Cornell University Electronic Student Records Systems Project Report

return to index

1 Introduction

Cornell University received an 18-month grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) in 1998 to identify the policies needed in an academic setting to preserve and provide access to electronic records. The planned implementation of a comprehensive, university-wide system that would incorporate all core university systems, including student records, seemed to provide an ideal opportunity to address electronic records issues. Various factors interfered with the original plan, including severe problems with the PeopleSoft implementation; an inability to address archival concerns as a result of the software implementation collapse; and the eventual departure of the project archivist. Due in large part to the efforts of the University Archives during the early phases of the project and the lessons learned during the failure of the software implementation, the University has become much more receptive to archival concerns.

Once the software implementation stalled, it was not possible to complete the NHPRC project as planned. Cornell restructured the project, with input from NHPRC, to focus on defining archival requirements for electronic student records systems. This report is the result of the restructured project. Cornell student records provide examples that support and illustrate the findings. 1

1.1 Scope

The main purposes of this report are to:

To the extent possible, the report:

The following diagram presents the scope of the restructured project. The report does not address student health records, judicial (disciplinary) records, financial aid records, or bursar records. These are special categories of records with separate controlling regulations, retention requirements, and/or access considerations. Essential admissions information for students who are accepted and attend the university is transferred to student record.

The diagram also identifies components of a student record as recognized by American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). The transcript has tended to be the focus of student records programs as it is the most frequently requested document over time. From its inception, AACRAO has devoted extensive resources to the definition of transcript data elements, the identification of mechanisms for the secure control and delivery of authentic transcripts, and the implementation of electronic transcript systems. 2 Course descriptions and syllabi are particularly interesting components of the academic record. These components are of increasing importance within universities with the implementation of distributed computing, the development of distance education programs and course Web sites, and the rising need to submit evidence, beyond the transcript, of degree requirements and content.

Though there has not been much focus on preservation issues for electronic student records systems, recordkeepers have produced a number of publications and undertaken some research projects that address the records of universities. 3 One of these publications provides another way of considering the scope of this project. In Varsity Letters, Samuels uses functional analysis to identify seven main functions of universities: confer credentials, convey knowledge, foster socialization, promote culture, conduct research, provide public service and sustain institution. She then identifies records associated with these functions. 4 Her findings will be referred to later in the report, but her basic structure is useful at this point in looking at the scope of the project. Of the functions she defines, only ‘Confer Credentials’ and ‘Convey Knowledge’ fall within the scope of this project. It is entirely possible that records created under ‘Conduct Research’ may be records that fall within the scope of student records or the academic record, but this category may not apply to all universities and decisions about these records should be made at the institution level. All universities that do produce research records could not retain all of the records of research. These records require careful appraisal decisions. 5



1.2 Background

Student records are a core record system of universities. These records provide basic evidence that students attended a university, met the relevant degree requirements, and graduated. 6 Given the reliance on these records and the need to provide broad access to the content of these records, it is not surprising that there have been electronic student records systems in some form at many universities, including Cornell, since the 1960s. Computers and telecommunications technology offer the possibility to capture student record information and to provide instant access to essential portions of that content, as needed and appropriate, to students, faculty, and administrators. Of course, these technologies also support distance and online options to register, pay, submit requests, provide information, etc. For preservation purposes, the capture of student records information is of primary interest. The impact of these technologies on student records is an underlying theme of the report.

Until recently, while records managers have been involved, to some extent, in retention issues for electronic student records, archivists have not generally addressed the preservation issues raised by these electronic systems. This is due to several factors: the importance of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) compliance to the registrar and to the university, the status of student records as a vital record of the Registrar, and the delayed archival custody that is inherent in managing vital records. These factors are covered in section 3.3 of this report, along with archival research projects that have or will address student records. If universities have not already had to face preservation concerns for electronic student records, they undoubtedly will soon. This report, in presenting the findings of the Cornell project, is intended to serve as a base and provide a context for universities to consider their electronic student records systems and to establish an appropriate preservation strategy.

1.3 Report framework

The above diagram presents the model of the project approach and reflects the structure of the report. The report is laid out in the following main sections with a number of appendices that serve important functions in presenting the project’s findings:

  1. Universal Systems Issues
  2. There are issues that are relevant for preservation, regardless of the type of system that is being considered. This section supports the overall intent of this report, to present a comprehensive picture of the issues. Therefore, section 2 covers general recordkeeping requirements and long-term access issues.

  3. Conceptual Issues for ESRS (Generic Concerns)
  4. There are considerations that pertain to electronic student records systems, but are not institution- or system-specific. Section 3 covers retention guidelines and records management concerns, the AACRAO metadata definition for academic records and transcripts, and archival concerns.

  5. Implementation Issues for ESRS (System-Specific Concerns)
  6. There are some issues that are defined by the system implementation and that may be specific to the organizational environment in which the system is implemented. Section 4 covers implementation options, including the Cornell example.

  7. Preservation Approaches and Strategies

    The preservation strategy that is adopted by an organization must be suited to the resources and requirements of the organization and the requirements of the records. Section 5 presents several potential options for the preservation of electronic student records.

  8. Conclusion

    Section 6 presents a summary of the findings of the project, including some recommendations for further research.


  1. Student Records Terminology
  2. As with many professionals, Admissions Officers and Registrars often use unfamiliar terminology or use terms interchangeably. The terms presented are intended to be informational and to highlight areas of potential confusion. It is not a comprehensive and definitive list of student records terminology. Some of the publications cited in Appendix D do contain more elaborate glossaries that may be of interest.

  3. Preservation Storage and Processing Considerations
  4. This appendix covers some preservation issues as background for university archivists and records managers who may not be familiar with electronic records preservation issues. This information does not reflect particular findings of this project.

  5. Electronic Preservation Program Guidelines
  6. Like Appendix B, these guidelines are included as background information. The guidelines may be of interest to readers, but the guidelines do not represent the findings of this project.

  7. Relevant Sources
  8. This is not a comprehensive list of sources on university records or specifically on student records. The project made every attempt to identify the most relevant and useful sources for university recordkeepers, to assist them in beginning to tackle preservation issues for electronic student records. The list includes hard copy publications and online resources.

  9. Meetings at Cornell, 24 July — 4 August 2000
  10. The notes document all of the meetings that were conducted for the restructured project. Much of the content is referred to in some way, but the notes do provide some interesting information individually.

  11. Relevant Research Projects
  12. These projects relate to systems in general, to student records systems specifically and to preservation metadata research. The appendix provides citations for online resources that are associated with the selected research projects.

  13. Student Records System Self-Assessment
  14. This self-assessment is based on a general electronic records preservation program self-assessment, the AACRAO self-assessment, and additional self-assessment areas identified during this project. Several of the projects listed in Appendix F should be consulted when selecting the approach to use for the self-assessment and in defining the questions to be included in the self-assessment.

  15. Student Records and Relevant C&U Chronology
  16. This chronology identifies milestones pertaining to student records, including AACRAO initiatives and recordkeeping activities.

  17. AACRAO Transcript and Database Metadata
  18. The table is a somewhat summarized of the AACRAO table in AACRAO’s Academic Record and Transcript Guide, 1996. It provides a comparison of the content of a transcript and a student record database. Sections 2.2, 3.0 and 3.2 of the report discuss the AACRAO metadata definition.

  19. Comparison of AACRAO Retention of Records and Cornell’s Policy 4.7, Retention of University Records
  20. This table contains a comparison of the AACRAO and Cornell retention schedules. Section 3.1 discusses the AACRAO retention schedule and related archival issues.

  21. Degree Audit: College of Arts and Sciences Example
  22. This description of the degree audit program developed by Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences illustrates some of the complexities and the options for degree audit programs. Degree audit is an increasingly important function for universities to verify degree credentials both at and beyond graduation.

  23. SPEEDE/ExPRESS Process
  24. This summary of the development and application of the SPEEDE/ExPRESS process provides some basic information on how the process works. AACRAO has a number of publications that provide more detailed information, which are listed in Appendix D. More and more universities are implementing this process.