Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Campus Records Access

Every day, questions arise over a student’s right to privacy, particularly about the confidentiality of grades.

Can an instructor discuss a student’s grade in class? May an instructor share a student’s work with other instructors, or even the student’s parents without the student’s permission? Is it all right to post test scores or final grades on a bulletin board or office door?

In the past, such questions weren’t cause for concern. But in 1974, Congress enacted the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — known as "FERPA" and things changed. The Act imposes on any school, college or university that receives federal funds, restrictions over the release of student records. This includes San Diego State University.

Students at San Diego State University may have access to their educational records. This includes nearly all information maintained by the university which is directly related to the student. In most cases, an educational record that’s “directly related to a student,” consists of grades and attendance information.

FERPA protects a student’s educational record, regardless of how the record’s maintained and who maintains it. An educational record consists of paper as well as electronic data. Besides grades, it typically includes test scores, comments, evaluations and similar assessments about a student, maintained by an instructor, counselor or any other school official.

FERPA prohibits any person connected with the institution — including administrators and faculty — from improperly disclosing student information.

At institutions of higher education, students may authorize the release of their educational records — but only the student has the exclusive right to decide whether or not to authorize the release.

This means that, in most cases, even a student’s parent may not demand the release of the student’s educational record.

Moreover, students’ access to their own educational records — as well as the right to limit disclosure of those records — continues even after they graduate or otherwise leave the institution.

There are some circumstances however where educational records may be released without a student’s permission. For instance, records may be disclosed to other school officials — including teachers, within the institution — whom the institution has determined to have legitimate educational interests.

An institution may also release educational records in response to either a judicial order or a lawfully issued subpoena. Under limited circumstances, records may be released to appropriate parties in connection with an emergency — but only if the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals.

Occasionally, a school official may be asked, or volunteer, to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of a student.

This usually wouldn’t require the student’s written release or authorization. But if the letter includes information that falls within FERPA’s definition of educational records — such as grade point average or class ranking — the student’s consent to include such information would be necessary.

The U.S. Department of Education is charged with enforcing FERPA and it has created a detailed complaint procedure for those who feel an institution has violated their FERPA rights. It’s important then for anyone with access to students’ educational records, to use care when sharing such records.

To ensure that student records are not accessible to other students or unauthorized individuals, instructors and other school officials should exercise caution in the way student records are maintained.

In the past, publicly posting grades or test scores on bulletin boards or an office door was common practice. But under FERPA, it’s prohibited. The Act does not allow posting grades associated with a student’s name or social security number. Even using a student-identity code in such postings isn’t advised since the code could be deciphered by others. To notify students of a final grade, test score, or the like, FERPA does allow the mailing of postcards. But here, instructors should require students to provide them with a self-addressed, stamped postcard on which they’ve written the course name or number.

Instructors can then note the grade and the card can be sent through the U.S. mail.

This practice is entirely up to the instructor though. Neither instructors nor any other school officials are required to report final grades by any means other than those customarily used by the university.

If you receive a request for a student’s educational records from anyone other than the student, forward the request to the Office of the Registrar.

The staff there can best determine how to respond while honoring FERPA protections to preserve the confidentiality of the student’s educational records.