Student privacy not dramatically affected by changes to FERPA law, director says

Brianna Pelayo and Andrew Messamore

Recent changes to the 1974 law that outlines privacy regulations for students’ personal and academic information may not be as dramatic as initially thought, said Tom Melecki, director of Student Financial Services.

The 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act restricts student records from all parties without written consent, including parents. It applies to all institutions receiving funding from any program under the U.S. Department of Education. The act was recently revised by the Department of Education and will allow state and local education officials to share student information more easily without violating federal privacy law. However, the revision does not cause any change to the degree of privacy that student records enjoy, Melecki said.
“It mostly just clarifies some things that quite frankly we are already doing,” Melecki said. “It may be that there were some other institutions that weren’t doing this, and I won’t claim that we’re somehow smarter than other institutions. We just happened to already be doing these things.”

So far, Student Financial Services has yet to find any changes from the law that would cause records to be fully disclosed to government or other public institutions, Melecki said.

“If some board down in Congress said that we want a list of all of your students that want this kind of financial aid, we would certainly take exception to that,” Melecki said. “We could give them a count, but this would not open up the doors to the kind of sharing that would put private information at risk.”

The revisions will allow institutions greater control on how information is classified beyond simply public and private, said Jeff Graves, associate vice president for legal affairs.

“Before it was either directory information for everybody or for nobody,” Graves said. “What the new regulations do is say that directory information can be restricted to specific people or for specific purposes or for both. It basically says that we can have directory information that is only for specific groups of people, types of people or only for specific purposes.”

The law should mean little will change for students in the regular transmission of their records, said Shelby Stanfield, vice provost and registrar.

“I don’t think necessarily that changes to FERPA infer or imply that there is less privacy on behalf of the student records,“ Stanfield said. “Some people think that when there’s a change in policy that inherently means there’s going to be less stringent or less rigorous policies with respect to protecting student information and that’s not necessarily the case.”