Admissions Releases Closed Files

By Claire Abbadi

A discovery by a group of Stanford University students could bring an unprecedented level of transparency to the college admissions process, after an anonymous Stanford campus publication released the finding that the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) stipulates that students have the right to see their educational records, including admissions files and comments on students’ applications.

Upon a Campus inquiry, Dean of Admissions Greg Buckles confirmed that FERPA does ensure this right for all students and that this discovery could change the admission process.

“I’m talking to the deans at our peer schools and we are all asking each other, ‘What are you going to do? What are you going to do?’” Buckles said.

Though FERPA has always protected this right, requests for access to educational records have snowballed in the past six weeks after the group of students printed their discovery in a campus newsletter, The Fountain Hopper.

Though each campus has witnessed different reactions, Buckles confirmed that the Middlebury College Admissions Office has received five requests to view educational records, three from current students and two from alumni. 

“What we are trying to do is fully abide by and cooperate with those laws, but also make sure we are protecting privacy and understanding exactly what privacy means,” said Buckles.

The College policy is to keep admissions files for matriculating students during all four years and shred them after graduation. Files of students who are rejected or who do not matriculate are only kept for two years. 

Therefore, the two alumni requests could not be catered to, but the three current students received an email from Buckles confirming that they could come in and view their file.

Sarah Sicular ’16 was one of those students. After reading the BuzzFeed article on the Stanford students, she decided to contact Admissions and see if this assertion was in fact true. 

“I feel like admissions is such a non-transparent process, and I am curious about how their decision making happens. I feel like by seeing my own information, I could gain insight into how it works,” Sicular said.

The Stanford students suggest language to use when asking for your files and admissions should comply within 45 days. 

On Jan. 20, Sicular wrote to Admissions: “Hello! This is a FERPA access request. I am requesting access to all documents held by the Middlebury Office of Undergraduate Admission, including without limitation a complete copy of any admissions records kept in my name in any and all university offices, including the Undergraduate Admission Workcard and all associated content (including without limitation the qualitative and quantitative assessments of any ‘readers,’ demographics data, interview records); any e-mails, notes, memoranda, video, audio, or other documentary material maintained by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. I look forward to receiving access to these documents within 45 calendar days. Thank you!”

By Feb. 9, she had an answer, where Admissions stated that she could make an appointment to come in and view the files online. 

It seems perfectly simple, but there have been a number of concerns and legal complications. One of several concerns has been the ability to honor all of these requests. Buckles has indicated that if the number stays small, it is easy to comply with requests; however, if hundreds of students suddenly want to see files, then this could become a fulltime job. 

Likewise, the files often are coded and abbreviated in a way that would be hard for a non-admissions counselor to differentiate. FERPA protects students who wish to see their files, but it doesn’t explicitly state that the files have to be read or explained to students. And taking the time to translate the files to each student who requests could be resource intensive.

However, that may not stop the requests.

As it stands now, students will be able to see their two reader comments, which is often a paragraph detailing the overall impression the candidate has left. Students would also see the 1-7 rating they received for academic strength, extracurricular contribution and personal quality and the recommended decision: accept, deny, defer or wait list.

Technically, high school teacher recommendations are in the file as well, but most students waived their right to view said recommendations in the Common Application.

However, Buckles has indicated that he is much more worried about the communication of sensitive information than he is about the numeric ratings students are given.

“What I’m more concerned about is us trying to take into account much more personal and sensitive information like someone’s ability to flourish here or other very sensitive issues that could be of concern, like of one’s ability to have a roommate or function in a demanding environment. We have all kinds of considerations legally about that.”

In the coming weeks, Admissions will meet with the Presidential cabinet and the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Risk to manage the risk associated with making these files public. The coming weeks will demonstrate where this law is going and how it can influence college admissions.

“The issue comes down to how much is too much knowledge,” said Thilan Tudor ’16, a student employee in the Admissions Office. 

“While obtaining information on our strengths and weaknesses seems appealing, having this information presented in the context of an admissions decision can be tough. College applications are comprehensive snapshots of one’s high school years and having a holistic admission process means that every aspect of an application is rigorously evaluated in a candid straightforward manner,” he concluded.

Leaving the choice to view these records in the hands of individuals could have long-term ramifications, especially surrounding the future legitimacy of the admission process. 

“The potential downside is this could neutralize one’s ability to write candidly and sensitively about an applicant,” said Buckles. 

“It could it have a chilling effect, even more so than there is already, on a teachers willingness to write frank and honest and helpful evaluations,” Buckles said.

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