In defense of FERPA

In an op-ed piece titled “College kids have too much privacy“, Michele Willens criticizes the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for making it difficult for families to monitor their college student children’s academic performance.

I can understand why some families are frustrated by FERPA. Many families spend a great deal of money to send their young to college. Consider the parents in Willens’s opening anecdote, who learned their daughter had not actually graduated and skipped class for the last two years. I think anyone would be angry to be in their shoes.

However, it’s just not true that FERPA means, as Willens puts it, that “you have to take [your kid’s] word for it when they say ‘everything’s fine.'” FERPA allows a student to voluntarily release their records to another party. I recall having at least one scholarship in college whose sponsors required me to send an official transcript every year. I don’t see why a parent couldn’t insist on this as a condition for continued financial support.

In addition, a student can sign a FERPA waiver allowing a third party to get their records directly from the school. Although Willens describes this as a “laborious process”, it really amounts to having a student sign a form or check a box on a web site.

Part of being in college is learning how to become an independent adult. The transfer of FERPA rights from parents to student is part of that process. So is students learning to take responsibility for their learning. All FERPA requires is for parents to deal with their adult children directly, as adults, rather than being able to go behind their back.