Talking about grades

The imperfect transcript

By Diane Schwemm

When it comes to talking about grades, a family’s style is usually well established by the time the oldest child leaves for college. Some parents have a hands-off approach; others closely track their students’ progress and performance. Either way, we’re used to receiving report cards in the mail and having easy parental access to online academic records.

Like many things, this changes in college, and first-time college parents can be surprised to learn that they don’t get automatic access to their students’ grades. We can’t help wondering why that would be. Don’t we have a right to this information seeing as how, in many cases, we’re paying the lion’s share of the tuition bill?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

FERPA is the answer to this question. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, grants college students the exclusive right to view and share educational records such as grades, transcripts, disciplinary records, and class schedules. The same federal law assures that, through high school, privacy rights for these records belong to a student’s parents or legal guardians.

There is an exception to every rule, even FERPA. If you claim your student as a dependent for tax purposes, FERPA permits (but does not require) institutions to release educational information to you. This can be done without your student’s consent or involvement. If you make this request, the college may ask for a copy of your tax return, or at least the relevant page, or require you to complete a form such as FERPA’s “Model Form for Disclosure to Parents of Dependent Students.”

In addition, a student, whether dependent or not, can consent to allow parental access. This will involve filling out a “Consent to Release Student Information” form, or setting up a parent log-in on the university system. You can call the Registrar’s Office or look on the college website to learn about how your student’s school implements FERPA.

But before we rush to demand access to our student’s grades, we might consider viewing FERPA as a friend rather than a foe. All semester long, our first-year college students grew more and more independent — learning to manage their time, advocate for themselves, set academic goals, and handle the freedoms and choices of college life. Now they’re home for winter break — a good time to reflect and assess. Not automatically knowing their grades can be an opportunity to exercise our parent-as-coach skills. It’s a chance to ask some questions, and do a lot of listening.

Freshman pass/fail options

It’s helpful to remember the big personal and academic challenges our students faced during this first college semester. Freshmen aren’t always prepared for how much more rigorous college classes are than high school ones, from the depth and amount of material covered to the extra initiative expected of students. Even students who took AP or IB (Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate) classes in high school may have found themselves working extremely hard for B’s and C’s.

Understanding this, a number of colleges and universities have made freshman fall a “pass/fail” semester. At Wellesley College, MIT, Swarthmore College, Johns Hopkins University and others, first-year students are assessed and receive “shadow grades” and course credit, but no real grades appear on their transcripts.

A focus on goals rather than grades

Whether your student received real or shadow grades her first semester, she may or may not want to share them with you. So how do you advise and support her? As she takes full responsibility for her own education, you can discuss how to develop solid study habits and how she can find help when she needs it.

She may ask your advice about what classes to take (the course catalogue is available on the school’s website), or include you in her decision-making process as she chooses a major. A good conversation starter is to ask about the relationship she’s developed with her academic advisor. Is her advisor helping her figure out how to satisfy curricular requirements and get into the courses she needs and wants to take?

At the beginning of each semester, discuss academic goals.

What grades does she hope to earn in her various classes? What does she expect her biggest challenge will be? Throughout the year, there should be plenty of opportunities to encourage your student and help her keep a balanced perspective.

And yes, at the end of this first college semester, you may find your curiosity irresistible. You can ask about her grades, but be prepared to respect her right to share them or not, as she chooses. Grades still matter, but not nearly as much as the learning and growth that are happening for our students during their college years.