Rights to student information altered

Students are coming back to Carnegie Mellon from winter break in a new year and with new Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regulations. The new revisions expanded the scope of “confidential information,” and gave schools more power to notify parents or health officials in emergencies.

The original FERPA bill was passed in 1974 under the Nixon administration. According to John Papinchak, the Co-Director of Enrollment Services and Registrar, FERPA in general serves to “afford students certain rights with respect to their educational records, including the right to inspect their education record, the right to request an amendment of the records that the student believes are inaccurate, and the right to control disclosures of their records.”

Since 1974, the Department of Education bill has occasionally revised FERPA to fit the evolving methods of record keeping and discourses that schools employ, as well as the changing needs of modern students.

The most recent revisions were passed on Dec. 9 and have significantly changed the statutes limiting access to a student’s personal information in the event of an emergency. “In the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, there has been renewed interest for guidance on when and how information about students can be shared in an emergency, especially with regard to the parents of college students,” explained Papinchak. “Effective Jan. 8, 2009, the new FERPA rules will help school officials respond to emergencies more quickly and effectively.”

Previously, schools would have needed to obtain written consent from a troubled student in order to notify that student’s parents or health services that his or her judgment may be impaired. “The final regulations afford greater flexibility and deference to administrators so that they can bring appropriate resources to bear when there is a threat to the health or safety of students,” said Raymond Simon, Deputy Director of the Department of Education. “The final regulations also clarify that ... an educational agency or institution may disclose information to an eligible student's parents in a health or safety emergency.”

However, these new regulations are redundant for many families at Carnegie Mellon, as the school has already taken a proactive approach to the disclosure of student information to parents. “We created a brochure for parents. It was mailed to all undergraduates at their home address this past fall,” Papinchak said.

More relevant to Carnegie Mellon students are new regulations limiting the disclosure of information in non-emergency situations to parties other than a student’s parents. “The final rules include changes and clarifications to FERPA legislation regarding electronic records, students' Social Security numbers, and outside contractors hired by educational institutions who are given access to student records to perform services for the institution,” Papinchak said.

Specifically, the new regulations expanded the definitions of confidential information to include “any information that, alone or in combination, is linked or linkable to a specific student ... and information, even in redacted form, that is requested by a party if the school reasonably believes the party knows the identity of the student to whom the record relates.”

While these new definitions are broader, they also could create opportunities for fraud on behalf of a deceitful student.

For example, the new regulations prevent employers from verifying without consent a student's grade point average with that student’s school. “Technically, yes, a student could lie about his GPA,” academic adviser Lauren Weinstein admitted. “However, companies can check the GPA by requesting that he send in his transcript, and that would have the GPA and could cause an issue for them if they saw he had misrepresented himself on his résumé.” Joseph Lum, a first-year computer science major, also added, “I would not lie [about my GPA] even if I could get away with it.... It’s wrong and it probably won’t help much anyway.” Papinchak also added, “The student may try to hide attendance at an institution by restricting their directory information disclosure.”

Despite these potential dangers, Papinchak said, “We get great guidance from the Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office (FPCO), which administers the FERPA regulations.”