If you work in education, you’ve probably heard of FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It’s the federal law that tells us when we can and can’t share student data (mostly we can’t). But you may also have heard a less familiar term floating around — “FERPA form” — which may beg the question, “What is a FERPA form?”
Let’s turn to an expert for an answer. LeRoy Rooker is a senior fellow at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. He trains school employees on FERPA compliance and assesses education products from a privacy perspective. For 21 years, he was the head of the Office of Family Policy Compliance Office, the agency that investigates FERPA violations for the Department of Education.
This article is not intended as legal advice.
A standard definition of “FERPA form”
The term “FERPA form” isn’t defined in the language of the law itself. We could reasonably call forms parents use to request student data or forms teachers sign to acknowledge their understanding of privacy rules “FERPA forms.”
However, Rooker suspects we’re thinking of something more fundamental to the law when we use this term. “There’s signed consent in FERPA,” Rooker says. “For example, a parent could sign a consent form to say an institution can share their child’s records with an outside evaluator or provide them to some outside party.”
Typically, this is what school officials, privacy advocates, and FERPA experts mean when they say “FERPA form” — documentation of signed consent for the release of student records that are protected under the law.
Does FERPA allow students and parents to provide signed consent digitally?
FERPA forms can be either paper or digital. According to 2004 modifications to the Act, “ ‘Signed and dated written consent’…may include records and signatures in electronic format.” To be valid, the digital signed consent form must meet two conditions:
- User authentication. The educational institution must be sure that the rights holder (student or parent) has signed the form before releasing information to a third party.
- User approval. The form has to clearly show that the student (or parent) approves of all the content on the completed form. That is, the form must include language that “indicates such person’s approval of the information contained” in the form.
Check out Jotform’s secure FERPA signed consent forms for an idea of what these electronic documents look like:
When do you need a FERPA signed consent form?
Outside of a few exceptions (which you can read about here), school officials need to collect signed consent forms before sharing information from student records with any third party. Because of the exception for sharing data between school employees when there’s a “legitimate educational interest,” members of the same teaching team don’t always need to collect signed consent when sharing student data that’s relevant to the scholastic mission.
However, if a third party is involved in the transaction, it’s highly likely that FERPA requires signed consent from the rights holder. Of course, it helps to identify exactly who has the power to provide signed consent under FERPA.
When do students get the power to provide or withhold signed consent under FERPA?
FERPA protects student privacy, but sometimes the parent has control over who to share their child’s education records with. Here’s how that works — parents have power of signed consent for students who are under 18 and not in college.
Once a student turns 18 or enters an institution of higher education, FERPA privacy rights pass to the student — they are now considered “eligible” under the law. Note that once the student assumes the rights and protections FERPA offers, the parent no longer has unimpeded access to their child’s education records. If a student is 18 or in college, they can choose to provide signed consent for their parents to review their education records, such as grades — or they can withhold that permission.