Similar to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in healthcare, FERPA stipulates that institutions must protect the privacy of student records, and it also governs the release of and access to students’ education records. Protected student data under FERPA includes transcripts, discipline records, assessment results, course enrollment, staff and faculty notes (both digital and handwritten), financial information, and emails or messages pertaining to the student. This information may only be shared if a student requests it in writing, such as submitting transcripts to a graduate or scholarship application or confirming course enrollment for an employer. Some student information, referred to as directory information, is available to the public unless a student places a FERPA request on their file, in which case this information cannot be released without student consent either. Directory information includes, but is not limited to, the student’s name, city and state of residence, enrollment status (full-time or part-time), current status (withdrawn, enrolled, etc.), program of study, degrees and/or certificates earned, and dates of attendance. FERPA functions in two directions: education institutions must keep student records private, and they must release a student’s records when they request them.
FERPA applies to all students and goes into effect the first day of their first term with the institution. It also includes both currently enrolled and formerly enrolled students. FERPA is the reason we don’t have information about many prominent figures’ academic performances at their respective institutions, and in cases where we do have that information, the person either authorized the release of their records or someone at their institution broke the law and leaked them. FERPA is a crucial piece of legislation for students, especially because student records can contain a great deal of private information in addition to the academic information, such as medical information or discipline outcomes that could affect a students’ future prospects. Below are five reasons why FERPA is important, including the importance of certain exceptions.
One more important note about FERPA is that it applies to students of any age, whether in elementary, secondary, or postsecondary education, which highlights the importance of FERPA even further. Minors, for all kinds of reasons, need their information to stay private and deserve opportunities to improve after disciplinary action or lack of academic progress. At the postsecondary level, we need to protect students when serious transgressions occur but overall protect their right to privacy as well. Privacy laws seek to balance the rights of individuals with the needs of society, and FERPA governs this in the education realm; it plays an important role in students’ success at their institution and in their lives afterward by granting them these rights.
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