“confidential” by Hilary Dotson, cc license

recent article by CBS Local News in New York lamented the lack of parent/tuition payer’s rights to information about their enrolled student. It contextualizes it in that recent, headline-grabbing story about a girl calling in a bomb threat to her college graduation in order to prevent her family from finding out that she had dropped out after the third year. The parents had no idea she was no longer attending college until they asked for a ramp ticket to the graduation ceremony.

The CBS article states that parents have essentially these rights: 1) the right to pay the tuition bill and 2) the right to ask for information about the student’s academics or other personal information. You may notice that the second right is the right to ask, not the right to know/receive/obtain. This is because schools actually can’t disclose the latter information without student consent. Why? FERPA.

FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is Federal law. it protects the privacy of student education records, as well as requires the maintenance of student records by schools that receive federal funding. In fact, one of FERPA’s greatest strengths as a law is that it orders that records must be available for review by the one who retains the rights to see them, as well as the right to correct any inaccuracies. FERPA also determines under which circumstances organizations (like federal aid organizations, courts, and transferring colleges) can access student information.

Parents often run into confusion when they fail to realize that they lack the rights to unilaterally see these records once a student enrolls in college. While bewildering to some parents that their parent-dependent student has academic privacy, it may be helpful to remember that colleges consider all students (even minors) as adults with their own privacy rights. As said in the ED.gov explainer: “FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level.”

There is some information that schools are allowed to transmit without consent. That information includes: “directory” information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. However, students can ask schools that this information can be hidden.

So, how can a parent get the right to see a student’s records? They should probably start by asking nicely–but don’t ask the school, ask the student. A student, as the rights holder, must sign a consent form allowing parent (or another interested individual) the right of inspection of records. As a matter of law, the school should have notified both parents and students of these rights and how to access records during enrollment/initiation, but often that disclosure is in a form or handbook that gets misplaces or that parents just don’t see.

Usually, each school has their own form for obtaining consent for parent access to student forms. You may find a stock form that you find easier to access or prefer to use. Schools aren’t obligated to accept a form that is not theirs, however, so it may behoove you to simply talk to your student and, if they consent, to ask them to snag a form for you from their college’s records office or website.

Have more questions about FERPA? We suggest starting on the ED.gov website with the explainer or the FAQ. Health records can make FERPA significantly more complex. For and introduction to that topic, we suggest that FERPA/HIPAA FAQ from HHS.gov.

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