After several hundred students requested access to their educational files, the Undergraduate Admissions Office decided to delete its evaluative admissions data for matriculated students.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is a federal law that grants students the right to inspect and review their education records. Although FERPA has been on the books since 1974, a group of Stanford students who run an anonymous newsletter called “The Fountain Hopper” brought attention to the law in January by using it to gain access to their files. The Fountain Hopper then published their findings and encouraged other students to follow suit, resulting in an increase in FERPA requests at universities across the country.
Previously, Yale students who filed FERPA requests were given access to documents such as the comments written on their files by admissions officers and interview reports written by alumni. But on Jan. 30 — roughly two weeks after a flood of students began to request their records following the Stanford case — the Admissions Office changed its file-retention policy to return to an earlier practice of deleting admissions documents regularly, which was in place prior to 2008.
“In the paper world, admissions documents were disposed of on a regular basis, simply because there was not space to store them all,” Quinlan wrote in a February memo to admissions staff. “In the electronic world, however, documents have a longer ‘shelf-life.’ Recent requests have spurred us to evaluate our protocol and make a decision to follow the previous practice of regularly deleting information.”
Students who requested their documents after Jan. 30 were recently notified of the change of policy via email. Many of these students said they received an email from the Admissions Office on Mar. 16.
Quinlan added that prior to the events in January, Yale had only received a small number of FERPA requests over the past few years. However, he said, the University has seen several hundred requests since January, which is what prompted the policy change.
The Admissions Office staff had several internal discussions, and there was a strong consensus that the best course of action was to follow the previous practice of regularly deleting information, he said.
The memo sent out to admissions staff outlined three major justifications for the policy change. First, the memo stated that granting students access to evaluative comments may discourage admissions officers from making “specific” and “frank” judgments about student applications.
“Given that we have the difficult job of sorting through roughly 30,000 applications each year, the ability to write comments clearly and openly is critical to our primary function of evaluating applications to Yale,” Quinlan wrote in the memo.
Two students interviewed who filed FERPA requests and gained access to their files before the policy change said they did not see anything troubling in their files and had mostly positive experiences. However, both students said they knew other individuals who were offended by the comments admissions officers wrote on their files.
Aaron Gertler ’16 said that while the Admissions Office’s justification for the policy change seems shaky, it is hard for students to fault them as long as the University’s actions are in the letter of the law. Gertler added that the FERPA consultations themselves likely place a burden on the Admissions Office, since students are not sent their files in the mail but instead are required to schedule appointments to inspect the files in person.
“In situations like these I generally tend to trust the administration, because the administration has had many hundreds of these FERPA consultations — not just this year, but in past years from students who have figured out how to do it. And I’m sure there have been some rough patches for them,” Gertler said. “And I’m sure they also know a great deal about the experiences of their partner universities who have also had to do this, and somewhere in those thousands of cases, I’m sure that trouble has popped up. I would trust their justification.”
The memo also said that granting access to comments from alumni interviewers compromises the relationship the office has with its volunteers, whose assistance is vital to the admissions process. Additionally, it is good practice to dispose of certain documents that have already served the purpose for which they were intended in order to protect student privacy and security.
The admissions documents of current students and alumni who requested to see their records through midday on Jan. 30 were printed prior to deletion, but students who made requests after this date were sent an email alerting them of the policy change, Quinlan wrote in the memo. These students were still invited to schedule appointments to see their files, although their files will not contain evaluative comments.
“This was a hard decision to make and one that we did not make lightly,” Quinlan told the News. “Obviously there is a very valuable piece of institutional memory that is lost with this, but we really felt like in order to maintain the best possible selection process, it was important to return to our old policy.”
Although Quinlan could not comment on the policies of other universities specifically, he said many of Yale’s peer institutions already had similar retention policies that involve removing admissions documents before students matriculate. In making this change, the University is moving more in line with the rest of the Ivy League, he said.
Stanford Associate Vice President for University Communications Lisa Lapin said that similar to Yale, Stanford had a policy of disposing of admissions officers’ notes prior to their admissions office transitioning to a digital format. Stanford has since returned to deleting its files, she said.
“We have now returned to our previous practice of not retaining admissions officer notes, but we are responding to FERPA requests with all records available at the time the request was made,” Lapin said.
Quinlan said it is too early to gauge student interest in seeing their files moving forward with the new policy, because the office has only now begun scheduling appointments with students who filed requests after Jan. 30. Any future FERPA requests will continue to be honored in compliance with the law, the memo said, but the Admissions Office will continue to delete certain documents from all student records before students matriculate, beginning this summer.
Three students interviewed who filed requests after the Jan. 30 date said they are disappointed in the policy change and do not plan on scheduling appointments to see the remainder of their file.
“FERPA has been around for a long time, so it doesn’t make sense that admissions offers are so surprised about students suddenly being able to see what they write,” Christopher Rim ’17 said. “They should have expected this.”