The following guidance provides eligible students with general information about the FamilyEducational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This document is a compilation and update ofvarious letters and guidance documents previously issued that respond to a variety of questionsabout FERPA. While this guidance reflects our best and most current interpretation ofapplicable FERPA requirements, it does not supersede the statute or regulations. We willattempt to update this document from time to time in response to questions and concerns.
FERPA is a Federal law that is administered by the Family Policy Compliance Office (Office) inthe U.S. Department of Education (Department). 20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99. FERPAapplies to all educational agencies and institutions (e.g., schools) that receive funding under anyprogram administered by the Department. Parochial and private schools at the elementary andsecondary levels generally do not receive such funding and are, therefore, not subject to FERPA.Private postsecondary schools, however, generally do receive such funding and are subject toFERPA.
Once a student reaches 18 years of age or attends a postsecondary institution, he or she becomesan "eligible student," and all rights formerly given to parents under FERPA transfer to thestudent. The eligible student has the right to have access to his or her education records, the rightto seek to have the records amended, the right to have control over the disclosure of personallyidentifiable information from the records (except in certain circumstances specified in theFERPA regulations, some of which are discussed below), and the right to file a complaint withthe Department. The term "education records" is defined as those records that containinformation directly related to a student and which are maintained by an educational agency orinstitution or by a party acting for the agency or institution.
FERPA generally prohibits the improper disclosure of personally identifiable informationderived from education records. Thus, information that an official obtained through personalknowledge or observation, or has heard orally from others, is not protected under FERPA. Thisremains applicable even if education records exist which contain that information, unless theofficial had an official role in making a determination that generated a protected educationrecord.
Under FERPA, a school is not generally required to maintain particular education records oreducation records that contain specific information. Rather, a school is required to providecertain privacy protections for those education records that it does maintain. Also, unless there is
an outstanding request by an eligible student to inspect and review education records, FERPApermits the school to destroy such records without notice to the student.Access to Education Records
Under FERPA, a school must provide an eligible student with an opportunity to inspect andreview his or her education records within 45 days following its receipt of a request. A school isrequired to provide an eligible student with copies of education records, or make otherarrangements, if a failure to do so would effectively prevent the student from obtaining access tothe records. A case in point would be a situation in which the student does not live withincommuting distance of the school.
A school is not generally required by FERPA to provide an eligible student with access toacademic calendars, course syllabi, or general notices such as announcements of specific eventsor extra-curricular activities. That type of information is not generally directly related to anindividual student and, therefore, does not meet the definition of an education record.Under FERPA, a school is not required to provide information that is not maintained or to createeducation records in response to an eligible student's request. Accordingly, a school is notrequired to provide an eligible student with updates on his or her progress in a course (includinggrade reports) or in school unless such information already exists in the form of an educationrecord.
Amendment of Education RecordsUnder FERPA, an eligible student has the right to request that inaccurate or misleadinginformation in his or her education records be amended. While a school is not required to amendeducation records in accordance with an eligible student's request, the school is required toconsider the request. If the school decides not to amend a record in accordance with an eligiblestudent's request, the school must inform the student of his or her right to a hearing on the matter.If, as a result of the hearing, the school still decides not to amend the record, the eligible studenthas the right to insert a statement in the record setting forth his or her views. That statementmust remain with the contested part of the eligible student’s record for as long as the record ismaintained.
However, while the FERPA amendment procedure may be used to challenge facts that areinaccurately recorded, it may not be used to challenge a grade, an opinion, or a substantivedecision made by a school about an eligible student. FERPA was intended to require only thatschools conform to fair recordkeeping practices and not to override the accepted standards andprocedures for making academic assessments, disciplinary rulings, or placement determinations.Thus, while FERPA affords eligible students the right to seek to amend education records whichcontain inaccurate information, this right cannot be used to challenge a grade or an individual’sopinion, or a substantive decision made by a school about a student. Additionally, if FERPA’samendment procedures are not applicable to an eligible student’s request for amendment ofeducation records, the school is not required under FERPA to hold a hearing on the matter.
Disclosure of Education RecordsUnder FERPA, a school may not generally disclose personally identifiable information from aneligible student's education records to a third party unless the eligible student has providedwritten consent. However, there are a number of exceptions to FERPA's prohibition against nonconsensualdisclosure of personally identifiable information from education records. Underthese exceptions, schools are permitted to disclose personally identifiable information fromeducation records without consent, though they are not required to do so. Following is generalinformation regarding some of these exceptions.
One of the exceptions to the prior written consent requirement in FERPA allows “schoolofficials,” including teachers, within a school to obtain access to personally identifiableinformation contained in education records provided the school has determined that they have“legitimate educational interest” in the information. Although the term “school official” is notdefined in the statute or regulations, this Office generally interprets the term to include partiessuch as: professors; instructors; administrators; health staff; counselors; attorneys; clerical staff;trustees; members of committees and disciplinary boards; and a contractor, volunteer or otherparty to whom the school has outsourced institutional services or functions.
A school must inform eligible students of how it defines the terms “school official” and“legitimate educational interest” in its annual notification of FERPA rights. A school officialgenerally has a legitimate educational interest if the official needs to review an education recordin order to fulfill his or her professional responsibility. Additional information about the annualnotification of rights is found below in this guidance document.
Another exception permits a school to disclose personally identifiable information from aneligible student's education records, without consent, to another school in which the studentseeks or intends to enroll. The sending school may make the disclosure if it has included in itsannual notification of rights a statement that it forwards education records in such circumstances.Otherwise, the sending school must make a reasonable attempt to notify the student in advanceof making the disclosure, unless the student has initiated the disclosure. The school must alsoprovide an eligible student with a copy of the records that were released if requested by thestudent.
FERPA also permits a school to disclose personally identifiable information from educationrecords without consent when the disclosure is in connection with financial aid for which thestudent has applied or which the student has received, if the information is necessary for suchpurposes as to: determine the eligibility for the aid; determine the amount of the aid; determinethe conditions for the aid; and/or enforce the terms and conditions of the aid. With respect to thisexception, the term "financial aid" means payment of funds provided to an individual (orpayment in kind of tangible or intangible property to the individual) that is conditioned on theindividual's attendance at a school.
Another exception permits a school to disclose personally identifiable information fromeducation records without consent when the disclosure is to the parents of a "dependent student"as that term is defined in Section 152 of the Internal Revenue Code. Generally, if either parent
has claimed the student as a dependent on the parent's most recent year's income tax statement,the school may non-consensually disclose the eligible student's education records to both parentsunder this exception.
Postsecondary institutions may also disclose personally identifiable information from educationrecords, without consent, to appropriate parties, including parents of an eligible student, inconnection with a health or safety emergency. Under this provision, colleges and universities maynotify parents when there is a health or safety emergency involving their son or daughter, even if theparents do not claim the student as a dependent.
FERPA also permits a school to disclose personally identifiable information from educationrecords without consent when the disclosure is to the parents of a student at a postsecondaryinstitution regarding the student's violation of any Federal, State, or local law, or of any rule orpolicy of the institution, governing the use or possession of alcohol or a controlled substance.The school may non-consensually disclose information under this exception if the schooldetermines that the student has committed a disciplinary violation with respect to that use orpossession and the student is under 21 years of age at the time of the disclosure to the parent.
Another exception permits a school to non-consensually disclose personally identifiableinformation from a student's education records when such information has been appropriatelydesignated as directory information. "Directory information" is defined as information containedin the education records of a student that would not generally be considered harmful or aninvasion of privacy if disclosed. Directory information could include information such as thestudent's name, address, e-mail address, telephone listing, photograph, date and place of birth,major field of study, participation in officially recognized activities and sports, weight and heightof members of athletic teams, dates of attendance, degrees and awards received, the most recentprevious educational agency or institution attended, grade level or year (such as freshman orjunior), and enrollment status (undergraduate or graduate; full-time or part-time).
A school may disclose directory information without consent if it has given public notice of thetypes of information it has designated as directory information, the eligible student’s right torestrict the disclosure of such information, and the period of time within which an eligiblestudent has to notify the school that he or she does not want any or all of those types ofinformation designated as directory information. Also, FERPA does not require a school tonotify eligible students individually of the types of information it has designated as directoryinformation. Rather, the school may provide this notice by any means likely to inform eligiblestudents of the types of information it has designated as directory information.
There are several other exceptions to FERPA’s prohibition against non-consensual disclosure ofpersonally identifiable information from education records, some of which are briefly mentionedbelow. Under certain conditions (specified in the FERPA regulations), a school may nonconsensuallydisclose personally identifiable information from education records:
• to authorized representatives of the Comptroller General of the United States, theAttorney General of the United States, the U.S. Secretary of Education, and State andlocal educational authorities for audit or evaluation of Federal or State supported
education programs, or for the enforcement of or compliance with Federal legalrequirements that relate to those programs;
• to organizations conducting studies for or on behalf of the school making the disclosurefor the purposes of administering predictive tests, administering student aid programs, orimproving instruction;
• to comply with a judicial order or a lawfully issued subpoena;
• to the victim of an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence or a non-forcible sex offenseconcerning the final results of a disciplinary hearing with respect to the alleged crime;and
• to any third party the final results of a disciplinary proceeding related to a crime ofviolence or non-forcible sex offense if the student who is the alleged perpetrator is foundto have violated the school’s rules or policies. The disclosure of the final results onlyincludes: the name of the alleged perpetrator, the violation committed, and any sanctionimposed against the alleged perpetrator. The disclosure must not include the name of anyother student, including a victim or witness, without the written consent of that otherstudent.
As stated above, conditions specified in the FERPA regulations at 34 CFR § 99. 31 have to bemet before a school may non-consensually disclose personally identifiable information fromeducation records in connection with any of the exceptions mentioned above.Annual Notification of Rights
Under FERPA, a school must annually notify eligible students in attendance of their rights underFERPA. The annual notification must include information regarding an eligible student's right toinspect and review his or her education records, the right to seek to amend the records, the rightto consent to disclosure of personally identifiable information from the records (except in certaincircumstances), and the right to file a complaint with the Office regarding an alleged failure by aschool to comply with FERPA. It must also inform eligible students of the school's definitionsof the terms "school official" and "legitimate educational interest."
FERPA does not require a school to notify eligible students individually of their rights underFERPA. Rather, the school may provide the notice by any means likely to inform eligiblestudents of their rights. Thus, the annual notification may be published by various means,including any of the following: in a schedule of classes; in a student handbook; in a calendar ofschool events; on the school’s website (though this should not be the exclusive means ofnotification); in the student newspaper; and/or posted in a central location at the school orvarious locations throughout the school. Additionally, some schools include their directoryinformation notice as part of the annual notice of rights under FERPA.
Law Enforcement Units and Law Enforcement Unit RecordsA “law enforcement unit” means any individual, office, department, division or other componentof a school, such as a unit of commissioned police officers or non-commissioned security guards,that is officially authorized or designated by the school to: enforce any local, State, or Federallaw, or refer to appropriate authorities a matter for enforcement of any law against any individualor organization; or to maintain the physical security and safety of the school. The lawenforcement unit does not lose its status as a law enforcement unit if it also performs other, nonlawenforcement functions for the school, including investigation of incidents or conduct thatconstitutes or leads to a disciplinary proceeding against a student.
“Law enforcement unit records” (i.e., records created by the law enforcement unit, created for alaw enforcement purpose, and maintained by the law enforcement unit) are not “educationrecords” subject to the privacy protections of FERPA. As such, the law enforcement unit mayrefuse to provide an eligible student with an opportunity to inspect and review law enforcementunit records, and it may disclose law enforcement unit records to third parties without the eligiblestudent’s prior written consent. However, education records, or personally identifiableinformation from education records, which the school shares with the law enforcement unit donot lose their protected status as education records because they are shared with the lawenforcement unit.
Complaints of Alleged Failures to Comply with FERPAFERPA vests the rights it affords in the eligible student. The statute does not provide for theserights to be vested in a third party who has not suffered an alleged violation of their rights underFERPA. Thus, we require that a student have "standing," i.e., have suffered an alleged violationof his or her rights under FERPA, in order to file a complaint.
The Office may investigate those timely complaints that contain specific allegations of factgiving reasonable cause to believe that a school has violated FERPA. A timely complaint isdefined as one that is submitted to the Office within 180 days of the date that the complainantknew or reasonably should have known of the alleged violation of FERPA. Complaints that donot meet FERPA’s threshold requirement for timeliness are not investigated.
If we receive a timely complaint that contains a specific allegation of fact giving reasonablecause to believe that a school has violated FERPA, we may initiate an administrativeinvestigation into the allegation in accordance with procedures outlined in the FERPAregulations. If a determination is made that a school violated FERPA, the school and thecomplainant are so advised, and the school is informed of the steps it must take to come intocompliance with the law. The investigation is closed when voluntary compliance is achieved.
Please note that the eligible student should state his or her allegations as clearly and specificallyas possible. To aid us in efficiently processing allegations, we ask that an eligible student onlyinclude supporting documentation that is relevant to the allegations provided. Otherwise, wemay return the documentation and request clarification. This Office does not have the resourcesto review voluminous documents and materials to determine whether an allegation of a violationof FERPA is included. An eligible student may obtain a complaint form by calling (202) 260-3887. For administrative and privacy reasons, we do not discuss individual allegations and casesvia email. Please mail completed complaint forms to the Office (address below) for review andany appropriate action.
Complaint Regarding AccessIf an eligible student believes that a school has failed to comply with his or her request for accessto education records, the student may complete a FERPA complaint form and should include thefollowing specific information: the date of the request for access to the education records; thename of the school official to whom the request was made (a dated copy of any written request tothe school should be provided, if possible); the response of the school official, if any; and thespecific nature of the information requested.
Complaint Regarding AmendmentIf an eligible student believes that a school has failed to comply with his or her request foramendment of inaccurate information in education records or failed to offer the student anopportunity for a hearing on the matter, the student may complete a FERPA complaint form andshould include the following specific information: the date of the request for amendment of theeducation records; the name of the school official to whom the request was made (a dated copyof any written request to the school should be provided, if possible); the response of the schoolofficial, if any; the specific nature of the inaccurate information for which amendment wasrequested; and evidence provided to the school to support the assertion that such information isinaccurate.
Complaint Regarding DisclosureIf an eligible student believes that a school has improperly disclosed personally identifiableinformation from his or her education records to a third party, the student may complete aFERPA complaint form and should include the following specific information: the date orapproximate date the alleged disclosure occurred or the date the student learned of the disclosure;the name of the school official who made the disclosure, if that is known; the third party towhom the disclosure was made; and the specific nature of the education records disclosed.
This guidance document is designed to provide eligible students with some general informationregarding FERPA and their rights, and to address some of the basic questions most frequentlyasked by eligible students. You can review the FERPA regulations, frequently asked questions,significant opinions of the Office, and other information regarding FERPA at our Website asfollows:
If, after reading this guidance document, you have questions regarding FERPA which are notaddressed here, you may write to the Office at the following address:
Family Policy Compliance OfficeU.S. Department of Education400 Maryland Avenue, SWWashington, DC 20202-8520
The provided information can be found at: