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FERPA records requests reveal little

By Drew Keller     1/28/15 3:09pm

Rice University students hoping to gain access to admissions records through a 40-year-old federal law may not find the revealing information they expect, according to Director of Admissions Dan Warner. 

A website started by Stanford University students, the Fountain Hopper, recently piqued interest in accessing admissions records by publicizing the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act and urging Stanford students to request their records. This 1974 law, known as FERPA, allows students to request access to their admissions records at any university receiving federal funding, but has rarely been used for this purpose historically. Warner said he had not received any FERPA requests at Rice until the Fountain Hopper published its article; since then, the admissions office has received around a dozen.

“The law has been in place for 40 years,” Warner said. “I’ve been in admissions for 25 years, and it’s been 20 years since I’ve gotten a FERPA request at any of the schools where I’ve worked. So it’s not a usual thing.”

By law, the university has 45 days after a request to comply and provide the students with their records. The information provided depends on the department from which it is requested; for example, a student would receive different information from the registrar’s office or the admissions office.

“Different offices retain different information at the same institution, and the same office might retain different information at different institutions,” Warner said. “We might, for example, keep different information on file permanently [from] Stanford.”

According to Warner, the admissions office does not keep most of the records used during the consideration process, including teacher recommendations, internal notes and almost all material authored by the student.

“It’s interesting for students to exercise  [their FERPA] rights,” Warner said. “Frankly, it’s a nice professional development opportunity for my staff – but at the same time, there’s not a whole lot of information of the nature I suspect students are wanting.”

Warner said the admissions office does keep demographic information such as name and address, as well as test scores, while the registrar’s office also retains students’ high school transcripts and test scores. Additionally, the admissions office keeps records of messages sent out to prospective students, including whether messages have been opened by students, according to Warner.

“We can do some analysis on how many messages were opened, how many students actually came, so we can assess the efficacy of different messages and our process,” Warner said.

Warner also said the office keeps certain pieces of information about matriculated students to generate a profile of the incoming class for publicity, with information such as the number of class presidents or students involved in community service.

“We aggregate that information,” Warner said. “[But] there’s really not any need for [most records]. Once a student is admitted and matriculating to Rice, we don’t have a need to keep [the information].”

According to Warner, students wishing to see records must submit a request to a particular office. The admissions office is developing a process to provide information to students. “We’re not going to get 1,000 requests like Stanford has gotten, but we obviously want to facilitate multiple requests,” Warner said. 

Under the new system, Warner said the admissions office would likely schedule appointments during which they would show students their electronic records. However, the office is not required to and will not provide a hard copy, partially to protect the proprietary software used to organize student information. According to Warner, students who made information requests should receive a response from the admissions office detailing next steps sometime in the coming week.

Warner said the increased attention to FERPA requests will not have any effect on the practices of the admissions office in the future.

“We’re still going to ask for the same information we asked for in the past,” Warner said. “Every year we try to improve on what we do but it’s largely going to be the same.”

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