Thursday, January 16, 2014

Academic Monkey Gives Unsolicited Advice!

This week's Unsolicited Advice comes from a forum for college students. Clearly this problem posted a few months ago, but I think it speaks to a larger teaching problem that we should be talking about: increasingly active parents and the weakening of FERPA protections.
~ Academic Monkey

Problem Posed:

My question is about the application process and parenting access to my college work. Most of my chosen universities are using the Common Application program. In some ways, that really simplifies things, as I only have one big application to focus on. In other ways, it makes things worse, as the strengths I would emphasize to get into Harvard are different from those I would highlight in an application to a small women's university. Still, that's not my question. Recently a teacher who was going to write me a rec said that he wouldn't do it unless I waived my FERPA rights on the Common App. When I brought this up to my parents, I expected them to support my privacy -- but instead they also want me to waive my rights. Now that I've talked to some friends, it seems that their parents are all telling them to check the box to waive their FERPA rights.

I don't know about the average college student, but I was sort of looking forward to becoming an adult and dealing with my own problems in college. Now it looks like my parents and other adults are going to have the same amount of power over my life as before. What should I do about this? Can I waive my FERPA rights now, to get the teacher's rec and please my parents, and then change that later when I leave for school?

Unsolicited Advice:

Let's just come together and take a collective breath at the parenting culture of this generation. (low whistle) Egads.

First: the Common Application does not speak for your entire school experience. Upon moving to campus, you can go to Student Affairs to ensure that there is a layer of protection between you and any meddling elders who wish to pave a path of ease between you and a diploma.

You seem to already know this, but it bears repeating: having a path made easier for you by intervening parents does little to challenge you or to help you deal with adversity. Making your own way is the key to a successful career. So go ahead and waive for the Common App. Teachers are just worried that you can read their recommendations and they want to speak freely. Then just switch it up when it comes to your future university home instead.

We have noted on this blog before about the increased activity of parents who are doing their best to "help" Junior's chances but in the process merely sabotage the tyke's future. This even plays a minor role in the recent Tina Fey / Paul Rudd movie "Admissions" about getting into highly selective schools by any means possible (side note: that movie was pretty good, in a bad sort of way).

How often have our moans and groans been answered by singing "FERPA FERPA" at our attackers? With this new trend of applications waiving FERPA rights from the very beginning of the college education, we might soon find ourselves knee-deep in parental presence. Oh god, the irritating phone calls, the insistence on Snowflake's brilliance in spite of evidence to the contrary, the poorly made baked goods!!

What can we do about this growing rise in students who wish to be children forever? I have no idea.


  1. Maybe that's a new rite of passage in the process of becoming an adult: choosing not to waive one's FERPA rights. That would be my advice in this case: stand your ground and don't waive anything, but bear in mind what comes with this decision--you alone will be responsible for what you make of your college years. (I.e., don't even think of asking Mom and Dad to do something about a class that doesn't go well, or of coming back to live at home after you graduate.)

    Also, if this is a trend maybe it's time for departments to start policies like "we don't require our instructors to interact with parents if they choose not to; queries should be addressed to the associate head for UG." Luckily I haven't had to deal with parents so far, but the first time that happens (under a waiver) I'll march to the assoc head's office and "demand" such a policy.

    Something here is not clear to me: is waiving FERPA necessary for LORs from high school teachers to become confidential? It would be easy enough for the forms on which letters are written to include such a waiver signed by the student, as is common in graduate school or job applications. (And yes, I realize that's not an absolute guarantee of confidentiality.)

  2. Yes, you always waive your right to view the LORs that people write for you.

    As a parent who will shell out big bucks for college soon, I expect my kid to waive FERPA rights so that I can access grades. I'm paying for these classes and if little Sally Beaker is failing, I want to see those midterm grades before it's too late.

    Now, what parents do next is the problem. My parents yelled at me when I was a student and wasn't doing well in some classes. Now, parents of my students yell at me when their kids don't do well. Since I'm still the one getting yelled at, I guess not much has changed after all.

    1. I am surprised to see how parents act in a way that teachers would not like, even when the parent and teacher are the same person. We bitch about over-involved parents, but you want access to your daughter's grades? Money is one thing, but you aren't paying for the right to access her education. You're hoping that you raised her to be a good independent adult and now it's time to let her fly. Without you.

    2. I think there might be a compromise possible, along the lines of what I actually describe taking place between me and my father: the student signs the waiver allowing the tuition-paying parent access (I do think that only a parent who is paying a substantial amount -- let's say more than half, with some adjustment necessary for divorced parents -- of the student's tuition and expenses has the right to request/expect such access; parents don't get to monitor students who have taken the very-adult step of taking responsibility for the majority of their own tuition/expenses), and at the same time the parent and student agree -- at least orally, perhaps in writing -- on very limited circumstances under which the parent will actually use the access (basically, ones that clearly indicate the student might be in trouble. One might also allow for some sort of oral assurance from student to parent, before the next semester's tuition check is written, that grades for the last semester met some minimum agreed-upon standard).

      Basically, there's a lot of room between the parent having permission to access final grades on the grade system (but not using it except in particular circumstances) and the parent checking grades daily/weekly on the LMS, calling/emailing professors, etc. Colleges and universities probably need to suggest some best practices for parents, or perhaps even create a sample parent/child contract to accompany the signing of the waiver. Another useful step would be to give parents separate logins for the end-of-semester grade system only (so they aren't using the student's login, which, at least at my institution, provides access to everything from grades/registration to email to the LMS).

  3. Are the rights you waive during an application the same ones you waive to let parents see grades?

    In my day, we signed what we called a "Buckley amendment" form to waive our right to see a recommendation. That was highly recommended, since of course it made the recommendation more reliable (it was also pretty common, at least at the grad level, and especially after several discouraging years on the market, to resort to subterfuge -- e.g. a friend at another institution requesting the dossier -- to make sure the letters were all right, or even to read them oneself. I've never heard of that happening at the getting-into-a-program level, though, just the job-search stage). I waived all the way through, from prep school applications to grad school job search dossier (and didn't resort to subterfuge to peek, mostly because our placement advisor was willing to do the peeking, and any necessary negotiating with recommenders if the peek revealed a problem, for us).

    I still have the impression that the FERPA rights that you waive in order to have your parents see your grades are different, and require a different waiver. This was also an issue in my day; we were encouraged to waive them using a form distributed sometime very early in our first semester, and a letter was sent to our parents or guardians if we didn't -- a procedure to which one friend who was a semi-orphan entirely responsible for her own bills vigorously objected, with good reason. I signed the waiver, but I was always the one to open the envelope containing the report card, which would arrive when I was home on vacation, and show and/or discuss the contents to/with my father anyway. I don't think he received his own copy, even with the waiver, though presumably he had the right to request one. I probably could have lied, and he probably wouldn't have ever found out (as long as I didn't actually flunk out/fail to graduate). But my father was the opposite of a helicopter parent; his general approach was benign neglect (occasionally combined with not-so-benign neglect; still better than excess hovering, in my opinion).

    1. Here's the common app's FERPA info, which is what I remember as the Buckley Amendment (apparently that's the same thing):

      They then rather confusingly link to a page which focuses on parents' (and others') rights to access student records:

      I'm pretty sure this is all part of a larger whole (FERPA), but I still strongly suspect that a student who waives hir FERPA rights to see hir recommendations is not waiving hir rights to refuse hir parents access to college grades (once (s)he turns 18).

      However, there seems to be considerable confusion, and the distinction isn't easily googleable. Wikipedia ( does include, in a larger discussion of the act that focuses mostly on parental (and others') access to educational records, the following: "The law allowed students who apply to an educational institution such as graduate school permission to view recommendations submitted by others as part of the application. However, on standard application forms, students are given the option to waive this right." But it doesn't mention that this also applies to recommendations for college applications (and even earlier; as I mentioned, I'm pretty sure that I first encountered the form when applying to a private high school, though I suspect my father may have been the one to sign it).

  4. If this is like where I work, this 'waiving' the teacher/prof is asking for is in order to allow the teacher/prof to discuss the student's performance at all in the letters; technically we're not supposed to peep that anyone is taking our course, even, so we're supposed to have the students sign a form allowing us to. . . write them a recommendation that isn't hilariously vague. Technically (who remembers to do that?).

  5. I gotta say, I don't remember either of my parents asking to see my college grades. When I popped out with a 5-year fellowship to graduate school, my mother was astonished. "What do you think I have been DOING here for 4 years?" I asked indignantly. But it was rather charming.