With more than 80% of first-time freshmen applying to three or more colleges, it’s clear – students are shopping around now more than ever (NACAC, 2015). These smart consumers are creating a need for admissions offices to look at ways of making processes both more efficient and more user-friendly. One school of thought is to let the students self-report their grades. While this process can help with early-admit decisions and lends itself to showing how honest students are, considering the risk of admittance otherwise, self-reported grades don’t seem to be all they are cracked up to be.
We sat down with two experts to learn more about their stance on self-reported versus official grades and were excited to hear their answers.
Sr. Associate Director, Admissions Systems & Processing
Northern Illinois University
Mary Wagner, Ph. D
Director of Undergraduate Admissions
University of South Carolina
Tell me about the various application paths to apply for undergraduate admission at your college?
Crystal, NIU: Northern Illinois University (NIU) accepts paper and online applications.
Mary, USC: Students can apply to University of South Carolina (USC) via our university application, on our website, or through the Coalition application.
What documents are required to be considered for admission at USC/NIU?
Crystal, NIU: Freshmen students are required to submit an official high school transcript and official ACT or SAT scores. Transfer students are required to submit official transcripts from all colleges attended. If they are transferring with fewer than 24 hours, we also require they submit an official high school transcript and official ACT or SAT scores.
Mary, USC: For students attending high school, we allow them to upload unofficial copies of the transcript directly within the application for admission. Prior to submission, the student certifies that it is a true and accurate representation of their current academic record to date. The document is used for a preliminary evaluation, admission, and merit scholarship review. If the student ultimately enrolls, the high school must send the final official transcript after the student graduates.
When it comes to self-reported grades vs. required transcripts for undergraduate admissions, what are your thoughts?
Crystal, NIU: >We used to accept self-reported grades for admissions purposes, however, we no longer engage in this practice. We found, that for our students, entering detailed course by course grade information was a barrier in that it was more time consuming than it was to request an official transcript (particularly in IL where so many of the high schools send transcripts electronically using Parchment). We also had a very low participation rate for self-reported transcripts and for those, and a variety of other reasons, we went away from accepting self-reported grades.
Mary, USC: We were an early adopter in this space. A few years ago, we explored the use of the truly self-reported transcript where students hand-key the course names, grades, and credits directly into the application. This did afford some efficiencies for us but there were still a lot of unintentional errors on the students’ part. The process also dragged out the time it took to complete an application. Since accuracy is the primary goal, our current process of uploading the image within the application works well for us. We can read it and understand it, and students have more control over the application process as a whole. It’s worth noting that we rescind very few, if any, decisions based on misrepresentation during the application process. Students understand that it is a high-stakes situation. They don’t want to risk having their decisions rescinded later.
As you think about your admission process five years ago, compared to today, what are the two most impactful changes that have been made?
Crystal, NIU: The two most impactful changes that we have made to our admissions process have both surrounded automation. As the use of electronic forms of data exchange has become more common, the number of paper documents we receive has dropped dramatically. Electronic receipt of transcripts means we receive the documents sooner (often the same day they are sent) and we are able to load them to our system automatically reducing scanning and storage costs. This also allows a shorter time to decision for complete applications.
The second most impactful changes have been more incremental changes to our business processes to more fully automate operation, remove barriers, and eliminate inefficiencies. Examples of these efforts include: building a responsive online application that reduces student input errors; introduction of blanket fee waivers for school districts where all students qualify for free and reduced lunches, reducing the need for fee waiver forms (saving student, HS counselor & processing staff time and effort) as well as barriers for these student populations; and the creation of automated processes for routing of holistic review files along with better tracking, reporting and follow-up notifications to speed time to decision for these populations.
Mary, USC: The inclusion of an unofficial transcript at the time of application has been useful in prioritizing our application processing and review. We’ve also adopted a new CRM which affords more flexibility with handling incoming document images and indexing. We used to manually scan everything we received and now less than 20% of what ends up in our imaging system arrives on paper or by mail.
Looking ahead to the next two to three years of undergraduate admissions, what changes do you foresee?
Crystal, NIU: I see the continued need to do more with less. I believe there will continued reduction of paper credentials and continued growth in electronic transcripts. Also, in thinking about doing more with less, we hope there are more conversations about the data that accompanies transcripts. If more institutions sent data (GPA, rank, hours, etc) in the data files accompanying the transcripts, admissions offices would be able to reduce manual data entry and further speed the admissions process, among other time and cost saving benefits.
I also think there will be changes to the way schools grade students. Conversations are taking place all over about standards-based grading vs. competency-based grading and we, as admissions offices, will need to be responsive to these changes.
Mary, USC: Students will continue to apply to more schools to maximize their chances of admission as well as aid. Platforms that allow students more self-service and control over their college search and application process will become commonplace. People are busy and applying to college involves a lot of frenetic activity. Anything a college can do to remove barriers to applying will reap benefits. This includes using more preliminary information for the initial evaluation and strong back-end verification processes on the college’s end.
What advice do you have for your colleagues throughout the Undergraduate Admissions community when evaluating their undergraduate admissions processes?
Crystal, NIU: Look for the barriers, place yourself in the shoes of your students. For example, I spend time running application workshops in computer labs on campus during our Open House programs. Spending time in a room with students and parents as they navigate our application process has given us invaluable insight and allowed us to make changes to how we present things, how we ask things, and how our application works for students. All of which has significantly improved our application experience and reduced questions and phone calls.
Also, examine everything. It is easy to do things the way they have always been done, but you often find efficiencies in the most unexpected places. For example, we were drowning in application fee waiver forms. They are time-consuming for students, counselors, and our staff. So, we went looking for a way to reduce the paper or need to submit that form without getting rid of our application fee. We found that some of the largest districts in our area offer free/reduced lunch to all students in the district, which is a qualifying factor for an application fee waiver. We altered our application to grant fee waivers to students from those districts, eliminating the need for fee waiver forms from that population. You never know where you will find your solution.
Mary, USC: Be involved with testing your own application and enlist the help of friends with college-bound kids. The stuff we think is cool and easy may not be. We have to remember that for the vast majority of students, applying to college is very stressful. We also need to stop justifying our current processes with the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” defense. Technology constantly changes and students expect us to use it. If they can tell you’re not keeping up with them, they won’t stay behind for you.
A special thanks to Mary Wagner and Crystal Garvey for their input. Let us know where you stand on the discussion and what are the challenges you see when it comes to self-reported vs official grades.