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A Guide to FERPA for Online Students

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, often referred to with the acronym FERPA, is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. This law applies to any school that receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE), including online schools. According to an article published last year in D-Lib Magazine: The Magazine of Digital Library Research, FERPA came into existence to create a consistent policy across universities. The law was first passed in 1974 but has undergone revisions since that time, most recently in 2008.

Overview of FERPA Provisions

When you apply to and enroll in an institution of higher education, you provide a lot of information about yourself and this law works to make sure that schools receiving this information handle it appropriately. Your education records are personal in nature, confidential, and require your written permission for release. However, there are certain conditions under which a school might release your information to specific parties without your permission, including:

  • School officials with legitimate educational interests
  • Other schools to which you might be transferring
  • Specified officials for audit or evaluation purposes
  • Appropriate parties in connection with your financial aid
  • Organizations conducting certain studies for or on behalf of the school
  • Accrediting organizations
  • To comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena
  • Appropriate officials in cases of health and safety emergencies, and
  • State and local authorities, within a juvenile justice system, pursuant to specific state law.

A school can release what is commonly referred to as "directory information" without your permission. If for some reason you don't want your information included in a directory-type publication, you can request that the school remove it. According to the USDOE, directory information typically includes your:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Date and place of birth
  • Honors and awards, and
  • Dates of attendance.

FERPA also includes provisions for you to: 1) review your own records, and 2) request further investigation and correction of anything you find to be in error.

Considerations in Online Learning

FERPA applies to online and on-campus learners alike. When information is digital and available online, there is the potential for it be more widely disseminated than something in print form that is available only on campus. What type of information sharing is acceptable or unacceptable in an online course? Virginia Commonwealth University presents several examples of FERPA implications in an online learning environment as part of a list of guidelines for school instructors and administrators. 

Acceptable: Students enrolled in the same course can see each others' names and email addresses in a class roster.
Not acceptable: Instructors and advisors should not scan and upload official student rosters that include information such as student ID numbers.
Acceptable: Each student can access his or her own grade in the course site or learning management system's gradebook feature.
Not acceptable: Instructors should not post a list of grades of all students, even using coded identifiers (e.g. last four digits of social security numbers) for students, friends of students, or parents to retrieve.
Acceptable: A guest speaker can meet with students live in a virtual classroom.
Not acceptable: Instructors should not provide a list of students to the guest speaker in advance. This would require permission from each student before release.

FERPA and K-12

FERPA not only applies to students in higher education, but also those at the K-12 level. If a student is under the age of 18, his or her parents or guardians hold the rights provided by FERPA. When the student reaches 18, these rights transfer to the student. There are circumstances in which parents may be able to continue to access their children's records, even after the children turn 18, such as if there are medical or safety reasons. The USDOE provides additional guidance for elementary and secondary schools online: Balancing Student Privacy and School Safety.

Understand Your School's Policies

Ask your school where and how it provides directory information. FERPA requires that you be notified about directory information and be given instructions for opting-out if you choose to do so. Each school decides how this notification is provided. It may be listed in the course catalog, posted on a school website, or made available in some other way. The items included in directory information also vary by school. How does your school define directory information? You should be able to locate a list of specific types of information that are included.

If you have questions or concerns, speak with someone at your school. The Registrar's Office is a good place to start. Seek out official policies, published materials, tutorials, and FAQs. Much of this information is currently focused on guidelines for instructors, but can be helpful as you work to understand the FERPA law as it relates to you and your information as an online student.