Universities that work hard to subvert student rights with FERPA waivers


Imagine this scene: A professor at work gets a phone call.

Phone Voice: Hi, I’m the parent of Bill Smith, a student in your intro class.

Professor: Um, hi..?

Phone Voice: Bill was upset about the score he got on a quiz last week, and he thought some of the questions were unfair.

Professor: I’m sorry but I’m prevented from discussing a student’s academic records under the protection of FERPA [the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act].

Phone Voice: But I am his parent and Bill told me it was okay to speak with you about it.

Professor: That might be true, but without evidence of a FERPA waiver signed by the student, I can’t have this conversation.

Phone Voice: Oh, we had that waiver form signed at orientation.

Professor: Whuaaa?

Phone Voice: During an orientation session together with our son, the university presented to him a waiver form to sign to waive access to FERPA. It’s on record. I can email a copy if you want.

Professor: I prefer the student talk to me about his own grades.

Phone Voice: I realize that, but I have the right to discuss his grades with you and I’d like to talk about question three on the quiz.

I have not had this phone conversation. Thank goodness. I’m a lot more likely to have students in my office with their children than with their parents. But at some other campuses, this is a thing. Some universities make sure that student waivers of FERPA rights happen at the get-go.

Some universities actively take steps to help parents gain direct access to student records by making the FERPA waiver process as easy, smooth, and simple as possible.

It gets worse: There’s a little catch in the FERPA law. Even if an adult student actively wants to prevent parent access to academic records, the parents can gain access to these records by showing evidence that the student was recently claimed as a dependent in the previous year’s tax filings. That’s right, by showing to the university the first page of their tax filing, universities are letting parents gain access to the student’s (otherwise) confidential academic information without permission of the students. This policy applies even if the parents are not paying for the student’s education.

parentportalAnd universities are advertising this policy to parents who otherwise were unaware, and providing easy-to-use downloadable forms for this purpose. For example, check out this FERPA form from Virginia Commonwealth University, which shows parents how to use tax records to gain access to their adult children’s academic records against their wishes. On the other hand, some places like Arizona State University don’t go to great lengths to help subvert the independence of their adult children, and provide information to parents about the rights that their adult children have. The way LSU does it, the parents are told they can have access through a student waiver or showing proof that the student is a dependent. But they don’t lay out parent access to protected records of the students on a silver platter. Not like The University of Chicago does:

The University of Chicago helps parents access protected records even before the student shows up on campus!


The University of Chicago places the burden on the student — the ones whose rights are supposed to be protected — to demonstrate when their parents are not legally eligible for access to information! Meanwhile, it is not even clear if the students are ever notified that their privileged FERPA information has been given by the university in the first place.

Some universities make it as smooth as possible for parents to access protected academic records of students without the need to consult with students. For example, the University of Maryland (and many other universities) allows parents to have a distinct PIN to access student grades.

A bunch of universities put on their website specific instructions to parents about how to circumvent student permission to access and discuss grades with faculty, including Monmouth University:

Parents wishing access to student records should have their son or daughter complete the waiver form online and submit it to the Office of the Registrar electronically. If the waiver form is not completed, then the following shall apply:

Parents should send a copy of the first page of their most recent federal income tax return to the Office of the Registrar. [emphasis mine] This page should reflect that the student was declared as a dependent.

Why would a university actively facilitate parent meddling (also called helicopter parenting) in their adult student’s affairs? Why would they throw faculty (and students) under the bus who are presumably trying to help students become more independent and responsible members of society? I think it’s as simple as following the money.

When a parent is a full payer at a private university, there are high expectations for customer service. Among these full payers, I bet there’s a small but very vocal minority that do their best to make university administrators miserable with unreasonable expectations. Including the right to talk to their adult children’s professors about their academic performance. When money is on the line — and when the risk of annoying the entitled is potentially high — then it’s the students and the faculty get thrown under this particular bus.

Based on my googling of FERPA policies, it doesn’t look like a lot of the elite Small Liberal Arts Colleges readily kowtow to this kind of parental nonsense. But when you look at a lot of other universities that heavily depend on tuition, then they are a lot more likely to provide quick and easy access to student academic records and email/phone conversations with professors. For example, my previous institution had >90% of its operating expenses coming from tuition on account of its small endowment. Lo and behold, check out how easy it is for parents to get their adult children to waive FERPA, and for parents to circumvent student authorization. When I was there, I don’t recall having any parent contact me directly, but this online FERPA waiver system wasn’t in place back then. However, I did have one parent call the Dean directly. (The student’s last name was, by no mere coincidence, also the name of one of one of the main academic buildings on campus.)

This creates a pedagogical mess for faculty who might have to deal with meddling parents who are not directly aware of the academic circumstances in the classroom. Untenured faculty are particularly vulnerable when pressured by parents who are giving lots of money to the school. (For all I know, when the Dean pushed for tenure denial, that phone call from the extraordinarily wealthy parent/donor could have been the cause. So this isn’t a purely hypothetical concern.)

What are we supposed to do when we are contacted by parents who actually have access to student records? In some cases, I bet the students are unaware, and mortified, by the conduct of their overbearing parents. If the students have the right to information, do they have the right to a discussion? I think not. But if you refuse to discuss, then what are the consequences? What are the university’s expectations of faculty, considering that they schools work so hard to make sure that parents gain this privileged access? I don’t have answers to these questions, and this isn’t something I’ve dealt with much, so insights are quite welcome.


(How did I come on the information in this post? I had an interesting conversation with some other faculty about FERPA waivers that brought this to my attention. Thanks for the insights.)

13 thoughts on “Universities that work hard to subvert student rights with FERPA waivers

  1. My small liberal arts college (very tuition driven) seems to do a good job educating students and faculty (and parents) on FERPA. The administration (and admissions) really try to get across to parents what responsibilities are theirs and what are the students. I have rarely, in my 30 years, had to deal with a parent regarding a specific student and usually it was with the permission of the student…since the students wanted me to advocate for them. My favorite story is when a mother called me to complain about how her son was leaving our campus to visit his girlfriend at another campus. I tried to explain to her this was none of my business and what I could do as an academic adviser. I did notify the student that his mother was worried about him. She would not let this go, with repeated phone calls. After being as diplomatic as I could be, I finally had to tell her I was only his academic adviser and not in charge of his zipper. That stopped the phone calls.

  2. Facilitating waiving FERPA rights can be unbelievably destructive to students. A friend defied her parents by majoring in a romance language rather than the pre-professional track that her father preferred. He discovered her secret less than a semester before graduation, disowned her and refused to pay the last semester tuition. at the expensive, elite East Coast college. Despite that, her professors allowed her to attend classes to the end and she completed all course requirements, yet she never received a college degree. This final coup de grace of a long history of child abuse negatively impacted her entire life.

    Adult children have all kinds of reasons for needing to escape parental control; colleges and universities should not undermine their students to pacify wealthy, entitled, manipulative parents.

  3. Something I don’t understand with the FERPA regulations is how you can ever trust that someone is who they say they are when they call. There’s no way to verify identities over the phone, so why would it ever be okay to talk about academic records that way?

  4. Years ago (internet/cellphones not common), I worked in the university admissions as a summer job (not in the USA).
    One of the things we had to do was to chase up students who hadn’t submitted the necessary documents (proof of citizenship etc), which involved calling students at home. Since we were ringing during the workday, typically, we would have to leave a message with the mother asking their child to call us at XX University back about their application. We were not allowed to state anymore than that (and it was debatable whether we were really allowed to state where we were calling from but it was necessary to get anyone to call back).
    Almost every single parent asked what the problem was, and many didn’t accept that we couldn’t speak to them (“but I’m his mother!”). The parents were used to having all access to their kids education stuff through the high schools that it was confronting for a lot of them to be told ‘no, you don’t get to know’ and a realisation that their child was growing up and moving on from them.
    This problem seems to be an extension – none of the parents in my situation really pushed that hard once we said “Privacy Act!”.

  5. ELS: Oh man. I attended an undergrad institution with a very, very high concentration of parents like your friend’s father (and also very high mental illness and suicide rates, which I always suspected were connected). I know so many people who would have been just screwed if their parents had been able to get ahold of their records. I knew of a couple of cases where parents got ahold of the records by threatening the student with disownment and/or yanking tuition if the student didn’t turn them over, but I never heard of any cases where parents used tax nonsense to do it. I guess the parents weren’t aware of it.

  6. I’m completely against any parents harrassing a student’s profs or advisers, but I don’t see an issue with the parent having access to certain information (e.g. course schedule, major, etc) IF the parent is helping to pay the student’s tuition. In those cases, the parent absolutely is entitled to know for what s/he is paying. That’s not an issue of the student’s rights; it’s an issue of consumer rights.

  7. Terry…Thank you for the article “College is not a commodity”. It is spot on and I recognize this issue at my institution.

  8. I was nodding along with that article until I got to the out-of-nowhere slap against trigger warnings and safe spaces – which, no matter now many times academics fail to understand this, are not about the commoditization of college; they’ve drifted over from activist spaces where people aren’t buying anything or seeing themselves as consumers at all – and then I just got sad. Yet one more prof confusing mental health and anti-violence activism with consumerism and corporatization.

    At any rate…why should parents have “consumer rights” over the student’s life? Using the fact that you’re the one with the money to lord it over someone and dictate the course of their life is a jerk move. If a stay-at-home parent goes to college, using money earned by their spouse to pay tuition, should the spouse have access to course schedule and major on the grounds of “consumer rights”? Do you support random taxpayers having access to the purchases of people on public assistance on the grounds that those random taxpayers helped pay for those purchases and therefore they’re the consumers?

  9. I think comparing a parent paying tuition to tax money being used in public service is a bit contrived. With regard to the “jerk move” comment, I don’t think there is really anything a parent can do (being one myself, as well as an academic scientist) that is a “jerk move,” short of violating his/her child’s fundamental human rights (of which an expensive college education is not one). I think that is a rather juvenile way of thinking about it. The object of parenting is not to avoid being a jerk; it’s to raise a responsible person who can contribute to society. Part of the latter is letting them know that they are not entitled to anything, including higher education. Either they must find a way to earn it themselves, or accept a limited degree of privacy as a condition of getting their higher education paid.

  10. Also, in regard to the article “College is not a commodity,” I fully agree that college education is all about the effort and attitude of the student, and becoming enlightened and so on. However, that does nothing to change the reality that it costs a lot of money, and that parents often pay the bill. Flowery essays about the intangible benefits are very inspiring, but ignore the very real physical costs.

  11. The vast majority of students I see at my college, even if they are supporting themselves to go to college, seem to have very good relationships with their parents…surprisingly good if not bordering on co-dependency….but I guess that word is a definition of parent/child relations. Cell phones pressed to their ears in the hallways…and they are talking to their parents!

  12. As a soon to retire faculty who has avoided most of this, is there anything that requires me to provide answers to the parent’s questions? While it is jerky, there are lots of faculty who will not even discuss grading with students, let alone their parents.

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