As new, or returning, college students settle in, consider this a gentle warning.
A few years back, I ran into a rather shell-shocked acquaintance in Manhattan. She had just learned that her 22-year-old daughter — whom she believed had graduated from college — had neither graduated nor attended classes for the past two years. A former roommate had called to make sure the parents knew. More recently, a friend told me her son’s roommate had informed his family he was not graduating the following day — after they’d flown to Michigan for the celebration.
The first instinct is to confront the student. The next is to look closely at your own over-trusting behavior. What did we do wrong? Then there is anger at the school, to which you may be paying as much as $60,000 a year. Why didn’t anyone tell us? To which the answer is the final possible culprit. The government!
It is surprising how few otherwise informed and responsible parents are aware of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Passed in 1974, this is an unwieldy piece of legislation that affects all institutions that receive funding under any program administered by the Department of Education. While it has been amended over the years, the consistent bottom line remains, “Once a student reaches 18 years of age or attends a post-secondary institution, he or she becomes an ‘eligible student’ and all rights under FERPA transfer from the parent to the student.” This essentially means that your children can go off to college and binge on True Detective rather than attend classes, never share their grades, maybe become seriously anxious or depressed — and you have to take their word for it when they say “fine” when you ask how it’s going.
For sons and daughters who move effortlessly through four years (and their fortunate parents), this is as it should be. But they are fewer and fewer: According to a recent report by Complete College America, a nonprofit based in Indianapolis, “Only 50 of more than 580 public universities … graduated a majority in four years.” And per the National Student Clearinghouse, nearly 2 million students who enter college every year —some 45 percent — will not graduate, and the United States has the lowest completion rate among developed countries.
Yes, even kids who never played hooky, told a lie, or got less than a B in high school can become socially and academically lost in a distraction-filled unfamiliar setting. When this reporter/mom went into the blogosphere seeking thoughts on FERPA, comments poured in from previously oblivious parents and relatives. “My niece got into trouble from this exact prohibition,” wrote one. “My sister didn’t find out until she flunked every class and was kicked out of her dorm room!”
The original intentions of the DOE were admirable: to protect the privacy of students, ensuring that no outside parties could have access to their educational information. Of course, those were different times, and we know that a lot of innocence — thank you Mark Zuckerberg, Google, and Edward Snowden — has been lost since then. While privacy is still a valued, albeit threatened, asset, social media has created a couple of generations that have chosen to share every aspect of their lives. So perhaps it’s time for those students to be required to share their status with those who have raised them and who support their continuing opportunities.
This is a freedom the students themselves never asked for, or likely, expected. “With FERPA’s birth, things got very liberal and pro-student,” Robert Gatti, dean of student affairs at Otterbein University in Ohio, tells Yahoo Parenting. “And now you might say there are a lot of folks who would like to see the pendulum swing back the other way.” There is, in fact, some stirring in Congress: “Many of our privacy laws, like FERPA, were last updated before cellphones, laptops, or even the Internet,” Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who is looking into revising the law, tells Yahoo Parenting.
FERPA is clearly a loaded issue. It encompasses academics, money, proper parenting, a school’s responsibility to go beyond a student’s grades, and just how much independence a still-developing young person should have. “We may like the idea that kids over 18 are responsible enough to look after themselves,” New York psychoanalyst Vivian Diller, who treats many 20-somethings, tells Yahoo Parenting. “But when a child is slipping through the cracks, we may need to rethink college policies.”
There are, for those who get through FERPA’s fine print, waivers that can be attained in a laborious process involving revealing families’ tax returns, and only when signed by a willing student. School officials can’t conduct a meeting with parents about a student’s precarious situation unless the student signs a form. A former president of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles said that, taken to its most extreme interpretation (all schoolwork to be kept private), Otis was not allowed to display the art of its students.
Clearly, even the school officials are mixed on FERPA. “The breadth of the law is so large that it covers everything from preventing faculty from leaving students’ papers in boxes outside their offices to influencing how we respond to media inquiries,” Gordon Stables, assistant dean of student affairs at the Annenberg School at USC, tells Yahoo Parenting. The most empathetic college administrators are those who have watched their own kids go through the process. “When my son went to college, the president of the university explained FERPA to us,” Marymount Manhattan’s just-retired president Judson Shaver, tells Yahoo Parenting. “He noted that parents could have access to information about their kids only if the student agreed to sign a waiver. Right then, I handed my son a pen.”
The academic aspect — whether a student is adhering to his or her schedule and/or passing or failing — is one thing. The possible reasons behind what seems unexpected behavior on the part of the students are more complicated. At a time when words like depression and suicide are in every concerned parent’s, and impressionable student’s, emotional syllabus, how does a school know when a student is falling apart?
Amendments to FERPA over the past few years do allow schools to alert parents if a student is violating campus policies, but those are limited to drugs and alcohol and, most recently, sexual offenses. One woman told me she called her daughter’s school in Massachusetts to ask if the girl might be able to delay her final exams. Her boyfriend from a nearby school had just killed himself and she was devastated and guilt-ridden. The mother was told the school was not allowed to get involved.
Therefore, it is up to concerned roommates (who don’t want to fink on a friend and may not even be aware of a problem) and unusually perceptive professors to reach out. “If I see an ambulance going off with a student, I will call the parents,” says Gatti. “I sometimes even check to see how often students are swiping their cards for the dining hall. This might alert me to check up on them.” Dan Caldwell, a professor at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, says if he notices a student has missed a few classes, he will contact the student. “But I can’t let the parents know, nor can I let them know their son or daughter may be getting a D,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “It seems funny, because if they are 17, I can.”
There are those who are seriously concerned that too many young adults are having the onus of “adult” rather “young” put on them too soon. “It’s one thing for confidences within a therapist’s office between your child and a shrink not to be revealed,” Herb Pardes, MD, former dean of the College of Medicine at Columbia and current executive vice chairman of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s another not to alert parents when a school may know about the potential downfall of a child. It’s not even so much about the money: It’s about these are the people who most care about that young person, and they have the right to know if he or she is suffering.”
Pardes has teamed up with Vogue editor Anna Wintour to start the Youth Anxiety Center, based at New York-Presbyterian. Wintour, a mother of two, is passionate on the subject of when students are ready to have the final say. In a recent interview, she said, “I heard the other day about a boy who went off to college and stayed in his room the entire semester. The college never told the parents. People think you’re grown up, but you’re still a kid.”
Some point out that doing away with FERPA’s key provision of moving all power to the student would not necessarily make them go to class more, reduce the dropout rate, or motivate them to seek available counseling on campus. Victor Schwartz, MD, former dean of students at Yeshiva University and a specialist in mental health and campus suicide prevention, in fact, worries that if students knew all their issues were going right into their parents’ inboxes, they might not seek the help they need. “You have to be careful how far you would lower the threshold,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “It doesn’t mean a school should have no obligation, but young people have to learn to get communication going and make action plans through counseling and friends rather than having Mom and Dad necessarily get involved.”
Colleges should not, of course, have to become surrogate parents, and some educators suspect this may be yet another whine from helicoptering parents. (Though this is far from complaining that your kid doesn’t play enough on the tennis team.) “My sense is that many faculty and college administrators think that parents are too involved in the lives of their college students,” says Shaver. “Others are much more sympathetic to parental wishes to be informed and involved in what for most families is a major financial commitment.” While it may hurt more when paying all that tuition, FERPA makes clear this is not just another white people’s problem, stating, “The university considers students as adults, regardless of financial dependence.”
For now, many parents are hopeful that the nonpartisan stir in Congress will go the distance in revising FERPA and making students more accountable (at least until they are paying for their own accounts.) Just being made aware of the law is a key first step, preferably before rather than after the shocking facts.
“I was always embarrassed to discuss this and furious at the school for not alerting us,” business executive David Meller, whose son finally confessed he had been asked to leave Vanderbilt after a year, tells Yahoo Parenting. “But now it seems everyone I talk to has similar stories.”
Meller and his wife say they noticed a palpable sigh of relief from their son when the family was all on the same page once again. I am guessing that with FERPA’s demise, many other parents will as well.
(Photo: Getty Images)