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An Instructional Perspective

by Vera Bagley, Director of Admissions and Records, and Tracy Harris, Dean of Enrollment Services

The Family Education Rights Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) is a federal law designed to protect the privacy of studentsí educational records. It gives students at post secondary educational institutions the following rights:

  • The right to inspect and review their educational records.
  • The right to request an amendment to records they believe to be inaccurate or misleading.
  • The right to consent to the disclosure of personally identifiable information and, conversely, the right to block the disclosure of information normally considered to be "directory" in nature.
  • The right to file a complaint with the U. S. Department of Education concerning alleged failures by the college to comply with the requirements of FERPA.

Colleges found to be in violation of FERPA risk the loss of their entitlement to Title III fundingÖthe dollars that support most of the financial aid used by students here and at virtually all public colleges and universities.

Education Records are defined broadly to include all records directly related to a student and maintained by the institution or by a party acting for the institution. Legal interpretations have made it apparent over the years that the definition must be seen precisely in that broad sense. Only instructional records and notes kept by you, in your sole possession, accessible to no one other than yourself are considered to be outside the realm of this definition.

However, there are two categories of education recordsóDirectory and Nondirectory. Directory Information refers to data that is generally not considered to be harmful or an invasion of privacy if released without the studentís consent. Colleges may release such information if they specify in their publications what items are considered to be directory in nature and the student has not filed a written request for the information to be withheld and protected. At Prince Georgeís Community College, this information includes: name, address, telephone number, dates of attendance, major, current enrollment status, as well as degrees earned or awards received. It also allows release of information about involvement in clubs or on athletic teams. The word "may" is highlighted to focus your attention on the fact that it does not say the college "must" release such information. Even the items listed as directory in nature should be shared with care and only after making certain that there is a legitimate educational reason for such information to be released.

Nondirectory Information cannot be released without written consent from the student. Minimally, the following items are considered to be nondirectory in nature: social security number, citizenship, gender, class schedule, grades, and GPA. It also includes attendance records, academic standing, and current schedule of classesóday, time, and location, test scores, and financial information. Students must sign a written release before such information can be given to a third party in a manner that identifies them personally. You would be found in violation of FERPA should you intentionally or inadvertently share such information with anyone other than another college faculty or staff member who has a legitimate educational interest in the student.

What does this mean for you?

Here are some examples of FERPA prohibitions. The list is exhaustive but will hopefully indicate the level of awareness you should have regarding the requirements of this law.

  1. Donít release the address/telephone number of one student to another student. While this is directory information, you cannot assume a legitimate educational interest.
  2. Donít use a roster showing social security numbers as an attendance roster for students to sign. The same prohibition applies to the posting of grades.
  3. Donít tell anyone where a student may be on campus. If the inquirer is claiming a family emergency refer them to campus police for assistance.
  4. Donít discuss a studentís academic progress with members of his/her family without the student being present or having given you prior written consent to do so.
  5. Donít leave a copy of a studentís bill, class schedule, or academic history lying on your desk. Shred it when youíre through with it, or give it to the student.
  6. Donít provide anyone with lists of your students for commercial purposes.
  7. Donít participate in research that requires you to report data on individual, identified students without a written release from them to do so.
  8. Donít use e-mail to communicate with students about their grades or progress without having written permission to do so from each student. E-mail is not a secure medium in the eyes of FERPA. If youíre teaching an online course, platforms which include password and pin protected e-mail are acceptable. Otherwise, a written consent should be obtained from each student that indicates the e-mail address they are willing to use for sensitive information. NOTE: A standard form is being developed for use in the spring, 2002 semester.
  9. Donít share directory information about a group of students who were identified using a non-directory item. For example, donít give out a mailing list of all Native American students in your classes.
  10. Donít leave student data on your computer screen. Take the time to go back to a neutral screen that does not show the social security number. And sign off completely when you leave your office.
  11. Donít release anything by telephone other than directory information.
  12. Donít reprint a bill or class schedule or academic history for a student without seeing proper identification unless you are quite sure of who is sitting in front of you!

Subpoenas, should you receive one, should be directed to the Custodian of Records. At this college, that person is Vera Bagley, director of Admissions & Records, Bladen Hall, Room 168. The same referral should be made if you are asked for mailing lists, information about a specific student, or any other request coming from someone other than a colleague at the college.

If you find yourself in doubt, there are several people who can help you determine whether or not to honor a request for information. They are:

We would welcome your calls and concerns.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 1

Fall 2001