Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Survey Says: FERPA!

I got an email survey from the campus folks responsible for educating us about alcohol. I think my students are plenty aware of alcohol, but we have a whole office about that. We also have an office for parents. Not students as parents, but parents of students. We've cut faculty lines, but added people to manage the parents of students.

The survey is giving the "teaching members" of the "community" a chance to give input about the parents "presenting themselves" at various places on campus. (Note that "teaching members" bit? That's student services talk for either "everyone" or the people who stand in the way of customer service by insisting that some answers really ARE better than others.)

Call me old fashioned, but once a student is in college, then s/he's an adult, and his/her parents need to talk to the student and not to me. I'm okay with talking to visiting parents and potential students. I've met visiting parents on a variety of occasions, and it's fine to say hello and such. I'm very happy to congratulate parents when their kids graduate, especially when I can tell them what a wonderful daughter/son they've raised, and what a pleasure it's been to work with the student.

But talking to parents about whether the student attends class? Nope, not me. Not without signed permission. We call that FERPA, thanks very much. How about talking to parents about why their student got a C- on a test? Survey says, FERPA!

The questionnaire wants to know if I think a representative of the campus should contact parents if a student is: arrested, kicked out of the dorms, found with alcohol or drugs, doing poorly in class.

I'm guessing the office is getting pressure from parents about notifications of various sorts? Perhaps parents want to be notified? And they don't trust their adult children?

I'll tell you who notified my parents when I failed a class. Me. Because I was an adult (well, sort of), and that was the deal since my parents were funding my college education.

If parents are supporting the student, then they should lay out an agreement that fits their situation. Say, "you carry a B average, show us the report card for every term, and we'll cover tuition and books" or whatever. But that's between the adults involved, and not me.

I'm guessing things are more difficult on the dorm end, where parents are probably paying the dorm-organization directly, and things get sticky if the parent sends a check and the dorm-organization has kicked out the student?

One of the weirder questions has to do with students behaving in ways that are worrisome in terms of harm to themselves or others. I know what motivates that question, but I don't have many good answers. And I don't think that calling parents is one of the likely good answers.

I do have a feeling that we're moving in the direction of calling parents about a lot of stuff, though. I'm guessing there will be some standardized form that students will be pressured asked to sign giving the college some blanket permission.

What we should really do, I think, is give all students information about FERPA, and give any parents who come to campus (for student orientation, pre-enrollment tours) the same information.


  1. I've had exactly one parent phone call... after that, I mention the issue and FERPA to my classes, put a note in the syllabus and generally make fun of the one former student AND his mother who called... they get the message and I haven't heard from any more parents.

    I do have an interesting parent situation this semester, as I have the father of one of my former students in my class... I like both him and his daughter a lot -- so it is really fun.

    The way I understand some schools have handled it is to create a way the student can make a log-in for their parents... Then, the parents can see grades and financial information, but not have access to active class data (thus, no moms doing on-line homework). Of course, the student must authorize the parental log-in.

  2. This is bizarro.

    Seriously. I guess it is different for someone who paid her own way through school. Do they intend to differentiate based on who pays? I mean, I guess maybe grades or something are different if they are paying, but the rest of it? Sounds like organized, institutional gossip to me.

    I'll be interested to see what other people say.

  3. Anonymous1:17 PM

    Heh. Former College is there already - when students enroll, they're given a FERPA waiver to sign allowing the college to share information about them with their parents. I didn't know of any student who didn't sign it, because this was a small, private, expensive school whose students' parents are VERY involved in their children's lives. (I had a colleague who was in an advising meeting with a student and the student called mom on his cell to make sure the classes he was picking were okay.) I personally find this bizarre, but it is what it is.

    I'm quite sure Former College notifies parents in cases of arrest, getting kicked out of the dorms, or being found with alcohol/drugs - at least, if it's on campus grounds - partly because of what you mention, that the parents are the ones writing the fat check to the college. No notifications of children failing yet, though - those letters at least still go to the student directly.

    Leaving aside the academic notifications, I can actually kind of see why parents want to be notified if their kids are kicked out of the dorms etc. - but that's because I went to and have taught at small liberal arts colleges where students are basically traditionally aged, they all live on campus, and the college was seen as in loco parentis and having responsibility for their welfare. Students are adults but not adults - when they're in the dorms, not cooking/cleaning for themselves, and not paying for their housing, I have a hard time considering them fully adult (myself at that age included). Obviously, not everyone does college that way, of course!

    I guess when it comes down to it I'm more comfortable with full adulthood beginning at 21 than at 18 (hey, if you're not old enough to drink...!), and I've also been mostly at schools where the majority of students are under 21.

    That being said - while I think parents should be notified if students do something to harm themselves/others, I don't think parents should be notified about grades/failing (except in the logistical sense, like "we can't cash your tuition check because your child is suspended from school"!), but I also recognize that maintaining a distinction between those things isn't very easy.

    In any case, I don't think faculty should have anything to do with notifying parents of anything!

  4. Anonymous2:55 PM

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  5. Bardiac, Input from a parent of a freshman college student: Why on earth would a prof call me about my son's grades? And how much (lots!) would be wrong with a 18 or 19 yr old kid who would need a parental rescue squad intervention because of a failing grade? Even by 2nd or 3rd year of High School, I think this would be odd behavior. I did talk to a few of my son's teachers about course work his last semeseter of high school, but only to make arrangements to pick up work when he was out of school for an extended illness. When I moved my son into the dorm in August at Big State Engineering U I was shocked that we were each given forms to sign regarding circumstances that would provoke a call to parents and a permission slip to allow sharing of info. I don't know what stunned me more -- that we went through this process, or that my son signed it seemingly without thought. I wanted to protest things like the clause that said they would put student on probation with possible expulsion from the dorm & call parents if they suspected student had been drinking -- but they didn't need physical evidence of alcohol. I feel sorry for professors who have to deal with this. I don't think we are doing the student, newly entering adulthood, any favors if continuing to treat them as if they were children.

  6. Anonymous8:29 AM

    Over the last 7 years I have had one parent call me, and I politely declined to talk to her. FERPA is a good excuse for not talking to parents, but even if my students signed a waiver, I would (try to) refuse to talk to anyone but the student about academic work, for the same reasons you outlined above. A long time ago I taught high school, and one of the most maddening but essential aspects of that job was talking to parents. But in college, they are adults, and should be treated as such.

  7. Former College is there already - when students enroll, they're given a FERPA waiver to sign allowing the college to share information about them with their parents. I didn't know of any student who didn't sign it, because this was a small, private, expensive school whose students' parents are VERY involved in their children's lives. (I had a colleague who was in an advising meeting with a student and the student called mom on his cell to make sure the classes he was picking were okay.) I personally find this bizarre, but it is what it is.

    We had a waiver like that when I started college in 1994. You had to sign it if you wanted the school to send your parents a copy of your grade report, but I don't know whether it covered meetings between parents and professors. Anyway, I signed it, but it was mostly a symbolic gesture of sorts, because grades had been SUCH a huge battleground between my mother and me through most of my childhood and adolescence. On some level, signing the waiver was my way of telling my mom OK, we're past all that, I'm letting you see my grades because I finally trust you to accept that they are my business and my responsibility.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that all kinds of family dynamics can lead students to make that choice, and it doesn't necessarily signify over-involvement on the parents' part.

  8. Here's some input from the mother of a freshman at a California university. I agree with cam, Why on earth would a prof call me about my son's grades? Even more to the point, why would I think the university would give me that information in the first place? The student's grades are a private matter between the student and the school. That should be obvious. If I, as parent, have a separate understanding with my adult child that part of the "deal" is I pay the tuition, you share your grades with me, that's fine. The school isn't part of that loop.

    HOWEVER, I have a big problem with another FERPA issue that hasn't been brought up here -- tuition payment. Specifically, as a person other than the student, I have no right to see the tuition account. Even if I am the person paying the tuition. Without the permission of the student, I cannot log into the university's bill payment website to pay the bill, see the balance, or whatever.

    I am all for students' rights to privacy, but I think that refusing access to tuition records is a bit much.

    The Empty Nest

  9. Philosophy Factory, It's a good idea to put a FERPA thing on your syllabus. I think I'll adopt that, though I really haven't had problems.

    MSILF, I think it's a relatively rare thing, but that the parents who are wanting information are REALLY wanting information. That and there's the mental health issue thing that schools are really twitchy about.

    New Kid, I think I tend to be more for student privacy, perhaps because of my own relationships?

    Cam, I think it's more parents wanting profs to call than profs wanting to call. And then the dorm administrative types wondering what they should do if a student gets in some sort of trouble.

    Erik, I gather that they do all sorts of web-based informational stuff at lots of high schools these days, so that parents can see if their kid was absent or missed work? And that we're thinking about the few parents who really want that to continue?

    Fretful Porpentine, I think colleges should stay out of the parent/child relationship, but then the money thing comes in for lots of families.

    Renee, I think the money thing complicates matters hugely, both for dorms and tuition/fees reasons.

  10. I think you're absolutely right about the grades issues.

    The concern over the student being at risk to harm to self or others is a bit trickier. And I think a lot of schools are moving towards more direct and well... punitive ways of handling these issues. It kind of makes sense that if a school is very concerned, and interventions with the students have failed, that the emergency contact might be the one to contact. For most students that will be their parents. But I agree that a seriously depressed/psychotic/manic student may not think that their parents are the ideal people to involve. I just don't see a good answer for that one.

  11. MWAK, I agree. Dealing with students who have serious mental health problems is incredibly complex, and way out of my league. It's also rare enough that we don't get good at it, I'm guessing.