FERPA and Postsecondary Education: Information for Families (Part One)

By Sean Roy, Projects Director at PACER Center, a partner in the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth.

Youth with disabilities are entering postsecondary education at consistently increasing rates. Traditional 4-year universities, community colleges, and trade/technical schools are seeing more and more youth with disabilities who come through the door seeking skills and experiences that will hopefully lead to lifelong employment. This increase is excellent news to disability advocates who recognize that most of the newly created jobs require some type of education or training after high school.

As one of those advocates, my job is to help families of youth with disabilities understand the importance of postsecondary education and how they can help their youth be successful. Postsecondary education can pose a significant challenge to families who are used to being well informed and involved in their youth’s education. It is sometimes a shock for families to learn that postsecondary institutions do not make it a common practice to communicate with families. What is even more eye opening to families is when the postsecondary institution says it cannot communicate education information, that may include health information, to families due to FERPA.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that gives parents of elementary and secondary schools (excluding those schools who do not receive federal funding) certain rights pertaining to their child’s education records. Among other things, FERPA gives parents the right to have access to their child’s school records, the right to seek amending records if needed, and the right to consent to who else can see information contained in the records. The purpose of FERPA is to insure the privacy of educational records and access to those records for parents.

The aspect of FERPA that tends to take families by surprise is that “ownership” of the educational data switches from the parent to the student once a student turns 18 or attends a postsecondary institution (regardless of who is paying the tuition or the presence of a disability). This means that once a student gets to college, the parents no longer have an automatic right to see data like grades. Permission for that access needs to be granted in writing by the student.

However, an additional FERPA-related issue has been identified by disability advocates. It would appear that some postsecondary institutions are using obligations under FERPA as a reason not to communicate with parents at all. This is problematic for a few reasons. One, we know that students and parents are more connected than ever, and that families can offer much needed support and guidance to students, including those with disabilities. Secondly, youth with certain disabilities may be susceptible to being vulnerable in a postsecondary environment (including those with mental health needs or intellectual disabilities), and concerned families may have no avenue to find information. And finally, such a strict application of FERPA may be inappropriate given specific allowances within the law.

Wanting to clear up confusion around FERPA for families of youth in postsecondary education, I contacted Dr. Tina Falkner, a national expert on FERPA with 15 years of experience. Dr. Falkner’s experience and perspective really helped clarify my understanding of FERPA. Stay tuned for my conversation with Dr. Falkner in Part Two of this blog series!

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