Communicating with college students can be a challenge. Communicating with college freshmen takes the challenge to another level entirely.
It’s sometimes a struggle just to get freshman students to focus on their studies, much less the communication FERPA suddenly requires of them. How many first-year college students – or their parents, for that matter – are even aware that all privacy rights under FERPA transfer to the student when they turn 18 or start college?
Rights and Responsibilities
Because reaching parents now means reaching students, you have to think like a freshman student and a freshman parent. The first step is to educate both students and parents on what FERPA is and how it works.
Parents need to know they may not have the same access to information they had before. They no longer get to read and respond to emails, stay up to date on tuition payments and review their child’s academic reports. So they need to pay attention and remind their first-year student to grant them access.
Students, likewise, need to understand that while they have rights under FERPA, they also have responsibilities. They own their account now, and one of their responsibilities is to manage their in-box.
For administrative officers charged with helping students succeed, keeping the lines of communication open is key. And while it’s not an easy task, there are tactics that work.
Schools that have had success use a multi-channel/multi-touchpoint strategy consisting of handouts, video, social media, email and personalized letters mailed to the home. New technologies are also coming to their aid, with some schools seeing spikes in student engagement from using chatbots.
Orientation and Registration
For orientations and registrations, FERPASherpa recommends creating an FAQ handout to do the heavy lifting of explaining FERPA. ExcelinEd.org offers a good basic template as part of their Student Data Privacy Communications Toolkit. The handout should be distributed at least once a year, orientation being an ideal time.
Videos work well in conjunction with handouts. FERPASherpa has several examples of videos that do a great job of enlightening students and parents about FERPA. You can show them at orientation and follow up with links via email. Be sure to include links back to your website for more details – parents rely on school websites for accurate information.
St. Mary’s College of California made this video to illustrate (literally) the way FERPA works. It’s designed to connect with 17- to 22-year-olds and help them learn what FERPA is, how it empowers them and what it means for their families.
ExcelinEd.org also notes that starting conversations on social media about newsworthy privacy issues may spur interest among parents and guardians. Based on the conventional wisdom about fishing where the fish are, it’s a smart way to reach students too.
For ongoing communication with students, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) suggests a two-pronged approach using institutional email and personal email. That way, if students neglect their institutional email inbox and you have important information for them sitting there, a quick note to their personal email can help prod them to check it.
Email communication is also an effective way to make parents aware of updates, but only if they’ve been given consent to access financial records.
It helps to engage parents in the process as much as possible. Parents tend to be interested in two things: grades and finances. So use them to keep students accountable and remind them that students who stay on top of managing their accounts are also more likely to manage their expenses – and less likely to keep incidental expenses from spiraling out of control.
According to Innovation Hub, one of the AACRAO’s signature initiatives, some institutions have been experimenting with chatbots to better engage with students. They like the user-friendly, lifelike format chatbots provide. And there’s an added benefit: Advanced chatbots that use machine learning can help enhance service and system improvements over the long run.
AACRO believes chatbots and virtual agents work, because they engage students in ways that are “familiar and comfortable” and “help them navigate the system.” They note that the growth in messaging apps reinforces this theory.
If they’re right, these self-service tactics may point to the future of student communication. And if they work for students, chances are they’ll work for parents, too.
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