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PDF Transcript Best Practices - Expiration

January 21, 2016

A decade ago technology and functionality collided, resulting in a new format for academic transcripts.  The adoption of PDF formatted high school and collegiate transcripts has exploded in recent years with millions of transcripts being securely exchanged between the originating schools and countless numbers of receivers.  As is true with all technology adoptions, best practices have emerged that maximize the functionality for the end user.  After all, it’s not about the technology itself but rather is all about using the tool to improve process and usability.  This series of articles describes these best practices.

PDF (Portable Document Format) is an open standard originally developed by Adobe© in the early 1990’s.  Over the past 25 years, the PDF standards continue to emerge and represent the most ubiquitous form of exchanging documents across various technology and software platforms.  

In the early 1990’s the gold standard for transcript format was the printed document on “secure” paper.  Secure paper is intended to prevent fraudulent duplication or modification of the document and is also intended to provide definitive information regarding the document’s origination.  With the advent of sophisticated desk-top publishing and the emergence of diploma mills, the security of secure paper has diminished. 

Data exchange technologies such as EDI and XML have been available for many years but adoption rates have been slow due to the investment commitments for the both the sender and the receiver.  By contrast, the investment commitment for PDF formatted transcripts is very minimal.

In this five part series, the following best practices for sending and receiving PDF transcripts will be examined:

  • Part 1 – Expiration
  • Part 2 – Security and Authenticity
  • Part 3 – Content
  • Part 4 – Service
  • Part 5 – PESC Standards

PDF Best Practices – Expiration

Academic transcripts are point-in-time documents that represent the student’s academic progress and achievements.  Over time the content of the student’s transcript may change due to the addition of new courses, awarding of degrees, possible grade changes, and other progress-towards-degree information. 

There are many different uses of academic transcripts.  College admission officers are looking for high school courses and graduation.  Employers often request the applicant’s transcript(s) looking for specific academic accomplishments (courses, grades, degrees).  Graduate schools seek the applicant’s performance as an undergraduate student.  Scholarship awarding organizations are measuring the performance of the student.  And on and on.

In all cases, the receiver’s use of the transcript is not once-and-done:

  • There may be multiple readers (i.e. “the committee”) of the transcript and this total review may take weeks or months to complete
  • The transcript may just be one of multiple documents the applicant is providing; there may be delays in starting the review process awaiting receipt of all required documents
  • The received record may be archived in the receiver’s document imaging system or database as part of the applicant’s portfolio
  • In any event, there may be a substantial time delay between the receipt of the transcript and the actual use of the transcript.

A technology feature that is sometimes incorporated into the PDF transcript specifies a “time-to-live” value, whereby the transcript is no longer accessible after the time-to-live value has passed.  The time-to-live value is established by the school providing the transcript but negatively impacts the receiver’s ability to use the transcript.  In the paper world, this feature would be the equivalent of the providing school entering the receiving school’s file cabinet and shredding the transcript after the time-to-live deadline passed.  A practice that no receiver would accept!  The best practice of PDF transcripts is to not use any time-to-live limitation; PDF transcripts should live in the receiver’s environment until, and if, the receiver decides to expunge the document.

As a work-around to this frustrating expiration, the receiver is typically forced to follow a time consuming, and technological silly process, of printing the PDF transcript to paper, scanning the printed copy, and saving the scanned copy into the institutional document imaging system.  Further complicating this work-around, in some cases the printed transcript contains background information Such as “copy, copy, copy” rendering the imaged document difficult to read.

The time-to-live feature results in complex, unnecessary and convoluted business process work-flow for the receiver that needs to maintain the received transcript.  The best practice is to accept the PDF transcript, unrestricted by a time-to-live deadline, and directly import the document into the imaging system.

Credentials Solutions adheres to this PDF Best Practice and never imposes a time-to-live restriction onto the receiver.  PDF transcripts delivered by Credentials Solutions can be easily imported directly to the receiver’s document imaging system without any additional processing.

In the next article, we will examine the Best Practices for PDF transcripts – Security and Authenticity.

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