So mom and dad, you want full disclosure?

Potential students and their parents tour Brandeis University. Potential students and their parents tour Brandeis University. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / August 23, 2009

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The duffel bags are packed. The first of countless tuition bills has been paid. But parents shouldn’t count on seeing a report card once a child heads off to college.

Federal privacy laws give students rights over their own information - including grades - when they turn 18. However, area colleges differ in how they interpret the law and balance a student’s rights and a parent’s desire to know.

At Dean College in Franklin, students are urged to sign a form waiving their privacy rights so that parents can receive their grades twice each semester.

Massachusetts Bay Community College, with campuses in Wellesley and Framingham, on the other hand, encourages parents to communicate directly with their children rather than turning to the school for information.

Brandeis University and Wellesley College do not release grade information directly to parents, although school officials maintain that the law allows them to do so if a student is still a financial dependent.

Dean’s philosophy of involving parents in their child’s academic progress is a drawing card for some families. Nearly all of its students sign the waivers.

“I think it’s a great idea,’’ said Cathy Seligson, the mother of a prospective student who visited Dean this summer. “I know that at a lot of places, parents have no idea how their kids are doing. I think if we’re paying, we should have some access.’’

In addition to sending out the grade reports, Dean advisers check every three weeks to see whether students are having trouble with their studies or skipping too many classes. When they see problems emerging, the advisers send letters to students asking them to come in for a conversation, with a copy going to the parents.

“That’s to help us get the student in,’’ Wendy Adler, dean for academic support services, said of including parents in the mailing. She said that parents who know a child is struggling will push him or her to seek help.

Phil O’Keefe, whose daughter Megan recently received an associate’s degree from Dean and will be studying education at Bridgewater State College this fall, said he appreciated Dean’s openness with him.

“They didn’t throw up any barriers, and at the same time they were respectful of the students and the student’s rights,’’ said O’Keefe, who occasionally called the school to find out his daughter’s grades. “It was a balancing act.’’

Megan O’Keefe said having her parents involved was generally helpful, but that frustrating situations sometimes arose because of their up-to-the-minute grade information. Her parents sometimes knew her grades before she did, she said, and other times her father wanted to discuss lagging grades when she was still devising a plan to improve them.

“That was kind of annoying,’’ Megan O’Keefe said. “But I tried my best to explain to him that I’m on it, I’m getting it covered.’’

Mass. Bay Community College takes a different tack with parental involvement.

Elizabeth Blumberg, associate dean of students, said most parents attend orientation sessions for incoming freshmen. At the sessions, Blumberg said, college officials urge parents to communicate directly with their children, instead of using the school as an intermediary to check on grades or other sensitive issues.

“We really encourage the dialogue,’’ Blumberg said. “We encourage family meetings and really sitting around the table and strategizing ahead of time.’’

“We will have parents who ask, ‘If my student misses class, is the professor going to call me?’ ’’ added Craig Mack, another associate dean of students at Mass. Bay. “And the quick answer is no. It is the student’s own responsibility for their education.’’

Mack and Blumberg said they don’t release any information without a student’s permission, except in rare cases when the student’s safety is in jeopardy.

Sometimes, Mack said, that means parents never learn about their children’s grades.

“I’ve heard students say, ‘It’s none of their business,’ ’’ Mack said. “Some students say, ‘They don’t pay for my education.’ ’’

Brandeis University doesn’t take quite such a hard line toward student privacy, said Rick Sawyer, its dean of student life. While the Waltham school generally does not release grade information directly to parents, he said, the law allows it if the student is still a financial dependent.

Sawyer said the school no longer sends out grade reports on paper, and students find out their grades online.

“So a parent wanting to see a son or daughter’s grades, 99 percent of the time, the student will merely take an electronic snapshot of the grades when they come out and forward them to the parent,’’ Sawyer said.

He said that if a parent calls the school seeking information, Brandeis officials instead work to facilitate better communication between the family members.

But there are some circumstances in which the university would contact parents directly, Sawyer said. Parents would be contacted, for example, if a student endangered himself and others by disabling a smoke detector in a dorm room.

“We’re going to send a letter to your parent, because we want them to know, and we want them to know why there’s a fine on a bill they’re probably going to end up paying,’’ he said.

Sawyer also said that, as tuition has increased in recent years, he has become more likely to involve parents in financial discussions if a student is in danger of being suspended from school.

“I would say over time, in the last 10 years, when I’ve had to have that conversation, I’ve tried to bring it up and describe what the refund policy was,’’ he said.

Like Brandeis, Wellesley College officials said they have the right to release grades to parents of dependent students, but in practice send out grades only to students.

Brandeis student Sarah Briskin, who will be a sophomore this fall, said her school’s policies are a better fit for her than those at Dean.

“I think that’s sort of like a high school,’’ Briskin said of parents getting frequent grade updates. “That’s not really giving the students the freedom that they deserve. For the next four years, this is my time to be an individual and figure out what I want to do.’’

But many students at Dean said the system there works for them.

Elise Walton, who graduated from Dean in May and worked as a student ambassador on the Franklin campus this summer, said she thinks the parent involvement is “a really good idea.’’ She noted that her parents met with advisers to discuss her transfer to a four-year school.

“My parents have always been a huge part of my life, so it’s nice to know they’re always going to be there,’’ Walton said.

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