why are grades confidential?

why are grades at US higher educational institutions confidential?

a piece of paperwork, that I foresee will cause endless trouble, recently crossed my desk

without violating any confidences, the gist of it was that student grades were classified at the super-double-duper level and must never be revealed or leaked, except when we send them out randomly to strange people we’ve never met, on request

why is this?
I don’t mean the legal reason, I mean the pedagogical, administrative and ethical rationale?

prima facie, grades at higher educational institutions ought to be a matter of public record, there is nothing to hide and performance of students is a matter of public interest

when I was a student names and grades were posted on notice boards for informal class assessments, and on bulletin boards in common areas for formal examination; that was how you found out what your grade was
it wasn’t always a nice process, people got upset, euphoric, faint or ebullient in random measure, and then, to be fair, mostly drunk
but, it was fast, easy and everyone was just fine in the end

so, why does the US higher educational system insist on such secrecy?

is this something to push back against, or is no harm done?


  1. #1 CRM-114
    September 30, 2008

    When I asked Penn State to send my transcript to my employer, I was told they could not do that. They had to send it directly to me and no one else. I asked why. They couldn’t say.

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    September 30, 2008

    College grades are confidential because of a student lawsuit that took place in the late 80’s ( I think that was the time frame anyway).

    The issue had to do with a right to privacy. I forget the name of the student who brought the suit, but at my college, we were all made very aware of this issue and how we were supposed to handle grades and posting grade to protect student privacy.

  3. #3 Steinn Sigurdsson
    September 30, 2008

    yup, that is the proximate cause
    but is there a valid underlying cause?

  4. #4 mihos
    September 30, 2008

    we’ve even been told that we cannot mention class rank. So I can’t say, for example, “Sally was one of the top three students in my class.” which is, of course, one of the common pieces of info graduate schools ask for in letters.

    So I simply tell students that if they want me to write a letter of recommendation, they have to sign a waiver that allows me to discuss their class standing.

    But I don’t get your claim that grades are a matter of public interest. While knowing people’s grades might be *interesting*, I don’t see how making them publicly available serves a “public interest”.

  5. #5 Sandra Porter
    September 30, 2008

    I think many Americans would consider a right to privacy to be a valid underlying cause even if there hadn’t been a legal decision requiring teachers to respect it.

    I can understand students who wish to have their grades be private. If you’ve ever taken classes or taught classes with pre-med students, you see all kinds of weird behavior about grades and whose grade is better. Keeping grades private is the better option.

  6. #6 Peggy
    September 30, 2008

    Back when I was an undergrad in the late 80s, grades were posted by student ID number. I liked that method, since you could see how well you did relative to the rest of the class without associating grades with names. And honestly, I would have felt very uncomfortable if my name had been publicly associated with my grades – not because I was doing poorly, but because I was doing well. I felt like it was easier to fit in socially if people assumed that I was in the middle of the pack grade-wise, rather than one of the people who “spoiled the curve”. Perhaps I imagined the social ramifications of my grades, but it certainly seemed important at the time. I imagine I’d also feel uncomfortable if my grades were down at the bottom of the class.

    I actually can’t think of way in which my classmates would have benefited from knowing how well I did on a particular exam, so why share that information?

  7. #7 Sven DiMilo
    September 30, 2008

    FERPA. Buckley Amendment.

  8. #8 rpenner
    September 30, 2008

    U.S. Code Title 20, Chapter 31, Subchapter III, § 1232g


    Unfortunately, if you want the reasoning used, you would have to look at the Congressional Record for 1974 which is probably on microfische.

  9. #9 onymous
    September 30, 2008

    I seem to remember that every copy of a transcript I ever had sent anywhere cost me money, which suggests one incentive for the school to keep grades secret. It’s not a huge amount of money on the scale of a university budget, but maybe enough to be noticeable on the scale of paying an office worker who deals with this and other issues.

  10. #10 JohnV
    September 30, 2008

    I’m a bit confused by the timing of all this. When I started college (mid-late 90s) I clearly remember grades posted by student id number on boards outside classrooms (and frighteningly enough at that timw our student id numbers were our SS#). By the end of college most of my classes were small enough that there was no need for that and by grad school there was no way we would even think of doing that.

    Previous people here make it sound like this changed in the late 80s which seems odd to me. Maybe schools in upstate New York were just slow to catch on or something.

    The SS# thing was a bad idea, but otherwise I fail to see a good rational (as opposed to liability-based) reason to be so secretive with grades.

  11. #11 Steinn Sigurdsson
    October 1, 2008

    information wants to be free
    transparency is good

    more to the point – universities are often publicly supported, in part, certify professional training and critical skills, and hand out bits of paper that people rely on
    why shouldn’t the components which the pieces of paper certify be public?

    individual embarrassment is really not an issue

    to take an analogy, and stretch it, why are times and scores of sporting events public? players could be really embarrassed at being slow or not scoring – why not just announce final outcome?

  12. #12 Lassi Hippeläinen
    October 1, 2008

    While knowing people’s grades might be *interesting*, I don’t see how making them publicly available serves a “public interest”.

    There is a good reason why all academic achievements should be public: credibility. That’s why there are things like peer review and citations – whatever you claim, you have to support it with evidence that can be verified from public sources.

    Forging grades is no more difficult than forging research results. As long as the grades are available only in closed databases, there will be attempts to hack them.

  13. #13 Ben
    October 1, 2008

    Sporting events are entertainment. They are played for an audience. Grades are between the professor and the student. Transcripts are used as a way of evaluating the quality of a person (for job or grad school) but GPA is a blunt instrument that we use only because it’s supposedly objective. If Mihos writes me a letter that Sally is really talented, that means more to me than learning that Sally has a 3.5 GPA; only if I didn’t know Mihos might I want to know about the GPA.

    “Information wants to be free” is a slogan that says it’s hard to control information, not that information should be free. My salary is a matter of public record, but my bank balance is not.

    FERPA long predates the move away from Social Security numbers as IDs. That happened in the early 90s – a law was passed restricting the use of the SS#. We used to post grades with all but the last few digits of your ID blanked out, and then we all got new ID numbers that weren’t the SS#.

  14. #14 mihos
    October 1, 2008

    Yeah, I see no reason to *require* grades be made public. Nor do I see a reason to require health records be made public, nor bank account information, nor passport information, etc, etc.

    You may find it a matter of credibility to know a person’s grades, and that of course is your right. And then you can say to that person “my judgement of your credibility is affected by your academic performance; I want to see your grades.” And then that person can weigh their privacy concerns with whether or not they care about your opinion.

    This is what happens in politics, right? There is no law saying that a candidate needs to release their tax records or health records. They do that because they believe the public will form their opinion in part on this information. We can argue whether or not that is a valid way to form an opinion, but the way it’s handled is correct: it’s the choice of the candidate whether or not to release that info.

    Again, just because you *want* to know someone’s personal information doesn’t mean you have a *right* to. Their right to privacy wins.

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