knowledge of the school and historical data of enrollees from the school at their institution.
The College Board attempted to address a portion of this problem with their Adversity Index score and their Environmental Context Dashboard — later renamed Landscape. The Adversity Score gave a score adjustment measure to the student’s school environment and the neighborhood environment reflecting environmental factors such as crime and poverty. The College Board was forced to abandon this Adversity Index in 2019 as criticism arose over the lack of transparency of the score (it was only available to College Admissions officers), and over its failure to capture what is widely considered the most important measure of student hardship: parental income. The Singer college admissions scandal provided further headwinds, and lawsuits around affirmative action and race all stirred a sense of the need for change.
So how can the experience of credit scores help in the movement toward next-generation transcripts and potentially solve some of these issues? The financial services industry faced the same issues as education 150 years ago. The first lesson to be learned is that the early credit scores needed a change in “ownership” before they came of age: that meant who controlled them. It took 100 years from when the Mercantile Agency first tried to standardize on the character and assets of borrowers in the mid-19th century to the emergence of credit scores. By the mid-1950s private credit reporting agencies finally started pooling data, but they were still not trusted outside their close clubs because of the suspicion of bias. The turning point was the Fair Credit Reporting Act in 1970 that allowed consumers to access their data and control its distribution, parallel to today’s privacy protections around student data. Twenty years later in 1989 the FICO score was born, accompanying a revolution taking place in financial technology infrastructure and markets.
For a transcript containing deep digital information that can be parsed and analyzed, liberation will come when the student, as the owner, is confident in knowing how it will be distributed, analyzed, and evaluated. That trust must be complete, transparent, and protected by law. Data in the hands of even non-profits like SAT or ACT or the now-bankrupt InBloom have less credibility.
Technology has to catch up to that ownership opportunity and has started to do so. The Federal government and standards organizations have been building comprehensive learner record strategies and common standard software that operates across different platforms and is managed in a personal learner wallet. The learner, using his/her wallet, can make “assertions” that can be validated by prior attended institutions and securely transferred to institutions at which they are interested in applying. Key associations like the AACRAO (serving college admissions officers and registrars), consortia like IMS Global Learning Consortium (serving as a standards body for Comprehensive Learner Records), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Federal Government are pushing the agenda forward.
Going beyond verification and control, the FICO and credit scores relied on the ability to digest frameworks and hierarchies of data to build a fast credit profile. How could that same evolution occur with transcripts so that the digestion issues at admissions offices can be addressed? Again, we are seeing technology well on its way to catching up in this area. Exchanges like the Competencies & Academic Standards Exchange, the CCR Framework, and the Exact Alignment Platform allow institutions and curriculum providers to associate achievements across content, standards, and competencies of different credential providers, publishers, departments, schools, and colleges. After the creation of the FICO score in 1989, it was the creation of neural networks that analyzed variables to look for fraud in the early 1990s that took the score into the mainstream. Machine learning and artificial intelligence today will similarly power these academic exchanges and associated credential crunching hubs. The FICO score started with a global score and developed into sector-specific scores, as algorithmic solutions with larger capacities to analyze data were enabled. The credit score world has evolved into major credit bureaus like Experian and Equifax, and perhaps we will see similar bureaus in education serving community colleges, selective colleges, Pell grant providers, and school voucher issuers.
In the hands of the owner, a score and a transcript with transparency have enormous predictive and planning value for life decisions. It can test reality and expose bias. Is it too farfetched to see next-generation transcripts, credentials, and academic credit scores evolving into equity enabling applications like PayPal and Lending Tree, where consumers can apply without revealing their identity, and ask anonymously for bids of interest from lenders? Will we see a system in the next 10 years where a student can assert his/her credentials to an exchange that hides identity information but tests real interest from a college? Apply-Pal?
If one thing is clear, the pieces are falling into place. A new world is emerging and perhaps a level playing field.