“So, what can you tell me about my son while he is a student at your school?”

J. Andrew Shepardson, Vice President for Student Affairs/Dean of Students, Bentley University

June 19, 2018

It’s not an unusual question for me to receive, except this time instead of at a campus event it was on a beach.   I was sitting with a close friend lamenting how quickly we went from being great friends as undergrads in college to her having a son old enough to be one of my students.  We were discussing recent media articles and her experience with her oldest son at another university.  We laughed at how much our perspectives had changed about the role of parents.  Of course, “back in the day,” we thought there was no role for our parents in our college lives.

For my friend, it’s difficult to understand how higher education views her role as a parent.  Admissions and advancement offices often tout that parents are “part of the community.”  Yet, when it is not about money (tuition or donations), it feels, at least from her experience with her first son, like the university is trying to hide things, or it is operating as if it is wrong or illegal to involve her as parent.  When calling for help in navigating an off-campus family issue at her son’s institution, my friend was quickly told that no conversation could happen without her son signing a form.  With no context other than “it’s the law,” she felt it would be easier to just deal with the situation on her own.

I try to never invoke FERPA when talking to a parent and with my staff.  There is no right of private action related to FERPA and we know that penalties, especially for conversations with parents, are rarely, if ever, invoked.  Still, for me, this is easier given my institution.  As a private, residential university with a traditional-aged student body, the vast majority of my students fall under the IRS-dependent exemption.  Therefore, I allow our educational mission as a business university to guide my conversation rather than invoking a federal law that likely does not apply.

I want to make sure we are thinking about involving parents especially when a student is struggling.  I want my staff, especially new professionals, to understand the parent perspective.  We know that parents can be very powerful partners in helping students succeed.  They know their sons and daughters better (hopefully) than we do.  They want to see them succeed and they want to give them the space to succeed.  Sure, we can talk about the destructive effect one “helicopter or snowplow parent” can have (or two or three), but as a percentage of our parent population, they are small in number.  I have had far more wonderful parent interactions than frustrating ones.  As educators and as student development professionals, we should be able to recognize when parent involvement will help a student’s situation and is the right thing to do.

This starts by being upfront with parents about what we can and will share.  When I talk to parents who are looking for information about their student, I remind them that our motto is paratus (prepared).  We pride ourselves that our graduates are ready for the workforce on day one.  I tell parents that begins with learning how to navigate bureaucracies, handling difficult situations independently and understanding how to be an adult child. I also share that I don’t talk about someone without their knowledge.  I ask them to let me have a conversation with their student and then get back to them.  Rarely has a student not given me permission to speak with their parents and when they don’t, we have a good conversation about how their family life is impacting them—academically and personally.  Beginning my work with a parent in this way has far more beneficial outcomes than starting by requiring them to get their student to sign a form.  One approach closes down the conversation and often causes ill will and frustration while the other is a conversation starter that I believe adheres to the spirit of FERPA.

Too often, we believe it will make our lives easier or we want to protect ourselves from intrusive parents so we say, “I would, but I can’t because of federal law.”  We should all have more courage to say that it is a mainstay of our educational philosophy to work directly with our students. But we should also have the courage to reach out for help when we believe it is in the students’ best interest.  FERPA is about protecting the privacy of educational records.  It was not intended to block conversations that have strong educational foundations.  Sure, there are occasions, especially with adult students, where this is more complex.  However, starting with a strong philosophy, grounded in helping students be successful, rather than a federal law is where we should be.

In September, I will have lunch with my friend’s son.  And talk about what he wants to share with his mom.

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