It's no secret that the smooth inter-operation of software applications written by different people can be a powerful force in business. Just about every software company wants to have its own "platform" these days. Generally, making independently crafted programs communicate is a difficult task that requires careful planning, which usually means that an Application Programming Interface, or API, is needed in order to ensure that everyone speaks the same language. In Silicon Valley of late it has become chic to release APIs for products that are barely products at all, if only because the many entrepreneurs who work here hope that by emulating successful businesses that have APIs for their products, they too can make their own creations successful. Sadly, it doesn't work that way. Far from magically generating page views or profits, the best APIs exist to solve specific problems. Yet, despite the flurry of funding and development activity around platforms and syndication in the past few years, one problem remains in desperate need of an API.
You see it in the news all the time: "Executive Lies on Résumé." No matter how many times they're warned, people still can't seem to resist the urge to sugar-coat the truth about their educational backgrounds. No company or government agency intends to do a poor job of verifying applicants' backgrounds, but sometimes there are simply so many applications that calling university registrars all day to verify each and every one is simply an impossible feat. Yet in this day and age, it shouldn't even be necessary.
What we need is a uniform system with participation from all accredited universities for verifying school attendance and degree issuance. It would of course be ludicrous to simply post a long list of names online and expect it to remain impervious to abuse. Instead, a system requiring a school code, subject's name, degree type and year of graduation as inputs, and producing either a TRUE, FALSE, or year-of-premature-departure value as output, would suffice to drastically improve the process of handling job applications.
Right now, university registrars already provide this information when it is requested, so they would not have to do any work that they aren't already doing. The difference is that university employees would save time and energy by avoiding the inevitably busy signals that accompany fax machines, and the postage expenses (now one cent higher per envelope than last week) that are tied to paper letters.
Such a system could also have implications for social networks, which are frequently sources of information for the educational backgrounds of prospective hires. Individuals enrolled as students can typically be verified by their unique e-mail addresses containing the ".edu" suffix, but for graduates of colleges that do not offer their alumni lifelong e-mail addresses, verification is considerably more difficult. An API linked directly to alumni records would fill this gap.
Aside from the minuscule investment required to get the system (which is technically very simple) up and running, universities would have no significant costs associated with the implementation, and would actually start to save money shortly thereafter. Nationwide, university registrar staff undoubtedly spend tens of thousands of manhours processing requests from industry to manually verify graduates' backgrounds. An automated system would eliminate the most tedious aspects of that work.
It's possible that this system hasn't been created yet because universities feel that they should be able to gain something, namely money, from providing information about their graduates to companies with cash to spend, but this sentiment is misplaced if it exists. The benefits to universities are in the cost savings, and not the profit potential associated with a service that is currently free. Attempts of some universities to turn their filing cabinets into profit centers would simply cause hiring managers to favor candidates claiming degrees from other universities without similar pretensions.
No one can force universities to open their records, but they should. It's a win-win situation for education and industry, it will make lying on one's résumé a pointless endeavor, and with honest people no longer at a disadvantage, it will make the entire nation better off.
Aaron Greenspan is the author of the forthcoming Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.