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Harvard Students’ Right to Read Admissions Records Confirmed

By Daphne C. Thompson

UPDATED: January 26, 2015, at 7:19 p.m.

Matriculated Harvard undergraduates can request and view the notes and comments penned by admissions officers on their applications because of a 1974 Department of Education act that holds that the documents must be accessible under federal law, according to Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath ’70-’73.

McGrath wrote in an email last Tuesday that Harvard’s practice "has long been to furnish [summary sheets] for an enrolled student's review upon request.” Students who submit requests including their name, date of birth, and House may read the sheets, which contain comments from admissions officers as well as other demographic information, in the Admissions Office within 45 calendar days. Only students who have matriculated at Harvard are eligible to request their documents, McGrath wrote.

“[The summary sheets] include an awful lot of information about students’ background, their test scores, their high school information, and notes from the readers,” Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Michael P. Burke said.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, or FERPA, has attracted attention in the media in recent weeks after The New York Times reported that an anonymous group of Stanford students had invoked it to successfully access copies of their records from the university, including written assessments and numerical scores assigned to them by admissions officers.

The group, which produces a newsletter called the Fountain Hopper, published its method online for requesting academic records, prompting students nationwide to also appeal for their files.

At Harvard, the summary sheets can only be read by appointment with McGrath or her assistant at the Admissions Office. The bulk of a student’s educational record—including test scores, transcripts, and letters of recommendation—is housed at the Registrar’s Office and at the House Offices and is accessible under FERPA.

“This is nothing new; the law has been on the books since 1974,” Burke said. “What we try to do is, because student information is stored in such a vast array of places, we try to say, ‘What is it that they are looking for?’ And then we try to find that.”

Although publicity surrounding the Fountain Hopper has only recently arisen, colleges have long been prepared for FERPA appeals, according to Parke P. Muth, a former associate dean of admissions and director of international admissions at the University of Virginia.

“Schools have been aware of FERPA laws for a long time, and as a result of that, a lot of schools would purge their paper files,” he said. “With electronic files, it’s a little more complicated than that. But I think that every school that hasn’t updated its technology to purge stuff will be doing it now.”

Burke said that Harvard now maintains its applicant files for four years after they are processed. A 1991 Department of Education ruling, following a complaint by former Crimson editor Joshua A. Gerstein '91, mandated that the Admissions Office release student summary sheets. The Admissions Office did allow some students to view their documents but said that others had already been destroyed.

Muth said that students are unlikely to find major revelations in their files.

“99.9 percent of the applications for students who are getting in are going to be saying good things,” he said. “Admissions officers are candid, but they’re not snarky. I think it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to find almost any negative comments.”

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.

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