For parents hoping to keep tabs on their college-bound kids this fall, schools have this advice: Get it in writing if you can.
Under federal law, colleges are barred from releasing information in a student’s record, including grades or disciplinary actions, without the student’s permission. There are certain exceptions to these rules, including when the school deems there is a health emergency. But parents are often dismayed to find that schools tend to err on the side of preserving a student’s privacy.
The issue of student privacy is getting increased attention in the wake of recent high-profile campus incidents, including the massacre at Virginia Tech in April in which a student killed 32 people. In that case, school officials believed privacy laws prevented them from reaching out to either the gunman’s parents or the authorities, despite noticing signs of disturbing behavior.
One potential approach to the communication issue is something called student privacy waivers. By signing such a document, students waive certain privacy protections so that schools may share their records with parents.
A number of colleges and universities offer privacy waivers for students to sign, in an effort to simplify decisions about when to release information, protect the colleges legally, and help parents get some information about their kids. College-privacy experts say that more schools have begun offering waivers in recent years, prompted by the growing ranks of “helicopter” parents. Today’s generation of hovering parents are accustomed to micro-managing their kids’ lives and they expect schools to cooperate, especially if they’re footing the bill for tuition.
Typically, colleges that have waivers inform parents of them in the fall, either at student orientation or in letters mailed to parents. Administrators explain that parents have no right to their child’s academic record under law, even if they are paying the tuition. Many also explain their philosophy that college is a place for young people to become independent. They then ask parents to have a discussion with their child about the waiver.
“If we ask students to waive their right to privacy, it’s more effective if the conversation starts with the parents and students,” says Ainsley Carry, dean of students at Temple University in Philadelphia, which began offering its waiver online four years ago.
Last year, more than 5,000 undergraduates at Temple elected to sign a waiver, out of a total student body of about 23,000. In a number of cases, Mr. Carry says, students and parents have walked straight from orientation to the dean’s office to hand in the waiver together.
Not all schools offer such waivers. And even for those that do, the document allows a school to share information, but doesn’t require it to. So schools sometimes still withhold details, often because the administrators themselves are unclear on what the waivers cover, say some parents and privacy experts.
The waivers are the result of the 1974 law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or Ferpa. The law which arose amid the women’s rights and civil-liberties movements of the era covers all information in a student’s educational record, including grades and reports of disciplinary action. Ferpa has several exceptions that allow colleges to share information with parents or authorities without a student’s written permission. These include when the school deems there is a “health or safety” emergency; if the parents declare the student a dependent on their taxes; or if the student gets a drug or alcohol violation and is under 21 years of age.
Because Ferpa allows schools to share information in certain situations but doesn’t require them to, many schools interpret the law differently. Some schools, such University of Tampa, in Tampa, Fla., agree to share information, even without a waiver, if parents claim their child as a tax dependent. Others the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, Wis., for example choose to give parents information without a waiver only in a “health or safety” emergency.
“Ferpa is about judgment,” says Joanne Berg, registrar and vice president of enrollment management of the University of Wisconsin. “And the bottom line is that students are building a trust relationship with the university they are trusting us to keep their information private.”
For many parents, asking a child to waive privacy rights raises complicated issues of independence and control. Elizabeth Montgomery Heinz confronted the issue this month when she dropped her 19-year-old son off at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to start his freshman year. While on campus, Ms. Heinz attended a parent orientation, during which administrators explained the privacy law.
Ms. Heinz asked her son, Alexander Heinz, if he would cooperate with his parents to draft a letter that would waive his privacy rights. (The university doesn’t offer its own preformatted waiver.) Ms. Heinz says her son said he would think about it, saying it felt like a violation of his independence.
“I emphasized that I do trust him to make responsible decisions on his own,” says Ms. Heinz, of Berkeley, Calif. “But it’s an issue of what can I do as a parent to help him long distance.” Alexander Heinz declined to comment.
Privacy experts say that it’s best for parents to have these discussions long before a problem arises. “A meaningful conversation that takes place before junior packs the station wagon can be very edifying,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, based in Washington.
Parents can call the registrar or dean of students and ask what their son or daughter needs to do to allow them access to the academic record. If the school will share information with parents who claim their child as a dependent on their taxes, parents should notify the school in writing of the child’s dependent status.
If a school doesn’t offer a preformatted privacy waiver, parents can help their children write a letter of consent. The key, experts say, is to be specific. In addition to the student’s name, identification number and the date, the letter should state exactly what information the student would like released grades, disciplinary information or something else and the names of the people he or she would like it share it with. “So you can’t say, ‘I waive my Ferpa rights,'” says Peter Lake, director of the Center for Higher Education, Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law, in St. Petersburg, Fla. “But you can say, ‘I want my records to be released to my parents.'”
Still, even when students sign waivers, schools sometimes fail to share information with parents, as Eric Buchroeder found out. Last year, his son, Patric Buchroeder, signed a waiver while a freshman at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. His father also signed an affidavit stating that he claims his son as a dependent.
By the time second semester rolled around, Patric’s GPA had dropped and he had been told that he was going to lose his scholarship, his dad says. Mr. Buchroeder called his son’s academic adviser to discuss the situation. “I told them I had filed a waiver with the registrar, but that didn’t mean anything to them,” he says. “They said that just gives you the ability to talk to the registrar.”
Ultimately, Mr. Buchroeder, who lives in Cincinnati, says he had to fax and email approval forms to the school several times before anyone would speak to him about his son’s situation. Patric Buchroeder didn’t return a call seeking comment.
“A waiver permits access to student information, but it doesn’t automate the flow of information,” says Deborah S. Leliaert, vice president for university relations at the University of North Texas. “In most cases, it’s incumbent on the parent to make an inquiry.”
Some tips to help parents keep tabs on kids away at college:
Discuss the privacy issue with your child and reach a family decision on whether to grant the school written permission to share information.
If the school doesn’t offer a waiver form, help your child draft a letter to sign.
– Associated Press
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