Widgets Magazine
First students gain access to their admissions files through FERPA provision
(TARA BALAKRISHNAN/The Stanford Daily)

First students gain access to their admissions files through FERPA provision

The evening of Jan. 15 started like any other for Stanford’s 7,000 undergraduates. That quickly changed when a mass email sent shockwaves through the student community, disrupting late-night studying and socializing — and starting an ongoing headache for Stanford’s administration.

The Fountain Hopper (FoHo), a student-run email newsletter, messaged its subscribers, claiming it could tell students how to gain access to their confidential admissions records. The email promised “step-by-step, foolproof instructions on how to view documents you have the right to view by federal law.”

“FoHo is sharing a tried and tested legal loophole that guarantees you access to your confidential, internal Stanford admissions file,” the message said.

The email referred to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law from the 1970s, and claimed that the act contained provisions guaranteeing a student access to all University files on him or her.

At first, the promises were met with an array of emotions from shock to suspicion.

“It was clear that they were looking for dirty laundry,” said one Stanford sophomore, who wished to remain anonymous.

“FoHo seemed more like a satirical, humorous journal so I wasn’t sure if the information that they gave out was a hoax,” said Michelle Chin ‘17.

Regardless, the email captured attention on and off campus alike. The New York Times and other media outlets had picked up the story by the next evening, and in the following weeks, Stanford received nearly 2,800 requests for records, according to University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin.

As it turned out, the FoHo email referred to a very real provision in FERPA. Along with protecting student privacy in various situations, the law guarantees students the right to inspect all University files on them, including admissions documents, within 45 days of a request.

On Feb. 23, as the 45-day window was running out, Stanford began responding to the requests. Tom Black, Associate Vice Provost and University Registrar, wrote an email to students and recent alumni who had submitted FERPA requests, asking them to reconsider their decision.

“You may also wish to consider that during Convocation, Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw often welcomes new students with words to the effect that ‘we don’t make mistakes,’” the email read. ”So please ask yourself: What benefit do I seek from reviewing these additional admissions records? Will my life be better for having reviewed them?”

Students who still wished to view any evaluative materials beyond a photocopy of their application would have to schedule a 20-minute, in-person appointment. At that time, students could view their files and take notes on paper but could not take any photos of the records.

Black also included a Time magazine column by humorist Joel Stein B.A. ‘93 M. A. ‘94, who had requested his own admissions file during his time on the Farm. In the column, Stein comically explained why students should not want to view their admissions file.

Stein was surprised that the registrar had chosen to send out his article.

“That’s an act of desperation,” he said, laughing. “It’s a pretty weak argument to send out a humor column.”

While Stein acknowledged that the experience initially hurt, he added that viewing his files had proven valuable.

“It’s always interesting and useful to get feedback you’re not supposed to get,” he said.

Last week, the first groups of students viewed their admissions files. A staff member accompanied students for the duration of their 20-minute appointments to ensure that no photos of the records were taken.

The files contain quantitative scorecards, along with two to three verbal written evaluations of the application. Students are graded on measures such as intellectual vitality, non-academic engagements and their high school grades and test scores. The files also contain check boxes that indicate whether the applicant qualifies as “diverse,” a legacy or a “VIP.”

However, for most students, the written comments by the admissions office reader draw the most attention. In these evaluations, the application readers make their case for why the student should, or should not be, accepted.

“It felt like you reached some threshold with the numbers, and after that they mostly talk about your essays and extracurriculars,” said Will St. Amant ‘15. ”They were able to glean a lot from my application.”

Amant added that the process “felt surprisingly arbitrary,” but acknowledged that “they were really looking for someone who would be able to take advantage of the resources here.”

Justin Lai ‘18 had similar thoughts after reading his file.

“It just made me feel lucky to be here because you realize how precarious and subjective the whole process is,” Lai said.

Some students are also struggling to come to terms with the contents of their files. Lai noted that several of his peers were unhappy to read their evaluations.

“For some of them, it confirmed their own insecurities about being here,” Lai said. “They had self-doubts about their own skills or abilities…and their files got them in a slump. You have these suspicions, but you don’t want to see it on paper.”

According to some students who wished to remain anonymous, deciding whether to view the admissions files proved difficult.

“Of my friends, I was surprised to find that not everyone did it,” one student said. “The people who are legacies or athletes or who feel that there was a reason that they got in…they’re scared to look at it because they think that it would be more of a factor than it is.”

“There are a thousand legacies and a thousand athletes who get rejected,” he added, “so I almost think that it would be more helpful for those people who have that underlying suspicion.”

Another student expressed reluctance to view his own file.

“I didn’t really expect to find anything that serious, but based on that column that the registrar sent me, it seemed like it is far weightier and far more scathing than I anticipated,” the student said.

Lapin emphasized the possibility that students may not be happy with what they read.

“Because the admissions process is a rigorous and critical one, we wanted students to think very carefully what they are asking for,” Lapin said. “We have heard of people seeing these records…and they have regrets about that after the fact.”

The month and a half since FoHo’s original email has proven interesting, and at times difficult, for students and the University alike. Discussing the University’s response to the episode, Lapin stated that Stanford had sought outside help in managing the requests. The University has established a call center specifically to handle FERPA requests and has also consulted external counsel.

While Lapin stated that those who initially submitted a request “will have all of the access they are legally entitled to,” Stanford is no longer maintaining the admissions files of other students, and all electronic files that have not been requested have been deleted.

Ultimately, many students contended that the whole episode was overblown.

“[The incident] turned out to be marketed as a much bigger deal than it actually is,” Lai said. 

Lapin expressed similar sentiments. While FoHo has sent subsequent emails, asking students for “interesting” comments from their records, the University isn’t overly concerned about the fallout from these files.

“How meaningful are a specific set of notes about one student in the absence of the aggregation of the entire applicant pool?” Lapin said. “I think the insight somebody is going to glean about the admissions process is actually likely fairly limited.”


Contact Michael Gioia at mgioia2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Michael Gioia

Michael Gioia was Managing Editor of Opinions from Vol. 250-251; he also previously led the News division. He is from Plano, Texas and studied History and Modern Languages at Stanford. When Michael is not working for The Daily, he can generally be found reading or drinking coffee.
  • Sarah

    “While Lapin stated that those who initially submitted a request ‘will have all of the access they are legally entitled to,’ Stanford is no longer maintaining the admissions files of other students, and all electronic files that have not been requested have been deleted.”

    Not sure I understand correctly, but…is that legal? If I want to see my records but I didn’t initially submit a request when everyone else did, isn’t it still my right to? Or is it somehow okay that they deleted the files?

  • Gregg Paisley GSB ’92

    I am amazed the Stanford family has 2800 nincompoops. All led like lemmings by anonymous forces, if not to the sea at least to the fountain, demanding they see their files.

    Just because you can do something, does it follow you should do something? You were lucky enough to get into Stanford, so why look a gift horse in the mouth? You loved Admissions the day they let you in, but now you make them jump through hoops because “Enquiring Minds Want to Know?”

    Those who apply to see their file are making a mountain of work for Admissions, just when they are especially busy with other things, like selecting the next class.

    You know, someday you might be applying once again to Stanford for graduate studies or a job. As future gatekeepers make holistic* evaluations of you, is it impossible to imagine that making these people or their peers jump through hoops today just might cross their minds tomorrow? Why add a data point to your profile that has zero upside and unknown downside?

    *ho·lis·tic (hōˈlistik/) An inscrutable system that makes it easy to obscure the real reasons a decision was actually made.

  • Student ’16

    It would be sad and uncharacteristic of Stanford if administrators were to discriminate based on a student’s request to view documents that they have the legal right to see. The university was fully aware that students could request those documents some day: in fact, it is one of the conditions upon which it receives federal funds from the government. Why would a student’s decision to see them (and perhaps gain more self-awareness in the process) make them a less valuable addition to the community?

    I commiserate that they university must use its resources to meet these requests. I do think that the dollars to hire external consultants and the time of great, hard-working university officials could be better spent.

    At the same time, I have to note that the university is creating much of the obstacles for themselves. They could have uploaded the information online — instead of requiring appointments for each student. They also did not have permadelete all non-requested documents. This created a rush for students to put in a request as it became now or never. The “mountain of work” is partially the university’s own doing.

  • Gregg Paisley GSB ’92

    Hello Student ‘16, whoever you are,

    I have no doubt Stanford will always make all decisions in an ethical and legal manner and discriminate against no one. That is part and parcel to our school’s immutable unrelenting pursuit of excellence, which is why I am so proud to be a graduate.

    But I wasn’t implying anything to do with discrimination. +-40,000 applicants this year won’t get into Stanford and a high percentage of job applicants will be rejected as well. Are they being discriminated against? Of course not. It’s just that candidates who stack up the most net positives will generally prevail over those with a shorter stack. Isn’t that how it should be? The trick is to show up with as many positives and as few negatives as you can.

    But actually my original impetus for writing was, ironically, better expressed by you than by me. I was annoyed to imagine all the time and resources being burnt up by this episode -it struck me as the equivalent of a flash mob, anonymously and I think counter-productively whipped up by a social media mentality. I was bothered that so many capable and ordinarily smart young people, blessed to be at this era’s It school, decided it was a good idea to make a ton of work for University staff and waste vast sums of money that could hardly be spent in a more useless way.

    Seemed immature and self-absorbed to me. What is it about the age of social media that makes people think they need to immediately know everything about everybody, including everything being said about them -and yet they themselves operate under a cloak of anonymity whenever possible?

    But then I grew up on B&W TV with 3 stations, vividly remember watching the coverage of Kennedy being shot from my grade school classroom, wondered if that new show being advertised called Star Trek would be any good, saw the Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix in concert, and watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon, live.

    So grok, I cannot. –Gregg

  • a different 16

    I’d argue this has almost nothing to do with social media culture or whatever point you’re getting at. It has nothing to do with social media other than that we heard about it. If this was an option to the class of ’92 or whatever and everyone heard about it. My money is that they would be curious, too. So what? They spend 200,000 dollars to get a little outside help to sort this out? I don’t understand why people are so critical of this curiosity. Stanford is a magical place, but it’s not BECAUSE of the admins…It’s because of the students and faculty. Stanford is the “It” school because for the last 20 years the student body has been doing incredible things. They have all of the information. What makes it so hard to let people make appointments to see the files? That seems like a weak argument. You make an appointment, someone grabs your file, you read it. Is it really as obscene as you’re making it sound that students are curious about what the adcom had to say about them? Is there really no upside and only downside? No and no.

  • Alumni

    Between Ms. Lapin’s comments above about how Stanford has now deleted all admission files that do not have open requests and a quick read of the FERPA website, it appears to me that:
    1. Stanford has every year complied with the FERPA requirement of notifying students of their right to request these records. So attentive students knew about this right but probably few submitted requests.

    2. Thanks to the frenzy triggered by the Fountain Hopper email an enormous surge in requests occurred in 2015.

    3. This may have caused administration to ask itself: Do we want all this extra work every year of producing files for students? Is it a benefit to anyone to have students ex post facto looking over our shoulders, reading all we write about them? Our admissions process yields good results so will we have to modify or compromise our methods and practices under such scrutiny?
    4. FERPA allows a school -with no notice to the student- to simply destroy their admission file if there is no open request. It sounds like that is what Stanford decided to do with all existing files, which suggests they may do the same for all files in the future rather than archive them.
    If so, then Fountain Hopper’s gleefully mischievous hi jinx in search of journalistic dirty laundry, and all the thousands of students who did the legwork, has had a result that some may not have foreseen. Going forward perhaps NOBODY will be able to view their files because their file will no longer exist.
    Turns out FoHo may have a story line to to write about, after all. Just not the one they were angling for.

  • testudo

    Once again, stanford shows that it does not give a shit about its students. This could all have been easily solved by just emailing everyone their requested documents, as required by law. These are our documents. We own them, by law. Why can’t they just given them to use?

  • pat

    According to FERPA, the records are the school’s property, not the student’s.

  • “If circumstances effectively prevent the eligible student from exercising the right to inspect and review the [requested] education records, the institution shall (1) provide the student with a copy of the records requested, or (2) make other [such] arrangements….”
    FERPA, 34 CFR § 99.10(d) (codified 1996).