Accessing your Admissions File: Fountain Hopper and FERPA

An anonymous newsletter and website at Stanford named Fountain Hopper, has pulled together a five-step process for students to gain access to all their admissions records, including comments written by the admissions officers, under FERPA.  

When FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) was enacted into law in 1974, its intent was to protect the privacy of students and ensure that students have the right to access their educational records and challenge the content, if necessary, while preventing the release of the records to unauthorized third parties. It’s fair to say that FERPA is the educational equivalent of HIPPA, which is designed to protect and limit access to an individual’s medical records. One difference, however, is that breaching the HIPPA rules results in a fine, while an educational institution that fails to perform within the framework of FERPA results in the institution losing federal education funding.  

A key question that arises when combing through the Fountain Hopper (FoHo) FAQ is whether former students or those rejected, can gain access to their application file filled with comments straight from the admissions officers. FH’s response was that it wasn’t sure how long admissions offices retain the records of former students or ‘non-matriculated’ students, ‘but it’s worth a shot.’ Agreed, it is, though rejected applicants will unlikely get access to any records surrounding their failed admissions efforts. At Harvard, Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath will set up a meeting to review comments and notes on any matriculated undergraduate’s admissions summary sheet. Stanford has also stated it will not release information to students who were rejected.

A flood of requests from undergraduates to review their admissions sheets was reported by Eric Furda, Dean of Admissions at University of Pennsylvania. Flood is a relative term. Prior to the release from Fountain Hopper, Penn admissions received maybe five a year. This January it has already received twenty.

If these selective college admissions offices continue to receive soaring number of requests, the admissions office might elect to make changes in how it handles admissions files. In all likelihood the admissions officers will be more guarded as they discuss and review potential applicants. This, of course, might prove detrimental to the entire admissions process.

Worse, if, through meticulous analysis of the admissions data, FoHo credibly gleans specific factors that might influence admissions at a particular select school campus, (take any of the NACAC ’14 Key Factors in the Admission Decision,’ such as grades, teacher recommendations, extracurricular…) this might lead applicants in the future to hone in on these particular items. Already many try to create a template of qualities that they feel are certain hooks for admissions offices. Yet, this artificiality is quickly detected and thereby often rendered ineffectual.  

Using the FoHo step-by-step form, students can request their application form with the relevant comments from the admissions office and wait 45 days for a response. As students get their information, the hope is that they share the information with Fo Ho, which will interpret any of the arcane admissions statements and pull together information that might make the entire admissions process clearer. Undoubtedly, Fo Ho’s system works. Students from Stanford, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, UVA and others have requested to see the details of their application and, after 45 days, have gotten that information from admissions. Whether this will snowball into some sort of movement to extract the Holy Grail for the selective school admissions process is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, if you’re a senior patiently awaiting decisions on your applications this spring, once accepted you might elect to learn why. However, for now, unless FoHo performs another bout of magic, if you are rejected, the mystery of that indignity will continue to linger.