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Business Officer Magazine

Virtual Sharing of Information

A Web application developed by the University of Minnesota allows students to share six different types of records with their parents, from financial aid status to grades.

By Julie A. Selander

These questions from inquiring parents were all too familiar for the busy One Stop Student Services staff at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, Minneapolis. More often than not, the information was restricted by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) data privacy laws.

Now, thanks to a new online Web tool called “Parent/Guest Access,” students can authorize their parents and other guests to view six different areas of online records, including student financial transactions, financial aid status, financial aid awards, enrollment information, holds, and grades. In addition to the online information, authorized individuals can access the same information via phone, e-mail, or walk-in inquiries.

The Parent/Guest Access Web application has reduced the number of parent questions directed to the student service center, eliminated the need to process paper release forms, increased the understanding of student accounts, demystified complex financial aid processes, and promoted student and parent communication to resolve problems.

The Idea Takes Shape

The concept of virtual sharing of student records first emerged at a semiannual One Stop Student Services Office retreat several years ago. Participants included One Stop counselors, who resolve problems and answer questions coming in by phone, e-mail, and in-person visits. Issues discussed at the retreat encompassed registration, enrollment, financial aid, billing, and payment for the 50,000-plus students on the Twin Cities campus.

At this professional development retreat, staff began discussing how increasing numbers of parents were contacting the office for general information. To address this, retreat participants began to think of a way for parents to view the desired information online, paralleling the same online access students already had for seeing their own records.

At the same time, One Stop counselors knew that they had to take into consideration certain realities. For example, as students transition from high school to college, they want to be more independent. Parents generally want to help their children do that—but they also want to check in occasionally on their education investment. Some parents feel they have a “right” to information when they’re paying the bill.

The federal privacy laws detailed in FERPA can provide staff with an effective legal barrier against the occasional intrusive “helicopter parent.” On the other hand, the University of Minnesota wanted to develop a seamless way for students to allow access to their records, leading to a better and more systematic communication process between colleges and parents. Finding a way to do this and comply with FERPA was our department’s challenge.

Even though FERPA has been in place since 1974, confusion and inconsistency still remain regarding what information can be released and to whom. Six years ago, we developed a hard-copy form for students to use in authorizing access to a variety of student information records. The form helped clarify the types of information students could release (such as registration and grades, financial aid awards, tuition charges, and payment transactions) and the individuals allowed to receive such information through the One Stop Student Services Office.

Nevertheless, capturing the information from the forms was manually intensive work for staff who entered the data into student records. This situation was complicated by the fact that the university received most of the forms during summer student- and parent-orientation events. This coincided with our peak financial aid season, creating a backlog of work. In addition, once data were entered, parents were limited to receiving information during our regular daytime office hours. As a result, many students were giving their secure user IDs and passwords to their parents in order to share student records at other times.

With other office systems going paperless, we set out in early 2005 to create a paperless process that would allow students to electronically set up access rights to their records. The objectives of the new system were to:

  • Provide students a way to release student record information electronically;
  • Allow parents and other third parties an easy way to view student information via the Web at any time and to allow information release via the phone, e-mail, and in-person;
  • Eliminate the labor-intensive paper process; and
  • Promote dialogue between students and their parents about student record information.

We also had to make sure the system complied with FERPA, prevented secure data from being sent via e-mail, protected against inadvertent record duplication, and required no manual intervention.

A System to Share

The system we developed involves several steps to ensure a secure and FERPA-compliant process. From a student’s perspective, however, it takes only a few minutes online from start to finish to arrange to share data with designated individuals who have computer access.

We designed the entire system to interface with our existing PeopleSoft student administration database. The project required 2,100 hours of functional and technical staff effort, which included time for analysis, design specifications, development, testing, and postimplementation support.

Business analysts in the student finance office worked with One Stop Student Services management to develop the design specifications, which were then handed over to information technology office programmers to do the system coding and Web design. The project was accomplished without additional staffing.

As with any new initiative, we prioritized the virtual information sharing system along with many other projects, and this one quickly made it to the top of the list. The director for the Office of Enrolled Student Services approved the resource allocations. She recognized the importance of Parent/Guest Access in terms of the cost savings from eliminating time-consuming paper processes and reducing parent inquiries about general student data. She also saw the increased customer service that virtual sharing would provide to students and their families.

The implementation in June 2005 went smoothly, but we soon discovered some misleading text that was causing confusion among the parents and guests invited to share information virtually. Invitees assumed that they had data access immediately, when, in actuality, students needed to set up access rights after invitations were accepted. We carefully reworded the text to clarify this process.

Step by step, here’s how the system works:

Students send invitations. To provide others with access to virtual information, students click on the Parent/Guest Access link on the One Stop student home page and log in using their University of Minnesota user ID and password. Students then click on the “Invite Guest” link, which goes to a prepopulated e-mail template with a message inviting parents or guests to accept virtual access to students’ records. A student needs only to enter the third-party e-mail addresses and hit the send button. For security purposes, e-mail invitations are valid for only two weeks and then expire. Invitations can be revoked by students any time before the expiration date.

Parents and guests accept invitations. Upon receipt of the e-mail invitation, the parent or guest clicks on a unique URL created in the e-mail text to accept the invitation for access. The URL contains encrypted information that connects the guest to the appropriate student. The individual is then directed to a Web page to complete an online form requesting demographic information, such as name, address, birth date, and Social Security number (optional). A real-time search of our PeopleSoft database determines whether the parent or guest record already exists. This step is necessary to eliminate the chance of creating duplicate ID numbers in our database for parents or guests who may be current or former students or employees of the University of Minnesota. If parent or guest records already exist in the database, we send these individuals their existing log-in information. For those not found in the database, PeopleSoft creates a user profile, users enter their own passwords, and we e-mail users their new IDs.

Students set access rights. Upon acceptance of invitations, students receive e-mail messages requesting selection of the types of information to be released. We decided to allow students to authorize access to six different student Web applications, including enrollment information, grades, holds, financial aid status, financial aid awards, and student account and financial transactions. Students can choose any combination of applications; we include links that take students to a preview screen that shows a real-time view of what their parents and guests will see. When students review this visual display, we require that they accept the “terms and conditions” information page, where we restate in writing the types of information to which students are granting access. This step was developed so that students who attend multiple campuses can select different levels of access for each campus and for each parent or guest.

Parents and guests access the system. After students set access rights, the system sends parents and guests e-mail messages notifying them that they can now view the specified student reports. The student Web applications they can view are essentially the same as those the students see—except that the invitees have “view only” capability. In addition to the virtual records, parents or guests can contact a One Stop counselor about this shared information via phone, e-mail, or in-person contact. To allow prompt responses to questions, we developed screens within our PeopleSoft system that provide staff detailed information about the access invitation, the person who was granted access, and what access rights were approved.

Spreading the Word, Seeing Results

To educate students and parents about virtual information sharing, we developed a strong communications strategy. Efforts included flyers and presentations available at freshman- and parent-orientation sessions, as well as campus newspaper advertisements, e-mail announcements, and information distributed with our departmental communication materials. These activities were paid for through a small budget approved by the Academic Support Resources office.

We also collaborated with our on-campus parent program, a separate office that provides communication links between the university and students’ parents. The office supports student success, generates goodwill for the university, and promotes an appropriate role for parents within the campus community. Through this on-campus program, we informed parents about the virtual information sharing system via the parent listserver, newsletter, and Web site.

When the system went live in June 2005, more than 4,500 of the 51,000 students at the Twin Cities campus sent invitations to their parents and guests during the first year. More than half of the invitations were sent by freshmen.

Today, we find that students have sent more than 17,000 invitations since the implementation in 2005. Our data show that many students release access to all six Web applications. Others provide virtual sharing only to the student account– and financial aid–related Web applications. Student performance is not far behind, with more than 8,000 students sharing their grades with parents or guests. In all, more than 62,000 Web applications have been released by students for access. The feedback on the Parent/Guest Access system from students and parents has been extremely positive.

Benefits and Beyond

In addition to the benefits provided to students and their parents, Parent/Guest Access has generated positive gains for the university as well. Many questions previously answered by One Stop counselors are now fielded by parents themselves. So, this self-service functionality has reduced the number of contacts to the office. Parents’ inquiries are now focused on more complex questions, since many general queries have been resolved by viewing the virtual information shared via Parent/Guest Access.

The system has also created more transparency. Parents gain familiarity with cost-of-attendance budgets used in calculating financial aid awards. They can also learn more about how financial aid is awarded and disbursed. For example, parents may find out in online records that financial aid is pending because of missing information: If the student is selected for verification in the financial aid process, copies of the parents’ tax returns are required. Knowing this would expedite the necessary follow-up actions.

Overall, the new system puts parents in a position to better understand tuition and fee charges, billing, and financial aid. In short, virtual information sharing has demystified some complex financial processes.

We plan some future system enhancements with regard to student eligibility for using the system. When we first developed Parent/Guest Access, we based student eligibility on whether the student was active in an academic program. However, we now want to extend this access to expire five years after enrollment—similar to many of our other student Web applications. We are also exploring ways virtual information sharing can be used across other offices in the campus community.

Some may see this new tool as one that promotes overinvolvement of parents. However, we view virtual access as a way for students and parents to have meaningful conversations about relevant academic and financial information. The Parent/Guest Access system promotes student-parent relationships by sharing information, but it puts the control in the students’ hands. The students decide whether to grant access, whom they’ll grant it to, and what types of information they want to release.

In sum, this approach represents an opportunity for parents to provide guidance to students by empowering them to make their own decisions and become more self-reliant. In this way, parents work as partners with students, helping them through some critical and complicated issues, teaching them how to make good decisions, and supporting them through their development at the institution.

Julie A. Selander is senior associate director of the One Stop Student Services Office, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, Minneapolis.