Law allows students to see documents Engineering freshman Jeff Lavif did not know that he could inspect his admissions records. And neither did College freshman Deborah Green or College senior Santosh Kesari. But they and all other University students have the legal right to inspect their application summary -- which includes admissions officers' comments -- according to a Harvard University student who forced the Massachusetts university to release his records last summer. The Family Educational Records Privacy Act of 1974, better known as the Buckley Amendment, requires that enrolled students be allowed to inspect their "educational records." The law applies to any school, public or private, which receives federal funding. "The purpose of FERPA is to protect the confidentiality of records of students and their parents," a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said yesterday. "The [Harvard] decision was based on an interpretation of the regulations and the law." An Education Department document said in a test case this summer that students are specifically allowed to read admission summary sheets, a condensed version of the information contained in their files. The sheet includes comments by the admissions officer who read the application. Admissions Dean Willis Stetson said earlier this semester that the University maintains students' admissions files for a total of six years, including the year the student applies. Joshua Gerstein, a 1991 graduate of Harvard University, used FERPA to request access to his summary sheets. Harvard officials denied the request, saying FERPA does not apply to admissions summary sheets. Gerstein subsequently appealed the decision to the Education Department, which ultimately ruled that Harvard had violated FERPA and must surrender the summary sheets to Gerstein. Harvard had argued that the summary sheets contained comments based on high school teacher and counselor recommendations, which many students, including Gerstein, waive the rights to see. But the federal department said Harvard could not withhold the admissions documents based on the confidentiality of specific items mentioned in them. The government stated that Harvard must black out sections that refer to recommendations which students have waived the right to inspect, and allow them to see the rest of the sheet. Stetson said yesterday that he is reviewing the decision with the University's General Counsel to see how it applies to the University. Associate General Counsel Neil Hamburg added that the University allows students to see admissions records which they did not waive the right to inspect. The University, however, has a clause at the end of its undergraduate admissions application which, when signed, waives students' right to inspect statements by admissions officers. "Must be read by all applicants: I understand that confidential recommendations, including interview reports and evaluation statements from members of the admissions staff . . . will be used for the purposes of evaluation of this application . . . I therefore agree that the contents of confidential appraisals shall not be disclosed to anyone, including myself," the statement reads. The waiver also states that all of the information in the application is accurate and is the student's original work. But Gerstein said last night that FERPA specifically states that a university can not require a student to sign a waiver in order to be admitted. For this reason, he said he does not believe this waiver is enough to deny students access to their files. "Waivers may not be required as a condition for admission to, receipt of financial aid from, or receipt of any other service or benefits from such agency or institution," FERPA states. The waiver on page 12 of the University's application does not say the statement is optional, but states that it "must be read by all applicants." Gerstein noted that applicants would be forced to sign the waiver because it also contains the statement that verifies that the application is accurate and is the student's own work. Gerstein also added that the waiver does not specify that it is optional, unlike the two items directly above it, which ask the student to state their ethnic identity and any disability. He also said that the high school counselor and teacher recommendation forms specifically state that the student can choose whether or not to waive access to those recommendations. "My feelng is in this waiver they don't make it clear that you have an option," Gerstein said. "They are implying that this is a condition for admission." Gerstein said that he had not had sufficient time to review the University's policy with an attorney but believes that the University's policy is not consistent with the spirit of the law. "The law is basically to cover recommendations from people that have interviewed you or have known you for some period of time and are therefore in a position to make a recommendation on your behalf," Gerstein said. "[The University is] trying to expand it to include admissions committee members who have never met the applicant and who know absolutely nothing about the applicant except what they can read from the paper." Students can request access to their records by submitting a letter to the office of admissions citing FERPA and providing information that will help the University locate the file. The University is required by law to respond to the request within 45 days.Comments powered by Disqus
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