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September 23, 2015

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: ‘Dear Parent, Your Child Has Had a Psychotic Break.’

Related: College kids have too much privacy.

A few years ago, an acquaintance received a stunning phone call from her daughter’s former college roommate. The conversation went something like this:

“I thought you should know your daughter never graduated from college.”

“What? She claimed she was just skipping the ceremony.”

“Well, the truth is she didn’t attend classes the last two years.”

The parents were shellshocked, concerned and ultimately furious at the school. “Why didn’t they tell us?”

The answer is FERPA.

Passed in 1974, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is an unwieldy piece of legislation affecting all institutions that receive funding from the Department of Education. Although it has been amended over the years, the law’s bottom line remains: “Once a student reaches 18 years of age or attends a postsecondary institution, he or she becomes an ‘eligible student’ and all rights under FERPA transfer from the parent to the student.”

This essentially means that you have no right, as a parent, to know what or how your children are doing in school. They can binge-watch True Detective rather than attend classes, never disclose their grades, maybe become seriously anxious or depressed, and you have to take their word for it when they say “everything’s fine.”

For sons and daughters who move through college in four efficient years, the law has little consequence. Unfortunately, even kids who never played hooky, told a lie or got less than a B in high school can become socially and academically lost in a distraction-filled, unfamiliar setting.

FERPA isn’t for the benefit of the student. It’s a way for the universities to avoid accountability to the people who are actually paying the bills. Note how sometimes students are treated as adults, and sometimes as children. Note, too, that the way they’re treated is always the way that’s most useful to the university.