Know about FERPA compliance
I recently had a catch up session with an old friend and former peer, whom I will refer to as “Anne”, from my Higher Ed Leadership doctoral program. Each of us have moved along in our Student Services careers, Anne in Student Conduct, and myself in Academic Advising. Because FERPA compliance has been on my mind, and a lot has happened in 10 years since our early doctoral days, I asked if she recalled from any of our coursework if we had reviewed FERPA policy. I had learned about FERPA as a federal policy on the job, and Anne confirmed the same.
FERPA, The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records (or Personally Identifiable Information, known as “PII”). The law applies to all schools that receive federal funds. FERPA applies to all students; prior to the age of 18 a student’s stakeholder/parent/guardian are automatically granted rights to these records, and for education beyond the high school level these rights are transferred to the “eligible student”. The act mandates that schools must obtain written permission from stakeholders/parents or eligible students in order to release a student’s PII.
When I was in training for my first Advisor job, I was informed generally how to handle questions that might violate FERPA. If a student’s stakeholder (or someone that identifies on the phone as a parent or guardian) calls and asks about their grades or a personal situation, do not look up their record and answer as non-specifically as possible. Always refer the person on the phone to have a conversation with their student. Not opening their record and answering questions generically will protect me from possible liability. Once I have confirmed the student has signed a records release waiver, then I may be able to address a situation more specifically, and if possible, I should aim to have a student present during such conversations.
In my time advising, stakeholders have called or met with me in person to inquire about their student’s academic situation. I do request the student be present or on conference call during such conversations, but that is not always possible. Writing this article, and reflecting on the number of conversations I have had with a student’s stakeholders, I wonder if I have unknowingly violated FERPA. I certainly would not have intended this, and uphold high regard for the intentionality and necessity for FERPA in all Higher Ed Student Services. And, so it seems in my area of Academic Advising, general discussion of academic records, or how to best support a student’s academics in light of a personal situation, is understandably a less regulated realm for FERPA compliance compared to other student services.
For Anne, FERPA has consistently been a driving force in all of the Conduct positions she has held. She learned an important lesson in the first professional role she held, while we were still in grad school. Working in Student Conduct, which can frequently link to serious legal issues, including Title IX compliance, and is a ripe environment for media attention, invariably must keep FERPA in the forefront. Anne’s recount of learning FERPA on the job was how strict confidentiality was consistently stressed among her colleagues. And, the focus in many of those cases was as much on protection of the university’s reputation in the media as it was on protecting the student(s) in question. Outside of the Federal Department of Education, there is not a consistent governing body for FERPA. Only through a written complaint might a possible FERPA violation be investigated. It is the responsibility of the student, and the student’s education stakeholders, to file such a complaint. If the student doesn’t know their rights in this realm, any possible violations won’t be on anyone’s radar.
FERPA compliance is in the forefront of my mind, in part because of the swiftly increasing reliance on technology in my profession. “Meet students where they are” is a central tenant of College Student Development Theory, and this phrase is used over-again in meetings I attend, mainly in relating the importance of technology in working with college students. It is to the student’s advantage, and beneficial for an advisor’s time management, to have effective technology that allows a student to not have to physically be in an advising office to get quality advising (see my last blog post here). I known many non-university sanctioned methods of communication (i.e. personal email, skype) have been used as a way to get a student advised, especially when they are in critical need and time is of the essence. I know I’m not supposed to reply to a student’s personal email, but if that is the main method they use to reach out to me and they need my help, I first need to help them understand the importance of using their university email for FERPA compliance before we can get to the business of supporting their advising questions. As university staff, how do we know we are consistently FERPA compliant in all of our communications? Are there clear central tenets in the technology we use to communicate with students that FERPA compliance, and the privacy of their records, is a value we uphold? Are we doing everything we can to support student’s awareness of their need for FERPA protection?
Students need to know their rights and responsibilities for each means of communication, especially in regard to the importance of FERPA compliance. In fact, as important as it is to be able to “meet students where they are”, all members of the higher education industry including advisors, faculty, and a student’s stakeholders, should be personally versed on FERPA compliance. One way we can teach ourselves and students this policy is by employing communication measures that tout FERPA compliance as a central tenant. We all will learn through doing, and using FERPA compliant technology will demonstrate first-hand the importance and necessity of this policy in all modes of communication.
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