February 18, 2008

Cornell Allows for Disclosure of Student Files

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Cornell explicitly asserted in a policy change adopted last year that it may release student educational records to the parents of most undergraduate students without prior consent. This employs a provision of federal privacy law unused by most other universities.
The new policy changes the way the University implements the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, permitting the University to disclose records of students who are over 18 to parents if the student is claimed as a dependent on the parents’ federal tax forms.
The new policy states that the University may alert parents or guardians of tax-dependent students when their student withdraws from the University, faces issues relating to academic probation or academic good standing, receives disciplinary probation or “otherwise engages in behavior calling into question the appropriateness of the student’s continued enrollment in the University.”
Prior to August, University policy only allowed the release of student records under emergency circumstances — when the student’s health or safety was in danger.
But, according to Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, the University needs the broader authority to release information in situations that fall short of constituting an emergency.
“We found that there are times when involving parents before it is a real crisis can help the student get the help he or she needs,” she said.
“Normally, we rely on students to maintain communication with their family … [The new policy] is really to address those situations when a student has not followed through with communications with their parents and/or guardians,” said David Yeh, vice president for student and academic services.
“Also, when students are dependent on their parents, we believe the parents who are paying the bill are entitled to know [the status of their student’s enrollment at the University],” Murphy said.
The new policy also states that while student records generally are not disclosed to parents, the University has discretion to release student records when it believes such disclosure is in the best interest of the dependent student.
“[The policy] would permit anything that is part of the student’s educational record to be shared with a parent if we thought that wise,” Murphy said. “Enrollment status, academic performance and judicial records all would be involved.”
Under FERPA, universities are allowed to release to parents the records of tax-dependent students even if the students are over 18. But according to Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, Cornell is in the minority of institutions that actually implement this provision of the law.
“While FERPA does allow the release of student information to parents of tax dependent students, by far the vast majority of institutions have decided not to release this information and not to intervene in what ought to be internal family decision processes,” he said.
FERPA has set standards for student privacy issues ranging from peer grading in secondary schools to the confidentiality of letters of recommendation for graduate schools. Under FERPA, educational institutions must keep student records private, besides a handful of exceptions that the law outlines. Schools can disclose student information to parents of minors, law enforcement agencies, accrediting agencies, among other third parties.
All schools that receive federal funding are required to comply with FERPA. The Supreme Court has ruled, however, that individuals are not entitled to sue for damages as a result of a University’s violation of FERPA.
While Cornell’s policy loosens the standards for disclosing student records, University administrators said that they do not routinely, and in fact rarely, share student’s records with parents.
“The emphasis is that we may [release student records], but that doesn’t mean that we will, or that it happens,” said Yeh.
Tom Reinstein ’08, president of the Cornell ACLU, said he does not find most of Cornell’s new policy to be threatening to student’s civil liberties.
“It sounds reasonable, but you have to be aware in situations like this there is the possibility of a path to erosion of student privacy,” he said.
Reinstein also said he wished Cornell had better publicized the change in policy.
The policy change was published in the Courses of Study, on the Registrar’s website and was referenced in an e-mail sent to students, according to Murphy.
Under Cornell’s new policy, the University presumes that all undergraduate students are tax-dependents of their parents, unless a student presents the University with documentation of financial independence. The University assumes that graduate students are financially independent of their parents.
According to Nassirian, the University’s assumption that most undergraduates are financially dependent is “unheard of” among other institutions.
“It’s so clearly problematic, legally-speaking,” Nassirian said, “The burden is on the institution to determine the dependency status … You can’t shift the burden of proof to the student.”
Yeh said that expecting students to declare their own financial independence in order to prevent disclosure of their records is not unreasonable and the University’s policy is permissible by law.
“I think if you go from one institution to the other you will get differences in how FERPA is implemented,” Yeh said. “Some schools are more restrictive than we are in their interpretation. Others are more open.”
Nassirian said that even if a university were to meticulously determine the financial dependency status of each student, the institution should exercise care in the manner in which it releases student records.
“It is a little simplistic to suggest that tax dependency is a good proxy for functional parent-child relationships. For instance, there are parents who support their offspring solely because of a court order,” he said.
Cornell’s new FERPA implementation policy is considered “interim,” and expires in August. It is currently going through the University’s formal process for making a policy final. While the University’s policy review committees may make some minor clarifications in the language of the policy, Yeh said he does not anticipate any major substantive changes in the final version.