University News

FERPA requests yield limited access to files

Unlike Stanford, Brown refuses to let students view internal admission files under federal law

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2015

About 50 students and alums took advantage of their rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 by sending requests for personal records to the Office of Admission and the Office of the Registrar this academic year, said Dean of Admission Jim Miller ’73. In a typical year, only one or two students request to see their academic files, said Christopher Dennis, deputy dean of the College.

The dramatic uptick comes after Stanford University students created an anonymous newsletter called “The Fountain Hopper” designed to encourage other students to invoke FERPA to receive admission records. The newsletter sparked a wave of current and former students demanding to see their records at colleges and universities across the country.

Stanford students who successfully gained access to their records found notes by admission officers, numerical ratings of the applications and logs of every time an identification card was used. But Brown students and alums who were granted access to their records were disappointed to find what they perceived as minimal admission documents, Dennis said.

The University provided students and alums with copies of the Common Application, transcripts and recommendation letters if the students and alums had not waived their access to them, Miller said.

The inconsistency across universities stems from the language of FERPA, which grants eligible students — those who have matriculated to a particular postsecondary institution — the right to access and control their “education records.” These records are defined as those that “contain information directly related to a student and which are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for the agency or institution,” according to the U.S. Department of Education website. But the documents are not required to hold “specific information,” and institutions are allowed to destroy records without notifying students, according to the website.

At the University, there has never been a practice of sharing internal admission notes, Miller said, adding that these notes are not for faculty or administrative use. “Each institution can constitute what determines a permanent record,” he said.

Universities therefore range widely in what kinds of information they will release to students. Stanford, Harvard and Princeton grant access to admission officers’ comments and reader scorecards.

The Penn admission office planned to remove “certain personal comments” from applicants’ files, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported in January. Columbia destroys readers’ scorecards before students matriculate, the Daily Spectator reported earlier this month. After news of Stanford students gaining admission file access broke in January, Yale changed its policy: its admission office now “regularly” deletes admission documents, the Yale Daily News reported in March.

Brown is neither immediately destroying admission records nor allowing students to access the files, Miller said. The internal admission file, which is not considered part of the academic record and thus does not fall under FERPA, is destroyed the summer after a student graduates, he said.

Current students do not have the right to their admission files under FERPA — there is a distinction between the permanent academic record and the admission file, Dennis said. “This has been a source of national confusion for both students and institutions,” he said.

After hearing about the Stanford case, Pratik Chougule ’07 requested his records under FERPA at Brown and at Yale Law School, expecting to see his admission details and reviewers’ notes. Yale Law School gave him a straightforward response and showed him his original application and application ranking, he said. The only documents that Yale did not reveal to him were his letters of recommendation, to which he previously waived his right. Shortly after Chougule’s request, Yale Law School destroyed all of its admission data, the Yale Daily News reported.

Following his fruitful interaction with Yale Law School, Chougule was “doubly surprised” by Brown’s unresponsiveness.

After Chougule sent a FERPA request to the Office of the Registrar, it took a few weeks to set up a meeting with Dennis. Dennis provided Chougule with “course takings and routine stuff” and referred him to Brown’s General Council, Chougule said.

The “whole process was off-putting,” he said, adding that the University could have at least provided him with the names of the admission officers who reviewed his application. “What are they trying to hide?” Chougule asked.

“You would think (Brown) would want to be responsive to an alum” who is requesting records for his own interest without a political agenda, he said. Ironically, the University’s unresponsiveness spurred him to consider involving other individuals and organizations — ones with better legal expertise.

Though FERPA has increased transparency for some eligible students and alums across the country — even if not at Brown — it may have obfuscating effects in the long run. Higher education expert Stephen Nelson said one implication of more students requesting their records could be that officers will verbally discussing applicants instead of formally documenting their comments out of concern that notes could later be revealed. Admission offices could make sure to have “nothing in a file that couldn’t be in some way misread by a lawyer or the general public,” Nelson added.

Nelson, who often writes recommendation letters, said he will generally not write anything that he could not later discuss with the student. But he would possibly be less candid if he knew a student would see it, he said.

Since the McCarthy era, people have been fairly careful in the recent decades about what they record, Nelson said. “My guess is that no one has been documenting things like ‘close family friend of big donor,’” he said. It’s a “wink and nod” process, he added. 

Nelson said he does not expect the admission records that are revealed to the public to have any serious influence on the college application process. Though “most high school guidance counselors may not know every little detail of the admission process, they have a pretty good sense,” he said. The admission records will not tell them anything they do not already know, he added.

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