Accountability

Published — June 1, 2010

Critics say federal student privacy law misused by colleges

Introduction

Reports of NCAA football violations, lists of who gets free tickets to big games, and disciplinary records of students found responsible for sexual assault are among the records that U.S. colleges and universities have refused to release, citing a federal student privacy law. Last month, a Wyoming community college even went to court to stop a local newspaper from publishing a leaked internal report about a trip the college president took to Costa Rica.

In these examples and many others, the colleges said their hands were tied because of the need to abide by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA. The intent of the 1974 federal law is to protect the privacy of student academic records and prevent their release without the student’s consent. Critics say colleges have insisted on defining anything they do not want made public as an “educational record.”

The U.S. Education Department is now developing new regulations to change the way FERPA is interpreted.

But the proposed changes will likely do little to address complaints about the law being misused to block access to school records that are not covered by it, says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “I think their [DOE] priority is having data shared among government education agencies, which is a legitimate objective, but that’s not where the reform should stop,” LoMonte said.

The department should make FERPA less restrictive, so that legitimate requests for school records that do not violate student privacy are honored, he said. “It doesn’t pass the straight-face test to think the Department of Education would shut your university down because you gave someone a copy of a parking ticket,” LoMonte said.

According to the Education Department’s website, the proposed changes “would strengthen enforcement provisions under FERPA to cover additional recipients of information and clarify how States can effectively develop and use data in Statewide longitudinal data systems.” In effect, the department wants to make data on student performance easier to share among states seeking to gauge what is working in the classroom.

“This will be second tweak in three years, but they have been very microscopic tweaks,” said Charles Davis, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri and executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Shannan Higgins, deputy assistant general counsel at the department, told the Center she could not comment about the proposed changes to FERPA. Department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said officials hope to release the proposed changes for public comment this summer.

LoMonte and Davis say they are not optimistic that the proposed FERPA changes will give the public more access to college records.

“It is already so bad that I don’t think the new proposed rule could screw up things more than they are,” said Davis.

ABOUT THE DATA

What: College and university records about athletic, academic, extracurricular, and other programs

Where: College, university administration

Availability: Limited due to the U.S. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

Format: n/a

Usability: n/a

Send your tips on government data sets that you think should be made more accessible or user-friendly to datamine@publicintegrity.org. You can also message us on Twitter or discuss the project on our Facebook page. We’re eager to hear what you turn up — full credit and links will be provided to individuals whose suggestions we use in our series.

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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