FERPA – TO WAIVE OR NOT TO WAIVE?
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a set of regulations that were enacted in 1974 to keep student records private while also giving students access to their records.
Universities and high schools that retain education records must give ultimate control of these records to the students they concern.
When a student turns 18 years old or enters a postsecondary institution at any age, the rights under FERPA transfer from the parents or guardians to the students themselves.
Under FERPA, students are given important rights, including:
- The right of students to inspect their records,
- The right to challenge incorrect information in those records, and
- The right to keep records private.
While FERPA is complex in scope, the section we are going to focus on in this article concerns letters of recommendation, and students’ right to know what a recommender has written about them. While it is certainly understandable to want to know what is being said about you, especially as it relates to one of the biggest decisions of your life, AdmissionSight encourages its students to waive this right.
When reviewing a student’s college application, admissions officers expect letters of recommendation to be kept confidential. This is due to the fact that waiving your right reassures them that the letters are candid and truthful, thus allowing them to make an honest and qualified assessment of the applicant. Students who do not waive this right, however, may signal a lack of trust in the person writing the letter, resulting in a letter that may be perceived as less candid or genuine. Let’s examine the potential benefits and downsides to not waiving FERPA.
However, before we go over the pros and cons of waiving or not waiving your FERPA rights, let’s break down some of the most important information about this very important set of regulations for the bright, young students of America.
Top things to know about FERPA
When it comes to making important decisions in your life, one of the greatest tools that anyone can take advantage of is knowledge. After all, knowledge is power in this and all things. In order to help you make a better decision, let’s break down some basic facts about FERPA, and then we will go through some of the most common questions that students and parents have about FERPA.
So, here are the top five things that you should know about FERPA.
FERPA gives students important rights
One of the most important things for students to know is that under the law, students have the right to inspect and review their own education records, to request an amendment to their records if they think that something is inaccurate or misleading, to consent to disclosures of personally identifiable information contained within their records, and to file a complaint with the Department of Education in the event of FERPA noncompliance.
Each institution is totally unique
Every college and university around the country is able to implement FERPA in a unique way. For example, under FERPA, institutions are allowed to have their very own definition of terms such as “directory information.” They are also allowed to come up with their own idea of what is considered “directory” or “public” information at their institution. For that reason, students who are especially concerned with their protections under FERMA should be sure to check in with the school that they are interested in going to and how they have defined FERMA.
Certain students’ information should never be shared
No matter the rules at the school you are either applying to or have enrolled in, there are quite a few bits of information about a student that schools will not share unless they are given permission by the individual student. These include information such as a student’s ID number, citizenship, gender, ethnicity, religious preferences, grades, GPAs, and daily class schedules. Since these things are not defined as “directory information” they should not be shared without permission.
Records are protected from the start
What this means is that the records of students are protected by FERPA from the moment that a student registers for classes. In some cases, students will be protected under FERPA as soon as they apply for admissions.
One good rhyme to remember
When it comes to your personal private information, there is a simple rhyme that you can remember if you are curious about whether or not you should share your information. “When in doubt, don’t give it out.” If you have FERPA questions or concerns, it is best not to give out any information until you speak with your school’s admissions office and make sure that it is safe and/or smart to give out your information to anyone who may be asking.
Major Pros and Cons to retaining the right of access
Pros to Retaining Right of Access:
- Knowing what is in your letters of recommendation can help you prepare for interviews with schools.
- Any mistakes in the letter can be corrected.
- It may relieve stress and anxiety to know what has been said.
- If you find the letter unfavorable, you can choose to not send it out.
Cons of Retaining Right of Access:
- It sends a message to admissions officers that you do not trust the person writing your recommendation. This may lead to the admissions officer assigning the letter less weight than that of a student who waived their right.
- Not waiving your right allows you to view letters of recommendation only after getting in and enrolling in a school. So, as painful as it might be including letters in your college application that you cannot read, please note that students will only be able to read the letters only after they have made a choice on a school. This is not the case for admissions officers, who will know that you have opted to read the letters, which may affect their decision about whether or not to admit you.
- A potential recommender may choose not to write a letter for you if you retain your right of access.
- You need to be prepared to explain your reasons for your choice during your interview.
As you can see, the downside to retaining this right under FERPA outweighs any potential benefits. So instead of driving yourself crazy wondering what is being written about you, you should focus on choosing people that you trust to write a glowing review of your abilities. We recommend that from the outset you request a strong letter from a teacher who:
- Knows you both in and out of the classroom
- Is aware of your accomplishments
- Understands what makes you unique
- Familiar with other activities you might be involved in
While it is not uncommon for recommenders to show you a draft, either for feedback or even help polishing it, it should certainly not be expected. But if you are fortunate enough to have a teacher include you in the process, it is important to respond quickly and graciously.
The truth is, you do not need to see the letters. If you have been judicious about who you select to speak on your behalf, there is no need to worry about what their letter says; you can rest easy knowing that they are genuinely invested in making you look good to the admissions board.
Frequently asked questions about FERPA
No doubt, one of the best ways to learn about anything is to ask questions! For that reason, we at AdmissionSight wanted to take the time to answer some of the most common questions about FERPA that you may not know to ask for yourself. Ideally, you will not only understand the answers to these questions but potentially get ideas for any other questions about FERPA that might be helpful for you to answer.
Question: How do I learn about my rights under FERPA?
Answer: Overall, educational agencies and institutions are required by law to notify parents and eligible students about their specific rights under FERPA. Section 99.7 of the FERPA regulations put in place the requirements for that notification. Whole schools are not required to individually notify parents and eligible students, they do have to notify them by any means that are reasonably likely to let them know about their rights under FERPA.
Question: Under what circumstances can a school disclose information without consent?
Answer: There are a few exceptions to FERPA’s general prior consent rule that are set forth. Perhaps the most common exception is the disclosure of “directory information” if the schools follow the specific procedures that were set forth in FERPA.
Question: I keep reading about “directory information” but don’t know what it is?
Answer: FERPA defines “directory information” as information that is contained within a specific student’s education record that would not typically be considered as harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed. Typically, this type of “directory information” includes information such as name, address, telephone listing date and place of birth, whether you participated in officially recognized activities and sports, as well as dates of attendance. Schools are allowed to disclose “directory information” to third parties without consent if it has given public notice of what types of info it considers directory information.
From there, it is up to the parents or the eligible student to notify the school in writing that he, she or they does not want any of that type of information disclosed. Keep in mind that the means in which a school tells a parent or eligible student. It could be through a newsletter, newspaper, handbook, email, and more. The school is not required to notify a parent or student individually so it is your job to find out how the school will alert you so that you can decide whether or not any of the directory information is off-limits for you.
Question: If I am a parent of a college student, do I have the right to see my child’s academic records?
Answer: As previously mentioned, the rights under FERPA transfer from the parents to the student once the student turns 18 years old or enters a postsecondary institution at any age. With that being said, while rights under FERPA transfer from the parent to the student, a school is allowed to disclose information from and “eligible student’s” education records to the parents of that student without the student’s consent, as long as the student is listed as a dependent for tax purposes. Neither the age of the student nor the parent’s status (as a custodial parent) is relevant. Simply, if a student is claimed as a dependent by either parent, both parents have access to a student’s grades underneath this provision.
Question: Is a postsecondary institution allowed to disclose financial records of an eligible student to the parents?
Answer: If the student is a dependent for income tax purposes, the institutions are allowed to disclose any education records, including financial records to a student’s parents. However, if the student is not dependents, then the student must provide consent for the school to disclose the information to the parents.
Question: If my child is a minor and he or she is taking classes at a college while still in high school, how does this change rights?
Answer: If a student is attending a postsecondary institution at any age, the rights under FERPA have then transferred to the student. With that being said, in a scenario where a student is enrolled in both high school and a postsecondary institution, the two schools may exchange information on that one student. If the student is under 18 years old, the parents will still retain the rights under FERPA at the high school and it may inspect and review any records sent by the postsecondary institutions to the high school.
Question: Can a postsecondary institution disclose to parent information regarding a student’s violation of the use or possession of alcohol or controlled substance without the consent of a student?
Answer: The simple answer is yes. If the student is under 21 at the time of the disclosure, then it can disclose this information. Beyond that, if a student is a “dependent student” as defined by FERPA, the institution may disclose the information to the parents even if the student is older than 21.
Without a doubt, FERPA is a very important federally create protection for student privacy, but the act continues to change every year. While it is the institution’s responsibility to fully understand FERPA in order to best protect the privacy of its students, it is also the responsibility of the student and the student’s parents to make sure that they understand as well. That way, they can be sure that none of the information that may be disclosed is information that they are uncomfortable disclosing.