Understanding FERPA: What You Need to Know

Posted by Katie Brown on 29 September 2016 |

what is ferpaThe Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act of 1974, perhaps better known under its acronym FERPA, protects a student’s right to privacy over his or her educational and personal records.

Whether you’re a student, parent or faculty member, it’s important to understand the laws surrounding a person’s right to alter and review a student’s records.  Through a better understanding of the FERPA, who it applies to and the potential consequences for violation, the privacy of students will remain intact.

The History of FERPA

Also known as the Buckley Act after its principal sponsor Senator James Buckley, the Act was signed by President Ford on August 21, 1974, without legislative committee consideration or public hearings and testimonies. Originally, the Act gave parents the right to review, refute, and in some cases, amend their child’s file. 

When the law was passed, higher education officials, faculty and staff became concerned over their treatment and the confidentiality around files and records, such as letters of recommendation, which students were previously allowed to access.

Over the next few months, there were significant changes to the Act and FERPA amendments were enacted on December 21, 1974. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, “Among other things, the amendments cleared up some of the law's ambiguous language and limited the right of post-secondary students to inspect and review records so that they would not have access to the financial records of their parents or to confidential letters of recommendation placed in their files before January 1, 1975.”

Who Does FERPA Apply To?

Ultimately, FERPA protects the privacy rights of students. Administered by the U.S. Department of Education’s Family Compliance Office, FERPA provides students and their parents the right to:

  • Inspect and review educational records
  • Refute or amend student records
  • Consent to disclose personal and educational information
  • File a complaint with the Department of Education (DOE)

Specifically, FERPA applies to students who are at least 18-years-old or attend post-secondary education, and are enrolled in educational agencies or institutions receiving funds under any program administered by the Secretary of Education.

What Types of Records Are Protected?

When it comes to the types of information FERPA protects, the law notes that all records are subject to the same level of privacy under FERPA. The law protects a student’s right to privacy of education records, which must be directly related to the student and maintained by the university.

Whether printed, handwritten, digital, film or other medium, education records can fall into a variety of categories, including admissions, financial, advising, medical or employment.

However, there are many exceptions. In particular, it’s important to understand the difference between records that are solely held by an institution that is not directly affiliated with the university.

Examples include law enforcement records that aren’t disclosed to the university because there is no direct connection, or medical or psychiatric records that are disclosed only to the individual receiving treatment.

What Happens When There is a Failure to Follow FERPA?

The exceptions may cause conflict or disagreement among campus officials, faculty, students or parents, particularly in situations stemming from poor academic performance, violence on campus or other stressful situations. However, there are repercussions and consequences for violating FERPA, including:

  • Temporary suspension of access
  • Inability to perform one’s work
  • Possible prosecution under criminal codes
  • Dismissal or Termination
  • Loss of Federal funding to the institution

Because of this, it’s important for everyone involved to clearly understand the law, as well as its exceptions.

Maintaining FERPA Compliance

While it’s important for students and parents to understand their rights to privacy, it’s equally as important for faculty and staff to understand who has the right to access or modify a student’s records. To ensure FERPA compliance, many campuses even require staff and administrators to take training and receive certification.

For more information on FERPA and to better understand the law, training is available with Campus Answers’ FERPA training course.

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