The past few months have been a bit of a frenzy for universities on both coasts. At Stanford, a group of students posted a blog post that listed instructions for students on how to access their admissions files under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Immediately after the blog post went up, though the students at Stanford meant it as a joke, universities across the country were hit by a wave of requests for these files. At Harvard, a group of Asian-American students sued the university claiming that the admissions process is racially biased against them. FERPA will likely be a tool they’ll deploy when making their case.
There are two questions involved in these disputes: First, should students have access to these files if doing so would compromise the integrity of the admissions process? And conversely, should universities be allowed to protect these files if students suspect that the process is guided by harmful biases? These questions are important because they allow us to seriously examine the rights of a student by virtue of being a student versus the rights of a student by virtue of being a person.
We know from experience that FERPA requests will clearly compromise the admissions process. After all, when student activists push for more transparency in other areas of Yale governance, they do so with the expectation that doing so will make these institutions more accountable to students — just look at the dean’s search committee or the ongoing push for a seat at the Yale Corporation for a student. Regardless of where one stands on this question, accountability necessarily involves a change in the ways in which an institution conducts itself.
The point of tension, then, is over whether the marginal benefit that comes from seeing these files is worth the costs that come with transparency. I don’t think that they are. The cost that comes with an admissions process that is too transparent, however, is incredibly high. Admissions officers who suspect that their observations and comments can be read at any time may be less inclined to speak frankly about the merits or (more importantly) weaknesses of a candidate. This is especially true here at Yale, where admissions officers work as freshman advisors and counselors.
As Amanda Mei ’18 pointed out in these pages (“Think twice about FERPA,” Jan. 30 2015), these files contain incomplete observations by strangers on a past version of ourselves. If the goal in requesting these files is to reflect on our growth since entering college, then we would be better served asking the people who know us most intimately. A list of comments on my high school GPA and ACT scores cannot substitute for the useful insights of a friend.
It is more difficult to contest the wave of FERPA requests, however, if the desire to see these files stems from a suspicion of bias within the admissions process. Students who feel that they were unfairly deprived of a fair shot at certain schools because of race could argue that they should have the tools to verify that certain biases exist. I can’t contest the merits of that point. There is an implicit understanding between students and most universities that admissions officers made their decisions based on merit, compatibility between students and diversity of academic interests. Students should be able to challenge admissions policies that they feel fall outside the scope of this understanding.
If such biases exist at such a large scale, however, the proper place to contest them would be in courts. A judge is trained to be an arbiter of disputes precisely because he is expected to be unbiased. If students can only access these files through court cases against a university, then we can ensure that they are being used to challenge certain admissions policies rather than satisfy curiosities. The current case being disputed at Harvard is a good example of a situation where FERPA should be used.
Of course, these arguments rely on the assumption that these admissions files still exist. The recent reaction by universities to delete all of their admissions files complicates the situation. While I can understand why a university would want to protect its admissions staff from the numerous FERPA requests made by students, I find the long-term consequences of the mass deletions troubling. Without the possibility of independent review, students have no tools to examine and challenge any admissions policy that is harmful to them. Universities should not have deleted these files while the case against Harvard was still pending a decision.
Ugonna Eze is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .