Thursday, June 05, 2008

What FERPA Assumes

As a card-carrying administrator, I loves me some FERPA. FERPA is the privacy law that forbids us from discussing an individual student's performance, or schedule, with anybody other than the student – read: parents – without a waiver signed by the student. It comes in handy when I get irate calls from parents asking why Johnny got a C instead of the A he obviously deserved: “Gee, I'd love to discuss that with you, but federal law says I can't.” Good stuff. The folks over in Student Affairs consider FERPA pretty much the greatest thing since sliced bread.

But this story in yesterday's IHE triggered something. In a piece on how to improve student retention, the article notes that

Especially for first generation, low income students, family members are the most trusted advisers about colleges – even if those family members have no knowledge of colleges...In most cases where such students drop out, the first person they talk to about such a decision is a family member, so if colleges want to keep these students, they need to pay more attention to families.

I've actually seen this in action at in-person registration. Five or six people – parents, siblings, cousins, boyfriends/girlfriends – will accompany a prospective student, offering varying combinations of moral support; exhortation; (sometimes conflicting) advice; logistical arrangements (ride sharing, mostly); spokesman services (the bane of my existence -- “Johnny wants to be a Criminal Justice major.” I assume Johnny is capable of telling me that himself, if it's actually true); and money.

Probably as a result of the inadvertent lessons learned in the K-12 system, it's not unusual for families or support networks to come in as a united front. But this is exactly what we try to prevent, and FERPA is part of that.

In some ways, of course, we're right to try to prevent that. Part of the point of college, as opposed to the K-12 system, is that the students are assumed to be adults. As such, they shouldn't have to worry about us telling Mom on them. We assume that students do their own work, make their own choices, and control their own fates. (We don't always assume that they pay their own tuition, though, which leads to heated variations on the “what do you mean you can't tell me how he's doing? I pay his tuition!” conversation.) We leave 'in loco parentis' to the K-12 system. If Johnny can't bring himself to tell us what he wants, then lands someplace he doesn't like, then Johnny has learned a valuable life lesson.

But the clean and fast distinction between 'independent' and 'dependent' may not be a fair or accurate description of how many students actually live. And it assumes a level of institutional literacy – 'getting' the rules of the game – that may be widely shared in some circles, but often aren't here.

If Mom and Dad don't know the rules of college, they might not know what they don't know. So they'll pass on bad information in an attempt to be helpful. And if Johnny doesn't know the rules either, he may well listen. If we can't get to Mom and Dad, we may not know what bad information they're passing.

And to pretend that class scheduling is a purely academic function, separate from transportation considerations, is just na├»ve. Our students work around ride availability, family demands, and fluid job hours. It would be great if they all had the leisure that Aristotle thought was a prerequisite to contemplation, but that's not the world we live in. But to work those things out requires working with the entire group, and bringing knowledge of the rules of the game to bear. (“The class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Is it a problem if I can't always make it on Thursdays?” “Yes. Yes, it is.”)

We're still experimenting with – okay, sometimes struggling with – ways to balance the legitimate expectations of student privacy and autonomy with the realities of their embedded lives. We've found that separate but concurrent programs for parents (and significant others) during in-person registration can serve two purposes: it forces the students to tell us what they actually want, and it imparts valuable information to the support networks that they sometimes don't have. It helps, though it's obviously only a partial solution.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a graceful way of balancing a proper respect for adult autonomy with ways of actually addressing well-meaning but sometimes problematic support networks?