The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, passed in 1974, is the guiding legislation for what educational bodies can and cannot do with student information. Similar to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in healthcare, FERPA stipulates that institutions must protect the privacy of student records, and it also governs the release of and access to students’ education records. Protected student data under FERPA includes transcripts, discipline records, assessment results, course enrollment, staff and faculty notes (both digital and handwritten), financial information, and emails or messages pertaining to the student. This information may only be shared if a student requests it in writing, such as submitting transcripts to a graduate or scholarship application or confirming course enrollment for an employer. Some student information, referred to as directory information, is available to the public unless a student places a FERPA request on their file, in which case this information cannot be released without student consent either. Directory information includes, but is not limited to, the student’s name, city and state of residence, enrollment status (full-time or part-time), current status (withdrawn, enrolled, etc.), program of study, degrees and/or certificates earned, and dates of attendance. FERPA functions in two directions: education institutions must keep student records private, and they must release a student’s records when they request them.
FERPA applies to all students and goes into effect the first day of their first term with the institution. It also includes both currently enrolled and formerly enrolled students. FERPA is the reason we don’t have information about many prominent figures’ academic performances at their respective institutions, and in cases where we do have that information, the person either authorized the release of their records or someone at their institution broke the law and leaked them. FERPA is a crucial piece of legislation for students, especially because student records can contain a great deal of private information in addition to the academic information, such as medical information or discipline outcomes that could affect a students’ future prospects. Below are five reasons why FERPA is important, including the importance of certain exceptions.
- Keeps non-education information private. A student’s education record would not show specific medical records, but it would show notes, communication, or other documentation of a student’s disability, medical history, and/or accommodations. This would also include information about pregnant students and students with short- and long-term medical conditions. Students have the right to keep this information private for both personal reasons and to prevent discrimination or harassment from anyone with access to those records.
- Provides student choice and ownership. Under FERPA, students control who sees their records and when, and they may request their records at any time. In this way, students are empowered to check their records for errors and request corrections. They can also file a grievance should an institution violate their privacy rights. FERPA allows a school official to view a student’s record only if they have a “legitimate educational interest,” which gives students some recourse for unfortunate situations like retaliation or abuse.
- Keeps students safe. FERPA protects student information, even from the students’ parents, but includes exceptions for medical emergencies. This safeguards students but allows parents to access information should something happen, which is why we find out a lot of details about situations like hazing and campus accidents. And while discipline records are generally private, exceptions exist for cases of sexual assault in order to protect all students from harm.
- Provides value for the improvement of education. FERPA does allow for the release of student education records “for, or on behalf of, an educational agency or institution, in order to develop, validate, or administer predictive tests; administer student aid programs; or improve instruction” (you can see more about exceptions to FERPA here). This exception is important for furthering our understanding and implementation of education programs, which benefits everyone, while protecting each student on an individual level. Similar to HIPAA, we need information to conduct research and make progress but must sustain the progress of each individual as well.
- Protects the integrity of student records and data. If student records were public, particularly in the internet era, data would be incredibly easy to mine for destructive purposes. It would also be very easy to manipulate. Keeping records private means those records live only with the original institution and remain accurate and true. A student can request amendments when an error occurs, but they do not have to worry about tracking down every last location of their data to make corrections.
One more important note about FERPA is that it applies to students of any age, whether in elementary, secondary, or postsecondary education, which highlights the importance of FERPA even further. Minors, for all kinds of reasons, need their information to stay private and deserve opportunities to improve after disciplinary action or lack of academic progress. At the postsecondary level, we need to protect students when serious transgressions occur but overall protect their right to privacy as well. Privacy laws seek to balance the rights of individuals with the needs of society, and FERPA governs this in the education realm; it plays an important role in students’ success at their institution and in their lives afterward by granting them these rights.