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.
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.
And 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.)