We live in an on-demand, instant gratification society, and the old ways of doing business--paper, faxes, and even the overnight delivery of documents--no longer suffice. They're slow, expensive, and don't meet the delivery expectations of many customers. Universities are feeling this pinch as much as any other business. Paper is also difficult to secure and is too easily counterfeited.
These are the primary reasons why The Pennsylvania State University recently embarked on an effort to create certified and secure electronic academic records that can be accessed by anyone who is authorized and has an internet connection. Each year we receive about 120,000 requests from students and alumni for copies of their official transcripts. Penn State has provided the ability for transcripts to be ordered through our website for a number of years now. But an efficient ordering service alone was not sufficient. Depending on how early in the day students requested their transcripts be sent to another university or a potential employer, it might have been two to four days before the records were received. The best they could hope for was next-day delivery. We needed to provide faster service.
That all changed on January 24, when we went live with a system that makes it possible to send certified and secured copies of electronic transcripts within minutes. After careful evaluation, we chose to implement the Certified Transcript Services (CTS) solution from Adobe Systems and identity verification firm GeoTrust. While Penn State is the first university to take this step, we are certainly not the only school looking for ways to raise efficiency and security when it comes to issuing transcripts. There are several other universities that, like Penn State, are actively pursuing the adoption of this same technology. Nationally, there is a growing interest in providing the same benefit as is now being realized at Penn State.
This service allows us to create, store, and share certified Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) transcripts that look like the traditional paper versions and are highly tamper-proof. When recipients open a document using this service, they know that the academic records were created by Penn State and that the transcript has not been altered. In the event that someone alters the content of the document, it's clearly marked invalid upon opening.
The $6 fee we charge students and alumni for transcript orders does not offset the actual costs of producing and delivering a transcript when labor, supplies, and postage are all considered. So in that regard, the institution is saving money with CTS.
Beyond cost savings and improved customer service, I believe Penn State has taken a significant step toward thwarting the all-too-common fraudulent business of "diploma mills." It's no secret that there are hundreds of these mills in operation, and by many estimates, it's a billion-dollar industry. Just last summer the FBI closed down such an operation in Pennsylvania that certainly included fraudulent Penn State documents.
To fight such activity, we've traditionally relied on safety paper. It's very similar to the paper checks are printed on, in that photocopies and tampering are made obvious. While these tactics offer a degree of security, it comes nowhere near the high level of certainty that digitally signed electronic documents provide. Fraudsters are clever, and improvements in technology have made it too easy for them to ply their craft on paper. The CTS service eliminates the need for academic transcript recipients to guess whether the document is legitimate; they know just by looking at it.
And since receiving and opening the solution's digitally signed authenticated records requires only Adobe Reader, the service is convenient and gets used.
For all of these reasons, I'm convinced that in the near future, secure electronic document delivery will become the norm--no, the expected--way academic transcripts are delivered.
J. James Wager is assistant vice president for undergraduate education and the university registrar at Pennsylvania State University.