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FERPA and a Student’s Privacy: What Parents Need to Know

FERPA…sounds like a weird noise doesn’t it? Like FERPA…oh, excuse me! But FERPA stands for Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 and is a federal law protecting the privacy rights of students. What comes as a surprise to parents is how a parent’s access to information suddenly and drastically changes as a result of FERPA when their student heads off to college.

Here’s what you need to know…

Any school receiving funding from the US Department of Education is subject to the FERPA law. Private and parochial elementary and secondary schools usually do not receive federal funds so they are exempt. Private post-secondary schools (colleges and universities) usually receive federal money so FERPA applies to them too.

When a student becomes 18 OR when they begin post-secondary school, they become an “eligible student” meaning rights previously assigned to the parents now are transferred to the student. They are adults. Their rights are related to their “education records”—those records directly related to them maintained by the school. Sometimes this transition is shocking to parents.

The days of racing home to beat your parents to the mailbox so they don’t see your report card are long gone. Today, the vast majority of colleges and universities primarily communicate with students with an online portal of some kind and a secure university specific email. So, even if a parent pays for their child’s education, they will not be sent the bill and they have no rights to see a student’s grades unless given permission by the child. It is important to make sure the student understands that they are responsible for the bill and if they want a parent’s help paying for college, they need to check their email and let a parent know.

An “eligible student’s” rights include:

  • Right to access their records
  • Right to have their records amended
  • Right to control the disclosure of their personal information to others (with certain exceptions)
  • Right to file a complaint with the Department of Education

Right to access their records – Schools are not required to maintain certain records. They are required to protect the privacy of those records if they exist. Also if requested by the student, a school has up to 45 days to provide a copy of the record to the student. Remember to fall under FERPA, records need to be specific to the student so a course syllabus or an academic calendar which are general information would not fall under FERPA.

Right to have their records amended – Students have the right to request that records be amended. Note it is a right to request not a guarantee a school will comply with that request. Also, amending of records does not include changing of grades, disputing of academic placements, or disciplinary decisions. The right is primarily in regards to record keeping.

Right to control the disclosure of personal information to others – In general, schools may not share a student’s personal information with third parties without their permission. However, there are exceptions to this rule:

  • “School officials” who have a “legitimate educational interest” in the records
  • To another school that a student is applying for transfer to
  • When the disclosure is related to financial aid the student has applied for
  • To a parent when the student is listed as a “dependent” on the parent’s federal taxes
  • In situations of a health or safety emergency to parents or other parties
  • When the disclosure relates to a student’s violation of alcohol or controlled substance policies before they turn 21
  • Directory information (a student does have some rights to restrict this information)
  • Other exceptions include to governmental authorities auditing the school; to comply with judicial order or subpoena; to organizations studying tests, aid programs, & instruction; and as respects certain crimes and disciplinary hearings.

Schools must remind students of their FERPA rights every year. This notification does not have to be personal. They can notify in various ways like in a school handbook, on a school website, or in the student newspaper to name a few.

You should note that “law enforcement records” kept by the “law enforcement unit” of the college are not subject to privacy under FERPA.

Right to file a complaint with the Department of Education – If any of the rights granted by FERPA are not enforced by a university, a student has a right to file a complaint with the Department.

Basically, FERPA is all about privacy at its core. Some examples of violations would be the public posting of grades, leaving a stack of exams in a pile for the students to search through, or professors providing a list of students in their class to a third party. Professors are not allowed to discuss how a student is doing in their class with the parents unless the student has given permission.

As mentioned before, parents are sometimes shocked by being suddenly cut off from communication. A student could conceivably not go to class and fail to pass, and parents would never know unless the student chose to tell them. If it is important to the parent to be aware of their student’s records, most schools will provide some method for students to grant access to their parents. Don’t wait until you are suspicious something isn’t right. Find out what that method is and get access at the beginning of their freshmen year.


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