Is information about your ancestors languishing in dusty university files? Take our genealogy crash course in finding and accessing academic records.
Betz Richards wasn’t sure what to expect when she requested information about her mother’s college years from Ashland University in Ohio. But to her delight, the school sent a copy of her deceased mother’s academic record and a newspaper article with a photo of her collegiate singing group.
"I learned that my mother was never in college for a degree," says Betz. "I think she just wanted to sing with their touring choir." Richards requested records from her father’s college as well, and received copies of the biographical updates he sent the alumni office throughout his life.
What information about your ancestors—particularly your own grandparents and parents—might be languishing in dusty university files? Do you have the right to access it? What other records may teach you about an ancestor’s school days? Here’s your crib sheet for studying your relatives’ college days.
What’s in a student record?
An official student record can be a dissertation on the life of a student. Applications may contain birth dates; addresses; parents’ names; religious background; previous school affiliations and transcripts; extracurricular, volunteer and work experience; letters of reference; even a student essay. A student’s file may also include course schedules; academic progress reports and awards; and participation in campus athletics and activities. And as Richards found out, the record might even hold post-graduation information, such as the alumni updates her father wrote.
Of course, your first step is to identify and learn how to contact your relative’s college or university. The following resources can help you:
How can I access student records?
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) governs access to student files in the United States. FERPA applies at any postsecondary institution that receives funding from the Department of Education (almost all of them); in most cases, the law restricts information to the student and parents, if parents list their student as a dependent on federal tax returns. (Canada has a similar privacy law; other laws may apply internationally. Ask at the university registrar’s office or its equivalent.)
The good news for genealogists: FERPA only applies to living students, says the Family Policy Compliance Office at the US Department of Education. When a student is deceased, “an educational agency or institution may disclose such records at its discretion.”
The key word here is may. “Although a college may release the records, they don’t have to,” says Richard Rainsberger, a retired university registrar and part-time consultant on FERPA. Like Richards, Rainsberger also got records from his parents’ alma maters.
“Some of the older transcripts (1920s to 1960s) have much more demographic information than current transcripts,” says Rainsberger. “For example, my mom was valedictorian of her high school class and that appears on her 1934 Kent State [University] transcript. Now, however, that item is not on any college transcripts with which I am familiar.”
Rainsberger offers a few tips for getting your ancestor’s college files:
- First find out the school’s policy (check the website or contact the registrar).
- Be prepared to provide proof of death, particularly if the student was born within the past 100 years.
- Give as much information about the student as possible: birth date, parents’ names, years attended.
- Politely request specific information, such as “a copy of the official student record.” Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) with your request.
After that, says Rainsberger, it’s really up to the school whether to grant the request. “They may or may not readily comply.”
What other genealogy sources should I for?
The official student file isn’t the only place to learn about an ancestor’s college years. School histories, online or in print, might give general information about the years your ancestor attended. (Was it coed? What size was the student body? Did the school receive any athletic or academic awards during those years? Did students all live on campus?)
According to Rainsberger, FERPA doesn’t cover alumni information (created after the student leaves school). Individual academic departments and school public relations offices may keep track of alumni whereabouts and successes. Try asking the alumni department what information it has about the student, and what alumni directories may exist.
Try these sources as well:
- Census records, which may list attending students individually.
- Yearbooks. Many are available online in subscription collections such as Ancestry.com's and World Vital Records (go to the site's online catalog and select Yearbook as the record type). Also search the internet for collections on individual university websites (such as the University of Iowa's) and at libraries. At Old-Yearbooks.com, you'll find links to many old yearbooks in subscription and free collections.
- School histories, albums, class reunion booklets and early lists of teachers and students. Try local and regional genealogical societies, libraries, and online auctions.
- Online resources, such as the searchable directory of students at the University of Notre Dame, 1850-1910.
- Old student newspapers (ask at the newspaper or library for an index). Some college newspapers are in online newspaper collections.
- Student employment office (FERPA applies to work-study records until a student dies).
- The athletic department, for student athletic statistics.
- Back issues of college literary publications, theatrical programs or other memorabilia in which your ancestor might appear.
- Fraternities, sororities or other associations your ancestor might’ve joined. In the United States, student lists at these organizations can date back into the 1700s. Consult Baird’s Manual of American College Fraternities edited by Jack L. Anson and Robert F. Marchesani Jr. (Baird’s Manual Foundation) for help identifying greek organizations.
- University library or department office, for a student’s undergraduate or graduate thesis or dissertation.
In the end, your ancestor’s school years may give you new insight into their character—their interest in history, strong work ethic or artistic talents—and that will earn you an A+ in family history.