Sorting Out Who's Who
Matthew Pittinsky and Parchment inc. are revolutionizing the analysis of academic credentials
By Patricia Lamiell
In today’s highly competitive knowledge economy, education credentials are in many ways the coin of the realm. Nowhere is this truer than in the college admissions process. Yet the fates of students and institutions alike have been tied to paper-based transcripts, with nonstandardized formats that too often fail to make essential academic performance data transparent.
“While we take for granted many services in our online lives, transcripts and related data have not been unlocked to help students explore which colleges are most likely to take an interest in them and cue colleges about which high schools are likely to best prepare students for their programs,” says Matthew Pittinsky (Ph.D. ’08, Sociology in Education). “Paper-based transcript exchange consumes much-needed resources at both sending and receiving institutions.”
Parchment Inc., a Scottsdale, Arizona, company led by Pittinsky, markets two online services to address these issues. Docufide.com, a web-based, password-protected transcript exchange network, allows participating high schools, higher-education institutions and employers to securely share electronic transcripts. Parchment.com is the company’s free, web-based service that helps transcript owners (students) to establish a secure credential account and to put their data to work in the college admissions process—for example, by identifying institutions where they are most likely to be accepted and to thrive.
“The whole notion of credentials should be more about the substance of what you have learned than the status of the institution where you learned it,” says Pittinsky, who is perhaps best known for Blackboard Inc., the pioneering e-learning company he cofounded in 1997. “As long as credential data are fragmented and paper-based, their power to reflect that kind of substance is limited. Docufide.com and Parchment.com enable us to aggregate data and mine the most essential information.”
Docufide.com was launched in 2003 by Docufide Inc. Pittinsky joined the company as CEO in January 2011 and subsequently rebranded it as Parchment. The Docufide electronic transcript database now includes information from about one-third of all U.S. high schools, and its transcript volume has doubled each year for the past four years, reaching 1.6 million in 2011. Colleges and universities use the electronic transcript data from Docufide not only to make admissions decisions, but also to help in the placement of students in first-year courses and to figure out what kinds of prior academic experiences predispose students to succeed at their institutions. For example, over time, a college can track how students who took advanced calculus at a particular high school fared in its own civil engineering program. The high school can access that same information, enabling it to adjust its curriculum if necessary and to counsel students as early as freshman or sophomore year about which courses to take and what grades would be required to get into that college’s civil engineering program. Pittinsky calls such a feedback loop between high schools and colleges “the Holy Grail of longitudinal data systems.”
While Docufide.com is an institution-oriented service, Parchment.com, launched last year, helps applicants. Parchment.com enables applicants to go online and compare their own profiles to those of successful students at schools and programs they are considering. The site helps students find colleges that are good matches for them and predict how successful they might be there. Pittinsky believes Docufide.com and Parchment.com together make the college admissions process more transparent and efficient.
Parchment Inc. faces some challenges. Its business model is predicated, to some extent, on enabling institutions and individuals to mine statistical information. But as Pittinsky notes, the company’s statistical analyses are only as good as the information that high schools and colleges provide. In addition, colleges have come more recently than high schools to the use of electronic transcripts. Many colleges are still unfamiliar with the notion of an electronic transcript intermediary, and even when they are interested in using one, they may only just now be developing practices that leverage transcript data beyond the admissions process.
However, a growing number of higher-education institutions are moving away from using standardized entrance exam scores to evaluate applicants, precisely because, in their view, these tests don’t give a clear picture of an applicant’s real potential. Instead, many are basing decisions on materials that can’t be reduced to statistics, such as essays, interviews and letters of recommendation, and this makes deep mining of nonstandardized data on transcripts and applications all the more important, Pittinsky says. “Transcripts tend to be more valued as standardized-score use goes down.”
Pittinsky is an experienced data analyst as well as a successful entrepreneur and businessperson, but education is his first love. His mother taught school on Long Island for 30 years, and his father was a college administrator. “Education is in my blood,” he says. “It’s what motivates me.”
Pittinsky earned his bachelor’s degree in education policy from American University, where he studied to be a middle-school social studies teacher. He received his master’s degree in education from Harvard and then came to Teachers College, where his dissertation research was about how students’ in-class friendships, as perceived by teachers, influence teachers’ academic expectations. Also at Teachers College, Pittinsky worked with the Gottesman Libraries’ EdLab unit to create a prototype for the Networked Education Database (NED), a network of Internet-enabled school information systems similar in concept to Docufide.
In 2008, after graduating from TC, Pittinsky left the full-time management of Blackboard Inc., which had gone public in 2005, to return to academia as a faculty member in the Sociology Department at Arizona State University. He remained Chairman of Blackboard’s Board of Directors until 2011, when the company was sold to Providence Equity for $1.7 billion and taken private.
What’s up next for Parchment? Pittinsky hopes private businesses eventually will use the company’s technology to improve employee recruitment and hiring. Businesses could benefit from the operational efficiency and analytic applications of credentials data, he says. “Companies from Walmart to IBM are looking to credentials as a proxy for what we know, how well we know it and who we are, in a sense,” he says. “Knowing that an applicant took higher-level math is valuable information.”