Early in my college teaching career, I received a call from a woman who was worried about her son, an advisee of mine. He was acting differently, she said, and might be into drugs. She wondered whether he had been attending his classes and how his grades were.
I was no fan of the helicopter parenting that had become so common in high schools — but this woman had a real note of panic in her voice. Her questions also struck me as reasonable things any parent might want to know.
I had been trained to ask one question before divulging information about her son: “Do you have a signed FERPA release?”
“A what?” A check of the student information system revealed she did not.
“I’m so sorry,” I told her. “I can’t talk to you about your son’s grades or attendance.”
“But I’m the one paying his tuition!” she said. That might so, I said, but it didn’t matter.
Parents — even those paying the bills — can have remarkably little right to information about their child’s education. College faculty and staff often won’t reveal whether a student has been going to class, won’t discuss a health issue (even if the parent clearly knows about it) and won’t share grades. They won’t even reveal a student’s declared major.
This isn’t some bureaucratic quirk. It’s a (sometimes incorrect) interpretation of a law that applies to any college or university accepting federal financial aid. Passed in 1974, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act was meant to safeguard sensitive educational records. When a child is in elementary or secondary school, FERPA gives parents the right to decide who can see their child’s school records. Once a student turns 18 or enrolls in college (at any age), all such rights transfer to the student. Overnight, parents go from being the information gatekeepers to potentially being locked out.
There are some nuances in FERPA that allow institutions to share information if a student is in imminent danger or (in a strangely specific exception) is under 21 and violates the college’s alcohol policy. Colleges may also share information if a student is a dependent on the parents’ tax return — but this important exception often goes untracked or ignored.
FERPA is poorly understood, which leads to hyper-cautious interpretation by many working in higher education. I’ve seen parents shocked at discovering their child is no longer enrolled — despite having had recent conversations with college officials when this important information might legally have been shared.
There is a simple way to avoid such a scenario. If a student signs a FERPA release — a simple document that all colleges must offer and track — then faculty and staff are allowed to communicate with parents. It can be a limited release (grades only, for instance) or a full release.
I always recommend that parents get a full, signed FERPA release immediately upon enrolling their child in college. I’ve never seen a student refuse to sign one at that early stage — but I have later, especially if the kid is in some trouble. Students can revoke a release, but rarely do.
It can be a hassle to figure out how to get a FERPA release recorded by the administration. Colleges only offer them if asked, so parents might have to query the registrar or the offices of academic affairs or student affairs. When one of my sons attended a large state university, I cycled through half a dozen college officials before finding someone who knew what a FERPA release was. But parents shouldn’t take no for an answer, and they should keep their own copy of the signed document.
Remember the mother who called to check on her son? He was indeed in grave trouble, something I would not have realized without her insight. With advice from savvy colleagues, I found a legal way to share information that saved his college career and quite possibly his life. But no one should count on that.
By encouraging FERPA releases, I may be enabling overzealous or overprotective parents; but in my experience those are relatively rare in higher education. More common are parents who simply want to help their children navigate one of the most frightening, complex and wonderful times of life. As long as the helicopter stays grounded, everybody wins.