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By Anna Melissa Price Of Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC on 12/23/2019
Parent Access to Grades Can End When College Begins

Parent access to grades is a specific area of concern for parents and guardians of college students, especially when funding all or part of a student’s education. Call it helicopter-parenting or just a vested interest, but many parents and guardians have good reasons for keeping track of a student’s progress, especially during the critical first year of college. However, they may be surprised to learn that access to their student’s grades is not automatic.

Eighteen-Year-Olds are Legal Adults: The Impact on Parent Access to Grades

Age 18 is a turning point in a person’s life in the United States. Your child can now open his or her own bank account, serve on juries, vote, and play the lottery. Parents sometimes expect their newly adult children to perform these functions, but those same parents and guardians are often surprised when they go to a doctor’s office and find that they have lost access to their child’s medical records. A doctor’s visit sometimes provides the first notice to parents that access to their child’s personal information is now limited.

In the educational realm, a similar situation presents itself in the form of loss of parent access to grades. This seems to happen at the most inopportune time—right when students are applying and heading to college. In addition, student privacy laws kick in whenever students enter postsecondary institutions at any age—not just at the notable age of 18. Getting advice from a lawyer before a student goes to college can help clear up confusion and ensure parent access to grades. 

Legal Forms for College Students

The amount of paperwork associated with getting a student accepted and enrolled in college is significant. It starts when the child is in high school, and there are many forms, applications, and terms to consider: transcripts, recommendations, grade reports, standardized test results, scholarship applications, financial aid applications, proof of vaccinations, physical examination forms, releases, waivers, and power of attorney (POA) forms, among others. High school counselors have their work cut out for them, as do colleges, parents, guardians, teachers, and the students themselves. Often, the issue of how to access a college student’s grades is not raised at this time.

Knowing what documents to complete, and when, is essential to ensuring that you have access to the information you need, when you need it. Often, parents find themselves last to know that a child is struggling. This can be avoided by taking some proactive steps before college begins to ensure that parent access to grades is maintained. 

FERPA for College: The Gist

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment, is a statute that protects student data privacy and applies to the education records of students. Schools or educational agencies that receive federal education funds must comply with FERPA in order to receive funds. Private and parochial schools that do not receive federal funding from the US Department of Education are not subject to FERPA rules. 

The issue of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act consent can be reduced to a few basic concepts:

  • Parents can access information about their children who are under 18 and who are not yet in a postsecondary (college-level) school

  • When the child turns 18 or enters a postsecondary institution, the rights of the parents transfer to the child, who is now known as an eligible student

  • At that point, parents cannot access a college student’s grades unless the student has signed a consent form

  • There are exceptions

Generally, institutions can still disclose some information without violating FERPA for college as long as the student has not restricted the disclosure of his or her information.

Key Terminology in FERPA for College

There is some important terminology to know when addressing issues related to FERPA for college: 

  • FERPA release: A document used by a student’s high school; 

  • FERPA waiver: A document used by postsecondary institutions that a student executes to waive his or her right to privacy and allow named individuals access to education records; 

  • Consent form: A document that a student fills out to consent to the disclosure of otherwise private information;

  • Eligible student: Under FERPA, a student who is 18 or who is attending a postsecondary institution, regardless of age, who by law has the rights that were once afforded to his or her parents or guardians; 

  • Directory information: Identifying information including a student’s name, local and home addresses, email address, phone number, enrollment status, credit hour load, dates of attendance, receipt or non-receipt of a degree, and academic awards received—the type of information you might find in a yearbook or athletic program. Directory information can generally be disclosed unless the student has indicated that it should not be; 

  • Education record or educational record, as defined in 20 US Code § 1232g: Includes grades, grade point average (GPA), date and place of birth, parent or guardian addresses, courses taken, attendance, medical and health records kept by the school, special education records, and other non-directory information. Education records cannot be disclosed without permission from an eligible student or some other exception like a court order;

  • Personally identifiable information: Information that, alone or in combination with other data, makes it easy to identify a student. Personally identifiable information can be found within education records and directory information—there is some overlap. Such information includes a student’s name, the names of a student’s parents or family members, the student’s grades, GPA, personal identifiers such as Social Security number or student identification number, or other indirect indicators such as the student’s place of birth or mother’s maiden name. Personally identifiable information cannot be disclosed absent a waiver or permission

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act Consent: How to Ensure Parent Access to Grades

FERPA prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of personally identifiable information, but that includes the very information that parents are often most interested in: grades and academic standing.

There are a few ways to gain parent access to grades and other education record information, and the school can still maintain student data privacy:

  • A parent can ask the student to consent to parent access to grades and other education record information by completing the US Department of Education’s model consent form or a similar form provided by the postsecondary institution

  • A school may disclose information to the parents (custodial or not) of a student if the student is a dependent for tax purposes, regardless of age, under 34 CFR § 99.31(a)(8)

  • If a student is enrolled at both a high school and a postsecondary institution and is still a minor, the two schools can share information with each other, and the parents can use the access they have at the secondary level to view any information shared by the postsecondary institution

Every situation is different, and your attorney can help you find the rules that fit your situation. You should also know that the school typically will not automatically send you information; you must request it. You can enlist the help of a knowledgeable attorney or school representative to make a formal request for information. 

What Is Included in a Written Consent for Access to a College Student’s Grades?

A written consent to grant a parent or guardian access to a college student’s grades should include four pieces of information:

  • The records to be released;

  • The purpose of the disclosure;

  • The identity of the parties to whom disclosure can be made; and

  • The date and signature of the student

The written consent can be electronic or digital. Many schools provide a method for this by having the student provide the consent through their student account credentials online.

Many universities provide standard consent forms, as does the US Department of Education. Some universities include standard language stating that a new signed and dated form is required each time a release of information is requested. The US Department of Education's model form provides a range of time to show how long an authorization will be in effect (often for the length of a school year). Contact your student’s university to see if there is an existing form to use and if the form includes the timeframe for access.

Additional Options and Considerations for Parent Access to Grades

FERPA is not the only law governing student data privacy. Your state may also have privacy protection laws that should be considered as well. In addition, other forms and legal directives can be used to provide parent access to student information for a wide range of situations. For example, a durable power of attorney (POA) allows parents to make decisions a student would normally make himself or herself, such as choices about tax returns, renewing car registrations, and accessing financial accounts. A durable POA is especially useful if a child is abroad for any extended period of time.

Getting approval to access a college student’s grades can be complicated, but, if you are armed with knowledge of your rights under FERPA and state law, the process can be simpler. 

FERPA garners a lot of attention because it is implicated in so many places—when high school recommendation letters are sent for purposes of college applications, when financial aid is obtained, and when grades are a concern—but the goal of FERPA remains the same in all situations: protect the privacy of students and allow access to information only when permitted.

Contact attorney Anna M. Price at Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC to learn how FERPA and your state’s laws govern your situation and how you can best protect parent access to grades and other information when you need it. Call Anna toll-free at (866) 617-4736 or complete her online contact form to schedule a consultation.