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Student Privacy Buttressed by New Policy

Stricter guidelines curtail information sharing, including to parents


Laurie Pohl, vice president for enrollment and student affairs, answers questions about the new University privacy policy. Photo by Fred Sway

Boston University has changed its policies concerning information about students that will be made available to parents and guardians. And it’ll be a lot less than before.

According to the revised policy, in effect since September 1, the University will no longer send grade reports and notices of preliminary disciplinary actions to parents or guardians. It will also refrain from answering parent inquiries about a student’s academic progress or general well-being.

In an open letter to faculty and staff, President Robert A. Brown says the new practices are consistent with the University’s view that students should be treated like responsible, independent adults.

Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore says the new policy brings BU in line with most universities and allows faculty and staff to share limited information if, and only if, the student has given consent. Elmore says the policy conforms with requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which describes what records parents have a right to review and what background they are entitled to know.

The law under FERPA, although surprising to many, is clear: when a student reaches 18 years of age or from the first day attending school beyond high school level (whichever comes first), in most cases he or she controls outside access to personal records.

Such legalities might seem difficult for parents (many of whom are providing financial support) to accept. But laws that fall under the general rubric of privacy rights often do not distinguish between interested parties — insurance companies, for example — and family members. So once enrolled, students take on the rights of private citizens attending a private institution, regardless of who’s paying the bill.

“Under this revised approach we will communicate only limited information about a
student to others, and only if we have that student’s consent,” says Elmore. That restriction will be waived any time a University official believes a student is in danger, but will not be waived for basic inquiries about a student’s status — for example, whether he or she is still enrolled.

This new policy impacts everyone employed by the University, from administrators to faculty to resident advisors.

Because FERPA rights are often confusing, the University has created an internal Web site with further information. Faculty and staff may access this site through the University Registrar’s Web site, clicking on the faculty/staff tab in the top right corner.

BU Today turned to Laurie Pohl, vice president for enrollment and student affairs, for answers to questions about the new University policy.

BU Today: Why doesn’t the University send grades to parents or guardians?
Grades are part of a student’s education record, which the student owns. We believe that, as adults, students should be the ones sharing grades — and other information about their standing and progress as students — with their parents or guardians. We are providing a tool on the Student Link to make sharing grades and student account information easy and secure. Look for information on “ShareLink.”

Does the University alert parents when students are in physical or emotional distress?
We will alert parents or guardians in the event of an emergency that poses a threat to their son or daughter. This has been the case, and it will continue to be the case. In addition, if parents or guardians call us with concerns about their son or daughter, we will listen carefully and work with the student to identify problems and make resources available as needed. But we will not convey the results of our contact with students or relay specific observations about their son or daughter to parents or guardians. Our responses will convey only general information relevant to the particular situation. In all of our communications — with students and parents — we will urge communication between them.

Under what conditions, exactly, does the University contact parents?
Any time we believe that an emergency poses a threat or danger to the health or safety of their son or daughter, the University will communicate with parents or guardians — whether or not the student grants consent. An example would be the fire that occurred on Aberdeen Street two years ago. With a student’s consent, we will also notify parents or guardians if a student will no longer be enrolled or residing on campus, in such cases as suspension, leave of absence, or withdrawal from the University, or the student’s removal from University housing.

Can a student give the University permission to talk to parents about personal or health issues?
In general, no. We rely on students to convey this information to parents. We will support students as they broach these often difficult subjects with parents, and we will respond to parent inquiries in general terms. In some cases, however, students may grant consent for University health-care providers to communicate with parents or guardians about personal or health issues. In these cases, consent covers only the particular situation at hand, such as when a student asks the health-care provider to call his or her parents to let them know what’s going on. Students may not provide a blanket consent for University health-care providers to share information about them with parents or guardians.

What should parents who are concerned about the welfare of a son or daughter do?
First, talk about it. Ask specific, open-ended questions. If you continue to be concerned, call us. We will always listen carefully and take any actions — including reaching out to the student — with all due speed.

Helpful information about what to watch out for and where to get information is available here.

Art Jahnke contributed to this report.

Seth Rolbein can be reached at srolbein@bu.edu. Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu


12 Comments on Student Privacy Buttressed by New Policy

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2009 at 8:42 am

    I don’t see how this is legal. A financially involved party should always have access to information which could severely impact their investment, one of which is extraordinarily large. This seems to further prevent parents from acquiring information on the progress of their children, so that less parents will withdraw funding until it’s too late and their child is already on their doorstep. Countless funds need not be wasted because of a lack of information and communication.

    It just makes it easier for us to take advantage of our parents funding, since we can perform poorly academically and they won’t know until we’ve graduated with a mediocre diploma.

    This type of privatization is the bane of honesty and good-intention, since it assumes people will have information they know they should share but are too uncomfortable doing so, and by withholding it they impact others.

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2009 at 9:26 am

    To be consisitent the University should no longer accept or expect parents to support students, either. After all, its the student’s bill to pay, right? Parents have a right to privacy, too, including not revealing their financial situation on the financial aid paperwork.

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2009 at 9:44 am

    I think that this new policy is very appropriate. To be honest, it should have been enacted much sooner. It was quite disturbing to me how much information the university provided my parents. I’m on my own in every sense of the word (including financially) and have been for many years. It annoyed me a little bit that my parents (who are not paying for BU) were getting my report cards as if I were still in 2nd grade. I was quite upset that my mother could call up the Office of Financial Aid and find out anything she wanted about my financial situation.

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2009 at 9:51 am

    Parents DO have access to any and all information relating to his/her child….that access is called YOUR CHILD.

    Not the school’s fault if parents invest in a child they can’t trust or count on to be direct and honest with them about his/her progress.

    Maybe stop paying their bill. If he/she needs to be treated like a child, require them to show you transcripts and such each semester. You don’t see the transcript, then don’t pay the next semester’s tuition bill.

    It is solely the students responsibility ( as it should be at this stage in their lives) to share their success and failures with their parents. If a student wants to deceive his/her parent and graduate with a mediocre diploma, that is their personal choice.

    Speaking of choices…..the first poster is suggesting parents should not have to reveal their financial situation on paperwork….THEY DONT HAVE TO…….that is their choice….. but don’t expect their son/daughter to be considered for any tuition assistance from the university if parents want to keep their finances a secret.

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2009 at 9:53 am

    Students need more info

    I suggest another article, directed at students, stating that unless they allow certain information to be shared (which they can do via the student link), BU employees will not even be allowed to confirm attendance to their potential employers. Students should be shown how to access the info, and which information (attendance, awards, and so on) it would make practical sense to share. Thanks!

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2009 at 10:03 am

    “Ask specific, open-ended questions”????? That does not make sense

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2009 at 12:15 pm


    As a parent of a first year, I am surprised that this policy was not already in place at BU. I just assumed that it was because it is standard at other universities. Parents – it’s time to stop hovering!

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2009 at 12:52 pm

    It seems to me...

    It seems to me that the university wants to promote student responsibility in communication with parents. I applaud this goal. In order to promote it further, BU should send all bills and requests for funds to the students themselves and not to the parents. I feel certain that all bills and requests will be passed in a timely fashion from the students to their parents and that BU’s finances won’t be affected one tiny bit. Furthermore, students’ having to present bills to parents will provide touching moments to discuss academic performance. My agreement with BU administration here is an expression of solidarity that we should all depend upon BU students for communication in these important matters.

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2009 at 3:40 pm

    Parents' Rights

    I agree with the last two comments and completely disagree with a policy that exludes the hand that feeds them. When the University stops looking to 3rd parties (i.e., parents typically) to finance the “modest” $50,000+ annual expense of attending their institute of higher learning, then they can exclude the parents. Until then, the parents (or whoever is providing the finances to attend the school) should be in the loop on what is going on in the life of their student/child.

    Parents are permitted by the I.R.S. to claim their children as dependents through age 24 when the child is attending school and is being supported by the parent. The University should have a policy that is more in line with the I.R.S. on this one.

    No student can afford to attend B.U. on his or her own right out of high school (unless you happen to be the Olson twins or someone like that). The administration should stop hiding behind walls and be realistic about things of this nature.

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2009 at 11:05 pm

    student paying for own college

    I am a student at BU and I have to disagree that “No student can afford to attend B.U. on his or her own right out of high school.” I pay for all of my college and college expenses on my own….I have scholarships and grants and financial aid helping me, yes, but there’s a good deal left over that I’m left with and my parents send me a little money to help me pay for groceries and occasional rent. And I was never a 3 varsity sport, valedictorian, etc etc type of high school student…just wanted to go to BU and had decent grades. For this reason, it always annoyed me that my parents were sent my BU grades and other info, especially since my grades aren’t always that good since I have to work a lot to pay for school. They then lecture me on getting better grades when I don’t think it’s really much of their business, after all they are NOT contributing very much toward my attendance at BU. So thank you, BU, because I know I am not the only student who feels this way; despite the reputation BU has, we students are not all rich and spoiled…..9 out of 10 of my friends work so that they can cover at least some of their college expenses. And as for the other info that BU will now not be giving out to parents, I think that if it’s important enough, we will be sharing it with our parents either way.

  • Anonymous on 09.23.2009 at 11:00 am

    This law is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing . . . putting the word “Family” on the front end sounds comforting, like it’s the right thing to do. They should take the word “Family” out of it because there is nothing “family friendly” about it. Families are miles apart from each other, communication is at arm’s length — at best — and who is going to tell Mom or Dad — long distance — that they are drinking too much or not making good grades? This information will not come out until it is often too late to rectify any damage — be it to young healthy livers or to grades. Parents are to depend on the judgment of administrators to determine when it is right to share information about alcohol abuse etc.? These administrators will listen . . . . but offer no information ? Sounds like a good way to stir up parental frustration and angst.

  • Anonymous on 01.14.2010 at 9:22 pm

    Dear Mr. Brown,

    I wrote to you several weeks ago regarding the latest BU policy about parents NOT having access to Student’s grades as well as financial accounts. In spite of my repeated requests, I got nothing but run around from your office as well as Dean of Students Mr.Ken Elmore. His words were” We have learned from our error and assure you that we will do better. I appreciate your difficult work, as a parent, and am disappointed that I may have let you down. I want you to continue to have confidence in my leadership – I will work harder to ensure that you do not loose this confidence”.

    Till BU enacted the new policy, I had complete control over my daughter’s financial account as well visibility to courses she is taking and the grades she is receiving. Now I have absolutely no control over her grades as well as her student accounts.

    For example She told me that she is taking Physics II for last semester. Now I find out that she did not take Physics II and instead took Chemistry. I have no clue what her grades are and I cannot trust what she is telling me. She was also not willing to give me the list of courses she has registered for next semester.

    In your letter you indicated that the idea is to teach students about taking responsibility. Only thing the new BU policy seems to have taught my daughter is to hide things from parents (financial matters, courses, grades etc), disobey her parents. In spite of repeated requests She refused to give me any details, even after I begged her to give me a print out of the grades. I have no clue where she is in terms of her GPA or what courses are left for her to take. Under such circumstances I am totally helpless

    First I thought I will not pay the tuition till she gives me access to the records. However all it did was to make me incur penalties for not paying the tuition in time and I have to finally give up. Even paying the tuition at the BU office was a stressful matter.

    When I went to Student accounts office, the way in which the person at the counter treated me is laughable.. ( I have paid nearly $300,000 in tuition to BU for 2 kids). He will not even tell me how much money is owed to BU in the account and the details of it.

    I guess only way BU is telling the parents is ” Do not pay the tuition and we will kick the student out and he / she will learn the lesson in a had way”. If the student says I won’t show you anything- What the parents are supposed to do.. Stop paying the tuition and kick her out of the college and screw up her career. Is this BU’s way of teaching responsibility to students?

    Thank you BU management for teaching my daughter how to hide things from her parents in the name of so called “Privacy”. Your university policy has made her to hide things such as her student accounts, courses she is taking and the grades. I don’t think BU management has learned from their errors

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