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Q&A: Nancy Davis Griffin, VP of Enrollment Management & Student Affairs for the University of Southern Maine

Nancy has worked in higher education for over 35 years. She’s worked directly in admissions as a Dean and a Director, and now she oversees admissions, financial aid, and a variety of other student services. She connects with admissions and prospective students on a daily basis.

How are applicants with non-traditional transcripts viewed by your institution and college admissions professionals generally? How do you handle non-traditional transcripts?

It’s important for parents and prospective students to understand that it is normal for transcripts to come in a variety of fashions. There isn’t really a “traditional” transcript anymore. Every high school or academy has developed and customized their own transcript. My admissions team knows this and are trained to read each unique transcript and all the information that’s presented. A lot of transcripts come to us with no [traditional letter] grades. They come to us with a variety of unique standards that schools are measuring their students on. So we are really used to and adapt well to a variety of different types of transcripts.

 

What are the most helpful things a mastery-based school can do to ensure its transcripts are clear, understandable, and helpful to admissions offices? What role do school profiles play in this process?

School profiles are great. They are one of the most important tools that we have in evaluating a transcript and looking at how the school is measuring their students. Profiles provide an intimate picture of the student population, the curriculum, the pedagogy, and all components that go into good teaching and learning at a school. 

Another key to understanding the school is our relationship with guidance counselors who work with students to prepare them for postsecondary opportunities. Having a relationship allows us to pick up the phone and talk to our colleagues in college counseling at these high schools to get a better sense of what they are measuring. Our admissions staff prides themselves on their ability to build relationships. 

Another thing that can be helpful is when schools help us with correlation studies. For example, if we really want to understand where a student is coming from and they attend Portland High School here in Portland, Maine, we might do a correlation study and look at other students from that high school and cross-compare it with how they did in some of their University of Southern Maine classes to get a sense of how those students might perform at our institution. Often, we will work with high schools to do those kinds of studies to make sure we’re reading the data correctly, which helps us more deeply understand how they are teaching—the curriculum, the pedagogy—and what standards they are trying to measure. 

 

What are the advantages of mastery-based transcripts, in your view? Are there any drawbacks?

The advantage is that, through a mastery transcript, we really get to know the students at a level that helps us make sure we’re admitting the student who is the best fit for our institution. It also helps us learn about each student and what courses they’d be best suited for at our institution. We get a lot more data from a mastery-based transcript than on a traditional transcript that just says, “Oh, Johnny got an A in Freshmen English,” for instance. We like to have more information—this helps us understand how the student learns and how we can help that student learn at our institution. 

On disadvantages, one might be if we don’t know the school or how to read the transcript. It is also difficult if the profile is not strong. But then we have tools if that’s the case: we would simply call the school. We might even visit, even if it is on the West Coast—there is so much we can do electronically now. I Skyped in and talked to a class in Texas to understand what they are doing, just recently.

I personally do not see a disadvantage to going to a mastery-based transcript. As a parent, they are concerned because they think colleges deal with so many applications and transcripts and letters of recommendation, [they wonder] how are we going to be able to read that transcript and make a good admission decision? But I want them to know that even though the volume of applications has increased over the years, we pride ourselves in honoring each and every student, and being able to read that transcript fairly and justly, in a fairly quick process so we can get decisions rendered for students. So I really truly do not see any disadvantages of having a mastery-based transcript—I only see advantages.

 

What are some things that a mastery-based school or an applicant from that school should avoid?

Yesterday, I was at a program and we had a group of college counselors speaking to every admissions counselor in the state of Maine—it was an admissions summit. We asked them about mastery-based transcripts. And one thing they shared with us was there is information they’re not putting on the mastery-based transcripts because they didn’t feel they had space, or they didn’t think we needed that information. And I would say that’s what they should avoid. I think the more information you provide about the student and how they learn and how the school measures students on standards, the better. The more information you give to me the better I can make sure that student is admissible and the better I can make sure that student is a good fit for an academic program. You need a different set of skills, for instance, for a STEM program versus a liberal arts one. So the more I know about their interests, the better. I also recommend helping colleges and universities understand how to read transcripts.

College counselors have told us that a lot of high schools are going to mastery transcripts. Some are going to give colleges both transcripts. I’m not sure they need to do that, but many of the schools have offered that as an option. But I don’t think this is something we need to be fearful of—I think it’s a great thing. The more you tell us about a learner, the better.

What advice would you give schools who are trying to talk to nervous families about non-traditional transcripts and college admissions?

I would want the nervous families to know that admissions professionals literally work with thousands of types of transcripts—we know how to read international transcripts, mastery-based transcripts, proficiency-based transcripts, regular graded transcripts. Really from any school. This is our job. We keep current with where each high school is and we know where students come from. It is part of our job to understand those schools, the curriculum, the rigor. 

And I would tell parents to trust us. But if they are really nervous, then they can help us by sending us more information about their child’s high school—what do they think we need to know about their son or daughter or the school. But most of the time, we are visiting the schools anyway. And that is not just meeting with students and conducting info sessions or college fairs—it’s also sitting in on a chemistry class or an English class to understand the curriculum and the rigor. We also know students who come from that school previously and how those students have done at our institution. We have a lot of data to make really good decisions. 

But after all that, if they are still nervous, just come meet us. Visit the school and talk to us in the admissions office. We’re happy to meet with families answer any questions they might have. But really, we are excited by the move to mastery-based transcripts. We know there is an evolution and we’re not fearful—we’re excited about mastery-based transcripts. We think it’s going to help us in our job.

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