You just got lawyered.
That was the takeaway from Yale Law School Dean Robert Post’s annual “State of the School” address last Tuesday. In frank terms, he explained that students who requested access to their educational records under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) would no longer be receiving the fat file they expected. To avoid being forced to hand over a wide range of documents in response to a flood of recent student requests, the school had decided to destroy its student admissions evaluation records along with any notations made by the career development office in individual student files.
In choosing to read the 1974 statute as it did, the Yale Law School did not just outmaneuver all of its aspiring lawyers. The school may have defeated the intentions of another one of its own: James L. Buckley, a 1949 Yale Law School grad and the man responsible for drafting and spearheading FERPA’s passage.
By its own terms, FERPA was designed to fulfill at least two major objectives: to allow students to access and correct inaccuracies in their own records, and to prohibit schools from publicly disclosing students’ identifying information.
Yet Yale’s decision to delete all of its admissions evaluation records is neither the first instance nor the most egregious example of university administrators interpreting the federal statute to serve their ends. Back in 2010, Buckley himself called for Congress to amend the statute in the wake of revelations that college athletic departments were using FERPA to hide sexual abuse committed by student athletes and payoffs made to students in violation of NCAA regulations. Buckley—a former U.S. senator and federal judge on the D.C. Circuit—criticized widespread manipulation of the statute, observing, “Institutions are putting their own meaning into the law.”
FERPA reclaimed the national spotlight earlier this year when FountainHopper (FoHo), a Stanford student-run email newsletter, provided subscribers with a step-by-step guide on how to access their admission records. In response to the resulting logjam of requests, last month a university official wrote a school-wide email pleading for students to first ask themselves, “What benefit do I seek from reviewing these additional admissions records?” After consulting outside counsel, Stanford deleted its admissions files and has resolved to no longer maintain admissions records.
The FERPA issue hit Yale Law School this past January. In the spirit of FoHo, a Yale Law student sent out a school-wide email advising other students on how to request information from the registrar. But the advice came too late. Without advance warning to the student body, all of the admissions evaluation data in students’ files was deleted on February 22, 2015; additional information maintained by the career development office was deleted on March 3.
Whether or not you agree that students should have access to sensitive information like their admissions scores, it seems safe to say that there is a right way and a wrong way for a school to handle significant changes in it records retention policy. Unfortunately, nothing in the language of the statute bars the administration’s conduct here. Indeed, as a general matter, FERPA is problematic not because of what the statute says but because of what it doesn’t say.
For starters, the incident at Yale highlights FERPA’s lack of any kind of notice requirement, under which school officials would be obliged to inform students before enacting a change in their record retention policies. But there are other obvious gaps. For example, the statute sets no ceiling on the fees that schools may charge students seeking copies of their own records, including students who have difficulty traveling to review their files in person. Without a fee cap, students’ access rights could easily be rendered meaningless.
Just as problematically, the statute contains no guidelines for document retention or destruction. The absence of such parameters undermines the statute’s privacy and fairness objectives, creating problems both for enrolled students who seek to ensure the accuracy of records that could affect their professional opportunities and for students who seek to exert some control over their records long after graduation.
With several simple changes, Congress could level the playing field between students and their institutions and tamp down on the wide-ranging and self-serving interpretations of FERPA that universities render on a case-by-case basis.
First, FERPA should establish baseline record retention requirements. For instance, Harvard University keeps records on undergraduates during their four years of study. This allows students to monitor their records throughout their undergraduate career in accord with FERPA’s objectives.
Second, FERPA should include notice requirements that encourage institutional transparency. Since the statute gives institutions 45 days to respond to a student record request, it seems only fair to require institutions to give students 45 days of notice before any significant changes are made to their records policies.
Lastly, rather than treating student records as monolithic data stockpiles, FERPA should recognize that schools might have good reason to withhold certain narrow categories of information from inquiring students. For instance, a strong case could be made that releasing admission scores to accepted candidates could undermine the integrity of the admissions process. Yale Law School is a good example of the problem at its extreme: As part of its regular admissions process, faculty members score applicants; release of this information could prove destructive not only to admissions decisions but also to faculty-student relations. In the converse, FERPA should recognize limited situations in which universities should be allowed to provide third parties particular kinds of student information. Indeed, where a student is accused of a serious crime like sexual assault, universities should not be barred from providing law enforcement the information it needs to conduct a proper investigation.
Implementing any of these fixes will require universities and their students to move away from their adversarial posture on the issue and begin having mature conversations about how FERPA might be reformed to achieve its purposes. The alternative is to settle for a statute that provides students a right that universities can strip of all meaning as soon as it is exercised by students in any significant number—a right that is no right at all.
This article has been updated.