A Guide to Understanding FERPA and Your Rights
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is an important law that was created by Congress and signed into law in 1974, to protect the privacy of students and their parents. FERPA applies to any public or private school that receives federal funding. The Act spells out the rights of students and the responsibilities of educational institutions when sharing and maintaining education records.
What Are Your Rights Under FERPA?
FERPA governs the way educational records are shared while protecting a student’s right to access their own records. Schools are required to notify families about their rights under FERPA every year.
- The right to review student’s education records to assure the accuracy of their content.
- The right to request changes to records the parent or student believes are inaccurate.
- The right to challenge the release of records to third parties. A third party is anyone, including any individual or organization, other than the student or the student’s parents.
FERPA prohibits the disclosure of a student’s “protected information” to a third party, without written consent from the student or the parent.
Three Categories of Protected Information:
- Educational Records – grades, course schedules, student financial records, and other materials that are maintained by the educational agency or institution.
- Personally Identifiable Information – information that can be used to track a person’s identity either directly or indirectly.
- Direct Identifiers – include a student’s name, address, or school identification number.
- Indirect Identifiers – can be combined to identify specific individuals. Examples include the place of birth, race, religion, and employment information.
- Directory Information – information that may be published in a student handbook or newsletter which could include a student’s name, address, telephone number, etc. A school may disclose this information to third parties without consent if it has given public notice. Parents and students have the right to request, in writing, that their directory information not be published.
Correcting Education Records
FERPA gives parents and students the right to request that inaccurate or misleading information in a student’s records be amended. Examples can include a missing class or grade on a student's transcript. Those can be proven with a student report card from the semester in question.
If a student or parent identifies information they believe should be changed, they may request a correction. While a school is not required to make the change, it must consider the request. If the school decides not to make the requested change, then the school must inform the parent or student of his or her right to a hearing on the matter.
The hearing decision must be written and be based solely on the evidence presented at the hearing. If the parent’s or student’s request is denied, the parent or student has the right to include a statement in the record stating why he or she disagrees with the decision. That statement must remain with the contested part of the student’s record for as long as the record is maintained.
However, the FERPA process may not be used to challenge a grade, disciplinary decision, or other substantive decision made by a school official. FERPA also does not require schools to create education records in response to a parent’s request. That could include asking the school to create an education progress report for your child when the school does not usually keep those kinds of records.
What Happens When Your Child Turns 18?
When a student turns 18 or heads off to college or another postsecondary school, the rights under FERPA transfer from the parents to the student. This may be frustrating for parents who are footing the bill for school, but colleges consider students adults, and so does FERPA. That means colleges can’t release educational records, including grades and other academic progress to parents without their child’s written consent. Be sure to talk with the college’s financial aid office before your student heads there in the fall to learn about their written consent policy.
There is an exception to this rule. If you claim your child as a dependent on your tax return, the school may share your child’s educational records with you, without your child’s written consent.
Colleges encourage parents to discuss FERPA with their children. In many situations, students will openly share information with their parents about grades, class attendance, finances, and tuition bills without the need for written consent.
What is a FERPA Waiver?
College letters of recommendation are considered part of the student’s educational records, and FERPA allows applicants to view those letters. However, it’s common practice for recommendation letters to be kept confidential in the admissions process. So, students will be asked to sign the FERPA Waiver when applying to colleges, in order to keep letters of recommendation confidential. The Application Hub at CFNC.org will guide students through the college application process.
Waiving your rights lets colleges know that you do not intend to read your recommendations, which helps reassure admissions officers that letters are candid and truthful. Some recommenders may refuse to write a letter unless you waive your rights. Check with your counselor or teacher to see whether they follow a similar policy.
It may sound risky to waive your rights, but if you are asking someone to write a letter of recommendation, you should choose a teacher or counselor that you know will write a strong letter on your behalf. If you’re not sure what they will write, that may be a sign you should ask someone else. The bottom line is that you don’t need to see the actual letter. If you choose someone you have a good relationship with, then you should trust they will write positive things about you.
If you do not waive your FERPA rights, you will be allowed to view your recommendations only if you are accepted into and then enroll in a college.
What if a School Violates FERPA?
If a parent or student feels their rights have been violated under FERPA, they can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office (FPCO). The FPCO reviews, investigates, and processes all complaints. Forms can be filed electronically or printed out and mailed to the FPCO.
Complaints must be submitted within 180 days of the date of the alleged violation, or of the date that the student or parent became aware of the alleged violation. The complaint also must give reasonable cause to believe that the school has violated FERPA. There is no deadline under FERPA for processing complaints, so it may take several months for the FPCO to make a finding.
FERPA has been updated several times since it was first enacted in 1974. Public policy experts and Congress are continually working to address student data privacy and security in an increasingly digital age. Parents can seek more information about their rights under FERPA.