FERPA is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and is a federal law that was enacted in 1974. FERPA protects the privacy of student education records. All educational institutions that receive federal funding must comply with FERPA.
If you're a student, it's important for you to understand your rights under FERPA. If you're a parent, you'll need to understand how the law changes once your student enters a post-secondary institution. If you're an employee of Penn State with access to student education records, you're obligated to comply with FERPA and to protect those records according to the law.
FERPA gives students four basic rights with respect to their education record:
Education records are defined as records, files, documents, and other materials that contain information directly related to a student and are maintained by Penn State or by a person acting for the University. Education records take many forms, including paper and electronic. Education records include:
The following records are excluded from the definition of education records:
There are many offices at Penn State that record comments and notes regarding students. These may be kept in the student file in a department or college. It is important for anyone recording notes regarding an interaction with a student to understand that unless these notes fall into the category of "sole possession" records (see definition in question 5 above), then they are part of the student's education record and subject to FERPA. Since FERPA gives the student the right to review any or all of his/her education record, these notes could be included in that review. Therefore, it is important that notes or comments be factual and objective and that University employees who are recording notes or comments avoid making value judgments or using inappropriate language.
It means that a student's education records may be disclosed only with the student's prior written consent. The prior written consent must:
No. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has clarified that an electronic signature may substitute for a written one. In order to qualify as an electronic signature, appropriate authentication must occur. Penn State's access account satisfies the requirements for an electronic signature. Since students must log in to Penn State's email system using their Penn State access accounts, an email note from a student's @psu.edu email address satisfies FERPA's written consent requirement. However because security measures for other email systems are not as strict, an email received from a Gmail, Yahoo mail, or AOL mail account for example would NOT qualify as written consent.
Yes, FERPA does contain some exceptions to the written consent rule. Those exceptions allow disclosure without consent:
"University officials" are University employees with general or specific responsibility for promoting the educational objectives of the University or third parties under contract with the University to provide professional, business and similar administrative services related to the University's educational mission. Individuals whose responsibilities place them within this category include instructors; faculty advisers; admissions counselors; academic advisers; counselors; employment placement personnel; deans, department chairpersons, directors, and other administrative officials responsible for some part of the academic enterprise or one of the supporting activities; University Police personnel; health staff; development officers; staff in Alumni Relations; administrative and faculty sponsors of officially recognized clubs, organizations, etc.; members, including students and alumni, of official college (or University) committees; staff personnel employed to assist University officials in discharging professional responsibilities; and persons or entities under contract to the University to provide a specific task or service related to the University's educational mission.
FERPA permits university employees to have access to student education records in which they have "legitimate educational interest." Such access does not require prior written consent of the student.
But what constitutes "legitimate educational interest"? A definition can be found in Penn State's University Policy on Confidentiality of Student Records, AD-11. Essentially, legitimate educational interest is necessary for employees to carry out their responsibilities in support of Penn State's educational mission. You can also think of legitimate educational interest as a "need to know" that is essential to carrying out your job responsibilities related to education.
It is important to understand several points related to "legitimate educational interest"
FERPA permits each institution to define a class of information as "directory information." FERPA permits public disclosure of directory information without the student's consent.
Directory information is information contained in a student's education record that would not generally be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed. You may view a list of Penn State's directory items on the Registrar's website.
No. The only required disclosure of education records is to the student. All other disclosures, including those with student consent and disclosures of directory information, are at the discretion of the institution.
FERPA requires each institution to allow students to block disclosure of their directory information. At Penn State, we refer to this action as "confidentiality." The following are consequences of a student placing confidentiality on their record:
Requests for confidentiality are permanent until removed in writing by the student.
According to the law, a person becomes a student for purposes of FERPA when they are "in attendance" at an institution. This includes attendance in person or remotely by videoconference, satellite, Internet, or other electronic and telecommunications technologies. At Penn State, we define a student as someone currently or previously enrolled in any academic offering of the University. This does not include prospective students or applicants to any academic program of the University.
According to Penn State policy, FERPA becomes effective on the first day of classes for those newly admitted students who have scheduled at least one course. A student who accepted an admission offer but did not schedule at least one course, or a newly admitted student who canceled his/her registration either before or after the semester begins, is not covered by FERPA.
"University officials" are permitted access to student education records without student consent as long as those officials have a "legitimate educational interest" in that student's record. The student's permission is not required.
There are many vendors offering services to streamline and improve instruction. Services such as WebAssign (an online homework and testing tool) and Piazza (a discussion tool) provide benefits to faculty and to students, often at no fee. Sounds like a win-win. But, if a university is providing non-directory information to these vendors (and since class enrollment is not directory information, uploading a class list constitutes a release of non-directory information), then FERPA applies. FERPA either requires the consent of every student prior to releasing his/her non-directory information to the vendor, or that a contract is in place with the vendor containing four specific clauses. If an instructor is considering using any vendor product that requires student information, then the instructor must first check with firstname.lastname@example.org to see if an appropriate contract is in place between Penn State and the vendor.
Anyone conducting research using information from student education records must receive approval for that research from Penn State's Office of Research Protections. In addition, researchers who are utilizing student education records in their research must agree to:
In primary and secondary educational institutions (i.e. K-12), all FERPA rights belong to the parent. However, when the student reaches the age of 18 or begins to attend a post-secondary institution regardless of age, all FERPA rights transfer to the student. For Penn State students, the FERPA rights belong to the students, not the parents.