The 6 Things Incoming Students Need to Know About FERPA

As a brand new college student, the term “education record” probably sounds neither scary, nor sexy. After all, that’s just grades right? And your senior year English teacher used to staple A+ papers to the classroom bulletin board, so there’s no real confidentiality when it comes to who earned what . . . right?

Well, in fact your education record is more than just your grades, and there’s a whole law written to protect who can see it. So now that you’re a college student, and before you get too wrapped up in library study sessions or Frisbee on the lawn, it is a good idea take a few minutes and learn what this FERPA stuff is all about. You never know when it might come in handy!

  1. What is FERPA? (And why should I care?)

FERPA stands for the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. It was signed into law in 1974 to protect the privacy of students’ education records. Basically, thanks to this law, you get to control who sees your information (with some exceptions, of course), and if you find any mistakes, you can take formal steps to have them corrected.

  1. Why do we need this law in the first place?

Education records started back in the 1820s, when schools in New England started to record data on their students. By the mid 1900s, those records had grown to monstrous proportions, with little regulation. School officials could add nearly any comment or anecdote to a student’s record at will, no matter how slanderous or damaging, and often without the student’s knowledge. There was no process to have these judgments challenged or removed. Parents could be denied access to their student’s records without explanation, while other third parties were given access with almost no questions asked. Finally, in 1974, FERPA was drafted and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in order to address these issues of privacy of and access to education records.

  1. What exactly is my “education record”?

The term “education record” is defined as those records that are: (1) directly related to a student, and (2) maintained by an educational agency or institution (or by a party acting for the agency or institution). Because this definition is so broad, it’s actually easier to list what an education record is not.

An education record is not:

  • Legal records maintained by a law enforcement unit
  • Medical records
  • Employment information unless your employment is contingent upon you being a student (e.g., work-study)
  • Information obtained after you’re no longer a student (e.g., alumni records)
  • Directory information (see the last paragraph)
  1. Can anyone access my education record without my consent?

Yes. School officials (defined as “those who engage in instruction, supervisory, advisory, administrative, governance, public safety, and support functions of the institution”) may access your education record whenever doing so is necessary for them to perform their duties to the school. Also, certain U.S. officials (e.g., Attorney General, Secretary of the Department of Education) may access your education record without your consent. Then, there are two circumstances under which your records may be disclosed: in the case of a health or safety emergency, or if the school receives a judicial order or subpoena specifying that you not be notified, it may disclose your record without your consent.

  1. I want to see my education record. What do I do?

Write up your request, being as specific as possible about what you want to see, and submit it to the College Registrar or Ombud’s Office. The school then has 45 days to respond. You will be given access, but don’t expect them to mail you a copy; only if circumstances prevent you from being able to review the record in person will the school send you a copy. So if you do go in person, be sure to take a valid photo ID!

  1. I want to grant someone else access my education record. How do I make that happen?

To grant a third party access to your education record (or a part of that record), you need to provide written consent to the Office of the Registrar or the Ombud’s Office. This consent must include the name of the person(s) you want to allow to see the education record, a description of the record or information that may be disclosed, the reason for allowing that party to see the record, your signature, and the date that the consent was signed.

One last thing to note: while institutions may not release your education record without your consent, they are permitted to release what is called “directory information.” This is information that, if released, would not be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy (e.g., name, address, class year, enrollment status, etc.). If, for whatever reason, you want to keep this information private, you may write to the Office of the Registrar with your request. Just keep in mind: graduate schools or future employers may contact the university, and without that directory information, the university cannot immediately confirm that you graduated . . . or that you were ever even enrolled.