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Privacy Rights and Perplexed Parents:
Proactive Strategies for Institutions
Principal Consultant
RESCUU- Registrar & Enrollment Services
Consulting for Colleges & Universities
Published in Student Affairs Law & Policy Quarterly
Volume 1 Issue 1, July 2004

As college costs continue to rise, parents today are demanding a more active role in their student’s college education. Unobstructed access to their child’s education records seems natural to them.

Parents of college students often are perplexed when they are advised by college officials that they cannot have access to their child’s education records unless their child grants them such access. Parent response to such a statement usually is something like, “What do you mean I can’t have access to my daughter’s grades? I pay the bills.”

What is at play here is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 broadly referred to simply as FERPA. FERPA is the federal law that protects the privacy of student education records and the rights of access to those records. These rights belong to college students regardless of age once they attend a postsecondary institution. Except for some exceptions, college students control who has access to their education records including whether their parents can have access. Students generally must provide signed, written consent before their parents can access their education records. This is different from elementary and secondary school where privacy rights are vested in the parents until their child reaches the age of 18. This difference causes confusion among parents.

As college costs continue to rise, parents today are demanding a more active role in their student’s college education. Unobstructed access to their child’s education records seems natural to them. The challenge colleges face is to protect the privacy rights of students but also maintain the good will of parents. How to do that requires careful thought and action on the part of colleges.

Many colleges address this challenge during orientation programs. They hold special orientation programs for parents where they discuss FERPA and help parents understand why they cannot have access to their child’s education records. The programs usually stress the importance of open communication between parents and students and the inappropriateness of placing college staff in the middle of parent/student issues or disagreements. Programs offer suggestions to parents on how to better communicate with their child about their desire to know how he/she is progressing in college.

Jeff von Munkwitz-Smith, University Registrar at the University of Connecticut, is developing an orientation session for parents to be introduced this summer. He will tell parents “delicately, that we will not routinely share information with them on their students’ progress, but we do want them to be engaged in the process.” He also will share information on “retention programs and strategies and will ask them to help us by regularly communicating with their students about their coursework.”

Many colleges prepare written material specifically for parents. This material generally addresses FERPA and shares other information parents want to know, e.g., when fees are due. Dennis Beardsley, former Director of Advising Services and New Student Orientation at the University of California, Davis advises that the institution publishes a newsletter for parents entitled, Parents Pipeline. It is distributed during parent orientation. The newsletter is presented in a “frequently asked questions” format and addresses parents’ questions about access to their child’s records. It provides tips on communicating with their students about educational progress and a host of other information helpful to parents, e.g., term schedule, academic calendar, fee information. Any questions parents have are addressed during the orientation sessions. Beardsley says the University of California, Davis stresses the importance of open communication between parents and their children to resolve parental access issues to student records.

Other institutions make FERPA waiver forms available during parent orientation sessions and tell parents that if their student signs the waiver they can have access to their students’ records. Roger Thompson, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (UAT) says that the university “recommends that students complete the FERPA waiver for freshman year to encourage open communication with the university, students and parents.” Thompson said over 90% of the students complete the waiver. The waiver is only effective for the freshman year.

Mark Daddona, Associate Director & Assistant Professor, Division of Academic Enhancement at the University of Georgia does not support the idea of asking students to sign FERPA waivers during new student orientation. Daddona says, “I actually think that approach can be deceiving to the students. Since orientation can be a confusing and stressful time, students will most likely sign whatever they are asked without understanding the implications of what they are actually signing; it’s too general, and I question if this leaves it open for parents to request student information from anyone they want on campus such as faculty, residence life staff, judicial
officers, etc.”

FERPA also has been cited as the reason colleges do not notify parents about mental health problems experienced by their students. Recent suicides at New York University and MIT brought this issue to the fore. College administrators sometimes cite FERPA as the reason for failure to notify parents. FERPA restrictions may not be applicable in every such case. Under FERPA, student health/counseling records are not education records if they are not shared with others outside the health/clinical setting. A FERPA waiver is not necessary for the institution to contact parents if they think the events warrant it. Even if the records are shared and thus are education records, FERPA does have an exception related to health and safety. Disclosure is permitted if the institution deems that the information is necessary to protect the health and safety of the student or others. This is not an exception to be used lightly but only in urgent circumstances. Brian Reinhardt, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at California State University, Hayward states the situation well. “We can only break confidentiality (without a written release of information) in extreme situations when a person is in imminent danger to him/herself or others. We then only break confidentiality tnough to get appropriate help.”

With the increasing number of students coming to college with mental health issues such as clinical depression, and with concerns about violating FERPA, colleges are beginning to take more proactive steps to create programs and intervention techniques that help students cope with the stresses of college life before a health and safety crisis arises. Colleges also are developing programs for faculty, administrators and staff to help identify at-risk students. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a suicide prevention program. Good communication programs among faculty, administrators and staff also are critical. Some colleges have established teams of administrators, faculty and staff who meet on a regular basis to share information about students they consider at risk. Arizona State University (ASU) has implemented the Student Assistance Coordinating Committee whose “purpose is to spot students in trouble, formulate a plan for reaching out to them, and follow through with parental notification if necessary” (Jean Marie Angelo University Business, January, 2004, p. 42). In working with these students, counselors should ask if parents can be contacted in an emergency. Asking the student to sign a FERPA waiver might also be considered but on a voluntary basis. These waivers should be maintained in the health or counseling center and only used for purposes related to the health/counseling intervention.

Parents of college students are perplexed when they learn they cannot have unrestricted access to their child’s college records without his/her written, signed consent. They are particularly concerned that they may not be notified that their child is experiencing mental health difficulties. Colleges have a responsibility to reach out to parents with programs and materials that help them understand FERPA regulations and that help them learn to communicate effectively with their child so there are no surprises during or at the end of a term. Of course if parents’ attempts to communicate with their child fail to elicit the information they want to know, they can negotiate with them along the lines of “either you give us access to the information we want or we do not sign the tuition/fee check.”




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