The Impact of FERPA on Admissions

SC Test Prep

This past January, spurred on by an anonymous student publication on campus, several hundred Stanford University students exercised their constitutional freedoms in a new and potentially destabilizing way: they requested their educational records. Since this is in accordance with Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the university had to comply within 45 days.

Though students have possessed this right since the passing of FERPA in 1974, few have taken advantage of it and certainly not in the cohesive numbers now being seen at Stanford. It is likely that the increase has colleges and universities a little nervous and for reasons more complex than one might think.

If more students take advantage of the opportunity presented by FERPA, admissions counselors will likely need to become more circumspect in their admission and application evaluations which currently include comments on personal qualities, family and educational background, interview performance, high school recommendation letters, and much more. Most counselors would not want their evaluations made public, particularly to the individual student, because of the potential impact on their school’s image and branding. As one student says on condition of anonymity in a New York Times article, “The things they write, it’s clear they never expect them to be read. They’re very frank.” *

Less obvious but perhaps more troubling for admissions offices are the potential effects on transparency and accountability in admissions which aren’t limited to branding or recruitment issues. Theoretically, if enough students request their admission evaluations from any given school, the patterns, evaluative tools and admission priorities of each admissions office could become known and predicted, at least temporarily redistributing the balance of power between admission offices and prospective students.

This is, after all, a practice that any college counselor or independent consultant worth their salt has already adopted. Each year we track student profiles, admission decisions, financial aid offers, etc. in an attempt to refine our ability to predict and guide students and families toward successful outcomes. However, it’s much like scientists who study black holes – analyzing everything surrounding the event including our students’ and the schools’ profiles as well as historical trends – but unable to see clearly into the middle of the actual decision and the considerations leading up to it.

The movement Stanford’s students have triggered opens the possibility for looking into the heart of the black hole or, as the Times article describes it, the “black box” of admissions. Moreover, they have done so in a way that is potentially as accessible and democratic as existing sites like which already provides a means for students to share their admissions decisions and profiles with other potential students.

The end result? Probably not much in the short term, but if you are a student or the parent of one considering the same school that an older sibling, cousin, or close friend is already attending, it might be time to ask them if they’ve heard of FERPA. Perhaps they’d like to know what led to their admit decision…and perhaps to share., accessed 3/2/15