Is privacy guaranteed? It depends

Kelly Cernetich, Editor-in-Chief

College means academic freedom, and that includes being free from the worry that poor performance on a quarterly report card – like the ones received in high school – could result in grounding or loss of weekend car privileges.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, was passed in 1974 to ensure the rights of students enrolled in higher education institutions to review and prevent disclosure of certain academic records.

“The students have to give us written authorization to release information to a third party,” said Registrar Marilyn Alberter.

“We can only confirm or deny information already given (to a parent), but only an authorized agent of the university, if there is a legitimate reason, can see (academic information).”

While certain professors or university staff may be able to provide that legitimate reason, some other third-party agencies may also obtain information without a student being aware of it.

Personal counselor or medical information is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, for instance, and therefore not accessible by other outside groups under the same circumstances.

However, bureaus, like the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, can obtain a student’s information to process financial aid.

The same goes for judicial information.

In the event that a student violates the law or any university policy – specifically when dealing with alcohol or other government-regulated substances, the privacy act allows that information to be released to a parent or guardian.

“We have a protocol of how you disperse records through Pitt,” said Conflict and Conduct Resolution Director Jake Harper.

“Caveats to (the privacy act) are simplistically stated: if you’re a dependent on somebody’s tax returns…for drug or alcohol violation, or in a medical emergency as deemed by the institution.”

Any student who has ever had an angry parent call them after being cited for underage drinking knows this.

But what many students and parents probably do not know, is that this same stipulation for judicial sanctions also applies to accessing grades.

“There is a loophole,” Alberter said.

“If a parent can provide us with their most recent federal income tax, showing us that the student is a dependent, then we can provide them with a copy of grade information.”

For the most part, though, Alberter said parents are unaware of this loophole and telling parents about it usually is a last resort.

“We try to encourage the students to be open with their parents,” she said.

According to Financial Aid Director Jeanine Lawn, while there is no way to gauge who or what outside party is providing monetary aid, 89 percent of full-time students apply for financial aid.

So it seems that the majority of students still require outside financial assistance beyond their parents to supplement tuition or room-and-board costs.

And, while the parents who contribute may want access to grade information, there are other data besides grades that falls under the privacy act.

Universities may disclose other types of student information without violating the law.

This information, called “directory information,” includes a student’s address, phone number and date of birth.

A photograph, student’s birth place or an athlete’s height and weight also fall under that umbrella and can be provided.

Under the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus direction, however, Alberter said that the most information they ever give out about a student is whether they are enrolled, have been graduated and with what degree, as well as any graduation honors.

“The law says we can release more, but it’s at the university’s discretion,” Alberter said.

All rights under the act are required to be released for students’ benefit at the beginning of every academic year.

“Every year the disclaimer to restrict access is published in The Advocate,” Alberter said.

The disclaimer gives information not only about grade privacy, but about the right to have directory information withheld.

Alberter said that all such information would be withheld should a student opt to restrict access. In addition to withholding personal data and program of study, this would mean that a student’s name would not appear on the Dean’s List or on their graduation program.

“It’s all or nothing,” she said.

Some students choose to be open about their academic standing and consider their parent’s wishes to view grade information.

“I do believe that my parents have a right to see my grades,” said senior sociology major Courtney Gummo, “…because they are helping me financially.

“I do not think that if I was receiving bad grades consistently, semester after semester, that they would continue to pay for college.”

Gummo said that she likes to think that her parent’s willingness to pay for school is a reward for earning good marks in class. She also said that trust plays a big part in their relationship.

Gummo’s mother, Kelly Klein of Lock Haven, said that although she does not feel she has a legal right to see her daughter’s grades, she is glad that her daughter provides her with that information anyway.

“She has always shared her grades with me, even through high school,” Klein said.

Klein added that although the law might not provide parents with a means of accessing their child’s information, it is more an issue of fairness to keep parents updated.

“I would hate to see any student or parent put this much money into education and have the student be failing and not know. If we, as the parents, are aware of them doing poorly, then we can offer support and guidance to do better.”

Klein also said that if she found out that Gummo was not doing well in school, that she would likely make her daughter more financially responsible for her education.

For parents who want more direct access, there may be plans in the works to create a Parent Portal – a place where parents can log in to view information. Students would, of course, have to sign off on the portal.

Associate University Registrar Patricia Mathay of Pitt-Oakland said that a meeting was held with Registrar Office employees and Pitt’s Computing Services and Systems Development administrators to discuss the possibility, but nothing is being done yet.

Even with such plans in the works, Alberter said that most parents probably will not need to use it, as their children are only a text or a phone call away.

And, now that mailing home information has largely been done away with, her office doesn’t get many calls or complaints from parents demanding to know their son’s latest biology test grade.

“The calls are fewer and further between,” she said.