Professors have greater access to student transcripts, and that is a good thing

Michael Rosenbaum, Editor-in-Chief

The period for advising and petitioning for courses is right around the corner, which means that many students will be checking their academic record and transcript to see what courses they need. But for this term, professors will also now have access to a greater number of student records. Since the end of WebAdvising, Union’s precursor to Self Service, professors have been only able to access the transcripts of students who they are directly advising; this is now changed. 

But this change is not negative, and while the attempt to protect student’s rights by limiting access to transcripts was laudable, students need the advice of more than just their assigned advisor, and that requires more than just advisors to have access to transcripts. Over time, I’ve spoken to my own advisor, Professor Guillermina Seri, about the pros and cons of this issue, and I now believe that it is ultimately a good thing that there is greater access to transcripts. 

The real trick of the new rules is to provide a balance between the rights of students on one hand, and their ability to get good advice on the other. If the new rules can thread that line, then students and faculty can each be satisfied. To do that, the current rules have to be appraised, as do the benefits of the previous system, where there was greater access to student records, but fewer written rules as to proper conduct in this area. 

The current rules around access to transcripts are as follows. Faculty with educational interest can access records for students for a set number of reasons: advising, letters of recommendation, recommendation of students for awards or societies etc., for guiding students or giving them accurate academic advice. These situations are simultaneously narrow, but accommodating. 

There are multiple reasons why professors might want access to student transcripts for academic purposes. Professors are a bridge between students and unique academic opportunities, and so most of these reasons are related to giving more information to professors to accurately and effectively help students. Access to transcripts helps professors write letters of recommendation, or give students advice in courses to take and clubs to join. The process of petitions and admission of students to courses with capped participation is also important; it is an unfortunate reality that professors may have to choose who is admitted to a course and who isn’t, and they should be able to do that in the least destructive way possible. It can be devastating to need a required course, but to be rejected from the class, especially in a major with a very regimented course load is a nightmare. A professor with the tools to more ably manage this type of situation is extremely helpful.

Under the previous advising software, WebAdvising, it was possible for professors to access student academic records as needed. However, for the past three years, use of WebAdvising has been reduced over time. Student registration for class was moved to Self Service during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it wasn’t until later, in Fall 2021, that WebAdvising was shuttered for everyone, including faculty. In a general sense, WebAdvising was certainly inferior to Self Service; it was difficult to navigate and most of its functionality was unclear. Its one saving grace was that professors could access student transcripts on that platform.

But when WebAdvising was shuttered, the functionality of viewing the transcripts of any students was not carried over. Students, when wanting a letter of recommendation, had to download and email their transcripts. I’ve personally had to deal with a temporary academic advisor multiple times over four years, and if Self Service didn’t work properly, I was at risk of not being able to get advice right at the time when I needed it the most. 

On the other side of the argument is the concern for student privacy. And there are good moral and legal rationales behind this. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) rules are quite strict, and for good reason. It’s very bad for students to have their information leaked, or to have their records accessed for personal curiosity rather than educational reasons, and students should be wary of how and why their information is being used. But the information that could be accessed by professors is still limited. Professors today have access to the student transcript (which includes GPA,) a student’s phone number, and the student’s ID number. The most important piece of information, the only one that connects student records to information outside of college, is the phone number, which professors are not supposed to use to contact students for reasons unrelated to transcript access. 

The new solution with information protected behind specific exceptions is the best of both worlds. It allows professors to access documents when they need to, rather than when they are allowed to. But it also protects student rights by setting a certain number of established reasons why student transcripts can be made available. In this way, it allows for flexibility in access that promotes greater efficiency in advising, which is the whole purpose of an online system. But it can also give professors guidelines for acceptable use, key caveats to protect student rights. Trusting professors to use information should be an easy decision. Students already turn to their advisors for advice out of trust. If a student reaches out to a professor who is not their appointed advisor, then they also probably have some faith that the professor can be relied upon, maybe even more so. 

However, only time can show if the new system is sustainable. The new system works upon an honor system, and we have yet to see if there are loopholes that professors will exploit. But I think those fears are unlikely to be realized.