Journalists fight FERPA as they try to access information on award distribution

College isn’t cheap, and tuition rates just keep increasing.

According to the Project on Student Debt, an initiative by the Institute for College Access & Success, college graduates in 2008 had an average of $23,200 in student loan debt, and that amount is only expected to rise with levels of unemployment for 2009 graduates at 10.6 percent.

With such a significant price tag, scholarship money is more important than ever, and journalists from the college and professional ranks are investigating whether this money is going to the right people and why.

Some journalists have found that when it comes to scholarships, it’s not a matter of financial need or academic qualifications, but of who you know. But getting at that information has required surmounting some freedom-of-information roadblocks.

Colleges that won’t release names of scholarship recipients may both breaking open-records laws and concealing wrongdoing in their distribution of student aid, said David Cuillier, Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s school of journalism. Schools that have recently faced this issue include University of Central Arkansas and Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

”There’s a good chance they’re just hiding cronyism,” Cuillier said. ”It’s not fair to the other students who didn’t get the money when they deserved it, and some slacker rich dude’s kid gets the money. Some big donor, some friend of the president gets it instead. That’s why students should care: because it’s just not fair.”

Students at Columbia College in Chicago were successful in their search for the names of students who received tuition waivers from members of the Illinois legislature after submitting a series of requests under Illinois Open Records law and making phone calls to Illinois state legislators. The students did their work as part of a journalism class with Suzanne McBride, associate chair of the journalism department at Columbia College.

McBride had been told about the tuition waiver from another reporter, but few people knew about the program, let alone how to be awarded the waiver, she said.

The students worked throughout the fall 2009 semester and used a publicly available database from the Illinois State Board of Education to find the names of the scholarship recipients. Then they contacted all 177 Illinois lawmakers and questioned them about the scholarships and how they were distributed. Student recipients were also contacted and asked about their experience.

”We did hundreds of interviews to get the most accurate information that we could,” said Nicole Leonhardt, now a graduate of Columbia College.

Students said what they found seemed suspicious.

Leonhardt said they discovered through interviews and public documents that students whose family members had donated to lawmakers’ political campaigns had received scholarships, while other students who were awarded the scholarships were asked to volunteer in lawmakers’ offices or march in parades as campaign personnel.

”You would get all of these suspicious, little red flags, like a student shared the same last name as a lawmaker in a different area and you’d notice some kind of relation,” Leonhardt said. ”The campaign donations were a big one. There was one student where the mother gave $15,000 to a lawmaker and then this girl gets a four-year ride to school. Kind of suspicious.”

The lawmakers gave out approximately $12.5 million in tuition waivers in 2007-2008 and $13.5 million in 2008-2009, Leonhardt said. The students found through documents and databases that the combination of state budget cuts and tuition waivers forced the schools to increase the cost of tuition for other students.

Leonhardt said that record requests were helpful when some lawmakers refused to talk, which increased the amount of information they were able to gather.

Although the tuition waivers still exist, fewer lawmakers are participating.

”A lot of [lawmakers] are just saying that until [Illinois is] in a better financial state and until other lawmakers are more honest about it, they can no longer continue,” Leonhardt said.

Leonhardt said that the articles the students wrote helped publicize the fact that the tuition waivers existed.

”People need to know that the power of good, honest reporting and a little digging, as uncomfortable as the digging might be, can really just turn up a lot of good things,” Leonhardt said.

The Illinois students who received tuition benefits signed FERPA waivers, and in doing that, allowed access to their information. But not all journalists are able to do this type of investigative work into scholarship distribution because of the barriers set up by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal student privacy law.

For Helen Barrett, a journalist at The Alva Review-Courier, access to scholarship recipient names became an issue after Northwestern Oklahoma State University refused to release the names, citing FERPA.

The scholarships, which are funded through an Alva city sales tax, total nearly $214,000, and are an incentive to bring students to the area. The university made an agreement with the city in 1999 to disclose the names of recipients, how much each recipient was given and why they were chosen to receive the scholarship.

Barrett said she believes the secrecy began after she wrote about the discrepancies among financial awards given to students, primarily incoming valedictorians and athletes, in articles published in January 2010.

Roger Hardaway, an Alva city councilman and professor of history at NWOSU, protested the new lack of disclosure at a city council meeting in June 2010.

When he requested to view the scholarship list from the university, his request was granted. However, when he requested a hard copy, he was told that providing him with it would be a violation of FERPA.

Hardaway said that City Attorney Rich Cunningham, husband of NWOSU President Janet Cunningham, told him that he could be cited for violating the federal privacy law if he shared the information with someone other than a council member.

The Student Press Law Center sent an open records request to the University Relations Department at NWOSU on June 22 for the names of ”recipients of the Alva city tax scholarships for the years 2009 and 2010.” Associate Vice President for University Relations Steven Valencia responded, saying the records are student education records and protected under FERPA and that the confidentiality of student records is also supported by the Oklahoma Open Records Act. NWOSU officials did not return multiple calls for comment.

Joey Senat, associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University and member of the Board of Directors for FOI Oklahoma, an organization that supports individuals and organizations working toward greater access and open records, said that the university’s sudden refusal to disclose the names looks like it’s trying to hide something.

”Universities certainly use FERPA as a smokescreen and it seems more often that when someone asks for a record from a university they say ‘no, we can’t, it’s under FERPA.’ It’s being used far more broadly than the law was intended,” Senat said.

He added that since there are no requirements or criteria to receive the scholarship, there are questions of preferential treatment.

”If it’s strictly a discretionary fund, it really opens the door for favoritism and some questionable distribution of the money,” Senat said. ”That just seems counterintuitive to the way government should operate.”

In July, Hardaway said that the president of NWOSU submitted a request to the Department of Education for an opinion on whether to release the names of the scholarship recipients and the college is still waiting for an answer.

SPJ’s Cuillier said that the Department of Education doesn’t help when journalists are denied access because of FEPRA.

”The Department of Education is all screwed up,” Cuillier said. ”FERPA needs overhaul, it needs to be redone and the Department of Education needs to be taken out of the mix. They’re pro-privacy to the point of being absurd, to the point of saying scholarships need to be kept secret.”

The Department of Education has also recently been involved in an open-records dispute in Arkansas, where the University of Central Arkansas declined to release the names of recipients of the presidential discretionary scholarship, a program which Debra Hale-Shelton, a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said may total in the millions.

The newspaper was seeking the names of the recipients because some of the scholarships were suspected political favors, Shelton said, but they can’t get a confirmation because of lack of disclosure under FERPA. The newspaper tried three times to get a decision from the Department of Education that FERPA does not apply, because other scholarships routinely are made public under a FERPA exception for ”awards” or ”honors.” But the department has declined to rule that FERPA is inapplicable.

The height of the presidential discretionary scholarship program was between 2002-2008, under then-UCA President Lu Hardin, and was funded through the general university operating budget, which is made up of money from the state of Arkansas and student tuition, said UCA Chief of Staff and Vice President Jack Gillean.

Although the program was abolished in fall 2008, Gillean said that another scholarship program was put into its place, with a limited budget of $50,000 per spring and fall semester and with established criteria, including financial need and academic excellence.

When the presidential discretionary scholarship was in place, Gillean said it wouldn’t have been unusual for upwards of $200,000 to be awarded in any given fall or spring semester at the height of the program. He said 510 students received the scholarship and that it had no qualifying criteria like academics or skills.

FERPA’s ambiguous language has made it difficult to know how to implement the law at UCA, Gillean said.

”We as an institution try to apply the FERPA law, which we believe governs this thing, as best we can,” Gillean said. ”I guess we’re to the point that unless the Department of Education or some court somewhere gives us specific guidance that directs us to release these names, we feel like [we can’t].”

Gillean said that the university has invited the newspaper to take the issue to a court to help resolve the matter.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that risks for getting an adverse precedent in court for a FERPA case would be minimal because the courts have consistently interpreted the law in a limited, common-sense manner, not the overly literal interpretation being applied at UCA.

”There’s not anyone who believes that this is a clearly written and effectively working statute, and it’s long overdue for Congress to fix it,” LoMonte said. ”When you see colleges in the same state under the same open records law giving two different interpretations, which happens all the time, then you know this statute is confusing.”

Most scholarship programs at UCA have students sign waivers, but students with the presidential discretionary scholarship were not asked to, Gillean said. Only two names of scholarship recipients for the presidential discretionary scholarship were released when the university’s general counsel, who had served as an interim president, announced with the permission of his sons that they had received assistance from the scholarship.

The concerns over scholarships having political ties developed after an FOI request by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sought emails and memos related to the scholarships. The names of people connected to the recipients were carbon copied on the memos, while the recipient names had been redacted, Gillean said.

”They tended to be more prominent people in the statewide community — legislators, some other people who are politically connected and some with connections to the UCA Board of Trustee members, that sort of thing,” Gillean said.

Those political connections were what Cuillier was certain would remain secret if scholarship recipients’ names were kept secret by the university.

”That information needs to be public to make sure there’s no shenanigans going on,” Cuillier said. ”It’s not because [journalists] want to put names in the paper with scholarships because that’s not really that interesting, frankly, and we have better stuff to write about, but we need to do it to make sure that the big donors’ kids aren’t getting these scholarships as bribes. If it’s being kept secret, they’re going to be tempted to fudge the line and give people preferential treatment if they have the money to do it.”

By Kelsey Ryan, SPLC staff writer