An opinion piece published today in The Lantern, a student newspaper at The Ohio State University, decries the tendency on the part of colleges and universities to misuse and abuse the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). The editorial draws upon a recent report in The Columbus Dispatch, which has also been highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
FERPA was enacted to provide students with confidentiality in their educational records, including student disciplinary records, and to provide students and their parents with access to those records. It is meant to ensure that a student’s educational records are not disclosed to a third party, the press, or the general public without the student’s consent. However, as the Lantern editorial discusses, colleges and universities have used FERPA to withhold many institutional records arguably outside the scope of FERPA out of the public realm:
According to former U.S. Sen. James L. Buckley, FERPA was intended to protect students’ academic records from public publishing and scrutiny. This law, which theoretically leaves it up to the students to control who can see their transcripts and GPA, has been used to censor a wide range of information, from NCAA violations to information about comp’d sports tickets.
The result, according to the article, is that journalists are too often frustrated in their attempts to expose institutional policy and practice, including the use of public funds, to the public. Universities are therefore able to hide behind FERPA rather than face public scrutiny for their actions:
Reporters need many records to be available so they can keep government-funded institutions transparent and accountable, and that simply isn’t happening in the realm of higher education. An impenetrable barrier has been erected by our school’s tight hold of information, protecting almost every document involving a student from public disclosure.
These are important points and well worth considering. FERPA was enacted to protect students’ privacy, not to allow institutions of higher learning to be unaccountable for the way they treat students and use public funds. The opinion piece therefore concludes with a call for change:
The time has come for the federal government to re-evaluate FERPA’s outline, and say what it really means. There is clearly concern brewing in the federal education department, and even Buckley, the man who helped craft the law, has said universities have stretched the law far past the breaking point. The NCAA and OSU have already made it clear that they will not stop this crippling censorship on their own, so the only way to restore accountability in higher education is word from a higher power.