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Reporters Guide to FERPA
Navigating the Family Educational Rights
and Privacy Act
Top Ten Story Ideas For FERPA Enterprisers
By Charles N. Davis
The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act is a beast, but there are things industrious student journalists can do to work within its strictures. Here are 10 ideas you can put to work tomorrow!
1. Aggregate Data: Ever Hear of It?
Aggregate data is information compiled for administrative purposes, and is typically maintained in databases. So long as you aren't in need of names or other identifying information, aggregate data should be FOI-ready: just tell the records keeper you don't need any identifying data just the non-identifying data. For example, why not ask for some aggregate grade data? What about a list of grades by course section, to identify the "easiest" and "toughest" classes on campus? Which professors hand out As like candy? This is a story that has been done on several campuses, and while it took some back and forth, the data came in after some wrangling.
2. Parking, Parking, Parking.
It's an issue on every campus in the nation. So why not find out a little about your campus's parking operation. First, odds are, the parking folks have to report annually to some entity on campus. Ask for copies of any reports up the campus. They'll likely contain revenue from tickets, number of tickets issued, etc. It's a goldmine!
If your campus uses off-campus towing services, seek records of payments to the towing companies. How often are tow trucks dispatched, and at what cost? No FERPA issues here, and again, it's a great look at a really newsworthy topic.
3. Scholarships: Who Is Getting Them, and For What?
FERPA has a little-known exception for information concerning scholarships and awards, which schools typically use for PR purposes anyway. But rarely, if ever, does the entirety of a school's scholarship dole receive coverage. Who is getting the scholarships? Are there trends? The public records status of scholarships is currently being battle-tested in an Arkansas dispute, but it's well worth asking for it and seeing where it takes you.
4. Curriculum and policy is an open book. Go get it!
For example, a student paper might explore the department-level curriculum committee meeting notes and materials to track changes made or proposed in such meetings. Students LOVE to read about changes to classes, new courses, and related issues.
Are university committee voting records open on your campus? Are any decision-making bodies voting by secret ballot? Why? Is it legal?
5. Turn up the watchdogging of student government.
Yeah, it's sophomoric and filled with parliamentary hooey, but seriously, ask yourself a few questions. Are their meetings all public? What meetings are held behind closed doors? What kinds of decisions are being made that affect students?
How is student fee money being spent? Have you looked at the way every cent of your student fees is being spent? If not, why not?
6. Spending is not covered by FERPA, for the most part.
General spending issues like the use of university credit cards, travel expenses, the travel schedules of university officials ... can be most productive.
Do travel schedules paid by the university coincide with dates of conferences/meetings that are being attended? Are employees essentially going on state-paid vacations? What about expense reports for pre-sporting event receptions?
7. Take a look at contracting on campus it's also not touched by FERPA for the most part.
What about taking a look at employment contract information, including non-salary incentives, bonuses, overtime ... More specifically, what other incentives do employees (especially administrators and sports coaches) receive for example, housing, transportation, first-class airfare, non-salary compensation from media or endorsement deals, etc. This can be fascinating!
What are the contracting processes for franchised on-campus eateries and other services (e.g. banks, ATMs, etc.)? What does the university get (or give) for these services?
In 2002, University of Binghampton student journalists used open records requests to obtain the university's operating agreement with a bank located on campus, whose contract had been renewed even though many students did not like the bank. See SPLC reference.
8. This might sound crazy, but what is the state of nepotism on campus?
It's been a problem on campuses large and small across the country in recent years. Can you see patterns? Where do the spouses of key administrators/coaches/faculty work? What are they paid to do?
Example: Blackledge, B. (2006, May 7). Relatives given jobs, other perks; Records show officials' kids got scholarships, were hired. Birmingham (AL) News.
9. The cost of printing in campus computer labs can be a great story as well.
The Daily Tar Heel at UNC-CH investigated in November 2005 the amount of free printing in campus computer labs, which allowed for students, faculty, and staff to print unlimited pages. The report found that an average of 2.4 million sheets a month was being printed during the 2004-2005 school year. The data, and its costs, provided for a interesting story that ended up causing changes in campus technology policy. See SPLC story on the Daily Tar Heel investigative reporting.
10. Can You Get What The Law Says You Can Get?
FERPA plainly states that "directory information," such as names, addresses and phone numbers, are publicly available. So, why not ask for it? Test the compliance with FERPA it's easy! And it will no doubt yield surprising results.
And there are so many more records-driven stories out there!
Have you looked at teaching evaluations for university faculty? To what extent have those evaluations influenced promotion and tenure decisions? Are traditionally poor teaching faculty granted tenure or promotion?
Is there equal enforcement of parking regulations across campus (for faculty, administrators, athletes, non-athletes, etc.)?
How much money does the university spend in towing vehicles from campus? To what companies is that service contracted? Is the money spent for towing paid back by the violator?
Now, get out there and add to the list!
Charles N. Davis is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He is a member of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee.