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 naïve. 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?

What a great question! I'd ask your more successful students to help you out on ideas for a practical institutional repertoire: they're the ones who have had to negotiate the institutional-family boundaries in your specific location. There may be common ideas, but there are also going to be important local issues to pay attention to.

Easy first step: remove yourself from the filter and have a family orientation program run by complete family groups of successful students: student, parents, uncles, etc. Then sit in the back and take notes of the questions and answers. Accumulate them over several semesters and give them a reality-check with other students. Put them online in some form as an institutional resource.
really simple way to deal with it: give students the option to designate people who their information can be discussed with.
It's only a cloudy issue if your underlying assumptions are fundamentally flawed.*

Information relevant to how the money is being spent/wasted should be available to those spending the money (including real-time attendance and quiz performance data).

If mom & dad are paying the bills, mom & dad should get *all* information relevant to the performance of the student.

If taxpayers are paying the bills, then *all* information relevant to the performance of the student should be in the public domain.

If the student wants that stuff to be private, well, the student should pay their own way.

*Funny how that applies to a lot of "nuanced issues" nowadays! "Nuance Is As Nuance Does" I suppose.
What we need is a "Sarbanes Oxley" requirement for those taking money from "investors" in academia!
I really like Sherman Dorn's suggestions.

I'd add that I think first-generation students (of which I was one) rely more on ill-informed familial support networks when they don't have strong support from those in the know into academic culture. I had a ton of support on the front end from my high school (because I was a strong student, though - I suspect less strong students didn't get that mentoring) and a ton of support in my first year (because I was enrolled in my university's honors college). I had people who knew how to speak the language mentoring me - if I'd had only my family for support, then I probably would have dropped out. Not because my family didn't support my efforts, but because they didn't (and still don't) have the first clue about how to negotiate academic bureaucracy.

I think the trick is to value those outside supports for what they are - moral, emotional, and yes, sometimes financial - but at the same time to communicate to students that they *own* their own education and educational experiences, and thus, they need to learn the skills that will help them to have the most success. Things that are central to this:

1) Strong advising, which isn't just about scheduling classes but that also addresses the ins and outs of navigating academic bureaucracies. This can come in the form of one-on-one advising, Intro to University classes, etc.

2) Getting faculty deeply involved in mentoring new students, whether in a primary advising role or just by having full-time people teaching first-year courses with small class sizes where they get to know their students. Learning communities (linked courses) are a great way to do this.

Both of the above happen at my institution. One thing that doesn't, which I think would be cool, would be to have some sort of mentoring program set up where new students could call on more seasoned ones for advice - like a peer advising program that would work sort of how peer academic support services (like writing centers) work.

This isn't to dismiss the centrality of students' non-academic support systems, but rather to emphasize that they need additional support systems in place in order to succeed. It doesn't help anybody when a student's parent calls to complain about a grade. The student doesn't all of a sudden turn around and become an A student, and the parent is never satisfied.
My former place of employ did exactly what postscript suggests - every student signed a FERPA waiver, so we had no excuse if the parents called up wanting to know why Child X had got a C - we had to talk to them. (It wasn't obligatory to sign the form, but everyone did.)

This was an expensive school with a very traditional-aged population, where most students were upper-middle class and had parents paying the bills, so I think a very different context from yours. Part of what parents were signing on for with that place was the "personal attention" to their children that meant being able to know everything that was going on in their educational lives. Usually such parents were well-educated themselves and so had a decent shot at knowing/understanding the rules, but I think they also really expected the school to continue as in loco parentis to their darlings.
My mom tried to get me to sign one of those waivers my freshman year, but I was like "f**k that woman!"...but I'm on the deans list at school, so theres nothing for her to be ~concerned~ about.

Some parents just cant let go.
We have a program called "New Frontiers" or something like that, for first-in-family-to-college, low income students, and students from other cultures. It provides quite a bit of support and mentoring to students AND their families, and some of the advisers there serve in a more "older brother" role, so the students are more comfortable seeking advice and help on touchy issues.

I assume they FERPA-waiver in the program as needed. It's a pretty good program; they have a high retention rate for students who are traditionally hard to retain. Their grades are markedly higher as well.
I think that FERPA says that if the parents are supporting the student, then the parents have access to the information. So for me it's merely a stalling tactic -- I can't talk to you until I get something official showing me that it's OK to do so.

My standard technique, though, is, "I would love to talk to you about this, but I can't until I have the paperwork showing it's OK. What I can do, though, is print out all the information you're looking for on department letterhead, sign it, and give it to the student (your child). It's entirely legal for your child to share that information with you."
My undergraduate institution - Trinity College in the University of Toronto - had an orientation session for parents of students and I know my parents really liked it. Indeed, later on, one of parents came to a European history lecture with me and found it engrossing (it was cool and that's with no family history of higher ed)..

Dean Dad, I think you have hit on an important point regarding institutional literacy. This is difficult to learn and I think administrators can play a role in helping. There are some rules that have exceptions, but the exceptions aren't well known. To give a personal example, I wanted to take an overload (i.e. higher than "regulation") slate of courses in the summer semester and it took some doing to find out about that.

In terms of encouraging independence, I think privacy laws paly an important role. There are a lot of situations where parents want students to do major x (perceived to lead to high pay and high status) whereas the student might not want to be a doctor. Students and their parents have to have that discussion by themselves.

One final point. My background is very definately middle class (didn't go into debt for undergrad etc), but there is no family history of higher education. I wonder if there could be someway of helping the families of first-generation students understand the mysterious university that it involves. Maybe offer parents and their students the chance to attend a short lecture (an hour, say) from a few popular first-year courses (e.g. psychology).
I like FERPA, but with the way the federal government has screwed with funding, often forcing parents to co-sign loans for their kids if the kids want to go to school, it can suck.

At SLAC, we're doing more and more hands-on advising. We just got an Assoc. Dean of Advising in A&S, and have a Freshman Advising program that is only improving. I think at the CC level AND at SLAC (we have a student population that is almost exactly like that of the CCs I taught at -- lots of first gen students), orientation sessions for the family would be good. Of course, this would require Student Services and Admissions to actually work with the Academic side ... we don't really know how to advise, you know!
FERPA does not prohibit sharing a student's academic information with parents *if the student is declared as a dependent for federal income tax purposes*. For traditional aged populations such as my SLAC, that means pretty much every student. Nonetheless, we ask students to affirmatively sign a form that acknowledges this information so that we don't need to "stall" to confirm the parents' right to the information. The form also serves the purpose of, we hope, having students and parents engage the conversation about who gets what info and why.

As for finding constructive ways to bring support networks in, I would make two comments:

1. First-generation college students and their parents clearly require more "orientation" as they are often unfamiliar with the tacit rules of the culture of academia.

2. One way to deal with overly intrusive parents is to give them something to do that doesn't take ultimate responsibility from students. Our strategy has been to use parents/family orientation as a time to help families know the resources we offer and the processes to deal with problems. So when Student calls Parents asking them to get some help or fight a battle, Parents can say "have you gone to the academic resource office in College Hall yet?" or "Have you talked to your academic advisor about taking that pass/fail?" Using parents as ways to reinforce that a) the resources are here and b) it is the student's responsibility to take action is about the best way to make parents feel like they are "doing something" without doing it FOR the student.
What Horowitz writes is only partly correct. You cannot disclose anything to a parent unless that dependency relationship has been documented by submission of the parent's income tax form for the most recent tax year in conjunction with the request. That would require new documents as early as spring of the freshman year. That is not a "stall", it is the "law". In contrast, a signed consent form can probably remain in effect until the student retracts it, which is no doubt why your institution chooses the second route.

In any case, you would need to see the consent form or the proof of dependency before you release any records (e.g. talk to a parent). You can't assume it is there.
You are an incredibly smug and arrogant card-carrying administrator. Typical of the bunch. I often wonder how that attitude would change if you didn't have FERPA to hide behind. I wonder how you would treat the tuition paying parents, parents who really love their kids and want to see them succeed, if you were actually accountable to those who are footing the bill.

If you think students should be treated like adults then when they turn 18 and are assumed adults, why not make them instantly independent in the eyes of FAFSA so when you determine their financial awards, you are truly starting from ground zero and not relying on the baseline of parental income? Because at heart you are a hypocrite and the bottom line is always money--not privacy. FERPA has created monsters out of administrators. You really think of yourselves as lofty, idealistic, self-righteous and self-appointed missionaries charged with protecting young adults from their evil, ignorant and interfering tuition paying parents.

My son went to Manhattanville College and experienced a serious personality change. Unfortunately we were very stupid, as you implied most parents are, and turned to the card carrying administrators/missionaries for help. The Director of Counseling as well as the VP of Student Affairs bought our son's story of coming from an abusive home--without once offering us recourse to due process or questioning the veracity of his claims--immediately advised him to put us on a PNG list and threatened us with arrest if we set foot on campus. But then our son tried to use the same claim of abuse to achieve his legal and financial independence and appealed to the same card carrying administrators to have him released from the status of being our tax dependent but in that case the school felt there wasn't enough "evidence" to support his claims and denied him true independence. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. Since then he has dropped out and disappeared and we are spending thousands of dollars trying to locate him. The card carrying administrators are sleeping well at night secure in their snugly FERPA blanket of a job well done.

Your tone and attitude reveal your contemptuous disdain for the real worth of family love and involvement in a student's life. Here, you are in a position of teaching young people how to be accountable to society and yet your accountability is non-existent. FERPA combined with Tenure are great shielded platforms to waggle your finger from. If only everyone had it as good as you. Every once in a while you should try wiping the frosting off your face.
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