I‘ve always wanted to answer the question, “How did I get into Yale?” Recently, I discovered that if I were to submit a written request to the University Registrar today, I could receive my admissions records within 45 days; I could get a glimpse of the discussion that took place in the Admissions Office when my application was pulled up. But there are reasons why I might not.
As an enrolled student, I have certain rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. FERPA allows me to access my education records held by the University, seek corrections for inappropriate or misleading information and protect my records from disclosure to third parties. I also possess the freedom to choose whether or not to exercise these rights.
Two weeks ago, The New York Times reported on a group of Stanford students involved in an anonymous newsletter, The Fountain Hopper, who had pushed for students across the nation to take advantage of FERPA. But what I and other students choose to do should depend not on the fact that I have certain rights, but on my motivations for employing them.
Out of sheer curiosity, I could discover what my admissions officers wrote about me and how I fared during my interview. FERPA gives me that power. Other students also undoubtedly wonder how university officials perceived us during the admissions process. But should we really choose to find out how strangers viewed our application materials — those rigorously tailored documents that represented only a fraction of who we were?
Using FERPA merely to satisfy our individual curiosity about how we looked during the admissions process is not an effective use of the law. It is, at worst, an act of vanity or insecurity. Some people may argue that reviewing admissions records may give us a fuller self-understanding and contribute to our personal growth. But I think for most people, that argument is a cover-up for the deeper motivation to figure out how we appear to other people. It’s the same motivation that drives us to glance in the mirror before we step outside.
If we think before we act, we’ll realize that seeing our admissions documents would give us little benefit as individuals. We are already enrolled Yale students; presumably the comments in the documents reflect our merits. Reading them would probably give us an ego boost. Even if the documents contained some criticisms, we would most likely think about them briefly or shrug them off indignantly. And no matter what the documents contain, we would be reading about how strangers perceived a past and incomplete version of ourselves. If personal growth is the goal, using FERPA to look at admissions records is a shortcut and should not replace the harder process of self-reflection.
Using FERPA thoughtlessly may also discourage admissions officers from performing their job as fairly and honestly as we want them to. An officer who thinks applicants might someday see his comments may withhold brutal but frank judgments for fear of students’ disapproval. His evaluations are already constrained by the values and expectations of the University, and FERPA may give him another constraint. Ironically, the more students use FERPA to uncover how admissions officers evaluated them, the fewer honest evaluations there will be.
But I’m not arguing that rights under FERPA should be taken away. I only think that we should not exercise them thoughtlessly or for selfish ends.
If it is used effectively, FERPA could actually exert enormous pressure on universities to be more transparent during the admissions process. Students would have to use FERPA to access their documents not only for themselves to view but to expose patterns of decision-making that occur behind closed doors. People could potentially see the ways in which universities deliberately structure their student populations in terms of skills and personal traits, as well as race, class and affiliations. This information would be valuable in understanding who gets into college — and who does not.
Such a project would have to happen at the large scale proposed by The Fountain Hopper but could not happen under the veil of anonymity so far worn by the group. When pushing for greater transparency in college admissions, people should themselves be open about their identities and intentions. That’s why the most effective use of FERPA is not an act by faceless individuals but one by vast numbers of students representing a broader interest in higher education.
Amanda Mei is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.