Date of this Version
One of the outcomes of the way FERPA has frequently been interpreted was the Balkanization of student support services that exist on a university campus, particularly at large universities. As the cabinet members noted in the Report to the President on the Virginia Tech tragedy, “information silos” at universities “impede appropriate information sharing” and “are heightened by confusion about the laws that govern the sharing of information” (Leavitt, Spellings, and Gonzales, 7). At our institution, by the first day of classes a first-year student will have signed up to five separate FERPA forms, each one pertaining to a particular aspect of the student’s life at the institution. While it may make sense from a legal point of view that units addressing different components of student life (such as financial, social, judicial, and academic) limit information to university officers who work in that unit, such a lack of sharing can have devastating consequences. In dealings with a troubled student, interactions between officers and administrators in various areas of a student’s life, in addition to interactions with parents, are essential.
For example, a student who is showing reclusive behavior in a residence hall may cause some concern among the administrators of the residence hall, but such behavior does not necessarily suggest a mental health crisis. However, if this behavior is added to information from professors that the student is not attending classes and information from the financial aid office that the student is not using work-study opportunities, together these three items may suggest that a student is suffering from depression. In a vacuum, each piece of information can be easily explained away. From the point of view of residence life, the student may simply be a loner; from the point of view of financial aid, the student may have decided that work-study is damaging her academic performance and therefore chosen to forego it; and from the point of view of the professor, the student could just be goofing off. Placing all of these pieces of information together, however, will heighten the awareness of a vigilant administrator that this student might need some type of intervention. A belief that FERPA and other privacy laws may prohibit critical information sharing, whether accurate or not, can harm a university’s ability to identify students who are in trouble.