Everyone should be aware of what type and how much of their personal information is publicly accessible. In this age of high-tech identity theft, one must be especially careful to guard information such as telephone numbers, addresses, bank information and other obvious identifiers. However, when does concern for personal safety start to have a negative impact on your future?

The university where I work publishes a student directory at least once per year which lists students’ names, mailing addresses and campus telephone numbers, and is distributed on campus and made available at the campus information desk for anyone who might want one. This is not a new practice, but for some reason a few semesters ago the distribution of the directory led to wide-spread student and parent panic about the release of personal information. Phone calls flooded in from everywhere, demanding that students be taken out of the public directory and their information sealed.

Setting aside the fact that the campus directory gives no more information than a city telephone book, there is another important factor at play of which a vast majority of students and parents are not aware: the idea – and the consequences – of confidentiality.

Institutions of higher education that receive certain types of federal funding are bound by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, in regards to student educational information. When a student begins their time at a university, they fill out an information disclosure form that gives them a set of choices regarding how and to whom they want their personal information to be made available. [“Personal information” in this sense includes name, address, telephone number, dates of enrollment, GPA , field of study and details about their degree.]

The choices are (in shortened form):

  • I, the undersigned, authorize full disclosure of my personal information by mail or telephone to eligible parties.
  • I, the undersigned, authorize limited disclosure of my personal information by mail or telephone to eligible parties. (You indicate which details can be released and which cannot.)
  • I, the undersigned, do not authorize disclosure of any personal information.

Let’s talk about that last option. When you refuse to authorize the disclosure of any personal information, whether at the time of signing this form or by choice in the future, you are, in essence – requesting that your files be marked “confidential.” This sounds like a good idea, right? Well, not entirely.

Under the laws of FERPA, if an educational file is marked “confidential,” that means you do not exist. If someone were to call the Office of Academic Records (or my office, for that matter) to verify your dates of enrollment, or your scholarship eligibility, or your GPA, the official on the phone would see the “confidential” mark and immediately tell the caller, “I’m sorry. I have no record of that student.”

No record. At all. That means that now, in the caller’s mind, you never attended said university, you do not hold the degrees you say you hold, or you do not qualify for whatever award you’re trying to receive.

See how that could be a problem?

What parents and students often don’t realize is that graduate schools trying to verify your eligibility for their programs, employers trying to verify your credentials, and outside scholarships trying to verify your academic standing all receive the same answer: “I have no record of that student.”

A confidential file also means your name will not be included in publications, which includes the honor roll and the commencement lists that appear at the end of each semester. Mom and Grandma won’t be able to cut your name out of the local newspaper and paste it into the scrapbook. Neighbors won’t be able to see that award you won in their morning edition and excitedly call your parents to congratulate you. You don’t exist, and neither do your accomplishments.

So back when dozens of students and parents rushed to have their names removed from the campus directory and their files marked “confidential,” they not only prevented an annoying classmate from finding their phone number, they also prevented a host of legitimate educational and professional sources from finding out anything about them as a student, potential employee or award recipient. And now many of them call my office wanting to know why their friends appeared on the local honor roll and they didn’t.

Often, it’s because you – and your outstanding 4.0 in biochemistry and nuclear engineering – don’t exist.

So next time you feel the urge to keep so tight a hold on common information like your name and phone number, weigh the benefits and think about what else you’re sealing off and who you’re keeping it from. Someday, you might need somebody to say, “Yes, NASA, she received that degree from us.”