The Secure Transcript:
Survey of U.S. Universities' Use of the SSN on Academic Transcripts (Titus)


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Copyright © 2007-2014
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Posted May 11, 2007

 Contributed by Aaron Titus

http://www.aarontitus.net/privacy/

Summary

Most universities have moved away from using students' Social Security Numbers as their Student ID, but because the SSN continues to be a convenient identification number, ancillary higher education organizations, such as lending institutions, continue to use the SSN as a universal identification number.  As a result, some universities which have otherwise discontinued using the SSN as a student ID, continue to print the student's SSN on academic transcripts and official documentation. 

Though academic transcripts should be treated as secure documents, students are often required to disseminate dozens of transcripts to entities with which they will have only one-time contact, most of whom have no need for the SSN.  Despite the dangers, the national registrar association, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), recommends printing the SSN on transcript, and says that 79% of American colleges did so, in 2003.  However, this 2007 survey indicates that now only 26% of US News and World Report's top 126 colleges and universities mandatorily print the SSN on academic transcripts.

Background

The 2000 US Census reports that 52% of the population over 25, or 94 million people, have attended some college, and therefore potentially have an academic transcript. (http://www.censusscope.org/us/chart_education.html, accessed 5 May 2007).  Universities use transcripts to transfer credit.  Potential employers use them to verify class standing.  Financial institutions, private study abroad corporations, organizations awarding scholarships, and a wide range of other public and private institutions require academic transcripts for a variety of reasons.  Before and after graduation, a single student may send dozens of transcripts to organizations with which he may have only passing contact.

Very few of these organizations, including potential employers, have a legitimate need for students' Social Security Numbers. But each time a student sends a transcript to an organization or prospective employer, the transcript information is usually captured digitally, logged in a database, and stored indefinitely.  Since names, birthdates and SSNs are often printed on academic transcripts, these documents pose a potential risk to students and former students, if the information is misused or mishandled.  Risk of data breach or identity theft increases proportionally as the student's personal information is stored in more databases and paper files.

Most of the time, students can easily provide their Social Security Numbers to organizations with a legitimate need, using other methods than an academic transcript.  Though employers need the SSN in order to report taxes, most potential employers don't have a legitimate need for the information.  The Washington, D.C. Attorney General warns, "avoid providing your social security number or other personal information to prospective employers until you have verified the legitimacy of the organization and their need to verify your background." (http://occ.dc.gov/occ/lib/occ/id_theft_tips.pdf, accessed 5 May 2007).  Countless other Attorneys General, state agencies, and experts across the country publish similar warnings.  A few states have even outlawed placing the Social Security Number on transcripts and other academic documents altogether.

Survey Results & National Trends

Despite the potential risks posed to students and former students, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) currently recommends that universities print SSNs on academic transcripts for convenience and universality.  In fact, their most recent publication addressing this issue, the AACRAO 2003 Academic Record and Transcript Guide, reports that 79% of national colleges and universities print the SSN on transcripts. AACRAO is the recognized national authority in the University Registrar field.

I conducted a new survey of US News & World Report's top 126 national universities in mid-January, 2007, to complement AACRAO's four-year-old data.  The purpose of the survey was to determine the current practices of leading national colleges and universities, with respect to printing students' Social Security Numbers on official academic transcripts.  Representatives from all 126 registrar offices responded to the following questions:

  • Question 1: Is a student's Social Security Number printed on official transcripts?
  • Question 2: If so, may students request that their social security number be withheld from the transcript?

The responses varied from "No," to categorically "Yes."  Of the many universities that answered no, several indicated that they withheld the SSN for privacy reasons, and one representative mistakenly explained that the privacy provisions of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibited them from printing Social Security Numbers on transcripts.  Other registrars were more direct.  The UC Davis registrar replied simply, "the answer is 'no'."  Others, like Boston University, include only "the last four digits of your SSN."  Several university registrars explained that the SSN would appear on older university transcripts because they are stored on microfilm, which are not editable.  One or two colleges, such as Colorado State University, indicated that they planned to discontinue printing the SSN on transcripts in the near future.

A few, like Texas Christian defended their practice of mandatorily printing the SSN on transcripts by appealing to AACRAO's recommendations: "Following AACRAO... recommendations we print the SSN on the transcript… as one step in reducing fraudulent use of academic records.  AACRAO states the official transcript is a secure document that contains a large amount of confidential data all of which should be kept secure.  In addition, in most cases, the transcript will be provided to those (schools and employers) who already have the SSN.  We do not accept requests to withhold the SSN from the transcript."

The responses were divided into four groups:

Category A: Colleges and Universities which did not print the SSN on academic transcripts.  Most of these colleges print the Student ID Number, instead.
Category B: Colleges and Universities which print only a partial SSN on academic transcripts.
Category C: Colleges and Universities which print the full SSN on academic transcripts by default, but allow students to withhold it upon request.
Category D: Colleges and Universities which mandatorily print the SSN on academic transcripts.

Six colleges indicated that they include the full SSN on transcripts, but did not specify whether students could withhold it upon request.  For purposes of this study, those six were placed in category D.  The survey ignores indications of imminent policy changes—it represents a snapshot of practices during the month of January, 2007.

The results of the 2007 survey contrast sharply with AACRAO's 2003 data:

AACRAO 2003 Survey
of National Colleges & Universities

January 2007 Survey
of US News & World Report's Top 126
Colleges & Universities

AACRAO 2003 Survey of National Colleges & Universities January 2007 Survey of US News & World Report's Top 126 Colleges & Universities In 2003, more than ¾ of national colleges & universities reported using the SSN on transcripts, according to AACRAO. In January 2007, only ¼ of top national universities mandatorily printed the full SSN on transcripts.

Category A: Colleges and Universities which did not print the SSN on academic transcripts.  Most print the Student ID Number, instead.

Category B: Colleges and Universities which print only a partial SSN on academic transcripts.

Category C: Colleges and Universities which print the full SSN on academic transcripts by default, but allow students to withhold it upon request.

Category D: Colleges and Universities which mandatorily print the SSN on academic transcripts.

Findings

As of January 2007, roughly 2/3 of nationally ranked universities printed a Student ID or only a partial SSN (such as the last 4 digits) on official transcripts.  For instance, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and Duke do not use students' SSNs on transcripts at all, while Georgetown and Berkeley print only the last four digits.  14 nationally ranked schools print the SSN on transcripts, but allow students to withhold it upon request.

Several possible explanations for the contrast between the two surveys may exist.  First, the 2007 survey sampled only nationally ranked colleges and universities.  Presumably, the 2003 AACRAO data includes a much broader sample of colleges.  The absence of local community colleges on the 2007 survey may account for some of the difference, since smaller schools may not have as much funding to overhaul record-keeping systems.  However, if nationally ranked colleges serve as a bellwether for national trends in this area, the 2007 survey may also indicate a sea change in how universities treat students' SSNs.  Regardless, only a small minority of nationally ranked colleges and universities now mandatorily print the SSN on academic transcripts.

I presented these findings to AACRAO in a February 2007 letter, and requested that they review their 2003 data and resulting recommendations.  As of the date of this article, AACRAO has not responded to my letter.

I also presented the results to the George Washington University administration in Washington, DC.  Presently, the university mandatorily prints the SSN on all academic transcripts.  However, as a result of this survey, GW University has committed to change their transcript policy, and will allow students to withhold the SSN from transcripts upon request in the near future.

Conclusion

Students and former students should be aware of the risks associated with disseminating academic transcripts, and check their university's transcript policy.  If the policy does not provide sufficient protection, students should push registrars to meet their privacy needs.  With persistence, many registrar offices will work with students to come up with creative solutions, on an individual basis.

In the current atmosphere of rising identity theft, students and former students need the ability to control how and to whom their personal information is transmitted. Even among universities that have ceased using the Social Security Number as a student ID, University Registrars should become more aware of this issue, and the trend away from printing Social Security Numbers on transcripts.

About Aaron Titus

Aaron Titus works as a Program Manager at an Alexandria, VA non-profit association.  He is also attending the George Washington University Law School, specializing in Information Privacy Law.  When he's not busy being a proud father of two, he writes about privacy, and hosts several podcasts.  These include The Privacy Podcast (www.aarontitus.net/privacy), and Free Space (www.libertycoalition.net/liberty-coalition-podcast).

A summary of this article is available at http://www.aarontitus.net/privacy/index.php?id=13.

DATA

I have included a table of results.  Question 1 was, "Is a student's Social Security Number printed on official transcripts?" Question 2 was, "If so, may students request that their social security number be withheld from the transcript?"

Answers in the column labeled "Question 2 Answer" reference the question 1 answer.  Thus, if the question 1 answer was "Student ID," and question 2 answer is "Yes: Optional," it means: "Academic transcripts print the student ID, but the student ID may be omitted at the option of the student."

Where the answer to question 1 was "Student ID," the registrar indicated that the Student ID was not the SSN. "Category" references the descriptions and graphs below:



Category A: Colleges and Universities which did not print the SSN on academic transcripts.  Most of these colleges print the Student ID Number, instead.
Category B: Colleges and Universities which print only a partial SSN on academic transcripts.
Category C: Colleges and Universities which print the full SSN on academic transcripts by default, but allow students to withhold it upon request.
Category D: Colleges and Universities which mandatorily print the SSN on academic transcripts.

University

State

Question 1 Answer

Question 2 Answer

Category

University at Buffalo—SUNY

NY

Student ID

No: May Not Remove

A

American University

DC

Student ID

No: May Not Remove

A

University of the Pacific

CA

Student ID

No: May Not Remove

A

College of William and Mary

VA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Brown University

RI

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Pennsylvania State U.—University Park

PA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Drexel University

PA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

University of Tulsa

OK

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Cornell University

NY

Student ID

Not Specified

A

New York University

NY

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

NY

Student ID

Not Specified

A

SUNY—Stony Brook

NY

Student ID

Not Specified

A

New Jersey Institute of Technology

NJ

Student ID

Not Specified

A

U. of North Carolina—Chapel Hill

NC

Student ID

Not Specified

A

North Carolina State U.—Raleigh

NC

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Harvard University

MA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Boston College

MA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

MA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Clark University

MA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

University of Chicago

IL

Student ID

Not Specified

A

U. of Illinois—Urbana - Champaign

IL

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Loyola University Chicago

IL

Student ID

Not Specified

A

University of Iowa

IA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Howard University

DC

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Catholic University of America

DC

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Stanford University

CA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Univ. of California—Los Angeles

CA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

University of California—Davis

CA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Univ. of California—Santa Cruz

CA

Student ID

Not Specified

A

University of Arizona

AZ

Student ID

Not Specified

A

Virginia Tech

VA

Student ID

Yes: Optional

A

University of Utah

UT

Student ID

Yes: Optional

A

University of San Diego

CA

Student ID

Yes: Optional

A

Univ. of Wisconsin—Madison

WI

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Southern Methodist University

TX

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Vanderbilt University

TN

No SSN

Not Specified

A

University of Oregon

OR

No SSN

Not Specified

A

University of Rochester

NY

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Princeton University

NJ

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Dartmouth College

NH

No SSN

Not Specified

A

University of New Hampshire

NH

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Duke University

NC

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Wake Forest University

NC

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Univ. of Minnesota—Twin Cities

MN

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Michigan State University

MI

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Tufts University

MA

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Purdue Univ.—West Lafayette

IN

No SSN

Not Specified

A

University of Delaware

DE

No SSN

Not Specified

A

University of Connecticut

CT

No SSN

Not Specified

A

University of Denver

CO

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Univ. of California—Riverside

CA

No SSN

Not Specified

A

University of San Francisco

CA

No SSN

Not Specified

A

SUNY College of Env. Sci. and Forestry

NY

No SSN

Not Specified

A

Univ. of Massachusetts—Amherst

MA

No SSN

Yes: Optional

A

Yale University

CT

No SSN

Yes: Optional

A

Lehigh University

PA

Last 5 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Marquette University

WI

Last 4 SSN Digits

No: May Not Remove

B

Case Western Reserve Univ.

OH

Last 4 SSN Digits

No: May Not Remove

B

Columbia University

NY

Last 4 SSN Digits

No: May Not Remove

B

University of Colorado—Boulder

CO

Last 4 SSN Digits

No: May Not Remove

B

University of California—Irvine

CA

Last 4 SSN Digits

No: May Not Remove

B

University of Vermont

VT

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

University of Virginia

VA

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

St. Louis University

MO

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Univ. of Missouri—Columbia

MO

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

University of Missouri—Rolla

MI

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Northeastern University

MA

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

University of Kansas

KS

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

University of Notre Dame

IN

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Indiana University—Bloomington

IN

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Emory University

GA

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Georgia Institute of Technology

GA

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Georgetown University

DC

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

University of California—Berkeley

CA

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Univ. of California—San Diego

CA

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Univ. of California—Santa Barbara

CA

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Pepperdine University

CA

Last 4 SSN Digits

Not Specified

B

Iowa State University

IA

Last 4 SSN Digits

Yes: Optional

B

Boston University

FL

Last 4 SSN Digits

Yes: Optional

B

Washington State University

WA

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

University of Texas—Austin

TX

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Texas A&M Univ.—College Station

TX

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Baylor University

TX

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Texas Christian University

TX

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

University of Tennessee

TN

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Clemson University

SC

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

University of Pennsylvania

PA

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Carnegie Mellon University

PA

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Ohio State University—Columbus

OH

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Miami University—Oxford

OH

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Fordham University

NY

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

SUNY—Binghamton

NY

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Univ. of Nebraska—Lincoln

NE

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

University of Michigan—Ann Arbor

MI

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Johns Hopkins University

MD

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Brandeis University

MA

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Tulane University

LA

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

University of Kentucky

KY

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

University of Georgia

GA

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

University of Miami

FL

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Florida State University

FL

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

George Washington University

DC

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Colorado State University

CO

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Univ. of Southern California

CA

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

University of Alabama

AL

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Auburn University

AL

Full SSN

No: May Not Remove

D

Rice University

TX

Full SSN

Not Specified

D

University of Pittsburgh

PA

Full SSN

Not Specified

D

University of Oklahoma

OK

Full SSN

Not Specified

D

Univ. of Maryland—College Park

MD

Full SSN

Not Specified

D

Northwestern University

IL

Full SSN

Not Specified

D

California Institute of Technology

CA

Full SSN

Not Specified

D

University of Washington

WA

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Brigham Young Univ.—Provo

UT

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Univ. of South Carolina—Columbia

SC

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

University of Dayton

OH

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Ohio University

OH

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Yeshiva University

NY

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Syracuse University

NY

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Rutgers—New Brunswick

NJ

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Stevens Institute of Technology

NJ

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Washington University in St. Louis

MO

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MA

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Kansas State University

KS

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

Illinois Institute of Technology

IL

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

University of Florida

FL

Full SSN

Yes: Optional

C

 

Category A:

55

43.7%

Category B:

24

19.0%

Category C:

14

11.1%

Category D:

33

26.2%

Total

126

100.0%






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