Revising transcript access: A plan to prevent prejudging students while not hindering professors’ work

A recent College Council (CC) meeting raised the issue of faculty’s open access to student and alumni transcripts. CC and the Committee on Educational Affairs discussed the issue, and we commend their efforts to engage the community in dialogue around open access. We propose that the policy should change from all faculty having unfiltered access to student and alumni transcripts to faculty having access specifically for advising or recommending purposes.

As it stands, the registrar allows faculty open access for “legitimate use to discharge [a professor’s] responsibilities as a College employee.” Students are left wondering what qualifies as legitimate use, how often their transcripts are being accessed and who exactly is accessing them. We do not have reason to suspect that this access is abused but are concerned given the lack of data on the frequency of access. We are worried that open access to student transcripts may lead professors to make subconscious judgements or unintentionally set expectations for students before they have met them. While we do not think faculty access transcripts with ill intent, viewing past grades before meeting students may lead to the formation of implicit biases, a theory demonstrated in Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s study “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” This study revealed empirically that when teachers expect certain students to perform better, even if those expectations have been randomly assigned, those students will, in fact, improve in performance. Conversely, those with randomly-assigned lower expectations performed worse. We therefore recommend that faculty do not have open access to student transcripts to mitigate the creation of such biases.

As it stands, professors may access transcripts when advising students, matching tutorial partners and dropping students from over-enrolled courses. We believe that using a student’s past grades or GPA to determine tutorial pairings is unfair, as GPA may not always be an indication of a student’s potential to contribute to a particular tutorial. A tutorial setting is unlike a seminar or lecture, and therefore a student’s grades in other classes may not reflect their future performance in a tutorial. Furthermore, we believe that professors using past grades to determine whom to drop from over-enrolled classes goes against the liberal arts mission and possibly discourages students from exploring new interests and disciplines for fear of doing poorly and being excluded from a future class.

We recognize, however, that it may make sense to consider which classes students have taken when forming tutorial pairs or determining whether they would succeed in an over-enrolled class. Instead of acquiring this information from transcripts, though, we propose that professors use course interest questionnaires. Many professors already use these forms to get a holistic view of a student’s interest when deciding whom to drop from a class. A questionnaire that asks students directly about past classes would eliminate the need for faculty access to transcripts while increasing awareness about what information faculty use to make course drop selections.

We agree that advisors should retain access to their advisees’ transcripts in order to help these students choose courses, but we recommend that this access be limited to advisor-advisee pairings. In majors that do not assign advisors, the student would be responsible for giving their transcript to a professor prior to meeting with them.

Furthermore, we recognize that there are times when faculty access to a non-advisee transcript is necessary, such as when a student or alum asks a professor for a recommendation. We suggest that requests to view transcripts be filtered through an administrative office, such as the registrar’s, that could approve or deny the request based on the validity of the given reason. A list of what qualifies as valid reasons should be clearly outlined and available to students and faculty, increasing transparency regarding why a faculty member might access a student’s transcript. Alternatively, professors could ask students directly for their transcripts if they felt it necessary, such as when writing recommendations or making tutorial partners.

Ultimately, we trust professors to access transcripts in good faith but are concerned that implicit biases develop from open access. We believe that limiting access will not place an unnecessary burden on professors and will bolster the relationship between faculty and students, founded upon mutual trust.